All posts by Jenny Alexander

I've written loads of stories including the Peony Pinker series and 'The Binding,' and funny non-fiction on useful stuff like how to be happy and how to handle bullies, bigmouths and so-called friends :)

A good week for a writer like me!

I guess for a lot of writers, maybe the dream week would include standing up in front of a major festival crowd, receiving a huge royalty payment and being interviewed for a Sunday supplement.

But for a writer like me, who has experienced two of those and wouldn’t really want to again, the things that make a great week are comparatively humble. (I wouldn’t mind experiencing the massive royalty payment at some stage, of course – just to check whether I like it or not).

Here are five things that have happened in the last few days, and made my week:

  1. Working on a new book. That’s got to be the first and best of everything for a writer like me, and it’s even sweeter now, after a year of not really writing at all.
  2. A cheque for my fee of 50 guineas (more or less – the bank can’t exactly do that) and a lovely letter from Liskeard Poetry Group, for helping them select the poems for their upcoming anthology.
  3. An opportunity to run a poetry workshop around a really interesting museum exhibition.
  4. A new 5* amazon review for my children’s book, Bullies, Bigmouths and So-called Friends. Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 18.36.24
  5. Having an intriguing dream to write down in my diary.
  6. Word from my agent that the Turkish publisher of Peony Pinker wants to renew the rights for the first two books. We’re talking 800 euros altogether, and after agents’ fees and income tax I’ll be lucky to see half of that, but still – they’ve sold enough books to want to do a new print run… in Turkey! 2017-04-25 18.39.46
  7. An email from someone who was on my last workshop, telling me she’d felt emboldened to press send on an article she wrote for a holiday publication (circulation 40,000) and it’s been accepted.
  8. Another email from a different person who’s come to workshops to say she’s got a gig writing restaurant reviews.
  9. Discussions about book covers with my lovely designer and her assistant, Moriarty, who has excellent emailing skills for a cat.
  10. Reading Angela’s Ashes and calling it work.

It doesn’t come to much in terms of wealth and fame, but all those things add up to a pretty good week for a writer like me.

What would make a good week for a writer like you?

 

‘I stopped journalling – it was too dangerous…’

This new post in my guest series on personal writing, by Anne Phillips, vividly evokes the feeling of danger and edginess that writing can bring – something I’ve often felt myself, and that I see in other writers who come to workshops. It can hold you back, but overcoming it is part of the buzz of writing.

Anne lives and works in North Wales as a teacher; she’s widowed with four grown up children. Her entry spans 50 years of diary writing life.

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Some of Anne’s lovely notebooks

My writing life began at a young age. I was two. Blue pencil in hand, I scrawled my name backwards on the wall beneath the coats in the cupboard under the stairs. No one had any idea it was there, until twelve years later (seven after dad died), when my mother decided to paint the cupboard.

I filled exercise books with ‘double writing’ writing books for my doll and teddy. One of my earliest memories is sitting at my brother’s school desk and pretending to be a writer. No surprise that I kept diaries between then and the age of seventeen …. Young love, crushes. The superficial details and concerns of teen life. I vividly remember the day I stuffed them into the rubbish bin outside Swansea Market. I was seventeen, I had my job. I was an adult. It was time to grow up.

Writing then was a secretive occupation — not to be admitted to. This was compounded when someone close to me read a diary where I had been working out my thoughts and feelings about our relationship. In my memory I heard my mother’s voice, ‘You can’t write that. You can’t say that.’

I married, left the bank, had children. I stopped journalling — it was too dangerous and disturbed other people. Best keep thoughts inside. Writing was the stuff and dreams of childhood.

Unsurprisingly, as a full time privacy freak, full of censored thoughts, I was outraged in my thirties, when a therapist, casually — yes casually — asked me, ‘So, have you had any dreams this week?’

To begin with, I’d narrate them, then for speed I’d write them down. Stories would emerge, poems, thoughts — each in its designated notebook. For more speed I’d email my dreams. My husband was diagnosed with an incurable but treatable multiple myeloma. My dreams and journals became uglier, muddled, frightening. How would I cope? Widowhood brought with it a series of A4 journals too ranty to reread. In the middle of this I rediscovered my love of writing. Somewhere in this process – I remember where, not when – I said, ‘All I want is to be a writer.’

I kept an ideas notebook, a work notebook (by now I was teaching), a dream notebook and a notebook for my MA. I was awash with notebooks swapping one for another dependent on where I was. I down graded form A4 to A5 swapped utility blue for sparklier, more colourful diaries.

