Let Imagination Loose in Lockdown & Learn That Writing Creatively Is Fun

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The Power of Exercise

We advise athletes to perform warm-up routines before playing a sport, musicians and singers use warm-up exercises too, and in writing class, prompts and creative writing exercises loosen your imagination while honing your writing muscles.

Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.

Ernest Hemingway

In Class, We Splurge!

The goal of the prompts is to encourage clear, lively writing.  Encourage the use of specific images, well-chosen verbs and precise nouns, “showing rather than telling” and to avoid clichés.

To achieve this ideal takes practice, practice, practice!

The exercises are often more fun in a class, or with two or more people, but doing them alone and at home is fun too. 

 

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Facebook meme telling it how it is

 

If, while writing, you’re at a loss how to continue writing consider the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste); or shift your perspective from high to low (what’s happening in the sky or the floor above or underground, under the sea, in a cellar…), from close to far away; or consider the journalist’s five questions—who, what, when, where, why.

Think of character development, theme and mood and always think of your audience – who are you writing for (and it is okay to be writing for yourself!).

  • Choose a prompt – and remember, you can take as little of the prompt as you want – one word or the memory or idea it evokes…  
  • Weigh a few possibilities (brainstorm, mind map, outline, list)
  • Write without interruption for 12-15 minutes. (Use an oven timer or the stopwatch facility on your mobile)
  • Be surprised at what comes up and continue to write… and remember, you can always change your mind and choose a different prompt. At home, you are teacher, student, writer and reader.

If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.

Somerset Maugham

Variety The Spice of Imagination

First lines, ideas for beginnings:

  • It was no ordinary date…
  • It was no ordinary house…
  • She was no ordinary babysitter…
  • ‘Look, I didn’t want to be a refugee.’
  • ‘Three things happened this morning but only one changed my life.’
  • ‘Welcome aboard,’ said the captain, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes.’

Describe a first – why is it memorable?:

  • Your first kiss, first car, the first job
  • Your first pet (kitten/puppy/ rabbit/bird, lizard…)
  • Your first child, first grandchild, first sibling
  • Your first day of school, your first day of university
  • Your first night in a bed by yourself or away from home

Fibs, Excuses, Embellishments, Wishful Thinking …

  • The dog ate my homework.
  • She said, ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ but I knew she was lying.
  • The weekly horoscope said 5 and 8 were my lucky numbers.
  • I was here the whole time, you just didn’t see me.
  • The alarm didn’t go off.
  • He was in the supermarket too. It can’t be a coincidence.

 

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Facebook meme

 

Quotes To Inspire A Reflection, Prose or Poem… Write Your Truth, Your Experience, Your Pleasure, To Know More,

  1. The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. ~ Neil Gaiman
  2. Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come the most unsought for are commonly the most valuable. ~ Francis Bacon
  3. If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. ~ Anais Nin
  4. I write for myself things that I’ve gone through. ~ Dolly Parton
  5. Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The keyword is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for. ~ Ray Bradbury
  6. Usually, I walk and think about things. When I come across a thought that makes me laugh, I write it down. ~Demetri Martin
  7. Writing a story… is simply an exploration of the nature of behaviour: why people do what they do, how it affects others, how we change and grow, and what decisions we make along the way. ~ Lois Lowry
  8. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. ~ Joan Didion

I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.

Erica Jong

quote from Alice Hoffman NYTimes

Choose three prompts from the suggestions above or write whatever thoughts they triggered… look at the challenge as an exercise to warm-up the process, one for ‘homework’ and one to move out of your comfort zone and instil a passion for writing!

Here are three efforts from me triggered by prompts and written in class during a splurge:

Coming of Age by Mairi Neil, flash fiction 516 words https://mairineil.com

Accidental future, a short story of 383 words by Mairi Neil

An isolated event, short story 736 words by Mairi Neil

Try the following exercise frequently to hone your writing skills:

  • Create a short story that is 26 sentences long, each sentence beginning with the letters of the alphabet starting with A and continuing to Z. 
  • Add other, arbitrary conditions, such as a sentence should be only one word; there should be one question mark, one quotation, there has to be a definite beginning, middle and end – no loose anecdotes or ramblings. There must be a story, not just a stream of consciousness!
  • Rigid rules often produce fascinating results—such as with well-written sonnets, which have 14 lines and tight rhyme schemes, each line governed by a specific number of syllables and alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.
  • Apply some form and rigid rules to your stories and see if that makes writing – and finishing – easier.

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

Douglas Adams

And remember…

  • Make time in your schedule for writing.  
  •  When you sit down to write, don’t be afraid of how it will come out.  
  •  Take pleasure in exercising your imagination and writing.   
  •  Always celebrate the work you’ve done, no matter the result.  Having shown up and done the work, kept to a plan or deadline is an accomplishment. Share here or email it to a friend or send it off to a competition – be brave:) 
  •  Trust that you’re making progress, a little at a time, day by day – and have fun!

It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.

C. J. Cherryh

 

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Facebook meme

 

April 2020 has come and gone, but COVID-19 lingers on…

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Facebook meme

For over a month now, every state in Australia has been in some form of lockdown and the measures taken by various levels of government appear to have worked.  Unlike other parts of the world, we have successfully flattened the curve quickly and some states are looking at some relief from isolation by relaxing social distancing advice.

However, in Australia people have died and lives of many changed forever.

Each day there are still fresh cases of coronavirus reported, but nowhere near the numbers other countries are recording. Social distancing and quarantining appear to have worked because most of the population have respected the need for and obeyed the rules and the various public health messages.

In my little corner of Mordialloc, it has been strange–and very pleasant–to see less traffic and few parked cars. People are going on family walks,  strolling in pairs or singly, entire families take the dog for a walk! Children play in the street, and chalk rainbows, love hearts, and well wishes.

All of this reminiscent of my childhood in the 50s (Scotland) and 60s (Australia).

Friends in other places have similar observations with a friend in Aberdeen who walks several miles a day through the lovely countryside of Inverurie, commenting when she rang me that the lack of cars has meant less pollution. She only washes her hair every few days rather than daily and no ‘black muck’ appears in the water!

A Time of Reflection

The last few weeks I’ve put up posts with ideas and prompts to help people who want to write or who have been writing but can’t go to classes or their usual groups because of COVID-19.

For some people writing will be a fill-in hobby, others may dream of a novel or collection of short stories sitting in a bookshop window.

There will be people writing life stories or a memoir which is a slice of their life, perhaps family history or researching for a school project or essay.

Feedback suggests the posts have been helpful but now as we near a ‘new normal’, perhaps it is time to record the experiences you’ve had over this period. You can incorporate them in a poem or short story or journal about them – but leaving some record for future generations is helpful – create a time capsule if you will…

People will look for historical records about the pandemic,  just as we’ve seen plenty of articles about the 1918 Flu Epidemic, the Ebola and SARS outbreaks and even the Bubonic Plague.

“If writers stopped writing about what happened to them, then there would be a lot of empty pages.”

Elaine Liner

  • List what you have been doing to cope
  • How is it different from life before lockdown and social distancing
  • Make note of what you like and what you don’t like about isolation – I know some people have already made resolutions to value friendship and family more, live with less material things, value the environment more…
  • Ponder how your life has changed and whether any behaviours or activities will remain even once free of lockdown restrictions

This is a monumental period in history – global pandemics do not happen that often!

  • You may have experienced personal tragedy but also joy, or have knowledge of someone whose journey has differed from yours.
  •  Have you made recent friends, lost established friends, or discovered qualities such as strengths or failings in people, whether family members or in the community?
  • What new skills have you learned?
  • What old skills have you revived?
  • Has your opinion of technology changed? Have you improved/increased your use of technology or do you regret your lack of knowledge?
  • How is homeschooling or working from home actually working out?
  • Have you received or sent parcels? What were the contents? How did the experience work out?
  • Are you a hoarder, panic buyer or did you manage to go without those items in much demand like toilet paper, flour, pasta and rice.
  • Did your use of social media increase, decrease, what you shared change?
  • Did you join any new online groups?

Have you ‘hit the wall’ yet – how are your anxiety levels?

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Facebook meme

Are You More Present in Your Life?

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presents my eldest daughter sent during isolation

Rich sensory experiences surround us daily — IF we take the time to observe and as writers note them down.

Become a keen observer and recorder of the sensory intricacies of life.  Make it a habit to jot down your observances in a journal or snap a photo to remind you of the weather, the season, the unusual occurrence… on my daily walks with Josie, I take at least one photograph of something interesting or new I notice –  a cloud formation or blossoming flower.

Sometimes these changes are close to home – like this Yucca plant of mine that has flowered for the first time in nearly a decade! And the interesting fungi in the front garden – in fact fungi seems to mushroom all over Mordialloc – or maybe I’m just noticing it more.

Or these pigeons sitting in a bird bath – can you imagine the conversation? The one in my garden annoys the lorikeets but loves feeding on the seeds they spit out, and the ones on the deserted footy oval are excellent at social distancing.

What stories can you make up?

Have the parcel postman or couriers visited more than usual?

Contactless deliveries can bring surprises – write the story behind the parcels:

I haven’t seen my daughter, Anne, for weeks because of COVID-19 restrictions and miss her. I know she misses me and her sister but also misses Josie, our Kelpie/Staffy Cross who gives us so much pleasure. She has earned this certificate made by number two daughter, Mary Jane:

She got a special delivery from Anne to celebrate her first year with us. Josie was a rescue dog but with the Pet Circle parcel became a lucky dog!

I received a parcel to learn pottery, a gift that gives twice because the arts and crafts have suffered from the economic shutdown and this helps to keep a small workshop viable.

One of my sisters sent me a knitted version of my favourite poet Rabbie Burns – knitting her forte but new projects helping her cope with being stuck more inside than usual and of showing she is thinking of family.

The picture of the praying mantis snapped by me after my daughter told me we had a visitor at the door!

Small delights happen every day and we mustn’t forget to notice and appreciate them and let our imagination roam.

Devote some time to dwell on daydreams. They are spontaneous messages from our subconscious. Not everyone has a daydream-friendly mind. In fact, some people have been taught to repress daydreams as mere distractions.

As writers, however, we should not only welcome daydreams but train ourselves to be aware of them. In fact, the core of most of my novels has come from daydreams. Daydreams are our primal storyteller at work, sending us scenes and topics that our imagination or subconscious wants us to investigate.

Each day, we should devote time (I usually do this before sleeping) to reviewing our daydreams and determining which of them insists on being turned into a story. Don’t push away those daydreams that make you uncomfortable: The more shocking the daydream, the more truthful about us it is. Embrace that truth.

David Morrell

Have Your Rituals Changed?

I’m retired from teaching at the moment – the return of breast cancer and arrival of coronavirus a perfect storm.

My morning ritual of observing the visiting lorikeets goes on for an extended period now and I never tire watching them come and go to feed at other times of the day or enjoying each other’s company in the bottlebrush outside my bedroom window.

Here is a slice of life short story of what my morning used to be like: Mornings by Mairi Neil, a slice of life

Josie enjoys watching them too.

Do you have a morning ritual? Has it changed recently like mine has?

Are you doing more cooking? Experimenting? There was a shortage of flour, eggs, sugar – in fact, lots of items disappeared from supermarket shelves in panic buying sprees. This made for some creative recipes being shared on social media.

I received an interesting recipe from the Jean Hailes Clinic for Women’s Health devised by naturopath and herbalist Sandra Villella, and because coronavirus disrupted ANZAC Day this year; I tried the new recipe for Anzac Biscuits and can testify to their yumminess (how healthy is that)!

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This variation of Anzac biscuits is a healthier alternative to traditional Anzacs and results in a dark, slightly chewy variety of the biscuit. We understand some ingredients may be difficult to find in supermarkets at present. You could try your local health food shop, otherwise use the substitutes listed under ‘Ingredients’. You’ll still be getting the low-GI goodness of rolled oats.

  • 1 cup wholemeal spelt flour
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup desiccated coconut or shredded coconut
  • ¾ cup coconut sugar
  • 125g butter
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

Substitutions (which I used)

Swap the wholemeal spelt flour for plain or wholemeal flour
Swap the coconut sugar for white sugar
Swap the maple syrup for golden syrup

Method: Preheat oven to 160°C and line 2 baking trays with baking paper.
In a large bowl, combine flour, oats, coconut and coconut sugar.
In a small saucepan, stir the butter and maple syrup over medium heat until butter melts and the mixture is smooth. Take off the heat. Stir the bicarbonate of soda with the water and add to butter and maple syrup.
Add to the oat mixture and stir well to combine.
Roll level tablespoons of the mixture into balls and flatten.
Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until golden.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes and then transfer to a wire cooling rack.

Nutritional Info: Our knowledge of nutrition has progressed somewhat since World War II. We now know that we need to eat more whole-foods and less processed foods. While these biscuits are still a sweet treat, the maple syrup is far less processed than golden syrup traditionally used in Anzac biscuits. Coconut sugar is a lower GI alternative compared to white sugar and provides small amounts of nutrients not found in white sugar. The goodness of rolled oats, an excellent source of beta-glucan soluble fibre that helps to reduce cholesterol; combined with wholemeal spelt flour, provides healthy whole grains to balance out the sweetness.

Has technology been Your Friend or Foe?

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Another Facebook meme

I’m lucky because I’ve kept abreast of many of the changes in technology and my computer literacy and competency better than others in my age group. Both my daughters are highly skilled with technology so they fill any gaps exposed when dealing with this catastrophic virus.

I downloaded and have now used ZOOM several times. The first time there were minor glitches but subsequently, there have been no problems.

  • Courtesy of the Health Issues Centre, I’ve heard medical experts and local consumer health reps discuss the current crisis and offer opinions, ideas and suggestions to the government.
  • Courtesy of the Australia Institute, I’ve listened to economic experts and been able to ask questions of them, including the Shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers MP and hope to take part in other sessions with Media, Environmental and Arts representatives.
  • Courtesy of the trade union movement, I’ve taken part in sessions with the first woman ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus and the first woman General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow.

Many organisations are organising online discussions and hoping for feedback from as many ordinary Australians as possible.  This is an unusual time and who knows how much more difficult life will become after the health crisis eases and we must face a devastating economic crisis.

