Writing By Hand

I was rather bemused to see a large stationery chain advocating the benefits of writing by hand. With actual pens and paper. There was a mention of an Australian survey which confirmed that people who wrote in this way for 15-20 minutes a day reported various benefits including a greater sense of well-being and life satisfaction. My inner cynic wondered if this was just another way to sell more stationery.

But perhaps that is because I already do what is advocated by the survey. For years I have kept a brief diary with a line or two about each day. Looking back, I’m not sure what started it. I think it may have been a way to record subtle changes and events, and it has come in handy when I’ve wanted to see how I reacted to something months or years after the event. These record of the passing of days have been on Filofax diaries, and I have years of these scored with pens of varying colour, the pages heavy with the moments of a life. In recent months I have added three things I’m grateful for to the end of each day.

The twenty minutes of handwriting happens in my A5 journals. These are usually hard backed books with enough pages to capture three months or so worth of daily morning pages. These pages capture in more detail what is going on in my life and the world in general, along with snippets of news and updates on people I care about. Frustrations and victories are afforded equal billing, and I always feel better for having spent the time to write, even on days when I think there is absolutely nothing in my mind worth recording.

Occasionally I flick back through these pages, and I am usually rewarded with something to smile or laugh about, or reminded of something that seemed to dominate my life at a particular point. Until the next obsession came along. And there are snatches of dreams and story ideas which can be teased into something more substantial.  It has become a habit, and it is rare for me to miss a morning session. Occasionally I write at the end of the day, but I prefer to start the day with the rhythm and routine of the words on the page.

And I still write some creative work by hand. My notebooks are full of scratchings and thoughts, and as I write much slower than I type there is a different level of focus or energy about these writing sessions.

Do you write by hand?

[Photo: writing notebook scratchings]

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Journal Jottings

One of the many benefits to keeping a journal, regardless of frequency, is the option to revisit times past and impressions as at a certain point in time. Not everything is recorded, of course, but there is a delight in coming across scribblings which capture a particular moment.

A few months back I travelled to Central Station in Sydney before heading off on the Indian Pacific to Adelaide. I arrived at Central early to book in luggage, and as I waited I wrote the following.

Central Station; Cafe Du Nord. Cafe with French vibe, jazz music, copies of French Impressionists on the wall.

Wizened little old lady on the way to Kyogle via Brisbane. Train passes through on way, around 3 am, too early to stop or get someone to collect her. So she travels through to Brisbane then doubles back.

She has been on the Indian Pacific from Broken Hill to Sydney; was tacked into a carriage which was latched onto the end to carry the overflow of passengers. She is planning to take the Ghan later this year as the only capital cities she’s missed visiting are Adelaide and Darwin. She spoke of her trip to Broken Hill with her husband before he left (she didn’t know he was going); they took advantage of fortnight travel holiday packages where you could travel anywhere in the state on the railway. They went to Broken Hill, down to Albury, swept back up the north coast. Accommodation was included in the package so it was an economical and enjoyable way to travel.

Surprised at the absence of shops and cafes at the station, just a couple downstairs in Eddy Avenue. In my memory the place was bristling with shops selling food, umbrellas, flowers, tours. The only constant is change.

Passing through the inner suburbs towards Central, glimpses of backyards, flashes of kingfisher blue pools, the houses have the rattle of the railway embedded into their fabric. The disarray and dishevelment of the railway workshops, once a thriving, bustling locus of activity.

The awkwardness of some travellers, the jostling of luggage, flying missiles of drink bottles, thumping against other people as they make their way with a singular focus.

The heady joy of eavesdropping. Railway staff speaking of station inspections and audits. I’d given no thought to it but of course there would be protocols around this. The easy ebb and flow of conversation between two older ladies, travelling together, comfortable in silences as well as idle crumbs of chatter. No juicy gossip here, just vignettes of thoughts, perceptions, observations.

It is the time of year for the tang of mandarins. Such a distinct fizz on the air as the skin is broken, carved up by a thumbnail.

Do you jot down thoughts as you travel?

[Photo: part of the magnificent old railway station at Temora, NSW]

We fall into old habits*

I like routines. I find comfort in habits and having things in their place. By creating structure I find I have more freedom and mindspace to think about other things.

