It’s Refugee Week and We Still Don’t Accept Seeking Asylum Is A Human Right

chasing asylum cover

Time For Truth-Telling

There has been a host of issues covered by a variety of media in the last week, as the important Black Lives Matter Movement continues to dominate headlines around the world and it is also Pride Month in the USA.

An important message of BLM and Pride is about valuing human rights, a similar message the United Nations established when they devised the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, July 1951.

tony-fernandes-human-rights-means-that-each-individual-should-quote-on-storemypic-ec083

Australia was party to this Convention as David Marr explains in an interview recorded on the 2016 documentary Chasing Asylum. 

The UN Declaration of Human Rights and Refugee Convention was a humane understanding, according to David and ‘the world’s apology to what was done to the Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust.’

When the doors are closed, people need protection and have a right to seek it!  Australia signed up to this Convention and to letting refugees come in – and they come by the sea when other channels are closed!

When I revisited this documentary, I wept. 

Even with COVID-19, when we are all encouraged to care for each other, we are detaining and treating asylum seekers as if they are criminals and of lesser value than ourselves. Fortunately, there are courageous advocates still speaking up and trying to get the Australian Government to honour the Conventions they signed.

FB_IMG_an asylum seeker 2020
A young man STILL detained – from a friend’s Facebook

I agree with David Marr, who ”defies anyone not to be moved and not feel ashamed.’

The film shows horrific footage (taken without the knowledge of those in authority) of inside the camps on Nauru and Manus Islands that Australian taxpayers fund and set up by the Federal Government.  Repeated parliaments headed by BOTH main political parties have made excuses to maintain these offshore camps.

The cost of torturing innocent people who had a RIGHT to seek asylum – $500,000 per asylum seeker per year – that is $1.2 billion to maintain Nauru and Manus Islands.

A lot of money to torture people because mandatory and indefinite detention is definitely torturing!

There is testimony from employees with firsthand experience who observed the inhumanity and horrific conditions in the detention camps. No amount of posturing and excuses will hide the fact the premise of Australia’s policy is we have a right to put refugees through hell because they came by sea and others might die at sea following their example.

It is profoundly hypocritical to claim ‘stop the boats and turn back the boats’ policies are humanitarian because they stop deaths at sea – especially when we continually engage in wars and other practices creating refugees!

The most recent mass migration of people fleeing their Syrian homeland a case in point. Australian planes bombed Syria. Many of the refugees in this documentary are Iranian, Afghani and Iraqi – Australia was part of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ who bombed these countries!

There are reasons for refugees fleeing their homeland – foremost is war – most people would prefer to stay in their own country. If more effort made to prevent the reasons, people put themselves at risk, we would not be facing a worldwide crisis of 60 million refugees.

The countries sheltering half a million to over a million refugees are:

  • Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan.
  • Germany accepted one million Syrian refugees in 2016.

Meanwhile, in Australia, we’ve demonised refugees since 2001 and used them as a political football.

In 2016, Chasing Asylum challenged us as a nation to confront the flagrant abuse of human rights perpetrated in our name and as a nation we responded by repeatedly electing governments to continue this inhumanity.

 

Reduced to its basest element, Australian government policy is to begrudgingly treat those who legally sought its asylum – by one mode of transport, by boat – with axiomatic cruelty, in order to discourage others from paying people smugglers and hopping into leaky boats across south-east Asia. This policy saves lives, they say, because it deters others.

But it’s not this policy that’s stopping the boats from reaching Australian shores. Australia has spent billions of dollars putting an armada to sea in the waters to the country’s north and west.

Asylum boats continue to ply the waters of the region and attempt to reach Australia. They do so in much smaller numbers now because they are intercepted, boarded and their passengers and crew forcibly turned around. Protection assessments are conducted at sea – a policy considered illegal under international law by almost every expert opinion, including that of the United Nations.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/nov/30/australias-offshore-detention-regime-is-a-brutal-and-obscene-piece-of-self-delusion

The support workers, volunteers, social workers, doctors and security personnel who speak on camera in Chasing Asylum also demonised. Classed as malcontents and whistleblowers, there have been many attempts to discredit them by sections of the government and media.

