A Public Health Crisis Requires Personal Responsibility and a Personal Response

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A leaflet freely available on the counter of my local chemist

Many people know me through my writing and teaching, but another hat I have worn for several years is that of a consumer health representative and as we deal with COVID-19, I’ve attended several excellent ZOOM meetings organised by Victoria’s Health Issues Centre (these are recorded and worth watching). 

Various health organisations continue to work towards improving how health is delivered whether the topic is related to COVID-19 or not. I also presented (via an online platform) to a conference at Melbourne University, organised by medical students for their 2020 MD Student Conference (MDSC). (Details below)

I’ve taken surveys for Swinburne University, where I volunteered for research, the Breast Cancer Network, and given feedback to the Cancer Council of Victoria. Sharing my experience with breast cancer and any health information, I discover, is often a motivation for writing.

life stories anthologies

Health Literacy Must Be A Priority

Health literacy is about how people understand information about health and health care, and how they apply that information to their lives. It is about how they use that information to decide on treatment and lifestyle.

Over the years, I have been able to use my writing skills combined with personal experience of the health system to give input and feedback to help health professionals and various institutions and government bodies improve the health information provided.

The Central Bayside Community Health Centrethe Health Issues Centre and the Cancer Council welcome volunteers and are always willing to hear how they can improve health service delivery and patient outcomes.

From the Australian Commission on Safety & Quality in Healthcare:

  • Individual health literacy is the skills, knowledge, motivation and capacity of a person to access, understand, appraise and apply information to make effective decisions about health and health care and take appropriate action.
  • Health literacy environment is the infrastructure, policies, processes, materials, people and relationships that make up the health system and have an impact on the way that people access, understand, appraise and apply health-related information and services.

https://www.safetyandquality.gov.au/our-work/patient-and-consumer-centred-care/health-literacy

Volunteering To be  A Health Advocate May Help Others 

My health advocate journey began in 2009 when I attended a focus group at Central Bayside to help them rewrite leaflets about Diabetes.

My father had been diabetic for many years (mature-age onset) and moved from tablets to insulin before his death. From firsthand observations, I knew there was room for improvement in the brochures publicly available.

At the time, I was enrolled in the Masters of Writing so my writing skill was, and still is,  useful to share.

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A reference letter explaining my early involvement with community health.

Pandemic Restrictions Resume in Victoria

It is worrying that COVID-19 cases have spiked in Victoria causing a Lockdown of several suburbs.

For me, the upsurge is not surprising because when the initial Lockdown was eased mid June many people behaved as if the pandemic was over despite Premier Daniel Andrews saying repeatedly, ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ and the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brett Sutton reminding us continually, ‘this coronavirus is ten times more infectious than flu.’

Few, if any, of us enjoy forced isolation, but most people DID put the health of others before social considerations and obeyed the rules. Let’s hope we can do it again!

  • The message of the dangers of COVID-19 has made headlines since March – not just here but overseas. Any other topic has great difficulty gaining oxygen. Most people can access the Internet – there is no excuse for being ill-informed.
  • In the beginning, there were mixed messages, especially from the Federal Government, but by April all States had the same mantra about social distancing and washing hands. Debate continues about wearing masks, but many people have made that choice and it helps reinforce social distancing.
  • There is concern not enough effort was used in Victoria to ensure the message was inclusive of multi-cultural communities but frankly considering every country is touched by COVID-19 and we have multi-cultural television and radio stations with many communities having their own language newspapers, I don’t think that can be the only reason. There is also an excellent website with health translations in more than 100 languages. More likely it is the socio-economic make-up of those suburbs with people working the casual and low paid jobs of hospitality, retail and transport that have continued throughout the Lockdown period – plus the pressure on schools throughout Australia to reopen. The virus is highly infectious – it was never about elimination (a vaccine is a long way off and will ever only be 70% effective anyway) but aiming for suppression and control.
  • Debate still rages about schools going back too early and the opening up of businesses and venues but considering the world is coping with an unprecedented crisis this century our various levels of government are doing their best – it was always going to be a balance between health and economic survival. Again – personal behaviour is the key.
  • Sadly, some people CHOOSE to believe the seriousness of the pandemic and ignore regulations.

It is up to individuals to be aware, follow the rules, and take care.

Recording The Pandemic For Future Generations

In April, my friend Matilda Butler who runs the womensmemoirs.com site in the USA with Kendra Bonnett, asked women to write about COVID-19.

I submitted a reflective piece you can read on the site plus poems and stories from other women or read here as a pdf: article for Matilda

Now, with a sense of security rapidly diminishing if we continue to see larger numbers of infections, an update will be needed and it may well have a different tone!

There are writers all over the world recording this pandemic from a variety of perspectives and journalists and bloggers tapping daily. Next year and the years to follow, we’ll see a plethora of films, documentaries, plays, poems, novels and memoir…

When Lockdown began in April, I wrote a series of blogs with ideas for writing – good therapy to cope with isolation but also starting points to write your perspective on current events.

Here is a snapshot of one lot of research and there will be plenty more – only today, I completed a survey from the Breast Cancer Network.

I’m sure every community organisation and government department and local council is collecting data. The City of Kingston is – so have your say and contribute to the pool of knowledge about this time in history.

COVID 19 SURVEY RESPONSE SWINBURNE UNI

A summary of the results of the City of Kingston’s May 2020 survey:

From the 202 responses collected between 13-21 May 2020, they identified the following insights:

  • A lot of people adapted to using technology to remain connected (89% of people)
  • Around half were worried about being infected, but most (97%) had access to facts and information on quarantining
  • 41% were worried that they or their families wouldn’t recover if infected
  • Physical activity was cited as the main activity providing relief
  • The main concern people had about being isolated was the loss of connection with their social support network

You can access the full report and also see regular updates from the website.

special light to record my interview
a special light was sent by courier for my interview

The Use of Technology Has Zoomed During COVID-19

As mentioned before, I have been extra careful since January because of a recent breast cancer operation and so adapted easily to Lockdown, isolation and social distancing.

