In this fourth episode of season 2 The Mindful Writer, Leah Bailey, talks about the power of words and explores how they can change our perspective.
Before I introduce you, let me update you on my writing journey. Publication day for The Forever Cruise gets closer, and I experience as many highs and lows as a cruise ship on a choppy sea. The paperback is already out, as I wanted to be sure I had copies in time for the launch party on 1st December – which is the day the eBook goes live.
Highs – I’ve had some wonderful reviews from readers who ordered the paperback, and advanced readers who received a copy of the eBook in exchange for an honest review.
Lows – I noticed some typos in the paperback and had to correct and re-order for the launch party. What have I learnt from this? I have reviewed my proofing process so that there is less chance this will happen again. Having beaten myself up for not being perfect, I have reflected and concluded that it is okay – we learn from our mistakes. I’ve been charging ahead at a million miles an hour, wearing myself out, and making mistakes. I set high standards for myself, and so, when I fail to meet them, I am tough on myself. I am learning to be kinder to me. To slow down. And to be grateful for where I am now on my writing journey.
I am looking forward to celebrating the publication of The Forever Cruise with my wonderful readers, friends, and family. It is with their support and friendship that I have been able to write and publish this book.
Sometimes we are so focused on what we have not achieved that we forget to cherish where we are now.
My guest this week, lives very much in the moment. I found her interview fascinating. So, let me introduce you.
Leah Bailey is a poet, and teacher of English language and literature. In this episode, Leah explains how we use language to:
- Connect with other people
- Make sense of our world
- Express how we are feeling
- Process thoughts, and emotions.
Leah also shares some practical exercises to write for wellbeing and reads two beautiful poems.
Deborah: Hi Leah, I am really pleased to welcome you to the mindful writer podcast. So, before you introduce yourself, and I shall do a bit of an introduction for you, I should just say you are recovering from the cat knocking over your mug of coffee.
Leah: Yes. Two of my key things for my sanity is my cats and my coffee. But unfortunately, they do sometimes collide.
Deborah: So welcome. Leah, you are a poet, with three collections of your poems now published, including the most recent, Coffee and Paper Cuts. I love the title of that one. The English language is your passion, and one that you share with others, both as a poet, and a teacher of English language and literature. So, let’s start with why you think it’s important to use the written word to communicate our thoughts and feelings.
Leah: I think that language is how we approach the world. It’s how we think; it’s how we communicate. And so, to be able to understand ourselves, using language, through reflection, and then to be able to communicate our understanding to someone else, connects us to other people: whether the language is our own, or someone else’s.
I did some travelling recently. And so, you know, when you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language, you have to communicate. And so, you find the words – you find the sentences – you find the capacity, using everything you have to get something across. That is quite important and valuable.
But language, and the words that we choose to use, can be both helpful and harmful.
And so having the right ones, and communicating what we actually want to say, instead of what we think we want to say. Miscommunication, can cause huge problems in terms of language. So, knowing and understanding the right words to use to communicate what you actually mean is vitally important for anybody: adults, teenagers, students, and teachers alike.
Deborah: And that is a skill, isn’t it? I remember my aunt years ago – I overheard a conversation; she was talking to my mum. And she said, ‘Oh, my husband gets so crossed with me, because he says, when we have arguments, you always win because you know, the right things to say, and I don’t have the language or I can’t express myself like you do.’ So, he felt powerless compared to her.
Sometimes there’s a bit of an imbalance or an inequality, when somebody hasn’t had an education, or they can’t express themselves so well, to actually be heard. So, I wondered how teaching language and working with students, adults and children, and young people, how you can help people to express their emotions.
