The Exquisite Corpse Hits the Hospital

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“Imprint of the Intangible” Mixed media, 2000, Heather Hawley. University of Washington Medical Center.

The exquisite corpse is a French surrealist parlor game named after one of their first nonsensical collaborative sentences, “The exquisite corpse will drink new wine.”  There are written and arts-based (including drawing, collage, sculpture, theater, and dance) versions of the exquisite corpse. They all emphasize elements of unpredictability, collaboration, and tapping into unseen/subconscious sources of creativity. And just plain fun.

This summer I adapted the written version of the exquisite corpse for use in the hospital-based narrative medicine/health humanities course I am teaching. I first had students divide themselves into groups of 4-5 people, each person with a clean piece of paper. Then, I asked them to write one sentence across the top of the paper and base the sentence on one concrete observation about their classroom. I gave them 30 seconds to write the sentence and then asked them to pass their papers to their right. They had another 30 seconds to write a second sentence in response to the first. Before passing the paper again, they were asked to fold down the paper in order to hide the first sentence. We repeated this exercise a total of five times. At the end, they could unfold their papers, read, and share with the class what the group had come up with based on their initial sentence. Much laughter ensued. Then, I had each student write a short reflection on what the experience was like for them.

I learned this classroom version of the exquisite corpse at the 2015 Chuckanut Writers Conference from two writers/creative writing teachers, Brenda Miller and Lee Gulyas, who both teach at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Miller and Gulyas have a recent collaborative essay, “Come Closer,” published in Sweet: A Literary Confection (vol. 7, issue 3, 2015) and an intriguing interview by Carmella Guiol with them about this essay and their collaborative process (July 16, 2015). In their workshop, we were all writers of various sorts, and the prose/poetry pieces our groups came up with were quite funny, creative, and profound.

As were the pieces that my students produced, although they mostly were much more matter-of-fact and not as fanciful as I expected them to be. These were nurses after all–nurses tasked daily with life and death decisions. Flights of fancy and parlor games are typically frowned upon among health care providers. But, since teaching is in itself a creative endeavor, I try to take calculated risks in the classroom and try new things. For this one I’d give myself a B+ for effort.

Feedback from the students (from their written reflections) ranged from, “this felt like a drinking game” (note: no alcohol was consumed in the auditorium as far as I know), through “I don’t understand why we did this exercise,” to perhaps more insightful, critical thinking responses including these:

“Even though we are talking about the same topic we said or have different points of view about our classroom. How we described it is different person-to-person. This is common in workplaces, like when we have to write up patient care plans, we hardly agree on them.”

“I enjoyed the spontaneity of doing this exercise. So much of our class work and assignments has been related to following directions exactly and making sure we are doing everything right.”

“I’m thinking this would be a good tool if I was leading a patient support group or leading a class. Patients with chronic illness get told all the time about what it the right thing to do and this could be used to let them tell their stories a different way.”

In thinking over how this went–my first attempt at doing the exquisite corpse exercise with a group of hospital-based nurses–I’ve realized I probably need to fine tune it for this setting and for these ‘parlor game’ players. Next time I would keep everything the same with the exception of the initial sentence writing prompt. Instead of having them write about their classroom, I’d ask them to write a sentence about a recent frustration at work–and that it can be a minor and seemingly frivolous frustration (in oder to keep it from getting too deeply emotional for this collaborative writing exercise). My aim would be to have it more directly pertinent to their work as nurses, while maintaining the fun, spontaneity, and collaborative nature of the exercise. As physician-educator and innovator in the health humanities Alan Bleakley says, “health humanities creates a serious play space.”

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