Tag Archives: personal development

Guest post: Poetry film: a way of bearing witness by Janet Lees

Both as a poet and a writing for wellbeing workshop facilitator, it’s my personal belief that all writing is in some way therapeutic. I believe this because of my own experience and the experiences of others that I’ve witnessed. Poetry has been there for me most of my life – as a young child discovering words and the world, as a teenager filled with feelings that felt only expressible through poetry (toe-curlingly bad though a lot of it was), as a recovering addict rediscovering words and the world, and most recently as a deeply grieving sibling following the sudden death of my youngest sister Carole.

A long time ago I did an arts degree, ultimately specialising in poetry and photography. When I went back to university in 2011, my chosen masters subject was creative writing, and in the years that followed poetry was my sole obsession. In the last few years I’ve widened my creative focus to include art photography and poetry film. I have discovered the same total absorption, the same ‘flow state’, when working with visual and digital art that I’ve always found in poetry.

Ingmar Bergman said, “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” With its emotionally potent mix of words, moving image, music and sound, poetry film can be an incredibly powerful creative and therapeutic medium. Finding exactly the right footage to go with exactly the right words, then selecting exactly the right music to capture the overall feeling of the film is a fully absorbing, necessarily mindful creative process. Words are powerful, of course, but we have all felt the power of music to move us and of film to instantly evoke atmosphere without a word being uttered.

Making my own lyrical short films has given me a way to explore and express my feelings about the times we live in without turning away from the devastation that’s all around us. A recent film, ‘Huntress’, centres on a poem I wrote on a canal boat journey. I was struck by how, travelling at four miles an hour, you are made to see everything you pass through – to really see it, to feel it – whether it’s rural idyll or post-industrial wasteland. Inexorably, the boat takes you from one to the other, from one to the other with a sense of dogged inevitability.

Huntress: https://vimeo.com/330339203

On the cut, as the canal is colloquially known, I’ve been struck more forcibly than ever before by the realities of the world we live in. As a poet and a human being I need to bear witness to all of it. Not just the carefully curated version of it that we get from nature programmes and holiday companies, or the ‘It’s all bad news’ version of it that we get from the media, but the whole fatally flawed reality of now that stirs up such despair and dark wonder in me.

Another recent film, ‘A boat for sorrow’, features a found poem created from words and phrases taken from W.B. Yeats’ ‘Selected Poems’. I often use found text as a way in to writing poems – it has a way of getting the thinking mind out of the way and allowing the unconscious to say what it needs to say. This was a case in point. I had no idea what I wanted to write about, but my unconscious did. It unerringly selected, from a vast store of source material, the precise words and phrases that would allow me to express the particular kind of loneliness that poets experience. This was not something I’d particularly thought about before, but when the poem was written, I understood and felt the truth of it.

 

A boat for sorrow: https://vimeo.com/329649460

Poetry film has also given me a way to explore and express deeply personal feelings of loss and love, in a deeply personal and simultaneously universal way. Many years ago my dad created a ninety-minute DVD compilation of his old cine films from when my two sisters and I were young – mostly on holidays in Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man, where my mum’s family is from. I had not been able to watch the DVD since Carole died. Earlier this year, as the fifth anniversary of her death approached, I felt compelled to create something using extracts from it.

Making a three-minute film out of ninety minutes of film required not only watching the old footage, but going right into every moment of it in order to find the clips for the film poem. This was instant, deep, sustained grieving. I worked in a frenzy of sorrow, crying almost continuously over the course of a day. When the film was finished, I felt some of the things I feel after a sea swim: emptied, cleaned, changed by the contact with something uncontainable. I also felt glad that I had been able in some way to honour the feisty, creative, offbeat, hilarious, gentle, generous, rebellious, huge-hearted, completely one-of-a-kind spirit that is my sister.

This was the most intimate of collaborations. My dad was the filmmaker, our five-strong family were the subjects, I was the poet and editor. The only ‘outsider’ was Moby, who made the beautiful music (he offers his music free to independent filmmakers via mobygratis.com), but he didn’t feel like an outsider because Carole introduced me to his music, and we used to listen to it together, over and over.