Their evidence may be unpalatable but cannot be ignored.

Because of their courage, protests from many community groups, and the persistence from MPs with a conscience like Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, the voiceless may have been ‘out of sight’ but were not ‘out of mind’!

And we still have asylum seekers incarcerated!

There is also a policy of boat turn-backs and like the disgraceful scandal of the Tampa, we ignore a basic law of the sea of helping a vessel in distress.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2006:

No one knows how many boat people have died, but thousands have been rescued at sea. In the reality of dangerous journeys undertaken to gain access to reluctant coastal states, the time-honoured maritime traditions of rescue at sea collide with the growing determination of states to prevent illegal entry to their territory.

However, to seek asylum as a refugee is not illegal!

We must face the reality of the deceit of the cruel and barbaric ‘stop the boats’ mantra and there is no time like the present!

This week, our current Prime Minister Morrison (his name comes up frequently in the documentary as Immigration Minister) showed his ignorance of Australia’s history regarding slavery and his specially picked Indigenous Envoy, Tony Abbott compounded that ignorance by declaring racism and prejudice plays no part in the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration and deaths in custody.

The pair still peddle the myth that our refugee policy of mandatory offshore detention is humane!

Like many of the horrific scenes circulating on social media at the moment, this history of our offshore detention policy makes uncomfortable viewing!

chasing asylum plea and blurb

By choosing to describe asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, economic migrants, or boat people, and classifying them as less deserving of help, it is easy for politicians to justify denying them basic human rights.

I’m glad that there are still activists protesting on behalf of asylum seekers.  I will continue to donate to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, write letters and sign petitions – trying to keep the issue alive via conversations and the written word.

Operation Sovereign Borders
Mairi Neil © 2016
(a found poem from Refugee Week leaflet)

Refugees and asylum seekers
young and old
wanting safety
protection
a new life…
They cross stormy waters
with courage
seeking justice
and a welcome
from Australian society

Amazing personal stories
of darkness,
bribery,
corruption
challenges faced
uprisings survived…
Prisoners of conscience
student leaders
from Afghanistan and Burma
seeking resettlement
and freedom
seeking to celebrate and contribute.

Their hopes crushed
basic human rights violated
harsh lessons in cruelty
as the innocent
are locked up.

In limbo
on Nauru and Manus Islands
detention not freedom ––
Why?

We can do better
Stand up, Speak up
Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Welcome here!

Latte Lament
by Mairi Neil © 2016

We sit in the cafe
indulging a desire
for coffee and cake
and a need
for each other…

Sensitive souls
we struggle to accept
that sitting, sipping coffee:
skinny latte, cappuccino, mochaccino
long or short black

and devouring slices
of gluten-free, fructose-free, fat-free,
carrot cake and a chocolate muffin –
is not conscience free…

Modern media mobility
screams of drought, bushfires
floods at home and
tragedies abroad:

war, random shootings,
terrorist attacks, refugee crises…

France
Greece
Indonesia
Iraq
Israel
Kenya
Lebanon
Palestine
Sri Lanka
Syria,
Turkey
Ukraine
Manus Island and Nauru…

We skip the sugar and cream
search mobile screen for a funny meme.

Chasing Asylum

The opening scene of a crowded boat navigating a choppy sea has a male voice over explaining ‘I head for Australia because it is a safe, humane country… respects people… no war, calm, everything good…’

And then there is the reality as shaky footage from a concealed mobile phone camera reveals Australia has some of the harshest refugee and asylum seeker policies in the world.

We see conditions in Nauru Detention Centre – the footage filmed in secret because no journalists, filmmakers or camera crew allowed inside the Nauru camp.