Stay informed, raise your voice, be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

My daughters have used ZOOM and other platforms to catch up with friends all over Australia and internationally, and many people rely on similar software while working from home.

We have had trivia and movie nights and I love hearing the laughter when a group of them get together but I know many people are not so fortunate.

What have been your experiences with technology? Do you have a disaster or comical story? Do you use Face Time on Messenger?

What type of social media helps you stay in touch with those you can’t visit? Or do you prefer a phonecall, text and email?

Facetime becomes a regular thing
The first time, I contacted my daughter via Messenger at beginning of COVID-19 crisis

Here is a piece of flash fiction inspired by a sound (I mentioned incorporating sound in a previous post). The setting is in the 1930s when the world went through the Great Depression – yes; we have survived economic crises before too. Night Terror by Mairi Neil, flash fiction.

But to end on a funny note involving current times and technology, here is another Facebook meme doing the rounds.

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Two days ago we experienced the coldest April day on record in Melbourne.

storm brewing

Today is definitely wintry – stay safe inside, stay well and stay strong – and scratch that pen or tap the keyboard. If all ideas fail, you can do what people normally do when they get together – but write don’t talk about the weather!

Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood – you will either write or you will not – and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.

Jim Tully, Writer’s Digest 1923

Happy Writing

 

 

Writing Techniques Add Value To Poems & Prose

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Day 21 -We’re still trying for fun!

We are still in stage 3 Lockdown and still practising social distancing – but not from our pens or computer keyboard!

It’s easy to write poorly, but it’s hard to write poorly every day. Wait. Let’s go back a step: It’s hard to write every day.

Rebecca Blood

Writing is a craft and like all crafts there are techniques to improve your work and to make it stand out from others. One such writing technique or device is personification.

PERSONIFICATION is giving human qualities, feelings, actions or characteristics to an inanimate or non-human object. This can include giving human characteristics to animals or animal characteristics to humans or even writing a story from an object’s point of view.

For example: the window winked at me (winking is a human action, the window is an object); the tree clawed at me – tree branches are not human arms.

  • Personification enriches poetry and prose and may be culturally biased because writers experiment, they express their emotions, reflect their upbringing and education and life experience. They will write personal views of certain human attributes, cultural perceptions, and sayings when they write creatively.
  • Personification is probably the most common figure of speech we come across and most of us use examples several times a day in speech and writing without realising we do.
  • Personification injects human behaviour into material objects or abstract concepts.

Advertisers and marketers use it to sell products all the time. For example: health educators will try to make vegetables exciting to children. 

We talk about shoes killing us, colours screaming, a furious sea battering the coastline, a doona smothering us, the wind crying, howling or whispering…

TV adverts talk about cancer as if it is a bullying soldier, an invading army, an enemy of the state… if you have cancer we must battle it.

A house might be a demanding baby to be soothed by a coat of paint…

Pay attention to the seductive ditties, words, arguments in marketing and you’ll understand the value of personification to persuade an audience, drawing them into a world they identify.

Contemplating our own mortality is a struggle and confronting – death is a taboo subject to many families and cultures, so we use personification to describe our feelings:

  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament – usually named as war, famine, disease and death.
  • We have depicted death as a serious farm worker (the Grim Reaper) – remember the Aids campaign?
  • An old woman with a broom (always witch-like) also used to represent death!

There are various representations for someone described as a fox:  a sly old fox, a silver-haired fox, a vixen, a good hunter, an evil marauder, a thief, a murderer… depends on your point of view or experience of foxes and what the story is about.

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The Poetry Foundation suggests:

  • It’s so easy to personify that many poets don’t realise they’re doing it. Be mindful of your personification tools and use them sparingly.
  • Don’t be obscure – if you are writing about a gymnast, readers shouldn’t think you are writing about a light bulb or a tree.

In Emily Dickinson’s poem Death is a gentleman with impeccable good manners –

Because I could not stop for Death
He Kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.

  • Personification can pack a punch.

In 1819, cavalry charged into an unarmed crowd of men, women and children demanding parliamentary reform in Manchester, in the north of England.

About 20 people died and over 400 wounded. The tragedy shocked the country, and it became known as the Peterloo Massacre (the battle of Waterloo occurred four years earlier.)

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem about the incident reveals his anger and contempt for the politicians fighting the reforms and who he blames for the shocking tragedy:

I met Murder on the way
He had a mask like Castlereagh
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell,
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and from,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them

  • Personification can reduce big concepts, events, even people or authority to a level we can understand. It can turn the ordinary into something extraordinary, memorable, or at least something we see with new eyes.

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What kind Of Person?

Decide what kind of personal traits or career each of the following could be. Write a sentence or perhaps write a character profile for a story:

In case you are uninspired or unsure, I’ve shared a range of responses from past students:

A shark – a used car salesman, someone in marketing, a predator
A goat – a good climber, a person who eats anything, someone with a ravenous appetite, a stubborn old goat, mindless, randy, agile, nimble, single-minded, socially and physically active
A worm – a bookworm, wriggly, a crawler, worm their way into affections, slimy, shy, retiring
A rabbit – skittery, timid, shy, bright-eyed, brainless, harmless, breed like a rabbit, sexually irresponsible, randy, cuddly, fluffy bunny
A leech – clingy, bloodsucker, parasite, ingratiating, an invader,
An elephant – good memory, solid, stoic, get with the strength, clumsy, blunders, too big for their boots
A snake – slithery, slippery, dishonest, shedding skin, a fake, a bigamist, dangerous, untrustworthy
A wombat – hides away, muddleheaded, determined, a night worker, sleepy, retiring type
A lamb – innocent, vulnerable, frolics, gambols, meek, religious person, a follower
A rat – selfish, sneaky, dangerous, untrustworthy, crafty, survivor, deserter, attacker, insatiable

The sun 

  • When the sun entered the room, he threw his bright light into a dark corner.
  • Her warm orange glow made everyone feel better.
  • In the evening, she is a buxom wench in flame-coloured taffeta.
  • He is the centre of our world, and the day pivots around him.

A Shadow

  • The shadow crept around the building as furtive as a thief.
  • She huddled cold and forlorn in the shadow, praying for rescue.

A bushfire

  • The bushfire raged throughout the night, destroying everything in his path.

Thunder & Lightning

  • The thunder roared and lightning flashed and she knew the two giants would fight all night.

Earthquake

  • The earthquake swallowed the city in several angry bites.

We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

Kurt Vonnegut

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Cat on Condominium Rooftop
Mairi Neil

Soaking up the sun
green eyes ignore life below
people scurry to work
forget to look up
marching ants trudge
to soulless jobs
drones on daily grind
a boring bind.

No such limitations for the cat
rising and stretching limbs
warm tiles a luxurious bed
to sleep and dream of
the tramp of footsteps
cacophony of voices
fading     rising     fading     rising
the daily grind
not his bind.

A butterfly flitters past
pauses briefly on a tree branch
trembling wings bathed in sunlight
green eyes blink, a paw twitches
but passersby unaware
of Mother Nature’s show
weary feet tramp and trudge
the daily grind
grips and binds

An elegant stretch, the cat sits
to watch the dying sun
green eyes observe life below
people scurrying home from work
forgetting to look up
they’ve missed the sunshine
the butterfly’s graceful dance
the cat’s sunny somnolence
their daily grind
a soulless bind

© 2016

Exercise One:

Write about a character or an event and use personification. Here are some sentences that could start you off –

  1. The cloud scattered rain throughout the city.
  2. The ancient car groaned into third gear.
  3. The daffodils nodded their yellow heads as we walked up the path.
  4. The wind sang her mournful song through the rafters of the barn
  5. The microwave’s alarm told me it was time to eat my TV dinner
  6. The camcorder observed the whole tragedy
  7. The chocolate cake begged to be eaten
  8. The crockery danced on the shelves when the door slammed

Exercise Two:

Look around the room, or your home, your workplace, your garden, the local park, a cafe, a place you visit regularly… (some of these will be from memory because of COVID-19!)

Think about inanimate objects and other everyday items – what kind of vocabulary do they have?

  • The sturdy, dark brown bookcase in the corner- is it male or female? Cheerful or depressed?
  • Could the corkscrew on the bar be on a diet, have a memory of failure?
  • Is the bargain basement table sneaky or does it feel second best?
  • An antique, leather armchair and an Ikea stool do similar jobs, but do they have different ways of looking at the world
  • How do you feel about computers? Have you been frustrated and yelled at the computer – how did it answer?

  • What stories about clocks do you have? Write about your favourite or least favourite alarm clock – perhaps it is a baby’s cry and not a clock at all!

  • You may have the same bed after a failed marriage but does it feel the same – maybe miss the previous occupant?
  • What stories have you about trees in your garden – removing them, perhaps one fell down and damaged something, perhaps you always got fruit and bottled it, had a tree house… do you talk to the trees and do they answer you?

  • Those Wedgewood plates you inherited – do they have the same thoughts as you – do they feel fragile, overused, useless, precious?

Here are two of my attempts: Heirloom Horror by Mairi neil, flash fiction of 500 words.

storm in a teacup by Mairi Neil, 400 word flash fiction

Exercise Three:

In poetry and prose personify a piece of furniture you know well.

  • Perhaps it has been in the family since you were born. Perhaps you bought it last week.
  • Giving it a name is optional but you MUST give it an attitude!
  • Be inspired to write about current affairs, or a historical event a la Percy Shelley
  • Use alliteration and personification – experiment and make an effort to try something new.
  • Revisit some of your previous work and see if you can improve it by adding personification.
  • Do the seasons have a personality? An attitude? Write a poem or short prose using personification and reveal the season’s viewpoint or perspective.

 

page seventeen

Rebirth
by Mairi Neil

Lying on the beach
waves roll over me,
smoothing
life’s pain.

the warm waves
caress and massage
manipulating
moulding
malleable me

until colder waves
carve and chip,
with each sharp
intake of breath
a new shape emerges

I am reborn

© 2005 Published page seventeen, Issue 2, Celapene Press.

Happy Writing

 

 

 

 

Armchair Travel Can be Fun If You Share Your Stories

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Day Thirteen – Writing About Where you’ve Been – What Have You Seen?

In a world where COVID19 has locked down, cities, countries, and communities and people are practising social isolation, now is the time to reflect and relive your travels.

Time to sort out memories, photographs and mementoes and write about them from the safety of your home.

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my little bear at the mailbox

You may have had time before but needed the inclination or incentive…  hopefully, you’ll gather some ideas as you read this post.

Reality says it may be many months before we will be able to do anything but armchair travel if the destination we seek is in another country or even another state.

Today, think about writing your recollections as a contribution to collective knowledge and adding to history/herstory – especially if you have photographs.

The spread and damage of COVID19, has produced new border controls, changes to travel, work and leisure… the world is not going to be the same after this global catastrophe.

Your memories and stories have always been important to you, they may now be important to others.

I’ve been privileged to travel widely since a child. Since blogging, I’ve shared some recent travels – to Samoa, to Mongolia, to Russia, to England and to Scotland – and many places in Victoria as a volunteer for Open House Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo.

I’ve been inspired to write poetry as well as short stories or personal essays to explain  memorable experiences:

Visiting Singapore 1973 – a haibun
Mairi Neil

We crowd on deck as the cruise ship glides into Singapore harbour, a week after leaving Fremantle. The silver sun aglow in a cloudless azure sky. Skin fiery scarlet from too many hours in the ship’s pool as Singapore City wobbles and wilts in the heat.

I ache for relief
from this tantalising veil
and covet the sea

Engines thrum and screeches of gulls mask the first hint a change is on the way. Rain falls in sheets and shafts. Solid blocks of water pound the decks.

Clouds scud across sky
the veil now a fog blanket
hiding the city.

Beneath our feet racing rivers fill deck gutters and our shoes. On automatic pilot, we slosh for cover, although there is no icy wind in this downpour.

No unsettling chill
just instant relief
from relentless heat

Rain hammers metal, swamps furniture and people, drenching everything not covered. Metal rails hiss. Steam sizzles on the shrinking, not sinking ship. No crevice escapes. A continuous stream of trickles and dribbles demonstrates the power of this deluge.

A turmoil of grey
idyllic tropics in grip
of monsoonal rain

Yet, within minutes, the ship docks and the downpour stops as quickly as it began. Singapore city a perfect watercolour painting showcases sunlight and serenity. The tropical shower and haze but a dream as perspiration leaks from every pore.

Share Your Travel Memories

Once you have organised a story – or many – enjoy the pleasure of armchair travel and swap with those in isolation with you.  Or share online via Skype, Face Time or Zoom. The digital tools available ensure your photos or slides will be more entertaining than the slide shows of old.

I remember more than a few family and friends falling asleep when I showed my China slides in 1979!

However, when I taught at Sandybeach Centre 20 years ago, they ran a regular program for people with limited mobility called Armchair Travel, and I volunteered one afternoon to share my China travels. I had learnt to choose the most interesting slides for that audience. I targeted correctly and they retained interest and were appreciative. Make sure your pitch matches your readers, listeners or viewers:)

Anyone who travelled in the 50s – 70s will remember those family slide nights before Super 8 movies superseded the modern version of ‘magic lantern’ shows in village halls.

People have always been fascinated by travel tales, especially of the exotic and unusual. The popularity of Sir David Attenborough or the Leyland brothers is testimony to that!

The shelves of the  Travel Section in bookstores are always overflowing and Lonely Planet publications have been successfully guiding adventurous travellers for years. 

Updates when friends travel flood social media with Facebook and Instagram designed for travel photos more than any other.

But these pics are soon forgotten unless you put them into context with words. Write a few sentences about each pic or retell your experiences over a beer or cuppa.

What Travel Experience Can You Write About?

Think and share what made your travel experience different from those of thousands of others. Even if you haven’t travelled overseas or interstate you have a travel story because you can write about your neighbourhood and everyday journeys.

In 2012, Mordialloc Writers’ Group published our 8th collection of poems and stories, Off The Rails, around the theme of the Frankston Railway Line – a journey thousands of people do daily and a topic the 21 featured writers embraced with relish and creativity.

