Ice Broken But Writing Inspiration Harder to Crack!

butterfly on lavender 2

Happiness is writing for me but where does the time go and how much do I actually write?

How do I inspire others to write, if I don’t?

Does time disappear more quickly as we age? The days certainly seem to be racing by – January has gone already and February more than halfway through…

I remember Dad telling me not to wish my life away when I was a teenager but I couldn’t wait to be an adult and complete a host of dreams on my wish list.

Life will disappear fast enough,’ he said wistfully, the shadow of melancholy making his dark eyes even darker.

I didn’t listen, of course.  I fitted the cliche – there was no old head on young shoulders. Now, with grey hairs and arthritic bones, any wisdom garnered over the years has me reflecting and regretting all that wishing life away.

Maybe that’s why I am so passionate about encouraging others to write – all those years I thought I had to sit down and write when there wasn’t something more exciting to do…

It is Week Three of Writing Creatively Already

The enticing aroma of Hot Cross Buns drifts from supermarket bakeries and packets of the yummy treats fill the shelves, friends are sharing their camping plans for Easter holidays and pictures of the King and Queen of Moomba, one of Melbourne’s favourite autumn events appears on social media.

This is a short first term – Yikes!

New students are only starting to relax and old students are getting back into the swing of lessons and homework.

However, auditors must be appeased that any government investment in our particular slice of the adult education budget has been well spent and hopefully as the seven weeks roll on everyone will find some inspiration and motivation – and the elusive time to rewrite and edit!

And judging from the writing produced and/or planned from the icebreaker exercises whatever is produced will be a good read. (I could add ‘as usual’ but then I’m biased.)

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Introductions – First Exercise

When I googled ‘icebreaker activities’ I got ‘about 4,620,000 results (0.64 seconds)’ but it took a lot longer to find and adapt ones that would lend themselves to a creative writing lesson.

I chose one that encourages people to think about how they introduce a sense of place.  Encourages the writer to think about how a place may shape you and how they (or the characters) feel a sense of belonging.

The students sat quietly and thought of three clues to describe but not name, either their country of birth (if different from Australia) or their birthplace in Australia: city suburb, country town or interstate.

They then had to think of three clues to see if people could guess a foreign country they had visited, a favourite foreign country, or one they dream of visiting.

Then they wrote what they liked best about their birth country and the favourite foreign country.

I stressed it was not a competition to see who was the best riddle maker and not an invitation to see if people could be tricked.

The exercise designed to look at places and perhaps describe them using an aspect with some creativity. To think of how places are presented or could be presented in a more interesting way, perhaps emphasising an aspect that may define a birthplace and somewhere else that appeals rather than writing a one-sentence statement:

Hi, my name is Mairi and I was born in Scotland but always dreamed about visiting Samoa and managed to do that a couple of years ago…”

I rewrote this to introduce myself to the class while thinking about the writing advice of showing rather than telling!

Hi, my name is Mairi. I was born where lochs and glens adorn postcards and men are not embarrassed to go without trousers, and our national musical instrument was declared a weapon of war.

A few years ago I visited a country and climbed a mountain to visit a grave, went to church and prayed for their rugby team to win, and ate banana pancakes.

I love the sense of humour and hospitality in my birth country and that warmth of welcome and fun was also experienced in the foreign country of my dreams.

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Buchanan Bus Depot Glasgow

Reflection, Rewriting and Road Maps To Fresh Ideas

It is surprising what people came up with when they had to think about their birthplace and what aspects they described to give clues to others – for those writing memoirs it gave them an opportunity to consider a more intriguing or inviting introduction too.

  • Aboriginal name in the address
  • a hospital nearby that is still a medical facility
  • a Mediterranean country
  • not an ally in WW2
  • speak a language as easy to learn as English
  • a Melbourne suburb still regarded as exclusive
  • streets of shady trees nearby
  • it claims Luna Park, the Victory theatre and a huge junction
  • a capital city
  • landlocked apart from the northern border
  • turbulent history but now thriving democracy
  • peopled by immigrants from many cultures
  • some of the most fertile land in the area
  • potatoes the favourite crop
  • part of a soldier settlement deal
  • a hot and dangerous country
  • people speak Afrikaans
  • southern hemisphere
  • third planet from the sun
  • southern cross never sets over hometown
  • mell of Kugloff cake in the air
  • often hear the sound of violins
  • cottage close to the Danube
  • hot and dry but lots of oranges are grown
  • lots of Aussie songs written about this foreign place
  • sung about in Gilbert and Sullivan productions
  • artists’ colony
  • filmed endlessly
  • rocky coastline
  • it’s the end of the world…

Sometimes it is impossible to know where you are headed without reflecting on where you came from. Understanding your heritage, your roots and your ancestry is an important part of carving out your future.

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Technology and transportation today give us the opportunity to learn, often first hand, about the rest of the world. You may not have had the privilege of travelling overseas but had the thrill of talking with foreigners online, writing to pen pals, or working beside people from overseas, or maybe even have immigrants or visitors as neighbours.

The world shrinks and differences are less the more we learn and understand about each other. Everyone is capable of dreaming about crossing borders, venturing into the exotic, trying something new.

In class, we shared stories about dreams of visiting or actual visits to Vietnam, Italy, Malta, Greece, Galapagos Islands, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, USA, Germany, France, New Zealand, Ireland, Russia, Spain, South Africa, France, Hungary and Sweden, China, Poland, Pacific Islands, England, Scotland, Israel and Chile…

Ideas For Writing At Home

Needless to say that after the first exercise we all knew a lot more about each other and of places that could become settings in our stories and poems.

  • the friendliness and delicious food of Vietnam and how easy it is to hire mobile phones and pushbikes
  • Malta has several islands and lots of churches and is the only country to be awarded a medal of honour for valour during WW2
  • Ithaca, a Greek island has close links to Italy with the people coming and going in ancient times without animosity
  • the delightful birds on Galapagos Islands were made famous by David Attenborough and the Origin of The Species filmed there
  • it is a spiritual experience visiting Uluru and walking around the sacred rock
  • a visit to Gallipoli gives a new appreciation of its significance in the Australian psyche and of war – the terrain, the cove, the rows of crosses commemorating war dead and the statues in the streets of heroic Turkish soldiers.
  • Morocco has amazingly bright, colourful architecture, beautiful places of worship and exotic culture displayed yet marred by the differences between rich and poor
  • Egypt embodies a sense of history and place – the awe touching buildings that have stood for thousands of years
  • the water is blue, so blue and blue in New Zealand and people laid back
  • Christchurch devastated by earthquake and so many beautiful buildings lost
  • Ireland a place to start the history of many Australian families
  • beautiful beaches in Fiji but humid – everyone says Bula – hello
  • Paris may have the most prestigious art galleries in the world but people need to learn to clean up after their dogs
  • The Moscow metro is cheap and a great way to travel around the city
  • when you visit Hungary you may get a feeling you are under surveillance – cameras everywhere
  • the significance and beauty of historical buildings a wonderful reason to visit Barcelona, Spain which is renowned for its architecture
  • beware the risk of getting gastro on cruise ships in the Pacific…

The Task If You Want To Write Too…

Write at least 300-500 words explaining your connection to and love of your birth country and the favourite foreign place.

  • Or perhaps you have a vivid memory to share – good or bad.
  • Maybe travelling advice
  • or write about a character you met

The exercise, or listening to others may have prompted an idea for a short story or poem.

At Longbeach Place in Chelsea where I teach Mondays, they have a wonderful YarnArt group which hosts a community story trail each year.  There is a magnificent knitted peacock in the entrance hall of the centre and I’ll leave you with its symbolism.

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A RIOTous Evening of Poetry, Politics And Performance

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The show RIOT finished Friday night, at the Arts Centre Melbourne before heading to New York and certainly fulfilled its promise. There have been many complimentary reviews written already but here’s my tuppence-worth because with luck the performers will return!

RIOT was part of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival and a show I may have overlooked if not recommended by daughter Anne who volunteered at the Festival. She is also involved with the Women’s Circus and after seeing RIOT last week generously bought me a ticket,

You’ll love it, Mum!’

Indeed, I did!

Uplifting and Joyous – the Power of Laughter

The evening turned out to be a fantastic tonic after a month that’s been difficult on several fronts. Laughter is great medicine and there are plenty of opportunities for laughter in the hour and forty minutes as you participate in RIOT – and there is side-splitting audience participation!

The Fairfax Theatre compact and intimate and although we sat in the back row as the cast moved on and off stage everyone felt involved. The way the performers used the space, especially considering the physical nature of many of the acts, impressive and at times nail-biting.

I can imagine they breathed a sigh of relief each night there were no mishaps.

 

riot stage set
The set intriguing as we started to take our seats.

 

The Arts Centre blurb describes the show as –

A disorderly cocktail of party and politics, and a love-letter of hope to the future, RIOT is a thrilling, uplifting and unforgettable night out.

Dance, drag, circus and comedy rolled into a gut-punch of wild theatre, RIOT infuses the excitement of a variety show with the energy of the dance floor, setting your hearts and minds ablaze…

riot poster arts centre

RIOT doesn’t disappoint on any level.

I left the theatre relaxed and yet energised and grateful for being part of something unforgettable…  Friday night was a great example of how performance theatre can be exhilarating and inspirational as well as pure entertainment.

RIOT sold every ticket available in Dublin Fringe, won Best Production and broke box-office records and no wonder because it combines spoken word poetry with a strong social justice message, goosebump-inducing singing, Riverdance style, tap and cabaret dancing, heart-stopping aerial acrobatics, deep belly-laugh and slapstick comedy – and all at a breathless pace for more than an hour and a half!

There is no interval – the flow never interrupted, the pacing excellent. A strong thought-provoking message seamlessly segued into a routine that lightens the mood.

riot cast singing

Midsumma Festival is an annual celebration of queer, intersex, transgender, bisexual, lesbian and gay culture, held during January and February in Melbourne and the all-star Irish cast of RIOT a perfect example of the essence of Midsumma written by self-proclaimed Queen of Ireland, Panti Bliss aka Rory O’Neill, and Emmet Kirwan, actor, playwright and poet.

Panti a drag queen and gay rights activist from Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Ireland and one of the many Marriage Equality champions who helped the campaign here to achieve success despite the ridiculous and expensive postal vote conservative politicians forced on Australia.

Panti wrote much of the original text of RIOT with Emmet Kirwan and also wrote her 2017 one-woman show High Heels in Low Places, plus Woman In The Making: Panti’s Memoir.

The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. 

George Orwell.

But RIOT isn’t just for minorities or pushing one political barrow. It is a show about being human, about acceptance and tolerance, about social justice, equity and most of all about love and hope for a better world. We can all be the catalysts for change.

The 80s music and song and dance routines with Panti’s patter reminiscent of the intimacy of the club scene.

The spoken word poems powerful and mesmerising like many slam poetry gigs but throw in Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalists Lords of Strut – aka Cian Kinsella and Cormac Mohally with clowning acrobatics, juggling, dancing and patter, add former Gaelic football player Ronan Brady turned aerialist extraordinaire, and you have a carnival of unforgettable talent.

riot cast final number

As a writer, I paid close attention to the spoken word segments, especially Heartbreak about a teenage girl getting pregnant performed by Kate Brennan.

In a few powerful words we learn the choice or lack thereof in Ireland regarding contraception and abortion, the attitudes of family, society,  church and state, the challenges girls face struggling to raise a child alone and the teenage perspective on parenting and the future.

Written by award-winning playwright Emmet Kirwan, the piece has been adapted and brought to a wider audience with a seven-minute short film, and it is worth watching on Youtube.