When the Cancer Council asked me to contribute to the medical student conference at Melbourne University, I accepted because it could be prerecorded. The session recorded in May, but broadcast on June 25th.

The organisers and presenters plus the film crew amazing. It was a positive and fascinating experience. A great learning curve in the use of technology!

Here are screenshots from the session: “Breaking Bad News”.

This session forms part of the Day 4 program theme “The Ultimate Equaliser”. We have chosen this theme to give medical students the opportunity to have in-depth discussions on mortality and the human condition. We are very fortunate to have a number of esteemed healthcare professionals presenting on Day 4. An integral aspect of medical education is learning from patients, as they are often our best teachers. We feel that it is essential to include personal stories in a session on breaking difficult news, so that we can keep patients at the centre of our education.

 

I was one of three women who volunteered to share their stories on the day, and I read two pages from my story published in the book Journey – experiences with breast cancer.

Here is the selection – EXTRACT FOR MELB UNI MD CONFERENCE 2020. They also attached notes I had discussed with Georgia during the various phone calls and emails preparing for the session. NOTES – interview regarding cancer May 26th 2020.

My initial thank you to the organisers:

Thank you to the organisers for the opportunity to share my story. Thank you, too, for those who will listen who are joining the medical profession – as we have seen during this pandemic, the pressure, expectations, danger and sacrifices for frontline workers has revealed how important, precious and valuable you are for a healthy functioning society.

Personally, I’m grateful to medical science for my life. The improvements in breast cancer detection and research plus treatment available in Australia meant my cancer diagnosis in 2010 disrupted my quality of life but was not a death sentence.

And that is what the mention of cancer means to most people – a terminal illness that once you are diagnosed and even go into remission, it is a coiled snake waiting to strike. That metaphor turned out to be true for me because of my breast cancer, albeit another type, returned in December 2019.

In the words of my wonderful breast surgeon, Dr Peter Gregory – ‘nine years Mairi, you almost reached ten!’ His disappointment and disbelief matched mine because of course there are legendary milestones, whether true or not, of 5 years and 10 years – making those free of a recurrence is believed to extend the likelihood the cancer won’t return , or worst spread to other parts of the body.

Both times my cancer was picked up by breast screening and although at a recent event put on at Peter McCallum’s I discovered only a small amount of cancers are picked up by mammograms, I am so grateful to have access to this free program in Australia.

And my thank you after everything went as planned!

Dear Georgia,

To be cliched – the pleasure was all mine:)
Thank you again for giving me a platform for my story and I think you, Tansy and all the others have done an amazing job considering the circumstances in which you have had to operate.
Thank you for always being so courteous and ready to respond and adapt to my needs, even when it probably inconvenienced your own,
All of you can be immensely proud of what you are achieving but more importantly the place from where your efforts and the impetus has come – creating a first class health system that cares for everyone’s needs.
I was most impressed with – I think it was Lily who said it – ‘welcome, this is the way of the future…’ You and your co-workers are all very talented and I can see the benefits for a lot of digital expertise being applied in the future for conferences etc because who knows how long travel or large gatherings will be risky to organise. Also, what you have done over the last few weeks has been amazing in establishing a pathway for all sorts of voices to be included at conferences where usually only certain ones are invited.
I know the title consumer rep has been coined, especially by organisations fighting for equity in the two-tiered system we have (private V public health) and for a multitude of voices to be heard, but I personally never want to move away from the word patient when I am referred to treatment for my health because it implies being in the care of a doctor/medical clinician. Whereas consumer can so easily be applied to someone shopping or dining whose main interest is value for money rather than the esoteric outcomes of quality of life regarding health procedures! 
We are all individuals and our bodies can respond in various ways and so care provided must always be personal and often tailored to suit the individual – not mass consumption – what works or is accepted by one may be inappropriate or not work on another.
A bit like in the 90s when suddenly those receiving education became clients rather than pupils or students. 
Word choice matters because we all come with our own prejudices, perspectives and experiences but it would be nice if we could agree on a terminology that gets the balance and duty of care right – and in some areas of our society there has to be an authoritative balance some times.
I want to be empowered to have a say in the health system but I also want to acknowledge the expertise of the people looking after me and that their advice is coming from a place of knowledge and wanting to heal me and I am happy to accept they know more than me but I hope they are also prepared to listen and set aside some of their assumptions.
Good luck with all your other planning and remember to take some time out for relaxation and fun – you deserve it:)
All the best
Mairi

 

We have a good health system in Victoria and there are people working all the time to make it better.

The health system had to take stock and organise to cope with the pandemic and remain functioning. It could have so easily become overwhelmed like other countries – especially Italy, Brazil and the USA.

In Victoria, the effort to keep everyone informed and to meet everyone’s expectations has been excellent.

The initial postponement of elective surgeries to ensure there were enough hospital beds and equipment if needed has been lifted, but if people don’t heed the warnings who knows what strain will be put on available resources?

The message I received and took on board is ‘don’t forget your health check-ups’ . An important message to act on. 

I went for my regular skin cancer check and they discovered an invasive melanoma. Despite increased testing for COVID-19 the results of the biopsies came back quickly and an operation including skin graft is scheduled for next week.

But if the system becomes overwhelmed, others in the future may not be so lucky.  We must stop the COVID-19 infection rate increasing!

I started off the post with a leaflet explaining the logic and simple steps to avoid spreading viral infections. These work for flu as well, and one welcome side effect of the isolation rules is that fewer people are contracting flu this season!

Here are just a few of the public notices around Mordialloc I see every day advising people about COVID-19:

I’m sure these informative signs are replicated in every suburb – authorities can only do so much – members of the public must cooperate.

Being in the high risk age group with underlying health issues, I sincerely hope people will make the effort to be informed and obey the rules so we can suppress the rapid spread of this coronavirus.

Support all those frontline health workers, plus the workers in other occupations who have remained or returned to work and must cope with new rules and the compliance necessary to combat COVID-19.

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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

 

 

It’s hard to Build a Frame of Mind for Writing – Seek Support and Encouragement

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Day Fourteen – Do you still have a blank screen?

