Category Archives: Psychology

‘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.

IMG_1007
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?

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.

IMG_3939

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?

When you say you love writing…

Reading brainpickings this morning (fantastic site – do check it out), I came upon a quotation from Dr Oliver Sachs:

I say I love writing but really it is thinking I love — the rush of thoughts — new connections in the brain being made. And it comes out of the blue… In such moments: I feel such love of the world, love of thinking…

That’s exactly how it is for me. I’ve always written, as I’ve always explored my dreams, for the joy of inhabiting more of my own mind, and in wonder at its curious workings. It isn’t that my mind is unusually vast and curious – everybody’s mind is, but through writing and dream-working, we become aware of that.

f1248a35262a20a8a24527d5faeb6ec3

I think the fact that we all have this incredible vastness of mind is what leads to the feeling Sachs describes as accompanying our creative aha moments, the sudden rush of love for the world, and for thinking, which goes beyond the individual, and connects us all.

I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to earn enough from my published work and related activities such as teaching workshops to keep the wolf from the door, but I see that side of my writing as the job. It’s only a small part of the writer I am.

Writing brings me, again and again, to the edges of my awareness. It feels risky; it feels exciting, making new writing explorations, not knowing what I’m looking for, or what I might find.

Confronting the non-rational is unnerving. Here the unfettered mind suffers a      kind of agoraphobia, a fear of its own awesome spaces ~ Marilyn Ferguson

I would take it further even than mind, though. I feel that writing enables us to experience every area of our self more fully. The way we engage with the world through our senses, which can be quite unconscious until we need to pay attention to it in conjuring scenes and settings; the way emotion is not just something ephemeral, but anchored in the physical body, in blood and skin and muscle.

Our minds, our lives, are full of wonders, and when I say I love writing, I guess that really it is life I love.

What do you mean when you say you love writing?

‘Writing, for me, is liberating…’

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Judy Dinnen in the House of Dreams to talk about her personal writing, as part of my occasional series of guest blogs on journaling. Judy has an MA in creative writing from Cardiff university and is ordained in the Church of England. Some of her poems have been published in magazines or resource books.

image1
Judy Dinnen

I write because I need to, because some story or story seed beckons. I think pen and paper is best and sometimes it’s in my book of skies, so I write around clouds or through sunsets. You can see this notebook on a stone on the north Wales coast.

image1

These clouds might seep into my words but not always. Now I have a book of walls and I wonder how this will constrain or inspire my writing. In the first year of Trump, I have reservations about the effects of walls. I need to become a graffiti writer out in the open air.

I write sporadically, often in holidays or trips to new or interesting places. For example I went to the Nazi parade ground in Nürnberg last year and was moved by the scattered names of prisoners on railway tracks. That’ s a bit like piggybacking on the artwork of others, but I’m glad to say I wasn’t on the trains to Auschwitz. It was the names that spoke to me, that shocked me, so many, yet each one recorded for eternity.

I often pick up on moving words or personal stories and turn an event into poem. I sometimes write freely and carelessly when faced by some problem or angst. I first wrote like this the night my mother died. I never turned that into a poem but it did serve to show how releasing writing can be. I felt also that she had given me this gift of poetry.

Writing for me is liberating; it helps me to think, to feel, to untangle conundrums. That’s why I belong to Lapidus and to The Creative Arts Retreat Movement, or CARM. I have led workshops with the homeless, bereaved and village groups and in this new phase of my life I lead poetry retreats with CARM.

In these retreats I offer Christian prayer, space, poems, writing prompts and plenty of time for punters to explore words. They might explore the joy and value of words, words placed alongside each other, words echoing or enhancing each other, crying together or arguing.

Sometimes I’m just a writer on these retreats and then I use lovely surroundings to inspire me. In that place in North Wales I like to sit on the sea-shore and listen to the waves. They tell me what to write. In that house of prayer there is an intriguing labyrinth and walking round and in and back is a metaphor for life. Scope for raising questions; scope for adventures too!

I love that Judy felt her mother had given her the gift of poetry. That is a wonderful gift indeed.

You can find out more about CARM retreats here

If you keep a diary, journal or notebook, we would love to hear your story. Please send a piece of about 500 words, some pics of you and your journals, plus any links you’d like to include to  author@jennyalexander.co.uk

Leave Judy a comment if you have enjoyed her contribution. 

Diaries, Notebooks, Journals… Let’s Talk About Personal Writing!