Here are selections of an interview with Emmet by RTE Entertainment that give some insight into his decision to write Heartbreak for the stage, turn it into a short film and release it to as wide an audience as possible through social media and why you then must let it go – if people are inspired or motivated to consider other people’s perspectives or lives so be it…

It’s one of those things when you do something, you’re not actually 100 percent about anything until it’s viewed by an audience.

I didn’t have any ballpark thing; I was just hoping that people would see it and that basically, the video would be like a delivery system for the poem. That was the primary goal of it, but when you bring in other people like Dave, they turn it into something that’s not just a poem.

… essentially it’s just about giving something to the debate. What happens a lot of time in debates is it’s a lot of didactic statements bouncing off each other and they don’t actually touch a nerve with anybody because these things are just figures on a page or sound bites.

So if you can make something that’s essentially a statistic into a story it has more impact.

If it has an impact, it has.

And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t – it’s not world-ending. As far as I’m concerned it’s done its job in the sense that it’s just out there.

Whatever happens to it now is up to whoever sees it.

There are a lot of surprises in RIOT and when light and sound disappears abruptly the audience are encouraged to bring their mobile phones to the rescue. It doesn’t take you long to realise it is all part of the performance but it is a cleverly woven segment.

Alma Kelliher, the musical brain behind RIOT, influenced by folk, gospel and close vocal harmony. The secretary of the Irish Society of Stage and Screen Designers, her music has been performed throughout Europe, USA, Asia and Australia.

I sat between my two daughters who recognised and loved the 80s songs. The tunes were catchy but I was too busy being a new mum in the 80s so couldn’t sing along like they did but did recognise the fluorescent and gaudy colour schemes of 80s fashion and loved how the stage adaptations glittered, gleamed, shimmied and shook.

A Carnival of Talent

Cabaret, clubs, theatre, circus – RIOT an amazing carnival of entertaining talent: there is an aerial and ground performer with muscle control which must be the envy of the best dancers and circus acts in the world. 

I know my daughter is itching to be as good as Ronan Brady one day.

His feats are jaw-dropping and inspire collective audience breath holding.

Yet this same athletic performer dances and does spoofs on adverts that demean women and pokes fun at stereotypes gay and straight.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald Rory aka Panti explains how the revolutionary show came into being during the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin and how Ronan got involved.

Riot came from a conversation one day when we were talking about Riverdance, what it said about Ireland at the time, and we wondered what would our Riverdance look like?

Emmet is very well known here in Ireland for having a social conscience, so he wrote these incredible sorts of poems, and then I wrote some as well and those things are what pull everything else through…

… former Gaelic football player Ronan Brady …  took to aerial work as a means to limber up following injury, and the practice stuck.

When we found him, Ronan was a great aerialist and all that and he’s very handsome – perfect! – but he had never done anything like this, or with people like us.

So he turns up for the very first day, a photoshoot long before we got into the rehearsal room, and the gayest costume designer in the world hands him a pair of Speedos, and Panti is there.

At the time, he handled it very well but we know now he was just like, ‘What the f—?!’

He had no idea what he had let himself in for. He had never even met a gay person. But he’s firmly okay with it all by now.

Loud and Proud Without Hubris

There is Heartache, but also Harmony, Humour… and most of all Happiness.

2018 needs a RIOT and I wish Panti and crew luck as they continue their world tour. Who knows they may even inspire a Trump tweet!

 

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, A-Writing We Will Go…

hotel Irkutsk

An exchange of emails and telephone calls confirm lesson plans made can now be actioned…

Hallelujah! – I have work…

Schools have gone back but my classes in community houses don’t commence until this week, and as is the nature of being casual, contract, part-time, temporary… confirmation usually doesn’t happen until enrolments are confirmed, and that can be very last moment.

(If lucky, sometimes managers decide to run a class in the hope people will turn up on the starting day.)

An email midweek from one employer confirmed enrolments in tomorrow’s class are enough – the class will run. A telephone call Friday confirmed the other classes have numbers too.

Returning to work, after the long summer break without an income is definitely a cause for celebration – and that good old-fashioned, ‘Hallelujah.’

I’m not alone working in jobs reliant on funding and nearly everybody is at the mercy of the vagaries of the economy. Most workers are hostage to an employer whether it be in the public or private sector. And the courageous few who establish a business spend a lot of time worrying too.

It is wonderful to be told you have paid work – the certainty helps with budgeting!

In the adult education field, many teachers are employed on short-term contracts or a casual basis. Sadly, this even happens within the school system nowadays.

Uncertainty, flexibility, adaptability – the modern workers buzz words. The only guarantee is there are no guarantees.

red rose bud.jpgWho Are My Students? Uncertainty and Anticipation

Some students are returning and I wonder what they have written over the holidays and if their writing projects and aims have changed. (Or have they shared my struggle to write!)

I’m curious about the new students. Always, the stirrings of excitement a motivation to remember and act upon the Girl Guide Motto, “Be Prepared.”

Despite teaching for 20 years I love the research of planning lessons. Seeking new ideas, books, craft information, a variety of sources, prompts and challenges to ensure we move out of comfort zones.

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Did Anyone Put My End-of-Year Present To Work?

When classes ended for the summer holidays, and because it coincides with Christmas there is often an exchange of presents or an expectation to give a gift.

Gift giving often problematic, if you are someone like me who likes to give a book. Writers are usually avid readers and the chances of giving a book the recipient already has is high.

Print books can be expensive, especially new releases.  I decided to promote writing and wrapped up a pocket notebook and pen for each student.

I asked them to keep the notebook handy and every day write down ideas for stories or poems: observations that strike them as interesting, perhaps overheard dialogue, a memorable smell, unusual sound, evocative texture or taste – all the happenings and minute details that are important to engage with readers.

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Paying it Forward

I first started using a pocket notebook over 30 years ago after hearing Australian writer,  playwright and poet, Dorothy Hewett interviewed on the ABC. She talked about having a notebook and pen in her apron pocket and mentioned some of the stories that grew from her scribbled thoughts.

I’m still old school and usually write by hand before recording onto the computer. Adding words, rewriting, subsequent drafts, plus editing, are all done on the computer, but that initial writing by hand allows me to be more in tune with thoughts, whether brainstorming, a stream of consciousness, or what I call ‘the splurge’ in class, or just musing.

The downside of course is finding it difficult to decipher my writing if I’ve scribbled while on public transport or in the middle of the night (I keep a notebook and pen by the bed) or under the influence of a strong emotion like anger or grief with my mind in overdrive and the hand finding it difficult to keep up.

I’m sure observers the other day thought I was mad as I paused in the middle of Main Street to jot in my notebook. (Maybe I’ll appear in another writer’s notebook as an eccentric old woman.) But I had to note a couple of young girls giggling as they crossed the road arm in arm, one wearing a t-shirt that said, “Mermaids don’t do homework”.

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Uncover or Discover Stories to Record

It’s easy to become stuck in a routine or feel life is ‘same old, same old’, to rely on books, television, movies, and various social media platforms for entertainment, experience, and to extend imagination.

There is an endless amount of stories out there but it’s easy to convince yourself ‘nothing is new under the sun’ and all the original stories have been written by someone more capable or talented.

Writing is hard work, it takes effort – 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration – that’s why it helps if you have other writers encouraging, supporting and motivating your pen to move!

I discovered a poem I wrote after an icebreaker session when the writing students interviewed and introduced each other. I listened (the most important part of any learning process) and made notes to help me remember the students.

The poem takes me back to that class, remembering the students and recalling what they wrote. It may be rhyming doggerel but it also a record of part of my life.

Poetry is great for recording snapshots of life.

Writing Class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House 2005

Mairi Neil

WW2 was announced on the airwaves
and Heather’s family gathered round
a ten-year-old girl confused
until the air raid sirens sound.
Later, the adult Heather
chose Nursing as a career
a passion shared by Angela
who cared for children three.
Angela’s knowledge of medicine
has stood her in good stead
because she daily battles MS
gallantly facing whatever’s ahead
She’s had environmental change
to Melbourne from the Apple Isle
like Margaret Birch’s Moorabbin memory
gumboots a necessity, not style.

Margaret watched Moorabbin grow
from soldier settlements to busy metropolis
South Road’s dirt track transformed
into a modern traffic terminus.
To escape car fumes and pollution
visit Margaret Birkenhead’s home
meditate in her Edithvale garden
a splendid oasis of beauty to roam.
Sixty years of devotion and giving
mirrored by Marjorie’s journey
a shared vision of contentment
family values central to living.
These two ladies share a thirst for
knowledge and highly value education
Marjorie returned to study at sixty-five
gaining a BA and a new vocation.

She now writes family history,
children’s stories, and rhymed verse,
which strikes a chord with Phillip
whose words forever impress.
He produces poems that inspire,
they also enlighten and amuse
a talent shared by Jeanette
who adores theatre and to choose
serenity listening to classical music
whether operatic or dance
and loves to go to the cinema
whenever she has a chance.
With her beautiful English skin
rosy-cheeked regardless of fashion
She’s travelled from Tibet to Marrakesh
and cites bushwalking as a passion.

Jeannette’s love of reading and writing
shared by Fay, their meeting revealed
how grief’s strain on life’s journey
has oft times their sadness sealed.
These two widows like many others
have made a silent promise
they’ll live life to the fullest
and never a writing class miss!

Ceinwen was born in Wales
and sings as sweet as a bird
she wanted to go on stage
but her Mother said, ‘how absurd!’
Until WW2 intervened and
Ceinwen found the freedom she craved
in the RAF’s Entertainment Unit
performing dreams were saved.

Toula grew up fearful of change
with a Greek father ultra strict
friendless and often oppressed
her husband was father’s pick!
Toula escaped through books,
photography, and painting too
she wants to write her story
migrant women’s voices too few.

Amelia is an artist producing poetic
landscapes with her paintbrush
she meditates every morning
a daily routine she’ll never rush,
each moment must be enjoyed
since meeting the Dalai Lama
his wise words keeping her buoyed.

Whereas Doreen is more practical
divorced for over thirty years
and as a single parent of four
she conquered many fears.
Her Mazda 121 is special
it’s twenty-seven years old
driving gives her pleasure
and walking leaves her cold.
Doreen’s a voracious reader
writing stories that entertain
with characters and dialogue
refreshing as spring rain.

Variety is the spice of life
a well-worn cliche we know
but this group of writing students
have plenty of seeds to sow.
Each Monday promises to delight –
as their pens move across the page
characters and plots coming alive
as if on a Shakespearean stage

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A friend recently commented, ‘Wow, what richness in that class of skills and life experience. I bet they wrote some great stuff!’

They did indeed!

Her observations right – I’ve been privileged to meet some truly inspirational people with powerful stories told well.  The writers who have peopled my classes over the years did produce amazing poems and prose.

Unfortunately, some of the Class of 2005 are no longer here, others attended a short time, but two of the writers are still coming to classes, honing their craft and enjoying their passion for words.

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Not so long ago I was celebrating the lack of timetables and freedom from routine as the summer holidays commenced… but I’ll accept the persona of the female stereotype and change my mind.

Now, I look forward to the beginning of the term and the predictability of the working week to re-establish regular writing practice and share the journey with old friends and new students.

Writing Classes – A Wealth of Wisdom, Wistfulness, and Wellbeing…

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Why Enrol In A Writing Class?

I’m grappling with this question as I prepare lesson plans to start the new writing term. Putting myself in the shoes of prospective students. I know some of my past students are returning – they’ve already been in touch, checking dates and times with several looking forward to continuing their projects, meeting up with old friends, learning new techniques and returning to some structure to their week.

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But why do we write?

I’ve been addicted and passionate about words and writing all my life so it’s a question I’ve often asked and been asked!

Is it a desire or need to scribble thoughts on paper, record imaginings, in a belief it is important, or fun, urgent or pleasurable – or a combination of all of these?