For many writers, it’s difficult to make an initial start on a project – to find the words for that first sentence or paragraph.

When a global crisis strikes we’ve just multiplied our difficulties and anxiety a thousandfold!

But as the quote above emphasises unless you start, you can’t shape your idea into the story, poem, play, script, or novel that is inside waiting to be shared.

It’s important to know that all writers – even the ones with published best sellers – struggle at times to write or to write to a standard they’ve set for themselves. They too will be struggling with the consequences of COVID19 as various dramas play out.

We are all learning that human beings, regardless of who you are or where you live, are in this crisis together.

Fortunately, the World Wide Web is literally bursting with creative people sharing their skills and ideas. There is heaps of advice and encouragement suggesting activities.

But if you are isolated alone and depressed, or sharing a house with little privacy, motivation and serenity hard to muster.

Supporting each other and giving positive, critical feedback on a piece of writing is important. Just as important as being prepared to rewrite and edit your writing. Published writers have professional editors to offer support and feedback but for the majority of writers, support is found in understanding friends, writing groups and writing classes.

I look out my window onto a street normally packed with the cars of commuters, workers and visitors to the Aged Care Centre and also U3A attendees – Kingston U3A classes held a block away. Many workplaces are in lockdown and so are U3A classes, along with classes at community houses, schools, colleges…

Writers and those dreaming of being writers have lost their physical support and the important interaction, feedback and inspiration from face to face contact.

Write from memory?

Sore Feet and Soaring Thoughts – a haibun
Mairi Neil

A wonderful warm spring day. A clutch of residents from the nursing home, walk around the block for a dose of Vitamin D and fresh air. The two carers dressed in floral finery, not wings and halos.

Shuffling slippered feet
walker wheels squeak and sticks tap
dull pleated skirts flap…

Without a sideways glance, a gaggle of schoolgirls overtake the pensioner posse. They preen and prance. Laughter tinkles, iPod cords dangle, mobile phones jingle.

A raven squawks as
strutting peacocks and tired chooks
enjoy the sunshine

The ambulatory group not seeking to collide, or slide to the other side – yet. Today’s challenges taken in their stride.

Smiling carers guide
stumbling feet and rheumy eyes
to avoid a fall

Gnarled arthritic hands cling to walking frames bumping over paths once traversed with prams and baby strollers. Reminiscent of bygone children’s frolics, parrots chitter overhead and magpies chortle and caper.

Pavement cracks trigger
memories. Past lives flash of
mothers, daughters, wives.

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For all those finding their writing life interrupted and those new to writing, or using it as therapy, fun, a way to ease the boredom of life in isolation because of COVID9, I suggest you pick up a pen and write whatever comes to mind.

  • Write in response to prompts I’ve posted – not just since COVID19 disrupted our world but there are many posts with suggestions and ideas – just search or flick through the posts.
  • Write whenever a picture, comment, sound, smell triggers a memory or idea – sometimes a walk through your house will do this.
  • Where did you buy that painting? Why? Imagine yourself inside the painting looking out…
  • When and where was that photograph taken? Why? Can you describe the preparation, the occasion … is there something or someone missing?
  • Write a story or anecdote a friend or relative told you
  • Can you remember the funniest story you ever heard? What about the one that revealed life is stranger than fiction? The story you introduce by saying ‘you wouldn’t read about it…’
  • Write whatever you feel like venting about today
  • Write a list of what you have to celebrate
  • Record how you and your friends are coping with the forced isolation and all the conflicting news stories and advice
  • Jot down ideas, lists of observations and descriptions for characters you might use, overheard conversations, remembered dreams, absurd thoughts… all will come in handy when you feel up to writing or have that ‘place of one’s own’ to write.
  • Write a letter or email to a friend you haven’t heard from for a while or start regular correspondence with a friend or relative
  • Send Easter cards, postcards or letters to people you used to catch up with, or in lieu of whatever you used to do at Easter time
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keeping a record of ideas a gift to yourself

Writers Do Need To Write – We Are Society’s Storytellers & Storykeepers

Human beings can’t live without the illusion of meaning, the apprehension of confluence, the endless debate concerning the fault in the stars or in ourselves. The writer is just the messenger, the moving target.

Inside culture, the writer is the talking self.

Through history, the writing that lasts is the whisper of conscience. The guild of writers is essentially a medieval guild existing in a continual Dark Age, shaman, monks, witches, nuns, working in isolation, playing with fire.



When the first illuminated manuscripts were created, few people could read. Now that people are bombarded with image and information and the World Wide Web is an open vein, few people can read.

Reading with sustained attention, reading for understanding, reading to cut through random meaninglessness – such reading becomes a subversive act. The writer’s first affinity is not to a loyalty, a tradition, a morality, a religion, but to life itself, and to its representation in language.

Ego enters in, but writing is far too hard and solitary to be sustained by ego. The writer is compelled to write. The writer writes for love. The writer lives in spiritual debt to language, the gold key in the palm of meaning. Awake, asleep, in every moment of being, the writer stands at the gate.



The gate may open.


The gate may not.


Regardless, the writer can see straight through it.

Edmond Jabès

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Writing Activities To Try Today

MOOD

It was a dark and stormy night’ may be cliched but it is a good example of setting the mood straight away!

  • The MOOD is the created atmosphere or context of your story.

Films set the mood by lighting, sound effects, selected music and the tone and delivery of the actors’ dialogue and actions.

In poetry and prose, writers must rely on the words we use – we must choose the right phrases to paint the scene and create the mood.

By considering the theme and purpose of your story you can determine the mood that will engage the reader:

Sombre, light-hearted, otherworldly, comical, sacred, upbeat, depressing, scary, angry…

  • The PLOT is the sequence of events that happen, the THEME is the underlying thread that connects all of these things.

A theme is what gives a particular work its depth, texture, and meaning.

To remember the difference between plot and theme, author Colin Thiele offers this advice:

A plot is what the book is about. The theme is what the book is really about.”