Now I am still negotiating widowhood, single parenting, a stressful job. My MA is complete and I write, occasionally with a small amount of success. I only keep one notebook and I nearly died of fright this week when I mislaid it. It’s got my whole life in there: stories, ideas, dreams, to do lists class lists resit lists, plans story arcs. I don’t want anyone to read it and realise that inside my head is a dangerous place to be.

My use of journals and journalling sums up my attitudes to a writing life. Keeping one integrated book feels ok. It’s ok to have thoughts and feeling written down. It’s ok to have dreams. It’s ok to disrupt other people. The note book covers enlivened my life as it become more enlivened. I had a sparkly phase, a butterfly phase, a blue phase, and these reflect my inner state too. There are still ‘no-go’ areas in my inner life. That too is ok. I’ll get to them when I need to or am moved to.

Only one notebook remains unwritten in. A gift from my sister who is as much a mother to me, it is the most beautifully jewelled clasped design. I simply cannot bring myself to write in it! This is a book not for drafting — not with my mucky handwriting! The inscription reads, Anne keep putting pen to paper, but most of all have joy in doing so. Love L & H

Can you relate to Anne’s conflicting feelings about writing? Leave a comment!

 

Creative people are full of contradictions!

I came across an article by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi that I shared on my fb page today, but in case you missed it, here it is in a nutshell, the ten contradictions he identifies in creative personalities.

  1. Creative people have loads of physical energy, but also rest often and sleep a lot. I certainly find this. At some phases in a piece of work, I may work all day and then wake after a few hours’ sleep, get up and work through the night as well while, at other times, I may sleep a sound 8 hours and catnap throughout the day.
  2. Creative people have a mix of wisdom and childishness in the way they think. This might be why I enjoy writing children’s self-help!
  3. They combine playfulness with discipline in their work.
  4. They alternate between imagination and fantasy and a very rooted sense of practical reality.
  5. They may be both extroverted and introverted, although these particular traits are normally the most stable of personality indicators.
  6. They are both humble and proud; humble out of a deep respect for their art and the sure knowledge that luck has played a great part in their contribution to it, and proud in recognition of their own work, because it is the result of great effort.
  7. They don’t fit rigid gender stereotypes, but have a kind of psychological androgyny, having the strengths of both their own gender and the other.
  8. They are both rebellious and conservative, able to take risks but also respectful of traditions.
  9. They are both passionately involved with their work and able to be objective about it.
  10. Their openness and sensitivity may mean they feel both pain and pleasure more acutely.

The article goes on to describe the pain of those times when the art isn’t flowing, and the joy of the times when it is. In my life, that would be last year and this. When I wasn’t writing last year, I felt adrift from myself. Now I’m writing again, I’ve come home.

You can read the whole article here. I personally found it very affirming, because I could so relate to it. I imagine a lot of creative people struggle, as I do, with these contradictions in themselves, and are aware of how their own inner contradictions can impact upon the people around them.

I’ve wished, for the sake of my family and friends, and for my own sake too, that I could be a less complicated person. I’ve tried to be less up and down, less inconsistent; I’ve felt, especially in my younger years, that there was something really wrong with me.

I don’t think so as much now – but it’s still nice to have it affirmed that at least some of the trickiness I navigate through life is down to the simple fact that I am a creative person.

How about you – do you relate to these 10 contradictions? Or do you recognise them in a creative friend or family member?

My world and the wider, scarier one

I mentioned that I was going to do a series of guest blogs about personal writing in my email newsletter at the start of the year, and had this response from a reader, Melanie Langdon.

Dear Jenny,

My journals . Full of stuff and nonsense but all my own . Your email has inspired me to read them and use them. I may even get 500 words down !
Many thanks and Happy New Year .
Melanie

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Melanie attached this image

Here’s my response:

Oh my goodness, Melanie – those are beautiful! We could use that picture, and I bet you could get 500 words out of the experience of reading back over them! I read back over mine at the end of every year, and it’s always full of surprises. I’m glad my email inspired you 🙂 Very best wishes
Jen

Then a few weeks later, to my delight, Melanie sent me her contribution.

A few words about Melanie first. She graduated from Sussex University many years ago, lived in Norwich for a year and became a teacher. She enjoyed eleven years of teaching and then family came along, and she was happy to be at home with her daughter. She moved to an old Edwardian house in Cornwall, in order to start a small business, which has proved challenging but exciting and is an ongoing saga.