So many people express the desire to write and record their story ‘if they had time’ or ‘when I finish work’, ‘when the kids leave home’, or numerous other excuses. Just as many start a book and don’t finish.

And despite stating how much I love writing, I can identify with all those categories and excuses!

Maybe that’s why I love teaching writing classes – it keeps me writing, keeps me motivated and engaged, and keeps the dream of the printed word alive.

The novel may be unfinished but hundreds of stories and poems are written, shared, and published.

class anthologies 2017

Emotion, Trauma, Social Justice – Strong Motivators For Writing

A life-changing experience or strong feelings often encourage people to pick up a pen or switch on a computer. The opposite, of course, can be true – many people write from boredom. They need the adrenaline rush of exercising their imagination and writing the books they love to read!

I am always fascinated by the variety of responses to a single prompt.

Students can fill a page with characters and plot, or pluck beautiful prose from their memory, write original metaphors and similes and then weave the words into remarkable settings to immerse readers and listeners in the power of story.

Or they address and simplify concepts, share life-transforming events that speak to profound truths and touch the heart…

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Writing Poetry And Short Stories Can Solve Dilemmas

A problem shared is a problem halved,” Mum used to say.

Sleep on it” or “take a walk and mull it over” some other good advice if a burning resentment must be exorcised,  difficult decisions faced, or a dilemma solved.

Rather than real life exposes or rants, writers can put characters in a situation, give them the problem to solve, the ethical conundrum, the family feud, the injustice to fight – work it all out on paper.

It’s useful and even therapeutic to have characters take the criticism or kudos, make the mistakes, work through the issues.

julie signing her book at launch

Many people have a need to be creative and writing may satisfy that need. You may not have the stamina to produce a novel but exploring poetry can be exceptionally satisfying and fun.

Wordplay, riddles and even returning to childhood rhymes and fairy tales and writing new ones all valid and satisfying writing projects.

Form poetry a good starting point and everything from affairs of the heart, the devastation of war, to the meaning of life can be expressed through poetry.

Writing isn’t all about entertainment or amusement nor does it have to be obscure or difficult to understand but it does have to connect with the reader in some way.

view from train between LA and San Fran 2012

Playful And Powerful – English Has A Word That Fits…

English… What’s That?
Mairi Neil

English is definitely a funny language –
funny peculiar and funny ha ha!
So many words with double meanings,
unusual spelling – can drive you ga ga!

Let’s take a word like mean,
an average word you understand,
unless like Scrooge you won’t share
or be a bully – and don’t care.

So many words that sound the same,
they’re annoying and confusing,
their meaning drastically different –
mistakes often highly amusing.

Some words sound how they look,
so clap for onomatopoeia and be glad,
but knowing phonetics doesn’t stop
those silent letters making you mad.

You can pinch a pinch of salt,
and we know a flea can flee,
that ship’s sail may be on sale –
but no way can a pea, pee.

The pale moon won’t fit in a pail,
but every tale can have a tail,
a little mite has a lot of might
and that rite may not be right.

A mayor can ride a mare,
he may stand on a stair to stare,
and eat local fare at a fair,
their jobs are always there.

Your genes may fade like jeans,
and I’ll shed a tear over a tear,
worry about the whole of a hole,
being the sole keeper of my soul.

Criticisms of English usage has weight,
when you can eat a date while on a date
and meet a terrible fate at a fete,
by discovering pâté on your pate!

A male can deliver the mail
and a hare without hair is rare,
but both can be weak for a week
if bones creak because of a creek.

And English has many phrases,
difficult for learners to understand,
like ‘pot calling the kettle black’
oh, the language is underhand!

Advice ‘from the horses’ mouth’,
‘without a shadow of a doubt’,
advises dreaded cliches to avoid –
but it’s hard weeding those phrases out.

English language confusing and amusing,
yet its richness can be rewarding –
once mastered, you’ll be addicted,
and it’s not banned or even restricted!

 

workshop board longbeach place
Henry Ford advocated lifelong learning

 

Do You Need to Write or Just Want to Set Your Imagination Free?

Kingston Seniors Festival with Mary O Rourke + Mordialloc Writers Group - Sat. 11.10.2014 (23)

I’m looking forward to the start of another teaching year. Meeting new and old students coming together to write. Each one will have their own voice and style and a dream or project.

All will be united in their love of words.

Some will write fact, others fiction.

Some will struggle with the blank page. Their words dripping like a slow-leaking tap, while the ink from the pens of others gushes like Niagara Falls.

Stories that have waited a lifetime to be written will astound, others will be fictionalised to be more palatable or easier to write.

Short story fantasies or gritty realism, profound poems or funny doggerel – all shared to inspire each other.

Passions rekindled and new passions created as genres are explored.  From comfort zone to brain challenging learning. Each class new friendships will form as we become a writing community.

The price of wellbeing rarely factored in when the beancounters in government look at community education today. It is all about being job ready or being digitally and technologically savvy.

Wellbeing, not a word to use when applying for education funding apparently.

Yet, some of the most talented writers in my classes have lived 80 years or more. They still want to learn, still want to write, and are producing wonderful stories and poems. Seeking employment and digital glory, not their highest priority!

Octogenarian
wise, retired
writing, learning, producing
lifelong learner combatting isolation
Student

They create a legacy for the next generations, they focus on writing and building new friendships for a few hours a week… forget age and ability … they have aptitude and attitude!

They’ll embrace new techniques and tools but it’s about the words, emotions and engagement.

walk in Skye

 

WHY WRITE?
Mairi Neil

A has aspirations to write a novel
B likes to play with words
C has a loveless life and seeks romance
D thinks Mills and Boon absurd
E loves family history
F reads and journals a lot
G creates settings with descriptive flair
H just loves to plot!
I preaches grammar absorbed from school
J admits to being a hopeless speller
K always suffers from writer’s block
L is an expert storyteller.
M adores purple prose
N employs similes galore
O aches to be published one day
P escapes household chores
Q uses metaphors imaginatively
R nurtures the inner child
S writes for children but libertarian
T is erotica gone wild
U is definitely a poet
V writes doggerel and verse
W fears rejection
X is tense and terse
Y dramatises everything writing  drama to entertain
and Z – well –
Z writes to understand the world – the musings society’s gain!

If You Are A Writer…

You do need to write!

So, join a class at your local community house – I’ll be at Chelsea on Mondays and Bentleigh on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

We’ll be Writing Creatively and passionately, recording Life Stories and sharing others.

Supporting each other, forever learning, observing, commenting on and enjoying life because that’s what writers do!

learning fil editing

 

What Price Would you Pay to have ‘All The Money In The World’?

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On Wednesday evening, my daughters and I went to Southland to see the latest film release of Michelle Williams – All the Money In the World.

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, she is a favourite actress. We love to support her films and this one seems especially relevant for our times when we have supposedly one of the richest men in the world as President of the USA and people divided as to his character.

Are wealth and business acumen an indication of character? Are they the most important attributes of a man/leader? Or is all wealth and power from wealth corrupting?

The film, directed by Ridley Scott, will also be forever linked to controversy because of the #Me Too Movement, Kevin Spacey’s hurried exit, and also the pay inequality exposed by the reshoot when the disparity of Michelle and co-star Mark Wahlberg’s payment made headlines.

Definitely a movie for celebrity-obsessed, social media times!

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The Power Of Story – Does Everyone Have A Price?

All the Money In the World inspired by real-life events and based on a book about the 1973 kidnapping of teenager John Paul Getty 111 (played by Charlie Plummer).

There is the usual criticism from historical purists.

(The latest film about Churchill and WW2 released at the same time and on my to see list suffering a similar fate.)

However, as I said in my review of The Greatest Showman if you are seeking historical accuracy and “the truth”, which, in my view, is almost impossible to ever discover, please don’t expect it from Hollywood, an industry first and foremost about entertainment!

There are libraries, museums, historical documents and research institutes aplenty – seek your own facts but as far as movies are concerned, accept that stories inspired or based on real people or events will be dramatised to fit into a 2-3 hour window and suspension of reality.

Creative non-fiction is a literary genre and movie scripts based on fact aim for authenticity but sacrifice accuracy for the power of story too.

As Entertainment ‘All the Money in The World ‘Succeeds

From July – November 1973, the period the film is set, I was travelling in the UK while enjoying a year away from my university studies in Australia. 

I can remember the newspapers being obsessed by the kidnapping central to the film. At 19 years of age – not much older than John Paul Getty 111, and far from home and family, I could only imagine his terror and how his mother struggled to cope.

I received regular letters from my Mum and every time I rang home (reverse charges!) she would always end with ‘when are you coming home?

How does a family cope with something as horrific as a kidnapping?

How did Paul’s mother, abandoned by husband and powerful father-in-law patriarch negotiate and survive this traumatic turn of events in a world where women were only just beginning to assert themselves? A world, where authority and power were dominated by males.

Michelle Williams as Gail, the teenager’s mother, captures the emotional havoc wreaked by the heinous act, compounded by the seemingly cold, calculated indifference from John Paul’s grandfather ‘the richest man in the world’ and his refusal to pay the ransom.

Her body language, the tone of voice, range of emotion in facial expressions a stellar performance. Believable and engaging.

Her expression in the closing scene, as she looks at a particularly significant piece of Paul Getty Senior’s priceless object d’art collection, sums up how I think every viewer would feel about the billionaire played brilliantly by Christopher Plummer, in an exceptional performance for someone called in as a last-minute replacement for Spacey!

A major thread in the movie is Gail’s ability to stand up to the Getty empire and the powerful Paul Getty Senior. In a divorce settlement she eschews the Getty money for herself and only wants money for the children and sole custody to protect her children from a drug-addled father – hence her dire straits when the kidnappers want $17million for the return of her son.

Money she doesn’t have.

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The tension in the film is all about changing the grandfather’s mind from an initial refusal to pay the ransom because in his reasoning, he had 14 other grandchildren and he would soon have no money if he paid the kidnappers and invited criminal activity.

There is a suggestion that young Paul planned the kidnapping to get back at his grandfather and have a slice of his fortune. A sub-plot that allows Mark Wahlberg’s character, the grandfather’s head of personal security to figure large in the story and have a transformational journey.

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However, when the boy’s ear is sent to a newspaper office to prove the kidnapping is serious and the boy’s life is at risk, the grandfather finally agrees, albeit to offer a much lower sum that is ‘tax deductible’.

The scenes of the frightened teenager shackled in caves and barns, stripped of his wealth and privilege, abused and later mutilated (a harrowing, edge of the seat scene), are visceral and heart-rending and contrast with the luxurious, yet cold and soulless lifestyle of his grandfather.

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There is one kidnapper who develops a friendship with young Paul and nurses him through illness. He is genuinely astounded that a family so rich would value money over life and you wonder if his life circumstances were different would he be a hard-working farmer, factory worker, or professional living and contributing to society or would he succumb to the trappings of wealth and be corrupted… is there ever justification for criminal activity, excuses to be made for bargaining with someone’s life?

Did Marx get the divisions and problems of society right?

We certainly see the lumpen proletariat in action in this movie as well as the capitalists with and without conscience or integrity, and the bumbling, corrupt, brutal and ultimately efficient authorities.

A Movie of Our Times?

In a world still reeling from the effects of the GFC and a rising disgust for what many perceive as the failure of capitalism, the excesses of neoliberalism – this movie doesn’t pull any punches regarding the lack of morality of those who have so much money they become increasingly richer with little or no effort – money makes money if you are prepared to:

  • manipulate stocks,
  • break or manipulate laws or misuse legislation and tax havens
  • ruthlessly buy and sell works of art regardless of provenance or legality
  • ignore family responsibilities and treat people as commodities

The 1% don’t come out looking honourable (or really happy) – although by making Paul Getty Senior their representative, the film makes them larger than life. This richest man in the world revealed to be in a class of his own!