You might have journeyed on the Orient Express, the Trans Siberian, the Flying Scotsman or Puffing Billy – write about:

  • why you made the journey
  • who was with you
  • the people you met
  • the best memory
  • the worst memory
  • if you would do it again

Remember too, those walks around the neighbourhood you are allowed during COVID19 can turn up ideas for stories – fictionalised if you want. Set a story in one of the houses that intrigues you or garden you admire…

Ask questions that you don’t know the answers to:

  • Who, what, why, when, where… and make up the answers!

I took these pictures this morning when walking the dog.

Who did the drawing? What was their motivation?  How long will the drawings stay there?

Write up the reactions of people – good and bad – was seeing them transformational for someone? Did it trigger memories?

The drawing of Frida Kahlo stunning for a child or teenager to draw – could be the start of an intriguing mystery or a memory of a visit to Mexico?

There are houses with bears or pictures of bears in the window – I’ve put my bear outside yet there are no children living here now.

Your characters in the story don’t have to be obvious or stereotypical.

A house advertised a birthday boy – 8 years old today. His party probably cancelled yet his parents found a way to make him feel special and stay connected to the outside world.

Write a story where you or your character has to find a creative solution to a problem.

How do you make someone feel special in this catastrophic time if you normally treat them to an outing?

 What’s your funniest travel story?

Humour is a great way to make a story memorable and different from everyone else’s experience. The stuff-ups or unexpected laughs are usually the tales we recount first (and often) when we return from our trip.

Humorous framing or retelling can also ease the embarrassment or shame when you make a cultural faux pas or do something stupid like miss a flight, board the wrong train, get lost in a foreign city or say something strange in a foreign language you just learned.

Here is my tale of travelling with a young child in the 90s:

What is the strangest thing that has happened to you travelling?

What is the nicest (or most horrible) food you have eaten when travelling?

(A class exercise Monday 15th October 2012 )

Have You a Taste For Travel?
Mairi Neil 

When I went to Alice Springs in 2011, to walk the Larapinta Trail, I braced myself for the time when I would be offered a witchetty grub. I remembered a student, Amelia reading a story of her encounter with the delicacy when she worked as an infant welfare nurse in the Northern Territory in the 1950s. I didn’t want to shame myself by refusing and offending indigenous hosts if they offered me a meal.

Five giggling Aboriginal girls had arrived at Amelia’s house with outstretched hands, displaying half-a-dozen thick white grubs whose sluggish twists indicated they were still alive.

The girls’ gift a gesture to show Amelia she had been accepted by the community. Amelia assured me that once cooked, the grubs tasted meaty. She shared a picture of herself, sitting on the ground in a circle around a campfire, head tilted back and mouth open, ready to accept the long white grub poised above her. Her eyes sparkled as a friend snapped the photograph for posterity.

Could I be as gracious and adventurous as Amelia?

The thought of putting what looked like a fat white caterpillar into my mouth, never mind swallowing it, made me nauseous. I’ve always had what my mother referred to as a ‘weak’ stomach – perhaps if I closed my eyes I’d be able to eat enough not to offend. If I concentrated I’d be able to keep it down rather than gagging or vomiting – my usual reaction to nasty tastes.

The more I thought of eating witchetty grubs the more obsessed I became of what they would taste like. They looked shiny and soft. What meat could they be like with that texture? Perhaps they firmed when cooked. A vision of people crunching on cooked insects surfaced as I remembered the fascinating produce of street vendors when I visited China in 1979.

I remembered too, the constant dissection and examination of every meal on that tour by one of the other travellers in our group. She made me long for a Vegemite sandwich as she poked and dismembered every meal with chopsticks looking for evidence we were being served rat, cat or dog. Cultural assumptions and prejudices rife when it comes to food and her behaviour shameful.

Why I couldn’t I embrace a meal of witchetty grubs, when research provides evidence of their nutritional value? Was I riddled with prejudice too?

Near the end of the five-day trek in Central Australia, I had to face the witchetty grub dilemma. Throat constricted and mouth dry, I could barely form the words to ask our Aboriginal guide, Nicholas to describe the taste of the large fat witchetty grub wriggling in the palm of his hand.

Sweat bubbled on his lip from exertion. A streak of dirt above one eye where he’d wiped his brow, gave a warrior glint to his expression as he showed the delicacy with pride. Nicholas and his auntie had spent almost an hour digging at the roots of an acacia bush to retrieve the prize. ‘It tastes like the yolk of an egg,’ he said, ‘and has a similar texture.’

He watched me closely and must have seen the mix of emotions cross my face, perhaps heard the gulp as I tried to swallow. Egg is not one of my favourite tastes.

‘One witchetty grub,’ he said, almost to himself.

I realised how much he craved the wriggling grub in his hand but innate generosity obliged him to give it to me.

‘It’s not really big enough to share,’ I said. ‘You and auntie did all the hard work. Maybe I’ll taste them another day.’

Our smiles of relief a mirror match as Nicholas hurried away before I changed my mind.

What Armchair Travels Will You Create?

Can you match a photograph with a short poem like haiku or terse verse? I write this after a trip to Italy but it could apply to many famous places crowded with tourists. The joke about ‘exiting through the gift shop’ is very much a reality in our consumer-driven world. What do you think those communities are like now?

Write about what a place was like when you were there and research what it is like now and write a comparison.

Verona Italy

Memories of Lago Di Garda, Italy
Mairi Neil, 2013

Lake Garda absorbs the rainbow on her shores,
sways to the call of African and Indian hawkers,
moans softly as the Peler, a northern breeze,
blows from pine-clad slopes, and is
ready for the challenging midday switch
when Ora, a cooler wind, whistles from the south.
Reminiscent of a Norwegian Fjord
She is the lake who thinks she is the sea

Each afternoon she lifts the rocky hem
of her blue dress and sashays to pick at
sun-bleached pebbles or reedy soil.
Fat ducks and swans float and gossip. Gulls dive,
searching the lake’s belly for lunch or supper
Rumbling planes overhead ripple her dress
and she runs icy fingers through sandy frills
sparkling with a thousand scattered gems.

She ignores the constant drone of tourist motorbikes,
bicycles, cars and coaches speeding through galleries
built by Mussolini and prefers the memories of
Hannibal, Hardy, Goethe, Rilke and Wharton.
Torbole fishermen, tend boats and mend nets
as they have done since the fifteenth century,
amused and puzzled by modern foolishness,
their dark eyes follow colourful flapping sails.

Lake Garda’s duty is to be Madame Bountiful,
nurturing sardines, eels, carpione and trout.
Tourists and locals, promenade to and fro Riva
or ride the ferries that trust her arms.
Summer and winter sun attracts holidaymakers,
but Lake Garda indulges lovers of sports trophies,
scantily clad onlookers, and awestruck children
who worship at the shrine of physical prowess.

Lake Garda – the lake who thinks she is the sea.

More Writing Prompts

  • Write a prose poem about a place or a short story recreating the setting.
    What memories are evoked?
  • Choose a place that makes you happy or sad; or two different places where you have had contrasting experiences. (Perhaps a childhood compared with adult experience, going somewhere alone compared with a trip with family or friends, seasonal visits – winter compared to summer, idyllic memories compared to the place after a natural disaster.)
  • Contrast the two places or the mixed feelings about the same place.

Write a HAIBUN ( a combination of prose and haiku) – about your journey/journeys.

HAIBUN (hie’-bun, the “u” pronounced as in “put”) A Japanese form in which a prose text is interspersed with verse, specifically haiku. A haiku typically appears at the end of a haibun, but other haiku may appear earlier, even at the beginning. Haibun often takes the form of a diary or travel journal.

Write a poem or story using the technique of an extended metaphor:

  • Life is a journey
  • Life is a mere dream
  • Life or love  is a camera full of memories
  • Home was a prison

Have you ever had the holiday from hell?

Have You A Favourite Holiday destination?

Currumbin a Sanctuary of Serenity
Mairi Neil, 2001

Looking from the balcony of our Currumbin holiday flat, the Pacific Ocean roared and vomited white foam onto the golden sand. This was not a beach for non-swimmers or the faint-hearted. Waves crashed against jagged rocks in the distance, massaging them smooth by the next millennium but the continuous licks and slaps hadn’t altered their shape in any noticeable way since my last visit.

I stared at the black shapes rising and disappearing in the waves. Dolphins or sharks? Then laughed as the black shape rose on a wave, stretched and balanced and fell. The group of dedicated surfers braving morning chill certainly needed wet suits, and their crouching and clinging in the force of the gigantic waves an amazing workout.

A group of rosellas arrive on the balcony. They line up on the railings waiting for the plate with seed, confident I will provide their breakfast. Chittering and hopping from ledge to chair back to patio tiles, they nag me to perform my act of goodwill.

Music drifts from above. A radio disc jockey drones, children’s sing-song chatter wafts from the swimming pool below, a van backfires in the distance and the pump that tirelessly cleans the swimming pool chugs into life at regular intervals. There are ten floors of holiday flats but if inside and the balcony door is closed, each flat is soundproof.

Peak hour traffic builds, Currumbin is coming alive and I know if I don’t go for a morning walk I’ll be dodging retirees and their pet dogs, fitness fanatics in lycra shorts and Reeboks, and crew for magazine and film photoshoots because this apron of sand is immensely popular. Thank goodness the flotilla of boats on the horizon don’t try to sail closer to shore.

The rosellas are a mass of squawking as I place the seed plate on the balcony table. A hot rising sun dispels the remaining coolness and shadows of the night. The ocean sparkles turquoise. I shake yesterday’s sand from my sandals, grab a hat and make for the lift. The half-hour walks along the beach towards the surfers just what the doctor ordered.

Even More Writing Prompts

Write a poem or story where you are describing the joys of summer to an extraterrestrial life form.

  • Write a story that begins, “She tripped and fell into the burning sand…”
  • Write a story that ends, “Roll on winter.”
  • Write a poem or story where everything that provides relief during the summer randomly breaks down. The air conditioning suddenly stops working. The power goes out in your home. You can’t seem to start your car.
  • Write a story that begins “This was no ordinary day…”
  • Write a story that ends – “She found her paradise after all.”

Enjoy A Cultural Experience Without Leaving Home

A friend I met when I was working on celebrating the 125th Anniversary of Mordialloc Primary School, told me her husband was scared of flying. They were teachers and all they wanted to do when they retired was travel overseas but she refused to travel by ship.

No flying, no sailing – what could they do to satisfy their desire to visit other countries?

They compromised and innovated. They borrowed books and documentaries from the local library and researched the customs, costumes, music and food of a country. After a few weeks, they visited the place via armchair travel.

They dressed appropriately for the season, cooked a custom meal, played the music you’d expect to hear and totally immersed themselves as if they were in the chosen country. They even spoke learned phrases from a new language to each other.

Armchair travel on steroids! Happy travelling –

Happy Writing!

Overcoming The Fear Of Perfect First Lines

whiteboard advertising writing.jpg

Day Six – First Lines Must Transfix!

I’ve paraphrased some very good advice:

When you are staring at a blank page or screen and can’t seem to get started write 10 or 20 ‘first sentences’. Don’t think or write beyond these story openers.

Be as playful or as nonsensical or abstract as you wish. It can be a lot of fun and liberating when you only have to think of the opening line and not the whole story!

Put these lines aside, have a coffee or a short walk or do some gardening … just take a break.

Later, look at the sentences.

Seen in isolation, the simplest of sentences can set off a cascade of questions you can spend an entire story or chapter answering. Eg. ‘He thought of cutting off the other leg.”

  • What leg? Whose leg? Why?
  • Is it a piece of furniture, an animal, a person??
  • How is he going to do it?
  • What happened to the first leg and did he or someone else cut it off?
  • Why is he still thinking about it and not doing it – what is stopping him?
  • Who is this person? Where is he?
  • What historical period is this?

Judy Budhitz: You Must Be This Tall to Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside the Story© 2009

Read and Read Some More

Have a look at the following opening sentences from The Penguin Century of Australian Stories edited by Carmel Bird – what questions do they raise and where could the story go?

You can’t plagiarise – so don’t start your story with the exact words but the lines may trigger a similar idea.

‘We sat in our navy-blue serge tunics with white blouses.

A Snake Down Under, Glenda Adams

If you don’t wait under the house,’ said Rhoda to me, ‘she won’t come at all.’

Under The House, Jessica Anderson.

Down by the bar at the end of the pool, Ella Fitzgerald was telling them to take love easy easy easy and the women with skin like bark kept taking the conversation easy with two gate-crashers from a lugger.

Petals from Blown Roses, Thea Astley

I select from these letters, pressing my fingers down.

‘ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ’, Murray Bail

Louise was born on a Monday; she was married on a Monday, and her cat was eaten by an owl on a Monday.

The Powerful Owl, Candida Baker

I think you will agree, these are all intriguing opening sentence prompting questions.

IMAGERY IS IMPORTANT TO ENGAGE READERS

A successful image jolts the reader’s nervous system when explanation falls flat. Consider, “Donna felt weak,” versus, “Donna was unable to bring the spoon to her mouth.”

Which one makes you want to know what happens next? The rewrite is an example of showing and the first of telling.

writing class bentleigh

Get used to writing the first thing that comes into your head – don’t censor or edit – you’ll be surprised what it may lead to. Many great writers say they do not write per se – but are merely vessels through which writing flows.

The subconscious produces the writing, you just have to keep up. Train yourself to write specific pieces over particular timeframes. Eg. One short story or poem a week.

Set tangible goals but be flexible – life is for living not worrying about self-imposed challenges.

Now it is your turn…

Try to write fast and not plan (no mind mapping today) – just let your mind focus on creating an image the words trigger.

Once you get a story down – then you can shape it for your audience – but you have to write it first!!

An original idea is not necessarily one that hasn’t occurred to others (a concept, plot, twist in story), it can be your approach to the story idea that’s original.

Stephen King wrote about teenage vampires years ago but Stephanie Meyer’s depiction made her Twilight series best sellers.

Your originality will be the slant you choose, your style of writing and your interpretation of a good but perhaps well-worn idea.

GRAB A PEN AND WRITE

Rewrite each of the following statements in a way that shows instead of explains (tells).

By concentrating on creating an effective image your writing will get a boost. (Remember all of this advice and triggers can be used for poetry if that’s your preferred genre.)

