I’ve always suffered from this odd inconsistency as a writer: I love reading memoirs and I have lots of creative ideas for writing one myself, but it’s never felt acceptable to me to go there because you can’t tell your own story without involving other people.
I got round this in the memoir sections ofWriting in the House of Dreams by focusing on my inner life and barely mentioning anyone in my day-to-day except my older sister, who had been dead for forty years, but it was a struggle and meant I had to leave out some of my most powerful dream experiences because they involved other family members and close friends.
I only realised this week that I’ve probably been put off writing autobiographically by a particular kind of memoir that seems to dominate the market, even having its own section in many bookshops – so-called inspirational lives, or more commonly, misery memoirs.
I’ve never actually read one of these. I don’t like the idea. Writing about traumatic childhood experiences feels like something that could be very therapeutic, but therapeutic writing is private writing for me. Therapy is about healing, and publishing this kind of book feels like something that’s more likely to put existing rifts beyond healing.
(Having said that, and in passing, this article by ghost writer, Andrew Crofts, on the excellent Authors Electric blog makes an interesting case for the misery memoir as lifting the lid on child abuse and paving the way for the current exposure of people like Jimmy Savile.)
But there are lots of different motivations for writing autobiography besides therapy or a desire for justice, and I’ve had to give some thought to those in planning my upcoming Writing Your Life workshops.
As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and the owner of an examined life, I suspect that writing memoir may be my natural speed. It’s certainly the kind of writing I feel most alarmed by, and the things you fear almost always turn out to be your greatest opportunities.
In the long hiatus between my mother’s death on October 19th and her funeral last Friday, I wasn’t able to focus on work much at all, and that felt OK and appropriate. I slept a lot, dreamt a lot, read non-fiction books and wrote in my journal.
I was working through some of the exercises in Change Your Story, Change Your Life: Using Shamanic and Jungian Tools to Achieve Personal Transformation by Carl Greerone morning, when it occurred to me that anyone reading my journal after I died might not understand, as I do in the writing, that it’s an experiment, and not a report.
Actually, my whole journal is a perpetual work-in-progress. Every page I write is part of a creative exploration. It isn’t me – it’s a kaleidoscope of all the possibilities of me, and I’m aware of that when I’m writing in it in much the same way as when I’m gathering notes for a work of fiction, knowing all the time that many of my ideas won’t fit the story and will have to be discarded.
A journal or diary is a first encounter with ideas and events, before you’ve had a chance to ponder and decide what you think of them. To get a true sense of a person’s life, I guess you’d need to read their autobiography, because there you have a completed work. Where a journal is a mess of notes, often contradictory or inconsequential, an autobiography is an expression of the writer’s identity, his or her choice of what’s important and how they understand what’s happened.
I was struck by something in Natalie Goldberg’s book on memoir-writing Old Friend from Far Away last week; she says we shouldn’t think we have to be old before we can write a memoir. We don’t need the whole story all in one go, at the end. We can write memoirs from time to time throughout a long life, and each one will be the most complete expression of who we are and how we understand our lives up to that point.
In that sense, I guess autobiography could be seen as a work-in-progress too, but the difference is that in autobiography we are writing what we know about ourselves and our life, whereas in journalling we are feeling our way along the borders of our knowledge, and what we find must be judged as me or not-me, accepted or discarded, as part of the process of becoming.
If you read someone’s journal – as well as the obvious problem that it is private writing and they did not intend it to be read – you will not find the person there, and thinking that you will could give you every which kind of wrong impression, like listening to someone’s dreams and believing you can interpret them. A good dream therapist will simply hold the dream so that the dreamer can look at it from different angles, because only the dreamer can find out what it means.
I include all sorts of things in my journals – dreams, ideas, experiences, book reviews, quotations, drawings, writing exercises and creative experiments. I love them, just as I love my dreams, specifically because they don’t define me.
With both, there’s a feeling of infinite possibility, a continuously forming sense of direction, so that even at the end of a lifetime of journalling and dreaming, I’m sure there will be no conclusion, because the conclusion is always up ahead.
My children have strict instructions to burn my diaries without reading them when I die. What would you like to happen to yours?
I’m reading Nathalie Goldberg’s book on writing memoir, which goes under the wonderful title of Old Friend from Far Away. As you might expect with Goldberg, it’s full of practical writing exercises, and when I came to this one, I was briefly stalled: When was the last time you felt really, really happy?
I’ve done the exercise before – I can’t remember now what prompted it – and it was really easy. Having fresh blueberries on my morning muesli – that had made me happy. Watching an old episode of Frasier while I was eating it – happy, happy, happy. My normal approach to life is celebratory and thankful, so happiness always feels close to the surface.
