Category Archives: Writing

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!

Diaries and the joy of remembering

This week, I’m delighted to welcome Julie Newman in the House of Dreams to talk about her diaries, as part of my occasional series of guest posts about personal writing. Julie has written a number of memoirs and nostalgia pieces for magazines including This England and Evergreen, and her diaries have proven to be a really useful resource.

I first met Julie in 2008 when she enrolled on my course, Finding Your Voice. She is currently working on an account of all the houses she has lived in. She still keeps a daily diary and attends various writing courses. She says creative writing has become something of an obsession!

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Julie Newman

I discovered my love of writing at secondary school, writing comic-strip stories for my friends to read in break-time. Then, as a teenager, I began to keep a diary. Now I have a cupboard full stretching across thirty years. 

My first little diary had a tartan cover. The year was 1966. One of the girls at work kept one and I decided it would be a good idea, mainly to record dates with boyfriends and different events.

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‘He’s lovely!’

This extended to writing about my feelings/teenage angst. One boyfriend in particular made a huge impression on me, so much so that he is the subject of my memoir ‘No One Comes Close’.

When we met up again it was 1987, twenty years after we had parted. I sent him a 40th birthday card, not knowing where he was living, but it found its way to him in Australia. I was unhappily married at the time. We met secretly in Trafalgar Square, while he was visiting his family. After two more meetings, I was overjoyed when he decided to come back to the UK and make his home here, with me. This was the catalyst for my divorce.

My diary-writing had lapsed in the intervening years but started again in earnest when my life took this unexpected turn. This time I recorded all my feelings, hoping to find answers as to why our relationship did not make it past the first post. He couldn’t find work and went back to Australia but we kept in touch.

I later remarried but never forgot him. I instinctively knew when he was visiting – a kind of spiritual pull – and would phone his mum, hoping to speak to him, which I managed to do on a number of occasions. This continued until his death in 2008.

I still have my little tartan diary. Last September was the 50th anniversary of our first meeting; I carefully thumbed through the pages, now spotted brown with age, and remembered all the times we met in London as if it were yesterday.

If you have enjoyed Julie’s contribution, please leave a comment.

If you would like to contribute yourself, email me author@jennyalexander.co.uk with about 600 words about your personal writing and a couple of photos.

I’ve got some cracking guest posts lined up for you already – I’m loving this series!

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

Writing: Keys to the Self

Whatever kind of writing we do – fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, poems – it all comes from somewhere inside the self, and bears the hallmarks of our individuality.

The writing process is one of the ways we can open up to the themes and dreams of our inner worlds which, if we can’t find a way of opening to them, to use Ted Hughes’ analogy, lie dormant and inaccessible to us, ‘like the fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish.’

In the first instance, what creativity requires is surrender – the willingness to explore inside your mind and allow whatever is there to emerge. But to shape our stories and poems into something other people will enjoy reading requires a different skill – direction and focus. Two parts then, both needing to be well developed: surrender and control.

Last year, one of my work resolutions was to let go of the desire to be helpful in my writing, which has been a main driver in all my work, both fiction and non-fiction. I’m not sure why it suddenly felt like a good idea to try and distance myself from it, but the upshot was that I barely wrote anything at all.

I was talking to a friend about this, and she remarked that maybe we didn’t really have a choice about what kind of writer we can be; the writer we are is the person we are. When she said that, it was obvious.

It made me think of the early years of mothering, when I gave myself a hard time because I couldn’t be the kind of mother I wanted to be. It took a long time for me to understand that to be a different kind of mother I would have to be a different kind of person, and that wasn’t something I could achieve, however hard I might try.

When I stopped trying to be a different kind of writer and thought about this year’s goals, I straight away found four exciting book ideas. Well, exciting to me. And each one is strongly driven by that old desire, to share ideas that can make life better.

Evidently the process of becoming a writer is like the process of writing itself, a combination of surrender and control. First, be open to finding out the kind of writer you are, and then develop the skills to make the best of your raw material.

Has writing given you insights into the kind of person you are?