It’s the start of a new year, and the perfect time to take out a new writing magazine subscription. Writing magazines, which these days usually have online communities built around them, are an excellent resource for both building your skills and finding a public outlet for them.
Writing Magazine is the biggest one in the UK, with an active online network and blog (you can see one of my articles on having a creative Christmas here). As well as practical advice about the craft of writing you’ll find readers’ contributions and regular writing competitions. I advertise my workshops and courses in their annual guide.
Like Writing Magazine, Writers’ Forum provides a wealth of information and opportunities for writers at every stage of their writing journey, from complete beginners to published authors. Look out for my article in next month’s issue, called What kind of writer are you? Why it helps to understand your author brand.
As the name suggests, the target reader is women writers. Mslexia has a strong community-of-writers feel, with the articles in each edition being chosen by a guest editor, on a theme, rather than the same editorial team.
Mslexia is read by top authors and absolute beginners. A quarterly masterclass in the business and psychology of writing, it’s the essential magazine for women who write.
So there you have my great writing reads – now, what about the fantastic freebie?
I was going on tour with my three books for writers. I opened my well-travelled, old-fashioned suitcase and there they were, just the books, looking bright and colourful against the black satin lining. I felt very proud of them.
I had this deeply pleasurable dream a few weeks ago, when I was emailing publications to see if they would like a review copy of my upcoming book, Free-Range Writing: 75 Forays for the Wild Writer’s Soul, and pitching ideas for articles. (I’m happy to report that Mslexia has accepted a copy for review and I’ve placed an article on free-range writing in the Writers’ News Christmas edition).
Usually, I have to put my shoulder to the wheel and get on with it, when it comes to promoting new books, but promoting this one feels joyful. I want to shout about it, partly because it’s my first brand new book in two years, and partly because it gives me a sense of completion.
These three writing books are a set, although I only notice that now, looking back. They cover the whole writer’s process:
opening to inspiration (Writing in the House of Dreams)
keeping the writing flowing (Happy Writing)
extending yourself as a writer (Free-Range Writing)
They also reflect my own coming-to-writing. First, before I was a writer, I was a dream worker – I learnt to come and go across the borders of my unconscious and work with the stories and images I found in great abundance there. To use Ted Hughes’ analogy, I learnt to fish.
There is the inner life, which is the world of final reality, the world of memory, imagination, emotion, intelligence, and natural common sense, and which goes on all the time, consciously or unconsciously, like the heart beat. There is also the thinking process by which we break into that inner life and capture answers and evidence to support the answers out of it. That process of raid, or persuasion, or ambush, or dogged hunting, or surrender, is the kind of thinking we have to learn and if we do not somehow learn it, then our minds lie in us like the fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish.
Writing in the House of Dreamsit about tapping the mystery of inspiration, the ‘Where did that come from?’ It includes lots of practical writing exercises to help readers open to their own unconscious processes.
Next, at the age of 40, I started my writing career. As well as having to build my writing skills, I also had to develop the psychological toughness this business requires: a thick skin, a willingness to be seen, the ability to set clear goals and the flexibility to adapt them. Authors also have to cope with financial uncertainty, and develop other sources of income – many award-winning authors have to fit their writing in around a day job.
Happy Writingis about the psychology of writing, the ‘How can I keep going?’, whether in a longer piece like a novel, or over the course of a career. It includes lots of practical writing exercises to help readers build their writing skills, such as plotting and redrafting, identify when hidden fears might be holding them back and create writing goals they can pursue whole-heartedly because they come from their core values rather than other people’s assumptions.
In my early 50’s, I began to teach writing workshops, and I always mixed it up, just as I’ve done in my own writing career. I found people were surprised to be asked to write a poem in a plotting workshop, say, or a magazine article in a memoir workshop – they were surprised, also, by how enjoyable and fruitful a more holistic approach can be.
Free-Range Writingis about inhabiting more of your writer self and growing as a writer, the ‘Yes, I can do this! What else can I do?’ It includes 75 practical writing forays into different genres, with tips and advice to help readers feel confident about experimenting, and a chapter on how to use these exercises to set up a new writing group or pep up an existing one.
Every stage of the writer’s journey is different, and so these three books are all very different from each other. Until I had the dream and actually saw them in my dear old suitcase, all together, they had felt a bit random and disparate. I hadn’t realised that they were a series, each one a necessary part of the whole.