Points to consider

  • Who is your audience and what do you want to tell them?
  • What effect do you want your words to have on the reader?
  • What word choice will make your work spooky, suspenseful, comical, touching or inspiring…

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Your Turn

Set the mood in the first paragraph and write on the theme of friendship or sacrifice
For example:

  • To have a friend you must be a friend
  • Life is a series of ups and downs

During this catastrophic global crisis – the big picture – there are examples of countries helping each other with medical supplies and workers. There are also many closed borders. What stories can you write about the positives and negatives of borders… narrow it down to the effect on one or two people – lovers separated, families stranded, strangers showing kindness…

Everywhere communities are rejigging how they do things – daily activities turned upside down, new habits formed, a greater awareness of what is important, what are necessities, luxuries, privileges…

  • Scientists sharing knowledge
  • Sudden job loss, facing ill-health, separations but also new friends, hobbies, activities…

Create a character or write from a personal point of view.

Five Writing Prompts Based on Theme

Choose one of the following famous quotes for a story and think of the theme it suggests – you can choose a different one that is assumed:

  1. You never reach the promised land. You can march towards it. (IDEALISM)
  2. At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent. (SUCCESS)
  3. Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow God. You know where. I want to be like everyone else. (YOUTH)
  4. If grass can grow through cement, love can find you at every time in your life. (LOVE)
  5. A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent. (TRUTH)

Here are some of my old efforts written in class – I know you can do better:)

This one was an editing exercise and ironically seems relevant living under the spectre of COVID19. It was prompted by editing but has a theme of truth The Answer Not Blowing In the Wind, a short story of 395 words by Mairi Neil

This one was from a prompt of ‘a parked white van’, theme love See Change – Mairi Neil

This one was from a prompt about changing seasons, theme love and friendship Late Bloomer a short story of 499 words

Happy Writing

Tell Me Five Things That Make You Happy

dancing 2008

Day Eleven – Is Alone Time Heaven?

Or would you rather be in Devon? (It rhymes!) Or anywhere but isolation, quarantined and unable to do what you usually do.

There are many memes doing the rounds of Facebook along with thousands of others, plus videos of people joking/coping at their changed circumstances because of COVID19.

Two are relevant to this post because I’m promoting writing as a means to fill in time, relieve boredom, improve your creative output, write that novel, memoir, poem, letter, journal you’ve always wanted to write – or just have fun playing around with words.

Today I want people to think about happiness – specifically –

What makes you happy?

Have you figured out the things in life that truly make you happy? Have those things changed as you’ve gotten older? Or changed since the onset of the global catastrophe of COVID19?

Here is another quote by Anne Frank you can use as a prompt  – write down your answer after you have looked around – whether it be out your window, in your home or garden or workplace.

2 overnight roses

In a 2010 article in the New York Times, (I did say at the beginning of these daily postings, I am recycling old lessons!) “The Keys to Happiness,” Victoria Shannon reports on what we know about how to achieve happiness, according to recent research and expert advice:

Make Friends and Family a Priority

One of the longest-running studies on living well and happily emphasises the importance of your relationships with family, friends and spouses.

At this time of upheaval, this is obvious.  However, it will also have its negatives and be a testing time for many families. Sadly, in times of crisis incidences of domestic violence increase, the likelihood of divorce too sometimes sooner rather than later.

On the positive side, some relationships strengthen and I think in some countries, if not all, there may be a baby boom!

Mj and Anne's tattoo.jpg
My daughters got complementary tattoos to cement their love for each other (inspired by Neil Diamond, their Dad’s favourite singer)

… Especially on Weekends

Busy lives can get in the way of happiness. Our feeling of wellbeing peaks on weekends, largely because of more time spent with friends and family, if you are lucky to have that regular time off. This is when people go to the zoo, visit museums, have picnics, trips to the beach, attend festivals, go for that regular bike ride…

You can’t do any of the above at the moment but you can visit many of those public facilities online – most museum and art institutions have virtual tours, zoos are posting what the animals are getting up to, and unless you are in lockdown, you can walk around the neighbourhood. Obey social distancing rules and wave to others, walk the dog, absorb the beauty in gardens – and you can still go for a bike ride.

Write about what activities you can still do – have you made new friends? reconnected with old friends? Learnt a new skill?

Or you can write about any of the activities you used to do at the weekends – perhaps the most memorable visit. Maybe a character in your story has to adjust to being housebound or restricted in some way – there are many people where being restricted is the norm!

Perhaps Anne Frank’s experience teaches us to count our blessings… write about how blessed you are now.

Income Equality Helps (So Move to Scandinavia)

National unhappiness is strongly associated with a country’s social inequality, research shows. One index finds that Scandinavia, a place with a wide and broad social net, is the location of the world’s happiest countries.

However, perhaps after this global crisis things will change… can you write down some ideas, dreams of what will improve where you live?

There was a lovely video of happy Italians playing music and singing from the balconies of their apartments during their lockdown. Another report from the UK showed a special hour where millions of people stood in their gardens or doorways clapping and cheering the workers in the National Health System to thank them for working during this health crisis.

When we value our community and the workers that keep important facilities and services there is more cohesion and happiness, less war and conflict and we all feel better.

What do you value in your community or friendship circle?

Gratitude Does, Too


Pharrell Williams, the star behind the 2014 hit music video “Happy,” on the happiness phenomenon: ”If you’re grateful, you can find happiness in everything.”

  • Are you grateful for being accepted in a new country, or new suburb, new club?
  • Are you grateful for your parents, children, siblings?
  • Are you grateful for your pets?
  • Are you grateful for your home, workplace, community house?

Now you have the time, reflect on what makes you happy and grateful – and express that thanks in writing.

I am blessed, I know and have often written about being grateful for the constant expression of love from my daughters and friends.

I try and reciprocate and pay it forward too.

The Health Factor

A correlation between happiness and good health has been evident for centuries. But which comes first? Does robust health lead to a good mood or the reverse?

Now is the time to find out, discuss, reflect and write!!

FB_page from a book about being happy
from Facebook – some food for thought.

It’s Really Good for Kids

Happy kids learn faster, think more creatively, tend to be more resilient in the face of failures, have stronger relationships and make friends more easily.

