Category Archives: Journal Friday

Journal Friday: Taking Stock

I’ve been sitting in the garden today, enjoying the surreally mild February weather, and writing in my diary.  Taking stock.

This is the 8th week of 2014 and I have written virtually nothing apart from blog posts – and they have been rare enough.  I have been very ill, and getting over it has been a long struggle.  We are in the middle of a major life transformation as we care for elders who are coming to the ends of their lives, which requires a lot of travelling and worry.  This year has not been so much about ‘Dare’ so far, as about ‘Coping’.  And as usual, when things are difficult, creativity gets a back seat.

Now I’m feeling much better.  My brain is starting to work again.  I am still in ‘Bear Time’, though, contemplating how to navigate the coming choppy waters, and how this time of resting has helped me.  I want to take that lesson forward.  ‘Daring to rest’ seems appropriate.

I was working in my writer’s notebook yesterday.  Just jotting a few notes.  My poor notebook is getting battered.  Its been carried about in my handbag since September, when I was first trying to get back into keeping a proper writers notebook.  Its been sadly neglected lately, and as I scan the pages, I can see the entries are distinctly intermittent.  It turns out that keeping a notebook has been a really difficult habit to cultivate for me.  I think this is because:

  • I tend to keep ideas in my head (not a very effective way of recording them as they tend to drift into obscurity and get forgotten.
  • I tend to get caught up in the ‘thinking’ mode of trying to organise my ideas by keeping different notebooks for different projects, which means I never have the right notebook on me when I have an idea for that particular project.
  • I worry about the idea of having one notebook for everything, which is the obvious solution.  How will I find anything?  How can I combine my planner pages, my blog ideas and my writing ideas when tabbed sections just put me off?

My old notebook is pretty much full, now. That, at least, feels like an achievement.  Now, as I settle back into my writing groove, I need to get a new one and start using it.  A single notebook for all my ideas and projects.  I wrote long and hard about this in my journal, exploring every possibility, and the only way of dealing with it that I can see is precisely this:  to keep one notebook and to write everything in it, from writing exercises to jotting down quotes and sticking in cuttings.  To keep it by chronological not subject order.  It will be a record of my thoughts as they come to me.n  I’ll try to organise it as much as I can by using different colour pens for different areas of my life, but thats about it.

Now all I have to do it find the perfect notebook.  And that, as we stationery addicts know, is a lifetime’s search!

How do you organise your journals, your writers notebooks or sketchbooks?  Do you go by project or by time?  What format do you use?  Are you a Moleskine addict or a cheap exercise book fan?  Please share your ideas and tips with me in the comments section, I would love to hear from you.

Happy Journalling,

EF

Journal Friday: Lists

Your house and your life will be full of lists.  Most likely shopping lists, most infamously, To Do lists.  We all make them.  They are the most efficient way to remind your brain about the important, and the not-so-important things.

But did you know they can add an extra dimension to your journal practise?

We keep lists because they are an easy way to record a series of items, whether they are things we already possess, things we need to get (like shopping lists),things we need to do, or remember, or worry about, or understand.

Lists also allow us to create hierarchies within them.  You can order your list in terms of importance or urgency.  You can use each item as a heading, and include a sub-list beneath it.  Or you can just scribble items down in the order they come into your head – which is in itself a kind of order, though the meaning of that order may only be understood by you.  And yes, I do use mind maps too, but I don’t find them half so useful, because they don’t have the implied order that a list does.  You have to impose the order on them afterwards, which seems a waste of time to me – why not do it as you go along?

I like using lists in my diary to gather together thoughts that are floating about in my head which don’t really fit anywhere.  For instance, the other day, I made a list of all the items I wanted to buy which would need to be saved for:  new spectacles, a juicer, a steam floor cleaner, and other things.  Each of these items came from a separate train of thought:   ‘I can’t see to read these days, I need to get an eye test’;  ‘Maybe drinking green juice would help me feel better’;  ‘Its really muddy outside and we are trailing a lot of mud into the house, and I am fed up with mopping the floor all the time, maybe there is a quick alternative.’

None of these things really go together.  Normally, I would put them under headings like ‘Health care’, ‘Diet’ and ‘Housecleaning’.  But I don’t have a place to record any of these ideas (I confess – mea maxima culpa – I don’t keep a Home Management binder or a GTD planner, shame on me!)  They are all good ideas, but if I don’t write them down, they will get forgotten, and I will no doubt then waste valuable mental energy thinking them up again, or coming up with new solutions.  Now I have a list recorded, I can forget about it until I need it.

Something else I have been doing for years is using lists to help with emotional challenges.  I frequently get myself into a state of profound anxiety by worrying about half a dozen things at once.  Or sometimes more!  Usually, when I get like this, I find myself struck down with a migraine, so its something I prefer to avoid, if I can.  Out comes the diary, then, and away I go, writing down a list of all the things I am worried about, and why.  I may end up with pages of bullet points.  Then I revue them.  Usually I can see a pattern emerging, and I can work out that there are one or two core issues coming up that the sheer volume of worries are masking.  Once I have identified what is really wrong, I can make a list of things I can do about the problem – because taking action of some kind, however small, always makes me feel better.

When I am feeling completely overwhelmed by everything I feel I have to do, I take the time to make a list of everything.  Then I can identify the SHOULDS I am imposing on myself can rule them out, because they are usually neither Urgent nor Important* in the grand scheme of things.  Also, writing all the things I have to get through somehow makes the mountain less intimidating.  Life seems more manageable when you can get it down on a sheet of paper.

