Walk, Talk And Listen – While The Children Tell Their Stories

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Mornington

Last week I received an email from the Arts Centre informing me that “we have another community engagement project at Arts Centre Melbourne that you might be interested in being part of called The Walking Neighbourhood.”

I was definitely interested! Especially if it turns out to be as entertaining and satisfying as Dominoes, my last community volunteering effort.

The two poetry books I published in the 1990s were inspired by my daughters and their friends, so how wonderful to see the world from the viewpoint of current young people. Primary children through to adolescents will be involved – what a privilege to hear their interests,  concerns, imagination and ideas first hand unfiltered by what the media portrays and assumes.

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THE WALKING NEIGHBOURHOOD

In The Walking Neighbourhood, young people take the lead and give you the opportunity to experience life through their eyes as they take you on a unique guided tour of Melbourne’s Arts Precinct. In a series of short walks, you will be taken on a one-of-a-kind exploration of the places and stories that they think are most important.

 This project is community based and is a wonderful opportunity to give children and young people a voice in sharing their ideas and perspective on their neighbourhoods and cities. Children and youth have the capacity to transform a space with their vivid imaginations, their bright and bubbly energy and their ability to think creatively approaching situations from completely different perspectives.

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It is a sad fact that modern children, particularly those who live in the city and suburbs, don’t have the freedom I remember from childhood. Rarely do you see children playing in the street or local park like we did when there were fewer cars and before ‘stranger danger’ instilled fear into so many communities. Fear of children being molested, attacked or kidnapped prevents many families letting children explore or play independent of adults.

Fewer children walk to and from school without parental supervision and exploring unfamiliar places without an adult in attendance is rare.

This intergenerational project the Arts Centre Melbourne has arranged appealed to me because it is a unique opportunity.

Ironically, the children participating in this project will have an adult volunteer like me with them, but we will be stage managers and prop carriers if need be, to be directed by the children. We’ll help them present what they want as they lead the walk and share their stories.

Conceived during residencies with Mammalian Diving Reflex in 2 schools, Tasmania Australia and Toronto Canada, where 11 year olds shared very similar concerns about their lack of autonomy, The Walking Neighbourhood responds to the rising hysteria around children in public space and their safety.

In Melbourne, The Walking Neighbourhood will take place next weekend, Saturday June 4 and Sunday June 5 and my shifts are in the afternoon from 1pm – 4pm. It is a free event and from what I understand from attending an induction evening, there will be more than 100 children involved. This will be the most ambitious program the resident artists and local helpers have tackled since the concept’s inception in 2010.

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On Friday afternoon, I went into the Arts Centre to help make craft items for the event. A space in the Arts Centre will be the launching point for the walks but also a place where adults and children alike  can participate in making craft, interact and get to know each other.

Judy, Nalika and myself were given the task of making God’s Eyes – a simple task if any of us could remember how to do them! A quick Google search and memories were jogged.

The Internet is indeed amazing, but we could have done with a child to show us instead of searching for a strong enough signal to watch a Youtube demonstration.  For a moment we wished we were outside painting with some of the other volunteers!

I have another session this Thursday night where I’ll be working with some of the teenagers on another craft activity – let’s hope it’s one I can do!

I’ve practised at home and made a few more God’s Eyes and just hope I don’t forget the skill for the workshops on the weekend!

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Practice makes perfect.

Working with the volunteers and visiting artists and having a coffee and cake together in the cafe allows us to share our stories and is one of the delightful pluses of these community projects.

I also love the opportunity of seeing the city at different times and in different seasons.

In a couple of my writing classes we have been writing Triolets again and I wrote one on the train home from the Arts Centre on Friday afternoon while thinking of being there late on Tuesday evening and reflecting on what a difference light makes and how it can effect beauty and mood.

Marvellous Melbourne
Mairi Neil

Marvellous Melbourne, majestic and beautiful
Breathtaking reminder of how lucky we are
Of all the world’s cities, you are the most liveable
Marvellous Melbourne, majestic and beautiful
Caught in your spell, my obsession not curable
Strolling Southgate’s walkways, beneath sun or star
Marvellous Melbourne, majestic and beautiful
Breathtaking reminder of how lucky we are

Melbourne Arts Precinct, vibrant and alive
Tourists and locals add culture and mood
Walk Princes Bridge, there is no need to drive
Melbourne Arts Precinct, vibrant and alive!
Yarra River rippling, entrancing – life thrives
Stalls, dancing, busking, a variety of food
Melbourne Arts Precinct, vibrant and alive
Tourists and locals add culture and mood.

 

I can appreciate the beauty of this part of Melbourne regardless of the time of day – what about you?

Have you ever been inspired to capture your love of Melbourne or another city in verse?

 

Flash Fiction: Fanciful Fun But Good Writing Practice

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In my classes at local neighbourhood houses, we create a special writing environment to encourage each other to write;  to be in the mood to write when we are in that space.