It is said: https://vimeo.com/311504800

I’m currently working on a series of films with a range of different bands and musicians. This is deeply rewarding work. I love collaborating with other artists, not only because this is immensely creatively enriching, but also because it’s a real solace in the ‘interesting times’ we live in.

Janet Lees is an artist, poet, poetry filmmaker and writing for wellbeing workshop facilitator. Her book ‘House of water’, which combines art photographs and poems, is published this month with the support of Culture Vannin. Her first poetry collection, ‘A bag of sky’, will be published in the autumn as the winning poetry pamphlet in the Frosted Fire Firsts prize, judged by Angela France and Neil Richards, and administered by the Cheltenham Poetry Festival.

https://janetlees.weebly.com/

https://vimeo.com/janetlees

Instagram: @janetlees2001

 

Guest Post: On not finishing things by Hilary Jenkins

Photo from H Jenkins

On New Year’s Day I wrote in my diary that I was thinking about endings, and in particular how to finish my novel. It’s something I’ve put on my list of resolutions for at least ten years now. To begin with I blamed lack of will power, time, a quiet place to work, a view, the right frame of mind . . . but I found that even when I did have all these things, I still didn’t finish it. What happened was that I would re-read, re-write, change my mind, add sections, delete sections, and as a consequence, the ending grew ever more elusive.

Over the years I’ve discovered I have a problem with finishing things. I used to blame my lack of persistence but now I think that it’s because finishing things is hard. Finishing means loss, and loss means grieving. Society urges us to move on, come to terms, learn from our mistakes, seek closure, but the process is never finished  – until we are. As we grow older the whole idea of finishing becomes more real, and therefore, perhaps, more terrifying.

But then there’s this idea of what we leave behind. Who wants to leave an unfinished novel? No one would read it. Of course they probably wouldn’t read a finished one either, but surely you’d feel better on your death bed, knowing the loose ends were all tied up, and the proof reading done?

When I started writing this particular novel, finishing it seemed straightforward. In those days I had not lost a marriage, a career, a partner, a parent. I didn’t know what grief was, or failure. I thought the problem was the beginning. I remember asking my MA tutor how and where to start. She gave me some excellent advice: decide where you think the story starts, and have the confidence to stick with your plan and get to the end.  Why didn’t I listen to her? I set off not knowing where I was going. I’d heard all those stories about writers who don’t want to know where their characters are going, that sounded more fun. And I forgot about my reader, and readers really like staying up all night to find out what happens in the end, don’t they?

The idea of the reader. Perhaps this is the crux of the problem. After all, if you finish your novel there will be readers (if you’re lucky) and you will be judged. However much you tell yourself it’s not you, it’s the book, you will feel it is you. The longer you’ve spent writing it, the more invested you will be, because the chances are you’ve poured in more and more of your life, and if you’re told it’s rubbish, that would mean you’re rubbish, and that’s hard. Why put yourself in this situation? Far easier to keep on tweaking. Forever.

There are of course, other reasons – like ignorance. I’ve had to learn about how to write a novel. Just because you can read one doesn’t mean you can write one, unless you are very lucky indeed. I even  made it more difficult for myself, by including three story lines, tight plotting, complex time schemes, multiple voices, all the things I warn students about.

On the other hand it has become part of me, like those barnacles that grow on whales. I’ve poured into it my difficult times, my Jungian shadows, and zombie childhood issues. It’s helped me survive. My inner therapist says you can give up on it, but I ignore her, because I am also afraid of failing, of change, and of having to start something new. Sometimes it is easier to cling on to what you know even if it is driving you mad.

Last night I dreamed I was swimming across a green weedy pool, unsure if I’d be able to reach the other side. I wasn’t in a panic this time, I accepted that I might not get there, but I knew I’d carry on swimming. In the dream there was the memory of that Vermont pond I swam across the day after my son’s wedding, and an echo of a Japanese Zen garden I’d seen on tv, covered in moss. So I’m going to finish this blog (yes!) not by saying  I will finish the novel, but with that image of swimming on a summer’s day not worrying about getting to the other side. It is the swimming I enjoy, the journey not the destination. I’m going to try to enjoy this experience of not quite getting to the end, and see what happens next.

