Tag Archives: writing advice

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!

Seed packets from Writers’ Greenhouse

My writing group, Writing at Rosy’s, met last Wednesday. After a discussion about how walking isn’t as good exercise as you think it is, we managed to move to a proper table and start on the task at hand. Which was to examine the Premise versus Plot seed packets we’d been sent by Writers’ Greenhouse.

The seed packets are a series of writing tools you can buy (very reasonably) to help certain technical aspects of your work. They are divided into exercises which you can do individually or in a group, though they are specifically designed to work in a group. I did the individual exercises last month on a train journey and thought they were good but I was certain they would benefit from a group discussion. And I was right.

The Premise vs Plot packet lets you ‘explore what makes novels great and the difference between premise and plot.’ Somehow Megan at Writers’ Greenhouse had managed to put her finger on one of main worries with my current writing and sent me a seed packet that promised to help.

We started by looking at what made certain novels great, and discussed our own favourites. I’d worked out that I liked characters and setting most in my favourite books – and that plot was of less consequence (except, of course, when I’m reading a crime novel.) For others among us, their preference was plot based. We all rated characters. The trick for me was then to work out how to convey a strong changing character in a novel that, for many, has little plot. I vowed to go home and painstakingly write out what happened in each chapter of the books I was looking at (Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido and Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo) which is essentially just another excuse to read them again…

This was important to me because I was feeling increasingly hamstrung by the book I’m writing, certain that I’d got a great idea and very little action. I’ve mapped out much of the book already – though scenes keep getting added as I think of them – and I wasn’t sure if I’d got enough, if enough happened, to make it a book and not just a good idea that needed some fleshing out. The premise v plot exercises were enough to spark conversation and debate. We all shared our current work – the ideas behind it, a bit more about how we developed these and what was next. It was also suggested to me that I was over thinking it all, which is certainly possible.

Once in a while, all you need as a writer is to sit down among people who understand that you’re spending a lot of time in your head with people who don’t exist. And that your self-doubt a consequence of all your internal wranglings. This chat was helpful and positive and inspiring and doubt banishing and more. What it also means is that I’ll soon find something else to get hung up on, but for now, I’m re-reading some old friends and working out why I love them. And I’m running back to my characters who are sitting patiently on Scrivener waiting for me to get past this.

The Seed Packets are available from Writers’ Greenhouse and cover a whole range of topics and areas for development. They have a simple but professional design and are easy to use. I reckon I’ll be grabbing a few more before this novel’s done.

Diary entry: a rainy Monday morning

The bus is late and the heavens, not content with soaking us for the last three days, have yet more rain to offer. I don’t usually work Mondays but I have non-negotiable training today and a trip to Birmingham awaits. When it turns up, the damp bodies and gloomy atmosphere make the crowding seem worse. I head upstairs, inadvertently step on someone’s foot (he apologises, as do I) and stand staring at a man who reluctantly moves his bag from the seat so I can sit down.

I left them behind at home, safe and dry in the warmth and light. As we pull away I am engulfed by a feeling of longing for them both. I wonder how mad he would think I was if I called him up, 10 minutes after I left the house, to tell him I missed them?

I walk fast to the railway station, marvelling at the number of women who thought it was sensible to wear ballet pumps or canvas shoes this morning. A generation with trench foot. Or perhaps they have webbed feet and don’t notice.

The train is blessedly not crowded. We scatter, one person per table, per duo of seats, and enjoy a feeling of relief that we’ve made it on time and can now relax for 90 minutes. But our reveries are interrupted by tinny music from a phone, no earphones. I look up, British to the core, glare my annoyance and go back to my reading. I look up again, a woman is also looking. She gets up and walks down the carriage.

She starts politely: “is that your phone ringing?”

“It’s music,” he says.

“Do you have headphones?” She continues.

“Why?”

“Well, it’s annoying.”

“What?” She suddenly looks very alone standing there and I am conscious that she is wearing a headscarf. For some reason I get nervous that something is about to kick off. I rise above my usual timidity and pop my head up.

“It is a distraction,” I say.

“Oh right,” he replies and turns the phone off. She sits down and I turn to smile at her and offer my thanks.

The view from the window does nothing to alleviate my feelings of separation from my girl. We pass a farm with a large flock of geese, grazing on the lawn. She’d love to see them. A woman leads a horse out to a paddock and birds fly overhead, forming a net rippling across the clouds.

 

Writing advice often mentions keeping a diary. This will be an occasional entry on this blog.