Nauru a remote island, population 10,000, isolated and extremely hot, you can drive around it in 20 minutes. It is a ‘poor’ country with a failing economy.

Easy pickings for Australia to sweep responsibility to somewhere else and pass on our problem. And it is understandable why the Nauruan government accepted Australia’s offer of a cash splash and allowed a detention centre.

At the time the documentary was made there were 2,175 asylum seekers in detention on Nauru and Manus Islands, including children.

protest by grandmothers against detention
protest in 2014  demanding release of children in detention

A social worker speaks about the shock of arriving to work at the camp – meeting people already detained 400-500 days and so many security personnel giving the camp a militarised feel.

We hear faceless conversations. The views of camp, fences, tents and people from imperfect angles, but there is sufficient footage to capture the bleakness, sparse colourless surroundings, makeshift and temporary set-up. Cyclone fencing reminiscent of building sites.

Painted on the side of a tent in Nauru – Welcome To Coffin

Sad drawings and paintings by children decorate walls, featuring tear-stained faces surrounded by flames, barbed wire and guns.

The camps really set up to make the refugees feel unwelcome and to send them home or hope they’d opt to return.

The social worker said in 6 weeks the detainees degrade mentally.

We hear a man say, ‘I am 28 years old – wasting my youth here… I lost dreams.’

Indefinite detention

A shocking concept, no program, no future. Criminals in a prison can count the days until the end of their sentence, but that can’t happen in a refugee camp.

No crime committed, the UN Convention ignored, people left to rot.

A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country… ”                        

                         The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees

  • Tortured at home
  • Tortured in the detention camps
  • Separated from their families with no prospect of being reunited.
  • No hope for the future.

A protest organised by the incarcerated men and WE WANT JUSTICE written on t-shirts.

We see men with lips sewed together, a lot of self-harm. The nurse saw a man who cut his stomach open with glass, men with stitched lips and eyelids, another beat and stabbed himself with a fluorescent light tube. A lot of cutting. And swallowing of razor blades, washing powder, bleach.

People hang themselves.

Support workers describe how they answered an advert of Facebook from the Salvation Army. When they enquired what the job entailed, the interviewer ‘made it sound like a nice place, enjoy a two-week holiday, invite your friends to apply…’

Arriving on Nauru, the fresh recruits discover an eclectic group of fellow workers: a manager of a MacDonald’s, retirees, factory workers and university students.

The only thing they had in common was no one had experience working with asylum seekers or refugees!

The briefing they got on arrival was indeed brief!

A woman said, ‘Go and help the men, befriend them. Go in pairs, mingle, I’ll be back in two hours.’

They found dispirited refugees, lying listlessly on the bed and lethargic asking, ‘Why are you here? Why are we here? How long will we be here?’

Many couldn’t sleep, were on medication because of the rapid deterioration of their mental health, which usually started after 6 weeks.

The support workers realised intakes were confused, some didn’t know they were not in Australia, others couldn’t understand why they were treated like criminals.

A support worker questioned what she was doing there and regretted signing up, especially when she read a sign that said, ‘Make sure staff are trained to use a Hoffman’s Knife.’

She discovered a Hoffman’s Knife is used to cut people down when they hang themselves! She was in a place she’d never choose to visit and she shouldn’t have taken the job.

A social worker recalled a Tamil from Sri Lanka’s story. He was the same age as herself 24/25. He was living in an area controlled by Tamil Tigers. His father shot in front of him. He and his brother left for Colombo and arrested by authorities, imprisoned and tortured for a year. He had cigarette burns on his back and genitals. Highly distressed on Nauru, he displayed symptoms of severe trauma.

He wanted to die and kept repeating ‘My life, where is my life?’

The social worker broke down, ‘I can’t help them, I have nothing of comfort to say.

People talk to themselves. Have psychotic episodes, walk around like zombies, most are medicated. Every day they have thoughts of suicide and self-harm. She can only tell them things will get better, but they know, and so does she, that it is a lie. 

