The benefits of journaling

The other day Daniel J Layton uploaded a video in association with Penguin Platform on their YouTube channel about how great journaling is for your mental health. I’ve been thinking about this for a while – it was something that was recommended to me by a counsellor for my mental health a while back, and I recommend it to everyone because it has helped me so much, so I thought I would share my thoughts on the matter.

I’ve written a diary for years – I used to pretend to write by scribbling a pen over paper in squiggly lines before I could even write, and I’ve had my fair share of countless products marketed as secret diaries and journals over the years. They weren’t often very successful though – I would lose the key to the padlock keeping them shut (I will never know what seven year old me really thought about her crushes), or my password journal would run out of batteries and keep me locked out, or I would simply get bored and stop. One year, when I was about 8 or 9, my mum made my brother and me keep daily diaries over the course of the summer holiday, and in late August, I wrote ‘I read through my diary today. It’s pretty boring.’ That one sentence pretty much sums up my early experience with journaling.

When I was in my first year of secondary school in 2010, I tried to make it my New Year’s resolution to write in my diary more, mainly as a way to remember things later in life. And I did; I wrote sporadic entries over the course of years seven to twelve. I used it when I was happy to record great things that had happened, and when I was sad, angry, or upset to vent my feelings and work through them. The physical action of writing things down really helped me work through what I was experiencing, and process my feelings.

I reached a real low point in my mental health around year twelve, going through the stresses of the IB and University expectations from the school I was at, and I went to a counsellor for a while. She asked if I wrote in a diary, and if I found that it helped, and I said that yes, I did, and that it did help. She recommended that I write every night, and at the very least, just write one positive thing that had happened to me during the day, and if I was writing anything else, to finish with a positive thing. It could be something nice that someone said to me, that someone did for me, or just a nice experience that I had that made me feel good. Ever since then, I have written a journal entry every night, which means I’ve been daily journaling for three and a half years now, and the difference it has made to my mental health is astounding.

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These five notebooks are full of nothing but my thoughts, which is kind of crazy to consider

It’s by no means been a cure for my mental health issues – nothing really is a full cure – but it has helped me so much. I have a much more positive outlook now, and I sleep far easier having vented my feelings on paper. A few times, when I’ve been unable to write on paper for whatever reason, I’ve typed it on my phone, which doesn’t have quite the same effect for me, but it does still help. Having something that takes 100% of my attention, away from a screen with constant notifications distracting me, and facilitates me processing the events of the day in my own time, is invaluable to me. And now I have a record of every day of the past three and a half years of my life. I’ve started using my journals as scrapbooks as well, sticking in tickets and pictures, which makes it so nice to look back through, especially to look at the positive events of each day.

Now, I need to acknowledge that I am in the very fortunate position of liking to write. I have always liked to write, and given my degree subject and hopes for the future, I hope I always will. So journaling, whilst a challenge in routine, was not necessarily a challenge in task for me. I’m well aware that some people will hate journaling, they’ll write two words and set fire to their notebook, never to write another word again. But this is just a note to say give it a go, if you haven’t already. You don’t have to go as hard as I do, maybe try once a week, if that’s more your speed. But whatever you do, give it a try. You might like it.

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Carry On by Rainbow Rowell: my favourite books

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is a book I had to buy as soon as I heard about it. Having read Fangirl, which was my inspiration for studying creative writing at university, I was invested in the outcome of Baz and Simon’s final year at school.

I love that this book came about not as a way to write what Cath, the protagonist of Fangirl, imagined the end of Simon and Baz’s story to be, nor as what the fictional author of original story writes after the events of Fangirl. Instead, Rowell has stated that she was intrigued by these characters and their stories, and that’s what compelled her to write Carry On. And this shines through in her writing, which I found difficult to stop reading.

Carry On was Rowell’s first foray into fantasy writing, and in a sense, it shows. The scenario and characters seem somewhat derivitave of the Harry Potter series, but when read in the context of Fangirl, this makes sense. Books that reference popular culture soon become outdated, (and although I don’t know for sure I would imagine come with all sorts of copyright issues), so by creating a fake series within the world of Fangirl, the idea of the world is recognisable to a contemporary audience, but the book is not as dated as it would otherwise be. There are clear differences that do set Rowell’s work aside from Harry Potter, but these largely feature as the narrative develops, in the characters’ motivations and the plot twists.