(*Knowing the difference between Urgent and Important is crucial when you have limited resources.  Urgent is something that has to be done NOW.  Important is something which needs to be done as a matter of priority for your future wellbeing/happiness/security etc.  For example, Urgent could be putting the laundry in the machine because you won’t have any clean knickers tomorrow if you don’t.  Important is getting your tax return in to avoid late filing fines.  Of course, tax returns could also be Urgent, if you are within a few hours of the deadline, and the laundry might be Important if tomorrow is also the day when you have an interview for a potentially life-changing new job!  But you can see the difference.  Urgent changes your immediate future, whereas Important is more long term.  Which is why a list helps you to identify which is which!)

I also really like using lists to explore an idea.  I give myself time to visualise the concept in my mind, for example, that of Bear energy, which I was talking about the other day.  Then I do a word association around that idea, writing down all the words and feelings and thoughts that pop into my head in a list which depicts what that idea means to me.  I can then use that list as a starting point for exploring deeper meanings and related areas.

I mainly use lists to dump everything out of my brain because I invariably have a cranium so full of stuff that something has to be offloaded or I will go mad.  Quick, thumbnail sketches of stories, plans, thoughts, worries, household jobs, recipes, things to tell my husband when he gets home, and food items we have just run out of, all end up on lists in my journal.  It has only been through writing this post that I have begun to realise how addicted to lists I actually am!

The other thing about lists is that they are easily accessible when you read them back.  Even a series of one word items can remind you of a whole Mind Palace of thoughts.  And once these thoughts are outside your head, you can use your brain to come up with lots of lovely new ones!  What liberation!

Tips for Keeping Lists:

  • Make sure you label your list especially if it is connected with a word association or particular project.
  • I often scribble lists on loose sheets of paper that I find hanging around the house, and stick them into my diary later – this means I feel I can be as messy as I want with the list because I am not messing up my nice, neat diary page. (When the list is stuck in, I can decorate it and make it nice if I like.)
  • If you make several lists on several sheets, stick them in your journal together so they make sense on reading back.
  • Give yourself space when you make a list.  There will always be something else you want to add!

Journal Exercise:

You could use any of the techniques with lists that I have mentioned above, but you might like to try this one, from the field of Gestalt therapy.

This technique can help you access unconscious feelings that are causing your trouble.

Do you have an ache or pain that has been grumbling away recently?  A dogged headache that resists all medication, a sprained ankle, an aching hip?

Take out your journal and sit quietly, away from noise and distractions.  (Give yourself plenty of time for this.)

Focus your mind now on the part of your body that is troubling you, and really dive deep into experiencing the pain, ache, or discomfort, or whatever feeling is going on there.  Let the feeling fill you up.  Connect with it.

Now take out your pen and, continuing to focus on the feeling.  How would you describe the feeling?  Whatever word first pops into your head, no matter how unlikely it seems, write it down.  Now focus again and look for the next word.  And the next.  Keep going until your mind empties and no more words appear.

Now read back your list.  Are there any words that particularly jump out at you?  Any themes that seem apparent?  Some unlikely or seemingly unconnected words may turn out to be linked to things that are going on in your life, in friendships, your career or family.  They may remind you of emotional issues you have not confronted, or point to something in your life that feels unfinished, unfair or unsatisfying.

Now take some time to journal about the words that seem most meaningful to you.  Allow yourself to explore what comes up and see where it takes you.  You may find yourself planning a new adventure, resolving old conflicts, or seeing situations in a new light.  It can be very enlightening.

You may feel this exercise is a bit mumbo-jumbo, but I assure you, it’s a great way to access things going on in your head ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak, and it can explain a lot.  You may also find it difficult to start off with, but practise and you will find it easier over time.  You might even want to have a friend help you by writing down the words that come up as you concentrate on your own body.  And if you get a recurring pain in the same place, you can go back to your list and do the exercise again, and compare the two to see if something new comes up.  You may even find, as I frequently have, that the pain you focus on is significantly reduced or even disappears as a result of its ‘being heard’.  It’s is a great way to use lists, and I encourage you to have a go.

Happy list-making,

EF

Welcome to 2014!

Writer Friend asked me yesterday what my creative plans for the coming year were. (He means to finish the last draft of his novel to his agent’s satisfaction.  Good luck to him, I say.)

Me?  Well, I just stared at him with my lower jaw on my chest.

Plans?  Creativity?  Ideas?  Hell, even original thought?  I beg your pardon?

Let me explain:  Mother-in-law (henceforward referred to as Mother) lives with Aunt-in-law (henceforward referred to as Aunt).  Mother has dementia.  Aunt is profoundly disabled by arthritis.  Aunt is Mother’s carer.  Just before Christmas, Aunt fell on the stairs and was rushed to hospital with suspected broken neck. Cue care crisis.  Luckily, neck was not broken. Result, however, was several days in hospital for Aunt, meaning Mother had no carer.  Husband and I, and rest of family, rushed the three and a half hour drive to take over care.  Aunt comes out of hospital, still needing 24-hour care.

Its a mess.

The upshot of all this is that we spent Christmas nursing, so effectively Christmas didn’t happen.  For ten days, my brain was occupied thusly: 90% firefighting care/nursing issues, 10% ‘ohmygodhowarewegoingtogetthroughthis???????’

We made it home in time to spend an exhausted New Year’s Eve with dear friends, and to stare blankly at the telly for the Sherlock Series Three Episode One premier last night. (Don’t ask me for an opinion, I haven’t got one yet.  I’ll tell you when I get my brain back.)