A support worker saw a severe beating of a refugee by two guards – a New Zealander and an Australian – but after pressure, she changed her statement. On reflection, she is ashamed but did so because she was scared. She was the only one prepared to be honest.

The guards are ex ADF, bouncers and prison officers and are always on edge. Hyper-vigilant, many are racists. Their aggressive attitude shows no empathy for asylum seekers.

st paul's sign for refugees
ironically St paul’s in Melbourne sports a sign most Australians ignore.

Official Refugee Policy?

Although no politician offered an interview for the documentary there is enough recorded interviews and broadcasted soundbites included:

Prime Minister John Howard in 2001 – the Tampa Election – ‘we will decide who comes into this country and how…’

2009 Kevin Rudd – those coming by boat will be detained offshore

2012 Julia Gillard – ‘don’t risk a voyage at sea… don’t give money to people smugglers… you will be detained offshore

2013 Tony Abbott  – won the election with the promise to ‘stop the boats’

2013 – Scott Morrison, Immigration Minister – it is a national emergency and border security operation – ‘the boats must be stopped.’

July 19, 2013 – Australia’s policy: any asylum seeker arriving by boat will not be settled in Australia – mandatory offshore detention.

2015 – Turnbull – ‘only way to stop deaths at sea.’

2017

FB_IMGTurnbull quote
Doing the rounds of Facebook

In the documentary, Greg Lake, the public servant who ran the Detention Centre admits that he took on the job with a background of ‘upper-middle-class white guy from NSW, growing up in a place with few migrants and never meeting a refugee or asylum seeker.’

He saw the job as implementing government policy, but the policy issue changed from looking after people seeking asylum to, we will make your life worse than what you fled if you choose to stay here.

We don’t want you coming by boat and will make your life horrible so the message will get out and no one else gets on a boat. Greg Lake realised it was a deterrent strategy and people will be permanently damaged so he left – it was too hard a portfolio.

Go Back to Where You Came From Is Not An Option!

In 2011, SBS produced a reality show to tackle Australia’s refugee policy and reveal the human face behind the statistics by exposing six Australians with strong opinions about immigration to the journeys of some refugees.

Hopefully, it helped some members of the public to think more deeply and beyond three word slogans.

Ironically, one of every two Australians is an immigrant or the child of one. (I came to Australia as a child in 1962 with my parents and 5 siblings.)

Yet, despite our diverse population and culture, immigration continues to be a central political issue. Often the people who are the most vociferous and ill-informed are migrants or children of refugees who came here after WW2.

Sadly, social media has amplified bigotry and racism and spread misinformation like wildfire. Many in Australia applaud President Trump’s recent playbook by telling those in the public eye who are critical, especially women of colour like Greens MP, Mehreen Faruqi and Labor’s Anne Aly, to ‘go back where they came from’.

The “go back” insult is offensive because it is not about citizenship, said Susan Harris Rimmer, a law professor at Griffith University in Queensland. “It’s about your skin colour,” she said. “You are seen to be more loyal or disloyal depending on whether you look like the norm.”

quoted in New York Times, Letter to Australia

Does the Australian public realise the price paid to stop the boats and who pays??

Dr Peter Young reported measurable disorders observed in children.

  • Children watching parents getting sicker, young babies not feeding properly or gaining weight.
  • Children’s drawings reflect how disturbed they are watching self-harm and also many had been sexualised or seen things they shouldn’t have seen.

Mouldy damp tents with no privacy or space, erected upon white phosphate rock. Behavioural issues because there were no age-appropriate activities.

Children referred to each other with boat IDs instead of names. The practice rampant – they had forgotten their names and who they were.

There was a lot of fighting and self-harming.

A report was published in 2014 by the Human rights Commission. :

The Forgotten Children – the report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention 2014

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young collected toys and when they arrived the kids didn’t know what to do with them.

Heartbreaking for the support workers to witness!