But today I found myself having to cast my mind back, across the numb times of these past few weeks, during which my mother was given a diagnosis of leukaemia, developed pneumonia and died, all within ten days. She approached the end of her life the way she approached every part of it, with stoicism, taking care of the practicalities and being clear about her preferences and decisions.
She was 90 years old, and had been ready to go for several years, as her physical condition deteriorated; she was not at all afraid of dying. She died in her own home, having steadfastly refused all life-extending treatments, with her family at her bedside, on her wedding anniversary, so in many ways it felt like a blessed death.
In this interval between my mother dying and her funeral, I’ve been mostly sleeping, walking and reading – books like the Nathalie Goldberg.
When was the last time I felt really, really happy? I suddenly remembered my book launch, at my friend Gill’s art gallery in Devon. My younger daughter was staying with me, and she raised the toast for one of the books I was launching. One of my oldest friends raised the second toast. I did some readings.
It was a stunning, beautiful evening, a full moon over Dartmoor, and a happy throng inside the bright gallery, among the paintings and artefacts. Everything flowed.
Afterwards, my daughter stayed on for a few days. The weather was hot, as it often is in Cornwall in the last days of September, and we walked the coastal path together.
So that’s what I’ve just written about, and now the last time I felt really happy was half an hour ago.
Such is the transforming magic of writing. When you use all your senses to immerse yourself in the creative experience and allow your body to feel the emotions, you are creating or re-creating real experience for the self.
Right now, I can’t manage to push forward into new worlds with fiction and my current work-in-progress, but writing into the more familiar territory of my own life feels easy and affirming.
explore and gain mastery in our inner worlds of emotion and imagination
develop, organise and share our ideas
satisfy our natural yearning to create beautiful objects
make our own entertainment and never get bored
The way children learn to write at school completely ignores all these wonderful benefits and that’s why, ten years ago, I wrote my children’s book,How to be a Brilliant Writerfocusingnot just on the nuts and bolts of how to do it, but also why you might want to, and what writing can do for you.
I knew I’d want to write some books for adults about writing one day too, because I’m a bit of a maven – when I’ve found something great, I just have to share it.
After Writing in the House of Dreams last year, which is about dreams as much as writing, I started work on a new book just about writing, no dreams – writing as a hobby, a spiritual path, a career – the psychology, the process, the question of publication – a distilling down of what I’ve learned from a lifetime of writing and twenty three years of being published. I called it When a Writer Isn’t Writing: How to Beat Your Blocks, Be Published and Find Your Flow.
I didn’t offer the manuscript to my agent or traditional publishers, but decided instead to go straight to self-publishing. The main reason was that I wanted to get a second book out fairly quickly after Writing in the House of Dreams, as I thought two books on different aspects of the same theme might support each other in the market – if someone read one and liked it, they might take a punt on the other.
Writing my book about writing was relatively easy because I’d been thinking about it for several years before I sat down to start. Sending the manuscript out to beta readers – which is really important when a book isn’t going to go through the traditional agent+publishers vetting process – also felt unchallenging, because I was confident in the material.
Working with the editor and then the designer felt like part of the creative process of the book, so I enjoyed that too, but then I had to get to grips with some promotion and pre-publicity, and that certainly didn’t feel like part of the creative process to me.
When the focus lifts from writing to sales, my interest always dips, and with this book I began to sabotage my promotional efforts by thinking ‘what’s the point anyway?’ which made it even harder to feel motivated.
One of the things that got me thinking that way was that my experience with Writing in the House of Dreamshad been mixed. I had struggled to find my elevator pitch, because that book straddled two areas of interest, dream-working and writing, so it didn’t fit neatly into either. (My thanks again to Susan Price, who described the book perfectly in her review of it, and so helped me reframe how I describe it myself)
Not having a clear enough concept, all my efforts to get some pre-publicity for it hadn’t achieved very much, and had felt like a waste of good writing time.
I was on the point of deciding to just press publish and let When a Writer Isn’t Writing sink or swim without a shout, when I had this dream:
I’m thinking about my app Get Writing! and I see that the tasks could be represented by people sitting on a wall, and you could click any one, and they would all take you to a writing task. Just writing, so you could click with confidence, knowing what you were going to get.
When a Writer Isn’t Writing is like that, which means it will be easier to pitch and sell than Writing in the House of Dreams. That book could take a writer places they don’t want to go, but When a Writer Isn’t Writing only takes them into writing.
This dream gave me the energy and confidence to stop messing around and do some promoting, and I managed to place articles in Mslexia and The Author. Mslexia have subsequently approached me to ask if I’d like them to feature the book in their October competition. Er… yes please!