The film also exposes those with an insatiable greed and desire for money – other people’s money – people who don’t want to put in the time, investment or effort to earn a living honestly.

Mafiosi running the networks within the Calabrian underworld who kidnapped Paul Getty 111. They have no honour, no ethics, no integrity and no vision except self-service and dog eat dog.

Economic inequity is not new and All The Money In The World creates the historical background and setting well – Getty made his money by exploiting the Middle East’s oil.

The changing social mores of the 60s turned into the revolutionary and alternative 70s – and Rome was one of the playgrounds of the super-rich.

Hash and marijuana the drug of choice, along with alcohol, soon to be surpassed by cocaine and heroin a scourge of emotionally vulnerable, including the wealthy.

Paul Getty 111, still too young to be an all-out wastrel and bad guy but a rich teenager with more freedom than most. Aware of his status and mixing in adult circles more than the average teenager there is a hint his life will be as aimless as his drug-addicted father.

His kidnapping a brutal shock but not entirely unexpected.

There is the reality of the rise of various terrorist groups, urban guerrillas and ‘freedom fighters’ in the 70s demanding society’s perceived wrongs must be addressed. The Red Brigade operated in Italy and were early suspects in Paul’s kidnapping and although they professed higher ideals their methods just as questionable as the various criminal groups seeking money.

A heady mix of strong characters and action for the movie to handle and it does it well without descending into sensational car chases, shoot-outs, boring stereotypes and gratuitous violence.

Telling a well-known story is always difficult – writers and directors have to find a new angle or techniques to spice up the story to keep people’s interest.

Actors have to capture the essence of the character and try to make them believable but not descend into caricature or be so far removed from reality that those who remember the ‘real’ people reject the story out of hand.

(As an aside, one daughter commented on how busy the wardrobe and hairdressers on set would have been to capture the authenticity of the period so well!)

Through powerful acting and good storytelling, All the Money in The World has focused on what it means to be human – what all art wants to do – confront, challenge, explore the human condition!

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I’m sure this film will generate lots of dinner conversations – least of all the controversies around the making of it, the differences between the script and history, Hollywood’s sexual and pay equity scandals…

However, regarding the actual movie – go see and enjoy.

The production values are top shelf including some stunning cinematography and some memorable acting performances and scenes.

Think About…

What are the most important values for society to adopt?

Why do we revere the rich or cling to trickle down economics or accept the notion that being rich means being successful?

What are our own personal benchmarks?

Regardless of status or wealth is it the choices we make that decide our decency and humanity?

Is the pursuit of wealth in some people’s DNA?

How much is too much wealth?

Is it loving relationships, family, friendship and a feeling of belonging that provide true happiness, respect, and self-worth?

When Paul Getty Senior paid the ransom in All the Money in The World he facilitated the release of his injured and permanently traumatised grandson but didn’t buy happiness or heal damaged relationships – it takes breath and flesh to do that!

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Don’t Refrain From Trying A Cinquain

 

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The original card a fundraiser for the Isle of Iona

 

When I first began teaching creative writing it was a volunteer in my children’s schools. A steep learning curve for me as well as for them!

But it did encourage me to do more with my desire to write including a return to university aged 57, to achieve a Masters in Writing.

The early experiences in schools and community groups inspired me to become qualified to teach in Neighbourhood Houses. I have been privileged to be with and help other passionate writers for over 20 years.

A wonderful journey, exploring the power of words and learning new ways to express feelings, observations, and thoughts – playing with genre and form and having fun with the flexibility of the English language.

And So I Discovered The Cinquain!

  1. The cinquain is a five line poem that follows a pattern.
  2. Cinq is the French word for five.
  3. Cinquains do not rhyme.
  4. The most commonly found is an American derivative of the haiku and tanka.
  5. It consists of five lines, of 2, 4, 6, 8 and 2 syllables respectively.

 

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UNSW image Barry Eggleton

Although this form appears simple, it isn’t necessarily easy to write well, or with the subtlety or nuance, many people expect from poetry.

However, it is a good starting point for anyone intimidated by ‘Poetry’ – perhaps harbouring feelings of inadequacy (or nursing a dislike) – because of what or how they learned at school.

Form poetry like the limerick and haiku provides a useful framework for the inexperienced writer to experiment with words and experience some early success.

It doesn’t matter if the lines don’t have exactly the right number of syllables – what is important is that the writer has created a word picture and has had access to a framework for support.

I use pictures for inspiration, making it even easier! Another way of recording memories…

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The traditional cinquain may be based on a syllable count but modern cinquains use a formula of word type.

  • line 1 – one word (noun) a title or name of the subject
  • 
line 2 – two words (adjectives) describing the title
  • line 3 – three words (verbs) describing an action related to the title
  • 
line 4 – four words describing a feeling about the title, a complete sentence
  • 
line 5 – one word referring back to the title of the poem

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Writing A Cinquain

  •  On the first line choose a subject
  • On the second line, write two adjectives describing the subject
  • On the third line, write three action words (usually ending with ‘ing’) to describe what the subject might do
  • On the  fourth line, write a phrase describing what the subject may mean to you or others
  • On the fifth line, write a synonym for the subject

It can even work for personal stories, themes or special days like Mother’s Day!

 

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Mum and me 1953!

 

If you Google “what is a cinquain” it will say:

A cinquain is a five-line poem that was invented by Adelaide Crapsey. She was an American poet who took her inspiration from Japanese haiku and tanka.

A collection of poems, titled Verse, was published in 1915 and included 28 cinquains.

Originally, Crapsey created the form for the American cinquain with five lines.
There were stresses per line –
• The first line has one stress, which was usually iambic meter with the first syllable unstressed and the second stressed.
• Line two has two stresses.
• Line three has three stresses.
• Line four has four stresses.
• Line five has one stress.

Following the invention of this form, Crapsey made changes and included a certain number of syllables per line. The most popular form I mentioned above of 2, 4, 6, 8 and 2 syllables.

Even though iambic feet were typically used in these cinquains, it was not a requirement of the structure.

Aaron Toleos hosts a cinquain blog and for his master’s theses studied Crapsey and the various forms of cinquain that existed prior to her “American cinquain” –

Adelaide Crapsey did not invent the five-line poem. The Sicilian quintain, the English quintain, the Spanish quintella, the Japanese tanka, and the French cinquain all predate hers. What she did invent, however, is a distinct American version of the five-line poem. Inspired by Japanese haiku and tanka and based on her advanced knowledge of metrics, she believed her form “to be the shortest and simplest possible in English verse…

Her interest in Japanese poetry has also led some critics to link her to the Imagist movement that became popular shortly after she died and was led by the likes of Ezra Pound, H. D., and Amy Lowell.

Louis Untermeyer, editor for many years of Modern American Poetry, for example, called her “an unconscious Imagist.” Although her untimely death precluded any chance for her to collaborate with these poets, Crapsey was undoubtedly influenced by some of the same factors that fomented their movement including a desire to pull back from some of the excesses of the Georgian poets. Like Crapsey’s cinquains, Imagist poetry is characterized by the precise use of imagery and economy of language…

Although modeled after Eastern forms such as the haiku and tanka which are almost never titled, Crapsey titled all of her cinquains. Furthermore, her titles were not casual but usually functioned as active “sixth lines” which conveyed important meaning to the poem

Although it was likely a matter of fashion rather than a meaningful poetic decision, Crapsey used initial capitalization exclusively for each of the cinquain’s five lines.

Aaron quite rightly asks – How could the Crapsey cinquain be the American cinquain when no one is writing cinquains in a way that is consistent with the formula she established?

The form has devolved into something much simpler: a verse of a 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 2 syllabic structure or a simple form based on word type, ‘an exercise in metrics regardless of meaning“.

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Variety Spicing The Writer’s Life

The term cinquain is also used for any five-line stanza, along with quintain, quintet, and pentastich.

John Drury’s, The Poetry Dictionary, second edition, by Weiter’s Digest Books 2006, defines key terms helpful to every would-be poet:

quintain – a five-line stanza, sometimes called

a cinquain (although the term is now usually applied to a stanza developed by Adelaide Crapsey),

a quintet (although the term suggests a musical ensemble), or

a pentastich (especially if the stanza is unrhymed). Various rhymed schemes are possible.

Examples are given of aabab, ababa, ababb and a reminder that the limerick is a quintain!

IMAGISM – a poetic movement invented by Ezra Pound around 1909 and intended as an antidote to the rhetorical excesses of Victorian poetry and the pastoral complacency of Georgian verse.
Pound, along with Hilda Dolittle and Richard Aldington announced three principles:
1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

Imagist poems strongly influenced by haiku and other eastern verse, were short, written in free verse, and presented images without comment or explanation.

Amy Lowell later led the movement, which expired near the end of WW1

In her own cinquains, Crapsey allowed herself to add or subtract a syllable from any given line. (That’s what is great about making the rules – you can break them!)

And really the resemblance to what is generally regarded as the cinquain seems tenuous…

Niagara                                                          
Seen on a night in November

How frail
above the bulk
of crashing water hangs,
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
The moon.

Snow

Look up…
From bleakening hills
Blows down the light, first breath
Of wintry wind…look up, and scent
The snow!

Adelaide Crapsey 1878-1914

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To Sum Up

At the most basic level, a cinquain is a five line poem or stanza.  The poem has one topic and the details describe the topic’s actions and feelings.

A Cinquain can be written about any topic, unlike traditional haiku which focuses on nature or seasons.

Choose any of the methods mentioned above – or follow Adelaide Crapsey’s style – and perhaps create a book of verse of memories, travel experiences, observations of daily life… most importantly just ‘have a go’… you’re a poet and didn’t know it!

Share a memory, make a statement, express yourself in a simple stanza…

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You Too Can Haiku

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What is Haiku?

Haiku is a Japanese poetry form using a few words to capture a moment and create a picture in the reader’s mind. A tiny window into a much larger scene or event.

The poet’s eye like a camera, the words hinting at the emotion or thought felt at that time – not telling the reader what to feel but hoping they understand or sense what that moment meant to the poet.

Traditionally, haiku is written in three lines, and when I was first introduced to the form I was told to have words making five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. ( 5,7,5 = 17 syllables)

Poets writing in Japanese do not count syllables – they count sounds.

The most important content is a strong image or an imagistic moment, therefore, we shouldn’t (and modern poets don’t) get fixated on the syllable count.

spring blossoms

However, to many poets, a haiku is still a Japanese poem with 17 syllables, written in 3 lines. They find having that definite structure helpful:

  • First line — 5 syllables               a frozen puddle
  • Second line — 7 syllables          a trip back to my childhood
  • Third line — 5 syllables             worth wet socks all day

A syllable is a part of a word that’s pronounced as a unit, usually made up of a single vowel or a vowel with one or more consonants.

‘fragile’ has 2 syllables: frag-ile
‘secluded’ has 3 syllables: se-clu-ded

However, many English-language haiku do not follow this exact structure and concentrate more on the poetic power or essence of the form rather than the syllable count.

This allows a freedom to express thoughts and feelings and not be shackled to word or syllable count. An unnecessary straightjacket when you consider the difficulty of being able to translate exactly the nuances of any language into another.

dead bird and dandelion

Typical qualities expected from haiku may be –

  • A focus on nature.
  • A “season word” such as “spring” telling the reader the time of year. 
  • Somewhere in the poem a shift of focus from one detail to another. The relationship between these two parts perhaps surprising.
  • Mindfulness is a word that has become a popular concept translated to ‘living in the moment’ – essentially what a haiku can be: a moment; a vivid image that seems to make time stand still for the poet and hopefully transmitting that feeling to the reader.

I’ve been having fun writing haiku inspired by random photographs I’ve taken. The images help jog memory as to what I was thinking and feeling at the time.