  • Her hair was a mess.
  • The garden was ready for picking.
  • I hate broccoli.
  • You always change your mind.
  • The moon is full.
  • Fred’s car was a mess.
  • The food did not look good.
  • The terrier was mean.
  • The old woman’s shoes did not fit.
  • The party was fun.

10_04_anais_nin_quote

Have you created a great first line? Can you continue with one of the stories?

(If none of the above inspired, check Google images on a theme you want to write about and make the image come to life by telling the story of the picture.)

Practice makes perfect good advice when it comes to creative writing. The more you read writers good at their craft, the more you learn and absorb their expertise. The more you write, the easier it becomes to remember a lot of those techniques and apply it to your own writing.

To craft a compelling story, you must first launch it in the right direction. Never forget that the entire course of a story or novel, like an avalanche, is largely defined within its first seconds.

opening into a garden

I love short stories and read a lot of them – and I love travelling (I’ve done a lot of that too!).

Here are twelve first lines to consider why they ‘hook’ you in – and by the way, this is important for all writers, even those into non-fiction! These first lines are from The best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing, 2009 edited by Tony Wheeler

  1. I got off the plane in Addis Ababa and there, as in so many airports so often in the past, was my school friend, Louis, extending a shaky hand. Pico Iyer “No Food, No Rest, No…”
  2. In Borneo, there were only two destinations: upriver and down. Stanley Stewart, “Upriver”
  3. For weeks after returning from my ill-fated journey to the Indian Himalayan village of Kaza, I had difficulty explaining to people why I’d wanted to go there in the first place. Rolf Potts, “Something Approaching Enlightenment
  4. We lost the side-view mirrors somewhere outside Nakhon Ratchasima. Bill Fink, “The End Of The Road”
  5. It was a blazing tropical morning in the middle of nowhere. Simon Winchester “Ascension In The Moonlight”
  6. This story – this true story – concerns reciprocal kindnesses in a country which has come to symbolise humanity’s trials. Nicholas Crane, “Finding Shelter
  7. Through moonlit fog, I walked from the bus station towards the colonial centro of San Christóbal Chiapas. Laura Resau, “Secrets of the Maya”
  8. When I was working in China, it seemed that everyone I needed to see was not where he was supposed to be. Karl Taro Greenfield, “On The Trail
  9. Blam! The mad Tibetan slammed his head against the windscreen with such force that cracks shot across the screen from the point of impact. Tony Wheeler, “Walking the Mount Kailash Circuit”
  10. In 1974, when I was 23, it was not uncommon for a young person to gather together a few dollars, strap on a backpack and spend part of the summer hitchhiking through Europe, searching for unknown foreign adventures or merely trying to postpone the inevitable adult responsibility called ‘work’. Greg Tuleja, “A Slight Leaning Backward”
  11. Devoted as I am to the ethos of Lonely Planet, I was never a backpacker. Jan Morris, “Ignoring The Admiral
  12. The flat perched at the top of the house, little more than a lean-to riveted to Mrs Puri’s ceiling. William Dalrymple, “City of Djinns”

I wrote this story from a prompt in a writing game – you had to go fast and furious and the prompts were bizarre.

Fijian Fantasy, a short story by Mairi Neil

The first line had to be ‘my brother did this weird thing with turtles’,  I had to mention Duluth (yes, this is a place)and the phrase, ‘a smell of leftovers’!

I told you in an earlier post writing games are fun!

Titles as Inspiration

A decade ago, I read about Martha Grimes who writes a series of mystery novels in which the titles are taken from the names of British pubs.

What stories could you write (they don’t have to be mysteries) featuring typical fast food and other restaurants around Melbourne’s suburbs?

 Here are a few ideas to get you started – apologies but you should know by now I love alliteration:

  • Star Struck at Starbucks
  • Mayhem at McDonald’s
  • Wendy’s Wishes
  • Danger at Domino’s
  • Blah Blah’s Battleground
  • Gloria Jean’s Gluttony
  • Pancake Parlour Pirate
  • Taco Bill’s Tyranny
  • Curry House Caper

If you are into historical fiction or any genre imaginable here are a few names of British Pubs I pulled from The Wordsworth Dictionary of Pub Names – an intoxicating history of a famous British institution, Wordsworth edition, London 1994,

book cover - pub names

It is amazing what books you find on your shelves! I’ll list where the pubs are so you know I’m not making them up – but so what if I was – I am a creative writer:)

A Bit on the Side (Chippenham, Wiltshire)
Abbot’s Fireside (Eltham, Kent)
Air balloon (Abingdon and elsewhere)
Angel by the Bridge (Henley-on-Thames)
Atmospheric Railway (Starcross, near Exeter)
Babes in the Wood (Hanging Heaton, West Yorks)
Bag ‘o Nails (Annesley, Nottinghamshire)
Bald-face Stag (Burnt Oak, Edgware)
Bareknuckle Boys (Holmfirth, Huddersfield)
Bleak House (Horsell Common, Sry and elsewhere)
Cuckoo Bush (Gotham Nottinghamshire)
Crystal Palace (Merthyr Tydfil and elsewhere)
Crown and Cushion (Eton and elsewhere)
Cross Rifles ( Bridgwater Somerset)
Court Jester (Hampton Gloucester)

And the alphabetical lists go on for 300 pages with a potted history of each name – although many state the obvious!

Maiden’s Head (Maidenhead and elsewhere)
Magpie and Stump (London EC4)
King’s Head (London and elsewhere)
Queen’s Arms ( Watford and elsewhere)
Try Again (Bristol)

Now Go Do Fast Writing

Close your eyes, relax and breathe deeply.
Say to yourself: With every word I write I will become calmer, more confident and more creative.
Repeat 3 times with feeling.
Imagine yourself writing quickly and fluidly
Smile – this is writing for pleasure!
Let go of your logical mind.
Let your subconscious come up with the words and ideas – trust your memory to have stored interesting events, people, thoughts…

Good Luck and Happy Writing

Stories Are Everywhere But Being Original Is Another Story!

Skye.jpg

Day Three & Another Post From Me!

Images as Writing Prompts

I often use pictures, photographs, paintings and even postcards to stimulate the imagination of students and give them a visual experience to prompt a story or poem.

It may be a cliche but a picture can be worth (or stimulate) a thousand words. The best photographers not only show people, other subjects, and environments that are fresh and unfamiliar, but they reveal the familiar from a new point of view depending on where the camera is focused.

So too with painters, an artist’s eye trained and sensitive like the photographer’s. Unusual angles, specific details, particular highlights… the visual prompt sets off trains of thought and feelings and can be a powerful starting point for all forms of writing.

The example is a tool to use and sometimes it’s helpful to go round the table and discuss initial impressions and responses, sometimes I suggest a particular genre, and may even give the choice of a first or last line.

There are always a variety of ways of creating a context to encourage writing.

Below is one of my favourite images because I love mysteries.

(I’m also a self-confessed devotee of British crime drama and in 2017 was thrilled to stand outside the house of Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez in Shetland!)

image
I first used this prompt a decade ago, I think it came from the Writers Digest – apologies if I’m mistaken.

Look at the picture and think of possible ideas for a story.

Look beyond the obvious – this could be the beginning or the end of a tale/adventure.

  • It could be a woman or a man’s feet.
  • The car may be hired or stolen – it may not even be involved.
  • Is this death/injury by accident or design?
  • Is the car stopping to help or is it the weapon?
  • Is/are the documents stolen and/or valuable?
  • Could the paper be lecture notes, a will, a shopping list, a contract, top-secret plans?
  • Perhaps the papers belong to a bystander.  Are they important or unimportant?
  • Where is the story set – will you make it a period piece, modern-day, pick a particular country?
  • Will you take the idea and not too much detail and apply it to a personal experience?

Your Interpretation and Your Story – Have fun

Your voice is how you write, the way you handle language, your style—if you have one. Do I? I write like I think. I like spontaneity. I push and pull, change speed and rhythm, balance short and long sentences. I compare it to jazz riffs and drum rolls. I’m economical with words, but I won’t interrupt a nice solo. I never have to think about this. It’s me… I’ve known excellent writers who don’t have a recognizable voice but have earned awards and attracted readers through their work. Your voice, ultimately, will be what comes out of you. And you’re entitled to it. But how you use it will also depend upon the audience at which it’s aimed and/or the market to which it’s sold.”

Art Spikol

If you can’t get too enthused about this image you might like to practise your sentence structures and powers of observation by:

  • writing a simple description of the scene, making sure you include the important details
  • writing your opinion of what you see and your feelings about the scene
  • writing a poem describing the feelings of onlookers or the person lying on the road
  • writing what an imaginary visitor might think or how they’d act coming across the scene
  • writing a list of how many other characters could be in a story about this scene

I guarantee if you do all of the above, you will be hooked and a story – maybe even a novel – will be in the making!

All these different approaches should result in an interesting piece of writing but start by looking carefully at the image and using sharp observation skills with a hefty dose of imagination.

Here is my effort – I called it Tripped Up  short story 581 words

I love double meanings, writing in layers and short stories with a twist.  I was aiming for under 600 words and after writing the story in class along with my students, I edited at home following my mantra:

  • Revisit and polish what you wrote in class – did you pick up ideas/phrases/different viewpoint from listening to other’s read their work? What can you add to your piece?

If you are uninspired or disinterested in this photo prompt just go to Google images and type in a subject or event you care about and go through a similar process until an idea for a story or poem bubbles to the surface.

Happy Writing

Please share your work – we all learn from each other!

Could You Use a Key to Unlock Creativity?

heather with key

Writing Post Two For Isolated You

Often the hardest thing about creative writing is getting started.

The advice to just pick up a pen or fire up the computer and make a start doesn’t necessarily motivate everyone. If you have ideas swirling inside your head – that one book everybody apparently has in them – perhaps you can just pour thousands of words out, but many people struggle to get that first sentence written.

For those wondering what to write, or needing some direction/inspiration/trigger writing prompts do work, particularly if the prompt isn’t too specific and it triggers an idea or a memory of a person, place, event or an opinion.

Whether the words flow without prompting or you need a nudge, you will always need to go back and redraft, refine and rewrite. However, having a substantial amount of words to edit is always easier and once you have begun, you might even finish!

In the accompanying notes to every lesson, I always added: Polish the work you have written in class and be inspired to write more.

keys

An Object Can Be A Great Writing Prompt

One of the most successful lessons I’ve taught over the years involves asking the students to close their eyes and hold out their hand.

I place a key in each person’s hand and ask them to close their hand, sit quietly with their eyes still closed and concentrate on the key.

  • What does it feel like? (cold, metallic, hard, light, shaped, ridged, small, big….?)
  • Can they discern the shape and size? (what might it fit – a car, a door, a cash box, a locker…?)
  • Have they ever held a similar key? (think about when you use a key and what for?)

After they’ve had a couple of minutes of ruminating, I say, ‘Open your eyes and start writing.’

Key:

A small metal instrument specially cut to fit into a lock and move its bolt. (car key, door key, gate key, locker key, letterbox key, suitcase key, money box key, padlock and any of various devices resembling or functioning as a key: eg the key of a clock.

The stories and poems that unfold are completely different – some personal life experiences, others concerning a character or characters.

  • Lost and found keys
  • forgetting keys or being locked out
  • getting a driving licence,
  • the customary key to the door (21st or 18th),
  • renting or buying a first home,
  • getting keys cut
  • latch-key kids,
  • robbing cash boxes,
  • hiding documents,
  • clockwork toys,
  • hotel stays,
  • first or the last worker in a factory or business…
  • magic keys

judy with key

There are stories about the ubiquitous Allen Key, especially in relation to assembling furniture, not mentioning any brand name but Ikea comes to mind:)

Then there are the new keys in use – plastic cards to swipe – no longer turning a key in a keyhole.

In my travels, I’ve encountered plastic card keys in hotels and cabins on ferries. To say they are prone to glitches an understatement!

Writing Exercises If Home Alone

Exercise 1:

Round up the keys in your house – you may be surprised how many you have – and the variety. (Hint – check out the junk drawer, we all have one!)

Put the keys on the table or in a bowl and close your eyes before choosing one of those keys.

Be inspired and write.

patricia with key

Exercise 2:

English is a fascinating language. It invites wordplay, puns, ambiguity, hidden meanings, interpretations and misinterpretations. There are similes and antonyms.

A word like KEY can be a noun, a verb and an adjective.

It is a word that works well with other words: keyboard, keyhole, keynote, keypunch, keystroke, keypad, keystone, key card, key signature, key grip, key money, keyhole surgery…

Choose one of these words and write: eg. –

  • have you or your character ever had keyhole surgery
  • have you or your character ever been a keynote speaker
  • have you or character been a key grip on a film set
  • have you or character lost your key card?
  • do you or your character play a musical keyboard, work in computers…

They say all good stories need CONFLICT – it can be internal or external – make sure you include some.

toula with key

Exercise 3:

A key can be a metaphor or representing an abstract concept. Think and write about what can go wrong or how you can work these ideas into a story:

  • something that affords a means of access:  the key to happiness, the key to spiritual authority
  • something that secures or controls entrance to a place: Gibraltar is the key to the Mediterranean.
  • something that affords a means of clarifying a problem: the computer code the key to the puzzle
  • a book, pamphlet, or other text containing the solutions or translations of material given elsewhere, as testing exercises.
  • a systematic explanation of abbreviations, symbols used in a dictionary, map –pronunciation key, the table or legend of a map
  • the system, method, pattern used to decode or decipher a cryptogram, as a codebook,  machine setting, or keyword.
  • a manually operated lever for opening and closing an electric circuit used to produce signals in telegraphy.
  • the keynote or tonic of a scale, tone or pitch, as of voice: to speak in a high key.
  • mood or characteristic style, as of expression or thought – He writes in a melancholy key.
  •  a keystone. in a Masonry project
  • Painting – the tonal value and intensity of a colour or range of colours
  • a pin, bolt, wedge, or other piece inserted in a hole or space to lock or hold parts of a  mechanism or structure together; a cotter.
  • a small piece of steel fitting into matching slots of a hub of a wheel or the like and the shaft on which the wheel is mounted so that torque is transmitted from one to the other.

