Writing from Coma and Brain Injury
Matthew Colbeck, University of Sheffield
Background to the Work
I am currently studying for my PhD at the University of Sheffield, focusing on the struggle for identity in coma literature. There has been much research into the literature of trauma, yet this area of the coma experience has been largely overlooked. Coma literature, including both fictional and non-fictional texts, typically focuses upon the trauma of the coma victim and the experiences of those close to, or working with, the victim. However, the majority of coma fiction is rarely created by a writer who has experienced coma first hand. This brings into question the truthfulness and accuracy of the experiences that are expressed in such texts.
This lack of first person testimony seems to extend the ‘voicelessness’ of the coma, and there seems to be a certain societal stigmatizing of both coma and of the common, subsequent condition: brain injury.
Frequently, in socio-political language, we hear the use of careless and insensitive coma and brain injury metaphor: society is described as ‘being in a coma’, and ‘having a brain injury’ is used as an excuse for irrational behaviour or decisions.
I am also interested in the idea that coma fiction has the potential to propagate certain mythologies about the condition that are then shared by a universal audience.
The Writing Workshops
My research to-date has led to the creation of writing workshops, in which I work with people who have experienced coma and brain injury. These are held, weekly, at the University of Sheffield.
Throughout these sessions, we look at various aspects of storytelling and creative writing, embarking upon a wide range of exercises to unlock and channel the writing process.
We are very much focused upon process, looking at the value of notes, drafts, fragments and work-in-progress, rather than becoming overly tied-up with the need and pressure to create a fully-formed end product.
In this way, all writers feel comfortable and supported by the work they are involved in.
The workshops have now solidified into a writing group, The Write Way, a name decided upon by the participants.
At the end of the initial sessions, the group has published a run of chapbooks entitled Head-Lines, an eclectic mix of poetry and prose that explores a vast array of post-coma experiences and ways of coping with brain injury. [Read about the launch event for Head-Lines] Again, the writers are keen on working with thoughts, snapshots and fragments and not always with a final, polished product.
I have sustained support from both the University of Sheffield and many external agencies, not least the brain injury charity, Headway, the Sheffield branch of which I have been made a trustee member. The Sheffield Community Brain Injury Rehabilitation Team (SCBIRT) at the Head Injury Rehabilitation Centre, Sheffield, has also demonstrated immense interest and support of the creative writing workshops.
In July, I was one of the main speakers at the Headway conference, The Way Ahead. My talk was entitled: ‘Writing Coma and Brain Injury: Fact, Fiction and Faction’.
The work will begin to generate and commence a bank of first person testimony that will help to give agency to those affected by coma and brain injury.
It will also continue to forge links with external partners, furthering Sheffield University’s already-exceptional reputation for public engagement. It will, in a practical way, further the pursuit of interdisciplinarity, both within education and within the community as a whole.
The first development was to expand my area of research into brain injury as a whole. From this, I have been working with people with both TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and ABI (Acquired Brain Injury).
I will be working with Sheffield’s Off The Shelf festival where The Write Way will be launching Head-Lines.
Through my work with Headway, I will be running and organising a wide variety of workshops for people with brain injuries. I will disseminate my writing workshops, but also organise sessions within the fields of music and art.
I will continue to run workshops throughout Sheffield (developing the membership of The Write Way) with a vision to rolling these out nationwide.
I intend to develop the chapbook into a national, quarterly magazine/e-zine to provide a larger forum within which ex-coma/brain injury patients can publish artwork, fiction and non-fiction.
The University of Sheffield
The School of English
1 Upper Hanover Street