A Public Health Crisis Requires Personal Responsibility and a Personal Response

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A leaflet freely available on the counter of my local chemist

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

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

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

life stories anthologies

Health Literacy Must Be A Priority

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

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

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

From the Australian Commission on Safety & Quality in Healthcare:

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

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

Volunteering To be  A Health Advocate May Help Others 

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

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

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

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A reference letter explaining my early involvement with community health.

Pandemic Restrictions Resume in Victoria

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

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

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

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

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

Recording The Pandemic For Future Generations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID 19 SURVEY RESPONSE SWINBURNE UNI

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

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

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

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

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

The Use of Technology Has Zoomed During COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

My initial thank you to the organisers:

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

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

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

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

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

And my thank you after everything went as planned!

Dear Georgia,

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Power of Exercise

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

Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.

Ernest Hemingway

In Class, We Splurge!

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

To achieve this ideal takes practice, practice, practice!

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

 

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Facebook meme telling it how it is

 

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

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

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

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

Somerset Maugham

Variety The Spice of Imagination

First lines, ideas for beginnings:

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

Describe a first – why is it memorable?:

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

Fibs, Excuses, Embellishments, Wishful Thinking …

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

 

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Facebook meme

 

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

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

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

Erica Jong

quote from Alice Hoffman NYTimes

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

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

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

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

An isolated event, short story 736 words by Mairi Neil

Try the following exercise frequently to hone your writing skills:

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

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

Douglas Adams

And remember…

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

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

C. J. Cherryh

 

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The sound of Isolation & Quarantine – What sounds do you miss or enjoy?

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The typewriter with italic type my parents bought me for my 18th birthday.

Day 22 – I’ve stopped counting – have you?

In life, we use five senses and if a writer, we should also use them in our writing to allow the readers to experience poems and prose on all levels.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about other senses and today I’ll concentrate on the sounds in the real world and the world you create when writing.

We are farewelling autumn in Melbourne and because of the COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing, there were some traditional sounds missing from Melburnian lives – minimum playing in parks and on beaches, football and other sporting games cancelled and the annual ANZAC Day celebrations and accompanying parades didn’t happen – although we did light up the dawn

Autumn
Mairi Neil

Autumn… the clocks change
a time to enjoy
an extra hour
snuggled beneath the doona

Autumn… walks in the park
crunching leaves underfoot
a season with warm days
pretending summer still around

Autumn… vibrant flowers
a time of colourful
rainbows dropping from trees
playing peek-a-boo through fences

Autumn… a season to pause
contemplate winter’s chill
prepare body and soul
with warming soups and good books

Autumn… a time of contemplation
remembering sacrifice
The Easter story and ANZAC
Love and Hope the best human qualities

© 2013

donna's alarm clock

Write about the sounds of your autumn – before coronavirus and what you have experienced recently. What daily sounds do you notice in isolation?

Extend your thoughts and think of a sound that isn’t around anymore: the click of typewriter keys, the tone that played during the test pattern on 1950s TVs, the brrrring of your portable alarm clock, the sound of the dial turning on a telephone, the theme of an old TV or radio program, the sound of a former pet’s paws on the hardwood floor, the sound of the doorbell of a house you used to live in, a steam train’s whistle, the clink of milk bottles…

What memories do those sounds conjure up? What rooms, people, neighbourhoods and workplaces do you see in your imagination?

Remember the starting handles for cars? Remember, an overheated radiator often spoiled trips in the summer, or cars refusing to start in winter?

Did the roar of a neighbour’s motorbike wake you up, or did they have a Holden V8?  What about church bells ringing, a grandfather clock striking? Someone practising a musical instrument (bagpipes/drums), off-key singing – an acoustic versus electric guitar? The tap of dance shoes or a walking stick, the squeak of a pram or wheelchair?

What sounds do you hear now?

  • does a tree mulcher or leaf blower shatter your peace?
  • perhaps a chainsaw cutting trees down
  • how noisy are the garbage men? Do you remember the days of chasing your bin lids down the street?
  • do neighbours have hens – a rooster? Or perhaps a pig?
  • what about someone learning a musical instrument?
  • did you ever stop and listen while someone played a street piano, a busker played their fiddle or guitar?

Sounds of Albert Street
Mairi Neil

In the morning, at dawn break
in a dreamlike state
I wake…

to sounds that jar
electric train whistle
whine of car, after car…

a distant noticeable rumble
the roar of the sea
as white caps tumble…

I picture huge waves crashing
spewing debris ashore
against pier and rocks splashing –

on the street, horses make
a constant clip-clop
as daily exercise take…

familiar daily tapping
announced in suburbia
by family dogs yapping.

a dawn chorus will sing
curlews, starlings, magpies
heralding Spring…

twittering, cawing, whistling
blackbirds, seagulls and crows
dewy feathers a-glistening

© 1994 small talk, poems for children, Employ Publishing Group.

If you are writing a memoir or a historical story or novel, pay a visit to your local museum for research. If you’re lucky, there will be firsthand accounts and exhibits of household and workplace equipment and tools to remind you to include authentic descriptions and sounds.

Spend some time brainstorming a list of descriptive words that you can refer to when needing inspiration. Continually add to your list, expanding memories and categories as they evolve.  Your list could look like this:

  • the soft sound of someone breathing or harsh gasp of breath
  • buzz of a chainsaw (or bees)
  • drone of an aircraft or car
  • bark, yap, yelp, howl of a dog – think of other animals noises
  • rumble of thunder, wheels on concrete – an empty stomach, that can also grumble
  • rustle of leaves, bushes, trees, pages of a book
  • gurgle of a drain, water in a hose, water down the plughole
  • the wail of a child, or laugh and giggle
  • quiet as midnight, the hush of morning, the silence of sadness….

