Icebreakers For Writers -Lessons That Work

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This year, in semi-retirement, I’m not working at the moment but I’m sure there are teachers/trainers/facilitators who are trawling the Internet or books, for fresh ideas for the first class and will appreciate some of these hints.

At this time of year, as schools reopen, so do neighbourhood houses and other groups providing activities and it is so important to be inclusive and encourage a friendly atmosphere.

People absorb more and learn better when they’re relaxed and happy.

I’m normally preparing first lessons for various classes in creative writing and although many of my students returned, or had been together for several terms, if not years, there would always be someone new so it was important to have icebreakers.

How do you help someone ‘fit in’ quickly and as easily as possible?

In 2017, I wrote a post of 10 icebreaker questions I used with a bit of tweaking for both my Writing Creatively classes and Life Stories & Legacies class.

Try them – even if your group is not specifically for writers.

For years I had a good format that involved people interviewing the person beside them and then introducing each other to the class.  This could be tweaked by changing the questions to be specific, limiting the time so it was like speed dating, ensuring people interviewed someone they didn’t socialise with outside class or didn’t know at all.

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We soon knew each other’s names and a bit about everyone’s personality – maybe even a condensed life story!

Here’s a poem I wrote after my Monday morning class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House.

What’s in a name?
Mairi Neil

To break the ice in writing class
much to some students’ dismay
we asked each other questions
in a ‘getting to know you’ kind of way.

At first, we pondered each other’s names
their origin – had family tradition won?
We discovered Barbara may be a saint
and Victoria’s Tori is much more fun.

Amelia loves her name, as does Heather,
who hates nicknames or shortened versions
while Emily feels loved when she hears Em,
and Jan became Janette if family ructions.

A lipstick released and called Michelle
ensured Jane’s mother chose simply Jane
Michael never wants to hear Mike and
Mairi wishes her spelling more plain.

What’s in a name, I hear you say?
What’s the creative writing motivation?
Well, as any writer will tell you
all knowledge ripe for exploitation!

Who hasn’t heard of Oliver Twist,
Jane Eyre, Miss Faversham or Lorna Doon
of Harry Potter, Hercules Poirot?
And Mr D’Arcy still makes folk swoon!

Most storytellers invent characters
and characters usually need a name
think carefully as you bring yours to life
Because they may be on the road to fame!

Another year we actually ‘broke the ice’ by writing a poem after answering a series of questions. The exercise based on a famous and much-loved memoir poem Where I’m From by George Ella Ryan (writer and teacher).

Click on the link for two templates that are guaranteed to work as an icebreaker and with revision and effort some powerful poetry and maybe a short story or two will result!

Here’s my effort –

Family_Resemblance.jpgWhat Made Me?
Mairi Neil

I am from ‘wakey-wakey’ for breakfast
Storytime books and kisses goodnight.
From hopscotch, skipping, dress-ups,
Backyard games and street delights.

Childish rhymes and daisy chains,
From buttercup tests and bramble jars,
Walking to school or riding bicycles
Streets were for playing – not for cars!

Home deliveries by butcher and baker
Bottled milk at home and school
I’m from coal man black and scary
Clouds of dust when cellar full.

Shouts of ‘any old rags?’ recycled clothes
The buttons and zips Mum always kept
Eager friends traded their Dad’s best suit
Mothers screamed and children wept.

I am from Chinese checkers and chess
Scabby Queen and what card to choose
Roars of laughter, or tears and tantrums
Gracious winning and learning to lose

A migrant family farewelling the familiar
Adjusting to new home across the seas
On a long ship’s voyage. we acclimatised
To be from a house among gum trees.

Hot days of summer and restless nights
Long dry grass and fear of snakes
Mosquito netting to avoid nasty bites
No escaping plum and apple fights.

Bluetongue lizards and pesky possums
A boat full of tadpoles and croaking frogs
Screeching cockies, laughing kookaburras
A house full of stray cats and dogs.

Huntsman spiders sucked up the vacuum
Cicadas chitter to announce summer
Rabbits and hares, native mice aplenty
Magpies swooping – what a bummer!

I’m from Choc Wedges and icy poles
Long summer days at Croydon Pool
Driveway tennis and park cricket
Trips up Mt Dandenong for cool.