The most important part of the class is the writing – for some students it’s the first chance they have in a busy week to put pen to paper, or perhaps take a break from whatever writing project they are working on. Some go to other writing classes like U3A, others are enrolled in TAFE or University courses.

I give prompts to flex those writing muscles, trigger ideas, spark a splurge!

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No one expects a masterpiece in 20 – 30 minutes of stream of consciousness writing but the future poems and prose that arise from the ideas contained in the splurge are guaranteed to be useful when the writer sets to work editing, rewriting, fashioning the poem, fictional story, memoir, faction, play or film script into something readable later.

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Is Time Disappearing More Quickly?

I can’t believe another term is almost over – where did the time go? However as a wintry chill sets in, the days shrink and the nights grow longer, it’s an opportune time to catch up on reading and writing. No excuses necessary to stay inside warm and snug.

This morning, as I stare at rain dripping from the trees and commuters hurrying to the station trying to avoid the puddles gathering on the pavement, it is indeed an inviting incentive to stay at the computer and lose myself in a fanciful world where the sun is shining, roses blossom and children’s laughter floats through the air.

Or perhaps, after examining the dark clouds and the shadows among the shrubbery I’ll start a gothic tale or two!

Imagination knows no bounds…

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From first line triggers, bizarre plots and a selection of picture postcards I’ve encouraged students to try  flash fiction as a way of honing writing skills. To keep word count under a 1000 words, or aim for some of the more prescriptive counts: under 200 , 500 , 800 words, even  50 or 60 word counts – this takes skill in planning, editing and of course seeking the all-important twist or surprise at the end to make the short form worthwhile.

Flash fiction improves your editing skills but also helps you think about plots, how to craft a story in a few words – add the senses, show not tell and all the other attributes important to story-telling and writing.

You can pick up on what is happening around you, what’s in the news, the latest issue that’s the flavour of the month and instead of delving too deeply, taking months of research, you craft a short story and vent and create an up-to-the minute piece!

Since technology has given us the ability to read books on iPad, Kindle, mobile phone and a variety of other portable devices, writers have a huge market to consider – those who read via screen and those short of time. (Which includes just about everybody in the modern world!)

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There have been plenty of studies detailing how reading online differs from reading a traditional book. The most obvious being page and word size and the demand for shorter and more concise writing.

Enter the popularity of flash fiction. These are the 3-5 minute short stories popular in Women’s magazines of old. The ones consumed in a coffee break, but now they be read via devices while people commute, are on trains or aeroplanes, waiting in the doctors or for other appointments, sitting in cafes or parks.

A writing class or group wonderful venues for these exercises because ideas bounce of each other, fellow students can give input if you’re stuck for an ending, or the plot seems awry and most of all there is a plethora of entertaining stories produced by feedback, wandering off in ways you’d never have imagined!

And why not – in most of my classes, although students range in age and ability, the majority are seniors who have lived amazing lives.

All that richness and life experience shared. So many varied ideas like colourful rich threads of a valuable tapestry.

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Here is my effort from an idea of opening a birthday present..

A Birthday To Remember by Mairi Neil

‘Open the presents! Open the presents!’

Julie laughed as everyone in the room took up the chant and she was dragged to where a pile of gaily wrapped gifts surrounded by nibbles and wine glasses sat in the centre of the dining table.

‘Where to begin?’ she murmured to Deb as her best friend released her grasp of Julie’s hand.

There were bags hinting at bottles and ornamental paper shaped like books. Everyone knew Julie’s passion for crime thrillers. A few larger flat parcels with the telltale elegant gift wrap of Haig’s chocolates revealed they knew another of Julie’s passions.

‘Open this one, first,’ said Ben, a fourteen-year-old nephew, pushing the largest present towards his aunt. Round with red crinkly paper flaring at the top, a scarlet ribbon held it together.

‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ Deb quipped as she playfully shouldered Ben aside whispering in Julie’s ear, ‘open mine first – it’s your favourite writer!’

Insistent, Ben begged Julie with pleading baby-blue eyes and all the charm he could muster. ‘This isn’t my present. Mum bought you that,’ and to much laughter from the crowd of mainly twenty-somethings, he pointed to a brightly wrapped rectangle that could only be another book.

‘Okay, you win Mr. Pushy,’ Julie said and winked at Deb to soften the blow. She searched the parcel for a tag. ‘A mystery present – how exciting,’ and her nimble fingers untied the ribbon.

Julie heard the clink of glasses as Deb moved around the small crowd and topped up drinks for the toast. Someone had doused the lights and from the corner of her eyes she saw twenty-five candles flickering atop a cake in her Mother’s hands.

‘We might as well do this now, darling while everyone’s attention is on you.’

Conscious of the heat from the candles as her Mother placed the plate beside the parcel, now stripped of paper and ribbon, Julie clapped her hands at the round hat box.

She glanced around at the baker’s dozen of friends and family. ‘I hope this is what I think it is – you all know me too well!’

