Category: Journal

Writing Yoga

One cold, grey day in February, when I couldn’t get warm in my own house, I walked into Yard Yoga and immediately started stripping off my layers. It felt so comfortable, welcoming and nurturing. I wanted to spend more time there, so I approached Sarah and Daphne about becoming their writer in residence at part of my MA in Creative Writing.

It was also partly a ruse to trick my body into exercising. If I turned exercise into a writing project, I told myself, I would stick with it. So far, it’s worked. After years at my desk spending hours reading and writing and ignoring my body, the strain I felt in my shoulders and neck was crying out for attention. I needed to do something, so alongside the writer in residence project, I signed up for Yard Yoga’s £30 for 30 days offer. Click here to read more.

Things I learn from my children – finishing creative projects

It’s Children in Need Day today and my nine-year-old daughter has gone all out with spots. As spotty as she can be – she found a spotty book to take in and made a spotty bookmark, she painted her face with multi-coloured spots and Sharpie’d spots onto her water bottle.

Whenever she’s inspired by a project, she gets excited and gets stuck in with all the details. Ideas start to form in her head and she has a grand vision that she’s not always able to execute. This is when she gets anxious and stressed that it’s not going to go as planned. But she always figures a way out, a middle ground that she’s happy with and starts working. Once she’s started, she’s away and more ideas come to her in the process.

I realised recently, when working on a university project with deadlines, that my creative projects have often stopped at the point when I realise what’s on the page is not what was in my head. Often it doesn’t match up to the perfection and brilliance of the ideas in my head. Watching my daughter, noticing how she works and that our patterns are similar has inspired me to keep going. Having a tangible deadline gives me a target to work with; I am coaxing myself into doing what I can in the time available. This way, I will hopefully end up with a creative writing project that’s finished. And that’s an achievement in itself.

Looking through a wardrobe of clothes

Clothes as inspiration for creative writing

My first writing project on the MA in Creative Writing that I’m studying for at Brighton University is a creative collaboration.

I chose to work with an old friend of mine, Sarah Bell, who is a fashion stylist in New Zealand working with vintage clothes. She is in the process of setting up a vintage online store and has started an Instagram feed called Spoilt Victorian Child.

We’re exchanging words and photographs on Instagram private message. It’s been so much fun to be on the receiving end of visual writing prompts chosen by someone else.

Writing can be a lonely business and to have someone send me photos that I can write in response to takes one decision away – what to write about. I thought that choosing an area that I have limited knowledge of – fashion – to write about would open up new lines of thinking for me but what has surprised me most is that old themes have emerged. I’ve just got a new framework through which to express them.

I read somewhere that writers are mistaken in thinking they can choose what they write, that somehow our stories already exist, and our job is to give them a voice. I like that idea. The idea of simply showing up at the page and writing what comes. And vintage clothes have so many possibilities, evoking memories and the stories of people who’ve worn them. Imagining what a character is wearing is a great place to start to get to know them.

As part of the collaboration process, I’m experimenting with form, mixing poetry and prose, from very short so that it can be sent on Instagram message, to longer so that I can make sure what I want to say is clearer and the story that has emerged is given suitable space.

From Sarah’s work, I’m also getting plenty of ideas for my next workshop in the bookshop as the theme is clothes!

journal-despair

Adding colour to my words

Words are my thing. Reading, writing, breathing them. I work with words all day for money, then I expect my brain to create something magic and new out of those 26 letters in the evening.

Lately, it’s not been happening easily. This summer, I gathered together everything I’ve ever written in one Scrivener project, and now I’ve got 400,000 words haunting me. Unfinished fragments of autobiography, stories, novels.

I’m ready to try new things to find the courage get those fragments shaped into forms ready to share with the world. Or perhaps start again from scratch.

One of the new things I decided to do was engage a completely different part of my brain and try visual journalling. Combining colour and imagery with words was something I became interested in when running a creative writing after school club for children. They do it so naturally and quickly became absorbed in my collaging and map drawing workshops.

Nearby, in a cosy barn filled with craft materials, mugs stacked high and the smell of freshly baked chocolate brownies, Jolene Payne runs a creative journaling group. I’ve been twice now.

