Write to the Centre by Helen Lehndorf.
Palmerston North: Haunui Press (2016).
RRP: $35. Pb, 102pp.
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.
Journaling – like social media – lives in the turbulent grey space where our public and our private selves meet. And unlike social media, journaling can give us the best of both. In Write to the Centre, Helen Lehndorf gives us a blow-by-blow account of learning to keep and maintain a personal journal – developing the habit, being open about what to include, and relaxing with respect to the whole process.
The book begins with a quote from Susan Sontag: ‘In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.’ This awareness of continuity, of self, is a theme which informs not just this book but the process it describes.
The twelve chapters treat various facets of journaling, from ‘Getting started’ to ‘Allow hope’, via ‘Perfect is boring’, ‘Allowing the ugly’, ’Processing pain’ and ‘Take back ritual,’ among others. In the introduction, Lehndorf says, ‘It isn’t so much that there is one way to do it, some ultimate ‘how-to’, but more that a certain mindset or attitude is required. I hope, within this book drawn from my own journals, I’ve described this effectively to inspire you to find that free creative space.’ (p 3) She not only describes, she lavishly illustrates the book with a wonderful collection of pictures, notes, illustrations from her own journals. Each chapter ends with suggested exercises, to be used on your own or in a group.
From the beginning, it is clear that ‘The physicality of writing with pen across paper, brain connecting to body through the hands, can have a ‘grounding’ effect, bringing awareness to the whole self. It makes emotions tangible’ (p 21).
And later, ‘The journal is a place to shake off your worldly shackles, to be the essential you’ (p 24). It is where you touch base with yourself and make a permanent record of one moment, one mood. Minutes (or years) later, you won’t feel the same way, but reading what you thought then anchors your spirit’s honesty about what you are feeling now, as you look back.
Social media make it very easy to cast your bread upon the waters, but there’s no guarantee that it will be returned to you in any useful condition or at any useful time. This book, though, makes a strong case for keeping a permanent record – you will have satisfied your need for telling the outside world ‘what’s on top’ but you will also have kept what’s on top in proportion and on hand for future use. Lehndorf has 23 years’ worth of journals on hand, and they make a record she couldn’t come up with in any other way, either by scrabbling through a drawer full of random what-nots and souvenirs, or by compiling an after-the-fact memoir (which would be based on memory of facts/feelings, rather than a contemporary recording of them).
In one the last chapters (‘Take back ritual’), we are told: ‘Some moments recounted in this book have been truly cringe-worthy to re-read and share, but there are lessons to take from looking back, observing all the iterations of how the ‘now’ of you was formed. Integrating past experiences and future plans can bring clarity to what we want now’ (p 77).
This book is equally valuable for individuals or for groups. Keeping a journal on one’s own terms and for one’s own use is a way of expressing your own public and private concerns in a way which integrates them rather than making them compete for attention. Lehndorf has done us a great favour producing this book.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015. Field Notes, a satiric miscellany, was published by Submarine Books Mākaro Press in 2017.