Do You Talk to Yourself or the Dog or Maybe the Furniture?

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Day Fifteen – Add Dialogue to the Scene

How we talk and what we say is part of our personality and our character. Others will often judge us by our speech (the content as well as manner), may even identify us by the way we talk.

For instance, because I still have a recognisable accent people will refer to me as ‘that Scotswoman’,’the Scots lass’, ‘the lady with an accent’, ‘the woman who speaks funny’,  ‘Jock’, ‘the Pommy’, ‘the Brit’, ‘the Irish one’ – I’ve also had variations not so complimentary ‘the foreigner’, ‘the red-ragger’ ‘that wog’  …

What you say and how you say it is important. It is important in real life and therefore is important in writing – with a few tricks and rules of what not to do thrown in.

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People pick up your mood by your tone of voice – those who know you will not only pick up the obvious mood but also the nuances.

You know, how a domestic scene can play out:

Do you like my new dress?

A few seconds pause.

Of course, I do, dear.

You didn’t even look.

Yes, I did dear.

No, you didn’t.

Remote Control for TV is grabbed, stabbed and television silenced.

You can have a really good look now.

Hmmm. Very… nice… dear.

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You can ask questions of many of the statues around London and learn about the life of famous people such as Isaac Newton at the British Library…

Dialogue Is Important

But it can be difficult to write so that it sounds natural. you don’t want your characters to sound like a talking statue – wooden, without warmth, boring, unrealistic…

Dialogue is difficult to master as a writer. You have to constantly work at it to sound natural but you can’t be over the top with accents or else characters can become caricatures.

Most people don’t speak in grammatical or even complete sentences but you can’t write in all the ums and ahs either. There has to be a balance.

It is as author Stephen King advises,

Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft.”

Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino adds,

“If I’m doing my job right, then I’m not writing dialogue; the characters are saying the dialogue, and I’m just jotting it down.”

This is what I tried to do in a class exercise years ago – the students could choose a picture as a prompt and had to write more than one voice into the scene without using he said, she said etc. A Fishy Story by Mairi Neil

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Try these simple exercises—

Go to a busy place and listen to people. Dialogue moves a story along quite quickly but it must sound authentic.

At the moment with COVID-19 if you are in lockdown, you will have to rely on memory or eavesdrop on neighbours or whoever is sharing your house, or put on a DVD of a film or watch a documentary, game show, (even adverts) to make notes of conversations. (Scroll down for exercises)

If people are with friends or family, they will speak more naturally.  Find someone who is sitting with a friend and listen (don’t be too intrusive or you might be accused of stalking or receive threats with violence for being rude and nosy!).

If you’re in a coffee shop, you might overhear people talking to friends about what’s been going on in their life. This is the best way to hear a conversation you can write as natural dialogue. For me, the best inspiration for stories and dialogue tips found when travelling on public transport

The old man eased into the seat opposite and raised his trilby. His courteous nod revealed a bald patch atop thinning grey hair. A Lancashire brogue boomed, ‘Morning ma’am, Fred’s the name, pension bludger’s me game.’

Doris smiled. In her cultured Australian accent, she said, ‘I’m Doris and I’m retired too.’

‘I’m eighty-five,’ Fred said waving a gnarled hand, ‘and feeling it today.’ His rheumy blue eyes darted from Doris to other passengers engrossed in conversation or plugged into mp3 players. ‘ I don’t know why I’m still alive,’ he added with a fit of coughing.

Brown eyes widened as Doris squirmed in the vinyl seat; picked at an imaginary spot on her linen skirt. In a barely audible voice, she said, ‘I’m eighty-five too and thank God for still being here.’ She blinked. ‘Many of my friends aren’t.’

Fred adjusted silver-rimmed spectacles slipping close to the edge of his hooked nose. He rubbed at his short beard; licked creased lips. A garden gnome coming to life flashed into Doris’s mind, but her smile disappeared when he said, ‘I don’t believe in God or Eternal Life. Don’t worry about shuffling off. Don’t give a toss what happens when I die.’

