Tag Archives: wellbeing

Writing for Wellbeing: free writing

At work recently I’ve been running workshops about Reading and Writing for Wellbeing, an hour-long slot where we explore the concept of bibliotherapy in a basic sense to help you through your daily life. It’s been a while since I’ve done any training or development courses for anyone so it’s been a bit of a challenge for me, plus delivering them via MS Teams has been a further revelation. In short, if you’re sharing slides for people to look at, then you can’t see their faces so you have no idea how it’s going down with them. Plus, they were all very quiet. It’s a little unnerving, however they all assured me that they enjoyed the sessions.

The thing that has gone down the best has been the free writing. For those if you not familiar with free writing, you write non stop for a certain period of time – I give them 5 minutes but you shouldn’t go longer than 20 minutes – and you don’t stop. If you have nothing you can think of, you write I can’t think what to write. You don’t worry about spelling, grammar or making sense. And more importantly, you write by hand. I think it’s this part that has been the most revelatory for staff at work. Having spent the best part of a year at home, most of us working on laptops for online meetings, instant messaging, emails and report writing, then writing by hand for a longer period of time than a shopping list has been quite a novelty.

I think those of us around my age have an interesting relationship with writing by hand. I wrote all my school essays by hand, spending time having to try and make my handwriting neat enough to read. Arriving at university, the requirement to type essays was a culture shock and to start with I had to write them out by hand and then go to the library and type them onto the computers there. The idea of writing my thoughts straight onto the page was a very strange one. Sometime in the second year this clicked and I just typed straight onto the page. Much of my writing these days is straight onto the laptop. I really admire writers who type their first drafts on their phones, as I’m just too Gen X to manage typing with both hands the way the kids do…

But there is a place for writing by hand. This past year, where I have felt so stuck, I did scribble a lot by hand. I bought E a pack of school exercise books with paperback covers for her home-schooling work and then ‘borrowed’ one and it really helped unlock words for me. The size of the paper, the neat margins, the lined pages, all contributed to me spilling things out on to the page. And I’ve always kept a journal going, sometimes less regularly than other times, but always there to help unlock thoughts.

There are many advocates of writing by hand, even in these digital days, and recognise the power it has in helping you express yourself. (I recently enjoyed one of the biggies, Julia Cameron, talking on Viv Groskop’s podcast.) The act of writing it all down, from the heart through to the fingers, slows you down, allows you to connect your mind with your pen. It makes writing a physical thing, a kinaesthetic process, which can allow you to explore thoughts in a different way to when all you are concerned about is how many little red lines appear under the words on your Word document.

The great thing for many of my workshop attendees was that their perception of journaling was challenged. So many people see journaling as a chance to write down what you’ve done that day, or a space to rant about how awful the news is, but in looking at this as a free writing exercise and opening up the world to them, there was a new element to it. Some wrote about memories, about places they wanted to go when the pandemic is over, others wrote more generally. Some have contacted me afterwards to tell me how they have continued the practice.

If you fancy having a go, here are the basic rules:

Set a timer. No longer than 20 minutes.

Write all that time, anything that comes into your head. If there’s nothing to start with then write that.

Do not go back and start to edit until after the time is up.

Do not worry about spelling, grammar or if it makes sense.

Enjoy the feel of the pen and how it flows across your page.

Let me know how you get on!

Finding focus

How are you doing? It’s March already and I don’t know about you but this year feels utterly odd. Not wasted exactly, but time has a very different meaning these days.

My daughter has gone back to school today. She had that one day in January in school, but otherwise has been at home with me since 18 December. I’m sure many of you are in the same situation. It hasn’t been easy, in fact this lockdown has felt much harder for reasons I’ve not entirely been able to put my finger on. I remember in lockdown 1 getting up earlier to do yoga before the day began. This time round I’ve stayed in bed. I’ve not left the house as much. I’ve yelled at people and freaked out more.

Somewhere in there I’ve clearly considered that enough is enough. I bought a book, Growing Gills by Jessica Abel, in December. It’s for people who want to be creative but feel they are drowning in their day to day life. It was simultaneously perfect to look at during lockdown and also dreadful to consider during lockdown. Abel starts by getting you to make a time tracker so you can see how you use your time. And then use it better. Of course, I began the time tracker and a day later had to include home schooling in the tasks I tried to do daily. It was atypical of my usual day, but was also a clue to why I felt like I was drowning in everyday life.

I have been very lucky in having an only child in the house and one who has been diligent in schoolwork, and who also enjoys drawing and reading. She has allowed me to work with some degree of normality. But it has still been very difficult and I feel I’ve gained years of experience as a child psychologist as a result of these last few months.

And I’ve been lucky in that my day job allows me to work from home and my team and bosses have an understanding of working and home schooling. It’s good to remind yourself that you are privileged in many ways, but that mindset doesn’t always help you feel better. It’s ok to admit you’re struggling. Just because others might have it worse doesn’t invalidate your experience. But we make ourselves feel that way anyway.