She pulled off the lid with a flourish, picturing herself as the winner of the ‘Best Hat’ at the soon-to-be-held Melbourne Cup.

*****

Within the hour DI Flint flicked through his notebook trying to piece together the chaos that followed the opening of the unlabelled present.

Later, he stared at the array of photographs on the Incident Room board. Was Julie the target? Did the person responsible know her mother would bring the cake out at that moment? Could it be a practical joke gone wrong? Ben was a precocious kid but where would he get a cobra?

Flint brushed hands through a mop of tussled brown hair. It was going to be a long night and it didn’t help that half the guests were affected by alcohol and bloody party pills! Deb seemed to be the only sensible one – and yet what if…?

Was it coincidence the book she gave Julie was Death by Surprise?

Exhausted, DI Flint threw his notebook down and shook his head as he checked his watch. Time to visit the morgue and then to the hospital and see if Julie’s in a fit state to be interviewed apparently she adored her widowed mum.

What a case to land the first night he’d given up smoking.

(567 words)

Rattlesnake Green

Here is another from a first line…

Righteous Anger by Mairi Neil

The kiss had surprised her. How dare he take liberties. That behaviour may have been accepted in ‘the good old days’, but this is 2016!

She could have him for sexual harassment. That would wipe the smug smile from his face, slow his arrogant strut to a shuffle.

It’s about power – the perception of coercion – what chance has an employee refusing the boss?

And how much more an uneven relationship can there be than the CEO and a junior clerk?

The kiss wrong on so many levels! The grin he gave afterwards won’t be so wide when he’s slapped with a writ.

I know what the rest of the office will say but I mean it this time. I’m not just going to talk – I’ll do the walk. I’ll hand in my resignation if need be –– in protest at all the young women soiled by office predators.

I mean, I saw it with my own eyes. Disgusting! People in glass offices should remember others look in.

*****

She’s what?

Why wasn’t I told his daughter worked here?

(176 words)

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Prison Blues by Mairi Neil

I survey the ceiling of my prison. Ants march along concrete edges in a never-ending line, in and out of the crumbling mortar above a tiny barred window, too high for me to reach.

A shaft of pale sunlight patterns the opposite wall. There is a world outside this room! Tears buried beneath bravado trickle from the corner of aching eyes, dribbling into my mouth –– the taste of salt a welcome relief from the sickly sweet bun that had passed for breakfast.

A trio of flies buzz around the naked light bulb swinging from the centre of the stained ceiling. The slab whitewashed a thousand years ago and not touched since. Another wave of panic has me gasping for air. How can I be here? I repeat the mantra from yoga class, ‘breathe in, breathe out…’ and trawl through the events of the last two days trying to pinpoint what had gone wrong.

Fear twists my stomach and bowels. Will I throw up or …? I stare at the bucket in the far corner of the tiny cell sitting beneath the solitary tap jutting from the wall, and shudder.

The shuffling and snorting of the guard positioned a few feet down the dank corridor drifts under the buckled door. How many hands and feet spent their anger and despair against that door?

I suppress the urge to humiliate myself. The lingering smell of the last episode hangs in the air like the suspended light bulb. The flies increase their buzzing and frantic swirling. The guard had been almost too quick to respond. His reluctant replacement of the bucket and disdainful glare a warning not to expect such a favour again. The room spins.

I close my eyes willing relaxation. The man from the Consulate will visit again soon –– perhaps with good news. I’m not just any woman. I’m a well-known journalist. Please God, if money and celebrity count for anything get me out of this hellhole.

I’ve learnt my lesson. I’ll never write another story or make a flippant Facebook remark about Thai Royalty. Damn the Internet!  In fact, I’ll never step foot in this country again.

Oh, for the good old days when hard copy was checked by editors.

(372 words)

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Please share any flash fiction ideas or completed pieces or improve on mine and brighten an otherwise dull day!

Happy writing!

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Writing For Pleasure Has Its Own Rewards

A poet always writes of his personal life, inches finest work out of tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness.

WB Yeats

We have just celebrated Neighbourhood House Week and working as I do, in three local community houses, I felt the pressure to showcase what my classes achieve to encourage new enrolments and justify my existence.

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Evidence of ‘money’s worth’ and ‘bums on seats’ has to be seen in a world where the power of economic rationalists reign supreme. Everywhere, it seems is pressure to ensure education in the adult sector is all about employability skills with the well-being factor often forgotten, although numerous reports have investigated the ‘social capital / human capital spectrum’.

  • How do you quantify or monetise the benefits a ‘Writing for Pleasure‘ class brings to society?
  • Unless students write their individual stories how will the bean counters or the decision makers know that friendships have formed and limited the number of doctor visits and prescriptions for anti-depressants?
  • How do you recognise the importance of gaps in education being filled for students beyond working age?
  • What about the benefit to future generations of the family histories that are written, the individual legacies recorded?
  • Who considers the pride and soaring confidence when someone writes a poem or a short story, a novel or a play and achieves a dream they never thought possible?