Leah: Well, it’s important to try and get them to think for themselves, and not just parrot other language that they’ve heard. One of the most important parts of my job is not telling them what to think. Because obviously, that would be me imposing my ideas on them. My language, my words. It’s trying to get them to understand their own responses and their own thoughts, and put those thoughts into words, because all too often, they are just repeating something that they’ve heard in the playground, or just repeating something that they have heard in the classroom, or out in society, or on TV. So, the concept, you know, the concept of trying to get them to express themselves, but making sure that it’s them. Making sure that it’s their own thoughts, and not just the thoughts of someone else that they are copying because they think that that’s in fashion. So, the thing I suggest to all my students is to read as much as possible. It doesn’t have to be classics or poetry or, or even something beyond the fashion magazine. But any reading at all.
Any reading at all exposes you to more ideas. And the more ideas you have, the easier it is to express your own ideas.
Watching how a great writer does it, or how someone you admire does it, helps you do it better yourself. So, finding language – finding language to be able to suit your own ideas, is vital to being able to argue for yourself, being able to defend yourself, or support yourself.
And all too often people use it to manipulate others just because they’re better at it. So, you know, we know that language has a double-edged sword. It can be used for great, good things: persuading people to step up and do the right thing. And unfortunately, persuading people to engage in horrible things. So, you know, using the power of words is a dangerous tool, but is vital to be able to use yourself.
Deborah: As you said, at the beginning of your response, words can be used for good or for bad, and they can influence. They’re very powerful.
What about using language to help you understand your feelings, your emotions, and to understand yourself, when you’re in a dark place? How can writing help you to make sense of your world?
Leah: Well, writing for me has always been a kind of therapeutic use – a therapeutic effect. My process for writing is – usually when something occurs to me, or I have an emotion, or a feeling that’s happening, that is intense, especially whether that’s intensely good or intensely bad. But those intense feelings you have inside. My process for writing is to usually write down a single word, or phrase or something that I see in front of me. And that’s where I start. And then I write it by hand, and I just kind of splurge. I don’t worry too much about the technical things. And then when I take the handwritten and type it up, I can start to shape and develop it.
And for me, especially when it is negative, it’s taking it outside of my head, and putting it onto the page, so that I can look at it and observe it, and deal with it outside of myself.
So, whether your type of writing is poetry, or prose, or any kind of thing, it’s taking the feelings and trying to find the right words. And then shaping them, and dealing with them, and developing them outside of yourself on the page that I find the most helpful, because then it’s not in a tangle inside your brain. It’s in a defined – it’s online. It’s you know, in letters and words, and punctuation marks, and you can you can deal with it. And then when you have dealt with it, or when you’re satisfied that you understand it, you can shut the book and put it aside.
Deborah: That’s a really good way of describing it. It’s almost as if you can have a conversation with yourself, because you can get it out. And then, as you say, look at it objectively with fresh eyes. And it’s almost like a dialogue between you and your inner thoughts. Excellent.
Leah: Hmm. Wrestling with it.
Deborah: We were talking in another conversation we’ve had outside of this, about when a person is in dark place – a person experiencing depression. And they may not understand. How do they understand what’s going on? And how can loved-ones help – understand what’s going on? Because trying to give voice, or to be heard, or to explain – can words help with that?
Leah: Well, you know, obviously, in that previous conversation we had, you know, I deal with a lot of people who have different types of mental health issues. I myself, have dealt with episodic depression. So, it’s part of that kind of word tangle I said was in my head.
A lot of times people don’t, who have not experienced any mental health problems, will not understand the experience of it.
So, if you are able to somehow put it into words, that gets them closer to being able to understand the experience of it. But likewise, one of the main problems with things like depression is that there isn’t a reason. Loved ones and people that we are in relationships with, and friendships with, they desperately want to help. But it’s difficult to communicate reasons for something feeling the way it does, when there isn’t a reason. Because a lot of the difficulties with mental health, is that they’re irrational. They are just parts of our brain that are making us feel, and do, and say, things that we wouldn’t necessarily want to if we didn’t feel the way we do. That there’s no source. There’s no reason for it happening. And if you have experienced that, it’s difficult to communicate to someone else that there isn’t a reason. That you just feel the way you do. And so, using writing and using poetry to kind of communicate that helps someone else understand it.
