‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.’
Read The Little Prince, a wonderful example of never giving up your dreams.
This quote and the great example of the author’s life so appropriate when I think of why I teach and the positive reinforcement approach I use in my writing classes at local community houses: Writing for Pleasure & Publication, Writing & Editing, Memoir to Manuscript and Life Stories & Legacies.
This past week as the classes end for the year I distributed anthologies I’d prepared of people’s work so they could see their writing published. At Godfrey Street we also produced a calendar – writing haiku and terse verse inspired by the work of the painting & drawing classes. The calendar is sold as a fundraiser. Most students were amazed at the quantity, quality, and range of their polished pieces. Looks of pride, accomplishment and joy abound when the writers see their names in print!
It’s a labour of love preparing these books, extra work at home, but they are an invaluable historical record, as well as a wonderful legacy of the fantastic writers I’ve met over the years. When I read the poems and stories I hear the voice of the writer, picture them in class and often relive the lesson or social interaction. Many of the students return each year, others come back after a gap of years, others spend a term, a semester or a year and then move on – all leave an impression on me. When the receptionist at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House had an enquiry about what we do on a Monday morning, ‘ what do they write about?’ she said, ‘I’m not sure, but they laugh a lot!’ And indeed we do. Our class is marvellous therapy for Monday morning blues. Nicknamed ‘Minnie Ha Ha’ by my parents when I was growing up, I’ve always believed in laughter as therapy and many doctors will agree! It helps of course when you have people who enjoy a laugh with you. One of my students is unpredictable and delights us with the various props she will bring along to illustrate her homework!
First and foremost I try to instil a passion for words – for reading as well as writing. Encouragement to move from comfort zones to try different genres, write from the heart, start with stream of consciousness, but then go back and edit, rewrite, edit – even start from the beginning! A writer’s life is hard work.
Last Saturday, along with Glenice Whitting, I represented Mordialloc Writers’ and ourselves at the local end of the year author thank you hosted by Mentone Public Library. Local children’s author George Ivanov spoke about his recent success in gaining a publishing deal with Random House that has changed his life. George was generous and enthusiastic in sharing his long journey to success, his process of writing and tips and the knowledge he has garnered along the way.
The one message that came across loud and clear was EVERY writer, no matter how successful, must consult a good editor! Even if you are competent to edit your own work someone else needs to read the manuscript and give you an honest opinion, not so much about line editing such as spelling and grammar, but the all important structure! Do you need that paragraph, or chapter? The plot comes unstuck and doesn’t make sense in chapter six because those characters have never met before! Who are your audience because chapter seven is gruesome/too childish/airy fairy/romantic mush…? Do you need to lose chapter three because it slows the pace too much…
In a world where authors are taking control and self-publishing proliferates this is an important point to be mindful of and to follow. A friend and fellow writer Lisa Hill who has an award winning site reviewing books refuses to review self-published work for that very reason. Inundated with books to review from traditional publishers here and overseas, she gives their books priority because she knows they have at least gone through a professional editing process and that is how she chooses to use her precious reading time. More and more there are sites where authors can share their work and receive feedback and use these reviews to improve and promote their work, but they should do this process BEFORE releasing their work to the general public, to ensure their writing is the best quality it can be. The other alternative of course is to belong to a writers’ group and receive regular support and feedback. Mordialloc Writers’ Group has been helping authors this way for 20 years.
I founded the group because I wanted to meet others who loved writing and to have their support and critique. A couple of stories were commercially published and I’d started a writing course by correspondence, but craved the company of people who understood what it was like to have characters and ideas taking over thought processes and lying awake at 3.00am figuring out plots and storylines! At a local exhibition of my children’s poetry a man with a look of incredulity on his face, said, ‘ how does your mind work?’ I’m still working out whether it was a backhanded compliment or a suggestion I needed help! The company of fellow creatives a great solace.
I love history and mythology, but don’t write fantasy or horror. Most of my short stories are character driven. To have the reader believe in your characters and engage emotionally and care about their journey, always my starting point. I want to write about ordinary working people; celebrate their lives, struggles and triumphs – the cliched ‘human condition.’ Not surprising when I grew up with a father who quoted ‘our Rab’ daily especially these verses from Address To The Unco Guid, Or The Rigidly Righteous, 1786:
Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark, –
The moving Why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.
Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.
Deconstructing the message, this poem celebrates what I love about writing and writers – the insight and ability to express the experience of the flaws and foibles of human nature, but plead for tolerance and understanding. Put yourself in another’s shoes, look through my eyes…
Considering the state of the world at the moment and tragedies such as Australia experienced yesterday when a very angry and disturbed man decided on a suicidal path for publicity and innocent people were caught up in the turmoil, the world needs writers to dig deeper, comment, suggest alternative views, explore what it means to be human and how we do, should or could relate to the world we live in, and the possibilities of what happens afterwards.
