Book Review: Write to the Centre, by Helen Lehndorf

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_write_to_the_centreWriter and teacher Helen Lehndorf started her first journal (a diary) aged 13 and has kept going – with the occasional pause – ever since. She’s captured the many changes in her life through these journals: good times and bad, wise decisions and regrets, relationships, parenthood, and the ‘quiet and chaos’ that most of us have probably experienced. This book includes many of her handwritten entries, nestled amongst postcards, cuttings, notes, sketches and other ephemera that she has pasted into her journals with the gluestick mentioned in the subtitle.

The many and varied benefits that come from keeping a journal are described. Lehndorf encourages everyone to give it a go, in whatever way works best. Don’t be put off if you are time-poor. Scrawl or glue into your journal a few minutes at a time, she suggests, because the entries are an excellent way to discover who you are and (later) who you were: ‘…these notes captured in a journal are like messages in a bottle from all my earlier selves’.

There are twelve chapters. The early chapters provide plenty of inspiration for getting started, with suggestions for learning how to be a curious, alert and slightly detached observer of what’s going on in your own life. Thoughts will lead to words (jot them down quickly, before you forget), and these notes may in turn lead to relief or clarity – though Lehndorf reassures us that there’s wisdom to be gleaned from experiencing and writing about resistance and confusion too. Later chapters could almost be read in any order. The fabulously descriptive chapter headings make it very clear what each chapter covers – such as ‘Full-throttle melodrama: allowing the ugly’ (Chapter 6!).

shameless_journal_1Lehndorf gently encourages us to write about anything that comes to mind – whether this be events, friendships, places, plans or even lists…spontaneity is key. Lehndorf is confident that eventually everyone’s own style and voice will emerge. It’s OK, she says, to write about things that don’t go well, the rough or tough times, the stumbles as well as the dreams. Choose how and when to write, and write about whatever makes sense to you. Write at length, a line, or just a word. If words won’t come, she advises adding a doodle or simply gluing in something that appeals or may later bring back memories. Allow your journal to reflect the complexity of your life, use it as a way to work though hurt feelings, remorse and disappointment, as well as a way to remember happy times, joys and triumphs.

Each chapter concludes with a Give it a Whirl section, jam-packed with ideas to kick-start journal entries, even if you’re a reluctant or self-conscious writer. ‘Cultivate your curiosity’, Lehndorf suggests, because there are a never-ending number of things to write about, and if you run out of ideas of your own it’s quite OK to jot down other people’s insights too. Themed journals are also a possibility – for example, journals that focus mainly on gardening, music, wish-lists, or trips.

I liked the New Zealand flavour woven throughout her journal entries, such as the nods to Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame, references to beach and bush walks, river swims and op shops – and Ngaio and Nikau appearing on the long list of ‘possible cat names if we do get a cat’.

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It takes a certain amount of bravery to share innermost thoughts so publicly, and I admire Lehndorf for her willingness to let us read a broad and somewhat random selection of entries from her own journals. It’s reassuring to see the words crossed out, the scrawls and scribbles, the shortcuts and abbreviations, notes spread hurriedly down and across pages, the self-doubt amidst the celebrations. Perfection is not the goal. It’s all about the process, not the product, she explains. And if you’d prefer to destroy your journals rather than let anyone find them, there’s a wee section outlining interesting ways to do so.

This is a relatively large book, A4 size. I wonder if the size, combined with the somewhat ambiguous title and busy cover imagery might deter or confuse some of the likely target audience. I’m not sure that I would have picked up this book if I had seen it in a bookshop, possibly mistaking it for a textbook or handcrafting manual (given the prominence of the ‘gluestick’ in the subtitle). This would have been my loss, given the wealth of practical suggestions, creative triggers, motivation and encouragement Lehndorf offers within this book.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Write to the Centre: navigating life with gluestick and words
by Helen Lehndorf
Published by Haunui Press
ISBN 9780473367770

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