Practice Is Key

  • Set a timer for 15 minutes
  • Choose a topic and write
  • Share what you have written for feedback or at least read it aloud to yourself
  • edit and rewrite
  • look for a home – there are lots of online and traditional magazines looking for short creative pieces

When I thought about a key, I considered the ritual of winding the grandfather clock in the hallway:

Marking Time
Mairi Neil

He stands in the hallway
as time ticks away
but he’ll never age,
grow wrinkles or grey

He’s witness to life
his hands carefully mark
the passing of time
the light and the dark.

His voice is a comfort
seductive pendulums sway
A soothing commentary
whether work, sleep or play.

His facial expression
unchanging and bland
just like his demeanour ––
as in hallway he stands.

He’s a constant reminder
Time won’t standstill
even for those who boast
of having time to kill.

My grandfather clock
marks each day’s stage
A comforting fixture
in this Digital Age.

© 2014

grandfather clock in hallway

And this meme did the rounds of FB today – there are benefits to isolation or alone time!

FB_meme

Happy Writing!

 

Ease the Anxiety and Boredom of Isolation or Insulation with Creative Writing

writing games

The world is going through a health crisis that is forcing a change in work patterns and community behaviour. There may be lockdowns, extended unemployment or underemployment and a lack of usual social activities.

In creative writing parlance – we are living through a tragedy.

However, if word association makes you think of Shakespeare – the master of tragedies – remember he also wrote comedies and had a great sense of the absurd. (Today we have Facebook memes and the ridiculous toilet paper wars as inspiration for some of those stories!)

Plus, he wrote romance and those stories are what so many songs suggest ‘As old as time‘…  because human beings need and indeed thrive on love. (Ironically, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was their romance!)

Stories Can And Do Connect Us

For the next few weeks, I’m going to try and do a daily post and share some of the twenty- plus years of lessons and ideas I’ve used in my writing classes and workshops.

Hopefully, they’ll be useful for the many people turning to the Web to relieve their anxiety or boredom from either forced or self-isolation.

I have self-isolated because living with recently diagnosed breast cancer second time round and creeping perilously close to 70, I’m in the high-risk category!

I hope people have decided to use the gift of ‘free’ time to pursue creativity and writing as a hobby or beginning a project they’ve always wanted to do is certainly in that category.

This first post will be focused on having fun. To introduce those not accustomed to writing to an alternative to watching TV or endless hours of Netflix or if you want to add to the important pastime of reading a good book!

Writing is good therapy

  • You don’t have to have a desire to write a novel or record a memoir
  • You don’t have to create an alternative income or be driven to monetize (a word I hate hearing but seems to be all the go)
  • You may not want to share what you have written
  • You may just enjoy playing with words and wiling away a few hours with pen and paper, or keyboard and screen.
  • You may have children/teenagers/flatmates who need cheering up

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”

Anne Lamott

Writing can be fun!

There are games to be bought online but this blog is all about gifting, passing on, transferring knowledge and pointing people in a direction for further study/research/information so here’s a bit of pirating from a game I enjoy…

Often at the end of term, before I’d expanded my pile of games, I’d take this into class. We’d have fun writing poems and stories, even advertising jingles from unusual prompts. There would be specific time limits or word counts and sometimes stories written in pairs or passed around for everyone to add a line or paragraph.

  • We let our imagination loose
  • We gave ourselves permission to be absurd
  • We broke grammatical rules
  • We made up words
  • We moved out of our comfort zone
  • We tried to entertain
  • Sometimes we produced gems and surprised ourselves
  • Always we laughed because the aim was to have fun!

writersports

Writersports

I bought this board game in 1997 and have lost count of how many times we played it as a family and with friends.  I also used its ideas at the Mordialloc Writers’ Group end of year break-ups and in writing classes.

According to the blurb ‘It was created to encourage, promote and inspire the art of literacy. the modern decathlon of the mind…

It comes with board and dice, plus an egg timer that gives you 3 minutes to write. The time restriction important – please remember that when judging my imperfect and crazy examples:) 

Although I defy anyone not to have a crazy example when you see what is on offer!

The few examples here are a taste of the combinations available with the throw of the dice but the game boasts the possibility of 6000 games about writing:

  • letters
  • stories
  • phonetics
  • poems
  • Ads
  • Genres

The character game – you are given three bits of information – a name (invariably absurd), appearance (even more absurd), and occupation (the more unusual the better).

The letter game – you must write to your mother and you are given the name of a character, a city and an age (this is a description with a number eg. an active 85)

The poesy game – you must write a poem, any style, but you must use the words you are given twice. You are given a colour (forget the most obvious ones), an adverb (only some end in ly!) and an adjective (I guarantee you rarely use these ones!).

The slogan game – think of our PM – Scotty-from-Marketing. You must write an advertising jingle or a promo. You are given a brand name (this will make your jaw drop), product (some are saleable) and target audience. This exercise along with the letter starting ‘Dear Mother’ stretches the imagination…

The accent game – you are given a topic, you are given a letter from the alphabet, and you are given an accent. Now write a speech showcasing the particular characteristics/traits of the speech of your designated nationality using as many words beginning with the alphabetical letter or including that letter. This exercise brings out the ham actor in us all and improves after a glass of wine or two.

The genre game – you are given appearance, occupation and setting and you must write about a character of your choice in the particular genre you are given.

Everything listed can be altered – please write creatively – suggestions welcome in the comments!! And there are other games commercially available – shop around.

 Adapt, Adopt and Add

Two decades have passed since I bought this game, the digital world has given access to many cultures and created new careers/jobs and sent people travelling to places they may not have known existed. My examples are years old.

Remember this is not about perfection but fun. Who knows what other ideas or talents will be unlocked. Or, as often happens, a ‘bee in your bonnet’ is sent buzzing away, or frustration and anger appeased.

I’ve lost count of how many times in class I’ve heard students say, ‘goodness don’t know where that came from’, or ‘I haven’t thought about that in years’, or ‘fancy, me remembering that?’

Characters:

Ms Ponosh White, Miss Emma Parade, The Blue Guru, Max Moniless, Mrs Catastro, Jimmy James, Mr Tomorrow, King Whoops, Princess Silly, The Rock Girl

Age:

a lazy 40, an old 26, a dreaming 8, a young 59, a busy 3, an active 85, a dying 99, a shining 30, a feisty 21, an overdeveloped 15

City:

Melbourne, New York, Rio, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, London, Bombay, Cape Town, Beijing

Remember the three basic rules from Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones:

  1. Keep your pen moving
  2. Capture first thoughts
  3. Let yourself write junk

In place of having access to the board game and dice (and even people to play with), write the various names, places, words etc on strips of paper (or your own ideas). Put them in empty jars, or bowls and dip in for inspiration for the writing exercises.

No cheating – what you pick is what you work with:) And feel free to skip my offerings – you won’t get those few minutes back – but then this post is about filling in all that time you discover in quarantine or self-isolation.

Five Writing Exercises to Entertain

 Exercise 1:

A letter to Dear Mother

You should come to Beijing, the city of bicycle bells. Your love of music will be sated as you tune into the constant jingle jangle. This city never sleeps and neither does my companion. Felicity is an overdeveloped 15 and I have to constantly watch her with the tour guide. Why did I agree to be her chaperone? My wild days as The Rock Girl with the R & B band may be over but I fear Felicity’s is just beginning. I’ll need another holiday after this trip.

Cape Town is cloaked in snow now. Climate Change has definitely arrived and eccentric visitors with it. Princess Silly turned up on a morning television show. She arrived in South Africa with an entourage of half-naked escorts, barefoot and hairless – the escorts, not her. How silly is that? Royalty not the same anymore since Britain became a republic. Mind you she defended her title as any feisty 21 year old would – ‘I have more claim to be treated like royalty than that Kim Kardashian you fawn over,’ she said. Mother, global warming’s gone to everybody’s head here and fried their brains. I’ll be home soon.

Here I am in romantic Rome or Roma as the Italians call it. And it is so romantic. I met a marvellous man last night called Max Moniless. He is a young 59 and we danced all night at a masked ball. However, Moniless by name and moneyless by nature. He confessed to being absolutely broke and obviously uses his gift of the gab to woo likely suiters or gullible girls like me. However, I don’t mind as he truly is a Don Juan and last night fun! Caio

You don’t need any more twee examples to write a letter to your mother.

Exercise 2:

You’re a Poet & Didn’t Know It

Use these words wisely and at least twice in a poem of any length or style. This is the part of the game I love because I find doggerel a lot of fun.

The colours (feel free to think up others): Lily, Raven, Livid, Tan. Rust, Verdure, Saffron, Plum, Azure, Ochre

The Adverbs (usually a no-no according to the gurus): Really, Equally, Instantly, About, Probably, Neither, Cheerily, Legally, Somehow, Habitually

The adjectives (these are such fun to say never mind use): Deranged, foreign, Sudden, Projectile, resonant, Secure, Sloppy, Obtuse, Sociable, Plausible

A Melting Moment

He was foreign with raven hair
She equally strange with a crosseyed stare
They met at the Tower of London
on a wet and windy day
He was shy and unused to talking
but said, please do stay
Stay the night in this foreign city?
She looked at his raven hair
and immediately took pity
Equally lost, shy and looking for trust
needing out of the rain for fear of rust
They were waxen models
fallen off the back of a truck
heading for Madame Tussaud’s
before their wheels got stuck!

Beginner’s Luck

Sadie was obtuse
She thought the prize a ruse
Legally a winner
although a raw beginner
She picked the plum prize
only looking at its size
I said she was obtuse
and thought the prize a ruse
tho’ legally a winner
this lady a raw beginner
won Crown Casino’s plum prize
took home the biggest size
of diamond ring, she’d seen
not on the hand of a queen!

What a Tosser

Tommy had a projectile
he fired about the house
it hit his brother’s pet
a teeny, tiny tan mouse

His mum removed the projectile
and threw it in the bin
with the teeny, tiny tan mouse
Tommy left with stinging skin!

The moral of this tale
be careful about the house
and don’t be cruel
to your brother’s pet mouse.

Unplanned Connections

Jane loved to be sociable
and wanted to dance
her flimsy azure dress
drew many looks askance.
Somehow Jake managed
to monopolise Jane
he too loved being sociable
And when that azure dress
caught his lustful eye
somehow he knew
with Jane, he’d fly
Soon midnight came
the dance it was done
Jake and Jane left
to welcome the sun
– or maybe a son?

Be Prepared

Some say I am deranged
and really off my trolley
because I always carry
a lovely luminous lily brolly

But then Melbourne’s weather
inevitably decides to change
proving I’m not the one deranged
and my luminous lily brolly
really protects my shopping trolley

Exercise 3:

Slogans to Put Aussie Scomo in the Shade

You’ve heard of the saying selling ice cream to Eskimos? Be as bizarre as you like with this exercise – goes well with a glass of wine to forget about being PC.

Choose a brand name: perplexed, Smarty, missy, fat, Pssst, Tuboff, Dooby Wacker, Sole Gate, nutritious, Tush.

Choose a product: Ant Poison, Bad breath purifier, Dial-a-figure mirror, Anti-aging nightwear, Flying car, Gossip Magazine, House paint, Bedtime drink, A fax company, Relaxing music

Choose a Target Audience: psychiatrist, armed forces, athletes, shy people, caddies, sun-lovers, pregnant women, studs, singer, families

Attention all you athletes out there in the real world. Forget gruelling training, the impossible to keep diets just turn to Missy for the body of your dreams. The dial-a-figure mirror for smart athletes.

Attention all athletes whether your sport is in the bedroom, the boardroom or track and field – let Missy into your life, the dial-a-figure mirror that prepares you for games inside and out!

Hey, all you studs, when you need a rest at night (you know what I mean, nudge, nudge, wink, wink) drink Sole Gate, the bedtime drink that allows studs to have some downtime!

Exercise 4:

Accentuated Topics

The accent game: write a speech and deliver it in ‘character’ – this is where your knowledge of stereotypes and tropes can be unleashed! Again an exercise that improves if you have a glass of wine and forget inhibitions… and can use as many words starting with or containing the chosen letter…

Topic: Women, Cooking, Weather, Sport, Love, politics, Walking, Death, Man, public Transport

Letter: C, S, M, P, F, L, N, R, T, D

Accent: Irish, Greek, Australian, Japanese, American, English, Italian, Jewish, French, African.

Politics in English, the letter L

Good Evening ladies and gentlemen and distinguished members of the League of Long Lost Loyalists. Tonight I will layout the long and short of the politics of voting.
Legally, you must line up to vote in Australia. Ladies this should excite all of you. Last century many ladies died fighting for the right to vote. Let’s liken voting to ensuring the powers-that-be learn who is largely in charge. Ah, I thought that would elicit a laugh.

Love, in American, the letter F

Welcome, y’all, – friends from France, Finland and other faraway places. Tonight I want to talk about love – not frivolous love but a deep meaningful love for deep-fried chicken that is finger-lickin’ good. Yeah, folks, I’m a fat Kentucky Fried food girl and find life is only fruitfully good when I get my fill of my funny Uncle Festa’s deep-fried finger-lickin’ chicken.

Women in Irish, letter C

Top of the morning to you all. My name is Cecelia and I represent Celtic women, that is the Celtic women who call themselves completely liberated. I have considered how this creates considerable consternation among our Celtic brothers. It is a challenge for Celtic women to campaign to change Celtic men’s perception of women. Can the 21st century see that change? Celtic women must collectively support each other to cultivate cultural change and consider that this new century is the century for Celtic women.

Exercise 5:

Write a story in a particular genre after being given the setting.  Use the character appearance and occupation and any other items you like and let rip.

Setting: Street Cafe, Trapeze High Wire, Cinema, Under Water, Appollo 11, Nullarbor Train, Kremlin Kitchen, Daintree Forest, Big Australian Home, the Year 2000.

Genre: Horror, Crime, Romance, minimalist, Sci-Fi, Erotica, Maximalist, Adventure, Magic realism, Dirty Realism.

Character appearance: Always has a drink in hand, Tattoo on head, Webbed feet, Black tie, Never sits still, Buck teeth, 3 legs, Green frizzy hair, Half black half white, Naked

Occupation: Plumber, pop Star, Groovy and Gorgeous, Law Enforcer, Ghost, Cosmonaut, Philanthropist, Inventor, Fisherman, Dentist.

