Amanda Sodhi of Pen Paper Dreams on how virtual creative communities can be designed as safe spaces
The merits of community-building can hardly be debated in these isolating times; besides a fast spreading virus, loneliness also reached a pandemic stage in the last few months. “Some of the participants in our reading groups don’t even read the books, they just log in to our Sunday virtual group sessions, to listen and to talk because it’s like a stress-busting activity for them, it’s therapeutic. We’ve essentially tried to design a safe space where people of all ages can safely share. This is also why we don’t record any of our sessions,” Amanda Sodhi tells us about the one-hour interactive Zoom reading sessions hosted by her start-up Pen Paper Dreams.
The three-year-old company works towards cultivating inclusive virtual safe spaces which are essentially creative communities that kept people from all over the country connected during the lockdown, via virtual reading sessions, creative writing workshops, gratitude journaling and workshops aimed at addressing writer’s blocks. Pen Paper Dreams has resumed with offline sessions and we spoke to the singer, songwriter and creative guide to explore the relevance of virtual, creative-leaning safe spaces beyond the pandemic:
Tell us how Pen Paper Dreams came about
I’ve always felt creative writing can be very therapeutic and there are a lot of studies which actually back this theory. I remember I held a postcard writing workshop in Kolkata. It was also very cathartic and some people wrote postcards to the dead, because they had something to say. Someone wrote to their grandmother who he couldn’t see due to a family feud, it was a very emotional experience. Eventually, I branched out and set up more creative writing therapy sessions where people could practice their skills to give descriptions or share opinions.
Tell us how the pandemic changed your modus operandi
Earlier we were restricted by whatever city I happen to be in, now I conduct my sessions on Zoom and have people from all over the country and even from across the globe. Which is also why there are so many ways and formats we could explore; gratitude journaling, for instance, which found a lot of success with the people. We resumed offline sessions in October when I went to Kashmir. This year for instance, I’ll be living out of a suitcase, 12 cities in 12 months.
Tell us about your reading groups which marks its tenth edition this February
Our reading groups combine reading with creative writing; every month we pick a fiction and nonfiction book and we give out questions along with creative writing exercises and writing prompts. It’s like a book club with creative writing incorporated, plus it’s really democratic, people can vote on the choice of books. Although I approve the initial short list, and I usually try to pick books which are relevant so they can talk about these issues; for example I recently picked a book titled Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb which is about a therapist and her therapist.
Tell us about gratitude journaling
It’s about cultivating a positive mindset, it has a lot of benefits. We know some people tend to have something called a negativity bias even if they come across thousands of empowering or uplifting YouTube comments, they’ll only pay attention or obsess over one nasty troll.
Gratitude journaling attempts to rewire your brain to focus on positive elements; the workshop takes the assistance of poetry and micro-fiction to help people see the things in their life they are grateful for. One of the exercises we do is called ‘where you’re sitting right now’ or an exercise that needs you to write a thank you note to people, or to talk about the opportunities you have, even in a pandemic which so many other people don’t, they are structured in a logical manner which are functional and don’t feel like homework
Tell us how Pen Paper Dreams helped your creative process
The best thing about teaching is that you also learn so much and there’s a lot of research that goes into developing these exercises, trying them out on your own. It’s very symbiotic, Pen Paper Dreams has definitely pushed me to think about more and more forms and methods that are engaging. Right now, I’m working on a book and staying on top of these exercises really helps my writer’s block
Tell us what your broader objective is with Pen Paper Dreams, now that it’s a success
My broader goal is to have regular online sessions on auto-pilot mode and also regular offline sessions. I would love it if I could find people in different cities who I could hand the torch over to so they could host regular sessions. I really want to take our workshops to schools, to retirement homes, offices where there’s a lot of stress, and with people who are living in prisons. I really want more people to connect and be a part of this community, and for us to scale up.