Cathy Rentzenbrink on Writing About Yourself

Cathy Rentzenbrink on Writing About Yourself

Something terrible happened to me. Should I try to write about it and will it be therapeutic?

Well, I genuinely believe everyone’s life could be improved if they picked up a pen, but I don’t think writing is a substitute for therapy. Also, it may well make you feel better in the long run, but in the short term it can be quite destabilizing, especially if the event happened a long time ago and you’ve been trying to suppress it. So: yes, but be careful. Have a plan in mind for what you’ll do if your mood dips. Might you think about therapy? Do you have a friend to talk to who you trust?

How do I start?

Start simple and don’t worry about a plan or the bigger picture. I’d buy a notebook. A cheap one will do and I find it puts me off a bit if I get anything fancy – there’s too much pressure for the words to be really good! Make some time depending on what else you’ve got going on. I love to write first thing in the morning when my head is clear, but if my son wakes up before I do, the opportunity disappears. Lots of people like writing at night, but I find I’m too frazzled and tired. Then just put one word after the other . . . ‘I remember’ is a good writing prompt. Just write that on the page and then carry on. Don’t feel you have to dive straight in to the biggest story of your life. Warm up a bit first.

There’s no right answer to how long you should spend or many pages you should write, so find your own way. And you could, of course, use a computer or phone to write, though you then have to battle with the other distractions they offer. It’s best to have realistic targets in mind. Even fifteen minutes three times a week would be a great start, and if you kept that up you’d surprise yourself by how quickly you’d have a chunk of material. Think of it like deciding to enter a marathon – you wouldn’t try to run fifteen miles on your first day of training.

Do I have to write about sad things?

No, not at all! When I’m feeling low, I try to write down five things I feel grateful for. This gets my pen on the page and, sometimes, can lift my mood a bit. You could also start by writing a diary. You don’t have to create enormous essays about feelings; you could try writing down three interesting things you’ve seen every day for a week.

Do I have to worry about what I say about real people?

For as long as you are only writing for yourself you can write what you like, but you do have to think about this if you are going to share your writing with anyone else.

Should I ask my family and friends to read it or put it on a blog?

This is so tricky because when you write something it is natural to want people to read it, but sharing your work can be very nerve-wracking and changes the nature of the whole experience. I think the most important thing is to be honest with yourself first. That’s not an easy thing but is more achievable if you have it firmly in your mind that, for the moment, you are only writing for you.

Should I go on a course or join a writers’ group?

Yes, if you can. One of the main things this will give you is structure and focus so that you make time to write. You don’t even have to go anywhere – I did an Open University Creative Writing course that was really useful at getting my pen on the paper. They offer short courses in life writing that last a few weeks, so that would be a good place to start, if you can afford it. It’s also exciting to spend time with the other writers you’ll meet there.

Are there books that can help me to write?

There are no rules for writing and the trick is to work out your own path, but I rather like reading about writing and over the years I’ve enjoyed the following books. Have a look for inspiration and cherry pick what feels right for you.

A Novel in a Year by Louise Doughty
This is about writing fiction. It’s friendly and fun, is pitched at the complete beginner and has lots of good exercises.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
A lovely short book about writing that was first published in 1934. It has lots of good, practical and rather firm advice.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
An invigorating book which looks at how to forget everything you’ve been taught in school and free up your best and bravest creative self.

Any last thoughts?

Read, read, read. I don’t know any good writers who don’t read. Read for pleasure and then ask yourself how the author did what they’ve done. How did they make you care? Why did you want to keep turning the pages?

And be kind to yourself. A good piece of advice for any endeavour, and certainly one to bear in mind when you are thinking about confronting difficult things and trying something new.

Good luck!