I don’t want to live in the kind of world where we don’t look out for each other … I want to touch the heart of the world and make it smile.
Charles de Lint
As I reflect on the year, I also reflect on my writing journey. Each year I strive to improve by doing professional development, and each year I realise how far I have to go! Here is the first piece of writing I was actually PAID for (if it was today I would have taken a picture of the cheque with my phone, it’s such a rarity!), published in The Weekly Times, a Victorian newspaper that had a circulation of 125,00 in its heyday – big numbers considering the population at the time, but now I think it is mainly read online, like so many others.
I was inspired by a character of course – a tram driver well-known to public transport users in Melbourne in the 70s and 80s. A man I observed, one night a week for a term, when I travelled out to Stonnington after work for night classes in creative writing with Gerald Murnane and John Powers.
A Ticket To Vaudeville
Pierre waited at the depot for the duty inspector to allocate the routes. Leaning against a stationary tram, he grinned at the friendly banter of the milling trammies, the conversations reflecting the varying backgrounds of the multicultural crews. I’m lucky, he mused. I have good health despite nearing sixty. I have a job I enjoy, although I still get confused with figures. My friends are loyal, and most of all… I am free.
Dewdrops glistened like beads of sweat on tram doors, tram windows, even uniforms and Pierre rubbed his bony hands together like firesticks, willing the sun to melt the hazy early morning mist and produce another glorious autumn day for Melbourne. A smell drifted past and Pierre sniffed, contorting his large hooked nose to imprison the aroma forever. Freshly baked bread and the fragrance of certain cheeses reminded him of his hometown Toulouse, in southern France. He smiled and shook his head.
I tell Banija not to refer to Yugoslavia as home, yet here am I doing the same thing although I’ve lived here half my life in peace and freedom , away from Gestapo jackboots. Why I’d probably get lost in Toulouse now…
Jack’s strident Australian voice shattered Pierre’s reverie. ‘Come on dopey Pierre. We’re on Route 67. Shake yer gangly leg, we leave in five minutes!’ Gathering his money float and bag of tickets, Pierre followed Jack to the empty tram. Performing his Rudolph Nureyev imitation he leapt aboard, smiling to an appreciative audience of laughing trammies awaiting their allocation. ‘Au Revoir Pierre,’ they chorused. Pierre laughed too, the sound banishing memories of war-torn France from surfacing.
Tram Number 67 trundled through the city streets filling rapidly with peak hour commuters. Pierre said, ‘Gude Morning’ to each passenger as he collected fares. There were some familiar faces. He punched their tickets before they spoke. Sally blushed yet again when he commented on her beauty. The hospital matron giggled like a schoolgirl when he kissed her hand with exaggerated Gallic gallantry. The suited business brigade hid their faces in newspapers to avoid Pierre’s piercing blue eyes peering over his bifocals. A mischief maker, Pierre rustled their papers, pestered them to join him in song. Ignoring their embarrassed silence, he rejoiced, clicking his puncher rhythmically, ‘Money, money, money eez all I want…’
Schoolboys bunched in the doorway sniggered at the ‘loony conductor’. ‘I won’t deeezapont youz ma frens.’ Pierre called as he clicked the last ticket. Prancing down the aisle with practised ease, he pulled a yellow yo-yo from his pocket and flicked it in front of astonished passengers. ‘Flash those concession cards, eh boys! You think I’m an old fool but I do my job well!’
The tram shuddered to a halt at Flinders Street Station. Pierre bowed with a flourish to the departing throng, satisfied most customers left smiling. ‘Roll up! Roll up! Take your seats for the next show,’ he announced before the tram chugged onwards. While collecting fares, Pierre began his ritual of greeting each passenger with crazy antics and candid comments. Most responded with surprised chuckles.
At the end of the aisle, Pierre turned to see some downcast faces. He pushed his hat sideways, twisted his angular face into a comical, shape, pursed his lips and whistled, ‘Let’s Twist Again’. Weighed down with his satchel, he gyrated awkwardly in the confined space. Another stop. More giggling commuters alighted. A couple climbed aboard. The tram trembled before proceeding.
Pierre pretended to be Tarzan, swinging through the length of the tram using the ceiling straps. Two ladies convulsed with laughter couldn’t ask for a ticket. Pierre pulled off his hat, threw it in the air, bowed slightly, then caught it expertly with his balding head. ‘At your service mademoiselles.’
The tram turned into Toorak Road for the final leg of the journey. Pierre plonked into a vacant seat. Bathed in a beam of sunlight, he confessed,
‘Ladeez and Chentlemen, remember these words from Pierre. Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone.’