Doris kneaded her wedding ring and clasped her hands to still restless fingers. Fair eyelashes flickered behind tortoiseshell glass frames as she noted Fred’s blue-grey cotton bomber-jacket and matching trousers, his fashionable fine-checked shirt. Tieless, but neat; plus his black leather loafers gleamed and screamed ex-army. Arthur always said, ‘you can tell an ex-serviceman by their polished shoes.’ He was inevitably right.

Not wanting to give offence, she chose her words, adopting the placating tone she used when her husband got in one of his moods. ‘Our generation, who served throughout the war, question what we were taught to believe.’ She tensed thin shoulders. ‘A wiser power than us will reveal the truth when ready.’

Fred ignored the last sentence. ‘That’s right love, eight years in the Royal Navy – joined up for the duration and stayed on a bit.’ His voice flattened, ‘survived being bombed, being sunk twice and,’ he ended with a flourish, ‘bad grub and too much grog.’

Doris laughed. Students sitting nearby smirked, the plump matron lowered her magazine. Doris thought of Arthur and the legacy of his experience. The tram stuttered past towering office blocks, darkened inside as a large cloud swallowed the sun. She shivered. Did Fred suffer night sweats and awful dreams? She remembered Arthur’s flashbacks of the trauma of his war; his years of heavy drinking. Did Fred’s wife contend with erratic and sometimes violent outbursts amid his jolliness?

She forced her attention to the present as her companion said, ‘I had eight brothers you know –– and they’re all dead. I’m the lucky last!’ He paused. ‘Well, I don’t know about luck, but I’m the bloody last.’

from Just for The Moment, Mairi Neil

Watch a good movie. Quentin Tarantino movies are known for their excellent dialogue, but there’s an endless list of what you can watch to improve your writing. Dialogue is usually well planned in films for maximum value. There’s only a limited amount of time to say something on the screen. The film is a great reference for studying good AND bad dialogue.

Write a scene where each character can only say one sentence. How will you convey what they’re trying to say and move the story along with a limited amount of dialogue? This will also help you improve your descriptive writing. Remember, sometimes less is more when it comes to dialogue. You want to show your readers what’s going on, not tell them.

Watch a clip from either a TV show or a movie, and rewrite the dialogue in that scene. How can you improve it? What can be cut out? What can be added? This will help you understand dialogue and how you can improve your own.

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Shop in Orkney

Be a good observer and listener

Identify some key variables and play with them. if you write good dialogue, the reader feels they are in the story with the character. They are right there and can hear the voice. You have to avoid just having talking heads with no real action or using the dialogue to dump a lot of information rather than move the story forward.

Think back and analyse a recent conversation and ask these questions:

  • What was said?
  • How was it said?
  • Who said it?
  • Why was it said?
  • How did you perceive it?

If you can remember the last argument, debate or disagreement you had or witnessed even better to capture it in words.

If you can “hear” the character’s voice in your head, that’s better than any worksheet. Think of the key variables influencing dialogue:

Perhaps goals and agendas, characters’ knowledge of each other, characters’ attitudes toward each other, relative status of the characters …

  • What type of vocabulary does a character use (formal, slang, profane, simple sophisticated… )
  • How does the character structure their sentences (hesitations, complex or simple, fragmented, long-winded… )
  • What attitude or tone of voice does the character have (abrupt, sarcastic, imperious, humble, polite, rude, boastful, flirtatious, angry, pedantic… )
  • What subject matter or commentary does the character prefer ( egotistic, talking about self, sensitive, gossipy, apologetic, religious, anxious, worried about money, bombastic…)

Here is a story I wrote from a prompt that said you had to have three characters with very different voices Without Grace a short story Mairi Neil

FB_Carl Jung on solitude and silence

It is also important to remember that silence or a pause in a scene can be realistic dialogue and reveal more about the character and plot development than pages of dialogue or telling.

