The who, where, when, what, why and how of writing.

I once went to a writing workshop that had no structure or content – the facilitator came with only two things – a few prompts and the information that to find a story all you need to do is ask the questions: who, where, when, what, why and how?

What surprised me – besides seeing someone lead a 3 hour workshop with no more than that – was that a lot of people in the room had never heard of finding stories by asking questions, so they were actually quite happy customers. (If you haven’t either, have that one on me!)

It reminded me of a questionnaire I filled in for a PHD student who was studying writer’s block, because that was more or less the who, where, when, what, why and how of my writing.

1    Who?

I’m an author with about 25 years experience in writing fiction, non-fiction and magazine articles for all ages. I’ve worked for traditional trade and educational publishers as well as self-publishing under my own imprint, Five Lanes Press.

2    Where?

At home in my study for the actual writing part, but thinking and note-taking at the beach or out and about on the moors – I live in Cornwall and I like to walk and ponder.

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3    When?

I don’t have any regular writing times. I might write through the night when I’m on a roll, but then spend several days away from my desk, just musing. A writing session might last anything between 20 minutes and 20 hours with breaks.

In the early days, I had just 2 hours every morning, while my kids were in school/playgroup for writing. That extended to about 5 when they were all in school. I absolutely love not having any regular patterns in my creative life these days, now that they’re all grown up.

4    What?

At the moment, I’m promoting my three books for writers, with a free-range writing workshop tour and a monthly column in Writing Magazine.

I’ve also updated and adapted another one of my out of print children’s self help books – 70 Ways to Bullyproof Yourself, which comes out in September. I’m writing articles and and putting together a blog tour for that.

My children’s book on helping the planet is finished and looking for representation – I’ve sent it to an agent. If I can place it, I’ll write one about healthy living next year for the same age group.

5     Why?

One of my main drives as a writer is sharing the useful stuff I’ve learnt just through living. I think of myself as writing in an elder tradition.

6    How?

I’m a stationery junkie. I love coloured gel pens and an assortment of different papers. I can’t work with music or any other kind of background noise, so it’s just as well I have very considerate neighbours.

I’ve never taken any kind of formal writing course, but I go to other people’s workshops sometimes because I enjoy them. If I want to try a new kind of writing project, I’ll read the latest books in the genre and try to figure out how they work – then I experiment.

I love reading books about writing. Some of my favourites are Nathalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Ted Hughes’ Poetry in the Making. I recently enjoyed Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing too.

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What’s the story of you as a writer – your who, where, when, what, why and how? Email me if you’d like to do a guest post here in the House of Dreams.

 

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Creating connections through poetry

Last year  the Director of Bridging Arts, Susan Roberts, contacted me to ask if I would like to provide a poetry workshop at Truro Museum, helping people to explore their personal responses to the Heart of Conflict exhibition about the Cornish experience of World War One.

I visited the Bridging Arts website to find out more about them, and really loved their mission statement. I said yes, please!

Bridging Arts links real people to real issues with real action.

We bring people of different cultures, interests and backgrounds together. We commission work, stage and tour exhibitions, develop educational resources and offer workshops

After the workshop, Susan applied for Heritage Lottery funding to develop the project further, with a series of talks and writing workshops focusing on one part of Cornwall that was of surprising importance in that war – Hayle.

The project was given funding, and the three talks by local historians have already taken place. They were incredibly well supported by the local community. There was standing room only at the war graves talk in Phillack Church; a throng of people at the guided walk around the National Explosives Factory site and a full house for the talk about the 251st Tunnelling Company, who fought deep underground beneath the trenches.

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Phillack Churchyard, where local servicemen and civilians killed in an accident at the Explosives Factory are buried
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The talk at the Explosives Factory site in the Towans
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A full house to hear about the brave Cornish tunnelling company

The second half of the project is three poetry workshop days that I’ll be running, in which we’ll explore the same three topics through writing.

My task, in planning the workshops, is to make them

  • completely accessible for anyone in the area who would like to see how writing poetry about their own place feels, even if they have no experience of creative writing at all
  • suitable for people from outside the town,  or who didn’t go to the talks, so will know very little about the history
  • engaging for writers and poets throughout Cornwall who just love writing and enjoy the feeling of instant community that comes when people sit down to write together
  • effective as stand-alone sessions, so people can choose to sign up for one, two or all three.

These are the things that are in my mind as I ponder the content of my Heroes of Hayle writing days. Planning workshops is a challenge I always enjoy, like any other kind of creative process. But it’s been particularly pleasurable with this project because, as well as learning all about the experience of WW1 in the West of Cornwall, I’ve ended each research trip with a wonderful walk and a pasty on some very beautiful beaches.

If you come on one of the workshop days, you could head to the beach with a pasty afterwards too!

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Full moon on the beach after the Explosives Factory walk

The workshops are scheduled for September 8 and 22, and October 6th. There are only 10 places on each workshop so, although they are absolutely FREE, booking is essential.