One key area in which Carry On differs from the Harry Potter series quite obviously is in the LGBTQ+ representation. Baz identifies as queer from the first chapter, and Simon finds himself having feelings towards Baz the more time he spends with him. Simon and Baz’s same sex attraction is explored well, and it is not their entire identities. Spoiler alert, but they also have a happy ending, which is delightfully refreshing. As critics such as Karen Coats and Robert Bittner have noted, Young Adult fiction is a source of relationship, sexuality, and sex education for young people who feel otherwise embarrassed to discuss their own experiences as queer and questioning young adults. Normalising the experiences of gay/bi guys through two very different characters, Simon and Baz, who happen to both be attracted to guys but define themselves and negotiate their own sexualities in different ways, is so helpful in negotiating this issue.

As a fantasy debut and what is essentially fanfiction, Carry On is a lovely and important story, and I can’t wait to read any other fantasy that Rainbow Rowell produces. I am currently enjoying the run of the comic book series Runaways that she is writing, with Kris Anka illustrating, and would recommend that for anyone who enjoyed Carry On.

 

The furiosity of butterflies

there’s this feeling I can’t get rid of,

i can’t out run it,

can’t escape it

it shakes me to my core.

sometimes

i think it may have disappeared

i relax, breathe, enjoy

but it returns all too soon.

the clenching,

the writhing,

the fear,

tangling its way through my head

no matter how much I meditate

or run

or talk

or do anything that you would-be experts

seem to think I should do,

tell me to do,

it remains.

the only constant that I can be sure of.

it may leave me for a day,

at times, a week

but it will certainly

always

return.

Blizzard

Drifting crystals shimmer under street-light,
boots pull through the grey white sand.
The hole, ignored in November,
leaves February’s toes unfeeling.
Red hot ice forms fingers in unravelling mittens,
wind attacks the hood, flake shards spiking behind plastic frames.
Time slows, quiets, before puddles form on doorsteps.

The Gallery

Footsteps pass in front of them first, the workers:

the milkmaid carrying two urns of milk under a glowing moon,

the farmer leading his cows down to the river, burning in the heat of the rising sun,

the watchful shepherd, shivering, hungering, and waiting.

Through the glass doors, the girl stares from under fifteen layers of petticoats,

curious as to the events taking place on the other side.

Her brother scorns her, young though he is, knowing that their role is in this room,

talking to the old man and woman whose powdered faces lead them to an early grave –

they all look down their nose at the glass doors.

The dog by the girl’s feet yaps, yearning to break free and paddle in the untamed stream

that passes through the workers, sick of the neatly trimmed grass

being the only outside beneath his paws.

These huge oil figures are immortalised apart,

destined for years of separate rooms, seperate lives,

no matter where their gazes may lead.

Under the customer service smile

The clock on my car

(which is always seven minutes fast)

tells me that I am three minutes late

and I sigh

the click of my seatbelt unfastening

making my heart flutter and thrum. A new day

in this hellscape begins.

The next time I get in this car, I will be

exhausted, probably

will not have eaten for ten hours,

and have been standing up for

just as long, and unless

my boss has had her 9am pinot grigio,

will probably have been yelled at at least twice.

The gravel slips under my feet

I sneak a glance through the window,

I don’t see them,

I am relieved, for a second.

I greet my colleague, who is clearly high, again,

greet the chef, already busy chopping –

he inhales his way to an early grave regularly

in pursuit of five minutes of peace.

We all brace when the boss walks in,

wanting to be a victim of just a patronising word

and a smile, rather than face her full wrath.

I give a rueful smile to the regulars in for lunch who say ‘it must be wonderful

to work here.’ I clock out

at half past six, stomach growling, head misting,

and drive home along roads stained with tears.

© Alyx Hurst 2017

My favourite books: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was recommended to me by many people before I actually read it. If I’m completely honest, I only got round to it because it was on the reading list for one of my modules this year (it was subsequently removed, much to my dismay, but that’s another story). I don’t know why it took me so much convincing – I love Greek and Roman mythology, I love the Iliad, and I’m always excited to read books with LGBTQ+ representation, and this book ticks all of those boxes. No wonder then that before I had even finished it, it had made it into the list of my favourite books.