Well, most of them. There have been plenty of reports and investigations into cyberbullying, the negative effects of social media etc. There are unhappy children and adolescents and so adults must all work harder to ensure we create an environment for happy children.

FB_importance of friends

Don’t Overdo It
 or Obsess About It

Happiness engineers, chief fun officers, ministers of happiness … there’s evidence that “fungineering” at work might have precisely the opposite effect: making people miserable.

Write your thoughts on the belief that the pursuit of happiness may be an unhealthy preoccupation. Do some people have too high expectations?

FB_quote about happiness.jpg

If All Else Fails, Fake It


Can you fake your way to confidence and happiness? if you read some of the self-help and advice books circulating, the answer will be ‘YES’.

Some people swear by the power of positive thinking to banish negativity. They say focus on achieving your dreams or surviving bad times and things will work out.

 

  1. What recent moments of happiness have you experienced, whether large or small?
  2. What do you think made them so satisfying?
  3. Have you figured out a “magic formula” for happiness that works for you?
  4. A few days ago I wrote about a recipe for a good mood.   Can you share your recipe for happiness?
  5. What will change as you get older – or what has changed recently as you cope with COVID19 news?
  6. What is your reaction to the keys of happiness listed above?
  7. Did any of the keys surprise you – is there something missing? A spiritual aspect to life perhaps that is important?
  8. In an earlier post, I talked about keys – did you write about the key to happiness then?

How Full Is Your Glass?

  • People have a significantly lower death rate over 30 years if they maintain an optimistic attitude.
  • Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
  • What do you think is healthy about whichever attitude you possess?
  • What might be some benefits to viewing life from the opposite perspective?
  • Write a story of an optimist and pessimist being trapped somewhere together – unlikely holiday companions, work buddies during a crisis, living in a share house, trapped in a lift – or in a cabin on a cruise ship!

Five Things That Make Me Happy

Mairi Neil

  1. Birdsong in the morning and watching the birds cavort in the garden – especially the wattlebirds feeding on the grevillea and the magpies searching the ground for worms or carolling to each other from the electric wires. I also love when the lorikeets visit each day and feed on the bottlebrush outside my window.
  2. Clean sheets – I love getting into bed between clean sheets, the smooth feel and fresh smell.
  3. I’m happy when my daughters are – Mary Jane’s witticisms and her infectious laugh; Anne’s smile lighting up her deep blue eyes especially when she shares stories of her travels.
  4. I’m happy when the words come and I can finish a writing project.
  5. I’m happy when I get a phone call from friends, to chat or catch up over coffee, or when they drop in for a visit whether planned or unplanned.

Please share what makes you happy – and remember

… once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

                                                      Haruki Murakami

The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them and lessens the threat of their difference.              

                                                      Audre Lord

Here is a short story with a theme of love and happiness – the prompt was a picture of four elderly people sitting on a bench… waiting… Unspoken, a short story by mairi neil

Happy Writing

Is it Time for Some Light Relief?

candle in window

Day Nine – All Writers Can Shine

As I mentioned in a previous post, English is an amazing language and at times a difficult and confusing one! Especially, when a single word can be used in a variety of ways and change the context and meaning of a sentence.

Some English words can be a noun, verb and adjective.

The previous post’s example was ‘key’, today I will examine the way the word ‘light’  and various variations can be used to inspire a poem or a story and used in a piece of writing. 

The dictionary provides an extensive list of meanings –

light (noun)

  • something that makes vision possible by stimulating the sense of light.
  • electromagnetic radiation in the wavelength that is visible to the human eye
  • a source of light – a lamp or candle
  • daylight
  • a flame or spark for lighting something eg. a cigarette
  • a traffic light
  • spiritual illumination
  • understanding or knowledge
  • enlightening information or explanation
  • a particular aspect or appearance in which something is viewed
  • a medium eg a window through which light is admitted
  • a specified expression perceived as being in somebody’s eyes
  • a set of principles, standards, or opinions
  • *bring to light – to disclose or reveal
  •  *come to light – to be revealed or disclosed
  •  *in the light of with the insight provided by
  • * see the light – to understand suddenly, to gain insight and to undergo conversion
  • *see the light of day – to be born or come into existence – to be published or come to public attention

light (adjective):

  • having plenty of light; bright
  • pale in colour or colouring
  • having little weight; not heavy
  • designed to carry a comparatively small load
  • having relatively little weight in proportion to bulk
  • carrying little or no cargo
  • not abundant or intense
  • of sleep or a sleeper; easily disturbed
  • exerting a minimum of force or pressure; gentle or soft; a light touch
  • resulting from very slight pressure; faint; light print
  • requiring little effort; light work
  • graceful, deft, or nimble
  • lacking seriousness; frivolous
  • of little importance; trivial
  • free from care, cheerful
  • intended chiefly to entertain; light reading
  • of industry; requiring relatively small investment and usually producing small consumer goods
  • lightly with the minimum of usage

light (verb):

  • to become illuminated
  • to catch fire; to set fire to
  • to provide light in a place
  • to settle or alight
  • to arrive by chance; to happen

light (adverb):

  • lightly
  • with the minimum of luggage

quote about light

Has your creative light been turned on yet by any of the definitions – a memory triggered, an idea generated?

Examine the way the word ‘light’ and various variations are used in the following sentences, choose one and develop a story after considering:

  1. Will it be an opening line or the ending?
  2. Can it be dialogue?
  3. What type of character or setting?
  4. What about the all-important conflict?
  5. Will it be a ‘slice of life’ piece or a completely fictional story?
  6. What about a poem?

christmas korean town toronto

  • Turn the light on please.
  • Bad light stopped play.
  • He/She/We saw a distant light…
  • She struck a light.
  • He was a leading light in the community.
  • It was the traditional Festival of Light.

Diwali is the five-day festival of lights, celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world. Diwali, which for some also coincides with harvest and new year celebrations, is a festival of new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness. But Christmas and Ramadan are also festivals of light – in fact, most cultures and religions have a ritual or celebration involving light.