A social worker will never forget a child’s reaction to receiving a soft toy after a year in the camp with no play activities. 

David Marr talked about the allegations of sexual and physical abuse of women and children which resulted in The Moss Review in 2015

There were details of sexualised behaviour amongst children, cigarettes traded for sex, children under 5 exposed to sexual behaviour and other activities at an inappropriate age….

It took the Australian Government 17 months to investigate reports.

No results and no repercussions instead the government legislated on July 1, 2015, that whistleblowers will face prison!!

Michael Bachelard, an Australian journalist living in Indonesia believes the threat of asylum seekers blown out of proportion and hardline policies of successive governments may have stopped the boats by successfully attacking the people smugglers’ business model, but the human cost appalling when you see the lives of the 10,000 stranded in Indonesia and those detained on Nauru and Manus.

The refugees in Indonesia can’t work, children can’t go to school, everything costs money and they can’t earn any.  (see my Staging Post Review)

Hazara refugees from Afghanistan share their stories – husbands, fathers, sons, mothers, widows… all fleeing persecution by the Taliban and seeking a better peaceful life.

Asylum seekers are now told there is no way you will make Australia home…

Manus Island

In 2013, Rudd declared a resettlement agreement with Papua New Guinea would stop the scourge of people smuggling. Some refugees who arrived on Christmas Island flown straight away to Manus Island. They were terrified, believing New Guinea still practised cannibalism. Escorted on the plane by two security guards holding their arms they were heavily guarded on the flight.

Arriving in Manus they noticed there were trees but few houses.  They saw a fruit turned teeth red, and despite assurances feared the cannibalism they’d read about in books that happened 50 years ago still occurred.

A security guard turned whistleblower, explained it was a camp for single men. He had been a prison officer for 9 years with Victorian Corrections Service, but like others employed on Manus, had only experience dealing with those from the criminal world. The camp was not what he thought a detention camp would be.  He assumed they would train expert staff.

A WW2 Nissan hut one of the buildings with a concrete floor housing 122 double bunks. In the tropical weather, the shed was stifling – odour disgusting as was the surrounds, an overcrowded gaol behind padlocked gates.

There were not enough clothes, shoes, toilets or drinking water. Faeces littered the ground.  There were cases of malaria and other sicknesses. The men resembled broken men without a future, slouched shoulders and despair on their faces.

The contrast with staff quarters, stark – carpeted floor, air conditioning, matching sheets…

The Prison Officer, a whistleblower, he voiced his concerns and was threatened by a note left on his bed, then another verbal threat.

He stopped complaining and left. ‘I had principles, we need to talk and face the reality of what is happening about refugee policy.’

There is film of a demonstration by the detainees that became violent. 100 were arrested but no criminal convictions. Apparently, the bill was $60 million damage. (I’d question the figure because the facilities on Manus and Nauru are appalling and that was the reason for the protest!)

There is a lot of resentment from locals on Manus and Nauru who are not happy with the deal their governments have made with Australia.

Seven months after one protest, asylum seekers attacked by PNG police and locals – a riot ensues. Evidence shown of the fence pushed in by locals and shots fired into the camp. 

Sixty refugees are injured, one throat slit, one lost an eye, one man killed.

Reza Berate, an Iranian, beaten and not helped when dying. We see the grief of his family in Iran and their bewilderment as to how it could have happened.

 

2015 – Condemnation from the UN

The UN investigates and confirms Australia breeched conventions and accuses those in the detention centres of torture.

Tony Abbott’s response – “We won’t be lectured to by the UN.

We are 67th in the world for refugee intake. Abbott and Morrison cut our annual intake from 20,000 to 13,000 +

Minister Peter Dutton negotiated the Cambodian Settlement claiming that country free from persecution and a safe option. Australia made a $40 million down payment declaring refugees would be voluntarily sent there. Another $15 million was paid, but only 5 refugees went there. The average wage $100 a month.

