Category Archives: Writing as therapy

‘Poetry is an act of peace’

I came across this quote from Pablo Neruda when I was preparing my workshop for Bridging Arts at the Truro Museum in June, and it was very much in my mind as I watched the writers who came to the workshop engaging on a deep emotional level with the stories in the ‘Heart of Conflict’ exhibition, about the Cornish experience in wartime.

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Poetry is an act of peace. Peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread. Pablo Neruda

Writing is always about connection, whether we’re writing poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction. In stories, we connect with the characters we create; they come alive for us because of the way they make us feel. In non-fiction, we connect with the ideas and experiences that spark our interest and passion; in poetry, we connect with the symbolic layer of the psyche, where meaning is not objective and exact, but something the heart understands.

Every kind of writing connects us with our shared humanity and helps us feel and appreciate the rich complicatedness of our shared human condition.

I’m thinking about this quotation again today because we seem to be bombarded in the news with reports of appalling acts of ignorance and cruelty, from the vicious suppression of citizens in Catalonia to the treatment of the poor and disabled by our government here. The maverick gunman in Las Vegas. Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump… well I really have no words for them.

What we have, on the side of civilisation, is books. Reading, like writing, strengthens empathy, creates connection. It’s frightening to me that communities are losing public libraries, and schools are losing libraries too. Children are not encouraged and taught to read for pleasure, but rather to analyse and imitate, in order to gain good marks.

In my familiar world of children’s writing, the World Book Day list has just been announced. It’s full of books by celebrities, as if books by wonderful authors are somehow of less value than those that carry a famous name on the cover. We are not teaching children to value writing, but only to value fame.

Sometimes in the madness that seems to have the world in its grip, it can feel as if our civilisation is going to Hell in a handcart. Writing and reading are small acts of rebellion against a dominant ideology of greed and division.

I was really keen to teach the poetry workshop in the ‘Heart of Conflict’ exhibition – it felt like a privilege to have that opportunity. It felt like something really good to do, and I loved the ethos of Bridging Arts, which is all about creating connections.

I’m delighted to say that I’ve just heard from Bridging Arts that they would like me to run some more writing workshops next year in the run-up to the centenary of the end of WW1.From_love_story_to_mystery_to_discovery,_WWII_widow_remains_devoted_121114-F-AH552-002

Write, read, remember. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s important.

What do you think? Does reading and writing feel, to you, like ‘an act of peace’?

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Why we need to tell our stories

I wasn’t going to write any more posts about depression and suicide, but I’ve been thinking this week about a writer I knew, Jonny Zucker, who killed himself last year.

Jonny’s family have just announced the Striker Boy campaign, in which they are donating all proceeds of a new edition of one of his books to the mental health charity, Mind.

When Jonny died, the tributes and memories that poured in all said very similar things. How generous he was, how full of energy and enthusiasm, how funny, and how very loved.

So often, those who take their own lives seem to be bright stars like him, people who have touched other people’s lives in one way or another, but don’t seem to have understood how amazing they are.

So here I am, thinking and talking about suicide again, wishing like everyone must, that there was some way of reaching across the dreadful chasm that can open up around a person and swallow them down.

I don’t think we can convince somebody thinking about suicide how wonderful and loved they are, or how much they matter. Even if we could, would that be enough to reach across the chasm and hold onto them?

Certainly, we can make sure the people around us know we are there for them, and will listen in a non-judging way, if they ever need someone to turn to. We can avoid saying unhelpful things that will make the person feel even worse, such as ‘I don’t know why you’re so hard on yourself’ or ‘Why don’t you just snap out of it?’ But not everyone is actually able to talk about it when they’re struggling with depression.

My feeling is that the biggest thing we can do for each other is be honest and not hide our own darkness. Sadness, feelings of pointlessness, even despair, are all part of the human condition, although that goes against our cultural assumptions.

We think we should be able to be happy all the time and every kind of pain is – or certainly should be – fixable. In our culture, unhappiness feels like failure, and we’re ashamed of owning up to it.

But the golden life is an illusion. We shouldn’t be claiming it while hiding our own darkness, because that make the darkness even more terrifying and lonely for people currently going through it.

What we need to recognise and especially to teach our children is that everyone experiences sadness, fear, despair… it’s natural. Life can be hard, but we can learn to handle it. This is the message in all my kids’ self-help books, including How 2B Happy.

I don’t mean I think we should bang on about our problems all the time, but just be real with each other. Real life stories belong to all of us; they lift us above our own situation and show us our wider human condition. They give us a sense of belonging.

A member of Jonny’s family commented, ‘Mental health needs to be discussed in the open and these personal stories need to be shared.’

I could not agree more.

If you would like to buy a copy of Jonny’s book, the new special edition comes out on October 6th. 

 

 

 

 

 

Amongst it are songs, poems, ideas for stories and life…

I’m delighted to welcome my friend Mel Johnston into the House of Dreams this week, to talk about her journals and diaries, as part of my guest series on personal writing.

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Look at these boxes, bursting with thoughts and experiences! Here’s what Mel has to say.

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As you can see, I have whittled down my back catalogue of journals and diaries to two boxes – apart from the notebook under my bed, the one in the kitchen and the one in my bag! One reason I keep notebooks and pages upon pages of journaling is because amongst it are songs, poems, ideas for stories and life. Sometimes they contain necessary evidence of this woman’s journey. Occasionally it has felt right to ‘let go’ of certain journals having at times poured negative energy into them in an effort to remain sane.

