Tag Archives: personal development

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?

Exploring Creative Non-fiction

For various reasons, these several weeks I am not focusing on my novels. So I have been playing around with ideas which lie more in the ‘creative non-fiction’ category. I’ve always written (and had published) non-fiction pieces and have even strayed into academic non-fiction with various research articles and my book Pathways through writing blocks in the academic environment (https://bit.ly/2HC5xvd).

This time I’ve been doing a lot of meandering around topics such as: walking, nature and writing; the body and writing; and women’s biography. The result is many notes, but nothing entirely nailed down.

‘Walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge, it is itself the means of knowing.’ Thus wrote Robert MacFarlane in his book The Old Ways (Penguin Books, 2012, p.27). I feel the same about writing. If I write freely enough, allowing the pen to scrawl (and usually I do need to handwrite for this type of writing) I will discover what I did not know I knew. But sometimes in the writing I become stuck and then I will walk. Walking attentively, walking mindfully (open to myself, the nature around me, and myself in the world) will shake free the words and notions which have become snared.

This was written during one of my explorations:

Biography, body, map, walking, writing

My biography is written into my body, a map of past delights, of past misdemeanours, of past wrongs, of forgotten memories. I forgive my body for its inconveniences. I am journeying each day along my life’s path – partly unmapped, the end uncertain. Walking is putting one foot in front of another. Writing is putting one word in front of another. Neither can be done in theory. Both bring understanding in the doing.

Are you interested in creative non-fiction? What would be your writing tips?

 

Talks, Ideas, Inspirations

Vanessa Bell’s cover for Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘To the Lighthouse’ British Library collection.

A Book By Its Cover

Do we make judgements about what book we want to read from what’s on its cover? I love books. I love reading them. I love writing them. I love the feel of them. I love the smell of them. I love book covers. I became more interested in book covers when I volunteered in the library here in Scarborough and picked for clients of the home library. I became more aware of how the book cover influenced my decision over whether a certain book would be suitable for a certain reader. My interest was further developed when I became involved in designing covers for my own novels.

the idea of having an illustrated cover came slowly. Right through the 19th century books were sold with ‘dust jackets’ but these were merely to keep the book clean, were usually made of stiff brown paper and were thrown away once the book was taken home. It would be into the 20th century before this dust jacket would be routinely illustrated. By 1911 a writer was complaining of a new commercial turn, publishers being “convinced that a book, like a woman, is none the worse, but rather the better, for having a good dressmaker”

What to learn more? Come to my talk on Book Cover Art which I will be presenting at various venues in April:

Saturday, 7th April, Scarborough Library, Vernon Road, 1045-midday for Friends of the Library (all welcome).
Tuesday, 17th April, Woodend Creative, The Crescent, Scarborough, 1-2pm. Ticketed event. Please call: 01723 384500.
Monday, 23rd April, Filey Library, part of World Book Night. 6pm-715pm. Please call: 01609 53 6608

The Human History of Walking

Women walked in protest to get the vote.

People have walked because they had to, to get from one place to another, to explore, to go on pilgrimage. And they have walked as protest. If we look back at a revolutionary time in the UK’s history, the 17th century, when we beheaded a king and, for a brief time, had a republic, pilgrimage and protest became intertwined. 

It’s 1655, two women are walking the muddy bye-ways towards Salisbury. They are wearing plain dresses and bonnets, stout boots, a warm cloak. They are the itinerant Quaker preachers Katharine Evans (my namesake) and Sarah Chevers. They believe – as preached by George Fox – that God’s light is within them, as it is within everyone. It is a type of pilgrimage, but it is also a protest. A protest against a church where the power rested in the hands of a few rich men. A protest against a religion which said God’s words had to be mediated through a male priest. A protest against a church which gives divine authority to unjust wars and injustice in society.

….

Some 18 years ago, I was in the grip of a severe depression. I had always enjoyed walking, but during that time, it became a necessity, it became a way for me to untangle some of the mess that was in my head. Since then, I have become more interested in how walking is essential to wellbeing and to creativity – which is, in itself, nourishing of wellbeing. 