I don’t always get it to work the way I would like, but ‘practice makes perfect’ is a good maxim or the childhood advice ‘if at first, you don’t succeed, try, try, try again’!

potted plants

Haiku does not have to rhyme and many today are on any topic or about any subject.

They don’t have to have a title either, but you can give them a title if you like.

Postcard from the Park

Petals fall from trees
like pink ashes and the wind brings
the smell of dog poop

Guillermo Castro in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Poetry

 

Tanja's dog

Words can make pictures in your mind

Think of haiku as a snapshot – a piece of time frozen forever. A snapshot can freeze people, places, objects, creatures, events, feelings, even random thoughts.

london panorama

The haiku … was an important influence on the imagists – poets like Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and H. D. – and later, the Beat Generation, in love with Zen…

Children are very good at haiku. They naturally achieve that freshness of perception necessary for all poetry, and for haiku in particular. (They also like the fact that they don’t have to write very much.) Economy and observation are the two main qualities of the haiku – and these are good disciplines, however old you are…

… it is also possible to write one, two or four-line haiku, and that the syllable count can vary enormously. The extreme minimalism– absolutely no unnecessary words – and the presentation of a defining moment are the most important requirements.

Linda France, Mslexia Guide To Poetic Forms

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Traditionally, haiku always refer to the natural world and present the human relationship to that world.

The season, an essential context suggesting an association with time passing and continuing.

However, in contemporary Western haiku, this is no longer necessary and the form easily adapts to be terse verse focusing on the world around you – the weather, your mood and observations.

Remember The Senses

The first most obvious sense is sight – writing what you observe.

flaming sky

But it also can be touch or sound.

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More Advice From Linda France

  • The first line usually establishes a time or a place, a setting for the subsequent action, which usually takes the form of a powerful sensory impression.

polluted water

  • Brevity requires the language to be succinct, striking and accurate. No rhymes, similes, or excessive ornamentation should be used – and few adjectives.

colchester castle july 2017

 

  • It is important to present the thing itself, the simple truth. No tricks.
  • The line-endings reflect the neatness of the form.
  • Each line is self-contained, evoking a new image.
  • Punctuation is kept to a minimum. The dash is used to establish settings without a preposition and link them to what follows.

 

 

NGV Gallery wall

All of these haiku are on disparate themes. But if they were related in some way – via subject, mood or setting – they would form a haiku sequence.

The haiku is the perfect form for journeys and visiting new places, recording all those powerful moments that would otherwise evaporate.

I’ve talked about this before in another post and used haiku in a longer poetic form called haibun.

woodland walk Aberdeenpaths diverge

Keep A Notebook And Practice Haiku

There are cultural differences that can make a haiku in English seem the very opposite of natural and authentic. 

Linda France

Take the opportunity to practice writing haiku – forget about syllables – concentrate on the idea of a snapshot of what you see and feel, and write three lines.

Each year in my class at Godfrey Street in Bentleigh we collaborate with the art classes and do just that – write our poems to their pictures and the calendar is sold as a fundraiser.

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With today’s technology, this is a project anyone can attempt – adding a poem to special photographs and making a calendar or a diary.

I often take photographs walking around the neighbourhood and later write the fleeting thought or emotion.

gallipoli monument St Nicholas Mordialloccarnival at mordialloc

Writing The Detail

Think of how you experience the seasons – how does it differ each season?

  • What do you do?
  • Where do you go?
  • Think of your daily routine
  • Choose a setting:
    What sounds are specific to this place?
  • How does that sound change according to the season?
    How does that make you feel – how do you react?
    How do you feel emotionally?
  • How are you or the place transformed?

When we examine each work of art for the calendar – we put ourselves in the scene – we respond/react as in the scene or the one creating the scene.

If you don’t have a calendar for inspiration, look at postcards, or an album of travel pictures.  Write a short, dramatic, poetic response but most of all enjoy immersing yourself in trying to find the right words, play around with nuance, move out of your writing comfort zone.

flowers from Anne

haiku of night sky

Sitting at my desk

captured memories recalled

in haiku dreams…

Please feel free to share your haiku because ’tis true – you too can haiku.

 

 

Are you A Dendrophile?

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On Tuesday, January 9,  2018, I attended a talk by Dr Gregory Moore OAM about the value of trees and public open space, hosted by the Kingston Residents Asociation.

It was a timely talk in more ways than one to make us aware how important a tree canopy is not only to healthy living but sustainable survival:

  • Kingston Council is currently seeking submissions regarding a Tree Management Plan with January 19th being the closing day so please HAVE YOUR SAY!
  • The latest statistics regarding climate change and increased temperatures in Australia show more bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef – and it’s changing the sex of turtles!
  • The severity of the devastating landslide in California is being blamed on the huge loss of trees from earlier bushfires.

A perfect storm of land development, fire, wind and then rain conspired to create the deadly avalanche of mud and debris that levelled homes in Southern California this week.… 

USA TODAY

talk on trees

Dr Moore is often asked for advice from councils and governments regarding Tree Management Plans and has been a member of the National Trust of Victoria’s Register of Significant Trees since 1988.

He has been on the Board of Greening Australia (Victoria) since 1989 and chaired TREENET since 2009 which is an Independent Non-profit Organisation dedicated to improving the urban forest.

Dr Greg Moore, Honorary Senior Fellow Melbourne School of Land and Environment was a lecturer and Principal at Burnley from 1979 to 2007 with interests in horticulture, plant science, revegetation and ecology. He is a well-known advocate for arboriculture and urban trees.

Greg is an active contributor to industry and community standards, and professional associations in the field of trees in the urban environment and revegetation. He is regarded as an international expert in tree biology and tree management.

 

How ‘Green’ Is Melbourne?

Remember when Victorian number plates proudly boasted ‘The Garden State’? (1977)

People were outraged when Premier Jeff Kennett not only changed the colour from green and white but also the slogan to “On The Move” as this article from 2012 relates.

It also states some statistics about why Melbourne was considered the ‘greenest’ city, including:

  • Victoria has the most public parks and gardens within 5km of the CBD of any state, with a total of 124. 16 parks covering 480 hectares are located within the City of Melbourne alone.
  • The City of Melbourne has 60,000 trees valued at $650 million amenity value
  • Victoria’s nursery and garden industry is the largest of any Australian state, with an estimated economic value $2.72 billion, and employing over 15,000 Victorians

it is now 2018 and Dr Moore shocked us when he announced Melbourne is not as green as we think with less than 20% of the 30% tree canopy considered necessary for our health and well-being.

Kingston has less than 12%!

Melbourne has less than Brisbane and Adelaide and considerably less than London, England, which has 50% green space with 22% of a canopy that is classified as forest.

(And the UK is actively tackling the predictions of climate change scientists by planting a Northern Forest linking Liverpool and Hull with 50 million trees!)

A frightening picture for Melbourne was revealed in a 2016 article in The Age when the effects of global warming hit home in a report commissioned by the State Government.

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Winners and Losers

Australia is a continent – the world’s driest continent – but not everyone will be affected the same way by climate change. There will be winners and losers. Some areas will be able to grow crops they can’t at the moment, others will be unable to sustain the crops they now grow.

According to CSIRO modelling, Victoria, some consider the nation’s food bowl, “cops a whacking”. Mostly out west and inner parts of Melbourne.

 

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view from the train leaving city heading north-west

 

Why?

Throughout Melbourne, tree canopy and vegetation are lost at the rate of 1-2% a year from private land mainly because of private development.

Dr Moore warned that in Kingston there will be a battle as developers aim for golf courses. If not protected, privatised golf courses will be sold for redevelopment or will apply to have vegetation removed. It has happened in other areas and we must remain vigilant.

Reality is that developers and those pro-development have control of Plan Melbourne and planning laws in their favour. The Housing Industry Association a powerful body Australia-wide.

I live opposite the railway line near Mordialloc Railway Station and development is happening at a rapid pace. Sadly, I watch familiar trees being removed and wonder what shrubbery, if any, will replace them:

 Time Running Out

We must take biological changes caused by climate change seriously – the change of sex of Green Turtles a huge shock yet we’ve had 30 years to prepare.

At Burnley College, the first question about the effect of climate change appeared on exam papers in 1988.

We have squandered lead time.

The pathetic shenanigans over the Carbon Tax, the political point scoring and response over Energy needs (policy and cost) have led to ridiculous decisions and nonsense by politicians.

While they play party politics the consumers and citizens pay the price.

The Victorian Government has a reasonable track record with quite good by-partisan policies but it is not good enough. Most people are too ignorant and unaware of the urgency – more needs to be done regarding educating for changed behaviour and for local councils to act and the State government to pick up the slack when councils don’t.

In the Docklands there is an iconic sculpture ‘Cow up a tree’.

The artist John Kelly’s sense of humour also made a statement about Australia:

Cow up a Tree is the conjunction of two Australian histories – Australian floods and Dobell’s cows -– which contain these opposites. Floods occur frequently in Australia, usually wreaking destruction and tragedy. But they can also have absurd outcomes, such as objects ludicrously stranded in trees.

A future affected by climate change threatens increased floods and storms and unless we change there may not be many trees to collect stranded items!

Projected Future Temperatures

  • 10% less rain
  • higher rates of evaporation (so probably be 15% less rain in summer)
  • temperature change + 4 degrees
  • Recently Melbourne had 42-degree day, which dropped to 22 degrees within hours.

We joke about four seasons in one day but climate change means a permanent increase resulting in too many storms, plus biological and lifestyle consequences.

Reality not Fake News

Northern Europe may have 5-8 degree rise, Mediterranean 4-4.5 degrees, USA 4 degrees.

In the developed world it may not be catastrophic but in poorer countries, it will be devastating.

  • Warmer winters
  • Hotter summers
  • More frequent storms
  • In Victoria more days above 30 degrees (This prediction now a fact)
  • Double the number of days above 35 degrees

Some crops may grow better but others will fail – energy patterns demand change.

Connectivity to Public Space Paramount

For better biodiversity outcomes we need bigger interconnected systems to yield better benefits.

Parks and public open space linked for walking, jogging, cycling, running…

Kingston does well with Braeside Park and if the foreshore links improved it will be a valuable connecting link with other areas of Melbourne. (Bayside Trail)

Contrast Kingston to the restricted access to open space experienced in western and northern suburbs.

  • Melbourne’s Western and Northern suburbs have the least canopy cover.
  • they have poorer health outcomes
  • they have the least connectivity of existing open spaces
  • the imbalance not fair or equitable
  • some new suburbs the capacity tree cover only 10% because of development, sub-divisions and available land
  • THERE IS NO SPACE FOR TREES!

Alma Park and the Esplanade St Kilda – treed and leafy.

Black Saturday

We remember Black Saturday when 173 people died in bushfires

 But 374 excess deaths in the period 26/1/09 – 1/2/09 because of heat.

  • The deaths clustered in northern and western suburbs where few or no trees.  (This correlation so strong health authorities warn ambulance and allied health workers in those suburbs to be worried and on alert on hot days.)
  • 66% of such deaths in 75 plus age group
  • in new estates there may be no deaths because usually younger residents, double incomes and can afford to run air-conditioners.

Leafy suburbs keep cooler in the shade, sheltering homes and streets. The west green with envy! Tree breeze blows better health outcomes!

Dr Moore showed two pictures published in the newspaper during a period of excessive heat.

  • One picture of a railway worker in the west hosing rails to stop them buckling.
  • The other picture showed a shady eastern suburban corridor where tramlines had trees for protection and no need of hosing.

** powerful to publish the truth – some suburbs luckier than others.

Trees Perform a Function and Service

Whether you live under Marxism or Capitalism, the tenet is if something is worth dollars then it has a value.