We don’t want the offshore refugees here and so we will let the government spend as much money as they want to treat them any way they like.

The options – go to Cambodia or live in the community in Nauru where there are no jobs, low pay, and the cost of living outrageously high.  $20 for 2 litre carton of milk.

The refugees have:

  • No travel documents
  • No hope of reunification with family
  • Live in demountable blocks and share rooms
  • Live behind high fences in a soulless compound
  • their accommodation will always need security because some locals threatened them
  • No guarantee of safety.

  • Refugee women have claimed 20 cases of rape and sexual assault, but no one charged!

Flashback to 1970s

70,000 Vietnamese came to Australia under Malcolm Fraser’s LNP Government. 

On the documentary, Fraser states,  ‘I believed we had an obligation because of our part in the Vietnam war… most of the refugees had been through processing in Malaysia and Australia co-operated – these refugees beneficial. Refugees add to our culture, our wealth, our diversity.’

A sign at his funeral attended by many Vietnamese – Farewell to our champion of humanity. You are forever in our hearts…

Chasing Asylum is in memory of Malcolm Fraser – 1930 – 2015

Tolerance
Mairi Neil © 2017

To those who fear the
Other
Look not only with your
Eyes, but with
Respect, reason, logic and most of all heart.
Are people less human, more evil, if different?
Nationality and ethnicity
Culture, religion, identity
Earth’s children all ache, bleed, cry, – desire belonging and love.

 

Walking, Wellbeing, & Writing – a commonality beyond the first letter

woodland walk Aberdeen

It has been two weeks since my last post, but considering the hive of activity online with free courses, art-related and celebrity freebies, newspapers and journals unlocking paywalls, plus the constant news updates about the coronavirus, I doubt anyone has missed my jottings!

We also had Mother’s Day last weekend, which I enjoyed even if the movie and treats shared via ZOOM on the day because stage three lockdown still operated and Anne couldn’t visit.

MJ snapped this pic of one of the delightful gifts that arrived before the day. We laughed at this clever remix of Premier Daniel Andrews’ advice ONLY to happen when Lockdown is over.

The girls and I fangirls of the Victorian Premier who has shown impressive leadership through the COVID-19 crisis.

I have a feeling this will be a favourite number played in every pub/club in Melbourne when Victorians can truly ‘get on the beers‘ and socialise guilt-free!

(My preferred tipple is cider and here I am enjoying one after a day gardening…)

Get On The Beers

I know I’m not alone in receiving more parcel deliveries during the pandemic than in recent years. The service convenient, especially online grocery shopping, which I’ve found excellent.

If you can’t go out shopping safely,  how wonderful to receive deliveries.  I’ve loved receiving real mail in the mailbox other than bills, real estate ads and donation-seeking charity blurbs.

Good Things Come In Small & Big Packages

Students from past classes have posted lovely cards and letters asking after my welfare, and my incredible friend, Lisa, sent me a gorgeous box of super healthy fruit! 

My sister knitted a Rabbie Burns doll (oh, if I could write like him!) and I’m enjoying the beautiful indoor plant and excellent read (a biography of NZ PM) from the girls and looking forward to next weekend when Anne visits and we’ll play a new board game.

Another dear friend, Lesley dropped off flowers to plant after her husband, Ian did some culling.

A day in the garden aroused Josie’s interest and jealousy. She spent the next three days digging up the cuttings one by one!

Lesley assures me there are more cuttings on the way…

When Lesley delivered the cuttings, I could give her some freshly made Anzac biscuits – a firm favourite with me and the girls now I use the already mentioned recipe from the Jean Hailes Clinic!

I also gave a batch to Mark, my wonderful neighbour who while working from home offered to clean out the gutters and fix a broken bracket. Jobs he noticed needed doing. 