I haven’t had an original thought to spare for myself for nearly a fortnight.

So the plans I had for writing a jolly, upbeat, ‘these are my creative plans for 2014’ post for you today are wrecked.  I don’t have any plans because I haven’t had time to think about them.  Of course, I will write one, eventually, when my brain is less bombed, and when I have recovered from the bone-deep exhaustion that only an ME sufferer faced with such an emergency can experience.

Why am I telling you all this?  (Apart from to apologise for not writing something you didn’t even know I was going to write?)

Because this is a real-life demonstration of the philosophy this blog was established to promote.

In a minute, I will put away my laptop and excavate my desk from under the heaps of clutter that accumulated there in the chaos before Christmas.  And then I will open my journal, and pick up my pen, and press the nib to the paper.

And then I will find my way back to myself.

Somewhere, buried under the rubble of the last two weeks, is my soul.  My mind.  My creativity.  And my pen will make a line, a track that will lead me back to my soul, my mind, my creativity.

This is why writing is important.  Whether we write a journal or a story, a play or a poem, that line of ink leads us home to ourselves, over and over again.  And if we follow that inky trail, we will never be lost, no matter how difficult and hopeless things seem.

Happy New Year,

With Best Wishes,

EF

Why I don’t set Goals anymore

I love deadlines.  I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

Douglas Adams

 Following on from my previous post about celebrating our creative achievements, I’d like to talk a bit about goals.

There is a lot of talk about setting goals and resolutions for the New Year around in the blogosphere at the moment.  I’m a sucker for all kinds of productivity systems, believe me.  I’ve got a cupboard full of Filofaxes, and I’ve read David Allen’s book ‘Getting Things Done’ more time than I can possibly count.  (I still don’t really understand it, though.  But that’s another story.)  Anything that requires a list, a planner, a diary, a system, I love it.

Except.

The thing about goals is that they are just another tyranny of the Scarcity culture, the trend in society that persuades us that we are not enough.

Meet your goals and you will be enough, they say.

Except.

What if they are not the right goals?  What if they are someone else’s goals that you are just pursuing because you feel you have to in order to please them?  What if life gets in the way and simply prevents you from completing them?

And.

Once you have achieved your goal, there is always, always another one.  One goal is never enough.  Because you are never enough.

What if you were enough?

What would you do if you couldn’t fail?

More importantly, what would you do if it didn’t matter if you failed?

The Catch-22 is this:  Our success-oriented culture tells us that we must have goals in order to be successful.  (For a very narrowly defined value of success, that is.)  If you don’t achieve your goals, you are a failure.  If you do achieve your goals, then you have to have more goals.  We are on a twenty-first century hamster wheel.

Let me illustrate:

Your goal is to write a novel.  How do you measure that goal?  Is it to write 50,000 words, as NaNoWriMo would have it?  Is it to complete a first draft?  Is it to get to a drafting stage where an agent accepts your work?  Is it to get it to the drafting stage where an editor is satisfied?  Or to publication?

And when you get there, what next?  Write another novel?  Does this one only count if it wins the Man Booker Prize?  Or if it tops the Amazon bestseller lists?  Or if you make your first million from it?

You see what I am getting at?  When do you say ‘when’?  When is it ‘enough’?  When does the goal, the To Do list, end?

Yes, goals motivate us.  They help us to get things done.  They help us build businesses and careers.  They help us expand our expertise, our creativity, our skills and range.  As creative people, goals help us to plot a course of where we want to go with our talents, what we want to explore.  And that is all good.

Except when it isn’t.

Intentions

The Douglas Adams quote at the top of this post says everything I feel about goals.  For me they are stressful, and because of my health, I need to eliminate all the stress from my life that I can.  That’s why I set intentions.

Intentions are gentler.  Intentions allow room to grow and explore.  They don’t stop me from achieving things.  They allow me to achieve far more, in fact, because they allow me space to find out more about my creativity than a narrow, specific goal might.  They also take account of the times when my health does not allow me to pursue timed objectives.  Intentions are better for my kind of creativity and my own personal challenges than goals.  And they take account of who I am as a whole being.  They allow me and my creativity to grow at a slower and more mindful pace.

If you are wondering what an intention might be, how about this illustration:  This year I decided on the Intention to make our home a calmer place filled with light and peaceful colours.  Now, I could make a whole To Do list based on this intention:

  • Paint bathroom white
  • Buy new living room rug
  • Sew new curtains and cushions
  • Declutter every room

And so on.  These might be classified as goals.  They might even be timed, with one goal set for every month of the year.

Instead, this Intention can evolve over the coming months.  Each of these items may indeed be included in the things I do to fulfil my Intention, but they are part of a wider, more fluid way of living that allows for evolution and expansion.  Intentions don’t stay still.  They move and change shape.  They allow me to go at my own pace, a pace that I can afford, both in terms of personal stress, time and finance.  If I decide an action doesn’t fit with my Intention, then I am at liberty not to do it.  And I know I am not going to wake up the morning after I have put up the new curtains and realise they are completely horrendous in the light at this time of year!

Perhaps the two things I like most about Intentions are that they are:

Not static

Slow.

Perhaps you might feel that Intentions are a luxury that you cannot afford in your time-pressured, stressful existence.  If you feel that way, I invite you to consider seriously how you are living.  If you are all rush-rush-rush, how are you ever going to have time to notice and experience your life as it passes?