One of the main purposes for all of my writing is to share experience good and bad: emotions, events, experiences.
To try and connect with someone who might not be good with words, as you said, someone who struggles with knowing words or knowing what to say, it’s helping that person say, ‘Yes, that – that’s what I feel. I’m not alone, thank God. I’m not the only one. Or someone who has never had that experience, to kind of feel it, however briefly, while reading the poem. And think, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s incredible how that feels.’ or ‘That’s horrible. I wish I could help someone who feels that way.’ So that the concept of shared experience with writing makes it resonate.
I can’t tell you, there’s any number of poems that I’ve talked to with people that I know have read them. Then like that, you know, that made me cry, or that made me laugh, or I saw myself in that. And it’s not that I have anything necessarily special about putting those particular poems out there.
It is just, from my experience, from my observation, from my reflection, trapped in words and stuck on the page, and shared with someone else. Not just as a relief to me, so that it’s outside me and I can deal with it, but so that they themselves can see it, and know that they are not the only one feeling it and, and have a way of expressing it themselves.
Deborah: I’m glad you said that, because that’s really powerful. And especially to people who might be listening, who live with loved ones who go through depression. I hear so many people say, ‘I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to help them.’ So that’s really helpful.
Leah: It’s important, you know, when you read these poems, or you read these experiences, or when you listen to people who have experienced it – putting it into words; it’s not about necessarily actively doing something. Just like there isn’t an act of reason that necessarily starts it; there’s not necessarily one trick, or one thing that you can do to help that person other than not give up on them.
You know, we people who experience depression, have a tendency to push people away and to isolate themselves, either because they feel like they deserve it, or because they don’t want to burden their loved ones in their relationship. They see someone trying to help them, and trying to help them, and trying to help them, and they feel like a burden. That you know, their completely irrational feeling is harming someone that they care about.
And so, the important thing with a loved one who’s experiencing mental health is simply the effort of trying to understand and not giving up on, you know, that continuing process, as they try to understand themselves, you work with them on that – you go on that trip with them. So that you both learn kind of together and deal with it.
You know, it’s something that I’m quite passionate about – trying to help the students and adults that I work with to be healthy in themselves. With that wellbeing in trying to explore those thoughts and emotions: positive and negative, that come from, from everyday experience.
Deborah: Thank you. And that leads me to my next question about your writing for wellbeing workshops. You work with adults, and you work with young people. So how does that work? How might somebody who doesn’t consider themselves to be a writer – they’re not going to write a novel, a story, or a poem – but they want to use writing to help them get in touch with their thoughts and feelings? How would they go about that?
Leah: Okay, well, that’s like a two-part answer. And the first one, and the reason I started the workshop, is because we have responsibilities all the time. We have emails to write and reports. And in this – in the academic context – were where I live, essentially, we have to write essays and we have to write stories. And even when we’re writing poetry and creative writing, it’s for a grade or it’s for a parental report, or it’s for an office email. And it doesn’t matter what job you’re in, a lot of the communication that we have to do day to day is our responsibility. And I started the writing for wellbeing workshop simply as an outlet and a one-hour a week outlet for people to just write for fun. To just write whatever’s in their mind, just for the sake of doing it, not for any other purpose, or any other responsibility.
Just to enjoy going through the attic, of their mind and kind of getting it out there without actually having to produce anything, or be anything other than what they want.
So, when I start the workshop, I’ll give you the other answer, which is: I provide stimulus. And so, if you don’t consider yourself a writer, that’s fine, you don’t have to be. The idea of writing for wellbeing is starting with something small.
I have writing prompts that I provide. For me, I have them on my Instagram, once a week. But when I come to the workshop, I have maybe lists of them, and I put them out and people can choose a particular prompt. Or there are tonnes of books that contain writing exercises that you can do. I use one called The Five-Minute writer, which is great, it has like 50 different five-minute exercises. The exercises or the writing prompts are just a start. It’s whatever comes to you from that.
