Write to the Centre: A Conversation with Helen Lehndorf

Helen Lehndorf is a poet, creative writing teacher, and yoga teacher. Her debut poetry collection The Comforter (Seraph Press) was published in 2011 to excellent reviews. Her second book, Write to the Centre, was published by HauNui Press late this year. Write to the Centre is a ‘lo-fi guide to journaling in a hi-tech world.’ The book is filled with illustrations and pages from Helen’s own journals (which she has been keeping for decades!), which sit alongside her encouraging, warm, and honest prose. While the book provides many tips on how to journal, it’s more about why we journal and what that can bring to our lives.

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Sarah Jane Barnett: I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reading your book! It made me want to get out my own glue stick and collection of beautiful paper things and start journaling. Can you tell me how this book came into being? What is your favourite part of journaling?

Helen Lehndorf: My favourite part of journaling is using it as a tool to untangle my thinking and find some clarity, or at least space in my mind, around things which are troubling me. The book arose out of feedback from friends, and students from my journaling classes, that they would like to read something which featured excerpts from my journals. It took a long time for that seed to bloom because I had to get over a lot of angst about whether my journals were ‘interesting enough’ to warrant a book, but then I approached it from the perspective of ‘write a book you would like to read’ – I felt what was missing from journaling books was honesty about the mess, randomness and confusion that life can often be, and I set out to write something which was real about all that.

SJB: One of the aspects that stood out in Write to the Centre was the idea of permission. Permission to write what you want, to draw what you want, and to make it as beautiful or ugly or imperfect as you need. This is a liberating message, especially for women. In the book you talk about the influence of punk on your identity and the way you are in the world. Do you think this is where the permission stems from? Are you good at giving it to yourself?

HL: Yes, I absolutely credit an early exposure to punk culture (as it existed then, in the mid-1980s, pre-internet and the commodification of subcultures) as the thing which gave me creative courage and a belief in my own voice. I am good at giving myself permission within the confines of my journal and other modes of creativity (painting, craft) which I do for myself. I have more angst about my poetry and nonfiction intended for an audience. At times my fear of being misunderstood hampers my expression in those realms.

SJB: What feels like a few lifetimes ago I worked with the ephemera collection at Canterbury Museum, and since then I’ve loved the way things like postcards, ticket stubs, or flyers take me back to certain parts in my life, or into someone else’s life. It made me think that places like Pinterest or Tumblr are where people now put digital ephemera (if anything digital can be considered ephemeral). I often draw my emotions out in a journal, and it feels different to doing so on a screen. What do you see as the benefit or difference in journaling on paper, rather than on a computer?

HL: I love Pinterest! It’s such a useful and inspiring tool. But for me, something about the physicality of paper, scissor, glue…the connection of brain to hand, pen across paper…seems to sink in to my psyche and soothes me more than anything on screen.

SJB: Journaling helped you through big life changes such as becoming a parent. Most people don’t have access to these periods of change apart from photographs or maybe the odd email. What has being able to see and revisit yourself given you?

HL: So much compassion! Compassion for my younger self, compassion for myself now with everything I’ve been through. I see that I was always doing my best at the time, always hoping to do better, that I made lots of mistakes and wasted a lot of time obsessing about silly things, that I am spectacularly, clumsily HUMAN.

SJB: Last question. You have beautiful handwriting. Do you practise?!

HL: Ha ha! Thank you! and no, I don’t, unless you count years of scrawling in my journal as practise?

Thanks so much, Sarah, for this conversation.

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