To journal or not to journal: Helen Lehndorf’s Write to the Centre

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Write to the Centre, Helen Lehndorf, HauNui Press, 2016

Poet and teacher, Helen Lehndorf has kept journals for several decades. Journal keeping is essentially and at the outset an intimate and secret undertaking but then, at some point, some journals enter the public arena, raising all manner of questions about the ethics of what we share. Many writers publish journals within their lifetime; others appear posthumously. A journal is the place where you can remove the filters that work in varying degrees when you write poetry, fiction, memoir and so on.

Is a journal then writing with your greatest freedom?

What changes when you publish it?

I haven’t kept a journal since my twenties and can scarcely bear to encounter that feisty vulnerable young woman trying to live her way into the world. Altogether a writing basket that is too hard and fraught with curved balls and slippery slopes along with bursts of sweet-smelling roses.

The journals of Virginia Woolf have had a pivotal effect at different points in my life. I have always carried her mantra as a writer beholden to neither rule nor regulation: not for the sake of breaking but for the sake of creating.

Helen, however, with caution and daring, has returned to her journals to cut and paste a new version that shines bright. It is like a patchwork sample that functions as a patchwork memoir with its lift of colour and brave admissions. She is cutting open herself and we benefit. Cutting is a sharp word but a book like this represents self exposure – wounds, sutures and all. Reading it, it got me cutting into my own memories as points of recognition flashed.

Helen’s book, though, is also like a guide to journal writing because she stitches challenges for the budding writer into her patchwork. You meet the sticky questions and the practical suggestions that will set you on a writing path or help you refine and rattle the one you are already on.

There is a delicious vitality at work here – a sumptuous engagement with words and images and scraps of living that boost the writing craft. A journal, with its gorgeous hungry white space pulling you in, allows you to take risks not only in what you write but how you write. This is the private space, like a surrogate secret head that nobody gets to see, where you can make sense of things and then make nonsense of things. It might be therapy – the way every time you pick up a pen and start linking words you get a boost to  hemoglobin carrying oxygen to both brain and heart. It might be practice – like jamming with chords and scales, off-key and in harmony – in order to test what writing can do.

I love the way Write to the Centre takes you to the sensual pleasure of paper and pen held in hand. Strangely I was thinking about Poetry Box today and what I could do for children next year. I had the brain wave of gifting cool notebooks and pens to budding poets and doing a series of Notebook Challenges.

HauNui Press have excelled in their production values as this is a book clamouring to be picked up and read.

Haunui Press page

Sarah Laing blogs on Write to the Centre

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