On Thursday, May 12, I spoke at Kingston’s Cheltenham Library Branch at a function for Volunteer Week. This year is also the year of ‘Digital Inclusion’ and the library is keen to support this theme.
Invited by Monique Gielen, a coordinator of the Home Library Service at Kingston Libraries, I was asked to include my journey to online publishing in its various forms and my experiences with the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, as well as my experiences as Kingston’s 2016 Citizen of the Year.
The Home Library Service is run with the generous help of a group of community-minded volunteers, who visit people in their own homes or aged care facilities, bringing their clients library items, conversation and a link to the community.
The function for the volunteers included a welcome and thank you by Kingston’s Mayor Cr Tamsin Bearsley, my speech, a training session on Kingston’s My Community Life website, and a morning tea.
The afternoon designed to recognise the work of the volunteers and create an opportunity for them to engage with each other. There was the added joy of meeting Kingston’s Junior Mayor, Isaac Madafferi and a pupil from Aspendale Gardens Primary, one of six students chosen to spend the day with the Mayor and learn a little about local government services.
Isaac, Me, Aspendale P/S pupil
The Mayor Tamsin Bearsley
Tamsin and me
The Junior Mayor at the podium!
Tamsin explained how important volunteering is to many of the services in our community and quoted recent studies that show people who volunteer are healthier and happier than those who don’t. From my experience, the personal benefits of volunteering are indeed substantial and it is fantastic when volunteer contributions to government services and organisations are acknowledged.
And so to my speech an accompanying PowerPoint Presentation – no mean feat to prepare because having a Mac and using keynote I had to make sure it worked as PPP on a PC – always time-consuming and sometimes a hit and miss that there are no glitches. I could do a whole presentation on dramas with technology!
My presentation on the day a little awkward because there was no remote control and the laptop was behind and to the left of me.
However, with a little help from one of the gracious library staff and the fact I had prepared my speech to stand alone, just in case technology failed, I managed to keep everyone engaged and even received some compliments afterwards.
Big sigh of relief, I’ve survived yet another anxiety producing ‘speaking in public’ event!
What I said and some of the slides I added follow.
Kingston Library Volunteer Function 2016
Good afternoon and thank you very much for inviting me today and allowing me to share your spotlight – this day is about all of you being thanked for your contribution as library volunteers.
It is safe to say, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been selected as Kingston’s Citizen of the Year and I’ve been asked to mention how that is working out, so I’ll tackle that first.
On the day, I received the phone call from Tamsin, the Mayor, I was at Southland with my daughter. I was told I was Kingston’s Citizen of the Year and immediately understood what ‘overwhelmed’ meant. On the drive home with my daughter, I kept shaking my head. Mostly in disbelief, which in many ways still has a hold of me, despite many people saying things like: ‘When I read your name, I was so glad.’
‘You deserve it,’ or ‘about time you got recognition.’
Those reactions reminded me of a line from a Rabbie Burns poem written in 1786.
(For those who don’t know who he is, he wrote Auld Lang Syne and My Love is Like a Red Red Rose plus volumes of other poems that have not been turned into songs! He’s Scotland’s most famous bard and one my father recited all the time.)
The line that comes to mind regarding the praise and support I’ve received is one my father often quoted. This is the anglicised final verse which explains the theme of the poem -:
The poem is To A Louse (in Australia they’re called nits) , which goes to show you can write about anything and be remembered for centuries!
The narrator sitting behind an upper class lady in church notices a louse roving around in her bonnet. The poet chastises the louse for not realising how important his host is, and then reflects that, to a louse, we are all equal prey, and that we would be disabused of our pretensions if we were to see ourselves through each other’s eyes.
An alternative interpretation (and with poetry as you probably learned at school, there is always an alternative interpretation) is that the poet is musing to himself how horrified and humbled the pious woman would be if she were aware she was harbouring a common parasite in her hair.
Well, for me, my reaction at receiving the award was more than disbelief; I was humbled and overcome by the knowledge that someone saw me in a different light as to how I see myself. I don’t think I’m, or my achievements, are particularly remarkable, but I am honoured and thrilled that teaching in community houses is valued, that caring and working within the community as a volunteer is valued, and the contribution of the Mordialloc Writers’ Group is valued.
I am well aware that there are many people who are more deserving (I just have to look around this room) and many others whose reaction would be ‘Who’s Mairi Neil? Why did she get the award?’
