canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

From Poet to Creativity Consultant:

On Becoming a Wholistic Enabler

In 2000, poet Catherine Graham returned to Canada from living half a decade in Northern Ireland. She settled in Burlington, Ontario, close to family and friends. Unexpectedly, a new career opened up to her: Creativity Consultant. She has since developed three different workshops, which focus on using the imagination (the right side of the brain) in the workplace. What follows in an account of her journey and a report on what she’s learned along the way.

by Catherine Graham

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanaugh once said, "I dabbled in verse and it became my life." In my case, I dabbled in creativity facilitation and it's becoming my way of life.

Looking back, I see the trail. When I returned to Canada in 2000, after living half a decade in Northern Ireland, I was open to shift – to new ways of being. At this stage in my life I'd completed an MA in creative writing from Lancaster University, published the chapbook The Watch and I was included (under the adopted category) in the anthology The White Page / An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets.

But my life wasn't overseas anymore.

Burlington seemed a good place to start, close to family and friends; close to water (for the first six months I'd pretend the lake view outside my eighth floor apartment window was Belfast Lough). It was also home to The Burlington Art Centre, host of the ABC (Art, Business & Creativity) Conference, which happened on an annual basis between 2001-2004. ABC was about bringing innovative ideas to reality; an opportunity for business people to learn practical ways of applying creativity in the workplace. In addition to listening to top speakers, participants engaged in the hands-on making of art - painting, pottery, drawing - the idea being the enrichment on a personal level would lead to bottom line benefits for businesses; new ways of succeeding and growing.

A conference organizer invited me to lead a workshop on writing poetry. Given the premise of ABC, I thought, yes, I could do that. But I also wondered if engaging with words and images would have enough impact on the participants' workday lives? Is there something else I could do that would benefit the participants in a more direct manner? Perhaps a tool.

Brainstorming this idea led me to develop my first creativity workshop, Words@work: Metaphor as Problem Solver, an experiential workshop that links the left brain (analytical) with the right brain (imagistic). The intended result? Practical and insightful information, that emerges organically, from thinking through the box.

The power of imagery helped ABC participants move beyond the confines of analytical thought, to the place where imagination resides.

I designed the workshop to incorporate group feedback and discussion. Many participants, upon hearing remarks from the group about their visualized images, experienced "Aha" moments and said things like, "I never thought of my problem that way before."

The workshop was a hit. Clearly, something had been unleashed.

Upon reflection, I could see my format had worked. But more importantly I could see my role in the process. I'd been the catalyst. Creating a safe place for the imagination to emerge had resulted in an atmosphere where simmering insights could rise easily to the surface. Collectively, our spirits had been tapped. New ideas had been set into motion, ideas with the potential for creating energizing spin-offs for individual and corporate productivity.

I soon learned I was not the only one moving in this direction. Many businesses and organizations were seeking ways of using holistic thinking to become more whole - what I call the "wholistic" movement. And they needed tools.

News of my workshop spread and invitations followed: Ontario Council for Lifelong Learning, University of Windsor Summer Institute Conference, more ABCs. The Director of Human Resources at a large pharmaceutical company, having experienced my Words@work workshop, invited me to lead a creativity session offsite for senior management. This time round I did get the group writing poems and responding to verses like Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish." Pleased with the results, the Director invited me to lead more creativity workshops for employees. My second workshop, Release Your Inner Writer, was born.

Reading and discussing poems and pieces of fiction were matched with theme-related writing activities. Once again, these "outside the box" creative engagements allowed the imagination to emerge; an opportunity for people to connect to their inner world and to fellow employees, all in an atmosphere of respect and trust. Having a common space to engage one another, outside departmental "silos," a community formed. Ideas crossbred through interconnections, truly 'creativity at work.'

Sometimes I was unsure as to how my plans would evolve - will this activity work with the group? But a deep trust had been given to me by the Director of HR and by the employees. Overcoming doubts and fears, trusting my intuition, my facilitating abilities strengthened over the weeks, months and years. Positive feedback proved I was on the right path, as did the approval of my own inner voice.

Following in the creative footsteps of Metaphor as Problem Solver and Releasing Inner Writers, the next tool to work its way into my consultant kit was storytelling. It seemed to me that the elements of narrative - plot, character, point of view, a good beginning - could be used to enhance important leadership roles – such as the ability to inspire & motivate. This led to the development of the workshop, Storytelling & Leadership: Inspiring Through Authentic Communication.

Once again I was invited to work offsite with senior management from the pharmaceutical company. Using the narrative template I designed, it became clear during the workshop that each participant could "see" the unfolding of their own personal narrative - their unique voice and leadership style. They also identified new ones. Having broken down company silos, overall narratives emerged for health care products. Gaps in a product's storyline became opportunities to fill in the missing pieces; a way to make the story complete.

The notion that creativity is something mysterious, something only an artist can do, is dissolving; as is the compartmentalization of the "work" self and the "home" self. That doesn’t mean that objectivity and analysis, characteristics of left brain thinking, are to be negated or ignored. But a mental shift to include the right side of the brain is happening, and this helps make individuals – and companies – whole.

Creativity thrives on making connections - that's its energy source. Dismantling company silos serves as a catalyst to creativity and helps break down the silos within our "selves." For me, it has been extremely rewarding to foster such journeys and to be, as one participant dubbed me, "a wholistic enabler."

An additional bonus to this journey has been the enrichment of my own writing. It's deepened my understanding of the metaphorical language behind my poetry; given me more writing tools to access process; relaxed my attitude with a more playful approach; broadened my conception of storytelling - even the introverted (myself included) can motivate and inspire. And it has helped me appreciate the seemingly non-active phase inherent in the creative process: down time. Time to germinate, take in new ideas, time to reflect, time to breathe. Output isn't always an accurate reflection of input or personal contentment for that matter.

But most importantly this journey has helped me dismantle my own field of internal silos. Six years ago, when I came back to live in Canada, I only wrote poetry. Now, in addition to working on my next poetry collection, I find myself dabbling in prose and non-fiction.

Perhaps these dabblings will - like Kavanaugh's dabbling in verse - become my life too.

For more information about the workshops mentioned in this article, visit







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