I’m not sure I realised, either, that I do feel very proud them, these beloved children of my other lives, in dreams and writing.
If you would like to help them make their way in the world, please share this post to your fb/twitter/personal blog.
We were discussing the Senoi method for tackling nightmares in last week’s session of Writing in the House of Dreams, when someone said, ‘We ought to be teaching this to children in schools!’
The Senoi technique is described by Patricia Garfield in her fascinating book, Creative Dreaming – that’s where I first came across it. When you go to sleep, you intend that if you have a bad dream you will confront the difficulty, face down the enemy, and claim a reward.
If you wake before your dream has reached a positive outcome, you either go back to sleep and continue the dream or else complete it in imagination.
You don’t need to be lucid within the dream, so it’s a very easy practice that anyone can begin, and if you always bring your dreams to a positive outcome you set a track in your mind that your dreams will soon automatically follow, resolving themselves before you awake.
It’s obvious that not having unresolved nightmares is a way of making your dream experience better, but the goal of Senoi dreaming isn’t just to make your dream life better – it’s to make your waking life better as well. So how does that work?
When you deliberately face up to challenges and create positive outcomes in your dreams or imagination, you experience yourself as an effective and courageous person. Then when you’re faced with challenges in waking life, that’s the person you know you can be – someone whose first response to difficulties is ‘I can sort this!’
I shouldn’t think we’ll ever see creative dream skills in the national curriculum but I believe children could get the same benefits from learning to write stories.
The Senoi approach is basically the Hero’s Journey. The hero crosses the threshold into the unfamiliar world, meets enemies and falters, before finally facing up to them and claiming her reward to bring back to the ordinary world.
This story is the mythic template for all our stories. Every new experience starts with crossing the threshold into the unfamiliar and making the hero journey, from starting a new relationship or job to small things such as making a phone call or trying a new restaurant.
In the past, creative writing was part of the school curriculum – I don’t mean analysing styles and all that kind of thing, but properly diving into imagination, every child different, every story unique.
Writing stories is joyful, exciting and empowering. I wish we could have more truly creative writing on the curriculum because, in my view, it wouldn’t only make children’s experience of school better – it would, like creative dreaming, make the rest of their life better too.
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.
Look at these boxes, bursting with thoughts and experiences! Here’s what Mel has to say.
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.
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.
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.
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!
They combine playfulness with discipline in their work.
They alternate between imagination and fantasy and a very rooted sense of practical reality.
They may be both extroverted and introverted, although these particular traits are normally the most stable of personality indicators.
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.
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.
They are both rebellious and conservative, able to take risks but also respectful of traditions.
They are both passionately involved with their work and able to be objective about it.
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?
It’s beautifully written, short but perfectly formed, with the text divided into four sections named after the directions – East for sunrise and beginnings, North for difficult teachings, West for leaving and being left, and finding your way in the darkness, and South for release.
I love the voice, so thoughtful and steeped in the spiritual traditions of Harjo’s ancestors, and the way the story begins with her journey towards being born, which gives her the opportunity to describe the lives of her parents before they became her parents.
The story is embedded in its time and place in such a way that it evokes her whole social situation, bringing it alive even for readers like me, who may have known nothing at all about the Mvskoke/Creek Nation.
Much of what she says really chimes with me, such as this idea, that has informed my life in every area, especially my writing:
I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you. Or drag you down with their immense sadness at being abandoned.
I’ll be blogging about other great memoirs and books on memoir writing over the coming months, while I’m planning my workshop days on ‘Writing Your Life’ and pondering my own next autobiographical adventure.
I mentioned in my last post that there will be reviews in awfullybigreviews and The Book Analyst – well the first of these is already up, and here’s a taster.
‘Jenny writes in such an easy, friendly and re-assuring style that it’s tempting, if you are a galumphing reader like me, to speed through the pages. I’d advise reading this book with a pencil in hand, underlining sentences that resonate, and suggestions that require deeper pondering…’ Read more
I’m very happy with that! And the Book Analyst has tweeted that she found the book ‘very informative and useful’ so I’m looking forward to reading her full review too.
This book, coming out almost exactly a year after Writing in the House of Dreams, has been an absolute labour of love, one of those books you simply have to write even though you know you may never even earn back your investment.
I feel happy and privileged just to have been able to do it. Time to crack open the bubbly, I’d say!