Two of my classes have concentrated on poetry this term so that we could produce a zine for Neighbourhood House Week. (The covers above)

With the 8-page booklet, I manage to get the majority of students to polish some poems to include.  I even wrote a few new ones myself during our splurge time!

We’ve studied rhyme, metaphor and simile, form poetry including limerick and clerihew, and free verse.

Lessons in Rhyme
Mairi Neil

On the train, stations slip by
My thoughts are fleeting too
Years of commuting make me sigh
Respite days, oh, so few.
And yet there’s something comforting
About train journeys I have taken
They’re a metaphor for life
Places loved and others forsaken.
The stations and various signals
Stop start – get off – get on
Stay on the rails or let loose
But always journey on.

Bentleigh station May 2016
Bentleigh Station in the midst of renovation

Haiku Selection
Mairi Neil

Twilight glow from sky
Pier promenade shelters us
From gathering storm

Ships in harbour creak
Moored safely for the night
Silent sentinels

Beneath the water
Life blossoms and flourishes
Our ecosystem works

A tourist mecca
Attracts people in all weather
Revenue alleys

I Love Cooking (After Dr Seuss)
Mairi Neil

I love cooking, I love the smell
I love it more when it turns out swell.
I love old recipes, they are the best
I gather ingredients and begin with zest.

I love my oven, it’s electric. If it was gas I’d be sick.
I love my bench top, granite and wide, equipment sits side by side.
I think my cooking is okay, there’s not much more I can say.
I’m not an expert like some boast, I’ve been known to burn the toast!
There’s people who just love their food, always categorising, bad or good.
I eat to live, variety’s not king, a few favourite recipes are my thing.

I’m happy to bake my apple cake. I am.
Can even manage scones, cream and jam.
I love to peel, dice, chop and knead.
It’s from cleaning up I want to be freed.

I love cooking – it’s a necessary evil – we have to eat.
But boy I’m glad – really glad – Nandos have opened up the street!

Election 2016
Mairi Neil

Australians are having a vote
Malcolm and Bill both want a moat
People smugglers to shatter
‘Cos Refugees don’t matter
We’ve stopped the boats they gloat.

Writing Class
Mairi Neil

Monday writing class
A library of imagination
Pens fill blank pages
Words arranged and stacked
Released to the public
Knowledge laced with fantasy
A choice of genres
To receive a stamp of approval

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Albert Street at dusk

21 Albert Street
Mairi Neil

My Edwardian house no longer sags
And sinks into sandy soil
Aged and in need of renovation
It now squats on renewed stumps
A bulldog ready to scare off
A proliferation of developers.

Mary Jane’s car gleams, winking in sunlight
A cheeky adolescent ready for adventure
Compact and fuel efficient
It darts in and out of traffic
A trainee athlete refusing to be intimidated
By those more powerful.

My garden an oasis of peace today
But as the rain continues flora flourish
the garden transforms
An island of tranquility becomes
A factory production line of
Unwanted grasses and weeds.

Aurora, my ever-alert sentinel
Listening, watching, protecting
Warning of danger.
Aurora, a loyal, loving companion
My four-legged disciple of friendship
Epitome of unconditional love.

Keep Mordialloc Beautiful
Mairi Neil

Albert Street busy each morning
Passersby always on a mission
They head for church, railway station,
U3A, public schools – people in transition
They’ve found God, want to learn
Are travelling near and far
Perhaps they just love to shop
Or are looking to park their car!

I love this changing scenery
Glad Council upkeeps the greenery
But I don’t like the litterbugs
The ones who care nought for others
They chuck containers, cans and bottles
Did they learn nothing from their mothers?

A magpie pecks at sodden ground
Moves to nibble at bark on trees
He takes what he needs, moves on
No rubbish left when he feeds
So, why do humans leave their litter
To clog drains and on roads skitter?

Albert Street an extension of my home
And passersby are free to roam
But please keep your trash, bad manners too
That’s a plea, from me to you!

 

A Wake Up Call
Mairi Neil

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
You’ve forgotten us they cry
The rain has stopped
Not seen for years
The grass all withered and dry.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Do you know what it’s like here?
Drought has destroyed
Our way of life
The community we hold so dear.

The people of Longreach
Appeal to fellow Australians
Climate Change must be faced
This parched land
No longer produces
Bore water has poison laced

The people of Longreach
Are silent and so sad
Heads bowed at funeral pyre
People, cattle, farms
Now dust to dust
Their history erased by fire

The people of Longreach
Not the only community to die
The driest continent
Will shrivel and shrink
Global warming is making us fry!

 

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Writing For Pleasure & Publication at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House
A Reflection by Teacher Mairi Neil.

The writing class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House is the longest running, continuous class since the House was established. The size of classes has fluctuated over the years, reflecting the growth in U3A in the area and a variety of writing courses at TAFE and online, but for students attending Mordialloc the motivation, inspiration and intimacy they gain is invaluable.