More information: https://jennyalexander.co.uk/writing-workshops/

Bookings: http://bridging-arts.org/contact-us/ 

 

Going away and coming back again: how to refresh your writing

I haven’t been blogging lately because I’ve been away. I was in Arctic Norway for three weeks in June, then home again and away again for a spot of camping on Bodmin moor, then home again and away again to Oxfordshire for the summer gathering of the Scattered Authors’ Society.

I always find it difficult to leave my work-in-progress, so I work right up to the wire and often take some notes with me, half planning to do a bit of writing while I’m away.

That never happens. It didn’t even happen in Norway, although the combination of wintry weather (in June!), bright daylight round the clock and really rugged walking meant I completely overdid it and got worn out by the end of the first week. (Someone on a travel site suggested the guide books should translate ‘Easy’ in the Norwegian descriptions of walking trails as ‘Hard’ in English, ‘Moderate’ as ‘Difficult’ and ‘Difficult’ as ‘Don’t even go there!’)

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‘Moderate’ walk in the Lofoten Islands – sheer drop, massive rock, helpful chain to hang onto

I did hang out in cafes for a couple of days at that stage, scribbling in my notebook, but I was just jotting down random thoughts and ideas that had nothing to do with anything I’d been working on at home.

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Great cafe in Lofoten – the artist makes you coffee in her lakeside studio!
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Cool cafe in the ‘Paris of the North’, Tromso. Strong coffee, Leonard Cohen, everyone reading.

I scribbled some thoughts down in my notebook when I was camping too, but on the Scattered Authors’ retreat, although I took my computer and current work in progress and really thought I was going to crack on with it, I wrote absolutely nothing at all.

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Empty site with fire pits on sunsoaked Bodmin moor
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Children’s authors at play in rural Oxfordshire

I sometimes take work, but I never stress about not doing any, because I know from long experience that going away always means I’ll come home full of new creative energy, enthusiasm and ideas.

I think one of the reasons my trips are fruitful is because I do focus on my work in progress right up until I leave, and hold it in the back of my mind even when my main focus is on the new places I’m seeing and people I’m meeting.

By the time I sit down at my own desk again, I’m coming to my writing completely renewed – a new me, a different me, made up of the old me plus the experience of my adventure. And my work in progress, somewhere out of sight but never entirely out of mind, has been growing and developing too.

I was going to blog about the Scattered Authors’ summer retreat but my friend Sheena Wilkinson has written a great post about it, and I couldn’t do better – you can read it here.

 

Dreams, daydreams and the writer’s trance

Jung believed the dream goes on all the time, day and night, a constant flow of images and narratives that runs like an underground stream beneath our conscious awareness. He said the only reason we think of dreaming as a night-time phenomenon is because most of us only become aware of it when the conscious mind is completely turned off in sleep.

If you conceptualise dreaming in this way, as a continuous layer of consciousness, you begin to notice how you naturally slip in and out of it all the time, in fantasies and daydreams. What if I go to the beach today? That person I met in the cafe last time might be there, and she might say… and then we might…

What if I hadn’t said what I said? We might have gone ahead with our plan… We might be making lots of money, and then we could…

Lots of us are unaware of our daydreaming mind. It’s like background noise we’re so used to we hardly notice it. But others enjoy their dreams and daydreams so much, they notice and deliberately nurture them.

Many writers report that they daydreamed their way through school – they may have got into trouble for it. But I’d say it was time well spent – they were developing a vital creative ability.

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The ‘writer’s trance’ is a kind of daydreaming. In his book on writing, Stephen King describes his writing sessions as like slipping into sleep, because when he’s writing he’s completely unaware of what’s going on in the household around him. When he stops for lunch, he says,it’s like waking up from a dream and gradually becoming aware of his surroundings again.

Most people assume that the craft of writing – how to construct a strong plot, write convincing dialogue, conjure vivid settings so on – can be taught, but that the inspiration side is just luck. It has to come on its own, if it comes at all.

To some extent, that’s true but in writing as in creative dreaming, we can learn techniques for tapping into the unconscious mind at will, directing it and harnessing its power.

Developing dreaming and daydreaming skills doesn’t only make your dreams and writing more exciting – it makes your whole life more exciting too, because the unconscious mind is made of stories. Its nature is movement – a continuous growing and then dying back of possibilities – in which our conscious mind sits with all its certainties and definitions, limited and fixed.

Do you enjoy your dreams and daydreams? Does writing feel like daydreaming to you?

The key to living creatively

My last post was about the royal garden party, which I mentioned was right outside my comfort zone. When I got my invitation, I didn’t even possess a dress, let alone a hat or fascinator, so the dress code felt quite challenging!

But I like going outside my comfort zone – its expansive. Going outside your comfort zone makes your comfort zone bigger.

Trying new things is also the key to living creatively because creativity is, by definition, making something that didn’t exist before and, when we try new things, we create brand new experiences.

