Many of us thought we'd get so much done during the COVID-19 lockdown.
We'd take care of those niggling projects around the place that we'd put off for years, finally landscape the garden, have a big clean out, catch up on those books we've wanted to read, clean the house from top to bottom ... write the books we've been thinking about forever ..
Well, we can't water-blast any more in Auckland because of the water restrictions; the libraries are mostly still closed (although some are opening now); and writing that book, well, don't feel badly if you only wrote a couple of pages or a few words, or just spent the time thinking about it. You're not alone.
I had hopes too that I would get stuck into the book I'm writing but you know what? All I managed during the four+-week lockdown of Level 4 was my daily isolation journal. I've kept up my own personal journal though ... but I have to bribe myself to sit down in the late afternoon with a shot of whisky.
Here we are in Level 2 with less restrictions but I still feel as if I'm in a creative slump. I cannot manage a single paragraph. I have learned over the years not to beat myself up if I cannot write. There's always a reason for the dimming or disappearance of the creative powers.
It's been an anxious, difficult time these last couple of months. My mind has been preoccupied with so many different things, like that first trip to the grocery store during the early weeks of Level 4, not knowing what to expect and thinking the virus might leap out from behind the apples and up my nose, or it'd hitch a ride home on a bag of nuts.
There have been financial worries too and when that happens, Creative Mind gets paralysed and cannot imagine or create anything and Manager Mind takes over as we search for money here there and everywhere, budget and ration, plan and scheme so we can stay afloat for another week. Ah the writing life! It's a delicious challenge (almost like a guilty secret) at the best of times and when an economic calamity befalls the country, one that is out of your control, it's a precarious situation.
The 'not knowing' what the future brings is disorienting because we usually have some control and choice over that. Feeling disempowered, having decisions made for you (ones that you may not like too much), being told what you can and cannot do, all piles up to challenge those plans to clean and scrub and hammer and nail and write.
But we are getting there. We have some time to go yet but we are making progress and that is cause for the no-more-than-ten people celebrations and behaving oneself in the bars whilst drinking beer. I haven't been out for beer yet. We're all a bit wary of this however I am working up to it because I need to fill up the well. Not with beer but with what a friend of mine calls 'input'.
I have to get out and see things, talk to people, take those cautious steps back into life's mainstream, experience the colour, hub-bub, the noise, and stir up the sluggish imagination.
Fill up the creative well.
I cannot say enough about personal writing at this time, sitting down and recording your experiences of the effect COVID-19 has had on your life.
Think back to when you first heard about this virus, how the reality began to dawn on the world that this thing was going to spread all over the show, and then came the day we knew would inevitably arrive.
The disease had arrived here.
Remember the panic buying at supermarkets, everybody all over the place, no flour and no toilet paper, the pleas from government to take it easy, there is plenty for everyone ...
I cannot remember anything comparable in my lifetime (I can say that now, being of a venerable age!) , although I do recall, parting the misty veils of time, a measles outbreak when I was at primary school. However, back then we did not have the protocols we have now, and so it was kind of a case of getting it and getting over it, rather like a 'herd immunity' situation, and indeed, everyone got it.
That was the time I was so sick I had measles on the soles of my feet and in my high-fever daze, saw Jesus standing beside my bed. But that's another story.
Like many others around the world, I kept an isolation journal during this strange COVID time and wrote daily about what life was like while we were 'locked away' here in New Zealand for five weeks. I haven't read back through those entries yet and probably won't for some time. Right now, I don't want to relive any of it because I am looking forward, not backward, with a fresh set of concerns and anticipations - and no shortage of anxieties too.
However, for me using my journals as resources for future writing is a tried and true technique that I can recommend. There will come a day when you'll want to remember this time in world history and the part you played in it. And if you write about it now while it is fresh, immediate, in your face, you'll have that raw material at your fingertips.
So do it. Get writing. There's no time like now to get started on a personal memoir or journal and if you need a kick start, I can give it to you in a take-no-prisoners 40 minute California-or-bust no-excuses online session for just $21. Please give it a go. Let's Zoom together.
