Remember to Have Fun! Writing for Mental Health

With 80% of young people saying their mental health is worse because of the pandemic, we all need to find ways to be kinder to ourselves. As part of her new campaign #WriteThroughThis, Young People’s Laureate for London Cecilia Knapp offers some tips on how to have fun and (re-)discover the magic of writing, even when things get tough.

Cecilia Knapp stands on a corner outside a bookshop and looks to her right
Cecilia Knapp. Photo: Hayley Madden for Spread the Word.

I realised the other day that I haven’t left the borough of Hackney in months. I run the same lap of the park each morning, the backdrop a seemingly never-ending low grey sky. All this to say, I’m really feeling the lockdown fatigue now, every day seems the same.

I usually rely on the outside world to stimulate my writing. But there’s not much to draw upon at the moment. So how do we stay inspired? How do we invite a positive writing practice into our lives at the moment when it’s so easy to lack motivation and when it’s so easy to be down on ourselves?

I’ve had a little think and suggested five writing tips for you below. If you’ve never written before, try tip number one, I promise it’ll feel good and give you some much needed time to yourself to process, to discover, to reflect, to express. Then bear in mind tip two. Have fun! Enjoy writing.

If you’re a seasoned writer, these tips should also apply and I hope they help you be a little kinder to yourself.

1. Carve out some time to write, some time to yourself, even if it’s five minutes.

Five minutes is still productive, nurturing and important. Don’t measure your success or your productivity through how many hours you spend writing. I like to start with a free write. A free write is when you just write, without judgement or expectation, without stopping, for an allocated amount of time. Try three minutes to begin with. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or handwriting. Be messy and imperfect and incomplete and random. Try a really broad starting line like ‘I remember’ or ‘Today I am’. Then if you want to try something a bit different to see how that affects where your free write goes, find a piece of found text, like the last message you received, a line from a recipe, a line from another poem, or even something fantastical like ‘I woke up and I was a bird.’

2. Write to get lost. You don’t have to know where you’re going. It doesn’t have to make sense. What it is ‘about’ will come out of your writing if you trust yourself.

Write as though you are making it up as you go along. Surprise yourself. Let the random thought land in your head and then go with that. Pivot, change direction, keep going even if you think you’ve ‘wrapped it up’ or drawn a conclusion. Squeeze as much as you can out of your free write and in this way, you can discover so much about yourself, about what you truly need or want to write about. I never tell my students to write ‘about’ something. Let the writing take you where it needs to take you. It’ll be there somewhere in your writing, radiating off it, a feeling. It may not make logical sense, but it will be there. Trust yourself and your brilliant, unique brain.

3. Remember to have fun. Be a kid. Find the magic.

A poem is a dream land where anything can happen, so let it. If you’re not having fun while you’re writing, what’s the point? Be silly.

Drawing of a door opening onto a blue sky and a cloud in the middle of space

4. Don’t compare yourself to others.

Now, more than ever, it is so easy to compare ourselves to others. We have so much more access to other people’s lives and their achievements. It’s easy to measure your worth against theirs. I do it to myself all the time! If this constant litany of other writers who’ve won awards, been published or just generally seem to be having a better life is getting you down, my advice would be to step away from social media for a while. Remember also that most people only post their successes rather than their failures online and that they have days of doubt and rejection too, even though to you it doesn’t feel like it. You may win a competition one day and get published – I believe you will! But if you’re in a place where you haven’t yet, and it’s making you feel bad about your writing, step away.

There are very few competitions relative to how many writers there are in the world, and magazines and publishers get hundreds of submissions every day, so it’s got nothing to do with how good a writer you are. It may just take time. If the whole of your worth comes from being deemed a good writer by the very few gatekeepers of competitions and publishing opportunities, and how well you do on this one particular path to success, you will feel disheartened all the time.

I refer you back to point three – have fun when you’re writing. Find the joy in it, outside of the milestones you feel you should achieve. Sure, winning a competition is amazing. It’s great for your profile, your career development and can provide a much-needed financial boost. But it’s not the only way. I do think we need to push for even more opportunities, more free competitions, mentoring opportunities and workshops, so that more writers can feel more supported in a variety of ways, to suit a variety of needs.

I also don’t believe there’s really such a thing as ‘a better’ poem, or a ‘better’ writer. I find it comforting to remind myself that poetry is completely subjective, that there are so many voices and styles in the vast realm of poetry that can happily co-exist. So I beg you, please don’t compare yourself to another writer who may have won a competition and deem them a ‘better’ writer than you. It was just their time, based on the decision, experience and taste of one particular combination of judges.