There are ways of doing it using abstract nouns or random words. Like you can almost literally cut up a dictionary, and pick out a word. And then whatever comes to you from that word, that’s what you write about. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, whatever. And then it doesn’t have to be 100,000 words, it can be 10, or it can be two sides of A4, or it can be whatever it needs to be. But the idea is to just kind of go with it. Whatever Association you have. We hear it all the time; people hear a song on the radio and it reminds them of a memory. Or they hear a certain phrase or quote from the film or TV show that they’ve seen, and it reminds them of something else, or the moment. So, that’s the kind of thing we’re talking about. You start with a writing prompt, or a word or an idea, and whatever is associated with that, that’s where you start developing it.
The next step obviously, could be a picture. When we take photographs, we don’t take photographs of everything and anything. I mean, you know, I do, because I’m weird. But I mean like observation of what’s around you – what’s important. So, when you are thinking about taking a picture, you kind of frame it. You look at it; you get the right angle; you get the right content in the photograph; it’s the same with writing. There’s information around us all the time – stimulation. I’m sitting in a room with the fan going. I can hear the buzzing of the fan. My cat is sneaking around under the bed waiting to destroy another coffee cup. The light outside is a particular threatening to rain kind of look. And I’m in just one moment here, feeling those things: temperature wise, topical wise. It doesn’t have to be a great metaphor of our time. It can just be what your senses feel around you.
Same with a photograph. When you take a photograph, it’s because you want to remember it. The whatever,that is in the photograph, is something that you want to remember. So, you can look at the photograph and do that same sort of sensory input. What temperature was it? What was the weather like? What were you feeling that made you want to take the photograph? Why do you want to remember it? Why is it important to you? Has that memory changed since you took the photograph? Does the feeling change since you took the photograph? So, all of those observational skills of what’s coming at us all the time is fodder for writing. You’ve got to do it. It’s being aware of what’s around you, and then putting it into words. And that’s just the external stuff. Once you start to develop that you can reflect on it, and turn it on the inside of what that stimulus on the outside does to your brain.
Deborah: And how does it help with health and wellbeing?
Leah: Being aware of what affects you is extremely important. Whether that’s noticing that every time it rains, you get a certain feeling. Or if you have a favourite coat, or a favourite bag, or every time you wear a certain shirt it reminds you of a certain person, or a certain day when you wore it before.
So, that awareness of what stimulates those feelings is extremely healthy because then you can start to pick and choose what makes you feel good.
And what makes you feel more yourself; what makes you feel your best self, and start to discard or minimise the things that don’t make you feel good, or don’t make you feel yourself. So, by extending our awareness, and for our observational skills in order to write about them, you start to notice things you might not have noticed before. And in noticing them decide whether they are beneficial or healthy, or includes your wellbeing. If you know that a particular – if you start to write about a particular voice, or a particular stimulus outside of yourself, that is not very healthy, not very helpful you can start to minimise it, or avoid it, or detract from it, to improve your wellbeing. And then, over time, the observation – the more you observe, the more you understand, the easier it is for you to decide what you keep inside yourself.
Deborah: Excellent. I think in addition to getting a greater self-awareness through writing, the relaxation of writing – going to a quiet still place, it’s quite meditative, isn’t it?
Leah: Yes, I do write in quiet places. Sometimes I do find that nice, quiet still place. When we have the workshop, it’s usually after school in a quiet classroom. We don’t always interact. I give out the stimulus, which they’re free to ignore. And then they just write and then people share, but they don’t have to share to get feedback. So, that nice quiet space.
I also write in the noisy bar, because that’s very stimulus heavy as well. So, I think both. I’ve met loads of writers and they all say they all have their place where they go writing. So, I think that it can be just as fun in a noisy bar as it can be a quiet classroom.
Deborah: But it’s the going there. In fact, that leads well into the poem that I hope you’re going to read. Because in this poem, when you wrote it, you were in a public place but you went very much inward to write it. So, it’s a good example. I shall let you introduce it.