Journal Exercise:

In the next few posts I am going to talk about the process of setting (particularly creative) intentions.  And it is a process, something that evolves and takes time.

In the meantime, take some time out with your journal to think about what goals mean for you.  Are you one of those people who always fails with their New Year resolutions?  Do you have goals, and if you do, do you achieve what you set out to do?  Do you consistently set them so high you can’t but fail to achieve them, or so low that you don’t value them because they take no effort to achieve?  How do you use goals to beat yourself up, to tell yourself that you are not good enough?  Where do you fail, fizzle out, fall off the waggon, and do you know why?

Alternatively, how do goals motivate you?  What have they helped you to achieve?  How do you feel when you complete a goal –are you proud of what you have done, excited about the next step, satisfied that you did what you set out to do, or disappointed because you don’t feel as if the result is quite what you expected or wanted?  Was it the right goal for you in the first place? (Indeed, whose goal was it?)

While doing this exercise, be kind to yourself.  Don’t judge.  Be gentle.  Treat yourself as if you were a dear friend whom you want to support to the utmost.  Be patient.  Don’t rush.  You are not seeking to punish yourself.  The goals have done that effectively enough already.  You are on the journey to find a new way of being.  A new way of sparking your creativity and enriching your life.

Happy Journaling,

EF

 

Journal Friday (or rather, Thursday): Samhain

treepumpkinHappy Halloween everybody!

This week, and today in particular, journalling seems to be a particularly apposite subject, which is why you are getting a Thursday post instead of a Friday one!

In ancient tradition, the festival of Samhain, or Halloween as we now call it, was not simply a Feast of the Dead.  There is so much more to it than that.

Our ancestors celebrated the last harvest festival at this time, the final moment before the real onset of winter in Northern Europe.  The main crop  harvests had been gathered in.  Now was the time to choose which of the beasts on the farm was likely to survive the winter, and which were too old or too sick to waste valuable fodder on.  Food had to be laid in for the coming cold months, for the next crops might not be ready until June or July at the earliest.  So the animals that had outlived their usefulness had to be slaughtered and salted for meat, and the perishable parts eaten quickly.

It was not just the animals that faced mortality at this time.  For the majority of human history, we have faced high mortality rates in winter, and even now, you are more likely to die in January than August (click here.)

As the weather deteriorated, and darkness closed in, people were forced inside to do more meditative tasks.  Winter is necessarily a more interior time, and this means both literally and metaphorically.  There is even an energy change – plants retract as greenery dies off, while the roots go dormant in the cold soil, recharging in preparation for the growth spurt of Spring.  Some animals hiberate, and for good reason.  It is no coincidence that there are many myths associated with this process, most notably that of Persephone’s sojourn in the Underworld.

We live in a 24/7 world adorned with electric light and heating, but if you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, you will understand how human biorhythms fluctuate over the seasons, despite our best efforts to pretend we are immune.  Most of us cannot afford to spend 6 months of the year in warmer climes, and if we could, it would not necessarily be good for us.  We need downtime too, just like the plants and animals from which we have evolved.

We need to withdraw into our interiors, our homes and our souls, to curl up beside a crackling fire under fluffy blankets, with hot drinks, to rest our bones.

The active, exterior period of the year is over.  Now we concentrate on the swift approach of Christmas, a time for family, and New Year, and time for assessing our lives and where we want to take them next.  Prior to the rush, it is good to set some time aside to contemplate our dark interiors, to work out what we really want, and perhaps, what we are most afraid of.  Some elements of our lives naturally die off, whilst others are hibernating, or are seeds lying in the ground awaiting the rush of Spring.

We usually choose New Year in January to make resolutions and start new habits, but for the Ancient Celts, Samhain was the new year, and they valued this time of contemplation and stillness.  The Scandanavian Viking cultures observed ‘Winter Finding’, also a period of contemplation.   Instead of letting your plans arise out of the post-Christmas exhaustion and a haze of overindulgence, October/November can offer more time and space to think.

Samhain Journal Exercises:

Make space to be alone.  Settle down in a warm room, light a candle, put on some soft music if you like, and have a glass of apple juice or red wine handy, along with your journal and favourite pen.  Rest and relax.  There is no pressure.  This is time for you.

Think over the past year.  What were your goals?  What were your successes?  Did you experiences failures or losses? Write about them – and what you have learnt from them.

Samhain is a time of natural wastage, of matter decomposing to feed future growth, a time of endings that feed beginnings.  What has died for you this year?  What relationships, habits, activities have fallen away?  Are there elements in your life that you would like to release?  Write about them.

If you have lost a loved one, take time to remember them in your journal, to write down your favourite memories.  If you had a difficult relationship with them, write about your ambivalent feelings.  People say it is wrong to speak ill of the dead, but it is far more damaging in my experience to deify them into saints that they were not.  Do not judge yourself as you write.  Lay your pain, your loss, your grief, on the page if you need to.

The apple is the fruit of Samhain.  Inside its tasty flesh are five seeds.  What seeds would you like to plant into the dark earth for the coming year?  Take time over this – it may take you the whole of ‘Winter Finding’, or the run-up to Christmas, to decide what new dreams you wish to plant.  Don’t rush it.  You are setting your intentions for coming months.  You may like to think about this post from Kelly Rae Roberts as inspiration.

Draw or collage pages to represent the past year, and what you hope for in the coming year.  Don’t worry about how good your pictures are – they are for your eyes only.  The point is to root images of your intention in your subconscious, which doesn’t care if you are Rembrandt or not!