Hilary Jenkins is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Teesside University. Her particular areas of interest include writing and wellbeing, creative writing and distance learning, and why people write novels. She also writes poetry which she finds easier to finish. She lives in the middle of the North York Moors where she likes to walk and think about the next novel.

Why Write? – by Sue Spencer

In June 2015 I found myself unexpectedly un-busy – after 36 years of uninterrupted employment I found myself sent on gardening leave. Instead of being responsible for the running of a clinical facility I was asked to resign and not come back – it was horrible. It wasn’t an unexpected event (I had verbally resigned the week before) but the abruptness of the termination of working for the organisation was traumatic. I was sent packing – accompanied from the premises and told to come back at the end of the week when they had packed up my office. At the time I knew it was the best thing for me and would preserve my mental health but it has also been one of the most significant events in my life.

So why am I telling you this? Well it is because the day after this happened I was talking to a wise friend on the phone and she asked me about my life raft. What was going to keep me afloat over the next few months whilst I made sense of what had happened. Well I didn’t hesitate in my reply – I said it was poetry. Poetry had been a constant in my life for 10 years and it felt like it would keep me going during this unexpected and somewhat perplexing time. There is no doubt that I have found this to be true – poetry has proven to be the foundation I needed to rebuild my career and find myself a space that feels more authentic and stable.

Cultivating regular writing habits have been part of my recovery and also reading and writing poetry. Through regular writing practice I have become more attentive to the difference between sources of energy and activities that deplete my energy. Meditation has also helped me cultivate more attention to the present and calms my riotous brain and the overthinking that is my default setting. But it is the poetry and writing that has helped me more than anything else  – writing first thing in the morning and last thing at night, it is now an activity I can’t live without.

Looking back
Take certainty down a peg or two,
listen for veiled heartbeats.

Tangible traces – illusive.

Take nothing for granted
instead caress tree bark, lichen, moss.
Measuring progress – a fool’s errand

This language thing is tricky,

we miss many moments rushing on.
Sudden insights – falter.
False visions – erased memories.

 

This poem is about being burnt out and how by reading about signs and symptoms of burn out I realised that my career change in 2014 was destined to be difficult – I had never worked out why I was disillusioned with my “successful” career in Academia – going back to clinical practice was a mistake and only one I have begun to understand as I excavate my experience as a student nurse. Hints of the activities that have helped me are indicated here – walking in nature and developing a more secure sense of self through values rather than status.

The poems shared here are from workshops and post-counselling sessions where I have found myself excavating the experiences I have had in the last four years and have begun to shed light on why things happened and also increase my self-awareness. I have been getting things wrong for quite a while and the mistakes I have made are better understood when I am kind and contain them in poetry.

I have been thinking about this approach to sharing my story over the last couple of years and then I was listening to radio 4 and heard a programme where the narrator shared his story weaving his poems into the narrative. It was a light bulb moment and I felt that I had heard something significant.

Ward Report
First there are

rules.

Instead of asking you
seek kindred spirits.

Isolated
not gaining kith or kin

You wander through the colleges on Sunday
Downing, Trinity, St Johns,
Magdalene, Christs
Pembroke, Peterhouse.

Back in your room – nothing fits.

 

I trained as a nurse in Cambridge – I hated nursing and being a student nurse but I loved the city. By the end of my first year (1980) ALL my friends were undergraduates NOT nurses. I didn’t realise this until I was in a writing workshop with William Fiennes. The exercise was about drawing a map of a significant place from our life. My map of the nurses home and hospital in Cambridge was uninhabited – I had labelled places and spaces BUT had not peopled the place. William’s sensitive questioning of this has stayed with me for the last 3 years and found itself in the poem. Reading this poem to a kind and attentive audience has enabled me to be more forgiving and kind to the lonely 19 year old who didn’t leave nursing and spent many years feeling unfulfilled and frustrated.