There will be reviews on the book analyst and awfullybigreviews, which I’ll link to here when they go up (if you’re a book blogger and would like a review copy, please get in touch!) I’m also organising a launch party in September.
It’s been a tough couple of months, not because self-publishing, writing press releases, pitching articles and organising events is hard and horrible work – I actually quite enjoy it – but because it takes up so much head-space that it stops you getting stuck into new writing.
My daily dose of writing – every stage from pondering and note-taking to drafting and redrafting – is what normally keeps me feeling happy and grounded. Writing isn’t just amazing – it’s addictive.
A non writing writer is a monster courting insanity | Franz Kafka
Dreams are my therapist when not writing makes me feel a bit crazy – what helps you?
I’m delighted to welcome the artist, author and creativity coach Val Andrews into the House of Dreams today to talk about her new book.I’ve followed her blog for ages, and feel absolutely in tune with the way she links creativity with wellbeing.
As a part-time visual artist and creative writer with 30 years of experience working in the healthcare sector, I have a keen interest in the impact that creative expression has on health and wellbeing, and on a person’s capacity to be innovative in their work.
For a number of years, I’ve been exploring this interest by delivering creativity workshops and offering coaching to people who are committed to moving through blockages in their creativity. I’ve also been interviewing professional artists and writers about their creative process and sharing those interviews on my blog in the hope this may inspire my readers: https://artforhappiness.wordpress.com
Over the years, I’ve found there are many reasons why people choose to learn more about their own creativity. Sometimes they’re driven by a desire to approach work tasks in a more creative way, sometimes they wish to ‘be more artistic’, or write a book, or invent something the world has not yet seen. Whatever the motivation, unleashing the creative process certainly seems to boost personal wellbeing, and enhance performance at work.
It’s for this reason I chose to write the book “Art for Happiness: finding your creative process and using it”. Freshly published in March 2015, this book explores the some of the contemporary research on the creative process – what it is, how it works and what it does for a person’s sense of wellbeing. I’ve also included a number of exercises which I’ve found helpful in unlocking the creative process and developing ideas beyond their original naivety. Please feel free to look inside this book on my Amazon page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Val-Andrews/e/B00HGG15A0
A few weeks ago, I received a lovely email from someone who had been here for my Autumn workshop day. Its subject line was ‘Poem inspired by your tablecloth.’
The email was a kind of goodbye, because the writer was about to leave the area and move to Spain. In it, she said, ‘I think I mightn’t have done all this life changing stuff if it wasn’t for the experiences I’ve shared over the years on your courses and workshops.’
Much as I’d like to think that discovering a new sense of adventure is a particular benefit of my workshops, I imagine it’s a common side-effect of doing lots of writing.
When we write stories, instead of focusing on what is, we’re adjusting our focus to consider ‘what if?’
Any habit of thought creates pathways in the brain; old ways of thinking fall into disuse like overgrown tracks as we favour and carve out new ones.
As well as changing the way we think, writing can change the way we feel, because when we put our protagonists through trials and troubles which mean they have to be brave and bold, we are experiencing that courage and mastery in our self.
Things we might not previously have dreamt about begin to feel possible and survivable, and simply feeling that we could do something new if we wanted to can make the current status quo feel like a choice, and not a trap. Writing creatively leads to living more creatively too.
Of course, if you dare to dream, there’s always a risk you might just go and make that big life change, and change carries risk. New adventures always involve some element of difficulty, and they can go horribly wrong.
But they will also bring colour and excitement, learning and opportunity. I’m looking forward to following Lizzylarkwhistle’s adventures in Spain when she starts her new blog – all I can tell you so far is that she has met Jesus and Gabriel, and I can’t wait to hear more.
I’ll post the link when I have it but, in the meantime, here is her poem, written in the workshop, at my table. She chose a dead umbellifer from the tray of Autumn offerings I found in my garden.
The Picked Umbellifer
I hope to stay here now.
In some quiet corner, shadowed by firelight
Dreaming of my old roots.
Back on the shifting cliff in Spring,
New, eager growth will push through my old ways.
White, sea scented sprays,
Soon hardened by salty air and beaten by gales and rain,
To a brassy, brittle, bone coloured thing,
As delicate as the cobwebs spun between its flowers,
Flinching from dogs and booted feet
Or a gust that may toss it into the sea.
After all that has passed, I’m glad to be here,
Spun slowly by a gentle hand,
safe in a house, above a table squared
With the colours of summer.
Do you feel writing has helped you to live more creatively?