Some of the most powerful memoirs are those written within the context of the 'big picture.'
By that I mean, a writer tells the story of a life lived within the context of history.
Many people have written memoirs about the world wars and their experiences fighting in these global conflicts, or as civilians trying to survive.
Others wrote about living through the Great Depression, the great stock market crash, or what it was like to exist within the walls of Auschwitz.
Such memoirs are often about loss: loss of freedom, loss of financial stability and a way of life, the loss of a limb or other body part, the loss of emotional, physical, or mental health due to witnessed or experienced trauma, the loss of loved ones. They are also about living through these losses: how did the writer do it? What steps did they take to get over the trauma or challenge?
What can I as a reader take away from this memoir?
We are now going through an historic event as the worldwide pandemic of Covid-19 sweeps through populations with devastating outcomes.
While there are common denominators, each of us is having a different experience, different thoughts, varying viewpoints. My story will not be the same as yours. We are all individuals. That is what will make your story unique. A crucial aspect of memoir is self awareness and self understanding, looking at how we, as individuals, respond to life and events around us.
To understand the loss we have to explore what life was like before Covid-19 entered centre stage. Sure, our lives were probably not perfect but what were our concerns, what were we doing, what was life like before 'the change' came, the catalyst (the virus) that turned our world upside down?
Set the stage, raise the curtain, let the action begin.
Right now we are living through it. The challenge is the virus. The loss is the suspension of freedoms, losing incomes and the way of life to which we are accustomed, and, heaven forbid, the loss of people we know and love.
There's no telling how long the virus will affect our lives but one thing's for sure. It's something we won't forget, and it is an experience that will change our lives in many ways.
If you want to get started with some writing and need some help, contact me, let's get online and talk it through. There's never been a better time.
I was writing in my journal yesterday afternoon and when I read back over what I'd written, the two words 'I hope ...' kept coming up.
There was, 'I hope we all get through this' and there was 'I hope my neighbours over the road will be OK' and then there was, 'I hope this ends soon.'
Plenty of hoping going on - and that's about all we can do during such times of uncertainty.
We do know plenty for sure: that New Zealand will progress to Level Four as we move to control the spread of the Covid-19 Coronavirus here.
This means we all stay home. We can go out to the supermarket to gather essential supplies, and of course seek medical help if we need it. We can go walking but not with other people unless they are two metres away from us. That'll be interesting. My friend across the street and I walk most days and I guess we'll have to shout at each other as we walk the beach. Matter of fact, a moment ago, I heard two women speaking loudly as they walked along - and there they were, separated by a good two metres. Well done ladies.
I didn't sleep well last night. There was some heavy rain but that wasn't the problem. I had dreams about people leaving and I dreamt about my Mom. She died in 2010 but still enters my dreams now and then. Last night, she was old and disabled, as she was about a year before she died, frail and small. I was holding her up and she seemed to sag in my arms, and I said, 'Are you going to faint?' I asked and she said, 'Yes, I'm going away.'
I know that such dreams are created by an anxious mind. I woke up with a feeling of such empty uncertainty.
I firmly believe that there are few things harder to cope with than uncertainty, the 'not knowing' what will happen, having to 'wait and see'. I experienced alot of that after my first diagnosis of breast cancer: waiting for treatment, waiting for results, not knowing at the time how those results would impact my life but knowing with a pit-of-the-stomach certainty that they would.
And that's kinda how it is now. We just don't know alot. We've seen what's happened overseas and we wonder if that will happen here and we are told that it could. We have to trust our country's leadership and most reckon Ms Ardern our PM is doing a good job.
So once again, I say, 'write about how you're feeling'. Keep a daily journal as we move through these strange and unsettling times. Write about how you are coping, what you are doing with the time you have at home, what new things you're exploring, and when you do speak with family and friends, write about how they are feeling, what they are saying.
And remember the hope thing. As humans we are hard-wired for it and this instinctive belief in hope won't let us down.