For several years we ran classes in the morning and afternoon. Student Barbara Davies has been attending since 2002 and Dennis Worledge has joined this year.

A retired primary school teacher, Barbara taught creative writing for fourteen years at U3A and joined the class at Mordialloc to encourage her own creativity.
‘I love coming to this class and have made so many friends over the years while improving my writing.The class is a safe environment to write, a place of trust to share confidences.

Barbara is one of many students writing memoir in a creative way but also having fun with imaginative stories and poems.

When individuals take the time to reflect and document even 10-20 short stories about their family history, culture, life experiences, opportunities, challenges, gratitude, disappointments celebrations and ideas, they communicate their wisdom, values and generosity to the next generation in a very positive and instructive way.

New student Dennis agrees. ‘I love writing and want to further develop my skills as well as enjoy the fellowship and fun I’ve found in this class. I hadn’t anticipated writing poetry and am amazed I enjoy the challenge!’

Heather, Amelia and Kay joined the class in 2004. In the years between Heather moved from Beaumaris to Mt Eliza, but still makes the trip each Monday morning. ‘I’ve been coming forever,’ she says with a laugh, ‘because of the fun and friendship and I love the mental stimulation.’

Heather added, ‘I’m staving off senility and it’s keeping me fit. I attend poetry readings, visit libraries and bookshops because through the class I’ve become a more discerning reader.’

Kay published her memoir from workshopping stories in class as have other students: Fay Lucas (a book of poetry about life in the Mallee) and Bob Croker (tales of being a grey nomad travelling around Australia). All of the students have work published in class anthologies.

However, the class is not all about retirees. More than 140 students have participated over the years, many like Tori who joined in 2008 and loves coming to the class because she is accepted as a writer and storyteller. We see her ability, not disability.

Tori Dowd and me May 2016Younger students have included Michael (23) who thrived despite his ABI from a severe car accident and now publishes poetry online. Often the carers discover latent writing talent as they join in!

Young women have come for semesters while on Maternity Leave using the great childcare facilities to have alone time and write about the changes in their lives. Students with English as a new language like Mari and Naoko love how creative writing improves their understanding of the nuances of English as well as extending themselves to learn techniques while making friends.

Although it is a constant struggle to find funding and support for the classes in community houses, I hope they continue to provide everyone with the opportunity to reflect, write and share their stories and imagination for themselves, their loved ones and their communities. We have established a great tradition of that at Mordialloc.

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Let’s Lavish Love on Library Volunteers

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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. 

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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.

 

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.

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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 -:

to a louse verse

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,

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Now to the digital age – Adaptability and Flexibility – the modern writer’s mantra.

New book titles published this year:

919,851

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!

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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!

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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.

aMUSEment

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

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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.

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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.

Rainy Days and Sundays

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A Dreich Day but Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining.
Mairi Neil

 

The air has changed, and the light too
Yesterday’s intense heat relieved
By the expected overnight showers.
I draw back the curtains. Greet the day.
Outside, the dust of summer vanished,
Trees and plants drip their pleasure.
Staying alive in mercurial Melbourne
This El Niño year, hard and thirsty work.

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The Bottlebrush, a pale sage green, towers
Above my ancient Bird of Paradise,
Its cocky, orange blooms already hibernating,
Not waiting for the onset of winter chill.
The broad, flat leaves shining fluoro planks
Sheltering a bed of tropical ferns and
Fleshy, succulent rosettes crouching together
To survive and flourish against the odds.

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The hardy, newly-planted Geraniums
Have dropped their pale pink petals,
Or perhaps the neighbour’s cat
Has prowled in the night again.
Caroline’s memorial Wattle no longer stands
And warming sunlight feeds the Grevillea,
Orange flowers waiting for the wattlebirds
To feast while fending off the Indian Mynas.

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The Blue Moon and Bridal Pink rose bushes
Hide buds and cling to their autumn leaves,
While the Vareigata explodes and thrives
From the broken wheelbarrow plot
Like a stoner’s wild seventies hairdo.
And beyond this picture-book greenery
The splash and shudder of car tyres
Wayward on streets, the colour of wild doves.

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A cluster of red and white geraniums bob
Towards the mailbox peeking from the Rosemary,
Refusing to be absorbed by gathering grey clouds
Warning of endless dusk. And as the earthy smell
Of rejuvenated soil seeps inside, I remember the joy
Of a pair of sparrows bathing in a puddle,
The happiness of a gumboot splashing childhood –
There is something glorious about a rainy day.

 

And when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down. Without the rain, there would be no rainbow.

Gilbert K. Chesterton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Mothers’ Day For Reflection And Giving Thanks

Mum

Memories of Mum and Mortality
Mairi Neil

My Mum is gone
She was ready for that final journey in 2009.
Whispering the 23rd Psalm…
The hospital cubicle a confessional box
as she relived the memory
of holding her dying father in teenage arms.
Mum retold the story,
assured us that a welcome
awaited her.