Happy journalling,

EF

Journal Friday: Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks

jarman diariesIt’s been a very busy week, and I’ve been diving into all kinds of exciting new and inspirational activities, including the UEA Literary Festival.  I’ve also been submerged in the magical world of Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, edited by Stephen Farthing and Ed Webb-Ingall, and I want to share the inspiration I’ve found in them with you.

derek_jarmanIn case you have never heard of Derek Jarman, he was a fabulously talented artist, film-maker, designer, writer, gardener and Gay Rights activist whose career was tragically cut short by AIDS in 1994, aged 52.  He directed music videos for the Pet Shop Boys and designed the sets for Ken Russell’s landmark 1971 film, ‘The Devils’.  At his home in Dungeness, he created one of the most haunting modern gardens in Britain, one that I am deeply in love with.

I first became aware of Jarman when I saw his film, Caravaggio (1986), starring Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, and Tilda Swinton in her first film role.  Later, in 1991, I wept my way through his heart-breaking ‘Edward II’, an adaptation of Marlowe’s play that spoke of Jarman’s outrage at homophobia in Thatcherite Britain.  These are not easy and accessible films.  They are, however, fabulous to look at, and very moving.

When I came across this edition of the sketchbooks in the library the other day, quite by chance, I had no idea that Jarman was a committed visual diarist.  The sketchbooks themselves are large – family photo album sized – and each cover is decorated in black and gold, making a slightly varied but pleasing continuity.  Inside them, Jarman uses ephemera, calligraphy, drawing and painting, poetry, pages of film scripts, actors’ head shots from casting sessions, clippings from newspapers, reviews, photographs of friends and colleagues, bits of feathers and pressed flowers to document his life and each of his projects.  The sketchbooks contain his thoughts on everything from his garden (there is a carefully drawn planting plan), to his illness, to sex, history and death.

Jarman made a series of paintings, the ‘GBH’ series, of black on gold abstracts, inspired by Goya’s Black paintings, and a film called ‘Imagining October’, which arose from finding Sergei Eisenstein’s own copy of ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, the famous book on the Russian Revolition, and on which Eisenstein had based his ground-breaking film, ‘Battleship Potemkin’.  Jarman had been shocked to discover how much of the book had been redacted with blacked-out text by the Communist authorities.  Both of these concepts are reflected in the sketchbooks, where you can see Jarman working on the idea of black bars with gold writing, seen on the cover of the volume.  Jarman’s anger at the political situation for Gays in the UK shines through these blackened pages.

One of the things that particularly strikes me is the simplicity of the layouts he uses.  Even when he is writing pages of text, making notes or journalling, there is a sense of space.  Nothing is cramped.  He spreads out, not denying himself room to work, enjoying the clarity of white space around his words and images.  This is something I will definitely take away. My diaries always feel cramped.  I always feel that every inch of space must be used, because materials are scarce.  This denial of room to grow is cramping my creativity, something I need to break out of.

I want to draw inspiration from the sheer range of activities Jarman undertook, too.  For him, there is no line in his sketchbooks between diary, writer’s notebook, sketchbook, planner or scrapbook, anymore than there were boundaries between the creative areas he worked in.  Although he was primarily a film-maker, he was so many other things as well.  Jarman teaches me that I don’t just have to stick to writing.  I can follow where ever my Muse leads me.

There are no limits to what we can create, only the ones we impose on ourselves.

Things to try:

  • See if you can get hold of a copy of Jarman’s sketchbooks.  It isn’t cheap – £28 – so maybe you can order it from your library.  You may not like his style of modernist art, but you can appreciate how he puts every aspect of his life into these visual journals to make a record of his thinking.
  • Use your own sketchbook or diary as a kind of studio to record everything you do and think about a particular project.
  • Collect clips, postcards, photos, anything relevant to stick in – Jarman even stuck a ten pound note into his!
  • Luxuriate in space.  Allow each of your drawings, paragraphs, or collaged pieces to bask in a frame of white space, so that they can shine out, and be seen for what they are.  Don’t fall into my scarcity trap – there will always be more paper.
  • Decorate the covers of your sketchbooks or journals in a similar way, as Jarman did, each one slightly different, but using the same colours or materials.  Maybe you could do ‘series’ of notebooks, with matching covers, for different projects.  Don’t be precious about them, however.  Jarman once stuck a heavy bronze seal on the front of one of his books, but it was too heavy to carry and got in the way, so he ended up prizing it off.  The scarred gold cover is even more interesting as a result.

Happy journalling,

EF

Journal Friday: The Emotional Swingometer

go away bagThe Creative Life is a carnival ride.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Right now I am on the rollercoaster.

Thank goodness for my diary.  If it were not for that little Moleskine notebook, I would be a complete basketcase.  Actually, I’m probably still a complete basketcase, but I feel better about it, because I write it all down.

The days when I am completely sure I have squeezed every last drop of juice out of Johnlock.

They days when I can’t stop writing Johnlock.

The days when I have so many ideas for stories that I don’t know what to do with them all.

The days when my imagination is a barren wasteland.

The days when one comment has convinced me that my work is utter crap and I owe it to the world to never write again.

The days when a stroppy comment has filled me with so much anger and resentment and martyrdom that I am going to passive-aggressively hold the entire fandom to ransom by never publishing another Johnlock story again because frankly those bitches are all so ungrateful.  (as if they’d even notice.)

The days when that novel I am writing is the greatest thing ever written.

The days when that novel is so bad I am ashamed to even walk into the same room as my laptop.