This book is just beautiful. I cried throughout the book – I started bookmarking every time the book made me cry, which considering I knew the ending, and how Miller consistently foreshadows the ending through Achilles’ happy arrogance and Patroclus’ reluctant happiness, was a lot. I ran out of post-it-note bookmarks. This, coupled with the gorgeous poetic descriptions of the landscapes and events of the novel, makes it into one of those books I stayed up until 2.30am to finish, at which time I messaged my friend in tears and she immediately knew what I had just finished reading.

I don’t feel that my love of the Iliad was a necessary pre-requisite for reading and loving Miller’s novel either. Most of my friends that have read the book and love it had no idea what was going to happen, giving them a completely different experience of reading the book. Either way, I do not know a single person who has read The Song of Achilles and not enjoyed it.

This book is the book that I always recommend to people without exception when they ask me for book recommendations, so I felt it most remiss not to mention it here on my blog when I have this favourite books series. If you haven’t yet read it, do so. I sincerely promise you that you will love it.

The Three Fates

The three girls sit across the aisle from me on the train. They stare in my general direction, and although I am not so vain to think of myself as the object of their eyes, it starts to feel personal after two stops. They have to angle their bodies in a very bizarre fashion in order to continuously stare in my direction; the squish of their limbs doesn’t look at all comfortable. 

They vacate the two seats they were sharing when the train reaches Coventry. Their frigid stares and the spatial vacuum left in their absence haunts me for the remainder of my journey.

As they walk down the platform, they fan out into a V formation, synchronised steps drawing them closer to me, their heads turning to face me as their bodies change their viewing angle. I wonder whether I am in some way taunting them for a moment, searching my person for the focus of their attention.

But I find nothing, they walk away, and am left to wonder what they were so fixated on for the rest of my life.

Surrounding yourself with creativity

Recently, I found myself in a creative slump. I wasn’t motivated to write anything – the ideas for the novel I’m working on were still ticking over in my brain, but I wasn’t actually writing, and I hadn’t even considered writing a poem for months, other than those I had to write for my seminars, and they were turning out flat and lifeless. I lacked motivation, I lacked inspiration, I lacked drive.

And then I went to my local poetry night at the local pub.

It was like a switch was flipped; I got home and immediately wrote two (admittedly godawful) first drafts of poems, and I wrote two more today. Just being in a creative atmosphere made me want to write again. I got my drive back.

It’s worth noting as well that I think it was partially that I was so invested in writing this novel. Not that I don’t want to write it, but I think after being so focused on one thing – especially when it’s taking so long to write given my lack of free time – I needed a little break from it to allow some of the other ideas I’d had in the mean time to work their way out.

So if you’re feeling like you’re in a bit of a writing funk, all I’m saying is that it might be worth stepping back from what you’re working on, and surrounding yourself with people who inspire you with their creativity. Easier said than done sometimes, I know, but it just might be what you need.

Returning to Square One

As I sat struggling to write chapter four of the novel I’m working on, I had a horrific realisation. I needed to go back and plan again.

There were several issues with the set up of the world (as it is a fantasy novel; I talked about the trials and tribulations of world building in my post here) that needed sorting, and could critically alter the plot depending on what I did; I needed to add to the beginning to fully explain this world, the ending that I had planned felt like it didn’t quite work, and I needed more time for a relationship to build between the characters. So, it was effectively back to square one.

It felt like a defeat, I felt despondent and demotivated. But I got a clean piece of paper and I wrote out everything that needed changing, brainstormed how I was going to change it, and ordered the changes. I’m currently only halfway through them, as they require a lot of working out, and something I always find difficult: important decisions. But I am making my way through them. And I’m very glad for realising the issues at this point, as it has made me rethink the story in many ways, and I have made a lot of changes – some minor, some major – for the better.

What I have now realised is that I never went back to square one. As long as you have something, however much it feels like you’re at square one, you never truly are. Maybe square two, or even square one point five, but you always have more than you started with, and going back can easily launch you a lot further than you were before. Think of it not as regression, but as going up to the line, walking back, and taking a run up.