I went on a writing retreat with the magnificent Kate Fox at the beginning of December. As part of the weekend we were invited to perform some of our writing and share it with the other writers on the retreat. Well I decided this was my chance to try out the interweaving of my poems and story about my career hiccup and the theory I have begun to understand that provides some explanation to the things that have happened. I have been fascinated with the “why” word for a while and staying kind and curious about my recent job-related challenges has helped me learn so much about myself and how others perceive me. It hasn’t been easy, but the writing has helped hugely – morning pages have helped me start the day, writing during tricky times has helped me keep things in perspective and also it has given me confidence in a process that can really help contribute to understanding self and others.

Writing poems that crystallise an experience and help sense making is one thing but sharing them with others in a supportive and energising environment has also been healing. Having people listen to my story and honour my subjective experience has made all the difference.

My reflection on all of this is about how the process of writing that works towards making sense of ourselves and the world around us can make all the difference in relation to how we develop knowledge and I have learnt so much. The books that have inspired me about writing and healing over the years are now beginning to be part of what I do – rather than talking the talk I am also walking the walk. Regular habits of writing have significantly contributed to my sense of wellbeing and I am also more confident in encouraging others to do the same – encouraging regular practice and increasing well-being by doing so.

I believe that I am more confident in calling myself a writer and less hesitant in explain myself to colleagues at the University. Writing this blog and trusting the process of telling my story has really helped as well.

Further reading
Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way https://www.amazon.co.uk/Artists-Way-Discovering-Recovering-Creative/dp/0330343580
Lousie De Salvo- The Art of Slow Writing https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Slow-Writing-LOUISE-DESALVO/dp/1250051037
Jo Bell and Jane Commane – How to be a poet http://ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/how%20to%20be%20a%20poet.html
Sage Cohen – Writing the life poetic https://sagecohen.com/books/writing-the-life-poetic/

 

Sue Spencer is a former senior nurse and nursing academic. She has an interest in creative approaches to facilitation and working with person-centred learning and linking this to reflection and increased self-awareness.

She currently works at Newcastle University within the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences developing creative pedagogies and activities for undergraduates studying the Combined Honours programme. The focus of her work is to encourage early help seeking behaviour in relation to self-care and well-being.

A Writer’s Toolbox: the self

If you’ve read the first post in this series, https://bit.ly/2RqqBKn, then hopefully that has encouraged you to write regularly. You may have adapted the sprints to suit yourself, all well and good. The point is to be writing regularly without critiquing and without too much concern over what is the point, apart from enjoying yourself.

Now we come to the most important implement in the Writer’s Toolbox: the writer themselves. Everything that comes from the writer is mediated through the self. So let’s consider how the self might work for the writer.

We have five physical senses: touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. We may favour one of these senses. If I say the word ‘tractor’, do you see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, feel the texture of it? This little exercise gives an idea of which sense you may lean towards. A writer encourages the development of all the senses. Try these explorations:

  •      walk (preferably through a bit of nature) with all your senses opened. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Once you have worked out which sense you least favour, go for a walk and focus on that sense. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Take an image (a photo or a postcard or a picture or a painting), imagine yourself within the picture, what would you be seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling? What textures could you touch? Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Imagine that one of your senses has gone. Take a short walk without that sense working. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

You may discover your own ways of opening up your senses. Keep exploring what your five physical senses can tell you.

Writing is about imagination, inspiration, that’s what people commonly say, which all sounds very head-based. Poet William Blake likened the imagination and inspiration to a grinding millstone and a blacksmith’s forge. If we continue with his analogy, then we need the grain, we need the base metal, for the millstones or the fire in the forge to produce anything. We need the raw materials for the imagination and inspiration to feed on. These raw materials come through the senses, but also through the body as a whole. The body is the receptor by which we experience the world as we pass through it, then the mind puts language and interpretations to this experience. Working in concert, the two enrich our writing.