I am a writer and walking has become an intrinsic part of my writing process. In September 2015 I walked St Cuthbert’s Way with my sister, a 100km route from Melrose in the borders of Scotland, to Lindisfarne in Northumberland. This long-distance walk also gave me an opportunity to experience the intertwining of walking and writing.

Want to learn more? Come to my talk on Tuesday 24th April, Woodend Creative, The Crescent, Scarborough, 1-2pm. Ticketed event. Please call: 01723 384500.

 

 

Writing the therapeutic journey #8: the yoga of writing

The Nab from the veranda at Barmoor

I have just returned from facilitating some writing sessions during a yoga retreat. I have been very fortunate to be a part of three of these retreats run by the Little Yoga Company (http://www.littleyogacompany.co.uk/) and held at the wonderful Barmoor centre on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors (http://www.barmoor.org.uk/).

During my sessions, I invite participants to explore: free writing and whole body writing. I have written a lot about free writing (most recently: https://goo.gl/5exuRx) so I thought I would focus on my ideas around whole body writing.

We often think about writing as a very cerebral activity, but I think if we ignore the part our body has in the process, then we miss out on a lot. The word yoga comes from the Sanscrit word for ‘union’. And what I want to encourage is a union of mind and body in writing, along with a union of self with the universe through the natural world.

I wrote this following the retreat in the Spring: ‘The body has knowledge which the mind has not accepted or is unaware of, bringing that knowledge to the writing hand and onto the paper allows the mind to consider it. This knowledge stored in our body can bring us closer to a more authentic and enriched sense of self.’

The idea that the body stores information is not new, look, for instance, at the work of Babette Rothschild and Kim Etherington. There is some research evidence which suggests emotional response begins in the body and then is given a name by the brain. Whether we are writing for our own well-being or for an audience, tapping into the font of knowing which resides in our body can be useful.

Participants on a yoga retreat are already primed to being aware of what is going on in their bodies. To enhance this, I often start my writing session with a simple body scan. It’s easier to do this standing up with eyes closed, so the focus goes inwards. Take some breaths, then draw your attention to your feet and make sure you are safely rooted to the ground and balanced, perhaps imagining yourself as a tree, your toes delving into soil. Begin to bring your focus up your body, slowly, while still maintaining a steady breath, letting your mind’s eye explore your body internally, perhaps particularly areas where there is tension or pain. Once you have reached the crown of your head, rest for a moment before descending your attention gently and slowly back down to your rooted feet again. Open your eyes. Focus on the first thing you see (if you can do this outside or in front of a window looking out onto some nature, all the better). Sit down and free write for five minutes.

Tree in Autumn colours at Barmoor

It is also interesting to write noticing what is happening in your body. Again do some free writing, perhaps using the prompt of, for example, a pebble or the view of a tree (something in nature). As you write, have a part of your attention on how your body is. Do you grip the pen? Do you draw tension in at certain times? What’s going on in your shoulders? In your back? Are parts of your body askew or wound round each other as you sit?

You might like to reflect back on the results of this focus while writing. See post: https://goo.gl/sucyDu 

I do not know where this exploration of whole body writing will take you. However, it may open up some memories or give some meaning or understanding to a particular health issue. It may help you to define some needs or desires which are not currently being attended to. If you are writing for an audience, it may make your descriptions of emotions and your characterisation more rounded. It may encourage something else entirely to surface. The main thing is to remain open and curious, noticing and kind. See https://goo.gl/a6Wp7e

This is what I wrote following the retreat in May:
Unloosen
the potentials and ‘also’s
in every season of life.

I would like to thank and acknowledge my friend Lesley Glover for the discussions we have had which have helped me formulate these ideas. See her website at: https://lesley-glover.co.uk/

Have you experience of yoga and writing you would like to share?

 

Nourishing the Creative Soul

As a writer I find that I must take time to nourish my creative spirit. Julia Cameron in her excellent book The Artist’s Way talks about this too. She suggests ‘artist’s dates’ which we take by ourselves to top up our creativity, visits to, for instance, art galleries, the theatre, festivals…

This weekend I went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (https://ysp.org.uk/) What a wonderful place this is. This was my third visit and I sometimes feel I could move in there! As I wandered around, I discussed with my companion (OK I didn’t follow Cameron’s stricture of going alone) the sculptural beauty of the nature around us as opposed to the sculpture created by humans. The trees in particular were looking especially wondrous. I often think this with my writing, why should I try to capture in my paltry words what mother earth creates with truly staggering and startling abundance? In the end, I came up with the suggestion that what we artists and writers are trying to do is add a layer of meaning or story-telling beyond the realism.

