Writing Yourself Into Existence: Podcast hosted by Avni Trivedi with Susanna Howard

“Everybody has the ability to communicate”

Text taken from Avni Touch Podcast Page. LISTEN HERE. 

Susanna Howard (she/her) is the founder and artistic director of Living Words. Susanna fell into working with people with dementia after a period of personal displacement when flow writing saved her. Living Words emerged out of the darkness of this period. All of a sudden the journey that took her into that first hospital ward, to work with people who were struggling with their own personal displacement, made sense.
As founder of Living Words Susanna has led workshops and performed one-woman shows at events across the world promoting our work, including National Theatre of Taiwan; British Council; Tate; Wellcome; British Library; Stratford Lit Fest; BMJ Dementia conference at Excel; National Care Forum; UK Dementia Congress; RSPH; Quarterhouse, Folkestone; Cockpit Theatre, London; Tabernacle, London; Resonance Fm. Susanna is an international speaker and chair of dementia and mental health conferences and events. She regularly appears and chairs at book festivals across the UK.
Her writing on Living Words has appeared in Journal of Dementia Care; Aging Care; BBC Culture; Wasafari; NAWE special edition Writing and Dementia, which she co-edited. For 5 years. Susanna has written research papers in collaboration with partners at Created Out of Mind.
Susanna worked one-to-one with the acclaimed poet James Berry OBE and is very proud of the work they did together – enabling James to continue to define himself as a writer, whilst living with advancing dementia. In 2017 Susanna made the performance film Shutnell, exploring what it means to have worked with people with advanced dementia for over a decade and acts as director, dramaturg and actor in Living Words performance pieces.
Susanna studied Drama at Bristol University (BA Hons), followed by Advanced Theatre Practice: Performance (Postgrad, Distinction) at Central School of Speech and Drama. In addition to running Living Words – when she can – Susanna works as an actor; behind the camera, directing TV/Film; writing for theatre and radio, and working in collaborative theatre-making.

 In this episode, we talked about:

  • Susanna Howard went through a difficult time where she felt disconnected from herself and didn’t want to take medication in that particular instance. She used ‘flow writing’ and wrote herself back into existence

  • Flow writing as a ‘dredging’ or way of getting the brain out of the way

  • She realised she could use flow writing with different groups of people to help them to reconnect with the wisdom inside them

  • At the same time Susanna wrote a play about memory and was commissioned to work with St Thomas’ hospital as an artist in the elderly care unit. She had a clear intention of working with “sounds and words, pen and paper”. She was fortunate to have the freedom to work in whatever way she felt

  • “The preconceptions about writers being ‘writerly’. If you can let the words go

  • Barriers about access to the arts

  • Class privilege that enables some people to step in to hierarchical institutions

  • “Everyone has an ability to communicate”

  • Carers being forgotten

  • In the current time (covid-related), Living Words have been working remotely with carers. Many carers haven’t seen their families and friends in order to keep people safe

  • Susanna wanted to share (with permission) the intimacy of the words that came up from the in-hospital and care home settings. It then involved to include carers and staff too to validate experiences

  • Living Words now also works with people going through mental ill health

  • The healing power of words

  • The need to start each artistic project by ‘walking into the unknown’ rather than relying on outcomes

  • There’s a need for labels but they can also become constrictive

  • A term within the dementia world that’s useful to consider “when you’ve met one person with dementia, you’ve met one person with dementia”

  • Julia Cameron – Morning Pages – three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning

  • Normal? Festival of the Brain  – a community-focussed arts and health festival in Folkestone, Kent, with people from around the world coming to give talks and run workshops. Using Open Space Technology

  • Growing Living Words in Taiwan and Hungary and training others in the methodology

  • Becoming a touring venue to connect – theatre performances

  • Living Words is about words and sounds, but the work is embodied

  • The importance of putting supervision in place, or at least peer-peer supervision so you don’t carry everything on your own shoulders

  • The importance of boundaries in order to maintain health and wellness without burnout and depletion