These resources are designed for staff interested in sharing their experiences of the pandemic and lockdown, or who just want to have a go at writing something new. However, they’re open to anyone, as is the WIHEA Wellbeing group, who has invited me to share my practice with you.
There are three resources designed to encourage you to start journaling and three prompts to help you start writing something you might develop for sharing with others. You can use these in your own time, or you can come to one of the initial meetings, join a writing circle for the month, and respond to one of the prompts during the session.
In the first half of June we are hosting initial 90-minute meetings, to set up writing circles and get everyone writing. You only need to attend one of these, so we’ve arranged them at different times and days of the week to try and accommodate different schedules and needs. If you can’t make any of these please let us know and we’ll see what we can do.
There’ll be a follow up 2hr session toward the end of June, to support you with refining your work and create peer reviewing exchanges. And finally, I will offer a limited number of one-to-one feedback sessions with those who want them, to help you finalise your work for sharing with the community.
This video introduces you to my approach to keeping and using notebooks for my journaling. You may want to combine this with the other two resources in this section, finding one notebook for your morning pages, and one for attentive descriptions. If you already have a diary and write in it regularly, then this may all be obvious to you already, so do skip on to the other resources.
The main purpose, for me, of keeping journals, is like echolocation: I use them to sound out and orient myself against what I’m going through.
In the video I share some of my different notebooks and how I’ve dedicated them to different activities and contexts. Some are only for work, some are more personal and creative. Some are for specific projects, like learning a language, or writing on a specific theme. You may want an on the go notebook that fits in a pocket, for your lunchtime walks, or something that only sits at home.
One dynamic I apply to my notebooks is knowing which are completely private, and which I might share with others. It’s important to create spaces that are safe for your imagination and expression, recognising this may include things you don’t want anyone else to see, while other notebooks might include material you are willing to share with others.
A second point is to create a cataloguing system. I recommend adding the date, time and location to every entry, so, when you come back to read your entries, you’ll have a better sense of what was happening. If you have a journal with multiple strands, projects or otherwise in it, you may also want to colour-code or label the topics.
I mention bullet journalling, a tracking technique developed by Ryder Carroll, which might help
you to plan your journaling, but isn’t journaling. You might find it useful.
I also suggest finding a diary and writing implements you’re comfortable with and find functional. Once you have materials, my advice is to start with a regular daily practice and a maximum time limit (e.g. 30min). This will help you control how much time journaling takes out of your routine.
Also choose a time of day that suits you and your home and work patterns. You may want to test out different times, to see which feels least onerous: an early start before your morning routine begins (though this may clash with morning pages, if you decide that’s important to you); a lunch break; or an evening session before falling asleep.
I recommend you start by trying to write in your journal every day. Don’t worry if you’ve only one sentence (‘Nothing happened,’ for example) or if you skip a day here or there. It’s more about giving yourself permission to express yourself. Perhaps you can commit to a couple of weeks to begin with, or ten entries. This is time to think about yourself and process what you’re experiencing, and if you can’t muster the energy to do this,
Over time, you’ll develop your own way of using your private journal. If you find some interesting writing happening, you can extract those ideas and move them into another space, where you can develop them further.
My last suggestion is about the importance of not using a computer if you can help it. If it’s unavoidable, I recommend using a device that won’t limit your self-expression. Computers carry associations with work or downtime, and connections that destabilise privacy and security. If you can, use a device that’s disconnected from the internet, or store files off the cloud with a password. Also, when you start to write your journal on the device, try to put yourself in a physical location – a different room, perhaps – where you don’t usually use that device.
Some journaling prompts
If you’re completely new to journaling, here are some prompts to get you started with entries:
1. Make a list of specific situations: events, encounters or projects you’re working on, recent, or forthcoming. Choose one of these for a journaling session and focus on capturing just your feelings about that situation. As you write how you feel, allow the words to start capturing a little depth: where those feelings come from, what memories you associate with them. If you can, try to arrive at a kind of ‘why’: why do you feel that way about the situation?
2. Think about a person (or a pet, or a religious being) who is important to you, for any reason. Write about how they are significant to you, and the feelings you have when you think about them. Then, think about a recent encounter with that person and try to capture how you felt in that encounter. If you find yourself processing a very negative relationship, work through that. Then try to identify a second person with whom you have a more positive relationship to write about next – or vice versa.
3. If you’re struggling to find things to write about, focus on capturing your essential routines. How well did you sleep? How was your breakfast? Have you exercised and how did that go? Are you still washing your hands for 20 seconds, and wearing a mask? A diary can also be completely function: a place to keep track of your habits and suggest minor changes and improvements over time.