This is flash fiction on speed…

Dirty Realism

Dennis turned over the calendar and breathed a sigh of relief. The millennium scare had passed and it was now the Year 2000. The world hadn’t ended. He drank his coffee, climbed into his sports car and drove to work.

The streets were littered with the bodies of numerous suicides by people who believed the claptrap about the end of the world, and others still in a drunken stupor. Stupid sods. He manoeuvred his car through the lines of emergency vehicles cleaning up the bodies and survivors, grateful he was a dentist and not a doctor. He managed to reach his surgery before the receptionist and grinned. He unlocked the door to his office and stripped off his clothes.

A loud click and door closure announced Julie’s arrival. Had she remembered their bet? If they survived the prophesied meltdown they’d make wild passionate love in his dental chair. Dennis flexed his muscles and took a long look at his tanned naked body in preparation to surprise Julie.  He threw open the door but wasn’t prepared for the scream from the middle-aged temp sent to replace Julie who decided to resign.

The Spirit of Adventure

When King Whoops stepped off the plane from Bombay he appreciated the weather in Brisbane was a shining 30 degrees. He revelled in the cool breeze. What a relief from the humidity and heat of India.

His destination was the Daintree Forest and he lost no time in setting out for the rented log cabin where he hoped to search for a special tree holding a secret cure for cancer.
On the way, the hired car crashed but King Whoops was pulled free and unhurt except for a dent in his crown and injury to his pride in what had been an unblemished driving record.

The police confiscated his car and he continued the journey on foot, miraculously discovering the tree a few feet from the cabin. His exhilarating ‘whoop’ could be heard in Bombay!

A Minimalist View – tell it tight

Max Moniless donned the diver’s suit bought in Rome. He slid off the gondola like an eel and within seconds was underwater in the deepest, murkiest part of the main canal in Venice.

The search for Mussolini’s hidden treasure nearly over. Max tugged the line and slowly swam to the surface to triumphantly hand over the best-kept secret of WW2 – Mussolini’s toupee.

A Maximalist View – be expansive

In the Kremlin Kitchen, President Gorbachov’s cook prepared supper for the guest who had just arrived from London. Mr Tomorrow was apparently in Russia to find his mother, a dying 99-year-old who had been sent to Siberia by Stalin and not heard of until recently.

Perestroika softened Soviet attitude to foreigners. The supper served was an English muffin topped with cheese, a snack President Gorbachov’s cook was sure Mr Tomorrow would appreciate.

He was right and as the President and guest munched on the muffins they planned the first step of the journey to Siberia to find Mr Tomorrow’s mother and thaw the very long, bitter Cold War.

Random Short Short Stories Using Occupation  and Appearance

Ghost & ‘never sits still’

‘Jimmy ‘never sits still.’ His doting mother’s smile is apologetic. ‘Just has excess energy.’ 
Whenever their car pulls into the drive I watch Jimmy emerge and emit a tortured groan wishing I was invisible like a ghost and could pretend to be out. However, family courtesy dictates politeness.

I let Cousin Mary in and cope with the hyperactive, obnoxious Jimmy.  Unchecked, he rifles cupboards, teases the dog, breaks several stereo knobs, gobbles all the chocolate biscuits and flushes a mysterious something down the loo requiring the inevitable expensive visit from a plumber.

I move next week, no forwarding address.

Tattoo on head & Pop Star

Maud ached to marry a pop star. She haunted concert halls watching members of various bands going in and out. A year passed and almost giving up hope of finding the man of her dreams, she watched a large man get out of a truck. When near the stage door he tripped and fell. His beanie flew off his head revealing a bald pate with an amazing tattoo of an ‘M’.

Maud was smitten. It was a sign. He must be the one.

She smiled as she helped him up and nearby church bells chimed.

Black Tie & Law Enforcer

Daniel was the Law Enforcer in Tucson, Arizona when rustlers attacked the Kruger’s cattle ranch. A clue, the rustler left behind was a black tie slung over the open gate. Daniel examined the silk material carefully and deduced it was an imported speciality item from Japan.

There was only one person in Tucson that fitted the profile and Daniel arrested a protesting Mr Chu refusing to listen that the longterm resident was from China.

Geography never Daniel’s strongpoint.

These exercises encompass important elements of creative writing:

  • a starting point for ideas
  • characters to think about that are not stereotypical
  • unusual settings and situations
  • thoughts about genre
  • introducing adjectives, adverbs and colours sometimes ignored
  • flexing writing muscles first

 Happy Writing!

Allow yourself to write nonsense and in the coming days maybe knuckle down to learn more about the craft and techniques with more serious lessons. Although there are a few more writing games that will be ‘just a bit of fun‘ –  the regular comeback of the tabloid journalist character Shaun Micallef lampoons each week on his show.

Baraka Challenges Us to Change Our Priorities

moon over Mordi

On February 29, I attended a screening of the 1992 film BARAKA to raise funds for Wildlife Victoria after the devastating bushfire season.

The date is special because it is a leap year and according to Google, this is a lucky year with a spirituality website suggesting, a year “when energies are higher and filled with enthusiasm, optimism, love and compassion. It is a great year to search for spiritual wisdom.”

And considering Australians are facing a climate catastrophe, a coronavirus outbreak, the aftermath of a horrific bushfire season, ongoing drought, and poor economic outlook, luck is much-needed and wisdom always worth seeking – spiritual or otherwise!

It would be nice to have a competent government that fostered optimism and enthusiasm for the future but achieving that needs work and an early election! Meanwhile, if you are not a climate denialist and you believe in social justice like me, please keep raising your voice in whatever way you can.

I saw Baraka a long time ago, but the advertised conversation scheduled after the film captured my attention because it was about “designing the future with hope and humanity” – two principles omitted from many concrete jungles we call cities and media full of gloom and doom.

The film, like a good book, needs to be absorbed and savoured in stillness. It’s like an epic novel or saga with layers of meaning to be digested and reflected upon.

Deep concentration – not a quick glance or speed read – the MC asked us to relax, be drawn into the music and visuals, be still, absorb, listen and watch … be in touch with emotions and senses, enjoy a transformational experience.’

The lights dimmed, the film rolled, I became completely immersed in the visuals and incredible soundtrack. The atmosphere calm and comfortable in the recently renovated Capitol until ironically, someone turned the air conditioner up or forgot to adjust it to the vagaries of Melbourne’s recalcitrant summer.

Luckily, the film was almost over and it was panel time so the discomfort wasn’t too much of a distraction.  

It was then the turn of the two presenters to provide the promised hope and information. To represent the current generation’s ideas for tackling the climate emergency.

To offer man-made solutions to man-made problems.

baraka panel 2.jpg
Design Hub Gallery curator Fleur Watson with climate change and resilience researcher Lauren Rickards and speculative designer Ollie Cotsaftis

BARAKA – Ron Fricke’s Guided Meditation On Humanity

A breathtaking journey across 25 countries on six continents, Baraka is a sublime reflection on the beauty and the chaos of the world. The film brings together spectacular imagery with no plot, actors, script or narrative, transcending nationality, identity, place and time. The result is a meditative panorama of our natural and human landscapes ­– a visual survey made all the more urgent and affecting given today’s climate emergency.

As much a technical masterpiece as it is a conceptual one, Baraka was shot entirely on 70mm with a custom-built computerized 65mm camera. Taking 30 months to complete, with over 14 months on location, the making of the film was a feat within itself.

Baraka quickly became a cult classic for its unique non-linear, non-narrative approach to documentary and its astonishing footage that jumps from the elating to the disturbing. The awe, harmony, destruction and rebirth of nature merge in cycles. Ultimately we are looking at humanity’s interconnectedness and our relationship to the environment.

Promotional blurb

Ger camp Mongolia

When writing, the importance of techniques such as metaphor and simile are important to improve poetry and prose, and so it is with a film. A picture replaces a thousand words especially if revealing a powerful metaphor, and there were many in Baraka.

Music to evoke mood and soundtrack using percussion to great effect are important aspects of cinema and in Baraka, it kept pace with the sweeping and varied scenes of the natural world and cities. Percussion and natural ‘noise’, especially when industrial scenes of production lines, manufacturing and mining activities filled the screen segued seamlessly from panoramic or close-ups of mountains, oceans, deserts and green plains.

Superb cinematography and editing drew us into each scene. Memorable close-ups of the faces of animals and humans, the zooming into the natural and human world’s rhythms.

Time-lapse photography provided scenes of people commuting on foot, by train and car before switching to herds of animals, marching insect lines…back to the expressions on the faces of train travellers in Tokyo … reminding me of writing poetry on peak hour trains to and from the city…

the grey army poem
Published  reflecting on Melbourne, Poetica Christi Press

Have We Forgotten the Value of Stillness?

Baraka is full of juxtapositions – we see Japanese men in a pool following a bathing ritual, crowds of men and women bathing in the Ganges – close-ups of people relaxing, luxuriating in the relaxation and purification of water, not much different to a family of baboons in a hot spring high in the mountains, ice on the baboon’s fur melting crystals as he closes his eyes… his stillness mesmerising.

A Shinto priest surrounded by fast-paced traffic and busy shoppers in Tokyo walks one foot in front of the other, heel touching toe,  as if on a tightrope or narrow ledge, snail-paced, a bell in his hand chiming with each slow, deliberate, step,  no deviation from the path or the rhythm.

I remember Donne’s poem, ‘For whom the bell tolls… ‘ It tolls for thee…

No drones in 1992, yet the visuals are stunning, probably from a helicopter or aircraft but each vein, artery, vivid colour stands out:  of mountains, rocks, snow,-laden fields, trees, shrubbery and humans…

There are painted faces, tattooed bodies, jewellery made from natural items adorning naked or semi-naked bodies dancing and performing rituals indoors and outdoors, in continents across the globe.

The camera visits temples, mosques, synagogues, churches – and most of those performing the rituals or leading the service are male (has the power balance changed?).

In a Buddhist temple, the maroon-robed, adolescent lamas chant as old women sweep the courtyards and surrounding streets and old men slowly sprinkle oil.  I remember visiting Mongolia... 

In an orthodox Christian church, an old woman garbed in traditional black sits beside a table of candles, as if in servitude,  while the priest walks ceremoniously towards an altar agleam with ornate gold and silver. He stops to pray

… and the camera focuses on another priest in another country, walking through cloisters to kneel and pray by an unadorned tomb …

There are scenes of the Hajj where hundreds of thousands of Islamic devotees make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey connected to the time of Abraham and requiring certain rituals, including walking counter-clockwise seven times around the holy Kaaba.

In Cambodia, we see rows of men in an arc following the lead of a chief/guru with a painted face. He chants and moves his hands and arms in various poses. The men emulate his loud laughs, chants, alternately sitting and standing. Their behaviour is reminiscent of a Maori haka, a ceremonial dance or challenge with vigorous movement, stamping feet, rhythmic shouting and specific facial expressions.

Australian Aboriginal dancers around a campfire sing and act a story after being painted by women who then stand and sway in the background. Females playing a supporting role or performing their own rituals in the shadows mirrored in Kenya and Nigeria…

The film spans 25 countries with a focus on first nation peoples and their connection to the natural world and the rituals that have grown or been created.

The lifestyles of first nation people have been disrupted by industrial development, yet many retain cultural rituals. (Or they did in 1992!)

In South America, tribal children peep from the jungle, behind trees thousands of years old, and wide-eyed watch as a gigantic saw screams and fells trees.  We are still destroying the Amazon rainforest at a horrendous rate.

In cities, descendants of those tribes peep through bars in pigeon-coop-sized apartments huddled in ramshackle confusion, on the side of city hills. Children peep through barred windows on the slum buildings protecting them from falling to their death. Families being contained, exploited … still… the cost of the Rio Olympics to Brazil’s poor in 2016...

native american proverb -FB

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil, set off a tornado in Texas?”

The Butterfly Effect

Cities – each building bigger than the last…

From caged people to caged birds, automated conveyor belts as thousands of hens lay eggs. From the cruelty of egg farming to chickens, checked, painted, beaks seared, thrown into chutes one by one and suddenly, there are lines of workers, clocking on and clocking off, jammed tightly on production lines…

Like the tobacco factory in Indonesia, women and girls, making cigarettes, one by one, rolling and clipping the tobacco, shaping the cigarette for a well-dressed, suited businessman to smoke as he joins the line of commuters crossing a Jakarta street…

While in India, at Hindu funerals on the Ganges we see funeral pyres, some can afford a decorated raft, others a homemade stretcher on the banks of the river. As the camera zooms in on a smouldering corpse, I steal a glance at the young lad sitting next to me. He’s ten, perhaps eleven and with his dad and is completely absorbed. I watch those grieving on the screen, the charred remains of their loved one and close my eyes for a few moments as tears sting – being a voyeur uncomfortable and sad.

But what of the crowds of women and children trawling through gigantic rubbish heaps salvaging anything that can be used, eaten, sold, repurposed. They don’t have a choice in lifestyle or of avoiding unpleasant death scenes.

Ragged and dishevelled, the scavengers move amongst bulldozers, smouldering fires and industrial shovels. The scene somewhere in India but it could be the Philippines, Nigeria, rural China… places where reports of populations exploited in this way fill the news cycle.

First Nations sovereignty – the film revealed that the people most affected are often those least responsible for the damage to the earth. A combination of approaches will equal climate justice.

We have a climate emergency as Greta and others warn our house is on fire!

quote from Black Elk.jpg

Learning to Live on the Anthropocene

Anthropocene – the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

We have created an extinction crisis and must act now.  We must accept and appreciate the human impact and population on the natural world and change our behaviour.

Lauren Rickards is a human geographer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University Melbourne, where she co-leads the Climate Change Transformations research program of the Centre for Urban Research. Lauren’s research examines the social, cultural and political dimensions of the human-environment relationship, focused on climate change, disasters and the broader Anthropocene condition. A Rhodes Scholar, Lauren is a Lead Author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forthcoming Sixth Assessment Report and a Senior Fellow with the Earth Systems Governance network.

Lauren studies how the earth functions and is now starting to dysfunction.

For Australia, this summer of bushfires a stark wake-up call. Fears, scientists thought we had decades to deal with, are here, and we must deal with the crisis.