We also deliberated over why artists feel the need to share their work, especially when, frequently, the expression is so personal. I have often thought that my need to publish is narcissistic, egotistically and possibly pathological. However, on Saturday, I realised that to share is a human trait; it forms bonds, societal boundaries, empathy. Sharing is (at its best) the glue which sticks us all together. It gave me a modicum of relief from my worries over the balance of my wits.

I am very lucky because next Sunday I will also be gaining food for thought and, hopefully, soul by attending Hull Noir https://www.hullnoir.com/ I am only able to go on that one day – the festival runs over the weekend of the 18th/19th November, and there are events in the preceding week as well – but the panels look as if they will stimulating. The subjects being ranged over include: the golden age Vs digital age; freedom, oppression & control; unusual settings; and unlikeable protagonists.

Hope to see you there!

 

Photos copyright Mark Vesey 2017

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Twin

In my last post in this series, I suggested ways in which to become more reflexive about ourselves and how we interact with the world through interrogating our creative writing with reflexive questions. Doing this led me to write this essay, which I am posting in two parts…

Part 1

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Twin: what crafting a crime novel told me about myself.

The light sparks off the diamonds, is reflected by the cut crystal, creating ephemeral rainbows across the damask cloth. The fire crackles. The air is scented by expensive perfumes and aftershave. Some of the assembled company stands or sits to attention, while others lounge, on the plush furnishings. These have been pulled into a circle around the crimson rug bought many years ago in an Egyptian bazaar. The company is an assortment of young and old, of men and women, all dressed for dinner: jackets of crushed velvet, silk dresses, furs. They are all waiting for an answer, ‘What has happened to the twin?’ The detectives – Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot[1] (take your pick) – are unable to say. The twin has simply disappeared.

I have been writing prose stories and novels over the last thirty years. In the last three years I have published three novels. I was able to do this because of the preceding ‘apprenticeship’. The first two in particular were re-modelings of a novel I wrote in 2004, which I chose to re-craft within the crime mystery genre. One of the main point-of-view characters was named Hannah. In 2004 she was controlled by a twin who turns out to be an aspect of herself. Only after I had completed the re-write did I realise the twin had completely disappeared.

* * *

I live with depression and, for me, writing has become part of my life-approach to maintain my sense of well-being. I discovered its importance to me in this regard during a particularly low point about sixteen years ago. Up until then, writing had been a pleasure, as well as a career choice. However, it wasn’t until the turning of the century that I realised it could be a means to greater self-understanding and reflection which could aid me in my healing.

When I had the wherewithal to investigate, I, of course, discovered a wealth of information about writing as a type of therapy. And why not? We have art, music, drama therapies. Despite having no formal status in the UK, writing therapy has plenty of practitioners and advocates (see http://www.lapidus.org.uk).

American psychologist, James W Pennebaker began to consider aspects of what he calls ‘expressive’ writing in the 1980s. However, it is possible to argue the tradition of words being a source of healing goes much further back through the use of prayer, spells and charms (Mazza, 2003). Pennebaker carried out controlled experiments on his students, inviting some to write over a period of five days about emotions and events which had an impact on them, while others wrote about subject which did not evoke a strong reaction in them. Those in the former group reported feeling better and also had less frequent appointments with the medical centre (Pennebaker & Beale, 1986; Pennebaker, 1997). Since this first research, Pennebaker and others have sought to replicate the results and also pin down the components of the writing which gives it its potency (Smyth & Pennebaker, 2008).

One aspect is the cathartic effect of releasing thoughts and emotions through ‘free writing’. The aim of free writing as defined by Goldberg (1986, p8/9) is to: ‘burn through to first thoughts … to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel’, to ‘explore the rugged edge of thought.’ The word ‘free’ here has two aspects. It means putting to one side, for the present, learned rules about writing and setting down whatever comes to mind without judging, censoring or editing. In addition, the writing is freed from an external reader. Only the author will see what has been produced and will decide what to do with it.