This second resource is from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. She has a video on her website that explains her perspective on morning pages also, which I recommend you watch. This is one of two tools she has developed for supporting creative expression.
In the video I cover some salient points about morning pages. First, I explain what they are: three A4/5 pages, written by hand in the morning, letting out your negative feelings and expression.
It’s important to do them in the morning, so that you can let go of that negativity for the rest of the day. The act of writing on paper serves as a kind of meditation, ritualising the practice.
Cameron writes about needing to overcome our internal critical voice, or Censor, as she calls it. This is the voice that tells us things are bad, or won’t be good enough, or that something isn’t worth doing, or that you’ll fail because you’re not good enough at the task. By getting all those statements out on paper in this ritual practice, you can symbolically let go of the negativity.
Doing this early morning, before you’ve fully woken up, chimes with something a few writers have told me about. Your internal critic is part of your rational brain, so it can help to write first drafts at at time of day when you’re not quite awake – early or late, when you’re still tired. It’s a way of getting ahead of your logical, critical thinking before you’re really awake.
It’s also important to focus on quantity over quality: 3 pages are symbolic enough to be substantial and to provide you with some satisfaction of having done something, no matter how bad. And you can give yourself permission to write without worrying about your spelling or grammar, how mature your writing is, or how interesting.
You can write any rubbish you like – she even says, if you can’t think of anything to write, just write that phrase over and over: ‘I can’t think of anything to write’. Think of it as a mobile meditation, where you are moving your hand across the page for a period of time.
The outcome from morning pages is to allow your ideas and expression to become more fluid, later in the day, when you are working on things where you need to express yourself. You don’t need to keep the output from this, as you’re only writing things you want to let go of.
Some people destroy their morning pages after writing them, as part of their ritual. If you do find an interesting idea emerging in your morning pages occasionally, feel free to transfer that idea to another notebook, so you can develop it further, recognising the different functions and modes for your journaling and writing.
In this video, I focus on a third way to develop your writing through a kind of journaling.
During the video, you’ll see me playing with some bamboo sticks and elastic bands, to make a quadrat. You can make your own out of other materials – even just a loop of string or wire. For my version of this practice, you don’t actually need a square.
The aim of this last technique is to get you outdoors, in the world, preferably a green space, to write a precise description of what you can see. As you describe the thing, try to keep in mind this aim: use language that captures that thing accurately so that, if someone else read your description they would be identify it should they look at it themself.
There are two ways to choose what to write about. You can choose something specific you want to write about, like an interesting tree or flower or patch of meadows. Or you can choose a random patch in an area you like. If you do this daily for a period of time, you may want to try both techniques.
I explain a way of using a quadrat by throwing it randomly (and carefully) into an area, and then writing about where it lands. I’ve done this around Warwick’s campus, including Tocil Meadow, and used it to write poetry and diary entries.
The spot you describe doesn’t have to precious, and there’s no pressure to describe it in a certain way. You can, if you wish, choose to describe it for a specific person if you want; or you can treat it more like a descriptive entry in a field guide that anyone could read.
I mention Mass Observation, a form of social research using volunteer writers who documented aspects of what was happening in Britain through diaries and questionnaires. A modern version of Mass Observation continues today, led by the University of Sussex.
The purpose of this technique is to put you in the present for a brief, focused period. One of the most important tools for writing (and other things!) is your attention. Typically, your day will be full of many things competing for your attention, both in the real world and in your head – a string of tasks, anxieties, thoughts. Being able to focus your attention on just one thing for a period of time can be very restorative and can develop your attention over time like any muscle.
In terms of time, I suggest you start small, with a five minute session. You can build up later to 10, then 15 minutes, as your focus and attention increase. Switch off any distractions for these periods – mobile phones, or other devices, to protect your focus.
Once you begin to focus on a patch of ground or a particular plant, you’ll find a lot of depth and texture emerges. Give yourself space to focus on small details as well as large. You can choose to come back repeatedly to the same patch, or choose a different patch each day. Once again, I recommend you try both, to see what works best for you.
At the end of a week, you’ll have a series of descriptions, which you can start to incorporate into other projects. Some writers find this useful if they have set stories in specific landscapes. They gather these word hoards, or kennings. One of my poetry mentors once used this word to describe a process of building stores of descriptive phrases for specific details that you could then deploy within poems.
I’ve converted quadrat descriptions into field-poems years after the initial observation, so it’s worth storing these in a notebook you can hold onto for much later. And, once you’ve developed a feel for it, you can apply this technique to urban or indoor spaces and compare the results, both for your wellbeing and your writing.