The days when reviews flood in, and I am Queen of the World and Goddess of All Writing and my ego is the size of Jupiter.

The days when the reviews flood in, and they just aren’t praising me enough, they’ll never say enough good things about me because I am so bloody wonderful, which of course means that secretly I know without doubt that I am an absolute fraud and completely useless.

The days when the reviews flood in, and I am cowering under my desk in shame that anybody could think that story I wrote is readable.

The days when I am satisfied because I have written something that I think is good.  Good in the way that tapping on solid mahogany with your knuckles is good.  Something that is out of my own real, original voice.  Something that I am satisfied with.

The days when the fandom bores me to tears, or irritates the hell out of me, and so does my writing.

The days when I know my writing is completely stagnant, and I need to progress onto the next stage but I don’t know where to start.

And the days when I just sit down and write.

Before, or after I have written some fiction, I take a little time to reflect.  Sometimes I write in my journal to get my juices flowing, the way Morning Pages are supposed to.  Sometimes I write afterwards, to reflect on where I am going, on my emotional equilibrium (or lack of it).

Usually, when I have published a story, I watch the comments coming in, and try to write through my responses, the paranoid ones and the egotistical ones, the happy, the grateful and the furious.

My journal helps me keep my writing experience in perspective.  There isn’t a lot of perspective about our own creativity, lets face it.  We are all reared to be perfectionists, to rule ourselves out in the basis of not being Picasso, or to believe ourselves to be Dickens without needing to do the hard work.  It is so hard to be objective.

My journal helps me remember that the only life I am saving when I write is my own.  In the great scheme of things, this is not battlefield surgery.  Or, if it is, it is on my emotions alone.  That is why objectivity is important.

I need to remember that my writing is not about what other people think.  It’s about me.  At its very core, it is about healing my own wounds. 

Even if I never publish another word, I will still keep writing, partly because it’s a compulsion, and partly because it mends my soul.

That is why keeping a journal is crucial for every creative person, whether you are amateur or professional.  It reminds you of the WHY.

How do you use your journal in your creative process?

Happy journaling,

EF

Journal Friday: Wardrobe Planning

More dashBecause I’m ill, I am not able to work, and that means everything I do has to be on a budget – energy-wise and money-wise.  As a result, planning is my friend.  If I have thought about something beforehand, it makes everything so much quicker, easier, and less worrying.  That includes clothes.

I was looking at this fantastic dressing room today, and was shocked that anyone could have that many clothes.  If I did, I’d never get dressed at all because I wouldn’t have the energy to decide what to wear.  I have a small wardrobe, partly on purpose, because cutting down options means less to worry about, but also because of money.  I just can’t afford to spend lots.

Mostly I buy my clothes from my catalogue, on a monthly payment basis, and annually, with my birthday money.  Relatives are kind enough to donate to my clothing fund every year, and I plan very carefully what I am going to spend it on.  I make sure all my big purchases colour co-ordinate, and concentrate on one core colour and two accent colours.

Currently navy is my core, and bright red and bright (lime) green are my accents.  At the moment, though, I am feeling a pull towards charcoal grey, and since I bought a dark grey sweater in the sales a few years ago, I’ve been thinking I might go in that direction a little.  Plus it seems to bring out the colour of my eyes.  (It’s really hard to work out what colours I can wear these days, as I am growing out my coloured hair and letting the grey come through.  I didn’t think this measure, taken because I just can’t be fussed with home dyeing anymore, would make such a big difference to my complexion, but it does.)

grey croppedAnyway, the way my brain is, I can’t keep all this information in my head anymore, so I have started using my journal to plan my outfits.

I have an ulterior motive here too.  I haven’t been able to get past the creative block I have with my art, and I find that if I just do a scribble in my journal, it doesn’t have to perfect.  It is just a gesture drawing with a few colours to note down information in a graphic form, and it cons Nigel into thinking what I am doing is actually not painting at all!  Clever, eh?

black hat litUsing my journal in this way is a helpful planning tool.  It helps me to work out what extras I need in addition to what I already have, and to budget for them.  It also allows me to think through how I really want to look for a particular occasion, such as a wedding.  I am also finding it is changing the way I feel about my clothes.  I’m finally at the age when I can get away with wearing very classic styles, and you can see from my sketches that there is a distinctly ‘50s vibe going on.  I’ve always been in love with Dior’s 1947 New Look, and it looks like that is where I am going.  I’m intend to grow old elegantly as well as disgracefully!

How could you use your journal to plan your life or your look?

Happy journaling,

EF

Journal Friday: The Structuring Absence

elephantWhen I did my English degree, way back in the late ‘80s, Literary Theory was all the rage.  I don’t know if they even study it now, but it was the thing then.  Literary theory is the place where literary criticism, philosophy and linguistics meet.  Throw in a good handful of politics, sexual politics and psychology and you have a seething mass of academic pretentiousness that no one with a reasonable sense of humour should be subjected to.  Literary Theory goes in fashions like everything else, and the Next Big Thing then was Postmodernism, which leant heavily on Poststructuralism and the work of theorists like Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. We read Thomas Pynchon and Paul Auster and pretended to know what they were on about.  We were encouraged to use words like signifier (word), signified (meaning), and problematize (make something difficult).  I find it deeply satisfying that Roland Barthes’s death resulted from being run over by a milk float.  It couldn’t be more pedestrian (sorry for the pun), or ironic, could it?

