The Writerly Self – A Reflective Essay on a Personal Journey of Professional Development

‘Writing about writing is one way to grasp, hold, and give added meaning to a process that remains one of life’s great mysteries… the moment of exquisite joy when necessary phrases come together and the work is complete, finished, ready to be read.’

writers by the bay - anthology 1, 1997
writers by the bay – anthology 1, 1997

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been engaged with reading and writing. In school, ‘to be a writer’ the first and latterly the only desire expressed whenever asked ‘what career do you want?’ At high school during the end of the sixties the education system, and indeed society, acknowledged females could dream of a career and not a job, however, the proviso ‘until they married to produce the next generation’ was implied.  Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch opened up an amazing new world of questions and ideas.

My working class migrant home and public high school considered creative writing something done in your spare time; innate talent may lead to ‘discovery’, but rarely financial success. No courses teaching the craft existed as far as I knew and the feminist rewriting of the male-dominated canon of Australian fiction did not begin until the late 1970s. Parents and teachers assumed ‘journalist’ and ‘writer’ interchangeable.

So, I studied history (another love) at university, travelled, worked at various skilled and semi-skilled jobs, married, had children, started a writing group, became involved in schools and the community, cared for my dying husband, devised courses and began teaching, and always kept writing: academic assignments, articles for magazines, newsletters, stories for family, poetry for myself and others, letters, postcards, haphazard journal entries, lesson plans, even some imaginative creative pieces. Enthralled by the power and beauty of words, I tried to harness the thoughts and stories swirling in my head.

No passion has been as constant, as true as this love‘.

I enrolled in the Master of Arts (Writing) after encouragement from Glenice Whitting, a member of Mordialloc Writers’ Group. A trusted ‘critical’ friend, Glenice finished a novel, won a literary prize, and launched her book at the Writers’ Festival after studying a similar course at Melbourne University. This inspiring journey of achievement culminated in a PhD (well done Dr Glenice Whitting) and the completion of another major writing project.

Each fortnight, workshopping at our local neighbourhood house the group gained valuable tips to improve our writing when Glenice  shared philosophical and theoretical ideas from her readings. This generosity, found in the Mordialloc Writers’ Group contributes to the quality of each other’s work. The listening, the absorbing, the constructive feedback, the valuing of learning and always striving to be better writers.

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In 2010, with Glenice’s insistent ‘do it,’ I took the plunge and enrolled at Swinburne University: to focus on my writing dreams, to transform entrenched habits and improve my craft, stretch reading horizons, and move out of my comfort zone by seeking help from more accomplished writers within and without, academia. I hoped the experience would make me a better teacher too!

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The online course suited family, financial, and work commitments. However, returning to tertiary study after almost forty years absence, a challenge with difficulties I didn’t foresee! The volume and academic style of most set readings confronting and at times overwhelming. Academic texts needed examination, deconstruction and clarification. What did they mean, if anything, to my writing life and style? This deep reflection of my work a new concept, as well as being time-consuming and requiring discipline, but two years in a life of over half a century didn’t seem much of a sacrifice – or so I thought.

I embraced new technology with limited expertise, trusted disembodied relationships with tutors and students, many living interstate and in different countries. Despite being ‘screen’ tired with a mind ticking over like a Geiger counter, the joy in writing I sought returned, albeit slowly. I began to reflect on the process itself when the initial shock of ‘settling in’ was compounded by a diagnoses of breast cancer. Life is full of surprises, but perhaps the biggest surprise is the strength we find within when needed.

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A new world beckoned. With help and support from family and friends, I adapted my lifestyle, extended boundaries and learnt the true meaning of flexible hours: working into the night, forgetting what television looked like and leaving more of the day-to-day running of the house to my daughters. Although, always open to change, this unplanned border crossing never foreseen for my late 50s. On reflection, the journey not only proved worthwhile, but gave me a fantastic focus and distraction through a health crisis I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy! In modern parlance, working towards and achieving my master’s degree a definite ‘game changer’.

The richness of other student contributions gave new perspectives as well as exposure to a variety of genres. Could I write a suspense novel? A gritty screenplay? A monologue? Poetry? Be a short story writer? What about creative non-fiction? Historical romance?

I had been writing everyday, but not necessarily the writing I wanted to do. My goal of self discipline to create time to write every day on a desired project and not because a deadline loomed, seemed elusive. The intensity of study, the volume and regularity of the submissions required, left little time for stream of consciousness writing or spontaneous creativity, but there was excitement and developing friendships amongst all the learning.