Action is the best way to show external conflict and dialogue and internalisation by the character (thoughts) the best ways to present the internal struggles.

Your Turn To Write

I’ve chosen some pictures of scenes that scream story – you can manipulate the setting and people to any country or era you choose.

I love Edward Hopper‘s paintings – they are evocative of an America from an era I remember in movies, television shows and many novels.

These pictures are from a beautiful book of his most famous works I picked up in a wonderful bookshop in Melbourne’s centre.  They sold Remainder hardback stock at a fraction of the original cost. I’ve never been in a job with a high salary but when I was young and single and working in the city in the 70s and 80s, I haunted Mary Martin’s bookshop.

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Nighthawks 1942 by Edward Hopper a painting that portrays people in a downtown diner late at night. It is Hopper’s most famous work and is one of the most recognisable paintings in American art.
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Chop Suey, 1929, two women in conversation at a restaurant
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Office At Night, 1940, open to endless interpretation.

Throughout his career, Edward Hopper was concerned with the relationship between “the facts” of observation and the improvisation that happened when making a work of art. Use your imagination and write about the characters.

Reveal their personalities and character through dialogue as well as behaviour.

Things to think about:

You can write from the point of view of one character – what is their goal or agenda?

  • Does the non-point of view character have a hidden agenda? What is their backstory?
  • Change one character’s attitude toward the other 
  • Change one character’s knowledge about the other.
  • Change the relative status between the characters (increase or decrease the difference in status, or swap their statuses)

If these pictures don’t spark your imagination then practise writing dialogue by:

Write a scene with two characters having an extremely tense conversation in a peaceful setting such as

  • the botanical gardens,
  • an avenue of cherry blossom trees,
  • an empty beach
  • an empty church
  • a cemetery

OR

Imagine a courtroom scene or a police interview room,  a telephone conversation between a teenager and parent, or a scene at a reception desk where there has been a mistake with a booking.

Finally – You Can Do a Dr Doolittle…

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Write a story from the point of view of animals at the zoo or domestic pets – give them a voice!

Happy Writing

Armchair Travel Can be Fun If You Share Your Stories

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

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

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

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my little bear at the mailbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visiting Singapore 1973 – a haibun
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

No unsettling chill
just instant relief
from relentless heat

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

A turmoil of grey
idyllic tropics in grip
of monsoonal rain

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

Share Your Travel Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Travel Experience Can You Write About?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I took these pictures this morning when walking the dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What’s your funniest travel story?

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

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

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

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

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

(A class exercise Monday 15th October 2012 )

Have You a Taste For Travel?
Mairi Neil 

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

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

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

Could I be as gracious and adventurous as Amelia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Armchair Travels Will You Create?

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

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

Verona Italy

Memories of Lago Di Garda, Italy
Mairi Neil, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

More Writing Prompts

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever had the holiday from hell?

Have You A Favourite Holiday destination?

Currumbin a Sanctuary of Serenity
Mairi Neil, 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even More Writing Prompts

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

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

Enjoy A Cultural Experience Without Leaving Home

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

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

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

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

Armchair travel on steroids! Happy travelling –

Happy Writing!

Are You an Owl or a Lark or Just Want to Hibernate like a Bear?

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Day Twelve – Let’s Dig and Delve

Most people connected to the Internet and using some sort of social media platform will have seen the quizzes going around like chain letters of old and the finger games with folded paper.

You have to answer personal questions, are given a score or a personality description and then you must pass it on. Frequently, one of the questions wants to know are you an owl or a lark.

We can get right into writing prompts because I’ll assume most people have already put themselves into a category!

It is an important question to answer – know yourself well if you want to create realistic characters with flaws, foibles and interesting features.

Although, as I suggest in the post’s title, during this catastrophic COVID19 pandemic, many of us would love to hibernate like bears and wake up in a few months with the crisis over and some semblance of normality we used to know!

Are you a lark?