She was ready to go –
but we were not.
Surely, a broken hip can be repaired?
Hopeful adult children huddled beside
Grandchildren.  And friends.
With hearts numbed
Cheeks tearstained.
Fearing the loss of Mum, ‘The Nana,’
Fearing a fractured future…

And the world hasn’t been the same.
I miss our chats
The wisdom of eight decades and more.
I ache to hear familiar laughter –
infectious chuckling and girlish giggle.
Laughter that appreciated farce
Eccentricity and spoonerisms.
Dad’s Army a favourite
Relief that darkness never lasts.

I long to hear the wise sayings
The knowledgeable ‘aye’ at the end
or beginning of conversations.
I miss those all-seeing eyes –
blue-grey pools with new shamrock pupils
eyesight saved when young. Later
destroyed by disease and old age.
I’ll always weep whenever I hear
Amazing Grace.

In the mirror, I see you, Mum
and a glimpse of what lies ahead
But I need you here now –
To tell me you love me
And that I’ll cope
If the future strips me of sight.
It is already stealing my hearing…
Dad joked your hearing aids tuned into Mars.
Will I learn selective deafness?

Mum, I hope you knew
how much you were loved.
That you hear how softer our voices
become when you are mentioned.
You hear the chuckles
as we enjoy remembrances
No anger fans flames in my heart
No resentment or accusations of neglect
Only a deep longing for what is lost

I may be child number four
but always felt number one
I want to hold Mum’s hand once more
Caress the papyrus skin
traverse blue-veined ridges
Try and stem the tears as I remember
The cuddles when I was sick
The courage when I was scared
The cooking when I was hungry
The cleaning, shopping, and encouraging
The relentless mothering…

When it is my time to leave this world
I hope my daughters are by my side,
Listening as  I retell the story
of the night my mother said goodbye.
Of how I held her in my arms
thanked her for a legacy of love…
Cherishing a library of family stories
I hope to be peaceful and calm
in the knowledge a welcome awaits.

 

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Me and Mum 1953 and 2007

Dearest Mum…

The gypsy prophesied you would cross the seas
Bear seven children
And cross the seas again.

She did not tell of
being a teenage orphan
losing a daughter
blindness and profound deafness
nursing ailing in-laws
a husband’s disintegration with dementia

The gypsy discreet, her crystal ball dimmed
Although courageous and compassionate
Dear Mum,
If you had glimpsed the future
I may not be here.

 

 

sound advice
A Facebook meme to inspire a writer

 

Aware of Bravery and Courage but who Determines these Expectations of Living?

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This past week the media was saturated with talk, film, interviews and documentaries about bravery, especially in relation to ANZAC Day. I thought a lot about a relative cut down in his youth (19years old) and buried far from home.

 This week too,  we discussed in some of my classes that bravery and courage comes in many forms. I asked students to take the writing prompt COURAGE and write a story or personal memoir – fact or fiction – with this as the theme.

One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.

Maya Angelou

Courage may be standing up to a bully, announcing a divorce, owning up to a misdemeanour, coping with illness or facing a phobia, challenging an unreasonable boss, deciding to emigrate, or travelling alone…

There are plenty of quotes from celebrities about their ideas of the meaning of courage – I distributed a sheet of quotes to trigger a memory, or an essay to agree or disagree.

A concept like courage is a bit like beauty, it can be ‘in the eye of the beholder.’ A topic where we bring our own experiences and emotions to bear. Interpretations very much depending on our perspective, culture, perhaps even religion. 

Society often has a military definition or one where people do something for the civic good, but we all have our own memories of having to show courage, or of witnessing bravery – and when and how we did is a good topic to write about, reflect on, and share the story with others – especially if writing to leave a legacy for others.

Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.                    

Benjamin Disraeli

The responses from students were inspirational and revealing. It is yet another topic we could fill pages writing creatively about and as usual I suggested to my class if they don’t want to write a ‘true’ account, it’s a good theme for a story or poem – and there is no shortage of anniversaries of battles or conflicts to ensure whatever you produce is topical!

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The refugees and asylum seekers and their rescuers show tremendous courage – picture from The Daily Mail.

Some of the responses in class:

  • It takes courage to believe in yourself, ignore the inner voice that whispers failure, to live your life working towards a goal and not succumbing to those who would sidetrack you.
  • It takes courage to speak socially or even speak one to one if you have inhibitions or a speech impediment or lack knowledge of social graces.
  • Courage is needed to tell close friends what you think, even if your opinion offends or is critical, or not what they want to hear. Suppressing the truth or true feelings is often indoctrinated into our culture and it takes courage to be your own person – that courage has to be tempered with wisdom.
  • For those with a diagnosed mental illness, especially GAD ( Generalised Anxiety Disorder) it takes courage to face the day, mix with people, cope with simple everyday situations, sit exams.
  • People who are different struggle with bullying, rejection, and the expectations of others. It can be a brave decision to get out of bed, never mind leave the house.
  • There are activists and whistleblowers who face losing their job by taking a stand, or speaking out – conscientious objectors as brave as those who sign up for war, or those just ‘doing their duty’.
  • Sometimes it is more courageous to remain silent or not to act – whether a nurse, teacher, or parent – sometimes people have to learn to stand on their own feet or make their own mistakes and onlookers or mentors have to be brave enough to not interfere.
  • There are a range of phobias (here is a list of the top 100)  from fear of spiders (arachnophobia), to fear of heights (acrophobia), fear of open or crowded spaces ( agoraphobia) to fear of small spaces (claustrophobia) and a combination of some or all of these that many people suffer yet try and conquer everyday.

