The Quiet Words: Week 3
Exploring a purposeful sense of creativity
Journaling like a writer
Journaling is such a deliciously private way to reflect on your life. It’s pouring out your thoughts, secrets, hopes and dreams. It’s remembering good days and bad. I love spending time with my journal. It’s the pause I need. When I spend even just a short period of time journaling, I’m rewarded with sparkling clarity and a renewed sense of trust in my intuition. So what’s the difference between journaling like everyone else, and journaling like a writer?
Well, when you do it with a writer’s mind and a writer’s eye, you’re not just journaling to process what’s in your head. You’re also doing it to practice the craft of connecting with and then writing about your emotions. Emotions are what bring stories, fictional or otherwise, to life. Emotions are what transform a sentence from flat to shimmering. And you can only get good at writing about your emotions if you practice. Morning pages empty your mind of clutter; journaling helps you gather the beautiful bits back in and craft them, shape them.
I’ve been journaling since I was a child. Since I began to write in a literary way, I have come to realise just how precious a journal is for a writer. I process what’s in my head, and I process it raw - but then I rewrite, and I rewrite until I feel I’ve written something that’s creative, meaningful, beautiful.
If there’s a particular passage that I feel is a precious piece of well-written prose, then it makes its way into a file in my Google Drive called “Beautiful Words”, a file that has been there, constantly updated, for years. Creating a file like this on your computer will be invariably helpful for you too. That file is like a treasure trove of inspiration for me now and I turn to it whenever I need direction or a flash of creativity or am stuck with an idea or a fictional character or simply need a prompt.
When I finish each journal, I feel so satisfied that I’ve learnt something about myself or my writing through that particular notebook. I feel good, knowing that I committed to the act of journaling enough to complete all the pages, and I feel content, like I’ve grown in some way. Each journal has helped me along as a writer in one way or another.
This is why I journal, and why everyone who wants to write creatively in any way should too.
Bringing your feelings alive
Writing creatively means writing with thought and intention, crafting your writing and finding a way to make your writing connect with your readers. It’s about bringing your writing alive, off the page, and letting it resonate with your readers so that they feel what you feel, and so that that feeling will linger for them long after they’ve finished reading your words.
In your writer’s journal, when you’re reflecting on something that went well or went bad, left you happy or sad, write about it in a way that takes your feelings and makes them alive so that you relive that moment over and over again, both whilst writing it and whilst reading it back, even if it’s painful.
Here’s an entirely fictional little exercise to show you what I mean:
Let’s say you happen to bump into someone that once hurt you - an awful ex, a friend who betrayed you, a school acquaintance who always made you feel so small. Whoever it is, let’s say you bump into them in your neighbourhood, years and years on from when you first knew them. At first, you’re simply confused because they are so out of context. But then, they recognise you and come over, all surprised and delighted as if you’re good old friends, wanting to swap numbers and stay in touch. You’re stunned, but to your dismay, you find yourself going along with it (because how can you not?). Yet you are angry and upset inside, and overwhelmed at yourself for even feeling this way so many years later.
Let’s say you write this down in your journal later that night.
Remember how that encounter made you feel inside - the fury, the hurt for your younger self, the heat of the shock and the panic, the confused bewilderment at what this person was doing in your present world - and then consider how those emotions impact on each of your senses. What do anger and rage feel like on your skin? What does sadness smell like? What sounds take you back to the memory of that unhappy time with this person?
And now - reflect on where you are in your present life. How does happiness taste? How does it make you feel in the way that you sit, the way that you carry yourself? What does love feel like when you hold it in your hands? Asking yourself to translate your feelings into physical sensations can bring those feelings back into the very present moment again.
I have deliberately chosen an unhappy scenario here because darker, deeper emotions are trickier to explore. And you have to be ready to confront them in order to be able to translate them into words with meaning and soul.
When you consider your feelings in a sensual way - that is, in a way that your feelings translate in a physical way upon your senses - then you will be able to bring those emotions alive on the page. It takes time to practice observing your own self in this way, and it takes time to work through the descriptions that feel right, persuasive and beautifully written, but this is what writing creatively is about. There’s no better place to play with this than in the privacy of your own journal. So everytime you write, think of your five senses - sound, taste, smell, touch, sight - and ask yourself how your emotion is translated in each of them.
Finally, don’t lose sight of what a writer’s journal is about. It’s about collecting ideas and observations, yes - but it’s also about you. It’s a chance for you to reflect, to feel grounded, to express gratitude, sadness, love or anger. But it’s all you.
Ways to get started
If you’ve never journaled before then you may feel like you don’t know where to start.
These little prompts should hopefully help you get into a reflective mindset:
What was the most memorable thing that happened to you this week/ today?
What almost made you cry (whether good or sad tears!)?
What was the kindest thing someone did for you this week/today?
What was the most hurtful thing that happened to you this week?
What are you most grateful for this week? And why? How does what you feel grateful for make you feel?
If you’re struggling to write about yourself and your own feelings, then go out and be an observer. I’m going to talk more about the art of being an observer in just a moment, but for now, take yourself to a park or a cafe and people watch.