  • Describe your perfect morning.
  • To what would you compare morning and why?
  • Have you a morning ritual?
  • How has the ritual changed over the years?
  • Did you become a lark when you started working because you had to?
  • Do you prefer mornings or dark?
  • Have you an opinion or a story about a rooster?
  • How do you know it is morning? What morning and evening sounds can you identify?

Think back to your childhood –

  • Can you remember what mornings were like before you went to school?
  • Did your mum work outside the home – was there a strict timetable to stick to?
  • Were you looked after by someone other than family?
  • Where were you living – city or country?
  • Is there one particular morning you have never forgotten?

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  • What were mornings like when you attended school?
  • Were you always early, or late – how did you get there?
  • Was breakfast cooked or not?
  • Did you have chores to do?
  • Did you have pets to feed? Dogs to walk? Horses to groom? Cows to milk?
  • What were mornings like when you went to high school – more independent?
  • Did you look after your own uniform? Did you polish your shoes?
  • Did you walk to school? With siblings, friends, boys and girls?
  • Did you have a paid job like newspaper or junk mail delivery before school?
  • Did you have to escort a younger sibling to their school, to kinder?
  • How old were you when you took responsibility to make your own breakfast?
  • How old were you if you had to help others in the morning – siblings, ill parent, grandparent?

Have you made a conscious effort to change a morning routine? Why?

  • Write about what was/is/or could be your perfect alarm clock – this could be birdsong, a piece of music or a particular song, children’s laughter, a purring cat, a romantic kiss… or as my youngest daughter wrote in a writing workshop once, ‘my perfect alarm clock is one that is broken.’
  • Did you have a routine for working days and another for weekends?
  • What morning is/was your favourite and why? (Sunday is often a special morning even for those not religious but also special events like Easter or Christmas morning, or a birthday ritual!)

godfrey street life stories

How has your morning changed during this COVID19 crisis?

Are You An Owl?

  • What time do you normally go to bed – before or after midnight?
  • Are you an insomniac? Have you a cure for insomnia or tried any that failed?
  • Are you a shift worker? Has this disturbed your sleep patterns? How did it affect your metabolism?
  • Did you have a bedtime routine as a child?
  • Do you have an evening or bedtime routine now?
  • Did your sleeping habits change when children came along?

  • Was it a lifelong change?

  • Did anyone else in the house alter their sleeping patterns?

  • What daily rituals do you adhere to?
  • Do you get a second wind in the evenings?
  • Do you have an afternoon nap? A siesta?
  • Do you catnap? Do you have forty winks or longer?
  • Have you any stories about sleeping in, uncomfortable mattresses, disturbed sleep

  • Do you take earplugs and an eye mask when you travel?

  • How do you compensate for lack of sleep? 

  • Is there a place you like to go when you can’t sleep?
  • What is your most poignant and memorable experience of being a night owl?

Write an opinion piece based on your life experience:

Different people have different behaviour patterns and preferences. However,  most of us still need the obligatory minimum of 8 hours of sleep per night to look our best, function well and achieve our goals.

Humans are naturally polyphasic (multiple sleep times per day), just like our natural eating habits. Research is often conducted into the impact of cortisol, melatonin, and even caffeine on our sleep-wake cycles,  how the use of these can be modified with lifestyle changes. Sleep can be changed based on lifestyle but sleep needs cannot.

The impact of artificial light from computer screens alone has a substantial effect on melatonin production and largely explains why people have trouble syncing their sleep-wake cycle with sunlight. Manipulation of artificial light is used by the military to help soldiers stay awake abnormally long hours and to adjust to different time zones or work shifts.

If I had free choice, I’d be a siesta person. Early to rise and late to bed, with a long nap after lunch.

From A Lark to An Owl
Mairi Neil

“….The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn,
God’s in his heaven;
All’s right with the world.”
Robert Browning (1812-1889)

I wouldn’t say I’m a lark, I don’t wake up singing, but I do love the mornings – especially those sunny mornings in spring and autumn with the grass still gleaming with dew. When I step out to a clear sky and the air warm, but not hot, I can smell the promise in those mornings that all is right with the world.