The Victorian Department of Health wants people to exercise outside and encourage activity – a report in 2010 about the health benefits is confirmed every year.

$274 million saved in health costs if people can exercise outside in safety.

  • Build an open space and people will come.
  • Health expenditure is double what is spent on maintaining trees.
  • In 2016 a Treenet symposium in Adelaide dedicated to trees heard speakers from the medical profession conclude that $800 million per annum saved in treating Type 2 Diabetes and adding High Blood Pressure and its consequences $4.2 billion can be saved.
  • Trees provide links through time – often spanning several generations. There is the emotional attachment, heritage, sense of connection, identity with an area, symbols of events, individual beauty… all these add to the community’s wellbeing.

    Jeff Kennett, the Premier who abolished the Garden State slogan underestimated the anger Albert Park residents felt about the Grand Prix. They protested the destruction of heritage and history when trees were removed and maintained their rage for years.

  • When building City Link, the trees were dug up and saved and replanted when job completed. Kennett learned that politicians, mayors and CEOs lose jobs when they make wrong decisions regarding parks and open space.

  • It is a tragedy when Red River Gums die. These trees can live to 800 years old and are a link to the pre-colonial past.

We have a host of attractive trees in Mordialloc, some very old, others adapting to suburbia:

Urban Heat Island Effect (UHI)

Urban development is something that we and our audience are passionate about, and the process in which our cities grow is certainly paramount to our future prosperity as a community and society.

However, there is a phenomenon discovered by Luke Howard in the early 19th century that gets a bit lost amongst the construction and development. This phenomenon is known as the urban heat island effect (UHI) and it occurs when urban development replaces natural permeable surfaces such as grassland or bushland with dry and impermeable surfaces such as concrete and asphalt.

UHI is defined by a metropolitan area having an increased temperature of 1-3 degrees Celsius higher compared to that of surrounding rural or vegetated areas.

Further to temperature changes, UHI can also affect localised meteorology by altering wind patterns, creating fogs and clouds and changing the rates of precipitation.

The main cause of UHI is that buildings block surface heat from radiating into the relatively cold night air as the changes in thermal properties of the surface materials and the lack of evapotranspiration (i.e. natural cooling effect in vegetated areas) significantly alter the heat capacity and the thermal conductivity compared to rural areas.

Chris Peska, Urban Melbourne

Why should we care about UHI?

  • The elevated temperatures from UHIs during the summer months can affect the community’s environment and quality of life.
  • Increased energy consumption: Higher temperatures in the summer periods increase the energy demands from people trying to keep cool and in turn adds pressure to the electricity generators.
  • Compromised human health and comfort levels: As UHIs are characterised by increased temperature, they can potentially increase the magnitude and duration of heat waves within cities.
  • Impacted water quality and aquatic life: As the stormwater is not absorbed naturally, the increased temperatures of pavements and rooftop surfaces transfer their excess heat to stormwater after a rain event which then drains into waterways.

 

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Grounds of exhibitioin Buildings, Carlton

 

Rainfall in metropolitan Melbourne:

  • Melton 600ml rain
  • Kingston a metre
  • Ringwood 1200ml

When we pay for water it is not fair to have this disparity between eastern and western suburbs. UHI definitely matters!

  • Shade prolongs life of tarmacadam and bitumen, and of roads and buildings 
  • trees keep them cooler
  • trees help soil stabilisation
  • if more humidity in the air it helps asthmatics
  • trees absorption of water can reduce the risks of local flooding and remove the need for stormwater gutter and pipes,
  • tree canopy can hold water and slow a deluge
  • climate change means heavier rainfall and increased flooding, therefore, we need trees.
  • trees offset carbon emissions
  • trees give social and psychological benefits – more vegetation less violence and graffiti
  • shade lowers evaporation from soil, saving water.

WHAT IS DOLLAR VALUE OF TREES?

  • savings in energy estimated at $180 a year if running a 6kw airconditioner.  (Studies estimated an unshaded home cost $360, this bill reduced by $50 if one shady tree and reduced by $90 if two shady trees.)
  • After the death of a school student from lightning strikes, the government ordered the removal of trees and the installation of shade sails. The value of shade by the trees quantified – $5000 over ten years.
  • There are an estimated 100,000 trees in Kingston – using the Gillard Government’s $23 value for carbon offset they are worth $30 million!
  • Everybody knows the damage done to footpaths by tree roots but not how much shade saves the life of bitumen on roads.

  • Why are there no trees planted in parking areas and school grounds?

  • The biggest polluters in Victoria are power companies yet they are the ones chopping down trees in case of fire, or damaging trees to protect overhead lines. WHY AREN’T LINES UNDERGROUND?

  • Trees prolong the life of bitumen and tarmac. The shaded life is triple or quadruple in North America, here it is 50%.

 

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the only shade at Brighton beach railway Carpark

 

Maintenance Cost Versus Value Added

In Adelaide in 2002, high school students studied elms and plane trees and worked out citizens get $171 value every year because of the previously listed benefits, yet government only spent $10 per tree in maintenance.

It was considered there were lots of indeterminables in the high school study so a PhD study in 2009 redid the research. The value more than doubled in seven years to $424 per citizen!

Real Estate Turf Australia in 2014 worked out –

  • A good tree in your front garden adds about 5.4% to domestic property value ($25,000)
  • A green lawn worth $75,000 added value.
  • A tree-lined nature strip added $30,000 to properties.
  • More trees present higher value but if over 30%, people tend to not like it and values drop.
  • The City of Brimbank changed their planning laws – developments must have room for two trees in front yard and one tree in the backyard. They had a very low amount of canopy cover and are worried about climate change.
  • The current Minister of Planning sat on his decision for a year before approving and allowing Brimbank Council law to go ahead. THIS IS NOW A PRECEDENT – councils can act to implement important planning decisions to protect and/or increase tree canopy.

Planet Ark statistics:

  • Tree roots stabilise soil and reduce erosion 
  • A forest is defined by a tree canopy cover greater than 30%
  • To maximise benefits you need to be at 30% canopy cover 
  • Melbourne Council aiming for 40% so better chance of getting 30%
  • Kingston currently at 10%!!

 

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possum spied crossing road in daylight in Albert Street – searching for a new home?

 

What Can Be Done?

When council receives a request to remove a tree, they should insist on a tree being planted as a replacement.

Councils need to follow up if developers do plant the trees and vegetation they promise in submitted plans. Make developers submit photographs one year on perhaps?

What is the budget for trees – in Kingston is it 100,000 X $10? Most of the budget is probably spent on parks so how can we know? Councils don’t have the staff to inspect every tree – perhaps strengthen Friends groups, ask residents to adopt a tree?

A tree canopy is the most benefit if height more than 8 metres but not that much benefit if 30 or 60 metres, therefore  2 trees @ 30 metres better than one tree of 60 metres.

A diverse canopy – shrubs turf etc provide benefits just as much as trees but there is no benefit from artificial turf at all as far as Urban Heat Island effect.

Planting indigenous trees better but years ago oaks and elms were planted outside lots of post offices and police stations and other public buildings. These can be replanted as a link to heritage.

Remember a tree is a loss of habitat too  – insects, possums, birds – a whole ecosystem.

 

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new development Ashmore Avenue Mordialloc with designer garden

 

Will You Make Time To Stop What You Are Doing And Read This?

book cover about reading

This is a review of a book written to promote the importance of books and reading.

Even if you don’t work with words or are not a self-interested writer like me, it is well-worth reading –  if you are a bibliophile, you already agree with many of the points the authors make, but their reasoning, experience and arguments may challenge or change your thinking.

High levels of literacy help communities function well – and in this era of ‘digital natives’ we need to encourage reading for meaning and understanding, taking the time to absorb, contemplate, question, perhaps transform…

Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!, a lovely ‘thank you’ gift from Denise, a student in my Writing Creatively Class at Chelsea, who knows all about the value of reading, being a retired Primary School teacher and a current volunteer teacher of ESL at U3A.

Grab a Tea or a Coffee – This is Reading Not Skimming…

As a writer, and a teacher of creative writing and life stories and legacies, I may not be the target audience for the publishers – that would be preaching to the converted – however, I enjoyed the essays immensely, gleaned some wonderful quotes and ideas for prompts to use in class, and have excellent fodder for debate if anyone challenges the importance of reading, not just for knowledge, but also for pleasure.

This book is also a timely reminder to reflect on the value of novels, poetry and the range of non-fiction literature that helps our society to progress.

Maybe give you a break from working out what is ‘fake’ news and what is real!

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The essays give insight into the lives of the writers as they explain how important reading and books have been and still are to their personal growth and their professional development.

Journeys fascinating and enjoyable – some poignant, others humorous, all interesting.

The importance of literacy and literature is a conversation we need to have, especially in the digital age where so much of learning is now visual. Instant gratification expected but not always achieved.

Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! published in 2011, in the UK by Vintage, after a report revealed:

that there are thousands of children across Britain who cannot read competently…One in three teenagers reads only two books a year, or fewer, and one in six children rarely reads books outside of the classroom. Many parents do not read stories to their children, and many homes do not have books in them…

If you keep up with reports regarding literacy in Australia, the issues raised in this book merit discussion in 2018, especially since the writers touch on how and what we are taught to read as well as the benefits of reading widely.

Reflecting what language and literature, plus books and reading mean to you personally, your family, and to our culture, should be done often – especially in our “fast-moving, dislocated technology-obsessed world.”

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My passion for words, writing and reading no secret. I’m glad I also influenced my husband to read more for pleasure as well as his job-related material because when he became very ill, reading and discussing books something we could still do together.

As a parent, I attended workshops about reading and writing, volunteered in the school library, reading recovery programmes and encouraged my children to love books just like my parents did for me.

Unashamedly the family ‘bookworm’,  I’ve produced two bookworms!

Most of my close friends are just as passionate about books and reading as I am, but living in this ‘mutual admiration society’, it is easy to forget there are lots of people who don’t read.

Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!, may not specifically be aimed at people like me but I think it relies on and encourages all bibliophiles to become proselytisers, to exhort as many people as possible to read a book, be inspired, and become an ambassador for reading:

“The book is a manifesto. In a year of rude awakening to low levels of literacy and a widespread apathy towards books and reading, this book demands an interruption… these essays… aim to convince you to make reading part of your daily life.”

I recognised many but not all of the contributors.

The ten essays by award-winning and lauded writers, researchers and industry professionals in science, technology, and publishing are as varied as their writing and professional life.

But they are all advocates of the transformative power of reading whether to encourage you to see different perspectives, introduce different worlds and ideas, entertain, improve knowledge, relieve loneliness, soothe a troubled soul and enrich living.

However, perhaps the book’s appeal could have been expanded if some genre or ‘populist’ authors had been included so that when the blurb or inside pages are scanned it won’t be dismissed as ‘too academic or highbrow’.

The essays are all well-written and rich in revealing the layers of a single book, story or poem have an impact, influence, power, perspective, resonance, and can be a trigger for remembering… 

As usual, I wear several hats:

  • as a reader and lover of books
  • as an essayist interested in writing style, content and engagement
  • as a teacher of creative writing interested in the use of language, the application of craft techniques, references and evidence of research
  • as a teacher of life stories believing in the power of story, seeking the authenticity of personal experience, language and style, use of quotes, the books and research referenced, the emotional impact of the story
  • as a writer and a poet passionate about words who wants to be immersed in different worlds and awed by images, language, clever use of words and the senses

Read a novel… to travel in time and space… quicken your sense of ordinary existence… Read a poem… it might help you uncover and articulate a thought or a feeling previously buried deep… Read a story… it imposes a unique period of peace and concentration into your busy life… Read out loud, to your children, to a partner… reading together casts a potent and intimate spell…

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The Contributors – A Stellar Line-Up!