Now why am I ranting on about all this pretentious bollocks when I should be talking about journaling?  Well, let me explain the one phrase that poststructuralism gave me which I still cherish today:

The Structuring or Signifying Absence

This is actually another way of saying ‘The Elephant in the Room’.  It is the thing that is never spoken of, yet which underlies and give shape to everything that happens around it.  It is the empty space which is significant, which speaks of something profound.

It is ‘that which is left unsaid.’

Take a very simple example.  In Daphne du Maurier’s novel ‘Rebecca’, the character of Rebecca de Winter and her untimely death are the signifying absence.  Rebecca structures the whole novel, and the behaviour of all the characters revolves around her, even to the extent that we never learn the heroine’s name, because Rebecca is more important in everyone’s mind, including her own.  Rebecca is a tangible presence, even though she no longer exists.

Actually, this isn’t strictly a good example because its too overt.  Take the Wooster novels of P G Wodehouse.  Set in the 1920’s and ‘30’s England, they almost never mention the Great Depression or the First or Second World Wars, and yet the fact that as readers we know that the ridiculous events are going on against this backdrop makes them all the more ludicrous.  Wodehouse does lampoon the figure of fascist leader Oswald Moseley at one point, but basically, his choice is to exclude politics.

The point of the structuring absence is this:  that what the writer chooses to exclude is just, if not more, significant than what is left in.

How does this relate to writing a diary?

I am thinking right now of gaps.  I have been keeping a journal for nearly 40 years now (ouch!), but there are plenty of gaps.  And I am sure those gaps say as much about my life as the parts where I was writing.  They usually happened for two reasons:

  1. I was having a brilliant time and was too busy living life to bother writing everything, or anything, down.  My honeymoon is a great example of this.  I was determined I was going to record every detail of our tour across the south of England, but when it came to it, I was having too much fun!  So all I have is the photos we took.  And I think that is very significant.
  2. I was in a state of such terrible depression that I was incapable of writing.  This is far more common.  There are several gaps of months in my diary during my early 20s, when I was struggling with clinical depression so profound that it threatened my life, and it was impossible for me to write at that time.  So I didn’t.

What we don’t write about in our diaries is just as significant as what we do.  Every diary entry is an act of self-censorship, whether we know it or not.  By choosing what we write about, even if the choice is unconscious, we are in fact editing, fashioning a narrative of our lives structured by our choices and the responses we have to our life events.  Just as Wodehouse chose, out of what I believe was sheer political naiveté, not to write about politics (to his great cost as it turned out), we may choose not to write about our cancer, our son coming out as gay, our struggles with debt, even though these are massive issues which shape our lives in profound ways.  We may even choose at times simply not to write at all.

When I don’t write in my diary, I am always aware that something is going on for me.  I may be in denial about some issue that is obsessing me, or I am too sick to write, which is an issue in itself.  Either way, the gaps between dates in my journal are a red flag.

But they are not a reason for self-flagellation.

When I was a kid, I thought that you had to write a diary every single day.  A lot of people believe this, but very few manage it, and most give up because of this misconception.  Don’t beat yourself up when you have non-writing periods.  Accept these empty spaces as significant, as structuring absences, and consider what they might mean for you.  Above all:

Write when you need to write.

Journal Exercise:

At the moment a big gap is developing between today’s date, and the last one I wrote in my journal.  I know why this is.  I am ill.  Staring into space or lying on the sofa watching Harry Potter yet again is about as profound as I can manage right now, and I’m okay with that.  I will go back to it when I am ready, and because I don’t make a big deal about it, I won’t be creating any blocks, so the gap will be much smaller than it would have been otherwise.

Are you creating a journal gap, a structuring absence, consciously or not?  Take some time to contemplate why this might be happening for you – you don’t have to write about it in your journal, just allow it some kind and accepting thought.  It may because you are hung up on ‘doing it right’.  It may be because there is a HUGE elephant in your life that you are simply not ready to address yet.  It may just be because you are present in your life, too busy or, what a delight, having too much fun!

Whatever is going on for you with this, make peace with it.  Be accepting of yourself.  You might even want to write something in your journal to that effect:

‘I am not writing much here at the moment and I’m okay with that.  I’ll get to it when I need to.’

You may not want to write in the ‘why’.  Perhaps that is better left until you are ready to write again.

And if you are writing regularly, and getting lots out of it, make sure you relax into it and don’t make it an OUGHT.

Happy journaling,

EF

Journal Friday: Reflecting on Creative Blocks

paintbox

So, if you read my last post, you will know that I am increasingly drawn towards drawing and painting at the moment.  This is my current creative season and I want to honour it.  So today, no doubt, you will be expecting me to deluge you with jpegs of the beautiful pictures I have been creating.

Yeah, Right.

Nigel has been hard at work again.  I have produced the sum total of zero drawings in the last two days.  Yesterday I couldn’t even bring myself to go into the study to get out my sketchbook and paints.  The blank page suddenly seems terrifying.  I can’t even doodle.  How the hell have I lost the ability to doodle, for Gods’ sakes?

Bit not good.

This, my friends, is where the journal really comes into play.  I sat down with my trusty moleskine and pen, and thought about my childhood memories of drawing.