However, if it lifts the profile of neighbourhood houses, and of writing and local writers, I’m happy to be humbled, praised, or criticised! So far I’ve been keynote speaker at IWD and here.
I was supposed to speak yesterday at Clarinda but apparently the event was cancelled through lack of interest – so not everyone is tripping over themselves to hear me speak!
The plus side of the award is I get to meet lots of interesting people – as I hope to do again today.
Now I’ll move to a subject I am passionate about – writing. Writer Anne Lamott said,
Libraries are built on books. Schools rely on them and at any given moment there are millions of books on shelves around the world, in homes, in shops and in libraries like this.
Books that share knowledge and experiences of life, that share poetry and prose from every genre imaginable, that entertain, inform, inspire and ignite imagination.
However, as a writer I’m aware that technology has impacted on writing, publishing and reading and I’ll share a little of my journey later, but suffice to say, I personally love the feel of having a book in my hand, and want to not only see my words, but hold them as I read.
An iPad, Kindle, even mobile phone doesn’t do anything for me except make my handbag lighter when I’m travelling. Electronic books are convenient and if video and slide shows are added, they can be more exciting and entertaining than a good old-fashioned print book, but they won’t completely replace them.
You can’t curl up in bed and feel the same relaxation with a kindle. And there’s something magical about having a child on your knee and reading as he or she turns the pages of a picture storybook.
For me communication, learning, community and living – all begin with story.
Australia reaps the benefit of the care taken by the original owners of the land, including the Boonerwrung of the KuIin Nation – without a written language their oral histories and knowledge were handed down through yarns, painting, song and dance. Living books.
Their wisdom helping us preserve this land and thousands of years of knowledge. One of the wonderful developments I’ve seen in my 54 years in Australia is the value added by being able to read the thoughts, ideas, and experience from indigenous writers – their stories no longer filtered through non-indigenous eyes.
Please check out the indigenous literary foundation site and the article by our wonderful local book reviewer Lisa Hill of ANZLit Blog fame, a personal friend, and a Mordialloc writer of course!
In our culture, to write well you must read. A book is a friend and a teacher.
As a writer I create characters, places and events with words. As a teacher I share my knowledge and love of words to instil the passion I feel for recording stories, putting pen to paper, believing all voices equal. I want to help people tell their stories in the best possible way by learning the craft of writing.
I was asked to explain what was my motivation for starting the Writers’ Group.
Simply, I need to write – it’s part of my DNA and it is my passion. And I didn’t want to have to travel into the city to meet other writers.
I started the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, wrote and self-published two books of children’s poetry, Small Talk and More Small Talk and volunteered to do many writing ‘jobs’ like performing writing workshops in local schools, libraries and community centres.
I gave workshops during school holidays and started a program combining craft with writing to encourage primary-aged children to write. I ran these programs at the Mordialloc Neighbourhood House – self-serving in the beginning because I had two daughters who were at primary school.
My writing profile filtered through various networks and I was approached by the co-ordinator at Mordialloc and one at Sandybeach Centre to teach creative writing to adults (accredited and non-accredited courses).
In between I had been approached by schools, a couple of councils (Port Phillip and Dandenong), the Bayside Gifted Children’s Network and two home-educating groups. And so started my journey of paid work in the creative writing and teaching field. On the most part not planned – just evolved.
It has been proven that writing can be therapeutic and I’m not going to argue with that! I’ve been through a fair share of grief and illness in my life and I’ve found reading and writing has helped me keep a balanced perspective and a positive attitude. I’ve been inspired by stories from others and comforted.
“Studies show that writing about oneself and personal experiences can improve mood disorders, help reduce symptoms among cancer patients, improve a person’s health after a heart attack, reduce doctor visits and even boost memory…. Writing — and then rewriting — your personal story can lead to behavioural changes and improve happiness.”
New York Times, “Writing Your Way To Happiness,” Tara Parker-Pope, January 19, 2015
Belonging to a group like the Mordialloc Writers’ certainly helped me with many of the writers being close and supportive friends for two decades. We celebrated the 20th Anniversary in 2015.
Reflecting on our beginnings, I remember how 5 writers met at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House in March 1995, put in $1.00 each to cover the rent and decided to meet fortnightly to workshop writing. We wanted to be able to write and meet locally.
Mordy Writers still meet fortnightly. And although numbers fluctuate membership has increased over the years and when we launched our ninth anthology last year, I know we were envied by other local groups that haven’t lasted.