I truly am blessed with the people who come into my life!

flowers from Anne

I’m fortunate with the view from my window because watching the lorikeets visit to feed is a fantastic start to the day and I don’t notice if there is any work needing doing!

two lorikeets feeding

Social Distance Lorikeet Style
Mairi Neil

Lorikeets visit the bottlebrush to feed
Often lingering after munching on seed
Red and green flashes flutter and flitter
I watch from my window as they joyously twitter
Knowing they perceive humans as a threat
Ever alert to danger, we have never met
Even camera clicks produce a pause and glare
Their nervousness shames me – but I won’t despair
Some day I hope, love and trust we will share.
©2020

bridge over creek

I take every opportunity to laugh these days because, despite the worst-case scenarios not eventuating in Victoria and being a glass-half-full person, there have been days when anxiety about the present and the future has been almost overwhelming.

Living Dangerous
Mairi Neil

We will not forget the year 2020
Coronavirus stories will see to that
pandemic panic and widespread crying
no country free from the sick and dying
people forced to isolate and quarantine
practise social distancing
whether pauper or queen…

Wildlife too, adjusted behaviour
we will not forget the year 2020
many relationships shape-shifted
the Earth a pandemic was gifted…
Wildlife’s observations during isolation
would make any book they published
a headline grabber and selling sensation!

Life as I knew it will return in some form but until then…

A chat with Mary Jane, or a phone call or FaceTime with Anne or a friend always helps calm anxiety, but the best antidote is a lengthy daily walk with Josie, a companion like no other – her unconditional love brightens the day.

There are plenty of statistics about the health benefits of walking – not just the physical but emotional and mental health benefits. Plus, there are health benefits of owning a dog.

When the time suits, I’ll be out walking Josie without creating a schedule.

Whether the weather is the cliched ‘rain, hail or shine’, dressed appropriately I walk the dog – or rather Josie walks me!

Josie loves Mordialloc too, and when we are heading to friend Jillian’s house she breaks into a trot.

Walking and inhaling the beauty of our surrounds – neighbourhood gardens, Mordi streets, the parks, the Creek, the foreshore area… restores soul and energy – and we both know it.

The sea breeze rustles trees, birds sing from branches, insects hum and water ripples – nature’s beautiful chimes announce all is right with the world.

Walking is calming and observing details to write about helps me focus on anything but the troubles the world faces.

heron graceful

If confined to stay at home with no outside stimulation, I would retreat more often to the computer not doing anything productive. Crosswords and games online or scouring Internet articles interesting but not riveting or remotely relevant to current creative projects.

I’ve discovered I can spend the day doing absolutely nothing but going around in circles – literally hearing mum’s voice when she lamented, “I can’t get out of my own road.

I often think of Mum’s little sayings and they make perfect sense!

I know other friends have shared this experience – truly a sign of these times we are living through. Crises take effort to adjust despite the many ads about the pandemic proclaiming; we are all in this together – it is a shared global experience.

Hopefully, witnessing the effect on other countries, everyone will be more aware of how precious and fragile life on Earth is and the urgent need to address the effects of climate change and inequity – pressing issues BEFORE the pandemic.

The latest news from the USA is not surprising, showing it is the poor who suffer the most in a pandemic. The article refers to New York, but it is a similar story throughout the world – we may all be going through the same storm but are definitely not in the same boat!

I hope when the worst of the pandemic is over there is more effort to ensure sustainability and a healthy world for all living creatures wherever their home may be.

tree at creek - woman watching

How has your day been?‘ 

This is a daily question from Anne as she checks in on me.

If it wasn’t for the reflections and little ‘happenings’ from walking, I’m not sure our conversation would last long.

I don’t practice formal mindfulness, but when I walk with Josie, I find this is a time of peace and meditation. A time to focus on anything other than problems or worries.

Most days it is answering emails, sorting through old papers or photographs, cooking the dinner, trying out a cake or biscuit recipe, editing a short story or poem, weeding the garden, washing clothes… jumping from one task to another, no rhyme or reason…

Did I achieve or finish anything?

Does it matter?