Writing Exercise 1:

Choose any of these images, think of the sounds you will hear if you are also in the picture. Write a story or poem, or memory.

Writing Exercise 2:

Extend one or all of these sentences to make the situation real – pick any genre, add a character, theme and plot – or write a poem. (Team it up with one of the images  on this post perhaps?)

  • The kitten MIAOWED when I left for work.
  • The puppy BARKED when I left for my jog/to go shopping.
  • The tree branches SWAYED in the wind.
  • The cursor MOVES across the computer screen.
  • The clock TICK-TOCKED in the kitchen.

Sounds for excitement or pizazz

In a piece of writing, a sentence including descriptions of noises creates a strong atmosphere. It rouses the reader’s excitement.

Background Noises

Sound unrelated to the action but characterise the place is perfect for creating atmosphere. You can combine several sounds in a single sentence:

  • An empty beer can clattered along the pavement
  • Keyboards clacked, papers rustled, and printers whirred
  • Upstairs a toilet flushed and water gurgled down the drainpipe
  • Thunder rumbled in the distance, lightning flashed
  • Washing machines sloshed, driers rumbled and coins rattled into slots
  • Motors whined, and tyres screeched on the tarmac
  • Hooves clattered on the cobblestones below
  • The train sped up with a low growl that rose to a high whine within moments
  • Thunder roared, and raindrops hammered against the glass
  • The fire in the grate crackled and red gum logs hissed and popped
  • the engine throbbed as the waves slapped the side of the boat
  • ice clinked in the glass as Bond poured her a martini

Writing Background Noise

You can insert a sentence about background noises in any part of the scene where it makes sense. For example:

  1. The point of view character is waiting (for a job interview, a medical appointment, a rescue, an execution, an exam…) what do they hear? Inside and/or outside noises?
  2. A character pauses or delays replying. A sentence like this implies the pause and is more interesting than ‘he paused’ or ‘she hesitated’… what can fill the silence?
  3. To emphasise an exciting moment. Is there a clap of thunder, applause, a balloon popping, laughter…?
  4. To further raise the tension in a suspenseful situation, insert a sentence about background noise the moment the reader holds his/her breath.
  5. When the setting is dark (at night, or in a cellar), sprinkle sounds throughout the scene to add to the mood suspense, to ground the reader.

Here are two different pieces of short fiction including background and action sounds:

The write detail by mairi neil 1065 words

The airport by Mairi Neil, flash creative non-fiction, 674 words

Writing Exercise 3:

The sounds mentioned above may inspire you;  think about the examples shown and write a scene with background noises to create a realistic scene and draw the reader in.

Action Sounds

Whenever characters do something – walk, work, fight or rest – their actions, even if in a small setting, will create a link between the action and the setting.

Emphasise this link, especially if you want the reader to become immersed in the story. The best way to do this is by describing the sounds arising from the characters’ interaction with the environment.

  • She ran out, banging the door behind her.
  • The door slammed shut behind her.

Here are some other examples:

  1. The door screeched on its hinges
  2. I sank into the armchair, and the cushion wheezed.
  3. The seat squeaked under his weight.
  4. Stairs creaked as she retired to bed.
  5. Gravel crunched under their feet.
  6. The wheeled suitcase rattled across cracked paving-slabs.
  7. The light plane trundled over the patched tarmac.
  8. The windshield wipers scraped the glass.
  9. The grandfather clock chimed midnight.
  10. The lift shook and grunted to a stop.
  11. His breath rasped as he scraped the mud off his boots.
  12. The car keys jangled in the air as he tempted her to go for a drive.

Writing Exercise 4:

Use some above examples to write a story or poem, or perhaps a memory, or let the following images inspire you:

  • When I visited London in 2017, Big Ben was under renovation, but it still worked.
  • International tourists cluster beneath Melbourne Central’s famous musical clock as it opens up to reveal Australia’s famous birds
  • Have you seen or heard any other famous clocks?

What about the clock at Melbourne’s National Art Gallery – what would it feel like to be trapped in a time warp, or trapped inside a clock?

There are famous bells like this ship’s bell in Shetland and the one aboard the Rainbow Warrior – exciting tales of shipwrecks and rescues make a great story with plenty of sounds of the sea and storms:

Sound – the waves crashed on the rocks, the gulls screaming above.
Sight – the heavy, grey rocks look as if they will slide into the leaden sea.
Touch -the wind lifts my hair and sudden gusts sting my face.
Taste – the spray from the waves leave salt on my lips

Do you have a travel tale? A character who goes on a spiritual journey?

There are pictures of churches and temples and tourist attractions to inspire imagination or memory –

Home Delivery of Milk

Sometimes photos remind us of how sex-segregated occupations were in years past. When I was young, librarians were primarily female and milk was delivered by males. Many streets had a post where the horse-drawn milk delivery cart could be tied up.

When I migrated to Croydon in 1962 there was still a horse trough in the main street. And in Mordialloc in the 80s there was one outside Davis’ Laundry in Bear Street. (horse trough and laundry both gone)

The horse always knew where to stop on the route and wait until the milkman delivered the bottles. When I arrived in Australia as a nine-year-old, I thought it was wonderful to have a horse and cart bring the milk and often cadged a ride from the milkman.

Did you ever talk to the milkman or his horse? Feed it? Collect the manure for the garden? Describe a scene you remember including sounds, smells, taste.