The Bayside Night Writers and Swag of Tales & Swag of Verse – groups that met and/or produced anthologies no longer meet. Even the successful Bayside Poetry Group is struggling with an ageing membership.
It takes a lot of energy to keep a group vibrant and growing and often there are too few people who are prepared to put in the hours and work necessary to keep groups relevant.
Hosting regular public monthly readings on the last Sunday each month, means we meet other writers not living in the area and local writers who may not be in our group. However, our foundation rules have never changed:
- As a community based writing group we welcome writers in all genres, whether beginners or advanced.
- We are non-profit, our sole purpose being to encourage and support writers in their endeavours to publish, or just remain motivated to write regularly.
- We produce anthologies with any monies received going towards the next book.
- We encourage the love of literature and the importance of creative writing in our culture promoting the versatility and richness of the English language.
- Our inclusive group abhors discrimination. Age, nationality, race, gender, religion, ethnic background or writing ability all secondary to the desire to write.
We have enabled over 60 writers to be published, nurturing several successful prize-winners. Glenice Whitting’s unpublished novel was listed for the Premier’s Award in 2004, and as Pickle to Pie it later won the Ilura Prize for fiction. Sue Parritt workshopped her novel with us, published 2014 as Sannah and the Pilgrim with the second novel in her trilogy, Pia and the Skyman, to be launched in 2 weeks.
Many others have been supported and encouraged to publish collections of poetry and prose including: John West, Stan Fensom, Dorothy Plummer, Bob Croker, Fay Lucas, Jeff Lasbury, Bob Lawson, Gregory Hill ( a successful co-writer of two books), and Dom Heraclides. Coral Waight and Steve Davies have recently published Ebooks.
Plays have been written and performed, one of mine at Kingston’s Write Up Festival. Glenice and Greg were short listed for Varuna scholarships. Writer, Helen Merrick-Andrews developed a publishing business after her involvement in our second anthology.
Readings By The Bay still attracts writers from as varied locations as Frankston and Mt Eliza, Fern Tree Gully and Northcote, Bacchus Marsh and Oakleigh as well as local bay side participants. Several of us are published in other anthologies, online and other media. Alan Ward pursues his love of performance poetry in Germany where he is living for 2 years. Along with other ex-pats he posts his efforts on Youtube.
Because I teach writing at three neighbourhood houses there is a lot of networking, connecting and support with the writing by my students and regular members of the writers’ group. Often attendance at Readings By The Bay is the first public airing writers have of their work and the feedback and social contacts makes confidence soar.
Grants from Kingston Council for professional development enabled the group to host workshops by authors Euan Mitchell and Arnold Zable and as Glenice Whitting and myself both gained a Master’s degree in Writing, it is fair to say any workshopping we do with the group is good value.
Creativity has no boundaries, our members have ranged from 14 to 90 years, for Mordy Writers – it’s not ‘menopausal madness’ – the headline a local paper chose to use from one of my throwaway lines before one book launch! Rather, it’s unpretentious voices attempting to make sense of and celebrate our social and geographical place in the world through the experience of life ‘bayside’.
Ningla- Ana, This our Land
Indigenous and Immigrant together.
Now to the digital age – Adaptability and Flexibility – the modern writer’s mantra.
New book titles published this year:
The following data on books published displayed on the Worldometers’ counter is based on statistics published by UNESCO
United States (2010) 328,259 (new titles and editions)
United Kingdom (2005) 206,000
Australia (2004) 8,602
TOTAL of all countries providing data: approximately 2,200,000
The impact of technology on writing and publishing began 10-15 years ago – when people started reading online and there has been a steady shift of more and more people “googling” ever since.
For most people the first effect was on newspapers and magazines. Advertisers subsidise these – but when people started reading online and didn’t want to pay for it, many journalists lost their jobs.
Classified ads – brought in 1/3 revenue for printed newspapers – that money is gone and will never come back.
Newspapers won’t die they’ll just diminish – even those available online. Social media will see to that. Unfortunately, this has led to a decay in the quality of journalism. There is no money for investigative research or in some cases proofreading – one of my bug bears.
(Read this excellent review of The Media and the Massacre, by Sonya Voumard by Lisa Hill on the same subject.)