Write down three things you notice about your surroundings - it could be the sound of children playing, the colour of the sky, the woman walking by herself while staring at her phone. Eavesdrop, by all means. Listen to the couple sitting at the table next to you - the intonation of their voices, their gestures, the way they reach out for each other (or not at all). Watch a mother with her child. Is she patient, or tired? What does her face giveaway about how she feels? Observe the energy of a group of young children playing. How does it make you feel when you see their joy?
However you choose to journal, weekly or daily, in notes or longhand, the simple act of doing it is enough to start making sparks fly, sparks that are soaring out of your mind like little shooting stars without you even realising it. And those little flickers, those sparks, will all come together and help you write creatively. The simple act of journaling lifts you into the mindset of where you need to be in order for you to find your writing flow.
If you already keep a journal, you may think this sounds like old news. But I'm asking you to keep a writer's journal. I'm asking you to write, scribble it out, re-write, choose your words carefully. I'm asking you to think of how something made you feel and then to translate that feeling into words by considering how it played upon your senses. That's how your writing begins to open up from being just something for you, to being something that someone, somewhere, might one day relate to too.
The art of being an observer
I remember being stuck in a crowded tube carriage once, on my way home from work years ago and seeing a woman cry.
She was sat down and I was standing up by the doors and I wondered what could possibly have made her so sad that she just had to cry right there and then, in the middle of the rush hour, in front of everyone.
I looked away, but I also couldn’t look away, and I felt her sadness. I was hurt for her that everyone around her pretended like they didn’t see (or perhaps they really didn’t see, perhaps nobody else did notice). I was waiting for the crowd of people between us to thin, so I could at the very least offer her a tissue - but I never got the chance. She disappeared and slipped out at a station; I didn’t realise she’d gone until the doors shut and a guy in a suit slumped into her seat. I was still holding the tissues in my hand.
I’ve never forgotten this woman. I’ll never forget the way she trembled, her knees knocked tight together as though she was freezing cold in this overstuffed, hot carriage. She was trying to hide her raw face behind her hands, her cheeks all splotchy and patchy and her nose all sniffly. I couldn’t shake wondering what made her so upset.
I went home and wrote about her in my writer’s journal. And I have written so many variations her ever since. Most of these variations have stayed in my private writings, but one of them made it into a published short story about a vulnerable girl who dropped out of university and struggled with her family and felt deeply misunderstood and alone.
My character in that particular story didn’t cry on a tube train, my inspiration for her was not so literal, but it was that feeling of loneliness and utter desperation that I took from that woman I once saw who was crying on the tube. Her feeling of patchy, raw, cold sadness infused my story. (Also, just take a minute to consider the words I used just then - her sadness felt cold, her vulnerablity felt raw and patchy to touch - do you see how I just used physical senses to sum this up?)
A writer always observes. You should never not observe. Listen to the way people talk, watch the way people move. Always be on the lookout whether it’s in a work meeting or in the gym or on the school run. The way people conduct themselves is endlessly fascinating. Don’t let your observations go. Keep a small notebook in your bag or, more practically perhaps, use the notes function on your phone - so you never forget.
The observations that mean something, the ones you want to keep, the ones that speak to you and strike you in some way, will also speak to your readers too. So write them down in your writer’s journal and keep them safe. The more you notice, especially out of the context of your day-to-day life, the more interesting the observations will be and the more enriched your writing, as a result.
Finally, just one note on how this is all coming together. The beauty of this writing process is that it is all interlinked. You might not have even considered observing people so closely before because you’d have been caught up in your own daily life. But you are finding your still. You are quietening the chaos. You are giving yourself the space to be the observer you need to be. The morning pages you started last week are emptying the clutter from your head, making room for the good stuff you need to think about. You’re starting to notice the little details that make a piece of writing something quietly spectacular. Do you feel the shift?
Creating a writing practice
Writers only become better writers through writing. It’s as simple as that. You know that. We all know that. Everyone wants to write… but no one has the time. Isn’t that what we all say?
Aspiring writers (and even published ones) procrastinate brilliantly. There’s always some reason or another not to start that story or commit to that article or in-depth blog post. My advice? Don’t aspire to write; just write.
Here’s the thing: it’s week three of this course, and you should be starting to feel comfortable with taking the time to write through your morning pages - and even though it might not feel like writing in the most creative sense, it’s an important step to help you stay open to creative ideas that might come and go. And, after this week, you’ll start to keep a writer’s journal (more on this in your homework, coming up). Without even realising it, you’re writing. You are writing.
Once you have created one small writing habit, like the practice of morning pages or a weekly journal, and then it’s easier to form another writing habit - like setting aside half an hour every week to write a blog post, or spending your hour-long commute writing 500 words of a short story every day or twenty minutes a day to write 250 words after the children have gone to bed. What matters is not how many words you write, but that you write regularly. And that you write, in a creative and meaningful way, that connects you to your feelings and enables you to connect with your readers.