Backyard blackbirds flit from cherry plum tree to Photinia, rest awhile on the fence before singing their joy. Magpies peck the lawn before flying atop the gum trees and carolling, wattlebirds sup nectar from the grevillea and lorikeets munch from the seed block I’ve placed in the bottlebrush.

Most of my life I have been motivated to rise early and get on with whatever task is on the agenda – whether it be study, school, work, or play. One of six children, I was the one who woke the household much to the disgust of siblings – especially during the teenage years. No matter how late I went to bed, my body clock had me rising early to breakfast or I’d suffer a headache. I couldn’t lie in bed until noon like my older sister, Catriona or brother Iain – the two definite night owls in our family.

Mum loved telling the story of me falling asleep over my dinner from when I sat in a high chair up until I went to school. Often I was carried into bed from the dinner table.

The change from a lark to an owl arrived with motherhood. My first baby Anne, turned night into day and destroyed whatever energy was needed to face the morning. The tiredness of caring for a newborn babe ranges from fatigue to exhaustion.  Sleepless nights breastfeeding on demand, soothing a colicky baby, changing nappies, walking the floor crooning nursery rhymes or any other song that came to mind. (The People’s Flag & Internationale my favourites – no wonder both girls fight for social justice!)

New to parenting I employed all sorts of distracting tricks to calm fractious cries when the girls were ill or just out of sorts. From being a sound sleeper, I became a light sleeper, awake at the least disturbance from cot or bed.

Each morning, I fought to stay awake, sometimes falling asleep with a slice of toast in my mouth from the breakfast tray my loving, but well-rested husband prepared before heading off to work. John’s years in the Royal Navy meant he could sleep through WW3.
My body seemed to relax into a deep sleep two minutes before the 6.00am alarm for John to get up for work. Jolted awake, I faced the morning, not with a joyous song but fear. Would tiredness make me an incompetent mother?

Some say biorhythms determine our health, fitness, and response to nature, and crises occur when these rhythms are off their beat. Motherhood was the first serious change in the tempo of my life but it was not the last. The long period of caring for John when he was ill with COAD, asbestosis and later lung cancer meant I spent many nights lying listening to his struggling breaths. Uninterrupted sleep became a precious commodity.

Older, but not necessarily wiser, my sleep patterns so disturbed I am now officially (a) cuckoo!

Bendigo

Are you an owl? Describe your perfect night. Now throw a spanner in the works and write about when the morning or evening wasn’t so perfect!

… we should not only welcome day-dreams but train ourselves to be aware of them. In fact, the cores of most of my novels have 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 day-dreams 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 day-dream, the more truthful about us it is. Embrace that truth.”

Morrell

Do you daydream? Do you dream in your sleep? Write a story based on your dreaming experiences – maybe you have a recurring dream?

“I write in the first person because I have always wanted to make my life more interesting than it was.”

Diane Wakoski

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

Write What You Know – and Start With your Hands

happy street musicians melbourne.JPG

Day Four For Writers Who Want More

If you have a desire to write you will be surprised how the words and ideas flow if you keep an open mind and a sense of fun and move out of your comfort zone.

Throw away preconceptions and expectations, those debilitating comparisons with others and indulge your passion for words. Write honestly and from the heart – don’t self-edit until you finish the first draft.

For inspiration or a first topic look no further than your hands!

hands

Observe your hand for a few moments.

Exercise 1:

  • What do you see that you’ve never noticed or at least not really thought about before?
  • Jot down some observations about your hand/hands/finger/fingers.
  • Do you have white spots on your nails? Chipped or perfect nail polish?
  • Have you ever had broken bones or a severe injury to your hands?
  • Once you have a good list describing what you noticed, ask why and how.