It is not a comfortable feeling for me. Being there, surrounded by paint, bits of fabric, buttons and glue. I am drawn to the box of old books in the corner. I want to sit down on the comfy sofa and read Vita Sackville West’s letters to Virginia Woolf. But instead, I remember what I’m there for and tear out a page to use later.

We start with pictures of boats and Jolene asks us to think of a mood or atmosphere. I don’t want to say, in case my work doesn’t evoke the feeling in the end. She encourages us to commit, and I write the word despair on a piece of paper under peaceful, misty morning, ghostly.

Then, I paint the pages of my book with Gesso, to make the paper stronger and stop the paint soaking in. I can do this bit. Painting white over white. Lovely.

Next, I have to decide what to do with my picture of a boat and some paint. I look at my white pages some more, I dry them off, I make coffee, I eat brownies and look at what other people are doing.

I commit to colours as I squeeze acrylic paints onto a palette with as much despair as I can muster. Other people are messing up their pictures of boats, so I start to cut mine up. I realise I’m still quite neat though as I cut even rectangles.

Visual or creative journaling is all about layers, so I start to stick on bits of boat and paint over them with green, blue, mustard and mixtures of all three. Jolene is there to share techniques, guide and encourage every step of the way, whenever she notices me stopping.

Finally, Jolene suggests it’s time for me to add some words (yay!). I paint white clouds, draw wiggly lines on top and in-between them, I slowly and deliberately write the words that come.

They are words informed by the feelings on the page and it feels good to get them down. But they wouldn’t be the same on their own, without the process that took me there.

It is not an easy process for me; I have not yet reached the stage of being able to play without thinking. But it felt important, as if it really did unblock something as the first thing I wanted to do when I came home was write about it.

Why write with other people

In this guest post, Julie Corbin, author of five novels (four published, one due for release this summer), shares why she still attends writing workshops even though she’s an established, published author:

I attended my first writing workshop back in 2005. It lasted a weekend and took place in a hotel just outside Eastbourne that has inspiring sea views and a windy balcony to sit on. I remember feeling excited and surprised when I ended up with a completed short story to take home with me. When I read that story now, it comes across as self-conscious and a bit worthy but it still makes me smile because that story was a significant milestone for me. I faced the blank page, combined effort, trust, art, craft and imagination to create a piece of writing that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Characters move and talk. Something happens.

I signed up for another writing course and then another. By 2008 I had an agent and my first novel was published in 2009.

Did I stop going to writing workshops?

No.

Six years on and I’m still going to workshops. Last summer I spent a week at the Arvon centre in Yorkshire with fifteen other writers and two teachers. Some of the writers are poets, some are working on novels, some short stories. The teachers gave us prompts and we sat around a large table writing. Just writing. The only sounds were the scratching of pens across paper and the ticking of the clock. There was a writer to my left and a writer to my right. At the end of each prompt we could read out (if we felt so inclined), discuss techniques (where we had a mind) — but mostly, the week was about writing.

I try to see my life in fairly simple terms. There are a few ‘must dos’ and ‘definitely don’t dos’, and what I’m sure of is this: I like to feel creative and the creative outlet I’m most drawn to is writing.

Writing is mostly a solitary process, and there’s probably no getting away from that, but being alongside other writers in an environment that feels inclusive and supportive is a gift to yourself. Magic can happen — yes, really! Sometimes it does feel magical when you experience the freedom to write down whatever you want — anything at all — without fear or favour. No one need ever read it. Your English teacher isn’t peering over your shoulder, neither is your husband/wife, dad/mum. This is about you, for you, and whether you choose to share it or not is entirely up to you. But while you might not share what you’ve written, what you do share with the people either side of you is a willingness to turn up and give it a go.

For me it’s about combining energy and building intention. Often writers, myself included, talk about writing as a struggle. And it can be a struggle, not simply to get to grips with what we’re writing, but even more fundamentally to actually sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. We wrestle with time and guilt, (and, in my case, laziness) because there are lots of other important things we should be doing, aren’t there? (Box set, anyone?)