I loved writing as a child. My first poem ‘Winter’ won me a bar of chocolate at a friend’s 7th birthday party. At one point I kept a notebook and pen in the downstairs loo and was writing a Dick Francis style story about a stolen horse – tragically I lost that epic along the way! My teen diaries didn’t go in for much detail – ‘homework’, ‘church’ and ‘washed hair’ featured a lot! Sadly, leaving Northern Ireland became the escape I craved and creativity was side-lined.

In my twenties – work, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll took precedent and it wasn’t until I was living in rural Devon in my thirties that writing re-entered my life in the form of journaling, although I didn’t know it was called that. I was a single mum, low on money and support and at times struggling to cope. Rather than expose the depths of my despair to friends I began writing it all down in order to self-preserve. A daily gut-spill and vent became a survival strategy which ultimately reconnected me with the wonderful, flowing feel of writing. I could work through a worry on the page and suddenly the writing was coming from a different perspective – a deeper place – and had a more poetic feel to it. Writing my way through problems taught me I don’t have to react immediately to situations – often keeping quiet and taking time to reflect makes for a better response and sometimes no response at all works best. This early morning ‘write’ with a cuppa in bed has helped me to become a more aware human being and that is definitely an ongoing process.

Allowing that rediscovered creative and playful part of myself to flourish has not been easy – it has taken many years to embody the conviction that it must receive priority. Five years ago I made myself ill through the stress of juggling three jobs six days a week in order to keep the roof over my head, the car on the road and support my son at university. Whilst recovering I decided to write two lists – what I wished I could do more of and what I wanted to do less of. I’d attended some wonderful writing courses (thanks Jenny) and poetry workshops and wished for more time to write – but how?   Eventually I gave up my home and much of the contents and moved to Cornwall where I rented a room whilst doing a Creative Writing degree at Falmouth University. Journaling became less stress-relief and more celebration of life. Deadlines for assignments were the new stress! I discovered that academia is not the place for this free spirit – but it afforded me time and space immersed in a world where creativity is being valued daily. I’ll tell you truthfully, as a student those early morning journaling sessions in bed with a cuppa sometimes stretched out till lunchtime!

The challenge now is to stay true to myself and keep the flow flowing. Journaling has an important role in that aspiration.

You can read more about Mel and her writing on her website.

I really relate to the idea that journaling is an important part of keeping the flow flowing. Is that your experience too? 

‘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!

 

‘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. 

When it Comes to Writing Journals, Why Stop at One?

Today, for the second in my occasional series of guest posts on journaling, I’m delighted to welcome Diane Woodrow in the House of Dreams. Diane is a writer, blogger, workshop facilitator wife, mother of twenty-somethings, dog walker and renter of rooms via Airbnb and word-of-mouth, who loves encouraging and talking to people. She moved to North Wales nearly a year ago.

What I love about her story is that she has so many notepads on the go, all at the same time! I’ve only met one other person who does that, in all my years of writing.

So, over to Diane…

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Diane Woodrow

I have been doing personal writings for as long as I can remember. I’m really disappointed now that I’m older that I do not have my teenager diaries and journals and other writing that I did. I am thinking I either threw them away at that stage of “growing up” when you think all your teenage writing is angsty rubbish or that they are hidden in a box in my mum’s attic and I’ll find them when I clear it out after she’s died.

I got back into regular personal writing twenty-five years ago when my son was born and I also became a Christian. I had so many questions about my new faith that I just had to write. The when and how I write has changed a lot over the last twenty-five years but I still have a need to write a journal every morning and a diary every night.

The start of my day is used to deal with something that has been bugging me on waking. As I write I often reach a conclusion or solution to the issues and it helps me then to plan my day. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been writing 2-5 pages in a horrid A5 notebook that I found in my daughter’s pile of things when we were packing to move. I’m using it because I was feeling broke at the time and that I was being self-indulgent regarding things I was buying because of the move. Even though I do see writing as vital to my life I also often see it as self-indulgent and do not spoil myself with lovely journals. But I am determined to fill this latest book so that then I can buy myself a nicer one for next time.

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The view from Diane’s study window

My evening diary is a page-a-day diary which I started the year my son was born and since he has been sixteen my son has bought for me every Christmas, which then makes them extra special. I really do find solace in putting down my thoughts and feelings at the end of the day. If I am travelling light so don’t have the space for that diary or camping where the lights are out once it’s dark I find it hard to sleep as though there are still things that need to be removed from my brain.

During the day I do have a nice notebook I carry with me for inspirational things, poems, thoughts and feelings. At the moment there is one that lives in my handbag and another that lives on the little table in my study. They take more than a year to fill but they are the ones that I take things from to write further with – whether poetry or stories. I would never take anything from either the morning or evening writings. Those are very much unloading places. In fact I rarely look back at either of them; though at times I might look back through the night time one if my husband has brought up something to continue and argument about. It is then interesting how I have written down my day.

You can find out more about Diane’s work and writing here and here

What do you think – could you keep a morning journal and an evening journal going at the same time? Are you tempted to give it a go?

 

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.

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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!

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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!