Leah: Okay, so this is from my first book between Hindsight and Foresight, which is best of all the poetry I’d written from the time I was 14 Until I was 38. So, it spans a whole wide range of feelings and emotions and experiences in one volume.
This particular poem was written the first time I lived on my own – basically in my entire life. I’d never lived on my own, it was family or partners or uni. But this was the first time I’d lived on my own and I decided to go out to dinner, even though I was on my own. And so, the poem follows that process and it’s one it’s one of my favourites to use as an example because it was a sneaky poem. I thought it was going to be about one thing, and it turned out to be about something completely different.
So, it’s called: Define Alone
Is it an empty restaurant
with kind staff who smile,
and remove the other set
so you don’t feel alone?
Is it the abandoned
and crumbling petrol station
with an exit sign the only
through flimsy wire fence?
Is it the dim twilight
painting pastel colours
as your steps echo
on cracking pavement
Is it the lone voice
of your nature
like straw into gold
giving you someone
to talk to?
Is it the single flame
burning on the tealight
next to your single
glass of wine?
Is it an empty night
staring out a window
which frames a twisted,
ivy covered tree
in the gathering night
with emerging stars?
Is it closing your eyes
and wiggling your toes
in the wet sand
feeling the wash
of the grit begin to
in the last warmth
Is it a single touch
along the jawline
of it being
Is it a strand
of long hair
in your eye
shifting the light
into a forested
Is it an empty chair,
wanting to be
There is so much that
can seem alone
but alone… is not
I relax into the empty
the abandoned and crumbled
the dim twilight
the turning thoughts
the single flame
the single glass
the wooden frame
the twisted tree
the closed eyes
the sinking sand
the last warmth
the single touch
the long hair
the empty chair.
I listen to the alone…
and am content.
By Leah Bailey.
Deborah: Lovely. It gives me shivers. It is beautiful. Tell us about what you thought it was going to be about, and what it ended up being about.
Leah: Well, this happened obviously, like I said, when I was living alone for the first time, but it was like a really dramatic change in my life. I’d never lived on my own. And so, it became,
it became … I thought it was going to be an exploration of me being lonely. And you know, how it felt to be lonely, or how it felt to be on my own for the first time. And
instead, it turned into kind of a – almost a mantra of realisation that just because I was alone, didn’t necessarily mean that I had to feel lonely. That I could still enjoy the twilight. I could enjoy a night out. I could, you know, just listen to the quiet, and the echoes, and the reflection, and have it not be negative, to be on my own.
So I started the poem thinking that it was going to be an exploration of how I felt being so lonely. And it turned out to be like, well, no, you’re alone – not the same. And it was very sneaky. Poems – ideas are not always in the charge of the writer. Sometimes they take over. And they’re like, No, no, this is this is what you want to write about. This is what you’re thinking; not what you thought that was.
Deborah: What it says to me, is that you’d gone out with one feeling – feeling like, I’m going to this restaurant on my own; I’m going to feel lonely. And this is what I mean about the process of the writing, because you were very much in the moment. You were picking up all the sensory cues around you, as you wrote them down. You were very much in the moment, and that enabled you to go inward. And as you went inward, you found that sense of inner peace, and the reassurance within that this is okay. So that’s where I think that writing can be quite meditative, and help you connect with your inner self.
Deborah: It demonstrates this beautifully.
Leah: Yes, and as we were saying in another conversation about when we are in relationships.
When we are with other people – family, or partners, or friends – we change. We have different facets of ourselves, and we become that person that they relate to.
But when we’re on our own, the only person we have to relate to is ourselves. And so, the mirrors, the bouncing off of who we actually are, and how we actually are and how well we are or, our wellbeing, or how we are feeling. We have nothing to bounce off of when we’re by ourselves.
And so, within relationships: that is who we are. And it’s not always bad to be the person within the relationship. But our identity separate from our relationships, is also important to explore, which is where that kind of went. Define Alone is how I relate to myself when there’s only me there.