I’m from high school softball and hockey
A Holden car swapped for Morris van
Holidays in army tent at Coronet Bay
Shift worker Dad visiting when he can.

I’m from triple fronted brick veneer
Replacing dilapidated weatherboard
Coloured TV, Phillips stereo, cassettes
Furniture wet when rain poured.

I’m from white weddings and sad divorces
In-laws plus nephews and nieces
Heartaches of friends and relatives
Falling apart and picking up pieces…

I’m from sick and ageing parents,
Death’s challenge not ignored
A houseful of wonderful memories
As bulldozers destroyed James Road.

In the hush of evening sunsets
Imagining childhood with closed eyes
Daily shenanigans, laughter and tears
From that ‘wakey-wakey’ surprise.

I’m from hardworking parents
Love always their motivation
Gifting me ethics and values
I’m a product of their dedication.

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Melding the Power of Words, the English Language, Our Imagination and Life Experience

Introductions – Exercise One in Class

This is a fun exercise but requires a little thought and brainstorming before you write and remember to make it as creative as possible.

  • Before you say your name, sit quietly and think of three clues that describe, but doesn’t name, either the country where you were born  (if it is different from Australia) or the place in Australia you were born (could be a city, country town, interstate).
  • Now think of three clues and see if people can guess a foreign country you have visited, your favourite foreign country, or one you dream of visiting.
  • Next, say your name and your clues and others will guess the answers. (You don’t have to make it difficult! It is not a competition but just a way of introducing an aspect of yourself others may not know.)
  • Now say what you like best about your birth country and the favourite foreign country.

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

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

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

You don’t have to be Einstein to work out my birth country is Scotland but you may not pick up the clue about Samoa. I’ve written about the journey of my dreams here.

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Samoan survival kit – insect repellant, sunblock, water, fan and cool sarong

Always whatever people write and discuss can inspire the others in the class, and furnish lots of anecdotes, memoir or imaginative pieces to write about later.

Has the exercise, or listening to others prompted an idea for a short story, poem or family history?

AT HOME:

  • Reflect – technology and transportation today give us the opportunity to learn, often first hand, about the rest of the world. You may not have had the privilege of travelling overseas but had the thrill of talking with foreigners online, writing to pen pals, or working beside people from overseas, or maybe even have immigrants or short term visitors as neighbours.
  • The world shrinks and differences are less, the more we learn and understand about each other.
  • And everyone is capable of dreaming about crossing borders, venturing into the exotic, trying something new.

Write at least 300-500 words explaining your connection and love of your birth country and favourite foreign place or perhaps you have a vivid memory to share – good or bad. Maybe travelling advice, or write about a character you met.

Here is a reflective piece of 500 words,  I published in the final anthology of 2018 for the Writing Creatively Class at Longbeach Place, Chelsea.

A Scottish Summer
Mairi Neil

Memory can burst into the present like a firecracker or be kindled like a flickering candle flame.

Proust

Despite Scotland’s dreary weather reputation, I remember lying on dewy grass among bluebells, and purple heather, breathing in the salty air of the River Clyde and freshwater scents from Loch Thom. Clouds drifted over the brae as we wove daisy chains and picked buttercups.

Do you like butter,’ we asked, holding the flowers under our chins. We giggled and chased each other waving dandelions, their touch supposedly making you pee the bed and when they ‘died’ the same flower became a fluffy timepiece to blow ‘fairies’ into the air and call out ‘one o’clock, two o’clock…’

In summer we sucked ice-lollies bought from Peter’s shop, a place pervaded by smells of sugar and syrup from jars of sweeties: musk, mint, aniseed, liquorice… The days seemed endless – daylight lasting until near midnight. Mum begging us to come in for supper and bed, but we romped in the hills of Braeside or played games in the street.

Travellers (tinkers to us) came to camp in the farmer’s field among cow pats and sheep dung. Their decrepit caravans and ex-army tents, a tight encampment we were forbidden to visit. They scoured the local streets for odd jobs, standing on doorsteps, unkempt and dank.