This was a response to free writing garnered from the participant of my 2011 phenomenological case study: ‘And I think I’ve probably described the free writing as being like ploughing a field and literally to me it’s like that. A field’s got a load of plants on or a load of top soil on, and you don’t quite know what’s underneath, you can guess, but there’s so much going on underneath the now of the mind, that it’s very difficult to find out what you really think about things underneath. And the creative writing, the free writing, tends to dip down underneath the surface and pull things up and it’s almost like ploughing things up and exposing them and it’s almost, like aha, I knew it was there, I don’t know quite why I didn’t think of it before.’ (Evans, 2011, p180.)

However, this is only the beginning of what could be a very extensive tale.

* * *

The writing of my 2004 novel was very free-flowing and was undoubtedly releasing for me. The experience of depression of the point-of-view character, Hannah, is very similar to mine. And Hannah has a controlling ‘twin’.

When she breathes Hannah knows she takes oxygen away from her twin. She is equally as certain that Clare will punish her for this. The hand, which looks so remarkably like Hannah’s own, drags the razor blade across her arm. She watches the blood bubble up in its wake. The pain only begins when she gets back under the duvet. (Evans, 2004, unpublished.)

Twins have a long heritage in literature and story-telling. I remember as quite a young person being riveted by a 1946 film being reprised on TV. It was The Dark Mirror (directed by Robert Siodmak). It stars Olivia de Havilland who plays both twins, Terry and Ruth Collins. They turn out to be identical in looks but exact opposites in character and moral code. Almost two hundred years before, Robert Louis Stevenson was exploring a similar idea in his 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Twins turn up in legend and folk tales: Jacob and Esau; Romulus and Remus; Snow-White and Rose-Red; some versions of Sleeping Beauty where the wicked and good fairies are twins or sisters. Shakespeare (himself a father to twins, one of whom died as a child) fashioned a plethora of plays where twins have a central role.

In one way or another, these story-tellers from the ancient to the modern, were, at least in part, exploring what Carl Jung later gave a name to. He called it the ‘shadow side’. He postulated that, psychologically speaking, there is a shadow side in all of us which, if it remains unacknowledged, can wreak havoc for ourselves and others.

This was an aspect to Clare, the twin I created for Hannah. At the time, I had just discovered the poet Anne Sexton and her poem, ‘The Other’ (Sexton, 1974, p32) resonated powerfully with me.

It is waiting.
Mr. Doppelgänger. My brother. My spouse.
Mr. Doppelgänger. My enemy. My lover.
When truth comes spilling out like peas
it hangs up the phone.
When the child is soothed and resting on the breast
it is my other who swallows Lysol.

It cries and cries and cries
until I put on a painted mask
and leer at Jesus in His passion.
Then it giggles.
It is a thumbscrew.

Clare is unquestionably a ‘thumbscrew’ on Hannah and on her capacity for enjoying life or relationships.

However, Clare may spring from something else. Atwood suggests twins have a particular significance for writers. ‘All writers are double,’ she says (Atwood, 2003, p32). Within a writer there are twins, the twin who lives and the twin who writes. She calls the latter, ‘the Hyde hand’, ‘the slippery double’ and says, ‘The double may be shadowy, but it is also indispensable.’

The writer’s ‘double’ watches, it observes, even when the writer or someone close to them is in enormous pain. This twin takes the chaotic, the disorganised, the meaningless and gives it shape, a narrative, an understanding. The writing twin steals indiscriminately. Colm Tóibín once told a class he was teaching: ‘You have to be a terrible monster to write. I said, “Someone might have told you something they shouldn’t have told you, and you have to be prepared to use it because it will make a great story. You have to use it even though the person is identifiable. If you can’t do it then writing isn’t for you. You’ve no right to be here. If there is any way I can help you get into law school then I will. Your morality will be more useful in a courtroom.”’ (Tóibín, 2016.)

Clare was a particularly malicious double. Yet she was also a critique par excellence, hard-nosed and distant. Attributes which can, at times, be helpful to the writer.

