Tag Archives: creative writing

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? 

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?

Have you read any great memoirs lately?

As I mentioned a few months ago in my blog post When was the last time you felt really happy? I’ve been reading a lot about the craft of writing autobiography lately, and when I posted about this on my fb author page someone recommended Joy Harjo’s wonderful memoir.

IMG_2180It’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.

Have you read any great memoirs lately?

 

When a Writer Isn’t Writing… it’s publication day!

Today is the official publication day for When a Writer Isn’t Writing: How to Beat Your Blocks, Be Published and Find Your Flow.

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!

A therapist for the non-writing writer

Writing. It’s amazing. It can help us to

  • 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 Writer focusing not 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.

In the spirit of the maven, I'm sharing the fab book I first found the word in
In the spirit of the maven, I’m sharing the fab book I first found the word in

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 Dreams had 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. 

In the dream, the people on the wall reminded me of 'ten green bottles'
In the dream, the people on the wall reminded me of ‘ten green bottles’ 

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 feel excited about looking at my dreams in a different way…’

The first time I offered my ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ workshop series I was slightly concerned that several of the people who signed up were therapists who had worked in an interpretative way with clients’ dreams in their professional life.

I wasn’t sure how they would feel about coming at dreams from a completely new angle, as pure imaginative substance, so you can imagine how relieved I was when, at the end of the first session, one of them told me, ‘I feel excited about looking at my dreams is a different way.’

The first 'house of dreams' picture I used on this blog, by course participant, Liz
The first ‘house of dreams’ picture I used on this blog, by course participant, Liz

Dreams can be an invaluable source of insight into waking life, but if you only focus on that you can miss the greater opportunity they offer, to enter and engage with the dreamworld on its own terms and experience it as a completely different kind of reality.

In order to do this, in workshops, we share dreams as simply things we have experienced, and don’t try to interpret them any more than we would try to interpret the events of waking life. It’s a discipline, because in Western culture we are so centred in the material life and our first instinct is to try to analyse and make sense of things. A train going into a tunnel? We know what that means!

It's just a tunnel!
It’s just a tunnel!

But what if it’s just a train going into a tunnel? Then the experience of dreaming is fundamentally changed. Dream-working in this way gradually expands the mind to inhabit wider realities, instead of just shedding light into some of the corners of this one.

When I’m mixing dreaming with writing in workshops, we begin by sharing a dream; we take material from the dream to spark a piece of creative writing, and then we share the writing. The dream-sharing and the writing-sharing feel exactly the same, as in neither case do we try to analyse any connection between the dreamer/writer’s personal life and the stories they bring.

There is a connection, of course. A writer shows the tones and colours of their own personality, experience and ways of being in the world in all their writing, but as with dreams, if we try to extrapolate more than that, we are likely to make mistakes based upon our own experiences and assumptions.

Writing and dreams are creative processes, and that’s both the value and the joy of them. They don’t literally tell our story; they don’t all refer to the narrow facts of our life. They can take us anywhere, if we are ready for the adventure.

Susan Price's 'Nennius' blog
Susan Price’s ‘Nennius’ blog

I was delighted to discover this review by Susan Price on her ‘Nennius’ blog recently, because she totally gets what I was trying to do in the book that relates to the workshops, Writing in the House of Dreams. Actually, she describes it better than I managed to myself and, with her permission, I’ve changed my amazon book description accordingly!

The mysterious geometry of writing

In Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande points out that it isn’t only themes and characters that emerge from the unconscious mind through writing. She says the unconscious is also ‘the home of form.’

So as well as trusting the flow of ideas if we open our mind by entering the ‘writer’s trance,’ we can also trust that the ideas will organise themselves into the shapes of books and stories.

I definitely find this in my own work.

When I’m writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I start with a sketchy plan and head off from Start in the general direction of Finish, wondering how on earth I’m going to get from one to the other, until suddenly I begin to see the shape of the whole thing in my head like a geometrical figure or a pattern of numbers.

At that point, I become fully engaged. I dash along like a mad thing, joining the dots to make the beautiful shape of the book I’m creating.

This means all my books have a sort of symmetry in the contents – the four Peony Pinkers, for example, all have 17 chapters. Why 17? I’ve no idea, only that that was the number they needed, and I knew each story was on the right track the moment I could see how it could make 17 chapters.

 

The Peony Pinkers - 4 times 17
The Peony Pinkers – four perfect 17s

Writing in the House of Dreams came out as four parts, each part having three chapters.

4 Parts, 3 chapters each in the House of Dreams
4 Parts, 3 chapters each in the House of Dreams

My brand new book, The Binding, has three parts and each one seven chapters.

The Binding - 3 parts, 7 chapters each
The Binding – 3 parts, 7 chapters each

This mysterious geometry is very marked in my own writing practice but not all books divide so obviously into a balance of parts, so it can’t be exactly the same for all writers.

Still I imagine there must come a time for everyone when something clarifies in the mind; you see the finished shape of the whole book, and the writing steps up a notch to engage with it.

If you are a writer, do you recognise what I’m talking about, or am I just weird?!