Deborah: I find that interesting, because I’ve been married to my husband for 38 years; I’ve been a mother for 33 years; and sometimes when I’m meditating, I just I just go back to who I was, before I was a mother, before I was a wife, to connect with my younger self. Because sometimes I feel that I can see myself so much through their eyes and their impressions of me.
When you’ve got a partner of many, many years, you kind of partly absorb part of them, as you do with your parents. Since my mother died, I can hear her voice in my head all the time with her views on things. I think all your loved ones – you get all of their noises in your head. And sometimes, finding that quiet still place that is you, is quite hard. Because you love them all, and your relationships with them are important, but there’s also a part of you that is uniquely you. And we lose sight of that sometimes, don’t we?
Leah: Sometimes, and it’s important to get back to it. And that is another benefit for the wellbeing of the writing, because
if you do write over time, you can then revisit that writing and remind yourself of a good thing. Or you can remind yourself of a negative experience you had and realise how strong you are to have overcome it when you’ve when you’ve gone past it.
So, by pinning it to the page, you’re not just dealing with it at the time for your wellbeing. But also, later on when you go back and you look at these things and you remember those pleasant experiences, and you relive those pleasant experiences, and you relive the darker ones realising how strong you are to have gotten past. And it’s like, you know, so it puts everything in perspective if you can look at it over time. So, it helps you at the time, and it helps you later to revisit it.
Deborah: That’s great. I’m going to ask you to read another poem, but this time, I would like you to read a poem that has influenced you. Because you were saying that sometimes you read a poem, which means that you don’t feel so alone. So, I’m interested in the receiving of poetry and hearing, as well as the … the two-way process of the words coming from you and receiving. So, I’m going to say goodbye to you in a moment but before we do that, please could you say something about receiving poetry – the other part of the two-way process?
Leah: Obviously, I read a lot because I am a teacher, and so I read constantly. My preference for reading is pre 1900 poetry and things like that. I do read some modern poetry. There’s a series published by Bloodaxe called, Staying Alive: Being Human, which is all very modern poetry written in the last one hundred years. It is very good – encompassing many, many topics. It’s good to dip into and dip out of when you need that kind of exploration.
The poem I want to read to you comes from an anthology that a friend gave me as a present when I was a teenager because she knows I love poetry. I love exploring other people’s feelings and seeing if it’s like, or unlike, my own feelings. It helps me to express. This particular poem that I’m going to read to you is by Grace Stricker Dawson. I’ve used it many times to express to other people who I feel that they have helped me, because the experience is similar. So, If I don’t have the words someone else might – kinda thing.
Deborah: Thank you Leah. I am going to say goodbye to you now, and then we will close the show with the poem you are about to read.
Leah: Okay. Thank you very much for having me.
To a Friend
YOU ENTERED my life in a casual way,
And saw at a glance what I needed;
There were others who passed me or met me each day,
But never a one of them heeded.
Perhaps you were thinking of other folks more,
Or chance simply seemed to decree it;
I know there were many such chances before,
But the others — well, they didn’t see it.
You said just the thing that I wished you would say,
And you made me believe that you meant it;
I held up my head in the old gallant way,
And resolved you should never repent it.
There are times when encouragement means such a lot,
And a word is enough to convey it;
There were others who could have, as easy as not —
But, just the same, they didn’t say it.
There may have been someone who could have done more
To help me along, though I doubt it;
What I needed was cheering, and always before
They had let me plod onward without it.
You helped to refashion the dream of my heart,
And made me turn eagerly to it;
There were others who might have (I question that part) —
But, after all, they didn’t do it!
A moving poem to end this episode. A reminder to be kind, and not just to others but to yourself. Would you speak to your best friend the way that you talk to yourself in your head? Our work for today – to love ourselves and to be the person described in this poem in the way that we take care of us. If you find it hard – think of the person who loves/loved you most and imagine what they would say to you. Feel their love.
So, until next time … look after your beautiful self, and trust the journey.
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