  • The parcel felt light.
  • Their financial problems appeared in a new light.
  • I felt lighthearted when dancing at the party.
  • We’ll have some light refreshments later.
  • You are standing in my light.
  • She didn’t believe her mother’s insistence that there ‘is always light at the end of a tunnel.’
  • There is something about twilight I love.
  • Ted laughed when he saw Mark – what a lightweight!
  • Jack’s strength will lighten the burden.
  • She was the new lighting technician.
  • It was a lightbulb moment.
  • Sheets of lightning stampeded the herd and terrified the drovers.
  • Tread lightly on my dreams.
  • When you alight from the train the police will be waiting.
  • The children are such a delight.
  • Oh, please, enlighten me!
  • That planet is thousands of light-years away.

moon and venus

Lively Limerick by Mairi Neil

A young woman was named Lily Light
A glance in the mirror caused fright
she’d stacked on the weight
any diet too late
Lily’d ballooned like a building site.

Inspiration is all around when it comes to light because we see the sunrise and the sunset – daylight in between those two beautiful times and then the moon and moonlight takes over…

Melbourne for Southbank.jpg

In case you are struggling to connect with any of the ideas so far think on these:

Other words for light (illumination) –

beacon, beam, brighten, bulb, candle, dawn, daybreak, fire, flame, flare, flash, fluorescent, glimmer, glow, ignite, illuminate, kindle, lamp, lantern, luminary, luminous, radiance, moon, neon, shine, spark, sunny, sunrise, torch.

Other words for light (of mood ) –

carefree, casual, cheerful, dainty, deft, delicate, easy, ethereal, faded, fragile frivolous, gentle, graceful, happy, lively, merry, mild, nimble, pastel, petty, portable, simple, slender, small, soft, trifling, trivial, undemanding, untaxing, weightless.

Other words for lighthearted –

blithe, buoyant, carefree, cheerful, gay, glad, happy, insouciant, jovial, lively, merry, rollicking, spirited, unconcerned, untroubled, upbeat, vivacious, volatile.

Other words for lighten –

allay, alleviate, bleach, brighten, decrease, dilute, ease, fade, gladden, gleam, illuminate, jettison, lessen, reduce, relieve, shine, trim, unburden, unload.

Other words for lightly –

daintily, easily, effortlessly, faintly, gently, gingerly, mildly, softly, subtly, tenderly

lightness and gaiety –

levity

Advice from the Moon
Live life to the fullest
Be someone to look up to
Don’t be phased by difficulties
Take time to reflect
Enjoy a little space
Honour the cycles of nature
Light up the night!
–In Llan Shamir’s Advice from Nature series published by Leanin’ Tree

We are used to the sun being used as a symbol in song and poetry, not so many about the moon unless it is in a romantic or true love kind of way.

We tend to think and talk much more about light than darkness. But what about light in the darkness? This is a good definition of the moon —  it is light in the darkness.

colchester castle dungeon

  • Has there been anyone or thing that has been your light in the darkness?
  • A belief system, a philosophy, a mantra, a person, a book, a song…
  • There is a song – You Are My Sunshine – who or what is your sunshine, bringing happiness into your life?
  • How do you create light when darkness surrounds you or those you love? This is especially relevant as we cope with the effects of COVID19 – share your antidote or secrets to keep those around you sane!
  • Write a paragraph and give yourself the pleasure of seeing how you bring light to the darkness.
  • Have you or do you ‘cheer’ someone up (perhaps yourself). Comforted someone grieving? Sponsor a child or a charity? Volunteer for a community organisation? Visit someone regularly? Listen to other people’s woes?

Make a list and write about one of the items

  • Explain how the activity makes you feel like you are living life to the fullest — that you are at the phase of a full moon.
  • When you are writing about this reflect on what you did when younger, what you do now – is it different? Why?
  • Can you pinpoint the change/s?
  • pets bring happiness and light into our lives as this Facebook meme confirms

FB_dogs brighten our day

Nuanced Words Of Light

  • ethereal = light and airy
  • ecru/sorrel = light brown
  • aureole/corona/nimbus = light around a celestial object
  • chiaroscuro = light and shade in art
  • crepuscule/twilight/gloaming = fading light at end of day
  • incandescent lamp = light bulb with filament
  • laser = light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
  • photosynthesis = use of light energy by plant as an energy source
  • aurora = light phenomenon of the night sky
  • gossamer = light as gauze
  • photic = concerning light
  • douse/extinguish/quench/snuff= to put out a light
  • optics = study of light
  • radiate = giving off light

john knox house scotland

  • soufflé = light fluffy baked egg dish
  • opaque = not allowing passage of light
  • balsa = light buoyant wood
  • refraction = turning or bending lightwave
  • sprinkle = light rain
  • arsonist = person who lights fires
  • light = lamp with light impulse
  • klieg light = carbon-arc lamp making intense light

And finally…

aphasic = having no light flashes – linked to language – aphasia – the loss of power to understand words

Can you write a story about someone with aphasia – what would it be like to have no ‘light come on’ or flashes of light to understand what people were saying or what you were reading?

Have You Stories About Firelight? Sitting around a Campfire?

Firelight Fantasies Freed
Mairi Neil, 2017

Campfire flames give permission to dream,
to imagine dancing nymphs – places unseen
firelight glow spreads warmth and peace
our everyday worries and stress to cease
bodies relax – almost back to the womb
when childhood stories banished gloom.

Fascination fired as fairytales surface –
princesses and princes acting with purpose
vanquished dragons and giant slayers
underdogs winning despite naysayers…
the blue smoke curls, orange flames sway,
mind given permission to stretch and play.

Memories triggered – some good, some bad
a treasury of tales, more dreams to be had
for a life, well-lived gathers light and dark
appreciating its richness just needs a spark –
a moment to sit, pause, stare, and detect
before pens record words sweet to select

Myriads of tales and thoughts a-swirling
like the flickering flames ideas distilling
sentences shaped ‘neath moon glowing bright,
inventiveness excited by shadow-filled light –
campfire closeness dispels city affectation
unleashing the desire for literary creation

Here are four short pieces of fiction using different interpretations of light and nuanced words. 4 flash fiction pieces by Mairi Neil

Enjoy flexing your feel-good writing muscles and feel free to share. I hope you can be inspired by some of these words, ideas or images to write!