In need of a good bath,’ our neighbour said, ‘they don’t half pong. I gae them a couple o’ shillings just to be rid o’ them.’ It was the 1950s and no bathrooms in caravans or tents, not even a clear burn (creek) in the farmer’s field. My childhood curiosity aroused about people living a different life to me and awareness, not all adults shared my parents’ compassion …

The Rag and Bone man another summer visitor. His van toured the housing scheme looking for goodies. If mothers worked or went shopping, lured with promises of a goldfish or a budgie, but more likely receiving a balloon or plastic water pistol, some children handed over their dad’s dinner suit or mum’s Sunday best, taken from wardrobes without permission or smuggled out of the house among shabby clothes. The smell of brake fluid and burning rubber accompanied the yells of angry women chasing ‘Steptoe and Son’ down the street, wanting to retrieve property obtained under false pretences.

Our neighbour’s wisdom again, ‘Never leave wains to their own devices!’

The long summer holidays the time to collect firewood to build a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night, to make a guy from old clothes and stockings stuffed with newspapers to drag around the neighbourhood on a homemade bogey (go-cart) shouting ‘penny for the guy’. The Davaar Road Gang made up of neighbourhood children clubbed pocket money to amass a kitty for fireworks: Catherine Wheels, Sky Rockets, Whirly Gigs, but mainly penny bungers.

Sometimes we couldn’t wait for November 5th, and the acrid smell of gunpowder in the backyard tipped off our mothers we were exploding fireworks without supervision and we’d hear, ‘Wait until your faither gets hame. He’ll skelp your backside.’

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Three years old me with new found friends wearing their mum’s shoes!

 

Introductions – Exercise Two in Class

This one is a variation of an oldie that often does the rounds – I think there was a radio programme based in it too called Desert Island Discs…

If you were marooned on a desert island, who would you want with you? Or what (a favourite pet, perhaps…?)

  • Sit quietly and think about the situation for a couple of minutes.
  • Choose three people who you would want with you if you were marooned.
  • Introduce yourself and name the people. They can be alive or dead, imaginary, famous or infamous, literary characters, television personalities, family or friends…

My effort:

Hi, my name is Mairi and if I were marooned on a deserted island, I would want John to be with me. Ex navy he understood the vagaries of the sea, was strong, clever and practical. His common sense and calmness a balance to highly strung, impulsive me. He was great fun and an incurable romantic – we wouldn’t be a small population for long!

My second choice would be AJ Cronin, a great ethical doctor but also a wonderful writer and storyteller. We’d have many stimulating discussions and I’d get some great writing tips. And he’d ensure we stayed healthy.

My third choice would be my Mum, the best no-nonsense cook in the world and someone who was amazingly adaptable – making homes in Ireland, Scotland and Australia – she could be relied upon to adjust and settle into the new situation. And no better confidante to give unconditional love.

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Reflection and Discussion Enriches the Lesson

  • How hard was it to choose people?
  • Did you substitute a pet?
  • Were your choices all imaginary? Celebrities?
  • What surprises did you find when listening to others?

Each time I do this exercise with different classes, I change my choices and now as I look over my notes from the years of teaching, I’ve garnered a lot of information and jumping off points to write my own story or even stories.

As always, encourage writing and rewriting at home…

Write an imaginative story about being marooned – either one person or more than one.
Think and perhaps revisit Gilligan’s Island or Lord of The Flies, or perhaps Robinson Crusoe.  No genre is excluded – remember the TV sitcom setting the Family Robinson in Space? Why not have them land on Mars – or even the moon…

Explore your choices of the three companions and write in depth about why you chose them. Is there a relationship with one or more of them that can be explained in a personal essay?

For example, I may write about my mother’s cooking ability or her life’s migration journeys, perhaps choose the move from Ireland, or concentrate on emigrating to Australia.

OR

About being inspired by AJ Cronin – (1896 – 1981) a Scottish novelist and physician who wrote The Citadel (1937), the story of a doctor from a Welsh mining village who moves up the career ladder in London.

I loved this novel. It was recommended by my father and I can’t remember if I read the copy in the house or bought my own. It had controversial new ideas about medical ethics and Dad said it inspired the launch of the National Health Service.