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Melanie’s new home in Cornwall

What encouraged me to keep a journal all those years ago? Probably a desire to control my life. I could examine in detail the way I was thinking what I was thinking and why I was thinking these thoughts. Control , yes that’s it . Everything seemed out of control but writing meant you held the pen , you wrote your life back.

Melodramatic piffle? Ramblings of a mad woman but it kept me sane . Well you know . Sanity is in the eye of……

There are so many thoughts and ideas in the journals: short stories, poems, lists, random comments about the world – my world and the wider, scarier one. They make me focus but also give me freedom to express myself and work out characters and plots.

I note down phrases I’ve read in books, slogans, addresses, reviews, recipes any thing that inspires me. I have lists of writers and books, films and plays I’ve heard of and intend to see. I sometimes get serious and try to compile stories or half thought stories. They combine to make fascinating reading matter in themselves . I can see the aspirations , career ideas, ambitions I held from 1998 to 2017.

I won’t stop keeping them. They make me laugh at my grand Ideas. They provide a space to be honest and open and allow a stream of consciousness to flow across the paper. No one else to read them but me.

My first journal had George Eliot on the cover ! As if ! I wrote tight and small and I can feel my anxiety and nervousness just by the size of the writing. There are resignation letters composed and revised. New words discovered, songs heard , pieces of music noted and forgotten . Even shopping lists and to do lists.

In many ways writing experiences down, real and imaginary , condenses thoughts. There’s bits of philosophy and history , cuttings and slogans stuck in to remind me of the person I was and how little I’ve changed. Just got to write . There is plenty of raw material in these books. I will write.

Thanks for encouraging me to re – read.

Melanie has exactly the same exuberant, everything goes approach to her journals as I do, and she started, as I did, when life felt out of control, in tiny anxious hand writing.

Leave her a comment, something nice she can copy into her diary today!

Brilliant hopes, heart-wrenching despair

Today, we have another fascinating contribution to my guest series about personal writing, and it’s a double first – Alejandro De La Garza is the first contributor from across the pond, and the first to keep his diaries digital.

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Alejandro De La Garza

Not long after I began walking and talking around the age of 9 months, my parents started teaching me to read. The books were those simply-worded “See Spot Run” types, but I took to them with uncannily inborn sense of ease. Whenever my folks became engaged with some task, they made sure I was either asleep or sitting on the couch with one of those books. Many of those colorful pre-school tomes were “Golden Books,” the classics of childhood literature that helped to educate the toddler masses. I still have scores of them stored away neatly in boxes; surely they’d be collector’s items by now.

By the age of 5 – before entering kindergarten – I had started writing. Although I could speak in complete sentences and use seemingly grown-up words, putting those thoughts into written form became my primary means of communication. I’ve been reading and writing voraciously ever since.

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I first started a personal journal in the summer of 1983, but stopped. I resumed the following year and have maintained a private journal for the better part of the past thirty-two years. I realized long ago these journals weren’t just a record of a mundane life. I could inscribe my most intimate thoughts and ideas. After all, no one would view them except me; or at least not until after I die. I don’t have to be proper and considerate of other peoples’ sentiments. Political correctness has no real place in these writings. The most authentic side of my otherwise quiet persona arises to expunge the wrath of a troubled mind or the glory of an exuberant soul. It runs the gamut, from the most brilliant hopes for an extraordinary future to the abyss of heart-wrenching despair.

In June of 2013, I suffered a freak, but critical accident here at home where my right upper arm experienced a severe gash that damaged nerves running down to my hand. Three months later a hand surgeon did her best to rehabilitate those nerves. Because it was almost impossible to write manually, I began keeping my journal in electronic format. The mechanics are definitely easier. But the purpose remains the same.

Whenever I’m in great emotional or even physical distress, I turn to my journal and let the anxiety melt onto the computer screen. Conversely, when things are going well, my journal captures the beauty of that moment. These journals are my refuge.

You can say read more from Alejandro on his blog https://chiefwritingwolf.com

Alejandro’s story reminds me of when I was a child; as soon as I could write, writing became an immediate and necessary response to experience. Does his experience of journal-writing resonate with you?

The dream remembers

One night in January I remembered, in my dreams, holding my mother’s hand as she lay dying, the feel of her papery skin, and the growing distance in her eyes. The sound of her breathing as she laboured up that long hill, and the hope in my heart that she would soon see my father, waiting to greet her, on this day that would have been their 68th wedding anniversary.