Ideas and topics flow but as creative writers we have to bring others into our world and have them experience our emotions. Not an easy task, especially if you try and avoid cliched descriptions.

One of the challenges a fiction writer faces, especially when prolific, is coming up with fresh ways to describe emotions. This handy compendium fills that need. It is both a reference and a brainstorming tool, and one of the resources I’ll be turning to most often as I write my own books.”

James Scott Bell, bestselling author of Deceived and Plot & Structure

COURAGE-flier

I’ve never considered myself a courageous person, far from it – my body reacts quickly to confronting situations with telltale signs of anxiety or fear. Panic attacks, angry outbursts, hysterical laughter, dry mouthed silence – I’ve experienced them all and at 63, I still blush and suffer a nervous rash that is barely hidden by one of the many scarves I use as camouflage.

I know a dread of speaking in public is high on many people’s lists of fear so my reaction was not unique at the Australia Day Awards, and later International Women’s Day when I had to speak to a room full of strangers, acquaintances, and friends.

My mouth dried and wouldn’t be lubricated by lips  about to crack and a tongue that felt like a piece of wood clogging my throat. I could feel my heart galloping and thought others could see it jumping through my silk blouse. I was sure my face glowed fire-engine red because it felt aflame. The walk to the stage on Australia Day took 30 seconds and my acceptance speech all of two minutes but for me, that was an act of courage.

In my teenage, I survived two severe road accidents, one as a passenger in a car, the other while riding pillion on a motorcycle. I recall trying to stand after both of those accidents, legs shaking uncontrollably and feeling so cold I could have stepped from a freezer. The taste of blood in my mouth metallic and sour. The fear of speed, collision, and pain of getting hurt terrifies me still.

I never tried to get my driving licence, had one lesson from my Dad before I moved out of home. When another car came towards us, I drove the car straight off the road into a ditch and my brothers had to come to get us out. I never sought lessons from anyone else. 

It doesn’t take much for me to relive those accidents and although I’m grateful for all the lifts people have given me in their cars, there are many journeys I avoided or chose a public transport option. Several I have taken took a lot of courage to get into the car. I still apply an ‘imaginary brake’ much to my daughters’ annoyance, although I feel extremely confident in their driving ability.

Nowadays, people are offered counselling after severe traffic accidents but in 1970 and 1971, PTSD or trauma counselling was not terms frequently used – we were grateful to survive and left to our own recovery.

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I laugh often but cry easily too, and as I age, ‘the waterworks’ seem to turn on like a tap much more frequently than in the past. I don’t consider tears a sign of weakness, schoolyard ‘crybaby’ taunts forgotten, but I do wish sometimes I could control the upsurge of tears, especially when teaching. We share a lot of sad stories as well as joyous ones in Life Story classes and as the teacher I should be more in control.

People have said they admire the way I coped with a friend’s suicide and then some months later, the death of my husband, John. However, it was a case of ‘faking it until you make it’ because the outward appearance did not match the turmoil within.

I had a pain in my chest for almost four years as if a stone pressed on my heart, palpitations struck randomly. Often I left Southland Shopping Centre or other places where people gathered, struggling to breathe.

A pattern of insomnia developed too and had me prowling the house in the middle of the night checking doors and each of my daughter’s rooms to make sure they were still safe and breathing.

I didn’t want to be with people but was terrified of being left lonely if something happened to the girls. To all those who thought me ‘brave’, I can only say looks are deceiving.

Many people have to adapt or find extra strength (courage?) to cope with grief, whether it’s losing a person, a home, a job, or health.

I have a fear of heights and have avoided many situations because of this. Although I faced this fear when younger and have the pictures to prove it. However, as I age, I’m not interested in overcoming Acrophobia by bungee jumping or sky-diving or some other extreme challenge and I’ve had occasions when I’ve been rooted to the spot unable to move – up or down!

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My acrophobia is not so severe that I don’t use lifts or stairs, or fear flying, but I can’t watch adventure documentaries without feeling the fear the participants should feel when they do climb or face great physical heights. I walked away when my daughters went on adrenaline generating rides like the current  Batwing Spaceshot and Green Lantern Coaster.

My body reacts as if it is happening to me: trembling, nausea, heart palpitations, tight chest, coldness chilling blood and bone, dizziness…

According to Wikipedia Acrophobia is an extreme or irrational fear or phobia of heights, especially when one is not particularly high up. It belongs to a category of specific phobias, called space and motion discomfort.