Why not seek out like-minded people who are setting out on a similar journey to you. Fellow travellers and companions who will cheer you on when you’re flagging and in time allow you to do the same for them.

So if at the back of your mind there is a small voice that draws your attention every now and then by saying, ‘I’d love to write,’ then listen to that voice and sign up for a workshop. You might just surprise yourself.

Find out more about writing workshops with HoneyLeaf Writing, and if you live in Sussex, come along to a workshop at East Grinstead Bookshop this spring.

Look out for Julie Corbin’s new novel, What Goes Around, this summer. Like her Facebook page to find out when.

One thing that helped make writing easier for me

I used to struggle with writing. I always loved reading. But finding my own words never came easily. I knew I wanted to write and I offered to write short pieces for the membership magazine of a charity I worked for, but I’d sit there in front of the screen, writing five words and deleting three.

One teacher at school told me I suffered from over-brevity. Another at university said my writing was pedestrian. Fancy words and long sentences just didn’t come naturally. It turns out that plain writing is one of my strengths as a copywriter. It turns out that my ability to get to the point and use as few words as possible is something that other people strive for in digital marketing writing.

I’m celebrating ten years of being a freelance writer and it’s not something I ever would have dreamed of becoming when I was younger, when writing was a struggle.

The one thing that helped make writing easier for me was simply to do more of it. And the way I allowed myself to do more of it was through freewriting.

It’s not a new concept. Peter Elbow wrote about it in his book Writing Without Teachers in 1973:

Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can’t think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write “I can’t think what to say, I can’t think what to say” as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop.

But it was new to me when I joined a creative writing class in 2002. I remember the wonder I felt when I did some freewriting and the teacher suggested we underline phrases that stood out to us. I went through and underlined a few words. Then she asked us to write those on a separate page and read them out. I had the beginnings of a poem staring up at me. It was amazing to pull a poem out of the rubble, rather than to start with the blank page waiting for the right words to form in my head before committing ink to them.

I soon found it was a technique many writers use and one that became popular with Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages.

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning.

*There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages*–
they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.

I do morning pages. Not every day. Not every morning. And not always three pages. But I let my thoughts spill onto paper as often as I can. It helps clear my head, it helps pave the way for creative thinking, it helps me focus.

Freewriting is the one thing that helped make writing easier for me and it’s the technique I’ll be using at HoneyLeaf Creative Writing Workshops this spring. Email HoneyLeaf Writing to find out more.

What to expect from a writing workshop

“I won’t be reading anything out and I don’t have time for homework,” I said on the phone to the creative writing tutor at the local adult education centre. Gently, she told me that most people enjoyed and wanted to do any homework she set, but at any rate it was voluntary. I asked for the centre’s refund policy, strong armed a friend into coming with me, and handed over my credit card details for a term’s fees. Two and a half years after that, I finally stopped going and set up my own group with writers I’d met at the class. Now, ten years later, I’m running workshops at the Bookshop in East Grinstead.

Creative writing workshops can take many different forms — learning a specific style or genre of writing, critiquing and encouraging each others’ work in progress, or just writing together in a group.

My HoneyLeaf workshops are going to involve writing in response to prompts and exercises with no feedback, comment or criticism. A bit of sharing what you’ve done, with no pressure.

  • We will write together from prompts and exercises that I bring along
  • You can write whatever comes to mind
  • I will invite you to share what you’ve written, but you won’t have to
  • There won’t be any feedback or criticism on what you choose to share
  • Everything that is shared will be treated as confidential
  • We will assume all work to be fiction unless you say it is autobiographical.

These principles are based on my experience of writing workshops with my original creative writing tutor and local writer, Andie Lewenstein, as well as Pat Schneider’s book Writing Alone and with Others and her work with Amherst Writers and Artists.

I have to say Andie was right — I loved the homework and was often bursting to read out what I’d written as I was surprised and pleased by what appeared on the page in the company of other people scribbling away together.

“Writing with others and listening to the writing of others can give you the courage to take greater risks, to tell more truth, to trust your own instinct. Writing with others can strengthen your nerve.” Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and With Others

Join me at the Bookshop in East Grinstead this spring and let’s write together. Email HoneyLeaf Writing if you’re interested.