Was milk delivered to your home when you were young? If so, did the milkman bring any other items? Can you remember a coalman, firewood being delivered, soft drink (Loys), the iceman?  Did you have a refrigerator or an icebox?

Great grandparents may have kept the milk cool in a small stream that ran across their property, or in a bath of cold water. Write about your childhood memories of home deliveries of milk and possibly other groceries.

How often were the deliveries? Daily? Can you remember when deliveries stopped – how did you or your parents feel? Were you over-awed at the first supermarket visit? Were you friendly with the milk bar or corner shop owners? 

Have you had home deliveries during the lockdown? How different was that experience from earlier days? Can you imagine home deliveries for a range of goods resuming by drone??

What things are better left in the past and what’s your ideal future?

In the mornings, when the light of day is breaking do you imagine you can still hear the sound of glass milk bottles in wire baskets heading to your front door?

Did you go to the local dairy and get milk and bottles of cream in glass jars?

Reflect on how the way you shop and what you shop for has changed – emphasising sound.

Here is a Facebook meme that made me smile because I still have one of these by my bedside!

Do you wake up to the radio – can you remember a memorable news story that shocked you awake? For me, there were two that stand out: the Port Arthur massacre and the World Trade Centre’s 9/11…

FB_IMG_my current clock!

Writers describe a sound when the situation draws attention to it – a door creaks, so your protagonist turns her head. They can also use a sound for effect – to get on the reader’s nerves, to alarm or relax them. The soothing babble of a little brook is comforting but the shrieking sound of nails scratching over a chalkboard, the exact opposite.

Has a sudden or particular sound frightened you? Acoustic shock effects are deeply ingrained in most readers. The sudden uproar of a roaring chainsaw is frightening enough, but if it is wielded by a madman bent on murder, you’ve got your shock value!

Nowadays, if writing sci-fi you’d be describing the noise of lightsabers!

star wars premiere.jpg

Good writers use all the senses to give readers a multi-dimensional experience. Using the senses evokes feelings and responses in the reader.

Senses like sight, sound, and smell can also build tension.

When you’re writing, think about using all the senses to allow your readers to immerse themselves in the world and lives of the characters. Try to incorporate these into your writing.

The most engrossing books are the ones that draw us into their world and evoke many sensations and emotions.

The reader doesn’t just experience what the main character can see. Using sounds and smells can evoke pain and fear.

Great writers make our mouths water as we read about sumptuous feasts, gasp as the main character touches something that they’re not supposed to and grimace when they taste a bitter berry that could be poisonous.

Write a little every day, without hope and without despair.

Isak Dinesen

Happy Writing

Writing Techniques Add Value To Poems & Prose

Nobuko looking towards Mordialloc 2020.jpg

Day 21 -We’re still trying for fun!

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

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

Rebecca Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FB_IMG_fox

The Poetry Foundation suggests:

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

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

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

  • Personification can pack a punch.

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

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

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

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

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

from museum exhibit 2019.jpg

What kind Of Person?

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

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

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

The sun 

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

A Shadow

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

A bushfire

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

Thunder & Lightning

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

Earthquake

  • The earthquake swallowed the city in several angry bites.

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

Kurt Vonnegut

black-cat-roof.jpg

Cat on Condominium Rooftop
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

© 2016

Exercise One:

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

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

Exercise Two:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise Three:

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

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

 

page seventeen

Rebirth
by Mairi Neil

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

the warm waves
caress and massage
manipulating
moulding
malleable me

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

I am reborn

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

Happy Writing

 

 

 

 

Lockdown Extended – Effort Required to Unlock Creativity & Return to Writing!

McDonald Street Oval Mordialloc

Day Twenty – Facing Failures Aplenty

One of my favourite poets, Scotland’s Rabbie Burns (1759 – 1796), said ‘the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley‘ a truism for most of us because at least once or twice in life we have planned to do something and the plan fails for personal or external reasons within our control, or not.

My plan, to blog every day to help myself and others write through the COVID-19 crisis fell by the wayside over Easter. Each day since there have been medical appointments, other events or just sheer procrastination leaving a post unwritten.

Rather than beat myself up over the failure, I’ll cling to the good intention and try not to fail again but if I do, it is not the end of the world!

FB_IMG_teacher mug.jpg

I’ve experienced many failures and the whole gamut of reasons to explain writing poorly or not writing –  as I’m sure many others have – so while staying home, staying safe and staying positive, here are some more ideas to conquer the isolation blues!

Where Do Stories Come From And What Can We Do With Them

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.”

T.S. Eliot

Many things trigger memories and usually, when we want to be imaginative and creative we draw on our own experience or what we have seen, read about, or heard.

Originality is rarely found in the idea but in the words you use, the perspective, interpretation, and presentation of your story.  Christopher Booker in his 2005 book The Seven Basic Plots, Why we tell stories listed those plots as:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and return
  5. Rebirth
  6. Comedy
  7. Tragedy

Of course, these headings leave plenty of scope for you to exercise your imagination!

However, it is the emotional engagement a writer creates for the reader/audience that makes the difference. Characters, storyline, conflict and setting contribute to making a story memorable too.

An accomplished creative writer can take any one of these basic plots into the realm of a great, entertaining read with perhaps a life-changing effect on the reader.

Today we’ll have fun with words

wordplay

Word suggestions – A quick exercise in writing triggered by a pair of words – often mismatched. Write whatever comes into your head, a poem or piece of prose, a ditty or an observation. Perhaps the germ of an idea saved for later to be expanded into an anecdote or story.