I’m delighted to welcome writer, poetry therapist and tutor Victoria Field into the House of Dreams today. I’ve attended several of her poetry therapy workshops over the past few years, which I can highly recommend, and I always look forward to reading her blog
I have always been aware of my dreams. I still remember one from my pre-school years in which I went to watch a Punch and Judy show at the bottom of the hill where I lived. I sat on my tricycle and was both drawn and repelled by what I saw happening on the stage of the booth and feared I’d be sucked in. I’m not sure I’d ever seen Punch and Judy in real life.
It seems dreams are informed by more than direct experience. I know that on residential courses, participants report shared dreams and that when I was married, my husband and I somehow occupied the same dream space as we shared a bed. As a student, I often dreamed of tents. I loved back-packing but there was also something mysterious about my dream tents and when I recently sat in a Bedouin tent in Kuwait, it felt familiar.
Many of my poems begin with a dream image and they find their way into prose too. Several years ago, I began writing down an exceptionally vivid dream that centred around finding a white horse in my tiny kitchen in a terraced house in Chester. As I wrote, the dream took on a life of its own and eventually turned into a novella of 16,000 words recounting what happened next. The white horse can stand for many things in my life and like all dream images is mutable and outside time. Writing happens in a liminal space and to my surprise, the horse surfaced again in a comic short story.
I’m also aware that dream-work happens without our conscious mind being involved. I often tell an anecdote when people ask how I became involved in poetry therapy. My first encounter with the practice was when John Fox, an eminent practitioner based in the US gave a workshop in London in 1999. It was a two day workshop and on the second day, I felt utterly unable to keep my eyes open, in spite of being fascinated by the work. I’d had a leg injury and was on pain-killers which I blamed for my sleepiness. I excused myself and found somewhere to put my head down and went into a deep sleep for a couple of hours. I can’t recall any dreams but I woke up thinking utterly clearly, ‘I want to be a poetry therapist’. And so began my journey of the past decade and more.
So, if people fall asleep on my courses, I never object. Important work is being done as we sleep, whether we know it or not!
Writing can be therapeutic even when it appears to have nothing at all to do with the events of our lives. Here’s how.
In my last post I was talking about the healing power of dreams to ground us physically and emotionally when we get over-stressed and too much ‘in our head.’ Since then, I’ve been to a Lapidus workshop in Bristol which has made me want to share my thoughts on the healing power of creative writing.
Lapidus is an organisation for writing therapists; it includes mental health practitioners who use creative writing within their clinical practice and authors who teach writing in non-clinical settings as a route to greater understanding of the self and the world.
Most of the Lapidus workshops I’ve attended have involved writing about our real-life personal experiences, and they have felt rather like counselling sessions, where the theoretical base seems to be about moving towards catharsis or reframing difficult life events or relationships.
One of the great tools of writing therapy is ‘journaling.’ This is a regular practice of personal writing reflecting on personal insights, day-to-day experiences, dreams and inspirations; it’s pretty much what my dream-diaries have evolved into over the years and I can highly recommend it.
But creative writing doesn’t have to be autobiographical in order to be therapeutic. Every poem or piece of fiction we write connects us to our authentic emotions, like the sad dream I was talking about in my last post; it takes us beyond the narrow limits of what we are capable of understanding about ourselves and releases us into the wide, fast flow of emotional and imaginal experiences that make us who we are.
Do you keep a writing journal? Or have you experienced the healing power of writing in other ways? I love to hear about your thoughts and experiences
Great news today – Writing in the House of Dreams has received the Very Inspiring Blogger Award from the lovely Katherine Langrish, writer and story-teller extraordinaire. You may have heard her on Radio 4’s Open Book programme recently, discussing dystopian fiction.
Last week I was talking about the comfort of dreams, and how dreaming can provide pleasurable experiences for the self which may be ‘only dreams’ in waking life.
This happens spontaneously, but we can replay and deliberately go back into such dreams either in daytime fantasies or as we fall asleep.
Writing can work in the same way, which I’m particularly thankful for at times when I’m not sleeping well. If I feel out of sorts with the world for any reason, and maybe my mind’s gone into overdrive, I’ll get up and write for two or three hours in the middle of the night.
I’ve had a couple of nights like that this week, when I’ve made myself a cup of tea and left the cares and irritations of my daily life to immerse myself in Maddy Monday’s, whose world is colourful, lively and distracting.
The joy of writing is that we can choose the worlds we wish to inhabit during the writing time, and even though we will meet all sorts of challenges and difficulties in those worlds – no problem, no story – we are always able to solve them.
Sweet dreams everyone, this week – or failing that, happy writing!