Here’s what I’ve learnt in my writing journey: there is always time. It’s always been there. All you have to do is reclaim it. Take back the time that gets eaten up in housework and admin and afterwork drinks and idle screen-scrolling - and claim it for yourself. Claim it for your writing. And give yourself permission to write. About whatever it is that you want to. This is not the same as journaling - this is the sort of writing you want to share someday. This is the writing you want to be read.
I’m not about to patronise you by telling you that means spending less time on Instagram or less time catching up on Netflix. You will know yourself what time you have available, what guilty pleasures can be cut, what hidden time you can use for your own benefit, and I trust you to know that you can find the time you need and then protect it. But I do think it’s valuable to talk about the practical challenges you face when it comes to writing, because perhaps together we can all find solutions.
Ways to commit to a writing practice
Many writing teachers offer advice like suggesting you write 500 words a day or a page a day. This can be a great way to get started but in my experience, it’s not so helpful or practical if, like me, you need to think in terms of hours and minutes available to you in a day and not in words.
So take the pressure off producing a certain number of words, and simply set a timer and write for as much time as you can reclaim for yourself in a week. If twenty minutes a day sounds like too much, can you find twenty minutes a week to write? Or maybe even an hour on the weekend? Think in terms of time, rather than the number of words you must write. (And if you think don’t have any ideas to write about - you do. Thanks to morning pages, your mind will already be calmer and more open to receiving inspiration and creative ideas - so you won’t find yourself stuck for ideas. You’ll find ideas come to you a little easier than before. And even if not, with time, you’ll soon be developing your writer’s journal too so you’ll have a store of ideas building up).
If you find the act of sitting at the computer is already a creative block for you, then don’t use it. Write longhand into a notebook if you prefer. Or record your thoughts into your phone and transcribe later and see if you can shape a short piece of prose from there. What is important is that you commit to your ideas and words, no matter how you do it, and no matter how short.
Remove distractions. If being online takes up too much of your time, turn it off so you’re never tempted to browse the web while you’re writing. Zadie Smith famously does this and she’s also not on any social media at all for the same reason. If you can’t quite bring yourself to turn the modem off, or if doing so will bring the household down, then there are apps for this (check out Ommwriter if you are interested).
One: Journal like a writer If you’ve not kept a journal before, then your task this week is to start. See if you can keep it up for the duration of this course. Unlike morning pages, you don’t have to journal every single day, especially as you may want some time to lose yourself in it, but I’m going to ask you to try writing in your writer’s journal once a week from this point on, for the rest of the course. Use it as a chance to record observations and start writing but all the while thinking about what you want to convey, the feelings you want to bring to life.
And if you already journal, then similarly, approach it as a part of this course and consider it a writer’s journal from this point on. Take your time to search for the words and the description you need to capture a moment or a mood.
You can feel very self-conscious when you start to journal, it can be strange to confront your feelings on a page. But it’s so valuable - both in a mindful way, for holding on to that calm mindset that leaves you open to creativity, and in a writerly way, for practicing your craft. It’s a chance for you to process your feelings but also channel your creativity. Unlike morning pages, these are words that you can edit and shape. It’s like a first draft, a larder full of ideas and characters - only you don’t quite know what the story is going to be yet.
If you're struggling to get started, revisit the section this week called "Ways to get started" for some simple prompts.
Two: Create your own bank of “Beautiful Words”
Create a file on your computer where you can re-copy passages from your journal and sentences that feel particularly well written. It’s important that you take the time to type and copy out from your journal onto this file - it lets you revisit your words and tweak, shift and shape. That’s what editing is. Whatever makes it into this file could form the basis of a story, a blog post, a letter to someone you love - or it could simply be a string of adjectives that you happen to feel read well. Can you make a start on your journal this week and shift something out of your journal into your very own Beautiful Words file?
If you don't know where to begin with this, then go back to the book that you are reading, the one that I asked you to choose right at the beginning of this course. Underline the passages that appeal to you. It might be description or dialogue; it doesn't matter. You don't even have to think too carefully at this stage about the technicalities of why it appeals to you. It may be simple as you like the way it sounds, the way it reads, the way the words flow. Re-write these into your Beautiful Words file (just be sure to reference them so you know which book they came from). It'll all help you as you progress, as you learn to unpick with a writer's eye (or pen, or mind).
Three: create time to write creatively
I want to help you commit to a regular writing practice. Look at your weekly routine and see if you can dedicate one evening, or if not a whole evening then just half an hour or twenty minutes once a week, to write creatively. This is not the same as the time you’re already spending on your morning pages or your journal. This is carving out time dedicated to writing creatively, to writing the meaningful prose that you want to write. Maybe it’s that book you’ve always wanted to write or the blog post about your family that you’ve put off writing, or perhaps you’ve got a short story in mind. Either way, you need to find the time to write it. Consider what’s stopping you from finding the time to write in practical terms.
Four: keep it up
Finally, don’t forget to keep up with your daily morning pages and re-reading your favourite book. We’ll be talking about why it’s so important to read as a writer next week.