Routines do need a bit of room for give and take as things inevitably happen. I’ve written before about morning pages, which are an enduring legacy for me from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Since January 2014 I have been writing three pages daily in A5 journals, emptying out my head, ranting when I need to, testing out ideas, plot points and thinking through work related challenges. I was surprised that I kept to it, even though I have kept a journal intermittently for years. There is now a growing collection of these journals, swollen with the ink of many pens, marching their way along the desk in my study.

The routine of writing these three pages, preferably in the morning, has saved my sanity at times. There are other days when sleep is too tempting, or I have an early start, or there is some other hurdle to sitting down and getting the words out. But if I do miss this morning session, I tend to feel less ready to deal with the day ahead. There are some days when, before sitting down, I can’t think of a single thing that would be worth writing. And yet, with the weight of a pen in my fingers, the flow begins. If I miss the morning, I usually write when I get home, knowing that I’ll feel better for spending 20 minutes doing it, and vowing that I’ll get up earlier to honour this time tomorrow.

I know that keeping this routine matters to me when I miss breakfast or coffee to get the words out before I face the work day. If I do a self-scan at some point in the day, I will recognise a restlessness if I’ve missed a part of my morning routine including daily pages, meditation or walking my dog. These activities provide structure, but all of them also give me time to think, to dawdle a bit if I need to, to look up and see something other than the challenges of work or chores or the endless to-do list that keeps spitting out tasks like a dot matrix printer in my mind.

Sometimes routine is turning up at the desk even though the well feels a little dry. Pick up a pen or poise fingers over the keyboard and see what comes out. It might be slow and sluggish at first, but by creating the framework for creativity the chance of having something to show for the admission price of turning up is greatly enhanced.

How important is a routine in your creative life?

* The opening line from ‘Laugh in their Faces‘ by The Whitlams.

[Photo: winter landscape near Cooerwull in Lithgow]

Writing Book Review: Still Life with Teapot by Brigid Lowry

I came across Still Life with Teapot by Brigid Lowry by chance. There was something about the byline: ‘on zen, writing and creativity’ that caught my interest. I downloaded the sample chapter and laughed and felt so comfortable with the writing style that I downloaded the book to travel along with me. Lowry is a New Zealand author who has been published in various genres and predominately in young adult fiction. She has taught writing extensively, lived in a Buddhist community for years and is a Zen practitioner. There is a link to more about her work here.

The book is divided into three sections: on zen and creativity, writing, and memoir. Each section offers a wealth of riches. The book has a conversational tone, an honesty and simplicity that resonated for me. Lowry is a journal keeper, and as my stash of books filled with words and thoughts continues to grow, I felt I was in good company. It was like reading a book written by a kindred spirit. Lowry writes of how truth, or our perception of it, isn’t always reliable:  ‘Our lives are not solid. They are stories that twist over time. Cobwebs, smoke, mirrors. Fictional accounts, not facts.’ 

I also loved how she collects random facts, amongst other things: ‘… I collect teacups, old postcards, neurotic friends, recipes, scarves and decent pens.’ These lists of facts were a delight, and Lowry paid homage to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, which in itself is an inspiration. I have a copy on my shelves and there is much to enjoy including lists of ‘nothing annoys me so much’ and ‘things that should be short’.  Lowry’s list of disappointing things: ‘Missing the train. Some haircuts. A phone that stops ringing just as you pick it up. Dry, tasteless mandarins.’

There is a depth to her writing, particularly in relation to zen as a way of life. This had echoes of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which is noted in the reading list. The depth required by zen is identified: ‘Zen, like art, calls us to attention. It asks us to slow down, to allow, to be still.’

The portrayal of a writing life is given with grace and humour, but also with the reality of frustrations, doubts and loneliness that can come with the act of creating in isolation. The section on writers festivals was entertaining and informative to see what it is like from the other side. The art of creativity is illuminated in a myriad of ways, including the gathering of material in books and journals which will ferment and, if alchemy occurs, take form in stories, poems and narratives. Above all there is a deep respect for the process itself.

Memoir is the final section of the book and it is moving and emotional, devastating and uplifting. Stories and the act of invention are seen as the ‘creative road to healing’.

For me there was much to enjoy in this book as a writer and a person interested in creative pursuits, as well as looking for a life with a deeper sense of meaning. It is a book that has stayed in my thoughts in recent weeks, and will be one of the books that I return to when I need solace, some grounding, or to revel in pleasurable writing.

Have you read any books lately that have inspired your creativity?

[Photo: sculpture honouring Lithgow Pottery as part of Lithgow History Avenue]