You will probably begin with the physical, but you may find yourself remembering past experiences. You will enter the realm of thoughts and feelings

The writing you produce might be

  • Personal essay
  • Memoir
  • Family History
  • Fiction
  • Poetry
  • Article for a magazine or website

images.jpg

Exercise 2:

Explore further –

  1. Perhaps your main character in a story or play relies on their hands and tragedy strikes… or they win awards, achieve a dream…
  2. Have you a talent or skill (or did you have) that involves dexterity, precision, mobility, strong hands, nimble fingers…
  3. Do you play a sport that needs strong accurate hands?
  4. Can you remember finger painting – or your children finger-painting and making mud pies
  5. Perhaps you have experienced violent hands or done things with your hands you wished you hadn’t…
  6. Do you wish you were better at knitting, sewing, crochet, gardening, writing… can you teach any of these skills?
  7. Are your hands crippled with arthritis? Do you have sunspots? Skin cancer?
  8. Are your hands like your mother or father?
  9. Do you wear jewellery (rings, bracelets) – how meaningful are they? Is there a story attached to your ring or bangle, or wristwatch?
  10. Do you bite or paint your fingernails – why?
  • Explore prose writing in both fiction and nonfiction. You don’t have to decide which you prefer – try both to help discover what kind of writing you favour.

The idea is to see with a writer’s eyes, spark ideas to life, gain confidence, and experiment with both fiction and nonfiction with an aim to engage the reader.

Exercise 3:

Choose a quote below and write to the theme that may be inferred or whatever story or memory it triggers

God has given us two hands, one to receive with and the other to give with.  

Billy Graham

Show me your hands. Do they have scars from giving? Show me your feet. Are they wounded in service? Show me your heart. Have you left a place for divine love? 

          Fulton J. Sheen

As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.                                                                                

Audrey Hepburn

Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.                                                  

Anne Frank

Exercise 4:

Extend thoughts about hands to other members of your family, partners, parents, children, mentors, teachers… the list can be endless if you are observant and imaginative.

Here is a poem from Heather, who came to my class for years, first at Mordialloc and latterly at Longbeach in Chelsea. She was 90 years old when sadly ill-health, then death stopped her talented pen from writing.

heather yourn

These Hands (A Sonnet)
Heather Yourn

These wrinkled hands with sunspots
have seen far better days
Once so subtle, now stiff with age
deft with needle and thread
able to make the piano sing
Once were taken for granted
pages of writing fill the boxes
recipes, stories, poems, diaries
even a leadlight box crafted.
under supervision, they remain to
celebrate dexterity and youth.
Blue-veined traced and bent
my hands still serve me well
I salute you with grateful thanks.

And one from me…

My Hands
Mairi Neil

These hands fumble now
where they once achieved with ease
buttons now boulders, zips an effort
Velcro fasteners? Oh, yes, please!

What are those raised veins saying –
the lumpy knuckles too?
wedding ring too tight, abandoned
more than the veins are blue.

In the past, skin smooth and soft
and these hands were strong
a past of music, craft and toddlers
weakness didn’t belong…

These hands feeble now
where once they achieved with ease
piano, guitar, sewing, knitting…
house renovations a breeze

Scarred from work and accidents
sun-damaged and skin dry
weakened grip and suspect skill
they’ve earned a rest, I sigh.

But wait, these hands still toil
a means to feed my passion
pens replaced with keypad
writing never out of fashion.

These trusted hands a part of me
what stories they can tell
ignoring arthritic pain and age
I’ll write a memoir to sell!

And now some writing from you…

 

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!

 

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!

 

 

 

More than Irish Eyes Are Smiling

A WRITER IS A WRITER quote.jpg

Last year, the frustration of failed words, struggling motivation and dashed hopes seemed to be my lot, although I enjoyed limited success with a poem published in the Australian Senior, July 2019 and a play shortlisted in ARKfest 2020.