Cronin’s other popular novel was The Stars Look Down. Both were mining novels adapted as films, as have Hatter’s Castle, The Keys of the Kingdom and The Green Years. His novella Country Doctor adapted as a long-running BBC radio and TV series Dr Finlay’s Casebook. This series compulsory viewing in our household and in a piece of serendipity, one of the housemaid jobs I had when I travelled the UK in 1973, was at the Killin Hotel – a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Callander where the series was filmed.

Another bit of serendipity and personal history was in 2017 when I stayed with my cousin in Scotland. She had recently moved to Cardross and walking around the neighbourhood led me to this discovery:

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I don’t expect Cardross to be on the list of places to visit if you went with a packaged tour but it is a bonny place, steeped in history, and definitely worth a look:

I came across lovely gardens and some attractive social housing for the elderly – and as a bonus, the spring flowers were in bloom and the cafe was friendly.

See how that exercise has triggered stories for me…

Please feel free to share your thoughts and add any good icebreaking exercises because I guarantee there will be a teacher/trainer out there trawling the Internet who’ll appreciate it.

 

 

Ice Broken But Writing Inspiration Harder to Crack!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is Week Three of Writing Creatively Already

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

This is a short first term – Yikes!

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

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

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

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Introductions – First Exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Buchanan Bus Depot Glasgow

Reflection, Rewriting and Road Maps To Fresh Ideas

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

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

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

family grave Greenock.jpg

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

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

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

Ideas For Writing At Home

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

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

The Task If You Want To Write Too…

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

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

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

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

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When It’s All Right Not To Write

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My writing journey seems to be much like my life – unpredictable, a mystery, an uphill battle, full of sudden surprises and even miracles.

Some days there is a structure  – usually my teaching days when I write with my students. Other days, there are scribbled notes, ideas and perhaps the start of a poem or story, or just an observation as I try and harness whatever fleeting thought an image, event or overheard word has prompted.

Recently, I’ve been troubled by an inability to write what and how I want, never finishing the stories or poems – not so much losing interest but struggling to find the joy and passion.

mordi beach october 2016

Sea-Sawing 1
Mairi Neil

When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by roaring waves, tumultuous surf or crying rocks
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
Not by the lapping wavelets or squelching sand
or the whispers of an ebbing tide.
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced
by the endless mystery of oceans
by this chameleon of colour and mood
by the changing horizon of merging sea and sky
by thoughts of the insignificance of humankind
and our attempts to tame, travel, and tease
and always the awesome sea can choose not to please
When I walk by the sea, I am silenced.

Pausing The Pen

As I prepare to go on what I am calling ‘long service leave’ (unpaid, unfortunately) from my writing classes, I’m hoping to rediscover my ‘mojo’ and enthusiasm for writing. I feel as stale and tired as my words as if I’m repeating myself and walking in circles.

Here’s hoping a term off, and weeks of new experiences as I travel the Trans-Siberian Railway and return to Scotland, my birth country to meet up with old friends and relatives, I’ll be able to reignite lost passion and enthusiasm.

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Tracking My Journey To Recovery

I’ll use the blog as a sort of journal to track my journey – inner thoughts as well as the outward physical events. I’ll write about the same subjects I suppose but perhaps have a fresh angle – definitely a different perspective!

Entries may be written in the moment, fragments and random happenings recorded – a different process from how I usually write. I’m a planner and outliner when it comes to publication, a worrier about whether anything I write is worth reading or if there is a mistake with research, grammar, spelling…

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I’ve been writing since a teenager and I love reading good writing – all I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer that others want to read.

However, if I’m ever to achieve that dream and finish a couple of important writing projects then radical action is required. I’ll be 64 years old in August – a bit long in the tooth to be regarded as an emerging writer and entering the age bracket conscious that time can run out!

 

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A reminder of life’s fragility the last time I visited Stony Point!

 

Now for Something Completely Different

It’s time to remove myself from the comfort zone of teaching writing and helping others on their publishing journey. Breda now looks after the Mordialloc Writers’ Group – relinquishing that was a major step for me to take because I founded the group over 21 years ago – but the freedom I feel with the cliched weight off my shoulders is wonderful.

I’m going to fulfil another item on the ‘bucket list’ made after I survived a breast cancer interlude. Hopefully, there will be a few more crossed off the list in the future.