I don't know about you but all of the coronavirus news has made me more than a little anxious.
Makes me want to hide under a box.
It's something I've never had to deal with in my lifetime and despite all of the information flooding our way, we all have to make our own decisions and figure out how we'll navigate through the coming months.
As for Betsy-cat, she's worried about her supply of Fancy Feast cat food. Will the shops run out?
For us, it's all about toilet paper and bread. The early bird still seems able to catch the worm and people are getting up to the supermarket early to get what they need. Watching scenes of panic buying inspires feelings of anxiety too: will there be something for me when I need it? I was talking to a neighbour about the toilet paper crisis and he could remember the outdoor dunny of his childhood with the day's newspaper tacked up inside because they didn't have toilet paper. I suppose one could always use one's journal pages if need be.
During times of challenge, trial, worry, and stress, it can help to write about it. There's something about getting those worries down on paper that can make us feel better, lower the panic levels just a bit to where our blood pressure settles down and the stress headache dissipates.
All that aside, writing about this virus crisis and what it is doing to our world and the globe can be good for you; write down your fears, see them on paper. In the writing, you may figure out solutions to those things that worry you most.
I can help you get started with my 40-minute online journaling session. We'll talk about the benefits of journaling and how the daily practice can really help during this tough time. You can also look at my daily prompts - some of these might resonate with you and help get some writing started.
There is no way of knowing how long this virus will affect our daily lives. It's likely to be months. We have to settle in for the long-haul and decide on some plans of actions and strategies.
Let daily journaling be an effective plan of action to support your emotional health and well being.
I call my journal 'H' and I start each entry with, 'Dear H'.
What did H stand for? Well, it stood for Heironymus. I chose that name because I liked the paintings of Heironymus Bosch when I began journaling (I was 18 or so) . Eventually I got tired of writing that name all the time so I began with just 'Dear H.'
And I still do it. The first thing I usually tell H is what kind of weather we're having. That's often how you greet someone socially. You sit down and say, 'Goodness, this has been the driest summer we have ever had.' You compare notes about the temperature, the lack of rain and what that is doing to the garden, discuss the likelihood of rain, and then maybe do a rain dance or an invocation to the rain Gods to hurry up and make it pour.
Then I get onto the stuff I want to write about, what is bothering me, or what happened yesterday, or that morning - things I reckon my friend H might be able to help me sort out.
H is a great listener - and it's a he, by the way. He listens without judgment, he offers neither praise or criticism, empathy or understanding. He is just there, a constant presence, a daily solace, a source of comfort, just like an old friend, someone you can be yourself with: no pretense, no show of strength you don't possess at that time, no false hopes or bravado. You confide and let it all hang out.
For me, this 'expression without limits or reservations' is the greatest value of my journal H. It is probably the only place where I can be totally honest, can say whatever I want, and know it will go no further than the page unless I want it to.
And there were so many pages that didn't make it into either of my books because the entries were raw, personal, vulnerable, or ranting and raving, rude and aggressive, or just plain boring.
Sometimes I look back on my journals and think, 'Did I actually write that? Gosh that's good!' Or I'll read the words of my early-twenty-something self in disbelief because I cannot believe that person was me.
My friend H has been a lifelong companion. He has traveled the world with me, lived in lots of different places, been shifted here and there in boxes and crates and now resides in my upstairs loft in quiet comfort.
H is a friend I look forward to seeing every day and I make time for our visit together. Usually around 4pm we sit down with a gin, or a beer, or a cup of tea, and we have our chat, discuss the day, and nothing interrupts our time. The phone goes to answer machine, the cat is fed so she doesn't start shouting for dinner, and H and I have our 'quality time.'
(Would you like to start journaling? Come to my Introduction to Journaling Workshop on Saturday 28 March 2020)
This is a photo of my journals.
I show it in my workshops when we're talking about journaling as a regular, long-term practice. Some of the writers nod knowingly as they have similar piles of notebooks at their place. Others will say, 'Oh gosh. Is it worth my starting a journal now? I should have begun journaling years ago.'