These are random word pairs I’ve picked from Wordplay – mix and match, pick one or all of them:

  • Dinosaur    Poop
  • Banana    Ball
  • Dog    Stick
  • Bed    Chief
  • Circle    Tongue
  • Eyes    Rocket
  • Guitar    Nut
  • Diamond    Drum
  • Compass    Ship
  • Horse     Punch

As always with these exercises, if you set a timer for 10-15 minutes, or set yourself a time to write, that little bit of pressure can nudge the muse.

For example:

This dinosaur poop is a real scoop
The grinning newspaper reporter said
As he munched a banana and bounced a ball
And watched his rival go red.

He hinted the newspaper’s chief editor
thought him top dog, a diamond find
His rival’s eyes  glared, tongue clicked
thinking a punch might change his mind

But alas he’d be fired like a rocket
And this boastful nut continue to smirk
So like a ship with a good compass
He went to bed to ignore the horse-faced jerk

man bites dog

Crazy headlines – you are given several cards – use them all or discard the ones that don’t fit. Create a headline and then write a short story or article to match the headline, or depending what newspaper or magazine is leading the charge, and what genre your writing, perhaps the story can be as absurd as the game!

For an extra exercise of your writing muscles rewrite the story in the style of several newspapers from tabloid to academic, print to online…

  1. Nude, Tsar, model, sheds, tells on, 340lb, wanted
  2. Star, lost, cruel, banker, attacks, saves, hits
  3. Exclusive, Feds, burns, secretary, lady, nun, intern
  4. Dog, snubs, blasts, nurse, sues, wife, blames
  5. Convict, stabs, first, teen, indicted, rare, weeps for
  6. Tot, shoots, mourns, actor, defends, hero,  mystery
  7. Doc, tricks, heiress, beauty, weds, nails, suspect,
  8. Thug, devoted, dumps, strikes, jewels, B’way, Prez
  9. Judge, lover, tourist, missing, crooked, falls for, angry
  10. Blonde, lawyer, D.A., rips off, Navy, vaccine, romantic

Missing Tourist the Lover of Crooked Judge

Today, a packed Supreme Court was shocked to hear that one of its own judges was crooked. It is alleged that Judge Lilow aided and abetted the infamous Jessica James who is wanted in three continents for fraud and money laundering.

Ms James, an American tourist became Judge Lilow’s lover before embroiling him in shady dealings. The judge remains in custody and is said to be angry and ready to turn Queen’s evidence since he discovered that he is not the first senior judge to fall for Jessica James. The 25-year-old tourist is an expert in manipulating older men proving that there is no fool like an old fool!

rememory and storymatic

Rememory – share a memory – a character (could be you, a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, cousin, or friend), place the character in a setting (a season, work, night or day…) and a topic – could be a word, a phrase, an idea, a comment…

Write a story, true or false, your own memory or someone else’s.

  • It can be a definite season or the season of life, Spring can mean April or September depending on the hemisphere, or the springtime in your life. Likewise work, school or time of day. Interpret the way it works for you.
  • Who is your main character? It’s okay if you want to start with ‘I remember’ or ‘once upon a time’, or ‘I don’t know for sure but I imagine my grandmother did/said/thought’ or ‘I wonder if my mum/dad ever… ‘
  • By evoking the person (character) and season/setting take whatever topic or word you were given and let it lead you to the door of memory… open the door and write about a real life experience or complete fantasy.

Here are some random scenarios I’ve picked for your inspiration, again you can mix and match, swap words or settings – whatever the muse dictates:

  1. You, Spring, the object that doesn’t want to get thrown away, laundry
  2. Brother or sister, Autumn, reading material, the natural world
  3. Grandparent, Night, restaurant, how love was expressed
  4. Parent, Work, breaking the law, sports event
  5. Friend or cousin, School, storm, stood out from the rest
  6. You, Winter, money for nothing, patience
  7. Brother or sister, Summer, when they were happiest, birthday
  8. Grandparent, Winter, what the handwriting was like, hobby
  9. Parent, Night, rejection, where people gather in silence
  10. Friend or cousin, Autumn, chores, haven’t been there in a long time

Take a deep breath before writing, draw on your thoughts, memories, ideas!

It’s okay if what you remember seems small, or inadequate, hardly worth mentioning – small is BIG, even small memories can illuminate the great themes of our lives!

Write whatever you want to write and enjoy writing – memoir, poetry, essay, fiction, creative non-fiction…

  • Your memories and life experience can take you just about anywhere you choose and you can write on any subject matter as diverse as paint, divorce, singing, food, travel, dancing … whatever
  • Friends, family, neighbours or colleagues – you have a lifetime of characters to choose from or imagine.

20161126_192213-1d83fcec5c621363d45ae9a4e6da00c3a.jpg

The Chocolate Box
Mairi Neil

I open up the chocolate box,
lift out a piece of lace,
crushed and yellowed, badly stained
the condition a disgrace!
My eyes spy a matching piece,
needing examination too
discover a pair of baby shoes
crocheted with love when new.
I gently remove other treasures
the box has stored within ––
a ration book, faded cards and letters,
felt needle case and Mizpah pin.

Why had these particular items
earned the right to be kept?
A legacy of more than eight decades –
with no one left to ask – I wept.
Major upheavals rocked the world
adding turmoil to Mum’s life
but perhaps the profound change
was becoming a mother and a wife.