A couple of years ago, I went to Samoa and paid homage to Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer who inspired me in childhood.  Samoa, the first of travel adventures I’d dreamed about and promised to visit ‘one day’.

On this Trans-Siberian trip, a teenage dream will be realised and  I’ll pay homage to another favourite writer, Dostoevsky whose book Crime And Punishment, I regard as one of the top ten influences in my life. Like RLS and a few others, Dostoevsky gave me the desire to be a writer.

I’ll also be visiting the Orkney and Shetland islands, another long-held dream and the home of the wonderful writer and poet George Mackay-Brown.

Like Hillary Clinton – I aim high!

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When I’m in holiday mode, perhaps I’ll rediscover the joy and spontaneity I’ve lost and succumb to the mystical process of mind linking together random observations, thoughts, dreams and sudden ideas into storylines and poems.

Sea-Sawing  2
Mairi Neil

When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
heartbeat slows, breathing even, steps linger,
imagination sparked as dreams awaken.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
shells crunch underfoot, sand soft or solid,
seagulls whirl and twirl their aerial dance.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
blueness stretches to meet blueness or
stormy grey prances with white caps,
the horizon a promise of somewhere else.
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed
worries, fears, a bad day assuaged –
this too will pass a mantra of healing and rebirth
When I walk by the sea, I am calmed.

Playfulness Is Not Out Of The Question

My first published poems were for children and I’ve always been attracted to manipulating words for fun. Perhaps my creative journey needs to return where it began!

I know poems don’t have to rhyme, in fact in some poetry circles it’s almost a criminal offence to write what they consider ‘doggerel’ aka anything with a rhyme. However, I love playing with words, love puns and absurdity.

Sea-Sawing 3
Mairi Neil

I must go down to the sea today
to see the waves and splash
I must go into the sea today
salt water will cure my rash!
The sea has healing powers –
that’s what Mum told me
so, don’t take Nature for granted –
especially the magnificent sea.

You can play in the ocean,
swim, sail, and even water ski
it’s such a wonderful playground
so, always look after the sea.
Don’t pollute the water
home to creatures great and small
because if you listen carefully
you’ll hear the mermaids call…

Here’s to rejuvenation and a renewal of purpose or perhaps I’ll return from my journey and decide to knit and craft – reminders of a lovely period in my life when the girls attended a Steiner school and we immersed our lives in all things natural.

Time will tell.

… what we call the Creative Process is in no way limited to art or to individual acts of creating something. It is in fact, a large ongoing movement in our lives, a force that has its own will and its own purpose, and which we manifest on many levels but in definite sequences… a profoundly sacred process… visible in all aspects of my life…

Burghild Nina Holzer 1993.

 

Vailima – Robert Louis Stevenson’s Samoan Home

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.

Robert Louis Stevenson

The Stevenson clan: Robert, his wife Fanny and her son Lloyd, and Robert’s widowed mother settled on the island of Upolu in Samoa in 1890. RLS had a house built at the foot of Mt Vaea, which he called Vailima, and he continued to write, but also became an advocate for the Samoans.

Vailima, a beautiful island plantation home has been restored and is now a world-class museum set in a national nature reserve and botanical garden. A tour in its coolness a welcome relief when I descended Mt Vaea via the Road of the Loving Hearts. In the house, there are many photographs of life at Vailima with the Stevenson Family.

The home and grounds have been restored to reflect the comfort expected in colonial times, but also the use of many Samoan building products. It is easy to imagine RLS writing here and filling the spacious rooms with many visitors.

The tasteful restoration as accurate as possible and the house repaired and reinvented as a museum by American benefactors who set up a foundation to raise money. Tilafaiga Rex Maughan, its primary benefactor, chairs the Foundation. Two board appointees represent the Government of Samoa. The Board oversees the fiscal, regulatory and policies of the not-for-profit entity.

The Vailima estate was purchased in 1900 as the official residence for the German governor. After British/Dominion confiscation, it served successively as the residence for the New Zealand administrator and the Samoan head of state after independence before being reclaimed as important national heritage.