Maybe I can still claim the title writer…

Satisfaction came by helping students achieve their writing dreams, which in Mary Robinson’s case (the Irish eyes of this post’s title) was a book she had been working on for several years before coming to the Life Stories & Legacies class at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh, ‘to finally, transform nostalgic reflections into a book to hold.

The class finished in 2018 but I promised Mary to help publish One Last Goodbye, a labour of love and a wonderful legacy for her daughter Catherine, and granddaughter Ilsa.

In the Introduction, Mary expresses why so many ‘pick up a pen’ or attend a writing class…

There are deeply personal reasons to finish writing my memoir. I am, I suppose, like most people who have reached the 80-year mark, conscious of time passing and wishing to reveal information to family members I may not have previously spoken of. I am also keenly aware of my daughter, Catherine, raising her child at a time of tumultuous change in Australia and the world.
I possess that innate human need to link the past with the future so that all our loved ones who came before us are honoured and their stories not lost. I want the generations who will follow to remember how hard their ancestors worked to give us all a better and slightly easier life, and the real sacrifices the Morans made to reach these goals. I want my darling little granddaughter, Ilsa to get a sense of where her kith and kin have come from so that no matter how far is travelled, both in terms of time and geography, she will feel the tug of her Irish roots and be inspired by their great efforts to meet the challenges in her own life as she grows up.

 

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A fellow student, Edna Gaffney, published her memoir in July, to celebrate her 90th birthday, giving Mary a fresh burst of energy to persist. Determination needed to see the project through because a series of health crises, including a bad fall led to an extended hospital stay to heal several broken bones in her hand and other damage.

(Murphy’s Law meant it was the writing hand!)

We set the deadline for November so copies of the book could be Christmas gifts to family overseas and just made it when the happy author held a copy on November 25th!

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The painting Crossroads, Bleaskill, Achill Sound, by Thomas Moran, Mary’s brother, adapted to good effect by my daughter, Mary Jane who has helped me with the ten books I’ve published in recent years.

The title of the book, a phrase Mary’s mother said each time her daughter left after a visit.  Echoed in the last line, it is a fitting end to the book, when on a visit ‘home’ in 2002, was indeed the last goodbye.

We had many discussions about the format (A4), titles and placements of chapters, what photographs to include, the cover design and blurb – a process of close collaboration to ensure the book encapsulates Mary’s love of her birthplace, Achill isle and her family. It was important to tell the story in a natural voice, including Gaelic words and local vernacular.

There is Irish history, information about traditional customs, and immense pride in the Irish diaspora’s contribution  – Mary’s family, the Morans – a clan scattered across several continents, like many others from Erin’s isle.

Before coming to Australia and continuing a long nursing career, Mary was a nun in the USA for 15 years.  This time in her life merits a stand-alone book if she felt inclined, however, it does not define her life of caring for others. Mary’s nursing career took her from London to Chicago, Perth, Port Hedland, Darwin, New Guinea and Melbourne, including an active part in the memorable 1986 Victorian Nurses Strike!

Modest and unassuming, Mary Robinson is typical of many ‘ordinary’ people who have lived extraordinary lives.

I always feel privileged to hear the journeys and help the women record their stories.  Society must not lose valuable contributions to the tapestry of herstory and history.

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Celebrating Each Other’s Success

Another student from the Bentleigh class offered to host a celebration and mini-launch of Mary’s book but organising a date to suit everyone over the Christmas period is not an easy task.

On Friday, December 27, most past students met for a delicious lunch and just ‘like old times’ we all read a piece of writing, listened to each other’s stories and congratulated Mary on her achievement.

Edna read a small piece from her book, Chibby From Brandy Creek reminding us of life in rural Australia during the 1930s Depression. She shared the wonderful news that her daughter was arranging for the printing of more books.

edna reading

A thoroughly modern Jan read a poem she confessed to ‘dashing off’ on her mobile phone while on the train. We sat enthralled at the funny rhyming verse about Christmas and the discovery of decorations like the ‘hairy fairy’.