I caressed again the contents -–
this chocolate box of delight,
pondering a girl becoming a woman,
–– and imagination took flight.
A journey spanning continents,
Working, birthing, building a home
Mum, I promise you, I whisper,
your stories will fill a tome.
With a grieving, weighted heart
and pressure of unwept tears
I write so she won’t be forgotten
hoping words survive the years.

© 2016

** Mizpah pieces were exchanged as sentimental tokens of affection, some of which even contained a verse from the Bible.

old photo albums

The Photograph Album
Mairi Neil

I find as I grow older,
I hark back to the past
Treasuring those old photographs
Placed in albums made to last.

Behind the plastic-coated pages
Like a novel, Life unfolds
People good, bad – events happy, sad
Memories unearthed like gold.

Other photographs discovered
Stir bittersweet thoughts, I find
And clearly etched like scars
Details easily spring to mind

Where is he now, I wonder,
Does he regret abandoning me?
Did freedom turn out as planned?
Does he drift in the Sargasso Sea?

Forgotten people, forgotten heartaches
‘Remembering’ not always what it seems
If life had taken a different path …
Time stood still perhaps…

Another blurred photo comes into focus

–– what if I had followed that dream?

© 2016

Happy Writing

And stay home, stay safe and stay well!

Seasonal Changes Can Inspire Us All To Write

st kilda statue in gardens

Day Seventeen – Melburnians Ditch the Sunscreen

Winter isn’t supposed to start until June in Australia, but yesterday and today in Mordialloc, after torrential rain most of the night, we woke to a decidedly, wintry chill.

When I opened the door to take Josie for her walk, a cold blast of wind from the sea had collected the temperature from the South Pole and Josie gave me a look that said, ah, now I know why you put that coat on!

For those who don’t know, Melbourne has a reputation of ‘four seasons in the one day‘ so this quick turnaround in the weather (temperatures dropping from low 20s to 8 degrees) doesn’t really come as a surprise.

However, it is still autumn and I’ve always advised overseas friends to visit Melbourne in autumn, the season when I think the city looks its best. Here’s hoping the icy blast is an aberration and not the future because of climate change, the other catastrophe we face along with COVID 19!

Autumn
Mairi Neil

Autumn… a time to enjoy
the clocks changed
an extra hour
To snuggle beneath the doona

Autumn… a season with warm days
pretending summer still around
walks in the park
crunching leaves underfoot

Autumn… a time of colour
rainbows drop from trees
vibrant flowers
playing peek-a-boo through fences

Autumn… a season to pause
contemplate winter’s chill
prepare body and soul
with warming soups and good books

Autumn… a time of contemplation
remembering sacrifice
Easter story and ANZAC
Love and hope the best human qualities

© 2013

Exercise 1:

  • Write down your thoughts on autumn, or any other season for that matter?
  • Think of the likes and dislikes, the activities you can or can’t do,

bird in backyard Mordialloc

Other parts of the world are heralding spring and as I discovered when I visited Siberia in April 2017, there are places where winter lingers longer than others.

And if you live in the Pacific Islands, summer seems to last all year. Here is the survival kit I advise everybody to have when they visit Samoa like I did!

samoan-survivial-kit-insect-repellent-sunblock-water-fan-and-a-cool-sarong

No matter where you live you can write about the seasons and if you have been lucky enough to travel there is the added material of comparison and maybe even the awe factor depending on where and when you travelled.

Exercise 2:

Look at any photographs to jog your memory and help add colour and authenticity to your stories if you describe what you see.

Some countries specialise in having breathtaking seasons like Cherry Blossom time in Japan, where I was fortunate to visit in 1984. Here is a short piece about the trip. cherry blossom time by Mairi Neil

I also wrote some haiku after the visit – that’s almost compulsory!

Haiku
Mairi Neil

Cherry blossoms fall
pink velvet raindrops
crushed underfoot

Tranquil and silent
old men hushed
as blossoms on ground

Children play peek-a-boo
mothers ponder
the change in the wind

Vibrant colours everywhere
blossoms float and fall
brightening my day

download.jpg

 

Seasonal Snippets

Exercise 3:

  • What is your favourite season?
  • Why?
  • What season do you dislike?
  • Why?
  • Write a short story so we know what season it is but don’t mention the name of the season

Here is an effort I wrote in class a few years ago The Luck of The Irish by Mairi Neil.

Exercise 4:

  • Have you an opinion about changing the clocks?
  • Write a story about the main character forgetting to change the clocks.
  • have you ever forgotten to change the clocks? What happened – were there consequences?

Exercise 5:

Choose a group of words and write a story, poem, anecdote – set a time limit of 10-20 minutes – this would be the average writing time in a class. You can change the form of the word but try and include them all.

  • frost, grey, drizzle, crowded, pause, research, lifeless, overheard, swirl, honey
  • flap, dreamy, duty, pondered, valley, obscure, spectacle, scrumptious, harvest, wax
  • wildflowers, whispers, forest, starlight, misted, map, fireplace, trail, tumbling, butterfly
  • umbrella, breezy, peaceful, sandals, cascade, seashells, glance, waves, dolphin, silver

Remember – leave your writing for a day or two and then reread, edit, rewrite:)

Playful Seasons
Mairi Neil

In dewy meadow, Spring flowers bright
buttercups bloom, a magnificent sight
while strolling upon this carpet of gold
a test is remembered from days of old
a yellow flower waved under the chin
do you like butter, we asked with a grin.

In dewy meadow, under strong Summer sun
childhood revisited as we have some fun
clumps of wild daisies smile up at me
their perfect white petals fluttering free
a bunch of daisies transformed with love
necklace and bracelet feather soft as a dove

In dewy meadow, Autumn leaves fall
dandelions transform into puffballs
with gentle breaths, we blow and blow
discovering Time as spores drift like snow
one o’clock, two o’clock –– maybe three
until naked stem is all we can see.