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith authored the novels: White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty and NW, as well as The Embassy of Cambodia and a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. She is the editor of The Book of Other People, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and listed as one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013. 

White Teeth won multiple literary awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. The Autograph Man won The Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction and The Commonwealth Writers’ Best Book Award (Eurasia Section)

Zadie’s essay Library Life shares her journey from a bookish, working-class, immigrant family and extols the virtues of libraries, their importance to marginalised sections of our community, and their necessity in helping to establish some sort of equity in society:

It has always been, and always will be, very difficult to explain to people with money what it means not to have money. If education matters to you, they ask, and if libraries matter to you, well, why wouldn’t you be willing to pay for them if you value them?

They are the kind of people who believe value can only be measured in money, at the extreme end of which logic lies the dangerous idea that people who do not generate a lot of money for their families cannot possibly value their families as people with money do…

Like many people without a lot of money, we relied on our public services… as a necessary gateway to better opportunities… paid our taxes… to establish shared institutions from which all might benefit equally.

This essay reminded me of being at university in 1971, only there because I won a Commonwealth Scholarship despite being one of only 500 students throughout Australia chosen by the Australian National University in a pilot program designed for those most likely to succeed academically. My migrant parents had six children and no way could they find money to send me to university, never mind support me living away from home!

The scholarship paid fees and gave a modest $22 a week living allowance but no book allowance. I lived on campus for $21.50 a week, food and board only. I can’t remember if I even got the 50cents to spend!

Needless to say, the campus library was my second home.

Thank goodness, it was one of the best-resourced university libraries in Australia, and I got to know the staff very well, pestering them for books and always being the last to be chased out the door each evening.

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This is a free mini library I saw in Ballarat and a homeless man I spoke to used the service all the time!

We are lucky to have a fantastic group of public libraries in Kingston and also a small subscription library that promotes local authors by holding regular events.

Blake Morrison

Blake Morrison is the author of bestselling memoirs, And When Did You Last See Your Father? (winner of the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography and the Esquire Award for Non-Fiction) and Things My Mother Never Told Me. He wrote a study of the Bulger case, As If and the novels South of the River and The Last Weekend. He is a poet, critic, journalist and librettist.

Blake’s essay Twelve Thoughts About Reading covers almost everything reading and books can mean to people but also to those who write them. There is plenty of food for thought and discussion.

In The Great Escapehe illustrates how ‘lives are transformed by books.’ They can influence your choices and what direction your life takes. Books can be a ladder to freedom.

In Giving and Taking, he states ‘All writing depends on the generosity of the reader.’ And in Ownership, he argues ‘once it is out there in the world, the book has a life of its own: Authors may flinch and protest… but they have to let go.”

early school novels.jpg In Ownership: an extreme case of appropriation, Blake tells a story from the memoirs of Tobias Wolff when as a young writer “Found guilty of plagiarism and of bringing the school into disrepute, Wolff is expelled. yet he commits his crime in all innocence… an extreme case of a common phenomenon: reading as ownership, reading as appropriation. As Horace said, ‘Change the name and the story is about you.’

I haven’t read Wolff’s memoir but even the teaser mentioned in Blake’s essay would initiate a very lively debate among writers. Methinks it is a case of what is omitted is more interesting than what is shared!

Blake teaches creative writing in London and in Daring to say ‘I‘, explains most of his students are life writers, working in prose, however, “the poets and life writers have something important in common: the use of the first-person pronoun. Speaking in one’s own voice – ‘daring to say I’, as one student put it – is no easy thing.”

In Blake’s thoughts Why poetry matters and Another reason why poetry matters he talks about reading poetry as solace and refuge (a point expanded by contributor Jane Davis). Its association “with profundity – with the uttering of thoughts that lie too deep for tears.”

He warns that early drafts must be reworked and shaped. “The therapeutic element in writing doesn’t come from pouring things out or ‘washing your dirty linen in public’, but in finding the right words, ordering the experience, and making the story available to others.”

In Reading catatonically Blake quotes Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built and reminds us there are times in life when losing yourself in a book helps us cope.

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Blake prefers to read in solitude and quietness but in Company and solitude, he observes that “literature creates a sense of companionship… we meet characters… And as a result, we feel less lonely.” He also acknowledges the importance of sharing a book with others, especially if you have enjoyed it!

His thoughts Forbidden pleasure, and The canon, almost flipsides of the same coin. “Forbidden is the keyword. Just as some of the most powerful books ever written have been samizdat (works banned…) so the experience of reading is often most intense when it is surreptitious – when we feel we shouldn’t be doing it…”

Regarding set texts and books the literati say are must-reads, Blake admits “Some books are simply better than others. Or last the course longer. Or grow richer the more they are reread.”  And the canon is ever changing or should be…

Blake’s final thought, The more, the merrier the mantra of writers and publishers regarding books “We’ve no investment in keeping them to ourselves. Let the whole world have them. The world will be better for it. And the words will remain the same.”

Carmen Callil

Carmen Callil, born and educated in Melbourne left for the UK in 1960. In 1972, she founded Virago Press and ten years later became Managing Director of Chatto & Windus. In 1996, she chaired the judging panel of the Booker Prize. She is the author (with Colm Toibin) of The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English since 1950 and the highly acclaimed Bad Faith. 

Carmen’s essay True Daemons truly engrossing, and triggered memories of childhood reading choices and the influence the different reading habits of parents can have and is  forthright declaring, “Books are shields against a terror of boredom, the curse of most childhoods… if the human race was separated from words and thoughts and stories, it would die.”

She touches on the digital revolution in the publishing world,

A machine can never look like a book: books are far more beautiful. Books are like gardens; a Kindle or an iPad like a supermarket – it makes life easier, but one doesn’t want to loiter in it. You can fiddle with books. Like gardens, they can be wonderful to look at. You can cuddle them and use them like a hot-water bottle; a machine can’t do any of these things…

… the human race has been telling stories and trying to record them on papyrus, on manuscripts, on stones, since the beginning of time. Whether we read on the printed page or on a machine is beside the point. It is the ideas and stories that count.”

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Tim Parks

Tim Parks lives in Milan after moving to Italy in 1980. Author of novels, non-fiction and essays, including – Destiny, Europa, Cleaver, A Season with Verona, An Italian Education, Dreams of Rivers and Seas, Teach Us to Sit Still and Italian Neighbours. He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Betty Trask Prize, The John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the John Florio Prize and the Italo Calvino Prize.

Tim’s essay, Mindful Reading, explores why we read certain books – in childhood, they are often chosen for us, also chosen in school; then there’s peer pressure, being sucked in by marketing hype and the desire to be fashionable – “Can’t remember the name of the author. Who cares?”

He reminds us of the importance of context, the wonder of enchantment, the pleasure of awareness, the rhythm of language, the power of words to enthral and most importantly, “You have every right to put a book down after a couple of pages, which is why it’s always wise to read a little before buying. Life is simply too short for the wrong books, or even the right books at the wrong time.”

Ah, yes – we all have those piles of TBR books by the bed or in the study! Or, ones started but never finished and we guiltily cling to them, telling ourselves they will be read ‘one day…’.

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Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon is an author, illustrator and screenwriter who has written fifteen books for children and won two BAFTAs. His bestselling novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won seventeen literary prizes, including the Whitbread Award. His poetry collection, The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea, was published by Picador in 2005, and his last novel, The Red House, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2012. His most recent title is short story collection The Pier Falls. 

Melbournians are currently being entertained by a stage adaptation of Mike’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and his essay The Right Words in the Right Order is as memorable as the title of his novel.

The essay is refreshing in its honesty. He contradicts many of the statements the others say. Despite having award-winning children’s novels to read at twelve he can only remember avidly devouring Erich von Daniken’s pseudoscientific overhyped Chariot of the Gods! and books about man’s fossil ancestors.

This reminded me of being a teenager at home with my brothers in the kitchen as one read passages from von Daniken’s book. In the discussion that followed we offended my mother by poking fun at claims in the Bible. Of course, the claims in Chariot of the Gods questionable but the style of the writing a lot more readable than the King James Bible.

When Mark started reading ‘proper adult novels… The words remained inky shapes on the paper…” he didn’t understand ‘the importance of taste and timing‘ and that ‘a vital part of loving literature is hating certain books and certain writers… “

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For Mark, writers must push boundaries, love language and be humane and generous even with flawed characters. Virginia Woolf captures ‘the texture of life itself‘ like no other writer. He can’t read Chekhov or Flaubert in English without feeling that he’s ‘missing something of vital importance, rather as if I were listening to a symphony rescored for piano.’

He challenges the assumption that reading has a special power to soothe the troubled mind… “when my mind is troubled, like many people, I find reading hard, if not impossible, and fiction, in particular, becomes a country from which I feel painfully exiled…”

Mark acknowledges the speed of technological change but praises Faber’s iPad app of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land –

which includes a filmed performance of the poem by Fiona Shaw, synchronised readings by Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sir Alec Guinness and Viggo Mortensen, original manuscript pages, academic interviews… It is the most wonderful thing…

Books can piggyback on these huge technological changes in a way that other art forms can’t, because they’re digital, and have been from way before Gutenberg, a string of symbols, that can be transmitted in any medium.

One of my daughters was recently commissioned to do artwork for a company in Melbourne that makes short films to explore classic texts on the school curriculum. The approach to Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein, one I am sure will not only enliven the experience for the students but open the possibilities for teachers to encourage fabulous discussions.

Embracing the digital age in this way extends and not limits, the relevance of books.

Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen was Children’s Laureate 2007-09 and is well-known in the children’s book world. A poet, performer, broadcaster and scriptwriter, he visits schools with his one-man show to enthuse children with his passion for books and poetry. As an author and by selecting other writers’ works for anthologies he has been involved with over 140 books. He lectures and teaches in universities on children’s literature, reading and writing and set up The Children’s Funny Prize which gives awards to the funniest children’s books of the year.

Michael’s essay, Memories and ExpectationsI found delightful and warm as he illustrated the pleasure of reading aloud and the power of a story to stay with you when you identify with or recognise the characters. Stories by writer Charles Dickens rich with memorable characters.

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Michael remembers his local library as ‘a place that opened a window on the world and a door to a future life away from the area.’

He related how his parents quoted and referred to characters in the novels as the family went about their daily routine. It wasn’t necessarily an accurate quote but the essence suited the situation. This made me smile because my dad often quoted characters from RL Stevenson novels especially Long John Silver from Treasure Island. We knew a situation was dire when he’d say, “Them that dies will be the lucky ones!’

We learn a lot about Michael and his father in the essay, and his family.

“Part of the power of stories is the way in which we can see facets of this or that fictional person in the people we know, and scenes for the fictional world have echoes in the events of the real world.” 

Jane Davis

Jane Davis is the Director and founder of The Reader Organisation (TRO), a national charity dedicated to bringing about a reading revolution by making it possible for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to enjoy and engage with literature on a deep and personal level. Their ‘Get Into Reading’ read-aloud groups reach people who may not otherwise read, including people living in deprived areas, the mentally or chronically ill, older people living in Care Homes, prisoners, recovering addicts and excluded children. The organisation started on Merseyside but has since expanded across the UK and beyond. Jane enjoyed writing as a hobby for a number of years but gave up her full-time job to dedicate more time to it and published the novel Half-truths & White Lies.

Jane’s essay The Reading Revolution details the history of the group she founded based on people being prepared to read aloud in an inexpert, exploratory way.

the text, poem, novel, short story, play or whatever is read aloud, in its entirety, by one or more members of the group. The group talks about the book as it is read, freely interrupting the flow of the reading, with personal responses… a short poem might take half an hour, a short story two hours, War And Peace eighteen months.