The concepts of dramaturgy and frame theory were new to me, although perhaps I’d been applying frame theory and considering dramaturgy for years without knowing the theoretical name. I visualise each scene before I write and edit – almost as if watching it on television, or acting in front of a mirror – the preferred method of Charles Dickens who created characters and acted them out to perfect expressions and voices.

From the beginning there was a very strong connection between the oral and the literary in Dickens’ art.”

I work out the order of the detail in my short stories to help with sentence structure and avoid dangling modifiers. I’m an ‘outliner’, not a ‘pantser’. The dictionary defines dramaturgy as ‘a theory, which interprets individual behaviour as the dramatic projection of a chosen self’. I create characters, put them into situations, and imagine how they walk, talk, and act. I draw on my observations, but also personal experience. Some see dramaturgy as ‘a way of understanding and analysing theatrical performances… to help us understand the complexity of human interactions in a given situation’.

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As a people watcher, I observe and scribble in a notebook, taken everywhere. An event, a smell, sound or person triggers the muse. Later, these pages filled with character profiles, plus ideas for prose and poems become details in stories. Sometimes I’m inspired and start writing the story on the train or in the cafe, if I can write undisturbed. The bones of a story grow. Writers must be curious and record observations because this advice is repeated in almost all articles and books on the craft of writing.

On the city-bound train , two deaf people are having an animated conversation. Six metal bangles on the overweight woman’s right arm so tight they don’t jangle as she waves her hands. The man unkempt, yet an expensive camera hangs across his chest. Are they tourists tired or stressed from travelling? What is it like coping with such a profound disability on public transport where commuters rely on announcements over the tannoy? What if the train breaks down?

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” ‘Playing our parts.’ Yes we all have to do that and from childhood on, I have found that my own character has been much harder to play worthily and far harder at times to comprehend than any of the roles I have portrayed.”

Bette Davis 1908-89

I prefer this quote from Bette Davis to the Shakespearean ‘All the world’s a stage‘. I’ve struggled over the years being dutiful daughter, loving and supportive wife, responsible, nurturing mother, loyal friend and sister, diligent employee, interested teacher… ‘playing’ roles yet aching to be a writer and wondering how well I ‘perform’ when my heart and brain are focussed elsewhere. Everybody is an actor on a stage Shakespeare called ‘the world,’ however, for most people, the stage is a much smaller ‘my life’.

Shakespeare’s gift of using the stage as a metaphor for living clever  because everyone is born (makes an entrance); dies (exits) and plays different roles from birth. Researching to find the context for the now clichéd quote I’m sidetracked as usual ( a major failing). So many Internet sites and tomes from bookshelves cite, deconstruct, dissect, and revere Shakespeare.

My ego wonders if in the future anyone will read my writing. Can/will I ever write anything as profound or memorable as the speech by the melancholic Jaques in As You Like It? The ‘seven ages’ of man condensed in cynical terms in a limerick by British poet Robert Conquest:

Seven stages, first puking and mewling,
Then very pissed off with your schooling;
Then fucks and then fights
Then judges chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers, then drooling!

When I think of writing Dad’s story and his love of pithy poetry and the verses he made up, I wonder if I should frame each chapter around poetry. Introduce the stages of his life using either a poem or song by Robert Burns, his favourite bard. I reject the last line of Conquest’s limerick. Dad’s dementia and the long period of emotional stress the family experienced will not be reduced to such an image. My Father’s life should not be defined by the changes wrought by illness and ageing.

I want my world to end with a ‘bang’ not a ‘whimper’ to borrow from T.S Eliot. A couple of my short stories work as ‘faction’ so I will keep experimenting. Sometimes it’s easier to fictionalise traumatic events or deep feelings, be the cold observer rather than a participator!

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An article on Dramaturgical Analysis gave me a new perspective and some good ideas on a play about the environment I was asked to write for Grades 5 and 6. An idea to teach the children about environmental sustainability and along a similar theme to Sense and Sustainability: A Fable for our Times. If developing the play, I’ll consider the ideological frame as well as the structural frame. I want the children to identify with the issues and realise they can make a difference. I hadn’t considered using a myth or folktale to provide organisation for ideas, but appreciate how reference to well-known stories may add depth to the script and enrich an audience’s understanding. In Australia, because of our multi-cultural population there are myriads of folk tales to draw on.