First of all, 'should' is not a good word to use: in fact my counselor, Jane McPherson, who supported me during my breast cancer journey, and who features in my book Welcome to the Amazon Club, always told me, 'Should equals shit' which shocked me at the time (because I said 'should' a lot) but I now understand it to mean, among other things, 'you feel you ought to have a go at something but you probably won't.'
I am here to tell you that the practice of journaling is something you can take up any time. It doesn't matter if you are just coming to it at the age of 80, or you're 20 and plan to document your life. I started at the age of 17, at high school, and continued regular journaling right up to the present day with a few gaps here and there.
And I can honestly say, hand on heart, that being able to confide to my journal the anguish, anger, fear, sadness, and trauma of my breast cancer was one of the best therapies I had at the time. I could write exactly how I felt without fear of recrimination or criticism or judgment. If I was having a bad cancer day, my journal understood, whereas sometimes people around me didn't always get it, despite their best intentions and kindness.
My journal was my best friend, my confidante, someone I turned to at the times of deepest despair, or during the heights of hope and joy.
And of course you can always turn your journals into books. Many people do, and I did with both of my books Welcome to the Amazon Club and The Pink Party. Using your journals in this way creates compelling reading. One of the most common responses from readers of both books was, 'I couldn't put it down. I just had to know what was going to happen to Jane next.' Amazon Club in particular was a real 'page turner' because of its day to day, journal-style.
Even if you never turn your journals over to the public eye (and that in itself is a process requiring careful thought because one of the main values of a journal is it is so intensely private), keeping one is worth doing and it can be life-changing.
In my Introduction to Journaling workshop on Saturday 28 March 2020 we'll be looking at how the practice of regular journaling can enhance creativity, encourage self exploration and discovery, and - believe it or not - improve your health and well-being!
Now, ain't that sumthin'!
We've all heard that old maxim 'practice makes perfect'.
Maybe your Mum said that to you when at age 13 you were struggling with an out of tune violin, trying to learn the latest piece for the school orchestra and even though the squealing and shrieking of a bow without enough rosin was driving her to the brink of insanity, she still had the supportive motherly nature to reassure you that you'd get there in the end.
'Practice makes perfect!' she said, quietly closing your bedroom door and going to the far end of the garden to pull weeds.
So can we apply this maxim to our writing?
Yes of course. Write, write and write some more - and read, read, read some more. By reading the work of others we can learn a lot about style, voice, structure, character and all of those dynamic elements that make for a great story. By writing lots we can hone our skills.
This morning is the first of my life writing workshops - we're looking at the day we were born, our parents, what was going on in our family when we entered the world, and we'll be telling stories about ourselves up to about the age of 5 or 6.
I start off every workshop with some 3-minute exercises to 'warm up' the creative part of the brain - and as this wonderful quote from Natalie Goldberg states, 'No matter what, keep that hand moving.'
Believe me, I put the writers through their paces and this morning we'll be doing three or four of these snap exercises. Here's one for you:
'Tell me about an awkward moment you caused for your parents, a faux pas you committed with the innocence that is so particular to the very young.'
I will use a story from my own life as en example. From a very young age my Mom took me to church with her on Sunday mornings. On this particular day I would have been about 6 and, as usual, Mom took me with her to the communion rail so she could take the sacrament and I could receive a blessing. Of course the occasion of communion is a solemn one, nobody says much apart from the priest who speaks softly, and so my little voice had a resounding resonance of high-pitched wonder that reverberated throughout the church when, watching Mom drink from the silver chalice, I said, 'Mom, is that booze?'
Practicing your writing with these short three-minute life-writing exercises can be a good way to build up some discipline and habit. It only takes three minutes, five, or ten maybe, and you'd be amazed at how the writing builds up over time.
I'll provide more '3-minuters' for you in upcoming Blogs so stay tuned! And if you'd like to join us next Saturday 22 February for the life writing workshop and be put through your writing paces, please book in today!