An impressive, polished poem produced in ‘ten minutes’ – wow – and a demonstration that age is not a barrier to mastering technology!

jan reading her poem

Nora shared a delightful ‘Ode To The Pantry’ and reflected on her life as an Armenian immigrant integrating culinary and cultural practices, especially at a time like Christmas with traditional rituals.

She cleaned out the pantry to prepare for cooking expected treats and pondered the outcome if spices, seeds, sauces and legumes commonly found in Armenian recipes were forgotten or the wrong quantities used.

Special occasions need the added spice…

And we all agreed, we like added spice!

Nora reading her poem story

Janet read her poem The Mirror of ANZAC, written when she attended a ceremony at Gallipoli in 2000.

When she stood at the grave of a man from Mentone buried at Lone Pine, she reflected on the universal story of soldiers everywhere who fight and die far from home.

janet explaing her poem

Annie read a thoughtful essay with observations about various plants in her garden and having conversations with her flowers and trees when she is weeding, fertilising,  pruning and planting.

An ex-teacher, her essays always delve below the surface and like Nora’s stories; they are philosophical reflections on the human condition and human behaviour.

The gardening piece morphed into memories of her first teaching position, a tough gig. Assigned a class of Grade Threes comprising 36 pupils deemed ‘troublemakers’ and unwanted by the other teachers, it made her question her career choice.

Annie reading her story

Annie said to be a good gardener and teacher you have to stay alert and adapt, and like the needs of plants, we must nurture some children more than others.

Mary read a lovely poem about a rose presented to her by the Henry Lawson Society for her 80th birthday.

mary reading her poem

The care and development of the rose and the joy experienced when it blossomed an apt metaphor for the time and effort Mary put into writing her book and how she felt when she held a copy in her hands.

It was a lovely memory day, allowing me to bask and learn from the writing prowess of others.

I’ll finish the post with a memory Mary shares in her book that has remained from the moment she shared it in class:

We had many farm animals and so had to cut and dry a large supply of hay to feed them through the colder months when snow covered the fields and hills. The children helped with this process, gathering in the fields and helping to rake the hay into rows. Haymaking and wet weather made for bad work companions similar to the peat preparations. We always prayed for the rain to stay away. A day in the fields cutting and collecting hay both hard work and happiness. We all looked forward to 3:00pm when Mother came around. We watched eagerly as she passed around cups of tea and slices of home-baked soda bread. This picnic atmosphere made the hard work more bearable.
The next labour-intensive work was hoeing the potatoes out of the ground and piling them in hessian sacks. Father also cut, bundled and stacked the hay for the animals in the barn to last through winter. Farm life harsh with work never-ending. While growing up, I didn’t fully realise how extremely hard my father worked because he suffered in silence, never complaining or being negative. Life was what people did and they just got on with it.
Recently, by sheer accident, my brother, Michael spotted a photograph of Father in one of the many books that are published about our region. The book titled: I Remember It Well: Memories of Yesteryear, 120th Anniversary of Western People, published in 2003 by The Western People newspaper. They had not identified him by name but it was Father all right, just as I remember him, face concentrating on his work, yet managing to convey an air of cheerfulness. Whenever I read the caption: ‘Back-breaking work – an old man carries a creel of turf in Achill, 1967’ tears well and my heart constricts. Father was only in his sixties but looked eighty. All the decades of hard work aged him before his time and sadly, he died of a massive heart attack a few months after this picture was taken.

p9, One Last Goodbye, Mary Robinson

For many years, the regular exodus of Irish families to mainland Britain working skilled or semi-skilled jobs was vital to the British economy, especially the rebuilding necessary after the war. These workers returned home to work farms to provide for their families during the winter months and sent money home at other times. Some never returned home and hence statistics like 60% of the population of cities like Glasgow and Liverpool have Irish ancestry!

Many countries and many economies owe a debt of gratitude to the hard work of Irish immigrants and books like Mary Robinson’s, add faces, names and background details to enrich the stark statistics.

mary robinson and book