It is a golden maxim to cultivate the garden for the nose, and the eyes will take care of themselves.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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The guides giving the tours of the house are extremely well-versed in all things RLS. As you walk through the Great Hall, RLS’s Library, his Smoking Room,  five bedrooms and numerous nooks and crannies they share anecdotes from the life of the famous author. They point out what is authentic and what is a reproduction.

The tour at $20 tala ($10 Aus) superb value. The highlight being the guide singing the Requiem from RLS tombstone – a spine-tingling moment. The Samoan’s have a reputation for memorable voices like the Welsh. Tips are not expected but considering how poor most Samoans are (an average wage of $150 tala per week) this would be the moment to be generous.

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RLS wanted fireplaces and a Smoking Room to remind him of Scotland. The fires were never lit!  Throughout the house, the darkness of the beautiful polished wood softened by large windows and French doors letting in the wealth of Samoan sunshine. The Great Hall restored with Californian redwood and replica furniture.The Tapa Room has the local wall covering called siapo or tapa from the original cultural pattern.

Tapa is a cloth made of vegetable fibre and stained in various striking patterns. Widely used by the Samoans for clothing, curtains, beds, and many other purposes, today any clothing from tapa is ceremonial or for the tourists.

Upstairs the bedrooms reflect the various personalities of the household. A photograph of RLS’s mother could be a slimmer Queen Victoria a la the dark dress and crocheted cap.  Mrs Stevenson senior didn’t cope with the heat, disliked the house and complained daily about its gloominess – even the view of a tranquil garden from her window couldn’t console her.

There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Fanny and RLS slept in separate rooms because he liked to write at night, but he had a secret door/hatch installed in the wall so they could talk to each other when lying in bed. RLS was often ill, and Fanny became his nurse as well as looking after everyone else in the household plus many of the local Samoans. The sick bed and medicine chest often used according to Fanny’s biographer:

A disease of the tropics, said to be transmitted by the bite of mosquitoes, which causes enormous enlargement of the parts affected. Mrs. Stevenson cured this boy, Mitaele, of elephantiasis by Dr. Funk’s remedy of rubbing the diseased vein with blue ointment and giving him a certain prescribed drug.

As I walked through the rooms and examined the photographs and paraphernalia, it was easy to imagine the scents and sounds of a busy household. The Stevenson’s hospitality matched the welcome and friendliness the Samoans are famous for so there would have been laughter, chatter and music.

Talk is by far the most accessible of pleasures. It costs nothing in money, it is all profit, it completes our education, founds and fosters our friendships, and can be enjoyed at any age and in almost any state of health.

Robert Louis Stevenson

One of the ways the RLS Museum and grounds are able to remain for posterity is by generous donations, entry fees and also hiring out the grounds for celebrations. It has become popular for weddings, but the stipulation is ‘no alcohol’, the wedding must be dry to minimise damage to the heritage property.

The day I visited, the final preparations were being added for a wedding that evening. One of the guides urged me to look inside the marquees and confided the wedding planner was famous in Samoa. Perhaps I’d seen the advertisement on television, ‘You know about Fa’afafine?’

I smiled away my ignorance as I went to have a look at the preparations that had taken two days and vowed to look up Fa’afafine later.

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Fa’afafine of Samoa are Samoa’s 3rd gender – the term  fa’a means ‘to be’ and fafine means ‘a woman’. Fa’afafine are not just cross-dressers nor are they males reared as females (a myth often believed by foreigners). Mostly they see themselves as female despite the gender markers, and they grow up choosing to identify with the female rather than the male gender.

Acceptance levels of fa’afafine are at an all time high with the Samoan Prime Minister patron of the Fa’afafine Association. However, some villages and districts treat fa’afafine differently although I didn’t see any evidence of this in my short time in Apia. In fact whenever fa’afafine were mentioned or seen around Apia everyone seemed proud.

Samoan culture treats and respects fa’afafine. Western culture through religious influences does not so the fa’afafine entrench themselves in their culture in order to be accepted into the community, with resounding and remarkable success.

My day at Vailima and Mt Vaea was a resounding success too – increasing my knowledge on so many aspects of Samoan history and modern day culture. I left the gorgeous surrounds to the tinkling laughter of the ‘celebrity’ wedding planner and helpers.

I reflected on Samoa, RLS and life in general and agreed

That man is a success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much.

Robert Louis Stevenson