Drawing of someone inside a book, lying on their front with their chin in their hands cover with a cup of tea or coffee

5. Know when the writing isn’t serving you, and when you need to rest.

We are obsessed with productivity. One of my students once said to me they’d been told to write for eight hours a day in order to be a good writer! Confession – I don’t do this. I’m not one of those writers who burns the midnight oil staying up until dawn drinking a black coffee and creating my masterpiece. Routine helps me, yes. I allocate a day or two a week to focus on writing. If the writing comes, fantastic. If not, I read. Sometimes the writing comes in a short burst like a bus suddenly hurtling past. Then I get tired and foggy-headed and have to stop for a bit and have a cup of tea or a sit down. I don’t think this makes me lazy, or in some way not committed to my writing. I just recognise what serves me, and what doesn’t. Sometimes I feel too sad to write. So I listen to myself, and I don’t. Find what works for you and don’t feel guilty about doing what you need to do.

A long time ago, someone (I don’t know who, probably a rich person who wanted people to work for him to make him richer) decided that a decent day’s work is eight or nine hours. This is an arbitrary figure which I don’t think can be applied to something as flighty, precarious and energy-consuming as writing. Write when you can, in a way that feels good to you. That might be a few hours, that’s great! Or it might be a few minutes, because we are all different. But rest when you can. Be gentle with yourself. Writing is tough. Rest is just as important as writing. Otherwise your resources are depleted and you won’t have the energy when it comes to getting back to writing!

Photo of Cecilia and the words Write Through This

If you want some more writing tips to help you through this lockdown, check out my campaign #WriteThroughThis at: spreadtheword.org.uk/writethroughthis You can watch some little ten-minute videos with writing prompts, and sign up for free hour long writing workshops.

Whether you’re a writer or completely new to writing, you’ll find something to help you find time for yourself, time to write and a bit of community in these strange times.

To take part in the campaign, share an original poem, quote, or a piece of writing with the hashtag #WriteThroughThis.

To make sure we pick it up, tag @stwevents on Twitter, or @spreadthewordwriters on Instagram. Alternatively, please email your poems to [email protected], and let us know if you’re happy for us to share them.

More information about #WriteThroughThis

#WriteThroughThis is a campaign to encourage young people to use writing and poetry as a way to keep positive and connected to others during the current national lockdown.

A recent survey by mental health charity YoungMinds has shown that 74% of teachers and school staff say that schools being closed during national lockdowns has negatively affected young people’s mental health. The pandemic has brought with it severe disruptions to young people’s routines, a sense of social isolation, and has prevented some young people from accessing their regular mental health support.

Cecilia has produced some short writing prompts to help you get creative. Watch her videos on the Spread the Word YouTube channel and below:

Free Workshops

For 16 – 25 year olds, Cecilia is running three free online workshops. Cecilia invites you to join her in a low-pressure, safe, creative environment to begin writing. Take some time for yourself to experience the fun, discovery and connection with yourself that a writing workshop can allow. Whether you’re new to writing or more experienced, there’ll be something for you to try to help you out in this strange time. Just bring a something to write with and join in. All sessions have auto-captions and BSL Interpretation. Please get in touch if you need any additional support in order to access the workshops.

#WriteThroughThis Workshop 1 – Getting Into Writing

Catch up online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QIazPtE0Ys

#WriteThroughThis Workshop 2 – Demystifying Poetry

Weds 24 Feb, 6.30-7.30pm

Access provision: BSL Interpreted and auto-captioned

Sign up at: http://bit.ly/WriteThroughThisWorkshop2

#WriteThroughThis Workshop 3 – Drawing Inspiration from Great Poems

Weds 3 March, 6.30-7.30pm

Access provision: BSL Interpreted and auto-captioned

Sign up at: http://bit.ly/writethroughthisworkshop3

Cecilia Knapp looks up to her left
Cecilia Knapp. Photo: Hayley Madden for Spread the Word

Cecilia Knapp is a poet, playwright and novelist and the current Young People’s Laureate for London. Her poems have appeared in ​The White Review, Magma and bath magg. She has written work for the BBC, Guardian and Tate, and was shortlisted for the 2020 Out-Spoken prize for poetry. Cecilia’s debut novel is forthcoming with The Borough Press (Harper Collins) in 2021. Her plays ​Losing the Night​ and ​Finding Home ​look at growing up and dealing with loss, aiming to destigmatise the complicated conversations around mental health. Both opened to sell-out London runs and toured nationally. Cecilia teaches poetry in various settings including as one of the lead tutors for the Roundhouse Poetry Collective. She was Poet in Residence at Great Ormond Street Hospital for two years and is an ambassador for the mental health charity CALM.

Published February, 2021

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