But in the re-formation of my novel I killed off Clare. And quite unconsciously. How did that happen?

Part 2 to follow next week….

[1] Detectives created by DL Sayers and Agatha Christie.

References

Atwood, M. (2003.) Negotiating with the Dead, a writer on writing. Virago.
Bowlby, J. (1988.) A Secure Base. New York: Basic Books.
DeYoung, P.A. (2003.) Relational Psychotherapy: a primer. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Erskine, R.G., Moursund, J.P. & Trautmann, R.L. (1999.) Beyond Empathy: a therapy of contact-in-relationship. London: Taylor & Francis.
Evans, K. (2011). ‘The Chrysalis and the Butterfly: A phenomenological study of one person’s writing journey.’ Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2:2, 173-186.
Finlay, L. (2016.) Relational Integrative Psychotherapy: engaging process and theory in practice. Wiley Blackwell.
Garner, A. (1997.) The Voice That Thunders. Harvill Press.
Goldberg, N. (1986.) Writing Down the Bones. Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala, Boston and London.
Kaufman, G. (1992.) Shame. The Power of Caring. Rochester, Vermont: Schenkman Books Inc.
Kay, J. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 28th October. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.
Mazza, N. (2003). Poetry Therapy. Theory & Practice. Routledge, New York & London.
McDermid, V. (2016.) Artsnight, BBC 2, 22nd July. Editor: Janet Lee. Producer/Director: Jon Morrice.
Nicholls, S. (2009). ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: evolving models of developmental creative writing.’ Journal of Health Psychology 14(2), 171-180.
Pennebaker, J.W., & Beall, S.K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.
Smyth, J.M., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008). Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe. British Journal of Health Psychology 13, 1-7.
Pennebaker, J.W. (1997) Opening Up. The healing power of expressing emotions. The Guilford Press: New York.
Sexton, A. (1974.) ‘The Other’ in The Book of Folly. Houghton Mifflin.
Tóibín, C. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 8th January. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Christine Pawlowsky
Tóibín, C. (2016b.) ‘How I wrote Nora Webster’, The Guardian, 22nd January.

Writing the therapeutic journey #7: Point of View

These blog posts are about exploring creative writing as a support for our mental health and our over-all wellbeing.

With some practice and a fair wind, you are writing more freely and uncovering some emotions which you are finding a way of reflecting back on. There is one particular tool in creative writing which I would like to introduce you to: point of view.

Whenever we start to write, we choose a point of view. Will we use ‘I’ in the first person or ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’ in the third person? It is also possible to use the second person ‘you’, addressing the reader directly, though there is always a narrator behind, doing the addressing.

Changing from one point of view to another can often change the sense of distance in a piece. Try it for yourself. Write about something which happened today, a short incident which may have some emotional content for you, using ‘I’. Then re-write it using ‘he’ or ‘she’ as if you are watching yourself going through whatever it was that happened. Finally try using ‘you’, as if you are telling yourself what happened.

A very simple example:
I went for a walk by the sea this morning, the weather was chill against my skin. I thought about other walks I had taken with a good friend who has since left the area and no longer contacts me.

She went for a walk by the sea this morning, the weather was chill against her skin. She thought about other walks she had taken with a good friend who has since left the area and no longer contacts her.

You went for a walk by the sea this morning, the weather was chill against your skin. You thought about other walks you had taken with a good friend who has since left the area and no longer contacts you.

Once you have done this exercise, consider how you felt doing it and how you feel reading the different pieces back. Have you noticed anything? Generally speaking, I find using third person gives me greater distance and using ‘you’ can feel supportive or accusatory. However, this is your writing and your experience, so go with what happens with you.

Another way to use Point of View is to take another person’s perspective. Maybe you have had a recent encounter which has been uncomfortable for you. Try writing it out using ‘I’ – this is your own point of view. Then imagine yourself into the other person’s body, write it out again, also using ‘I’, but really trying to see the exchange through the other person’s eyes and to feel it through their senses and body. Finally, imagine you are an inanimate object – perhaps a clock on the wall – describe what happened using third person. You are now seeing yourself and the other person from a distance, from the outside.

Have you any experiences of using the technique of ‘Point of View’ in this way which you would like to share?