Perhaps I only have a version of the phobia because although I sometimes fear the height before I climb, the irrationality that sticks in memory is experiences of what to me seemed ‘great’ height and therefore the fear reasonable!

When did all this start and why? This question discussed in classes when the subject of phobias comes up – and it is a great topic for writers! Give a character a phobia as a flaw and then make them face it, an often-used trope in movies as well as books.

I explored my own fear in depth in a piece of writing because I’ve been scared of heights for as long as I can remember. Not heights in an enclosed space like flying, but when you are high up a mountain (even a hill) and look down. And as someone who loves travel, and has travelled, I’ve a few scary memories and also memories of missing out because of fear.

Standing on a mountain, atop a lookout, a building, a tower… the air circulates, there is no anchor, you can be grabbed or pushed over the edge to float like a scrap of paper to the ground or like a boulder tumble and rumble.

Whatever way I go, the result in mind’s eye, always death or severe pain.

I don’t know why I let my imagination focus on the horrors of losing my grip and/or falling. I can’t remember falling off a ladder and I never slept on a bunk bed until I was 9 years old and on the ship coming to Australia. By that time, my fear was established.

The deep recesses of memory are mined and I wonder if the fear started at middle primary school, at Holmescroft in Greenock, Scotland.

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Holmescroft School circa 1958 – I attended 1961

At Holmscroft, we did gymnastics every morning – well it seemed like every morning but was probably once a week. From memory, the gender segregated school grounds infiltrated the gym class and only the girls walked to the hall. Boys may have been considered more sturdy and exercised outside, or were removed to their own gym before the weaker sex marched in pairs dressed in white blouse and thick, ugly, navy blue knickers.

Inside, we jumped over obstacles, skipped and played ball games, scaled a wall ladder, somersaulted on rubber mats, and climbed a rope dangling from the ceiling. The morning organised and graded to ensure everyone learnt the skills the curriculum deemed necessary.

I close my eyes and can smell that rope; the years of impregnated sweat from thousands of school children who attended over its 74-year history. (Holmscroft was built in 1887.)

I feel the harsh texture as I gripped and pulled myself up the plaited python. It seemed a snake, swaying and wriggling, although anchored by a classmate to hold it steady.

The soft white skin on my hands ache and my upper legs chafe against a rope so hard it could be an iron bar. The climb difficult, chest tightening as I lift and puff using muscles I didn’t know were designed for this effort.

The teacher nags: ‘ Hurry up.’

‘ Use your feet more’

‘Put some effort in’

‘There’s a queue here’

‘For goodness sake stop huffing like an old woman’.

Higher and higher I crawl. Classmates egging on, others giggling calling me names: Frog, Toad, Caterpillar, Beetle. Can they see up the leg of my knickers where the elastic is loose? What do I look like creeping and hauling on this rope? What if the elastic bursts and my knickers fall?

The white ceiling grubby with marks from balls and even blobs of ink where smarty-pants pupils have aimed their pen nibs.

In 1961, we hadn’t been introduced to the luxury of fountain pens;  Biros and ball point still a dream in some inventor’s mind.

Everything blurs from perspiration trickling into my eyes. I want the ordeal to be over, but know I can’t take my hands off the rope to wipe my face.

Tiny fibres from the rope tickle my nose. I want to sneeze. I try to relieve the itch on my shoulder, look down, and stomach lurches. The wooden floor jumps and wobbles like some of my impatient classmates.

Miss King’s face looms large, all glasses and teeth. The parting of her grey hair a squiggly line, the clasp holding her bun in place mottled brown, like the picture of Granny on the mantlepiece at home. ‘Hurry up, girl,’ she snarls, ‘we haven’t got all day.’

The room echoes with the slap of sand-shoes skipping, stamping, running… balls bounce. I hear breath after breath of panting children expending energy with an enthusiasm lost to me.

Or is that panting breath mine?

I gasp for air, lose my grip, the python squirms backwards and forwards. Someone below has let go of the rope.

My arms are water pouring from the tap. The giant snake thrashes and whips. I need to pee. I want to throw-up, yet if I take my hands off the rope I’ll crash to the ground.

I let my legs dangle for a moment before sliding to the floor.  Seconds later – thud. The pain excruciating, hands burning as if scalded. Legs and back winded by the wooden floorboards, numb at first before the throbbing begins.

Miss King’s scarlet face spits fury mixed with fright. ‘You stupid girl!’

Friends haul me up, commiserating, comforting. I wipe snot and tears with the sleeve of my blouse. The whiteness and freshness now rope-stained, dust-streaked and sweaty. What will Mum say? She always hoped we’d get ‘a couple of turns’ out of our school blouse.

I think of that eight-year-old, bullied into climbing a rope by an insensitive teacher. Panic triumphing over reason. Is that when my fear of heights began?

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Feel free to share a story of your fear and the courage it takes to conquer or at least survive situations demanding that extra bit of bravery.