I used to draw all the time.  It was what I was known for, amongst family and friends.  I was never without a piece of paper and a pencil.  I made little books and illustrated them.  I wrote stories and illustrated them.  I wrote stories about my favourite TV programmes, like ‘Blakes 7’ (remember that one?  I had a terrible crush on Paul Darrow) and drew the characters all the time.  (If only I had known about fanfiction and fanart then!)  I was obsessed at one point with the Tudor monarchs, and copied their opulent portraits and clothes with fibre tipped colouring pens.  Then I got into the Ancient Egyptians, and copied their sideways style of representation.  I even copied the drawings of E.H Shepherd in the beautiful edition of Kenneth Graham’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’, which my father gave me – it was his favourite book.  And I painstakingly illustrated all my school work (except the Maths, of course, because that was too serious, which was probably why I was never any good at it.)  In other words, I spent hours absorbed in transferring images from my head onto the page.

What happened?  Senior school art classes.  Hours of drawing still lives of pots and pans. Teachers who made us draw boring subjects, and never gave us any information about technique.  I’ve learn everything I have ever learnt about art and how to use paint from copying, which my art teachers said was the worst possible sin.

(But I am getting ahead of myself, I’m supposed to be thinking about my childhood drawing.)

As a kid, art was my obsession, but it requires materials, and they were in short supply.  For paper, my dad bought home gash computer paper from work, the perforated kind that comes in a concertina, with holes along the edges, and with about the same handling quality as IZAL toilet paper.  I was occasionally bought coloured felt-tipped pens but in the 1970s they were rubbish, and the black ones were invariably dried out before they were even used.  At least 25% of the pens in the pack didn’t work within about two days of having them, and you had to conserve those that did with fiendish vigilance.  There were occasional gifts of watercolour pan boxes, but they were very low pigment, and anyway, painting in your bedroom is frowned upon by most mothers because it is messy.  And there wasn’t anywhere else to paint.  What I am trying to say is that I grew up yearning for those huge bottles of poster colour paint that stood on the trolley in school.  The thought of being able to just splash paint about willy-nilly was ridiculous.  My parents wanted to encourage my artistic side, but they didn’t have the disposable income or the mindset to invest in good raw materials for it.

The result is that the scarcity of my childhood has bloomed into a scarcity paranoia in adulthood.  As soon as I was earning, I went out and bought decent art materials, but then I couldn’t make myself use them.  I have drawers and boxes full of sketchbooks, pastels, inks and paint tubes that have never been opened because I still have the mindset that they have to be conserved.  I can’t waste a thing.  To the point where I can’t use a thing.

None of this would I know and understand, were it not for exploring it in my journal.  And in my journal have come the little glimmers of a solution, a plan to tackle my stuckness with baby steps so minute that I can fool Nigel into thinking I’m not even putting pen to paper at all!  Slowly and gently, I will con myself into the belief that making a tiny drawing is safe.  And then I will con myself into making a bigger one.  Until one day I will fulfil my dream of illustrating my own novels, and making huge abstract expressionist canvases like Rothko and Pollock.  But not yet.  To begin with, I will throw out everything I learnt in art class, scrunch up my eyes and begin again, as a child.  It will be hard, but I can do it.  I did it with the writing, after all…

Journal Exercise:

Are you also struggling with a creative block?  Is there something you used to do, and would like to do again, but are afraid to?  Perhaps you are just stuck and you can’t get out of your own way.  You probably don’t even know why.

Get out your journal and take a few deep breaths.  Close your eyes and let yourself fall backwards through time. Feel yourself become a child, doing that thing you loved do and don’t do anymore, whatever it is.  Immerse yourself in that memory.  How did it feel?  What was so satisfying, enticing, transcendently joyful or just effortless about it?  How did splashing paint on paper, sewing a doll’s dress or dancing to the radio help you express yourself?  Connect with the fun, the pleasure, the satisfaction.

Now write about it.  Take time to write out all you can remember about doing that creative activity, and take the memory from as early an age as possible.

Now take another deep breath and continue to write, this time about when you stopped pursuing that activity.  What happened?  What age where you?  Was there criticism from parents or responsible adults?  Or was it competition with other children who you regarded as being better at the skill than you?  Perhaps you reached puberty and decided that form of creativity was childish and no longer for you?  Or you felt you couldn’t go any further with it because you couldn’t make a living at it?  Whatever the reason, explore your memories of it.  Be as thorough as you can.

Give yourself some time to sit with these memories, to contemplate them.  Decide what aspects are still stopping you.  Are you, like me, fearful that your work won’t be ‘GOOD ENOUGH’ (thanks, Nigel), or still carrying that fear that there isn’t paper to waste?  Will doing this activity make you vulnerable in some way?  (If so, you don’t have to show it to anybody, just keep it for yourself.)

(If some major trauma is involved, it is wise to seek professional help.  A therapist is invaluable, and those who specialise in expressive arts or Gestalt might be just what you need.  Don’t suffer flashbacks alone as a result of this exercise.  Self care should always be the first rule of creative expression.)

Think about ways to ease yourself through these issues.  Maybe taking a beginners or taster course, where everyone will be fumbling about at the same starter level, could encourage you that what you make doesn’t have to be perfect.  Perhaps an online course that you can follow in private, and at your own pace (Alisa Burke has some brilliant art and sewing courses.)  Or you could buy some kids art materials and use them with your own kids (or borrow someone else’s for an afternoon).  Watch how kids are completely free of judgement when they make art.  They are just having fun.  You can, too.  (Actually, I think I may have to borrow some children and do this myself!)

Trust that what comes up in writing your journal is from deep within, an inner wisdom that will guide you back to your creative centre.  Above all, be gentle with yourself as your formulate your action plan, and give yourself as much time as you need.  You don’t have to become Picasso or Nijinsky overnight.

Happy Creating,

EF