Writing about the day you were born can be tricky because we have to rely on the stories - and truth - of others.
Unless, that is, you've had some kind of regression therapy that has taken you back to the magic moment you emerged into the world.
In my first life writing workshop on 15 February, we'll be looking at the day of our birth, the stories handed down by family about that auspicious occasion, what was going on just before, or after, and what might have been happening in the family during the weeks preceding our debut to the world.
There's no doubt that in the telling, a bit like Chinese whispers, facts are embellished, or neglected and forgotten - but dig deep enough and you'll uncover some interesting truths. For example, a friend of mine found out, as an adult, that on the day she was born, contrary to what she'd always been told, her Dad had not been at her Mum's bedside as she gave birth. Instead he was down at the pub, drinking beer and watching football. The tale he'd always told, about witnessing his daughter's birth with such overwhelming emotion, was completely false and he'd been so drunk after an afternoon of beer that his mates brought him home laid out over the back of a pushbike. Why had my friend's Mum never revealed the truth?
The story I've always heard about the hours before my birth was this: Mom and Dad were living in Seattle, Washington USA and it was high summer in July. They'd been to a picnic with friends, returned home and Mom got stomach pains. She thought it was due to some watermelon she'd had at the party when in fact, it was me. I was born without a single strand of hair on my head.
Smooth as a watermelon skin.
In my workshop we'll be looking at our parents too - what are their stories?
My Mom was adopted, and never knew her birth parents. Her brother, my uncle Bob, was adopted too and decided to investigate his heritage. He offered to research Mom's as well but she declined, saying her adoptive parents had been so wonderful she had no desire to learn of others.
We'll also look at our names: why did our parents choose these particular ones for us? My siblings and I are all named after ancient ancestors on Mom's side: old sea captains and local folk who lived in Mom's hometown of Fernandina Beach, Florida. The family saga is a fascinating one, imbued with delightful southern humour and no small dose of engaging history.
So join me on Saturday 15 February as we delve into some of those stories of the day we came into the world, tales of family and maybe a few skeletons to rattle in the cupboards, writing about truths that are indeed, stranger than fiction.
What are your writing goals for the new year?
Finish the romance novel languishing in the bottom drawer ... tackle the blank pages of the gorgeously bound journal you bought last year and have been waiting for just the right moment to fill ... start pounding the keys for a thriller or supernatural horror story...
Whatever it may be, the advice is simple: get writing.
Is it that easy?
Sure it is - and with the renewed energy and enthusiasm that infuses us at the start of a new year (and in this case, a new decade), starting may be easier than ever.
If you're wanting to do some life writing, join me for my life writing series in February - three Saturdays in a row of inspiring and motivating workshops with a small number of other writers (up to six) that will get you thinking about, and writing, those important life stories.
If you're needing some help to get started on an idea or project, then I can offer you my 25/45 special, with 45 minutes of conversation for just $25. We'll talk about your project and think of some ways to get that writing under way.
Summer weather and holidays offer time out to ponder, look up and look down, relax and recharge, so be sure to keep your notebook handy and jot down those thoughts and ideas as they filter through the sunshine, warm gentle breeze, and sounds of waves on the sand. Best to capture them at the time, because they might only knock once or twice, and then they'll pass you by, heading off to find someone else who will listen ...
Connect with other writers over long leisurely lunches, cafe coffees, BBQs in the garden. Spend time talking, bouncing ideas around, comparing process, what works and what doesn't. You can't beat the supportive camaraderie of other writers hanging out together.
Establish a good writing routine now and stick to it. I work best in the mornings and find it's helpful to renew my writing routines each year during the warmer summer months when the sun rises early, so when winter comes with its dark mornings, I'm already in the habit of getting up and at it.
Most of all, find that joy in writing, the excitement that comes with creating and sharing. Sure, it's hard work, and sometimes it feels like little more than that, but the rewards are great. When you're creating, you're doing what you love - and what can be better than that?
Go for it. It's a new year and a new chapter.