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

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.

Imagine a future when breast cancer is treated with antibiotics!

overcoming cancer sign

On Thursday evening, I heard this amazing thought voiced when I attended a FREE public lecture, exploring the history, current practice and future of breast cancer treatment hosted jointly by the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Care Centre (VCCC) and Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA).

Held at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (VCCC), the CEO of BCNA, Kirsten Pilatti, introduced Dr Eric Winer, the keynote speaker and one of the world’s foremost and highly regarded breast cancer specialists from the Dana-Faber Cancer Institute in the United States.

It is not the first time Dr Winer has visited Australia to share the knowledge he’s gained from clinical trials he has designed and conducted, the results of which paved the way toward the more personalised treatment of breast cancer patients and move away from the ‘one-size fit all’ approach of previous years.

Kirsten praised Dr Winer’s commitment to ‘treating the patient not the disease’, an approach shaped by his own cancer journey, which enabled him to draw on empathy as well as expertise.

Improving Breast Cancer Outcomes: Past, Present and Future

When Dr Winer, diminutive, grey hair and glasses took over the podium, he apologised if he fell asleep or stumbled during his presentation because he had only arrived in Melbourne that morning after a long flight from Boston.

However, his well-researched presentation delivered efficiently and with aplomb, showed no sign of fatigue and he held the audience spellbound.

cancer centre 1
Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

The Past – 1990

1990 was the beginning of Dr Winer’s career concentrating solely on breast cancer, or as he explained ‘that year was the last time I treated a patient without breast cancer.’

His reflections and observations:

  • in the USA there were 150,000 cases recorded and 44,300 deaths

  • it was a monolithic disease – doctors could only determine the stages, not the type

  • most cases presented as a lump or mass

  • treatment was extensive and debilitating surgery

  • psychological and physical distress for the patient

  • chemotherapy and other adjuvant treatments, not an option

  • women were scared, uninformed and felt victims – some felt shameful

  • breast cancer advocacy was in its infancy and sadly, even today, some women still feel or are made to feel ashamed

  • lymphedema was common whereas although it can be a problem today it is not as severe as in the past

  • metastatic treatment was limited, toxic, barbaric and ineffective

  • hormonal therapy limited and it too barbaric compared to nowadays

  • there was poor pain control and patients spent lots of time in hospital

  • breast implants and reconstruction experimental

  • wards were run like ‘concentration camps’

 

peter mac history timeline

TODAY

Today it is totally different.

  • there’s a recognition that one woman’s breast cancer not the same as another
  • a better understanding of biologics heterogeneity (2001 study – genetic differences across tumour types)
  • a better understanding of cancer biology and differences within subtypes
  • a growing appreciation of the tumour micromanagement
  • massive drug development – many new ones on the market with real improvement and better outcomes
  • a better understanding of hormone receptive tumours, they grow slowly and survival rate is high if therapy used

Studies divided tumours into high grade and low grade, and negative and positive to various hormones 

Clinical trials and researchers looked at:

the microenvironment, macroenvironment (the host), diet and exercise

In the last 30 Years

  • Less extensive surgery and more breast preservation
  • Far fewer lymph node dissections
  • Use of several adjuvant therapies to decrease surgery
  • Reduction in early and late toxicity using modern techniques
  • More convenient fractionation schedules
  • Improvements in reconstruction
  • Individualised therapy based on patient preferences
  • Radiation more accurate with better protection of the heart and lungs
  • ⅔ of women eligible to have lumpectomies choose this in the USA
  • Small number choose bilateral mastectomies
  • Advances in chemotherapy and supportive care
  • Widespread use of drugs for cancer deemed hormone therapy receptive with a substantial decline in mortality

The magnitude of late (6-20years) recurrence after an initial diagnosis of ER+ breast cancer disease has shown the value of extended hormone therapy but he is aware of the side effects of this therapy.

Adjuvant treatment is additional therapy after primary surgery to kill or inhibit micro-metastases. Primary surgery for breast cancer is accomplished by lumpectomy followed by whole-breast irradiation or by mastectomy.

In patients at increased risk, chemo, immune or hormonal therapy, kills hidden cancer cells – adjuvant therapy has proven effective in various cancers especially if lymph nodes are involved.

TAILORX Trial

He designed this USA study of 2006-2010.

It was one of the first large scale trials to examine a methodology for personalising cancer treatment.

“Any woman with early-stage breast cancer age 75 or younger should have the 21-gene expression test and discuss the results with her doctor to guide her decision to the right therapy.”

Dr Sparano MD, associate director for clinical research, Albert Einstein Cancer centre New York

The role of chemotherapy for some tumours is still unclear but the data “… confirm that using a 21-gene expression test to assess the risk of cancer recurrence can spare women unnecessary treatment if the test indicates that chemotherapy is not likely to provide benefit.”

The findings of the trial significant:

Most women with early breast cancer do not benefit from chemotherapy – that is 70% of women with the most common type of breast cancer

Women with hormone receptor (HR) – positive, HER2-negative, axillary lymph node-negative breast cancer, the discovery that treatment with chemotherapy and hormone therapy after surgery is not more beneficial than treatment with hormone therapy alone.

There is now greater attention to the quality of life and symptom management of those diagnosed with breast cancer.

