As always, we like to rush into things headlong, and this September, along with the opening of the studio shop and sending Caleb off to Kindergarten, we began running journaling workshops.
In our workshops, we’ve been writing – lots and lots. Lists, writing prompts, giving advice, telling stories, taping things in, sorting through words. It’s sometimes (often?) easier to write when you’ve got someone next to you also writing, but for those of you who can’t join us in person, or don’t have room in your schedule, I thought the blog might be a place where I can share some of the things we’re doing, and where else to begin except where to begin. Sometimes the most difficult part is finding where to begin, or getting that first line on the page, and so here are a few thoughts on that first step.
Past setting up a routine and a time of day and place to write, I find the best strategy for the actual writing part is to find a prompt or a topic or an exercise, and make a concerted effort to write without stopping for a period of time. Even if it’s just two minutes at first – and two minutes can sometimes seem like a long time – the key is to start writing and to keep going. Relieve yourself of the pressure of finding the “right things” or the beautiful words or the insightful thoughts that you need to write about by knowing that you’re simply just writing, and that you can’t pause to think about what is “worth” writing down next. Find a topic or a prompt and see where it takes you.
It takes some discipline, but set a timer and write until the timer ends (or the baby wakes up, or the phone rings). As your mental attention and tolerance for relatively intense focus expands, you can increase the timer from a few minutes to eight or ten or more.* Get an egg timer or use your microwave or set up your alarm clock. I try to avoid my phone out of principle, but I’m sure many of you have more self-control than I do.
One of the most important things is to continue to forge on in writing, even when you think the well is dry: you might be surprised by what comes up after the surface is broken. If you’re really stuck for what’s next, I think Lynda Barry, a writer, cartoonist and teacher, recommends drawing a spiral or writing the alphabet, just to keep your hand moving and to stop from breaking up your flow (something, I suppose, might be a little harder to do if you’re typing on a computer – another benefit to these writing with pen and paper, I suppose), but try your best to continue to dig in. While you may connect more with some topics, I think the practice of continuing to write even when you think a specific topic has run its course will often unearth something surprising, even as one tangent leads to another.
So what to write about? Here are a few general ways to start off, prompts that you can go back to again and again.
Write about your day. In particular, find and focus on a moment that was particularly interesting or vibrant or terrible or quiet or resonant. Set your timer and write about the sensory details of that moment – the sounds, the colours, the light, the chair you were sitting on, the items around your desk. Write about what just happened before, and what happened next; the thoughts that were running through your head; the people involved, the people in the room next to you, the people you were thinking about; write about what that moment meant for you in your day. Try to avoid skipping around from moment to moment, skimming the surface of each one, but go as deeply as possible into one as you can. (That being said, follow your tangents to your heart’s content!)
Write about a hobby you’re interested in. Write about why you got into it, and what you’re getting out of it; the tiny details about the types of yarn you have stashed away, or the different types of spices that add flavour, or your favourite fountain pen and what makes it write just so; what you would change; ways in which it permeates your life; describe the physical objects that you use; describe it as you would to a stranger; what you’re looking forward to like a completed item or a new skill; the people you’ve met; the time it gives you; the routines and rituals. Add meaning to what you’re interested in and what you spend time doing.
Write about habits you have or habits you want or habits you want to get rid of. Write about when it started; why it started; what times of day; triggers; why you continue on; what meaning or value it gives you; the costs and benefits; the people involved, the routines of your habit, the physical items you need or use.
Write about a walk around your neighbourhood. Write about the people you see; the buildings you’ve been in; the shops you patronize; the seasonal feelings and sensory details; the physical details like the trees and potholes and fences; the history of the neighbourhood; memories from the last time you sat in this cafe or bought cheese from this cheese monger. Better yet, sit outside on a bench, and write about all the things you see. Make up stories about the people you see.
You get the drift. The more you stretch your fingers, the more you’ll find things just come to you. You can pick a topic like your favourite bathroom or your dog and then just begin writing and see what comes up.
As I prepared for our first workshop, I was standing next to our printer, which also scans and makes copies, and as I pressed a book down to photocopy a page, seeing the light bar squeegee across the clear pane and then back again brought me right back to my days as a teacher, standing in a windowless copy room, counting sheets and coordinating the backs of pages. A comfortable, if nostalgic, feeling.
We’ve got one seat left in the four week journaling workshop that begins this Thursday (at 10 am) and goes on every Thursday. If you’ve missed out on it, we’re hoping to schedule another four week workshop sometime in November. You can also email email@example.com to be added to a email notification list.
We’ve also got some room left in our afternoon journaling workshops, one on this Sunday, September 30th, and one on Sunday, October 14th, both 2-5 pm.
In any case, wherever you are, I hope you are finding something interesting in your writing.
*I came across this article on skim reading, which discusses the lack of depth and comprehensive, especially in more difficult texts, that readers are now experiencing on much broader levels, with the advent of technology and instant access to all sorts of information on twitchy screens. Diminishing mental stamina and fortitude with writing could perhaps also be linked to this constant rapid fire changing of attention. The amount of effort it takes for me personally to stay focused for extended periods of time is sometimes terrifying, and it’s something I hope to be able to build up in Caleb and Naomi – the ability to sit and read slowly and thoroughly.