Here are links to recent articles about the magnitude of Australia’s bushfire crisis:

Lauren said, Baraka, made the familiar strange and makes us face up to what we regard as normal. We must start to think differently. We must not accept the view of politicians like our Prime Minister who talk of ‘the new normal‘!

drought.jpg

 

For example, bushfires are now strange and more threatening to generations brought up reciting Dorothea Mackellar’s poem about an Australia ‘of drought and flooding rains’.

‘You live in the bush. You live by the rules of the bush, and that’s it.’  These were the reflective words of Mrs Dunlop upon seeing the blackened rubble of her home, which made headline news the morning after the first, and most destructive, fire front tore through the Blue Mountains in New South Wales on 17 October 2013 (Partridge and Levy, 2013).

While seemingly a simple statement, it goes right to the heart of heated public and political debates – past and present – over who belongs where and why in the fire-prone landscapes that surround Australia’s cities. Bushfire is a constant and ongoing part of Australian history, ecology and culture. The love of a sunburnt country, the beauty and terror of fire, and the filmy veil of post-fire greenness described in the century-old poem ‘Core of My Heart’ (Mackellar, 1908) are still apt depictions of Australian identity today.

Yet longer fire seasons and an increase in extreme fire weather days with climate change add both uncertainty and urgency to Australia’s ability to coexist with fire in the future (Head et al., 2013).

Geographical fire research in Australia: Review and prospects Abstract

Download the pdf: Geographical fire research in Australia_ Review and prospects

catastrophic fire slide.jpg

Man has an obsession with fire – in the film we see various religious rituals involving lighting candles, lanterns, bonfires. Purification and burial rituals. There are shots of the sun, moon, stars juxtaposed with the fires out of control on the oil fields of Kuwait, and the explosions caused by bombs.

The foundries, crematoriums, mining and other industrial sites, and cities lit up… but also the horror of the Holocaust gas chambers, mass burials, destructive bombings.

We are able to control combustion, we have electricity because of coal but fossil fuels now need to be made strange.

Our relationship to the military-industrial complex where atomic weapons and stockpiling nuclear weapons are seen as normal must be challenged.

The film depicts soldiers on the Chinese and Russian borders protecting piles of weapons, then pans to row after row of USA military planes…

As he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, a piece of Hindu scripture ran through the mind of Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. It is, perhaps, the most well-known line from the Bhagavad-Gita, but also the most misunderstood.

UK Article August 9,2017

The general notions about human understanding . . . which are illustrated by discoveries in atomic physics are not in the nature of things wholly unfamiliar, wholly unheard of, or new. Even in our own culture, they have a history, and in Buddhist and Hindu thought a more considerable and central place. What we shall find is an exemplification, an encouragement, and a refinement of old wisdom.’

Oppenheimer, quoted from F. Capra, The Tao of Physics.

  • chemicals
  • atmospheric aerosol loading
  • ozone depletion
  • ocean acidification
  • the equivalent of an atom bomb a week in our oceans
  • planetary boundaries transform our approach to growth
  • biodiversity loss
  • great acceleration of climate change and mother earth becomes deeply unfamiliar
  • the threat is here and people already suffering

UN scientists warn that roughly 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction due to human activity. It would be the first mass extinction since humans started walking the earth and has dire implications for the survival of our own species. Already, humans are losing key ecosystem services that nature provides, including crop pollination, storm mitigation, and clean air and water.

“Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Prof. Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

The IPBES’ 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services comes at a critical time for the planet and all its peoples. The report’s findings – and the years of diligent work by the many scientists who contributed – will offer a comprehensive view of the current conditions of global biodiversity. May 6, 2019

Climate Anxiety Exists Now

Lauren suggests we must:

Stop.breathe.think.connect.act

In Baraka you see people following this path, people meditating, pushing back against some of the technology and damaging changes.

We too must question technology of the future – it may be shiny and bright but not normal – Lauren refers to the common symbol we see of a pair of hands holding up the earth. She challenges that image: Let us remember –

the planet holds us up not us holding up the planet.

We need to pierce the politics of denial. Do not accept climate change as the new normal!!

We must move from the idea of a shareholder to stakeholder, not capitalism but a system where the environment is the shareholder.

I think of the endless debates people have about whether climate change is real and wonder how anyone can still be a climate denialist. Then remember a meme doing the rounds of social media and sigh:

recognized experts meme

Bio Cities Living Architecture – Beyond Green Design

The next presenter was Dr Ollie Cotsaftis, a post-disciplinary and speculative designer whose practice sits at the intersection of the human evolution, the built environment and the realm of creative biotechnologies.

His research addresses climate resilience and social innovation in speculative urban futures. Ollie is also the founder and creative director of future ensemble studio, the co-founder of Melbourne Speculative Futures—the Melbourne Chapter of The Design Futures Initiative—experiments with new ideas through his visual art practice, and most recently started a column on speculative and critical design for the This is HCD network.

Ollie wants to answer the question – How do we build our cities and stop the concrete working against us and reconnect with nature?

  • Bio Cities, Living Architecture – Beyond Green design
  • Architecture that is organic
  • Architecture that is sustainable
  • Architecture that is alive

He referred to information from the Bureau of Meteorology that shows temperatures will increase and have been increasing over the last 110 years. The slide courtesy of the CSIRO, July 2019.

temperature slide.jpg

 Ollie suggested we Google action architecture climate change for a wealth of information from people who agree the climate is changing therefore so must architecture.

Carbon dioxide causes global warming. Buildings emit almost half of the carbon dioxide in the USA and that has to stop!

One of the most well-known architects of our time, Bjarke Ingels said: “If we can Change the Climate of the World by Accident, Imagine What we can Achieve by Trying”

Bjarke has become one of the most sought-after architects. In 2019 alone, he and his team completed as many as 13 projects, including large-scale undertakings such as Copenhill, a zero-emission waste-to-energy plant. The innovative solution is the first of its kind in the world: utopia turned reality.

90% of Melbourne’s energy is still based on oil, gas and coal. The CBD is very expensive to live regarding energy use. Ollie has been involved in an experimental project to convert a high-rise corporate building into a sustainable residential alternative.

385 Bourke Street – Hope For The Future

385_Bourke_Street_2017

385 Bourke Street (also known as the State Bank Centre) is a high-rise office building located in Melbourne, Australia. It is the former head office of the State Bank of Victoria and Commonwealth Bank of Australia. It is located on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets.

The lower levels of the building are the Galleria shopping centre. Major tenants in the building are Energy Australia and Industry Superannuation fund UniSuper.

Photo and this info from Wikipedia

Built in 1983 it had poor energy efficiency. The owners have spent $2.5m for an energy retrofit to transform it into a residential building. The side exposed to the sun had solar panels fitted to capture that energy.

  • Panels have been put on the outside of the building’s upper floors facing the sun and are red because that is the colour that captures the most energy from the sun.
  • There are plants on window sills, in walkways, on ledges.

Researchers are working all the time to improve battery storage options and rechargeable batteries.

There is a micro bacterial rechargeable battery (MRB) not commercially available yet but in 5 years (just like the development of the OPVs) these could be available and embedded in buildings.

385 Bourke Street has been transformed from a carbon positive corporate tower to a carbon-negative residential tower.

The experiment has proven it is possible to transform energy inefficient city buildings into sustainable alternatives –

  • Extrusion
  • Extension of OPVs
  • Cross-section MRBs
  • Affordability is an issue and more information will be available during Melbourne Design Week march 12-22, 2020 and on April 24, where there will be a full presentation at the NGV.

Ollie wants us to think of different perceptions.  A level of awakening needed and the ability to question how we do things differently. to have –

  • Speculative ideas and consider their future
  • Speculative visions of the future

How do we move from object and service (a building) the individual to a collective way of shaping the city?

Shareholders should be the community of the city.  Even change shareholder to stakeholder, not viewing through a capitalism lens but a system where the environment is the shareholder.

A combination of approaches will equal climate justice

First Nations sovereignty important to recognise – Baraka revealed that the people most affected are often those least responsible for the damage to the earth. 

  • Inequities revealed in 1992 and still happening today
  • Environmental and economic problems caused by historical violence inflicted on first nations people – their lifestyle did not cause these events.

  • We have to face the enormous depths of problems created by history and recognise it is getting harder to predict the future and impact of technology because change happens so fast

Who moved the earth into this state of catastrophe?

It is a slow emergency on a geological timescale but for us now there is a sense of urgency. Baraka shows the disintegration of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the reclaiming of the ruins by nature – through a variety of lens and focus you can lose track of hours and time but you get a sense there is a trajectory we are heading on…

Let’s learn from those who have lived with the earth, let them lead us to repair, restore and be on a better path. In Australia, we must listen to our Indigenous rangers about land management.

An emerging crisis implies a window of opportunity.

Organisations like Wildlife Victoria are helping creatures get through on the short term but also building bridges to an eco future and looking longterm to be positive towards a sustainable future for our wildlife.

In urban settings, we have architects and designers transforming buildings from one function to another. Considering adaptive reuse.

baraka panel 1.jpg

When a bushfire season like the one we have just experienced is so catastrophic, we can be blinded by the vastness of scale which is on the level of global plastic pollution and recycling and the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.  It’s easy to miss a lot of slow violence to the earth not necessarily making headline news:

  • Soil degradation
  • land theft from First Nations peoples
  • Poisoning of water and land
  • Species extinction

Ollie explained the city of Jakarta is sinking – water is being drained from tabletops and the city is drowning and must be relocated.  What about the buildings left – will they just rot or will they be reused and repurposed? This is a project to consider under the banner of a speculative future.

  • Can we program a building to degrade itself after a certain lifespan?
  • Can we adapt buildings to our needs?

Principles and ideas shared globally, not just western canon and ethics which has been a problem when everything is Eurocentric or Western-centric.

When tackling projects, cooperation needed around the world between countries and cultures with shared questions.

  • Is this anticipatory?
  • What can go wrong?
  • What are the different scenarios?
  • Have we included everyone and everything to be affected?
  • Are we doing it for the right purpose?
  • Is it the right thing to do?
  • part of the world’s problem is too many design groups are white-centric – we must share principles rather than some grand narrative of design

Greed has led to the Climate Change Catastrophe

How do we go about overtaking and replacing greed and accumulation of wealth as a motivation of the people in power?

  • Law must come into it – positive changes can be imposed by regulations and consequences
  • Often environmental laws are inadequate but even those must be enforced
  • We can funnel channels of greed – eg. You’ll lose money in fossil fuels but make money in renewables
  • We must question fundamental ideas – the shareholder model our society uses feeds inequity
  • We can slow down economic activity – bigger and faster and more luxurious is not necessarily better
  • Change the architecture of our streets to encourage more walking, more sedentary use, more shade, more trees, more places to sit and contemplate, communicate, converse…
life is in acho
a Facebook meme with a great message

A Twitter Feed That’s Addictive And Uplifting

morning feed lorikeets

I’ve always found refuge and comfort in words whether writing, reading, talking or listening…

However, perhaps it is ageing and adjusting to retirement or the weariness of coping with this latest cancer diagnosis, but the urge and even the passion for creative writing is difficult to muster.

Snatches of poems and stories still swirl in head and heart, but that’s where they usually stay – no ‘writer’s block’ just disinterest or lack of energy to go the next step.

Maybe I need to remove self-imposed pressure and unrealistic goals.

I haven’t fallen out of love with the art of writing, just facing the use-by date of some goals and dreams I thought important or achievable. 

Conversations with self and the in-depth reflections that often accompany a cancer diagnosis, especially when it strikes again, have led me to a new passion and much-needed relaxation.

Or rather, it has encouraged an expansion of an existing fascination and another project.

I’m talking about protecting birdlife – especially the ‘backyard birds’ I see every day – and creating a garden for man, beast, bird, bee and butterfly to enjoy.

sunflower 2

It is addictive watching the interaction when birds visit the front garden, listening to their chitter-chatter – delightful twittering.

And like the paparazzi, I try to capture the perfect photo!

They inspire me to write – not for anyone else but myself and for fun – two elements missing in the years of planning lessons, teaching technique, and inspiring others to write and publish.

I don’t have to feel guilty about writing for pleasure, or that the pleasure is mine!

pretty polly 2

Words Have Power

Words are a powerful form of communication.  I love the nuances and capabilities of the English language, although the multiple meanings and grammatical rules are complicated and confusing when you are trying to master it.

Choose wisely, check the dictionary, listen to the tone, think of interpretation…

The influence of poems, stories, and novels can stay with you for life, also excerpts of dialogue from a dramatic script or film. Favourite song lyrics may move you to tears and can take you back to an important moment in time when you hear the song.

Putting it in writing’ and sending letters or emails, recording a journal or updating a diary, even keeping a blog are all valuable forms of expression to share ideas, feelings, and creativity and wonderful when it is not a chore, venting about injustice, or keeping a friendship alive.

I hope to return to feeling elation when my words work.

Word Choice Matters

The pen can be mightier than the sword but that depends on the opponent and circumstance – wars are fought and won with military hardware and signed contracts of peace don’t seem to wield the same power.

The belief ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’ is patently untrue.

The toxicity of social media attacks and resultant damage, plus the terrible toll of suicides after bullying (virtual and physical), proof that name-calling, insults, false accusations and misinformation hurt and destroy. (The pen is as mighty as the sword?)

We have, as an example, President Trump, one of the most powerful leaders in the world, and his use of Twitter. He is certainly someone who has brought the medium into disrepute more than others, but there are many other examples of what reporters call ‘Twitter fights” – and suddenly someone has their account cancelled or removes themselves voluntarily.

In the digital age, the reputation of journalism has also taken a hit, especially when clicks are more important than content. The lack of digital literacy in the community is a worry.

There are many recorded instances of two-quick Twitter reactions/responses, and the toxic comments of trolls and others who comment with online anonymity creating more articles so that often the important news or original topic is ignored.

Poison-pen letters and nasty critiques existed long before the popularity of social media, but the digital age and the speed and distance words travel makes me content to have a twitter account of the feathered variety!

And once sent out a word takes wing beyond recall.