The self can be a tuning fork, resonating with the environment and finding the individual note for the individual writer. One of the things I have found which encourages the mining of the resources of the body is mindful walking. Mindfulness is a word which is used in many different contexts with a myriad of meanings. I like this definition from psychologytoday.com (accessed 5th October 2015): Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience. Try walking mindfully and then writing for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

Writing creatively means engaging emotion, both for the writer and for the reader. We don’t think emotions, we feel them. Philippot et al. (2004) suggest that emotions are primarily experienced though bodily sensation and then translated into feelings and brought into consciousness. Writers connecting with their bodies are more aware of emotion, more able to capture them and find ways of communicating them which will touch a reader. However, writers are in the business of engaging with a plethora of emotions, not just the ones which we might think are nice or respectable or allowed. This can be hard, can be painful, can be distressing. Be sure you have supports in place to help you through.

The self may also be the spanner in the works, which jams the creative wheels. Another part of a writer’s toolkit is a small but resilient core of self-belief. This is usually difficult to hone and maintain. Writers need to experience a full range of emotions to put them into their writing, some, such as shame and anger, are not conducive to self-belief. Writers might lay themselves open to criticism and rejection – generated by themselves or by others, or (even harder) imagined others.

It is worth remembering that both the creative practice and the construction of self-belief are iterative. There is a back-and-forth to the process. ‘Onwards and upwards’ is an oft repeated phrase, as if going forwards is always what’s best. Writers can feel they are going backwards or round in circles. Remembering that this is an important part of being creative may help this become less frustrating.

Take your time exploring your senses and mindful walking and see where it takes you. I’ll be exploring further tools in the writer’s toolbox in the next post in the series in the coming weeks.

 

Philippot P, Baeyens C, Douilliez C, & Francart B. (2004). Cognitive regulation of emotion: application to clinical disorders. In: Philippot P, Feldman RS (eds.). (2004) The regulation of emotion. New York: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.

A Writer’s Toolkit: Getting Started

However much I ignore it, the New Year does bring with it the idea of new possibilities and opportunities. It feels like a time to reassess, perhaps, and try new things. Maybe it is the moment to start or re-invigorate your writing?

This year, I plan to do a series of posts called A Writer’s Toolbox which aims to give anyone the impetus to get on with the writing they want to do. These posts will be interspersed by my usual musings on being a writer, plus some posts by guests. I have some exciting ones already lined up. But if you are a writer and would like to contribute a post, please do get in touch. There’s no money, no glory and it won’t change your life, however, if you would like to give it a whirl, email me on kateevans@tinyonline.co.uk

Igniting or re-igniting the spark
At the risk of sounding un-empathic, it sometimes bemuses me when people tell me they want to write. I wonder why they are not doing it. On the face of it, writing is one of the easiest creative arts to ease into. There’s no need for any special equipment or even much space. If you can put one word in front of another down on paper, then you can write.

So if you want to write, and you are not doing so, then the first question to ask yourself is what is getting in the way of me writing? Perhaps spending ten minutes writing about this should be your first piece of writing. Over years of writing, running writing workshops and being around writers, the general things which get in the way of writing are:

  •     Finding the time within your life. To start with it doesn’t have to be a lot, perhaps as little as ten minutes a week. But, like doing anything, it’s about carving out the space to focus on what you want to do.
  •      Other pressures, such as earning money or looking after children/other family members. This is obviously a tough one, but needs to be negotiated and balances and boundaries found.
  •       Giving yourself permission. Sometimes it is ourselves which get in the way. Negative thoughts such as: ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘what’s the point in this?’ ‘Everyone will laugh at me.’ My advice is, as far as possible, don’t get too hung up on the why or the end product or on what you might imagine other people thinking and saying. Writing is first and foremost a pleasure for ourselves. If it becomes something else – something to share with an audience, for instance – that is a bonus. It is not necessary to start out with the idea of what you are going to write. The first exercise is to put one word down on the paper and then another while setting your critical voice(s) to one side. It can be a struggle. So don’t beat yourself up if at first you don’t succeed.
  •       What is your motivation? If it’s to make money, then these posts are not for you. If it’s to explore your world through writing and develop your creativity, then read on.