  • There are a plethora of anti-HER2 drugs, these new drugs combat the adverse drug reaction patients experience
  • Targeted approaches that augment hormonal agents – an array of hormonal and chemotherapy approaches
  • Advances in radiotherapy

Immunotherapy Trials for triple-negative breast cancer

  • Immunotherapy is more used for the treatment of melanoma and lung cancers
  • It may be useful for metastatic breast cancer

Mortality rates from breast cancer have dropped 38% in the USA

During the trial, the combination of adjuvant therapy and screening compared and the findings show screening is important but can lead to overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

Some cancers may never bother you in life but are picked up by screening

USA Figures

  • 276,480 cases of invasive disease
  • 48,539 new cases of DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ – the earliest form of breast cancer which is non-invasive)
  • 50,000 deaths

Important findings

  • Therapeutic resistance exists – this a major cause of death in developing countries where there is limited access to screening and drugs
  • Brain metastasis is a major problem for 50% of patients with HER2+
  • Need for better treatment for some cancers and reduction of chemotherapy
  • Overtreatment is an issue – causes substantial morbidity, not death

sign about cancer centre

HEALTH EQUITY

For anyone following USA politics, health equity is a big issue. Dr Winer let it be known he couldn’t imagine anyone in the room liking or supporting President Trump, or his acceptance of the current health inequalities in the USA where there is inadequate and unequal access to healthcare

Dr Winer certainly didn’t support Trump, he was ‘from Boston and no one supports Trump there!’

Health equity is a fundamental social problem and screams discrimination.

Race, poverty, limited education, lack of health insurance and health literacy all contribute to inequity.

Whether it is because of poverty, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or being considered overweight – statistics show if you are a 30-year-old lesbian or a woman over 80, if diagnosed there is a high risk of dying from breast cancer!

Racial disparity in breast cancer persists with people of colour suffering higher rates of death.

In her introduction, Kirsten mentioned the problem in Australia regarding Aboriginal women’s access to health services. In the USA, Dr Winer said it is the African-American population who suffer, and ironically the worst equity is in Washington!

Less than optimal care can cause death from almost anything that makes a person have less access to healthcare available.

Health inequity may cause up to 30% unnecessary deaths

Regarding clinical trials – there is a low participation rate and Dr Winer wants more engagement with clinicians and better communication so there is meaningful interaction between patients and clinicians about the importance of clinical trials.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Possum Skin Cloak – Peter MacCallum Centre acknowledges and pays respect to the Wurundjeri People, the traditional owners of the land on which the hospital stands.

Possum skin cloaks are one of the many expressions of traditional south-eastern Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Cloaks aid healing and wellbeing by connecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to their culture and identity and spiritual healing.

We thank the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women Survivors of Breast Cancer and other cancers that created this beautiful healing cloak, intended for use by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their families while at Peter Mac.

In creating this healing cloak, we acknowledge the Peter Mac Foundation and our partnership with Breast Cancer Network Australia.

DRUG COST 2017

These are the amounts drug companies estimate it costs for production of various drugs used in breast cancer treatment (a year’s supply):

  • $20,000
  • $132,000
  • $120,000
  • $102,000
  • $118,000
  • $76,000
  • Dr Winer said the drug development costs 2-5 times more in the USA than anywhere else, therefore the profit margin is not reasonable.
  • The government prohibits negotiating around the cost of drugs, Dr Winer believes there should be control and regulation for the sake of health equity.

Dr Winer looked at the future and made some predictions:

Next 10 Years

  • More detailed understanding of the disease
  • Real improvements in survival and quality of life
  • Less surgery,
  • Advances and better-targeted radiation
  • Decline in deaths
  • Increase in those considered “cured”
  • Health equity may improve in the next decade
  • 25-40% reduction in deaths
  • No movement in prevention

Next 25-30 Years

  • We’ll be treating breast cancer with antibiotics
  • Death will be rare – a 50-80% reduction
  • Prevention treatment may be possible

Questions from the audience

 

  1. A man in the audience suggested dragon boat racing, which many women take up after surgery, is effective in reducing the risk of recurrence because it is good exercise and helps with weight loss and improved strength. He had attended another talk where a doctor had said that 10,000 breast screens only saved one life and wanted to know if that statistic was true.

Answer: Dr Winer said that breast screening was a less useful tool than people assumed. People have to consider their general health and quality of life and detect cancer early and choose the best treatment available.

Screening mammograms can often find invasive breast cancer and DCIS that need to be treated, but possibly some of those cancers would never grow or spread.

Dr Winer is aware that many of the hormonal therapies have horrible side effects and more work needs to be done in deciding who will benefit from it and in reducing side effects.

  1. How Do You Prevent Breast Cancer?

Dr Winer admitted his reply was the ‘impossible dream’ and with a slightly facetious smile rattled off the following:

  • Have first child before the age of 18
  • Avoid weight gain if post-menopausal
  • Avoid excessive alcohol intake
  • If the disease is in your family have regular check-ups
  • Take Tamoxifen (however, this has side effects some people find distressing!)

PERSPECTIVE

The forum was on the 7th floor of the cancer centre – an amazing view of the city you don’t often see.

I chatted with two women while waiting for the forum to start.

One had a mastectomy plus lymph bodes removed 28 years ago. She was on a trial and her chemotherapy resulted in many weeks in the hospital. Cancer, returned 11 years later but it is now 17 years since the recurrence. The other survivor had a bilateral mastectomy 27 years ago. Now in her 80s, she has decided to resign from the committee of the VCCC. She fundraised and campaigned to have the centre established.

As Dr Winer said, clinical trials and learning from the vast amount of data over the years is very important. Both these women have given so much to help clinicians understand and treat breast cancer and improve survival rates.

We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

Just as I saw the city in a different light that evening, I also saw the effectiveness of breast screening in a different light. Apparently, only 30% of breast cancers are picked up by screening and unless interpreted correctly can lead to unnecessary interference, overtreatment and a lot of angst.

Both my cancers were first detected by a routine mammogram – how lucky was I?

I left the VCCC more enlightened but with plenty to mull over on the train trip home while acknowledging my privilege.

The Peter MacCallum Centre is world-class, and the treatment I have had for breast cancer (both times) at Cabrini has been excellent and Peter Gregory, my breast surgeon, is a caring specialist who communicates well with his patients.

A big thank you to Melbourne University and the Breast Cancer Network – both organisations promoted the forum to me.

Walking down Elizabeth Street to Melbourne Central I counted my blessings, enjoying the balmy evening in our very livable city!

It is good to know my daughters and others in the future will benefit from the dedicated clinicians and researchers working towards that amazing goal of an antibiotic for breast cancer!

 

 

 

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