It’s a steep learning curve to look through a playwright’s eyes and use dramaturgical analysis as a critical tool, but I enjoyed finding out about  the proscenium arch and other terminology associated with theatre; how a play will be presented and the difference images and symbols make. The proscenium arch is the performance area between the background and the orchestra or between the curtain or drop-scene and the auditorium. Many innovative ways to use this space present themselves.

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In a piece of happenstance I won free tickets to the Victorian Opera’s interpretation of Chekhov’s The Bear. There was a split stage, which gave wonderful visual framing ideas. Aleatory, another new word learned: ‘technology is used to suppress aleatory results‘. Aleatory is defined as ‘depending on the throw of a die or on chance, depending on uncertain contingencies or involving random choice by the composer, performer, or artist.’ Learning to use the Internet for research, it seemed the exact opposite sometimes.

I typed ‘workhouse’ into Google for family history information and came up with 3,460,000 links in 21 seconds. No doubt the number and speed increased since 2010. By only using the word, many irrelevant results and often random associations appear. To save time and get the most benefit out of the Internet I learned to be smarter.

The exposure to other writers in the course led to discussions about books by ‘colonial’ writers revealing heritage and raising issues of identity. I determined to reread many loved favourites as a writer as well as a reader, especially after a tutor asked, ‘to what extent do white writers have to consider their colour as writers?

A difficult question to answer as a white woman, who has always lived in a free society. I agree with bell hooks, there is a ‘link between my writing and spiritual belief and practice… how our class background influences both what we write, how we write, and how the work is received.’

Most white writers don’t give their colour a second thought if they live where they are the dominant culture. However, an Australian writer Harry Nicolaides while living in Thailand was incarcerated for insulting the Thai royal family in his novel. I would think many writers living in some Islamic countries need to be careful. In Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran and even Turkey imprisoned journalists and writers make the news. We tend to think of Europeans being the main colonial powers in recent history and the colonised non-white, but in the 1930s and 40s Japan expanded its empire. Even in recent times, the Indian sub-continent and African continent have more than their fair share of colonial trauma.

To write my family history with an Irish mother and a Highland father the experiences of the Irish and Scottish populations must be considered and the effects of England’s colonial behaviour. Dr Johnson’s view in his journal, Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland,reveals a narrow, disdainful individual, whose sojourns into that which is unknown to him may be compared to the impressions of those first Europeans who penetrated the African interior, socially placing its inhabitants as inferior.’

The Highland Clearances and the aftermath sent many people, including some of my relatives to Australia. They lost their land and came out here to displace the indigenous population. I’d like to explore this sad irony and grave injustice in my writing. You can’t rewrite history, but you can examine the story from different angles and make an effort for a balanced account.

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How does my hybridity affect my writing? I feel like an uprooted tree with memories and attachments to many places. I travelled a lot when younger and hope to do so again. I struggle to keep a journal yet when travelling, writing became second nature, especially letters home. Boxes of paraphernalia sit in the garden shed to be turned into stories ‘one day’.

I found a handful of old postcards after an aunt died and a fascination with a first cousin of my father’s began. He bears Dad’s name and is buried in Egypt – another nineteen year-old casualty of Gallipoli. I empathised with Hélène Cixous when she stood and cried at her grandfather’s grave, a person dead long before she was born – a photograph in an album, a family legend.

All biographies like all autobiographies like all narratives tell one story in place of another story.

I wrote a short piece of prose about discovering our family’s ANZAC, but further research makes the story change. I learnt his parents still spoke Gaelic and try to imagine what he thought in the trenches of Gallipoli fighting beside Scots as well as other nationalities. Did he identify as an Aussie? Did he think himself noticeably different?

One tutor asked, ‘What do you think of the idea that writing itself is a process of self-knowing… we come to know ourselves through the things we write? Post examples of your ‘voice’ to illustrate how you use language.’

Are the paths our writing takes us down, paths to self knowledge? Often I surprise myself when I read a poem or story I’ve written. I ponder: did I write that? Even when I think I’m in control of the pen and words, my writerly self takes its own path!

I’m an ‘inheritor as well as an originator,’and like bell hooks I believe my ability and desire to write are blessings. I am the keeper of the stories of parents’ and family, in particular my mother’s. Mum spoke into a tape recorder for several hours telling ‘herstory’, and I am immensely grateful we spent time together to record the events she thought important. It’s still a painful task to listen and type. Mum’s voice triggers strong emotions; fingers freeze on the keyboard and tears flow. Complicated grief can last a long time, her death still feels raw.