Horace 65-8 BC: Epistles

Not that you can ignore ‘progress’ or technological change. I did introduce my students to Twitter and we had fun writing poetry and flash fiction – a totally different use than what it was designed for – although President Trump’s tweets could fall under the category of fiction but not poetry!

these legs were made for wlaking

For the past year, walking by Mordialloc Creek and the foreshore, exercising Josie around suburban streets, exploring local parks and those further afield, provides comfort and delight but contentment is revelling in the joys of my garden’s flora and fauna.

The pleasure deepens sharing these activities with my daughters and friends.

Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that he sometimes has to eat them.

The Wit and Wisdom of Adlai Stevenson (1965)

white heron and silhouette

dusky moorhen

The real world often disturbs these idyllic routines of the natural world.  Politics, protests, the climate emergency and mundane household maintenance intrude, along with a persistent inner voice that I should be ‘doing’ or ‘achieving’ – getting the hang of this retirement gig is difficult!

Every time I think that I’m getting old, and gradually going to the grave, something else happens.

Lillian Carter

A Comforting Stillness
Mairi Neil

In the stillness of the evening
a hush
birds nestle in the trees
until daybreak

In the stillness of the evening
a rustling
nocturnal animals forage
until daybreak

In the stillness of the evening
a hush

Above the stars twinkle
clouds veil the moon
the Milky Way cascades in flashing lights
a reminder each day a star is born
in the endless universe
yet, no sound reaches Earth

In the stillness of the evening
a hush
a rustling
a silence
my heart beats a sweet rhythm
thinking of you.

An Urgent Plea Received

Dear Mairi,

The bushfires have been worse than any of us could have imagined. If you (or anyone you know) has been affected, our hearts go out to you.    

BirdLife Australia is coordinating the response for threatened birds nationally and our fire mapping has identified the species most impacted by the inferno. Now is the time for us all to take urgent action.  

We believe millions of birds were incinerated in the blaze. Millions more have lost habitat and face starvation right now. I fear many birds, like the Rufous Scrub-bird, will soon join the list of threatened species. Their future is in our hands…

We have the plans and the people in place, but we know it will take at least $2 million to begin priority actions to save the most threatened of the birds impacted by the fires.

With your urgent help today, we can:

  • Get survey teams into fire zones as soon as possible to find threatened birds
  • Help birds recover by protecting them from predators and supporting habitat recovery
  • Rebuild populations over the long term, through actions like captive breeding programs

http://www.birdlife.org.au/

magpie in shade

Birds live in a range of habitats, making them useful indicators of what is happening in the world. Across the globe and throughout Australia, birds take exciting journeys to search for food, to follow the rain and look for breeding sites. Learning about birds helps you connect with the natural world and helps us understand more about the environment we live in.

While we enjoy a position at the forefront of bird conservation, our work is far from done. With 238 Australian birds already extinct, threatened with extinction or near threatened, we need to ensure that we don’t lose more of them.

glass owl paperweight

I’ve written recently about the extent of the devastation from bushfires, drought and climate change, but also how the threat of extinction for many of our birds has hung like the Sword of Damocles for years.

We are running out of time to address the climate emergency, but we can all contribute to protecting and improving the aspects of our local environment necessary for native wildlife, especially the birds.

Bird species have incurred huge losses, not just because of climate change, but habitats have succumbed to development, domestic cats, and a recent study of millions of birds killed by flying into the glass windows of highrise buildings is a sad read.

We can make buildings safer for birds. Architectural elements like awnings, screens, grilles, shutters and verandas deter birds from hitting buildings. Opaque glass also provides a warning…

New York City recently passed a bird-friendly law requiring all new buildings and building alterations (at least under 23 metres tall, where most fly) be designed so birds can recognise glass. Windows must be “fritted” using applied labels, dots, stripes and so on.

The search is on for various other ways of warning birds of the dangers of glass walls and windows…

A zen curtain developed in Brisbane has worked at the University of Queensland. This approach uses an open curtain of ropes strung on the side of buildings. These flutter in the breeze, making patterns and shadows on glass, which birds don’t like.

sunset at beach

Create a bird-friendly garden

Birds need a home to breed and bring up their families. Their natural habitat normally provides food, shelter, water and nesting sites, but in urban areas they need help.

BirdLife.org advise how to create a suitable habitat in backyards, parks, bush reserves and even wider communities. Here are four of their fact sheets:

magpie atop hills hoist

lorikeets enjoying the new seed block

Mordialloc Meditation
Mairi Neil

On Main Street, Mordialloc
the lull of evening signalled
by oh, so familiar sounds…
birds jostle and joust
for palm tree frond, gum-leafed house.
Dusk descends into twilight glow
the tweets and squeals
a deafening crescendo –
a cacophony of conversation:
Time for bed.
Nestle down!’
That’s my branch…’
Move over magpies!’
All must know their station
in life. There’s a sense of place,
chatter, bargain, even squabble
but eventually sharing space.

Stop skylarking about!
You lorikeet lout!’
Squeeze over sparrows.’
How precious are parrots?
Pigeons! The rooftops are home for you
go mutter your usual “coo-coo”…’
And in the gloaming, shadows
of building construction loom,
mounds of dirt in lonely gloom.
A treeless landscape, evictions rife
Mordi’s birds may face a new life.
I remember a bloody chainsaw day
shake my head and turn away…
Continue to walk by Mordi Creek
watch the ducks silently glide,
a cormorant rest in contemplation
this beautiful tranquillity
a sanctuary from conurbation.

How lovely the shimmering ripples
of boats tethered for the night,
feathered friends dive and feed
in the fast-fading light.
A familiar outline against the sky
silhouettes of ancient trees
reminding us of when this creek
hosted Bunurong corroborees.
The path peopled by dog walkers,
and school children hurrying home
joggers and health fanatics
grateful for the space to roam.
In the eucalyptus evening hush
this precious part of the day,
Mordialloc Meditative Therapy
chases my doldrums away.

australian raven 2

Hitchcock’s Crime Against Birds

I’ve always had a fascination for our feathered friends, but nursed a fear of close contact after seeing Hitchcock’s The Birds!

Nothing equals The Birds for sheer terror when Alfred Hitchcock unleashes his foul friends in one of his most shocking and memorable masterpieces… beautiful blonde Melanie Daniels rolls into Bodega Bay in pursuit of eligible bachelor Mitch Brenner. She is inexplicably attacked by a seagull. Suddenly thousands of birds are flocking into town, preying on school-children and residents in a terrifying series of attacks. Soon Mitch and Melanie are fighting for their lives against a deadly force that can’t be explained and can’t be stopped in one of Hollywood’s most horrific films of nature gone berserk.

Released in 1963, I must have seen The Birds on television in 1968 or soon after – I would have been 15 – but it could have been yesterday because it is one of those movies you never forget.

Hitchcock was a master at creating fear and who would have thought a movie with such an innocuous title could be terrifying?

It took me years to look at birds with admiration, not suspicion. And it is amazing how many people I have met over the years who were affected by that film!

For years, I preferred to keep a distance from birds, disliked seeing them caged and envied their ability to fly, but still held an irrational fear they’d try and peck at my eyes.

If you read the trivia notes on IMDb, they reveal the treatment meted out to the birds on the set of the film – behaviour not tolerated today – we should feel sorry for them not the humans.

bird feeding frenzy

Ten Birds Regularly Visit My Garden

Google Backyard Birds, to discover a host of information on birds found in Australian backyards; each state gets a mention.

Depending on what suburb you live in, the following birds will probably be common visitors.

Noisy Miner

baby noisy miner
Noisy Miner

Common Myna

common myna
Common Myna

Australian Raven

australian raven in garden
Australian Raven

Grey Butcherbird

butcher birds visiting
Butcherbirds

Magpie

magnificent magpie
Magpie

Magpie-lark

magpie-lark 3
Magpie-lark

Lorikeet

lorikeet in vivd colour
lorikeet

Red Wattlebird

wattlebird
young wattlebird

Spotted Dove

spotted dove
spotted dove

Sparrow

a very tiny sparrow
tiny sparrow

I admire and respect the tenacity and survival instincts of the bird population; their cleverness and beauty, their strength despite such fragile frames. For years, a blackbird family built their nests in the Photinia trees that line our back fence and watching the birds fly back and forth with twigs, discarded pieces of plastic and other debris hanging from tiny beaks proved how adaptable and innovative they can be.

Little Blackbird
Mairi Neil

Oh, little blackbird
with your puffed-out chest
to some your song is sweet.
Others, they despise you
native birds must compete.
You build a nest
to lay your eggs —
eat up all the food
the native birds fly away
a situation far from good
Some say we should leave
Mother Nature well alone
birds are free to travel
they often widely roam.
Perhaps accusations are absurd
because the sky is limitless
and belongs to ALL the birds!
©1997 mn

Last year, I filmed a magpie ripping threads from a coir mat and flying off to build a nest.

Drought and urban development shifts bird populations. Mordialloc now echoes to the screeching and chittering of flocks of rainbow lorikeets, especially in the evening when they roost in the iconic date palms lining Main Street, the prolific sparrows and thrushes of earlier years forced elsewhere.

Marauding Mimics
Mairi Neil

They appear on the lawn
like four pirates of old
strutting and aggressive
noisy and bold.

Fixing beady eyes
on a treasure trove
they bully incessantly —
taking what they love

They’ve come to this land
from across the sea
in an ideal climate
they thrive with glee

They raid and steal
do what pirates do best
the Common Myna
has become quite a pest
© 1996 mn

The cockatoos and galahs are still around but prefer the open area down by Mordialloc Creek.

galahs at the park
galahs feeding

Melodic butcherbirds and bullying wattlebirds have made their home in grevillea and banksias, ensuring the smaller birds rarely visit. The sky often patterned by flocks of migrating birds from the nearby Edithvale Wetlands.

Sometimes one or two rare birds choose my garden for a rest or snack instead of ‘eating on the wing’, the experience a delight, but Murphy’s Law dictates my camera is never ready to capture the moment!

Wandering in the garden with my morning cuppa, I’ve recorded quite a few of the bird calls because they are so beautiful. Identifying the singer often leaves me intrigued. Most birds are gifted with plumage to match their preferred habitat, they blend into tree foliage, the bushes, reeds or grasslands with ideal camouflage.

two lorikeets whispering
two lorikeets have the perfect cover

Shadows
Mairi Neil

The plaintive song echoes
in the university grounds
as students hurry home
past skeletal branches
of winter trees
hosting the bird’s lament

a mournful echo
of dinosaur dynasties
amid the whirr of bicycle wheels
tapping footsteps
ringtones
mobile conversations
iPod seclusion

a wistful whistle announces dusk
until full-throated celebration
a melodious call to rest
lights douse
classroom doors close
shadows deepen
the campus empties

crowded trams trundle by
bathed in artificial sunlight
tall grey buildings reach
for a star embroidered sky
this call of birded tongue
conjures ghosts
of long-forgotten species.

The Kookaburra Laughs In The Old Gum Tree…

When my family first arrived in Australia, in 1962, magpies proliferated in bushy Croydon, so did kookaburras, rosellas, cockatoos and galahs. Most of those birds absent from Mordialloc when John and I started our family here in the 1980s.

The last kookaburras sighted in nearby Bradshaw Park long before I joined the Friends group and worked to save the remnants of indigenous flora and fauna from encroaching suburbia. Bradshaw Park is the only native bushland reserve in Mordialloc and is home to 136 native species – some of which occur nowhere else in Mordialloc.

Rangers have sighted 33 native bird species, but introduced birds thrive too.

Tuneful blackbirds, thrushes and common mynas gobbled the crumbs I scattered each morning (a politically incorrect habit learned from Mum and Dad that I’ve now ceased!).

As I learned from others in the Friends group and planted indigenous trees and flowers, after many years, some native birds now call the trees and shrubbery I’ve nurtured, home.

Recently, a dear friend of 50 years visited from London. Nobuko stayed with other friends in Olinda before me and brought me a teatowel made locally as a gift. It reminded me of childhood trips to visit Sherbrooke Forest.

teatowel from nobuko

These rosellas are often seen up in the Dandenongs but there is another bird I have only been lucky to spot a couple of times in my life – very special memories.

Lyre Bird’s Lair
Mairi Neil

A forgotten memory surfaces strong
feeds a yearning now the days are long
an image of childish eyes entranced
the memorable day the lyrebird danced.
Performing his unusual repertoire of sound
the lyrebird proudly claimed his ground
tail feathers splayed shimmering white
hiding his head from onlookers’ sight
without colourful peacock arrogance
he began his shy seductive dance.
Throughout the day lovers came and went
until the lyrebird’s energy spent
and he disappeared amongst the trees
ephemeral as the morning breeze.

Walking the paths of Sherbrooke Forest,
enthused by dreams of aeons past
I hope to glimpse again the lyrebird’s dance
Tho’ its talent for mimicry limits my chance.
This bird can repeat the magpie’s trill
replicates man-made sounds at will –
chainsaw, hammer, or car alarm
he’s perfected them all as part of his charm.
The picnic area leads to the nature track
warmth of dappled sunlight upon my back.
Cloaked by primeval ferns dripping dew
I abandon pungent asphalt; exhaust fumes too
farewell gravel crunch, and human chatter
leaving creek where mosquitoes scatter.

Winding upwards to the whistling wagtail
I try to spot him but to no avail
a flurry of wings, camera shy rosella revealed
the foliage of Sherbrooke a perfect shield
As ancient eucalypts climb towards the sky
an eastern whipbird’s distinctive ‘crack’ nearby
spongy deep green moss cushions city feet
ornamental fungi from undergrowth peeps.
Vegetation hugs the path and sprouts native grass
exposed skin tickled as I stride past.
Eucalyptus tang replaces rich loam smell
the towering Mountain Ash cast their spell
fragile maidenhair ferns decorate the trail
flighty butterflies appreciating their veil.

Panting with the exertion of the climb
each pause filled with birdsong sublime
my misty breaths join whispering trees
a nearby rustling makes me freeze.
Low in the fork of a wattle tree
a sight I never expected to see
constructed with meticulous precision
a female lyrebird’s nesting vision.
A beautiful ball-shaped structure appears
the perfect home developed through years.
Of evolution, and remarkable adaptation
what an amazing bird unique to this nation
but alas like the palette of fleeting dawn
the enigmatic lyrebird and chick long gone.

© 2013