Every year, in early January, I run a workshop called ‘Writing the New Year In.’ It’s one of my favourites, and I look forward to it. My goal is to help people experience the deep pleasure of personal writing, which can help you find your writing confidence and voice, and may become a seedbed for ideas that will grow into finished writing projects.

So what better time to launch my new occasional series of guest blogs about private writing?

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Karen Laura Steel to the House of Dreams to talk about her writing journals. Karen is a funeral celebrant – she takes naming ceremonies and weddings as well – who has also worked for 20 years singing to elderly and brain damaged people in residential settings.

Here is the story of her personal writing.

p1060607
Karen Laura Steel

I remember the first diary that allowed me to write more than childhood entries: “Went to school. Ate jam sandwich…”. It charmed me with its ornamental lock and pretty little key. I was 10, and it was a 5-Year diary, so I was aware it was something of a commitment, but the closely drawn lines and the never-ending feeling gave me a kind of hope. There weren’t many days over those 5 years that I didn’t write at least a small entry on how I was coping at new schools; having begun Comprehensive Education, only to move after 18 months, having to start O Level courses again. My diary listened as I missed old friends, found that cliques, once made, were hard to break into, and that friends we’d moved to be closer to weren’t necessarily worth the effort!

My teen-diaries received emotions on unrequited love, the excitement of prospective love-interests and despair when things went hopelessly wrong.

By the time I was beginning my degree, a plain notebook accompanied me everywhere, especially invaluable during my semester in America as I recorded first impressions of places and people every few hours at least. It was my 1980s version of fb, but private and didn’t need the approbation of others.

Battling depression in my twenties my journal received all my heart’s outpourings when no one else seemed interested or capable of understanding where I was coming from. In my thirties when finally receiving help, dream journals, notes on counselling sessions or discussions with helpful friends gave way to writing about new avenues of spirituality as I explored Yoga, its philosophy, and anything which gave a different perspective on the world.

Over time my journals have also generated other creative outlets, germinating ideas for songs or other writing.

Too much work ate into journal time last year, until I decided that life was far more enjoyable when I could jot down my problems and see the solutions emerging spontaneously.

Part of me wishes the notebooks were all the same size or of similar design, but the array of covers which have held my confidences are a testimony in themselves to my changing life, tastes and experience and are precious for that. I am writing once a week at the moment – and the desire to do it more often is encouraging me that I’m back on track!

p1060603
Some of Karen’s notebooks

You can find out more about Karen’s work by visiting her website or reading her blog, Diary of a Funeral Celebrant.

Do you have a practice of personal writing? If so, we’d love to hear about it here in the House of Dreams. Please email your piece, up to 400 words, a sentence or two about yourself and any links you’d like to include, to author@jennyalexander.co.uk. A photo of yourself would also be good, and possibly one of your journals.

I’m planning to make this an occasional series throughout 2017, welcoming a wide range of guests. Let’s celebrate personal writing!

How to make the best New Year resolutions

I’m a big fan of goals in life generally, and I always take a few days over New Year to consider what I want to achieve in the year to come, both in my personal life and my writing.

It takes a few days because it’s a broad field, if you don’t measure success only in terms of finances and career development, as we tend to do in our culture. There’s creative satisfaction, greater understanding, social engagement and every other aspect of life to consider.

So how do you narrow it down? Well, according to Alain de Botton on the radio this week, it helps to ponder your own mortality. Most people don’t really think about the prospect of dying until they’re in the 40s or 50s, but de Botton suggests we should all start to think about it from at least the age of 10.

Having faced the fact that you’re going to die, and it could happen at any time, then, says de Botton, it’s good to think about regrets. If you were to die tomorrow, what would you regret never having done? Maybe you’d wish you had travelled more, or read more, or written a book, or taken up a musical instrument, or learnt to fly. Or managed to master your temper better, or speak up for yourself, or say sorry, or tell someone you love them.

Whatever you would regret not having done in this life if you were to die tomorrow, those are the things you need to get on and do today. Even for things that are going to take much longer than just this coming year, you can still make a start.

Like any journey, once you start, you build momentum. You see the way unfolding ahead of you, and feel the excitement of working towards the place you want to be. It doesn’t matter whether you arrive or not – you will have extended yourself, and striven, and felt energised along the way. And discovered new goals to start going for, like unexpected signposts and turnings in the road.

So if you haven’t set any New Year resolutions yet, imagine the Grim Reaper were to come for you today – what would you wish you had done? Write a list of things you can do right away and things that could take a long time. Select two of each. With the long-term goals, make a start this week – write that email enquiry, make that phone call, start that conversation, do that search.

It feels good – and that’s why I’m a fan of goals and resolutions!