My writing journals

Getting Started
Buy a writing journal, this is a pad of paper or notebook which you will only use for writing creatively in and no-one else will use or look at. Personally I prefer something with strong paper, a decent cover and no lines. Make sure you have some pens. Decide on an achievable amount of time that you can put aside for writing and write a positive statement in the front of your journal: ‘I will spend xx minutes writing every xx.’

Take a walk, preferably somewhere green and open. Sit down for ten minutes and write as freely as you can. Do this on a regular basis.

Begin to collect inspirational prompts eg postcards, images of different kinds, snippets from the paper, music, pebbles, buttons, scraps of material, flowers, herbs, small objects…. Take one of these up, examine it, and write for ten minutes as freely as you can.

After each ten minutes, close your writing journal. Do not re-read. Do not critique. Leave what you have written to ferment and marinade.

As far as possible, keep to a schedule of these ten minute ‘sprints’ from prompts (such as a walk or an object or an image or a piece of music) for a month. Then review. Is there anything in what you have written you feel particularly fond of? Then underline it. Was there a particular prompt which worked better than others? Perhaps use this more often.

Continue with a similar schedule for another month and review again. By this time, you may be getting a clearer idea of something you want to develop further. Or perhaps not. If not, continue with the sprints until something emerges.

NB: writing in short uncritiqued sprints from a prompt to get started in writing is a method used by many writer. I first came across it in ‘Writing as a Way of Healing’ by Louise DeSalvo and ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron.

Expressing the Inexpressible

‘By finding some way of crafting an experience, constructing a structure to create a door to let other people in so they can walk into your experience and call it theirs and, in the business of doing this, it gives you somewhere to go with it. It’s almost like telling a story back to yourself. Often the more traumatised we are, the more we’ll tell the story or else we’ll be completely silent. Writing is one of the ways of expressing the inexpressible.’
Jackie Kay on Desert Island Discs, 23rd October 2016. She was asked how she got through her difficult encounter with her birth father (as described in Red Dust Road).

The weather has certainly turned in our little seaside town. Summer is dissolving into memories:

Swimming in a waterfall, Northern Italy, July 2018

 

Swiss mountain, July 2018

For the last four years I have come into a phase of my life which the doctors call peri-menopausal. Eighteen years ago I went through a devastating bout of depression. I have found a way of talking and writing about this, I have found a narrative for it which is acceptable to me and (pretty much) acceptable to those around me. I am struggling to find a way to write about what is going on for me now. To express the inexpressible. This is because it involves a lot of blood, an awful lot of blood, coming from my womb and this is considered not a nice thing to talk about. However, for the last four years I have had on-going problems of heavy bleeding which has caused anaemia, I have had headaches which feel like a chisel is being hammered into my right temple and which are immune to painkillers, I have lost control of my body ‘thermostat’ so I overheat leaving me feeling faint and slightly nauseous. I cannot go anywhere now without considering my stock of sanitary products and what access I will have to toilet facilities.

Upset by reading this? Try living it….

On August 1st I had my womb scraped out with a laser during an endometrial ablation. For several weeks after I felt exhausted and very, very low. The bleeding has not stopped. So the narrative I am trying to construct has no neat ending.

I am untidy. I am no longer neat.
A faucet jammed on. I leak.

Angry? You bet. Upset? Sure. And massively de-motivated, especially around my writing. This has not been helped by another brush with the traditional publishing industry which initially was wonderfully encouraging and positive. It looked like, just maybe, my thirty-year ambition of having a novel traditionally published could come to fruition. Of course, not, how could I have been so deluded? Don’t tell me it could still happen, because it won’t. And holding onto a hopeless hope is one of the worst things I can do for my creativity.