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A sense of ‘voice’ crucial in writing therefore I want to make sure it is Mum’s voice and not mine when I write her story. Yet, as I record extracts for a women’s memoir site in America, and life story classes here, my story is being written too. I know my voice changes depending on what I’m writing, sometimes from a conscious effort because I don’t want fictional characters to sound like me, or all the factual characters either!

Years ago, my brother George rang me after reading a story of mine in Mordialloc Writers’ third anthology, Up the Creek With a Pen. ‘Mairi, I had to read it twice it was so good. It’s very different from your other stories, I didn’t even pick you as the writer.

Up The Creek With A Pen, anthology 3, 2003
Up The Creek With A Pen, anthology 3, 2003

This ‘backhanded compliment’ made me go back and read the story again! What made it so different? The topic? The male protagonist? The language ? The pacing? Another step along the road of maturity in the craft; learning to pay more attention to how the words sit on the page?

The craft of writing is what I enjoy the most; it’s my comfort zone and I know this is why I love teaching creative writing because for a few hours a week I share my passion for the English language, its nuances, its flexibility, the chance to experiment, and the fire of imagination.

I recall a student comment about family history , ‘It’s funny though, that the stories we tell the most are often the hardest to put to paper. Sometimes the best stories are the ones we are so comfortable with that they live and grow with us and so writing them is counter-productive.

I noticed repetition in the stories with Mum, as I interviewed her over four years, yet the telling was different. Dad, an entertaining raconteur repeated the same tales with or without embellishments. I don’t see writing them down as counter-productive, rather I consider the stories are part of our family lore, they’ve made an impression to be retained over the span of a lifetime (in my parents’ case, 80 plus years). I want to record the memorable ones, work out why they remain important. Retain them for future generations because idiosyncratic tales make each family unique. I regret not recording Dad before Dementia robbed his memory.

Another student, an accomplished writer commented on poems I’d written, ‘I suppose I’m looking for you to take it one step further – is this the only side of Mum? What brings you to remember? and similarly for Journey home – are you there? What’s it feel like? I want some personal insight or big picture analysis.’

For Mum
Mairi Neil
I think of you baking scones,
your floral apron streaked with flour.
Ingredients never measured,
just swirled together
by experienced hands,
used to work. And gifting love.
The soft splat of dough
against Formica,
the thump of rolling pin,
scrape of metal cutter,
and then,
the leftover scraps
patted to shape a tiny scone…
‘For you – this special one,’ you said.

The Journey Home
Mairi Neil

He squeezes past me
on the escalators
at Melbourne Central
overweight and red-faced
wheezing in time
with the clunk
of her strapless high heels
clattering like hooves
on cobblestones of old

He flings a challenge
over his shoulder
‘The train leaves in one minute!’

wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk
wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk

She puffs and pants
heels galloping
breath exploding
the momentary hesitation
as the ticket machine swallows
and reluctantly spits tickets
into waiting fingers
frantic eyes balloon
at more escalators
to be negotiated

wheeze kerplunk clunk clunk!

Mum was not just the cook, nor indeed ‘just a mum’. I’ve spent a long time (perhaps too long!) researching to ensure her time in the army, as a nurse and many other experiences BC (before children), as well as her achievements and contribution to community and church in Scotland and Australia are recorded. The jigsaw of her life complete so people understand the big picture. We are all complicated human beings.

I wrote the poem about the scones as a special memory to read at mum’s funeral and it struck a chord with others to be published elsewhere.

‘Although I have not written in this journal for a month, storytelling has been an active and dominant part of my life during this time.’

Skywalker Payne

My writerly self understands imagination works overtime, characters and plots in abundance go unrecorded or not shared with writing buddies. Family history/tales come alive when we recount parents’ or our own lives to children and there’s an urge to record them for posterity. That’s what writers do.

Anais Nin, Katherine Mansfield and Henry Thoreau achieved much in their journals. The beneficial aspect of keeping a diary well-documented. It can be the start of poems, prose, and novels. One of my students kept a journal for 35 years before substituting it with a ‘blog’.

I often think of ‘the women writers whose work and literary presence influences me, shaping the contours of my imagination, expanding the scope of my vision.This blog could help me too.

Novels may still be unfinished, stories lacklustre, poetry mere doggerel – some days I feel everything, but a writer. The longing to write what I want instead of what seems to be needed (by deadlines, briefs, other people) exists. A deep yearning drives me to counteract the reality of creative writing as something squashed between other life commitments. To feel gladness, not just relief, when the words are on paper, will probably always be a difficult goal to achieve.

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I’ll keep scribbling and hoping it will gel one day.

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