In dewy meadow, Winter walks are brisk
the puddles ice over putting feet at risk
I spy a toddler wearing bright rubber boots
splashing in puddles, not giving two hoots
a flashback to childhood appears in the rain
it’s worth wet socks to feel carefree again.

© 2014

How many Seasons Are There? Does Australia Have More Than Four?

In 2014, Dr Tim Entwisle, the director of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens wrote a book called, Sprinter and Sprummer challenging the traditional four seasons, and encouraging Australians to think about how we view changes in our natural world. He said, since 1788, Australia has carried the yoke of four European seasons that make no sense in most parts of the country. 

When he was on the ABC to explain his book and ideas he stirred up interest, support, antagonism and fascination. Many people agreed with the author that the reality for Australia is many more seasons than the traditional four but few liked Sprinter and Sprummer as names!

Living in Sydney, London and now Melbourne, I’m convinced that the four traditional seasons don’t make sense in Australia. My proposal is that we instead have five seasons based on the climatic and biological cycles we observe around us.

… minutes, hours, days and months are the way we organise our lives—sowing crops, attending job interviews, picking up kids from child care, playing footy, getting our hair cut and so on. Seasons are for noting, celebrating and tracking the changes in the world around us. If we get them wrong we don’t lose our crop, job or children.

It’s a tweaking of the current system. The familiar anchors, summer and winter, are there, but the bits in between and the duration of the seasons are adjusted for the southern Australian climate…

We could embrace one of the Aboriginal seasonal systems, but I fear this might be just too radical for most Australians (who, contrary to popular belief, are a rather conservative people)…

Then there is climate change and the fact that the seasons are changing, whether we like it or not. Perhaps we need an evolving system of seasons. However, we should at least get it right in the first place and try to reflect, if not our specific region, then large sections of the country.

There are no perfect or correct seasons. I am happy for my system to be rigorously debated and tested, and I would be thrilled if, through more people observing and monitoring the natural world, I have to totally redesign it.

In the South West of WA – there are some widely acknowledged Noongar Seasons which correspond well with what is suggested in the article.

Djilba (Sprinter) – Aug-Sep
Kambarang (Sprummer) – Oct-Nov
Birak-Bunnuru (Summer) – Dec-Mar
Djeran (Autumn) – Apr-May
Makuru (Winter) – Jun-Jul

People in Melbourne should also visit the Indigenous Garden and Forest display at the museum (after lockdown is over) and learn what our indigenous people call the seasons – and there are more than the arbitrary four we cling to, although I have devoted past posts to writing about winter.

Exercise 6:

  • What are your thoughts on Sprinter and Sprummer? Have you alternative names?
  • How do you cope with the seasons – is there a special ritual attached to your changing seasons, maybe they should be called that eg. Vegetable planting season, tree trimming season, burning-off season …
  • in suburbia, it could be tourist season and roadworks season
  • or maybe we should have flu and COVID19 season and healthy season…

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There will be plenty of creative writing around coping with COVID19 and speculation as to how the world coped with the global crisis.

Writers draw inspiration from observing the world, people, situations, politics, trends – we are all opinionated! Sometimes it is good to let your thoughts marinate and have the benefit of hindsight or reflection.

Most people are worried about the next few months but many are also planning the shape of the world’s recuperation and recovery:

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The Fall of 2016
Mairi Neil

For some the change of seasons
can be bitter chocolate…
Autumn succumbs to winter,
days darken like spiced cider
and blackened bark,
heralding winter’s deadly cull,
lauding lifeless landscapes.

Sticks and stones underfoot
not grassy knolls or mossy rounds.
Colourful autumn foliage invites
fanciful names…
Rickshaw red
Obstinate orange
Spiced cinnamon
Frog Pond green
Golden treasure
Moroccan sunset
Chile sunrise…

But like Wall Street’s
soulless stock surprises
and the rust belt of America’s
presidential choice,
winter winds bluster
sweeping lonely leaves loose…
Colours crunched to mush

Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Intoned                      endured
until Mother Nature’s miracle
rebirths Earth…

And a tiny shoot springs to life.

We Always Need Hope especially In Today’s World

Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the conviction that something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences.

Hope is the quality of character that sustains belief under seemingly impossible situations – when kindness seems impossible or poverty inevitable or when the world seems cruel and life unbearable.

People encounter sources of hope in the imagination, in the words and examples of others, and in witness to the natural wonders around us every day.

Hope does not extinguish suffering but sustains the belief that there can be an end to it, if not in your own life, then in the future. And so hope propels you into action.

Vaclav Havel,playwright and former Czech Republic President 

Here is a short story Spring has Sprung by Mairi Neil

And just because it has been so wet this weekend, here’s a reminder we are a country of ‘drought and flooding rains’ with a poem and a piece of flash fiction written in class splurge time A Roof Over One’s Head by Mairi Neil

Flash Storm Flushes and Flusters
Mairi Neil

Who will be the first to drown
from the heavens challenge
of a waterfall tumbling down?
‘Not me,’ said those with umbrellas held high
‘Nor me,’ said others huddled inside and dry.

‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’

Thunder roared and growled –
was that a lightning flash?
People braved the downpour
and made a dash – for bus shelters
snuggled close to strangers – others
crossed streets ignoring dangers.

‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’

Any port in a storm a cliche true
doorways and porches home
for more than drenched few
downpipes sagged and gushed
collapsed under watery weight
surging water made rivers of roads
scheduled transport cancelled or late.

‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’

Soaked, sodden, and shivering
commuters crowd tram, train and bus
meteorological or seasonal confusion?
No, – it’s Melbourne – no need to fuss.
Who cares? cries the inner child with glee  –
splashing in puddles looks fun to me!

© 2017

lone magpie

Happy Writing!

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.

Hopper 3
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.
Hopper 2
Chop Suey, 1929, two women in conversation at a restaurant
Hopper 1
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

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

group of heroes

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!)

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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.

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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!

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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!!

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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.

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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?

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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

Write Your Own Fairytale

cover of Grimm's book

Day Ten – Have you picked up a pen?

Once upon a time, the first stories we learned were fairytales read or told to us, by our parents or grandparents.

  • How many fairytales can you remember?
  • Why do you think fairytales are popular?

Many people will only know the Disney version of the tales but now you have some time to read, try researching some of the original fairytales and gathering ideas to write your own!

The most famous collection is the folklore gathered by the Brothers Grimm (and yes the jokes made about their German name are true because some of the tales are grim!).

Read the original Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Rumpelstiltskin, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and The Elves and the Shoemaker.

I waited until my daughters were teenagers and interested in knowing the origins of many Disneyfied tales before buying them The Complete Fairy Tales.

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However, Charles Perrault also wrote fairytales based on old French folk tales (thank him for Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots) and Hans Christian Andersen did something similar before writing original stories. (You may know The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, and The Princess and the Pea amongst others.)

Much of the writings of these literary figures is still read today or adapted for short stories, novels, poetry and film.

Fairy tales continue to inspire writers, with new versions appearing each year,  in print, film and television. Some adaptations are aimed at children, but many are made for adults and focus on the genre’s dark roots.

sculpture with icicles toronto

Some of my popular lessons are based around rewriting fairytales and examining why they are so popular – even among today’s technologically savvy kids – and working out what we can learn about the tools involved in the craft of writing such as structure, theme, plot, characterisation and setting.

What can we learn from fairytales regarding story structure and character development?

book of fairytales

Let’s deconstruct the well-known tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This tale, like Jack and the Beanstalk, is a British fairy tale.

  • List of main characters:
    Goldilocks (protagonist)
    Papa Bear
    Mama Bear
    Baby Bear

What are the aims and obstacles the main character has to overcome?

  1. She is hungry – finds steamy porridge – one is too hot, the other too salty – small bowl just right and she eats it up.
  2. Her feet are sore and she needs rest – one chair too hard, other too soft, a small one just right, but chair breaks.
  3. She is tired – goes upstairs to find a bed – one too high, other too low, the cot just right.
  4. She falls asleep and dreams.
  5. The Bear family comes home after being for a walk to let their porridge cool down and discover: the porridge is eaten, a chair broke, and Goldilocks in bed asleep.
  6. Goldilocks wakes up, gets frightened and runs away. She escapes into wood and heads home.
  7. When she hears mother’s voice, she knows she is safe.

toronto childcare

Most folk tales and fairy tales started off as oral stories told around campfires, kitchen tables or at bedtime in the years when the general population couldn’t read or write.

Many were cautionary tales with a strong moral tone influenced by society’s power structures to instil cultural norms dictated by the aristocracy and religious rulers.

They are populated with people who are evil (sometimes not even human), bad or just stupid.  Inevitably,  good triumphs over evil, the bad learn to behave or are punished and often the stupid learn to be wise.

The religious overtones are obvious and reflect the power of the church. A lot of  the fairy tales teach a version of the lesson ‘be careful who you make deals or bargains with,’ probably a reference to the Faustian ‘making deals with the devil.’

There are the all-important conflict and obstacles to overcome and the character transformation required to satisfy creative writing norms, plus the invariable ‘happy ending’, or promise of hope most readers expect.

Goldilocks and The Three Bears message, apart from warning of the dangers of ‘the woods’ (a common trope and setting for fairytales) is teaching respect for the property of others and the importance of manners. I did say it had British origins:)

gardenworld girl with book

The Importance of Storytelling

  1. Stories unite people. When we share stories we take a step towards understanding and tolerance. Check out folk tales, myths and legends from other countries. Google or visit your local library. You’ll be surprised how many of the stories will be familiar with similar messages – Cinderella-type stories (we know the Perrault version) appears in several cultures.

hindu temple  2. Stories help us make sense of the world around us by explaining natural phenomena. Aboriginal Dreamtime stories are an amazing must-read.

  1. Stories help to keep our culture, history and traditions alive because narratives fascinate us whether in a dramatic performance, a book, or on-screen or over the radio.

fairytale park russia 1

  1. Stories entertain. All cultures create worlds of dreams and pretence.

fairytale cake

  1. Stories can help us understand the adult world before facing it and help us work through trauma in the real world.
  2. Passing stories down through generations is one way of maintaining cultural roots and sharing experience, and ensuring history isn’t lost.

3 wise monkeys russia

The setting is an important part of any fairy tale. The tone of the story is set in the way the setting is described.

As mentioned, many fairytales are set in forests or the woods – they often appear dark, unfriendly places. Places that hide goblins, trolls, wolves, witches, wicked queens or hags and huntsmen.

Then it may move to a castle or palace. There is always a contrast between grandeur and simple cottages and/or impoverished villages.

Anything can happen in the land of make-believe, it is a magical place.

Usually, a hero emerges to save the day, there is often a damsel in distress to be rescued and loved, and creatures can be friendly or unfriendly.