As with many other aspects of life, we only hear from the ‘winners’. There are many, many writers and creative souls who do not ‘make it’ in conventional terms (get the publishing deals, get the readers, get the reviews, get the acclaim). If you are going to be a writer you have to decide you will do it for the love, for the pleasure, because it keeps you sane, because it distracts you… For any reason which is about you and not about interfacing with an audience of any kind. I know this. I have known this for thirty years. Sometimes I get enticed into a fantasy where this is not true and it takes an awful lot of energy and effort to drag me out to reality again.

So how to pull myself out of this difficult place. Firstly, I am attempting to be compassionate to myself and kind to my body. Secondly, I am trying out new things, learning new skills, especially in arenas where I do not feel judged. Thirdly, I am slowly, slowly coming back to my writing. Over the last few weeks I have drafted up some of the short stories I discovered lingering in my writing journal (see previous post) and have put a draft structure into a non-fiction project I have around writing, walking and memoir. In the next few weeks I will take up my novel again, re-reading it and intending to find a way to move forward with it.

But I don’t want to leave this blog on a low point – for me or for the reader. So let’s forget for a moment the blood, the pain and the disappointment. Let’s recall an enchanting memory: swimming in the Swiss lake with the mountains all around and the sun sliding up from behind the peaks.

The Writing Journal

Writing in my journal by a Norwegian lake

I have been keeping writing journals for over ten years now and recently I spent many happy hours reviewing them. The result is a list of ideas and kernels of pieces of writing which should keep me going for the next ten years!

I’ve been writing since I was 19, so I’ve had the habit of writing regularly for over thirty years. oftentimes in notebooks and/or in diaries. I didn’t commit to the idea of a writing journal until I returned to the UK after a spell working abroad for an anti-poverty non-profit. In many ways, I can see the commitment to my writing journal as also a commitment to accepting myself as a writer – rather than waiting for some kind of external ratification of me as a writer. I began to say (when asked) ‘I am a writer’. I dedicated time and space to writing and further developing my craft, even though there was little endorsement from the publishing industry.

During the last ten years I have taught creative writing (for the University of Hull) and run numerous workshops. The first thing I always encourage people to do is to start keeping a writing journal. For me, this is a special notebook. It is 15 by 21 cms, so relatively portable. It has no lines to cramp my writing into going in a particular direction or being of a particular size. The paper is relatively thick (the notebooks I use are sold as sketch books) which means I can sketch if I like, use watercolour pencils and oil pastels and stick things in without spoiling the page surfaces for writing. I date every entry. Entries might include: very personal reflections on how I am feeling or what I’ve been doing; musings on being a writer; scrappy thoughts on writing pieces to be developed; beginnings, middles, ends (in no particular order); observations on the world around me; quotes; poetry (written by others and me); images such as postcards; cuttings from newspapers and magazines; bits of information gleaned from the TV, the internet, radio, other people….

I am wedded to a writing journal and hand-writing. It works for me. I do believe there is something exceptional about ‘free writing’ – which I have written about elsewhere eg writing the therapeutic journey – done with a pen. I think it is a way of unearthing what is below the surface of conscious thought and of circumventing the many ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ which a lot of us carry around.

However, I could see for other people a writing journal might be, for example, a folder on the computer; a box file; or a filing cabinet drawer. The main thing is that it should only be used for gathering inspirations for writing, it should be added to regularly and that it should be away from prying/judging eyes.

Over time the writing journal will become a treasure trove to be mined, especially, but not only, when a writer is feeling depleted and de-motivated.

I am currently reading Deborah Levy’s essay Things I don’t Want to Know. I was charmed to find her mentioning her writing journal. She notes how descriptions she had written of the cabin crew on a LOT fight to Poland in the late 1980s ‘morphed into nurses from Odessa’ in a novel she was to write a decade later.

Nothing written in a writing journal is ever lost, it will always pop up somewhere or become a scaffold for some piece of creative work.

Which is why, whenever I am asked by someone about where to start with writing I suggest a journal. If a person can commit to writing in one of those habitually, then there is a chance they will realise their ambition of writing stories or poetry or a novel or a non-fiction book or even a series of blog posts.

What is your experiences of keeping a writing journal?