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When I woke and wrote my dream down, I realised it was her birthday, the second one since she died. It hadn’t been in my waking thoughts, but my dream remembered, and this happens all the time. I dream about a person, and when I come to record it, I notice the date is some kind of anniversary.

It happens with death days too. In Writing in the House of Dreams I told the story of finding my sister Su’s poems and letters among the boxes in my shed after we sold the family home. They had been in the attic for years, and I’d forgotten I had them. I spent the whole day reading them, and then burnt them on a bonfire, thinking about Su. Wanting to make a note of a few things she had said to me before I forgot, I went to my journal, wrote down the date, and realised it was the anniversary of her death.

Even when we don’t consciously remember or mark an anniversary, it’s there in another level of consciousness. It may not emerge in a dream, but it may colour our mood, like an old stain; a drop of wine on a party tablecloth, a bruise on the heart. A friend once pointed out to me that every late September I seemed to have a dip – ‘Isn’t that the time your sister died?’ she said.

Family anniversaries are held in our own mind and they’re also held in the family’s collective consciousness, fixed points like pins holding down the billowing fabric of all the family’s stories.

Culturally, we create new ones, like World Book Day, Remembrance Sunday, the May Bank Holiday, and they become shared moments in the collective mind of all our various tribes – in these examples, book lovers, the UK and Commonwealth nations, workers and children.

The days that have meaning for us give resonance to the thin melody line of consciousness, because even if we forget what day it is, the dream remembers.

Have you ever dreamt or thought about a loved one and realised later that it’s some kind of anniversary?

My secret life

I’m so enjoying reading about other people’s personal writing in my new guest series. It feels like a privileged glimpse into secret worlds that most of us don’t usually talk about.

Reading about other people’s experiences is making me notice the particular qualities of my diaries that I hadn’t thought about before; they were just an organic thing that had been developing over the course of a long lifetime, with a sort of inevitability. They were just what they were.

For example, I’ve never kept more than one journal at a time, and it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone might. My teenage diaries were mostly about my family life, school and friends, and they make fascinating, if embarrassing, reading to me now.

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My teenage take on Christmas joy, peace and happiness

Even my handwriting was quite different back then, but one thing I still do in my journals seems the same – I’ve always paper clipped and stuck things in.

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I stopped keeping diaries when I went to university, but started writing a dream journal a few years later. At first, these were just recounts of my dreams, with no commentary, in tightly-packed tiny writing which is almost impossible to read. I used school exercise books, and continued to do so for the next ten years, though the content evolved to make space for some notes on interpretations, which meant I had to also record something of the day’s events.

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As my dream diaries gradually into a record of my whole life, both my sleeping experiences and my waking ones, I needed more space, so I upsized to A4 folders, and from there, finally, I moved away from the school/student stationery look to my first hardback A4 journals.

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The first ones were very plain, nothing like the gorgeous notebooks I use now.

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My current diary on the right, and the one I’ll be starting soon

I think of my notebooks as dream journals, although they include all sorts of other things, such as notes on what’s been happening in the daytime, thoughts and ideas, sketches, book reviews, exercises I’ve done from other people’s teachings, tarot readings, meditations…

All the entries are dated, and they record different parts of my experience in the moment – mind, body, heart and soul. I can find old entries quickly because I’ll remember other things that were going on at the time, what I was doing/thinking/feeling or dreaming.

I colour code. Red gel for my dreams, black for my thoughts about dreams, blue for my day life events and reflections. I write when I feel like it, which can be several times a day, or nothing at all for several weeks. It never feels like a burden, but a a pure delight.

Every New Year’s Eve, I read back over my whole year of writing, noting the major themes, achievements, and problems I’m carrying forward. On New Year’s Day, I write a page of goals for the year to come, and record my New Year tarot spread.

I find my diaries are a wonderful resource for reconnecting with the authentic past which the story-making processes of memory tend to soften and refine over time. They’re a place where I develop my ideas for non fiction, write poems and enjoy adventures in imagination.

They’re like a very old friend I’ve been talking to since I was a child, and I hope they’ll be with me until I’m very, very old.

I generally like to keep things short and snappy on the blog, but I’ve found I’d like to hear more fully about other people’s experience of personal writing. So if you would like to contribute to this series going forward, feel free to choose any length from a few sentences to 1000 words and email them to me author@jennyalexander.co.uk. Include images if you would like to.

I’ve got some lovely guest posts about personal writing lined up for you already. Please keep them coming!