If any of you have seen the movie Spotlight about the journalists on the Boston Globe exposing the sex abuse within the Catholic church and subsequent cover up by the church’s hierarchy, you will realise a story like that is more difficult to research today because there is no money to pay investigative journalists. They even hinted at that in the film.
This is why we need independent public broadcasters like the ABC or we’ll be relying on whistleblowers like Edward Snowden for exposés.
However, competing in the digital world and the 24 hour news cycle is more difficult to maintain quality even for a properly funded ABC.
And yet readers are still there for quality journalism and we’ll bemoan and miss good writing.
And the same thing is happening to books.
Unless you are a well-known author or work in the academic world it is very hard to get published and market and sell books in the digital age. We live in a time where there is access to audiences all over the world – anyone can set up a blog or create a pdf and load it up to Amazon or Create Space or WordPress and call themselves a published author.
But how do you find the good stuff from the thousands on Amazon? How do you know the book is a quality read, whether it has been edited, properly researched and even that it’s the author’s own work?
This is where good library staff, like those in Kingston come into their own along with trusted reviewers!
Hundreds and thousands of books are loaded up online every year, the competition is fierce and authors like myself must learn to be lay-out and design experts, cover designers and marketers – be up-to-date with the various formats and ever-changing software and hardware. That is a very steep learning curve. Especially for my age group – when I left the paid workforce to start a family I thought I was the bees knees because I had a golfball typewriter!
And like many things you buy online, illustrations can be deceptive and the hype about a book can be just that. Sure we read of successful authors and how much money people make from downloads but reality is if you are a writer in Australia be prepared to have another job as well if you like to eat – especially if you are a creative writer.
I had to embrace new technology with limited expertise; trust disembodied distant relationships with tutors and students when I did my Master’s degree; adapt lifestyle, extend boundaries, be flexible and most of all, be open to change.
Everywhere I went with workshops and in my teaching I met and still meet writers who don’t understand technology. I’ve learned to never make assumptions about people’s digital knowledge or ability.
Here is a poem I wrote in 2001 after a workshop I did to help the local U3A class put together an anthology – Mavis exists, albeit under a different name.
Mavis wanted to be a writer,
a desire throughout her life
but circumstances meant priorities
of being a mother and a wife.
And then her dream was realised
in her twilight years
Mavis joined U3A
Writing For Pleasure banished fears.
Encouraged to write short stories
and poems inspired from muse
her tutor suggested a computer
was the recording tool to use.
Mavis approached her grandson
an accountant, he knew computing well
being a prolific writer, Mavis had
thoughts of a book to sell.
She sat at her grandson’s computer
set at the program called Excel
and typed her poetry and prose
a line to every cell!
© mairi neil 2001
My writing and teaching journey is proving worthwhile, despite constantly feeling ‘screen’ tired with a mind ticking over like a Geiger counter.
The craft of writing is what I enjoy the most; it is 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 words, the nuances, the flexibility, the chance to experiment, the fire of imagination.
In my experience, the most difficult aspect of writing is editing and rewriting to ‘get it right’ and it is the aspect too many writers put in the ‘too hard’ basket.
The field of writing is more competitive now than in the past and the proliferation of writing courses, celebrity authors and the need to compete with technological entertainment has had a profound change on the world of wordsmiths.
The U3A writing classes, people living longer and being active, e-publishing, print on demand– a whole range of things will impact on people like me.
But when dealing with publishers, printers, editors and even other writers I remember the three Ps:–preparedness, politeness and persistence and just like the 70s I know the times are a changing and as a lifelong learner I’m determined to keep up.
When I finished my talk I played a short digital story I made a couple of years ago through the Center of Digital Storytelling in America. Their workshops were online and my introduction to international conferencing and webinars and the amazing possibilities of online teaching and digital storytelling.
It was a reality check on the skills I thought I had but a wonderful experience workshopping with people from countries as diverse as Jamaica, Scotland, Australia and a variety of American States! Many of them giggled when by the third week of checking in at 4.00am I admitted to appearing in my pyjamas – trendy as they were!
No appearing in pyjamas at Cheltenham though!
After the talk it was lovely to meet up with a past student and fellow writer and take a selfie; visit Ancient Greece and look forward to going home and reading the latest history of Mordialloc by local historians Leo Gamble and Graham Whitehead, a delightful thank you gift.
There are some perks in being Citizen of the Year – and the warm welcome and meeting the dedicated staff and volunteers at Cheltenham Library is definitely at the top of the list.