  • Several elements identify stories as part of the genre of fairy tales but for most of us it is the special beginning and/or ending words – Once upon a time…and they lived happily ever after.
  • Things often happen in threes and sevens (check it out here! and here)

(Is this why our PM, Scotty from Marketing devised three-word slogans?)

  • magic happens with good and bad characters
  • the problems are always solved by the end of the story

Fear, violence, anger and treachery are always overcome by courage, love and cleverness.

elephant in garden toronto
What could be the story here – an elephant roaming suburbia?

Story idea: – Lost in the Woods

You can try writing a fractured fairytale – taking the bones of a well-known tale/myth and using your imagination put your own interpretation on it.

Or take the structure and elements of fairytales and apply them to one of these stories:

Your character goes for a walk in the woods and loses his/her way. After many hours of wandering through the trees, s/he comes upon (choose a scenario) …

  • an old cabin that an escaped criminal has made his home.
  • an attractive stranger, who appears injured and disoriented.
  • a magnificent house, with the door unlocked and all of the lamps lit, but apparently empty.
  • a crying baby, lying alone in a pile of leaves.
  • what appears to be some kind of spacecraft
  • a pack of wolves, or perhaps werewolves
  • a military project so secret that the government can’t risk your character leaving alive.
  • a summer camp full of children who are terrified because the adults supervising them have all mysteriously disappeared.

What else might your character find in the woods …

Stories based on fairytales are popular in pop culture and among those interested in cosplay – I found that out when I went to Comi-con with my daughter – check out the photos here – you may get inspiration for character descriptions.

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Rewrite a Fairytale For a News Article

Reporters still use the pyramid structure ie.

  • write the most important point first and gradually add details to the story so if readers don’t read to the end they know the main facts.

Here’s my take on Goldilocks –

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL by Mairi Neil

Goldie Locks of Primrose Cottage had a narrow escape in the woods today. She was chased by three bears, who have taken up residence for winter. However, if Goldie had obeyed her mother and played in the garden, the escapade could have been avoided. Instead, she explored the woods alone.

‘When I heard my mother’s voice, I cried with relief,’ said Miss Locks.

‘Yes,’ confirmed her mother, ‘she was pale and breathless and threw herself into my arms. It was some time before I got the story out of her.’

And what a story it is, readers.

The police interviewed the three bears and have decided not to lay charges. It seems Miss Locks entered Bear Cottage without permission. She not only stole food but caused criminal damage.

A distraught Baby Bear sacrificed his breakfast to Goldie Locks’ greed. She broke his favourite chair and left grass stains on his quilt when she fell asleep on his bed with dirty shoes.

Taking Miss Locks’ tender years into account, the Bear family will not press charges.

The police appreciate not being tied up with the paperwork a case like this generates. They have also agreed to mediate a conference between the Locks and the Bears to facilitate friendly neighbourhood relations.

‘After all,’ said Papa Bear, ‘we all must share the woods.

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Traveller’s tales can be adapted into fairytales – imagine what this backpacker is thinking as he stands in the centre of a strange city – who will he meet? What customs will he have to learn? Will he have to do something before being allowed to leave? Will he meet someone special and decide to stay?

Brainstorm New Fairytale Titles and Ideas

Make character profiles and think of their story arc (maybe change the protagonist or change the point of view…)

Fractured fairytales use the tales you know and change one, some or all of the characters, setting, points of view or plots. Eg The Wolf who Cried

CINDERELLA – If The Shoe Fits Wear It

Thousands of single ladies flock to a ball dressed to impress. One wore a glass slipper…

  • Think royalty – often queens and princesses are betrayed, divorced, murdered because they can’t produce an heir
  • Who wins from arranged marriages?
  • What if one of the step-sisters is nice and one horrible and Cinderella has manipulated their relationship to her own advantage
  • Is the prince gay and that’s why he has difficulty choosing a wife

JACK & THE BEANSTALK – Young Boy and His Mother Strike it Lucky

  • Genetically modified beanstalk
  • What are the motives of the Giant’s wife? She hid Jack so is she dishonest? a domestic violence victim?
  • Were Jack and she stupid or brave? Giant threatened them but did he deserve to die?
  • Where are the ethics if Jack triumphs – Jack was a thief?
  • Is this about bullying – Jack’s mum a shrew, the Giant into domestic violence

RUMPELSTILTSKIN – Clever People Come in Small Packages – Or Do They?

  • Girl locked in a room by the king.
  • Dwarf worked on her behalf and she offered her child.
  • Dwarf’s name had to be discovered.
  • Was it a case of Stockholm Syndrome when she married the king?
  • How do you break down the stereotype of people with a disability?
  • Do people ever accept outsiders?

THREE LITTLE PIGS – Property Developer Outwitted by Pig Family

  • Is there always one member of a family who is the smartest?
  • Do they write a manual on how to stand up to the local bully?
  • Think of the scandal over using cladding in the building industry
  • Is the story saying courage comes in many forms?
  • What about the balance of the natural world?

What about a modern twist to:

  • The Princess and The Pea – in the age of celebrity how do we rate women?
  • Beauty and the Beast – do you find love in strange places, diversity is the future, intolerance leads to violence
  • Rapunzel – kidnapping, obsession, cruelty – think of the stories of women being held prisoner, what about Stockholm Syndrome, can we change the high rate of domestic violence?

Here are three fractured fairytales I wrote in class years ago – try writing some yourself – it can be a lot of fun.  fractured fairytales by Mairi Neil

Happy Writing!