Creatively, I have struggled. I have written things, mainly journal notes, stream of consciousness type dialogue pieces, or a children’s story we started together at Christmas. Nothing sustained, everything in bits. I have completed craft projects, following other people’s instructions so I don’t have to think too much but keep my hands busy. I have made good items. And I’ve managed to read a lot. I’ve not managed to sit through many TV programmes but books have worked for me, I think because I’ve needed to have quiet backgrounds when I’ve read which has helped my general wellbeing. In general though, I felt I was floundering.

So I decided to follow Abel’s advice. I worked through the book. It comes with a workbook to help support the process. And mostly the advice is sensible stuff. Do one thing at a time. Write down all your projects and ideas and prioritise them. Tidy up and sort stuff out.

I know, I know. It doesn’t sound revolutionary, does it? But sometimes you need reminding of things. You need a structure. And as it’s likely that I will be working at home for some time to come, I need to feel like I have control. So I’ve cleared things out. I have begun to finish online courses I’d signed up for. I’ve sorted my notebooks and desk. I’ve dusted things. Today I will have a sustained period of time alone to actually focus on my day job. Which is good and terrifying all at the same time. Good, because I can make a better concentrated fist of it and complete things better – meaning I don’t have to worry about them so much the rest of the time. And terrifying because I can’t remember now how I do focus on things. Why do you think I took on all those projects in the first place? To have something else to flit between.

This week is my transition and adjustment week. I’m hoping once I’ve got back into the swing of concentration and focus, of interrupted time, that I can start to plan. Set myself proper targets, word counts or chapters or a sustained project. I have a fresh planner waiting and piles of washi tape to help make it something I want to look at and work to.

Today though, I shall just be starting out. I have confidence in my daughter’s school, that they can help provide her with the atmosphere and support she has needed, that they have her best interests at heart. It doesn’t mean I can stop worrying altogether, just that I can share the burden wider and with professionals. And I have a to do list for work, to help me focus and cross off tasks at my day job.

If you, like me, are alone today and have sent your child to school then I wish you well. They will be ok, with time and love. They will catch up. They will adjust. You will have to remember who you are now you are you again and not teacher, parent, counsellor, entertainer and playmate. It’s ok to enjoy the silence. And it’s ok to learn how to focus again, slowly.

Reading for Wellbeing: Comfort reads

I don’t know about you but this seems the perfect time for some comfort reads. I have a stack of old favourites that I re-read every so often for comfort and companionship but once in a while, it can be good to seek out new comforts too. Today I’m going to discuss two that you might consider.

Leonard and Hungry Paul – Ronan Hession

A quiet sleeper hit, this, and one that a lot of people found a comfort in the last year. Hardly anything happens in this book, it is not a book for plot lovers. What it does do is provide the reader with a gentle portrait of two ordinary, forgotten men who teach us to treasure the everyday. Leonard writes for encyclopedias, and Paul, who lives with his parents, is a part time postman. They like board games, and drinking tea, and quiet assumptions. They are unsung introverts.

You can imagine how much this introvert likes this. In a world where we are all encouraged to do more, be more, and how all our writing scenes must move the plot on, can there be anything more subversive that doing just the opposite?

What story there is, is based around the impending marriage of Paul’s sister, the recent death of Leonard’s mother, and a gentle romance for Leonard with someone from the office. But it is an engaging, kind book, and very much recommended. You can buy it directly from the independent publishers, Bluemoose Books.

The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery

Yes, it’s that LM Montgomery, the author most famous for Anne of Green Gables. Anne is, of course, on my re-reads for comfort reads, and has been a staunch friend since i was a child but The Blue Castle is one of Montgomery’s only books for adults. Anne fans might recall that throughout the series, there are a few sharp (some might say bitchy) comments about others, and though Montgomery keeps this appropriate throughout the Anne series, in a novel for grown ups she has indulged her wicked gossipy side a lot more. What a treat this book is.

Valancy Stirling is unmarried and nearly thirty, and the victim of a simply awful family who have never valued her, undermined and dismissed her from an early age. What a line up of grotesques they are, from her perpetually disappointed and offended mother, to her Uncle Benjamin who makes a constant series of jokes and who she is instructed to be nice to in case he leaves her some money, a whole load of ghastly cousins who nickname her, tell her she is nothing to look at and that she is going to die an old maid.

Valancy takes comfort in reading books by nature writer John Foster, and in dreaming that she lived in the blue castle, a perfect place where she is allowed to do what she wants. But Valancy also experiences heart pains and in secret one day she seeks out a doctor who tells her she has only a short time to live. Far from worrying her, this news enables Valancy to finally break out and live. Realising she is no longer scared of her relatives, she leaves home to work as a carer for an old friend and in doing so, discovers she is more and can do more than she was ever given credit for.

This is a delightful book. Valancy is sharp witted and funny, and her liberation is an inspiration to read. The supporting characters are all fun, from Roaring Abel, the drunken old sot father of Valancy’s friend Cecily to Barney Snaith, the local ne’er do well (or so it is rumoured). Despite all the wit, the essential heart that so enthralled Anne fans is still very much in evidence.