The proceeds of  Stop What You’re Doing And Read This! go to Jane’s organisation and shared reading is now mainstream. It is not just for the sick, unhappy or economically deprived people in institutions.

Jane argues a compelling case for shared reading – a reading revolution –

We must reposition literature in settings – such as workplaces, mental-health services, dementia care homes, looked-after children services – where its profound worth will be seen for what it really is: the holder of human value, human meaning, and, yes, even the secrets of the universe…

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When I started the public Readings By The Bay I was astounded by the response and how hungry people were to share their poems and prose, but also to sit and listen to others read aloud. Sadly, Mordialloc Writers as a group is no more but there is a wealth of places now in Melbourne where you can go and read and listen to others read.

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson OBE authored ten novels including The Passion, Sexing the Cherry and Written on the Body, a book of short stories, The World and Other Places, a collection of essays, Art Objects as well as many other works, including children’s books, screenplays and journalism. Her writing has won the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel, the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, the E. M. Forster Award and the Prix d’argent at Cannes Film Festival. In her first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit based on her own upbringing she placed herself as a fictional character. She scripted the novel into a BAFTA-winning BBC drama and later re-visited that material in her bestselling memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? She writes regularly for the Guardian.

Jeanette’s essay, A Bed. A Book. A Mountain, a beautifully crafted piece using reading Nan Shepherd’s book, The Living Mountain, ‘a geo-poetic exploration of the Cairngorms’ as a metaphor to prove ‘There is no substitute for reading.’

A book lets you follow a writer’s mind,‘ states Jeanette. ‘Books work from the inside out. They are a private conversation happening somewhere in the soul.’

Jeanette is quite adamant that “Attention Deficit Disorder is not a disease; it is a consequence of not reading. Teach a child to read and keep that child reading and you will change everything. And yes, I mean everything.”

As I mentioned before there is plenty in this book to start discussions, incite debates, and keep dinner conversations interesting! She justifies her assertion about ADD –

The consequences of homogenised mass culture plus the failure of our education system and our contenpt for books and art (it’s either entertainment or elitist, never vital and democratic), mean that not reading cuts off the possibility of private thinking, or of a trained mind, or of a sense of self not dependent on external factors.

A trained mind is a mind that can concentrate…

Reading stills the body for a while, allowing rest without torpor and quiet without passivity. Reading is not a passive act. Engaged in the book, in company with the writer, the mind can roam where it will. Such freedom to roam reminds us that body and mind both need exercise and activity and that neither the mind nor the body can cope with confinement.

And if the body has to cope with confinement, then all the more reason to have developed a mind that knows how to roam.

 laptops and winterson quote.jpgNicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr writes about technology, culture, and economics. He is the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize nominee and a New York Times bestseller, but also wrote The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008) and Does IT Matter? (2004). His books have been translated into more than 20 languages. (www.nicholascarr.com)

In his essay, The Dreams of Readers, Nicholas admits his ‘life has been punctuated by books.’ Boyhood favourites opened frontiers ‘ to wander in and marvel at far beyond my suburban surroundings.’ The ‘tumult’ of teenage ‘put into perspective‘ by a variety of books and then in his twenties some ‘were the wedges‘ he used ‘to prise open new ways of seeing and feeling.’

What a way with words!

I must explore his reading list and perhaps his word power and engaging use of words will rub off!

Pondering all the books and poems that have made an impact on me, I agree with his statement: ‘Who would I be without these books? Someone else.’

A great part of Carr’s essay deals with the effect on our mind when we read stories, he cites the work of cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto and his colleagues whose experiments suggest that ‘the emotions stirred by literature can even alter, in subtle but real ways, people’s personalities.’

Another researcher Nicholas quotes is Norman Holland, a former scholar at McKnight Brain Institute, at the University of Florida, who argues the mind we read with “is a different mind from the one we use to navigate the real world. In our day-to-day lives, we are always trying to manipulate or otherwise act on our surroundings…

But when we open a book our expectations and our attitudes change drastically. because we understand that ‘we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions.’, we are relieved of our desire to exert influence over objects and people and hence are able to ‘disengage our (cognitive) systems for initiating actions.’ That frees us to become absorbed in the imaginary world of the literary work.”

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Dr Maryanne Wolf & Dr Mirit Barzillai

Dr Maryanne Wolf & Dr Mirit Barzillai. Dr Wolf is the Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in the US, and an Associate Professor of Child Development. She is the author of Proust and the Squid and has published hundreds of articles on reading and learning disabilities. Dr Mirit Barzillai, I assume is her colleague.

The final essay by Maryanne and Mirit is Questions for a Reader and begins with the assertion already covered by some of the other contributors. “Reading transforms the human brain, which transforms the mind, which transforms the life of every reader.”

They make the point:

“We were never born to read or write anything. Unlike vision or language, reading has no genetic programme that unfolds to create an ideal form of itself…

learning to read lies outside the original repertoire of the human brain’s functions and requires a whole new circuit to be buily afresh with each new reader.”

A scientific explanation that explains why each child is different. Some struggle to read and others don’t… some enjoy it, others don’t… and

“The specific factors that affect the formation of the reading circuits take on special significance… as we move from a literacy-based culture to one dominated by digital tools and a digital sense of time.

Immersed and shaped anew by varied technological mediums, the reading brain as we know it will be changed and to some degree supplanted by a different reading circuit.

We are still going through this historical transition period and we must ask critical questions now ‘before the reading brains of the next generation are fully altered.”

We have all read warnings about the time children spend ‘on screen’, the alarm that perhaps their first reading experience is with an iPad, the substitution of films of books in schools instead of requiring the reading of the text, the difference reading on screen to hard copy can make to memory and understanding.

There are myriad arguments for and against but many educators and literacy experts are concerned, including our own celebrated children’s author Mem Fox.

Maryanne and Mirit refer to Socrates, Proust and cognitive neuroscience and remind us to be unquestioning and that there are ‘no pat answers’…and ‘Technological innovation is critical to all of us if we are to advance… It is clear that today’s children, not tomorrow’s, require a new set of intellectual tools and capacities if they are to become productive members of their culture.’

Lots to think about in this book – definitely worth stopping what you are doing to read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smile and Dance Into 2018 with The Greatest Showman

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I don’t go to the movies as often as I’d like but the long summer holiday is a chance to indulge – if there is something that appeals. Unfortunately, I’m not the demographic most filmmakers try to please so it is often a fruitless search for a good movie at Southlands Village Cinemas, the easiest place for me to reach by public transport.

On Boxing Day, a traditional new movie release day, I went to see The Greatest Showman with my daughters. One of the stars, Michelle Williams, is a longtime favourite of my oldest daughter, Anne, and we have developed a ritual of going to see her film releases as a family.

Michelle plays Charity, the childhood sweetheart and later devoted wife of PT Barnum played by Hugh Jackman, the greatest showman referred to in the title.

The movie has had poor reviews from those who consider themselves professional film critics yet to date my friends and family who have seen it, absolutely love it.

It is not historically accurate (what film truly is?) but does not shy away from Barnum’s character flaws either. We see his selfish and cruel exploitation of everyone to pursue his idea of success. To be honest, I may not have gone to see the release of The Greatest Showman if Michelle Williams hadn’t been one of the stars because what I have read about the real Barnum is not complimentary.

Also, I’m not a great fan of musical movies and like most people, the bad ones (Russell Crowe’s dreadful part in Les Miserables) tend to be more memorable than the good ones. 

As a lover of history, I prefer books and if on screen, choose documentaries or serialised dramas. Inevitably, there will be creative choices made condensing a life into what makes good entertainment rather than what may be accurate, especially if you only have an hour or so to do it.

But, taken at face value as a film, The Greatest Showman is entertaining – well worth suspending disbelief! It is freedom from the bombardment of doom and gloom from current media.

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To sit in a darkened room enthralled by an imaginary world is great escapism. A bonus is a film for family viewing – no gratuitous violence or sex – and no hurt animals because they are CGI or animatronic.

I’m not surprised about the disparity in reactions and reviews – professional critics often look through an academic or superior lens, many demanding standards the movie-going public doesn’t particularly care about.

We bring our emotional and cultural baggage to any art form so healthy differences of opinion should occur but as much as I loved listening to Margaret and David, Australia’s ultimate film reviewers, their ‘star’ ratings never influenced whether I saw a film or not.

Since I was a teenager and reading Jim Schembri’s reviews in The Age Green Guide, I’ve been out of step with mainstream critics of any genre and prefer to make my own judgement. In fact, if some critics dislike a movie or a book, it almost guarantees I love it! (Surprisingly, I’m in step with Schembri on this one.)

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It’s not often I leave a cinema uplifted and with the music and song lyrics in my head, but The Greatest Showman, a biopic on the life of PT Barnum of circus fame, written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and directed by Michael Gracey, did just that for me.

Barnum, as mentioned is played by Hugh Jackman – a talented showman extraordinaire using the full range of his acting, singing and dancing skills. He plays a man you want to succeed despite his weaknesses and flaws. You fall in love with the people around him and if they’re prepared to forgive his foibles so can we.

He is ably supported by some stunning performances from a cast who deliver an engaging story and catchy, memorable songs. A couple of scenes in a bar are fabulous.

music quoteAnne went straight to JB HiFi and bought the soundtrack after leaving the cinema – the last time I remember any of us compelled to do that was when we saw The Lion King!

There will be debates about sugar-coating Barnum’s story, but the film portrays a man who came from a poor, powerless family and who rose to fame and fortune by gathering even more disadvantaged outcasts (people labelled freaks) and creating a show that ultimately led to being presented at the court of Queen Victoria.

In the film, visionary Barnum realised he needed someone to help him to appeal to more upmarket clientele and those with money to spend on lavish entertainment. He goes into partnership with a successful young playwright, Philip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron. This character is an imaginary persona not to be confused with James Anthony Bailey, the partner in the legendary Barnum & Bailey circus.

Efron’s character falls in love with Zendaya’s character, Anne, and allows the script to explore the endemic racism and class divisions of the period just as the cast of so-called  “freaks” explores gender, diversity, acceptance of the ‘other’, prejudice, intolerance, mob violence, and the meaning of family and friendship.

All relevant themes in this deeply disturbing time but they are not new. Like all good art, the film attempts to explore the human condition but it is a feel-good musical. If you want historical accuracy please research and read – there is information on Barnum available.

The story has plenty of dialogue that is not singing (one of the failings of previously mentioned and aptly titled film adaptation Les Miserables) and strong performances from others in the cast, particularly Zac Efron and Zendaya’s relationship.

The pacing is excellent and the 105 minutes disappears too soon. My favourite is a cleverly choreographed dance scene on a rooftop reminiscent of Mary Poppins (another musical film I enjoyed). It concludes with a magical light show. Aptly, this scene shows the romantic love between Charity and Barnum and the love they share with their two daughters.

The attention to historical detail regarding costumes and setting captures the essence of another century but the razzle-dazzle, upbeat music and meaningful emotional numbers are the best modern Broadway can offer.

I particularly love the scenes with the whole cast and the bearded lady (Keala Settle) leading the performance – amazing vibrancy and energy with a magnificent voice.

It was a fantastic and fun way to end the year  and in the words of Jackman’s character, Barnum, when accused by a snooty critic (Paul Sparks) determined to expose him as offering fake entertainment with a cast of stage personas like ‘General Tom Thumb’, Barnum pointed to the rapturous audience and said, “Do those smiles look fake?

My smile and enjoyment not fake either – go see the movie because what the snooty critic eventually realises and writes is Barnum’s show is ‘a celebration of life.’

And that’s how The Greatest Showman felt to the cinema audience as they spontaneously clapped at the end.

images.jpgAs the credits are announced, we see the making of the film employed 15,000 people and gave thousands upon thousands of hours of work. 

An industry and movie worth supporting despite the critics!