Quite often, we may be reluctant to try new things – a different kind of food, book, activity or TV show – and there is indeed a good chance we won’t like the new one as much as our old favourite. But if that’s the worst that could happen, I reckon it’s worth the risk.

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My current notebook – a gift from my ex husband, who knows me well!

It doesn’t have to be a giant leap into the unknown – shaking up the little things can start a creative wave. When was the last time you parked in a different spot at the supermarket, took a different route to work, sat in a different chair in the evening, went out for a walk at a time of day when you usually stay home?

Living creatively by seeking out new experiences puts energy into all your creative work because you carry those attitudes of openness and adventurousness, and also that buzz of pleasure and excitement, into your writing or painting or gardening, or whatever creative activity floats your boat.

Anyone for a seaweed sandwich?

 

The dreaming writer at the royal garden party

Lots of creative teachers talk about the importance of taking time out from your normal routines and doing new things, to refresh your creative energy. It’s commonly called ‘going down to the well.’

I was way outside my normal routine last week at the Buckingham Palace garden party – frocks and fascinators are not really my thing! In case you’re wondering, my invitation came through the Society of Authors – I’ve been a member for most of my writing career and taught several creative blockbusting workshops for them.

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The afternoon progressed like a well-oiled machine. The queues moved very quickly through the gates, despite the huge number of guests.

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The National Anthem announced the Queen’s arrival and, while the band played and everyone was upstanding, she came out onto the steps, flanked by Beefeaters.

The Beefeaters accompanied her as she walked among the crowds so, although we couldn’t see her, we knew where she was by the tips of their pikes.

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The cakes were divine! After tea my friend and I had a stroll round the gardens, coming back to find staff moving among the guests with trays of lemon barley water and little tubs of ice cream.

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It was a brilliant opportunity to enjoy that most favourite of writerly pastimes, people-watching. A clutch of Bishops, a pair of robed academics, a scattering of groups in African dress, a gaggle of jovial mayors.

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Even the Ladies’ Lavatories were an experience, set as they were beside the big lake, and attended by a woman who checked each cubicle as it became vacant, presumably to make sure the bowl was clean and there was plenty of toilet paper, before personally ushering the next person in.

Very few people actually got to speak to the Queen yet the surprising thing, for me, was that it felt quite personal. Buckingham Palace didn’t feel like a massive public building, but somebody’s home, and the party was just in their garden.

I realise I may be sounding like a royalist, but I’m not. I’m not a republican either.  I think there are good arguments both for and against having a monarchy.

But as a dreamer, it seems to me that kings and queens, princes and princesses do something quite extraordinary. They are like living archetypes, symbolising for us universal qualities, even though they may not, in their own personal lives, be any less complicated, flawed and human than the ordinary person in the street.

I was first struck by this in the outpouring of grief when Princess Diana died. It was so surprising and disproportionate, I felt we were not grieving the person she was but what she symbolised – a quality of caring kindness that seemed to be slipping away in the post-Thatcher era.

It’s the same with the royal wedding last week. We don’t know what Prince Harry and Meghan are like as individuals, whether they row and bicker behind closed doors – but thousands of people enjoyed their wedding because there they stood before a nation as the representing the romantic Hero in all of us, the perfect Princess and the possibility of lifelong romantic love.

Seeing the Queen standing there on the steps of her home, I was really aware of the strangeness of her existence. Through the doors behind her lay her domestic life, where she is just a person like the rest of us, but as soon as she steps outside she is no longer a woman; she becomes absolutely her role, as Queen.

The dreamer in me, like the writer, found the whole experience intriguing.

 

Does your mother dream?

I recently read a really touching article called Mother daughter dreaming on Tzivia Gover’s blog, Waking up to your dreams.

Tzivia describes how she discovered her mother had been a prolific dreamer, but it was too late to explore their shared interest because, by then, her mother had slipped into ‘her dream of dementia’ and lost the ability to communicate in speech.

It made me wonder whether my mother dreamed – or rather, remembered her dreams. I would think not. But what about my father? My sisters and brother? My grandparents?

It struck me how rarely most of us talk about our dream lives, even with those closest to us. I’m glad I’ve always had that conversation with my children, and these days, also, with my friends.

It’s fun, intriguing and sometimes reassuring to talk about the places we go and the experiences we have in our dreams. For me, it’s like talking about great movies we’ve seen, or wonderful novels, or little pieces of poetry we’ve chanced upon and felt inspired.

I think one of the reasons why it isn’t part of our culture to talk about our dreams is because psychology has hijacked dreaming and shaped our view of it into some kind of secret code that makes us vulnerable to being exposed.

For me, my dreaming is a rainbow of emotions, themes, images, characters and stories that show, not my deep unconscious analysable life, but the moving colours of my psyche.

Next time you remember a dream, try sharing it. If you still have your mother in your life, perhaps you could share it with her or, if she has already left, you might invite her to visit you in dreams, as Tzivia has done. 

Do you talk to friends and family about your dreams? If not, what would hold you back? If so, how does it make you feel?

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