There is pleasure in the hours of walking, observing, and greeting (from a distance) other dog walkers, friendly strangers, friends, and acquaintances not seen for a while!

People working from home or at home because they have lost their job walk for exercise and are more visible than when in their cars.

(A definite bonus of isolation is meeting people from the past. People I met when involved with Mordialloc Primary School, the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, and who attended writing workshops I’ve held.)

two cormorants perched

Protecting Wellbeing

Like many people, during the first few weeks of COVID-19 crisis, I had an almost unhealthy obsession with the news – not only of how the pandemic was playing out in Australia but each gruesome detail of disastrous death tolls and the lockdowns in Asia, Europe, UK and USA.

I soon discovered the day much better if I limited the news source to one or two outlets, only once a day or even news-free days.

My daughters agree:

Think of your blood pressure Mum’

‘You’re dealing with cancer – one crisis at a time’

‘Let us worry about that – we’ll do the shopping’

… and true to their word, I don’t have to go anywhere except for medical visits and exercise – the latter entails gardening and walking the dog. 

Safe and contactless living!

Friends and family I haven’t been able to connect with face to face have stayed connected over the Internet and by phone. The severe social consequences some have suffered because of isolation hasn’t happened to me.

The change in circumstances has made me think more deeply from the perspective of those with disabilities or illness who always have a limited connection with the outside world and must rely entirely on carers.

Let’s hope some creative ways ZOOM and similar programs have been used to provide services will remain and give access to a richer day to those permanently socially distanced!

mushroom half circle

My walks alternate between Mordialloc Creek and McDonald Street football oval and surrounds plus wandering around the suburban streets.

Joyful as this is, I know Josie will be beside herself when we return to the off-leash dog park and she catches up with other dogs en masse. Dogs are pack animals and not overly enamoured with social distancing.

Josie loves to chase and fetch. When off-leash, she’ll be able to exercise her full potential running after balls thrown from the special holder we have to turn the ball into a long-distance missile. 

a different view of creek

Seasons Don’t Recognise Pandemics

The change from summer to autumn in the gardens has been delightful to watch. Gardens seem to have been a riot of colour this year and people have worked hard transforming their gardens or homes with imagination.

A house where a couple created a beautiful Japanese-type garden is now up for lease – maybe it is their retirement income. Kudos to them both for putting so much effort into a garden for others to enjoy. Josie and I enjoyed our daily chats and seeing the shrubs, pavers and water feature being installed.

yellow roses and lavender

I’ve watched a house around the corner being built and Josie has loved the attention from the tradies.

 

It has been pleasant to have so few cars parked in the street because of fewer commuters and no U3A classes in the Allan McLean Hall at the end of the street.

Lockdown rules changed after Mother’s Day, allowing small gatherings, businesses and workplaces to open if they can manage the social distancing guidelines. People are visiting friends and family and larger groups play or exercise in the parks or practise sport.

People are resilient, small businesses often adapt – I spotted this van in Albert Street.

cafe starstruck-cute name

But people are hurting and the local Presbyterian church recognises this and has set up a community pantry.

However, not a lot has changed in my little bubble but then apart from the dramatic decrease in traffic and more people walking and chalked pavements from kids being schooled at home, not much seemed to change in Mordialloc at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown.

We are a coastal suburb with plenty of open space and I have been steering clear of busy shopping centres since Christmas because of poor health. Other suburbs will have their unique experiences.

cormorant like a statue

Now to writing:

Where do you go for serenity?

This is something to reflect on and write about  – it might be helpful to first record where you go or what you usually do to ease anxiety.

If yoga class is something you do, or dancing or working out at the gym many of these now have classes online you may have joined.

You may favour a room, a church, a friend’s house, or a special tree in your garden.

Or perhaps you indulge in an activity like writing or walking… maybe sewing or cooking…

Your serenity place or activity may be difficult to substitute during the lockdown, or you might have found it easy to adapt.

Do you have a special place you visit only once or twice a year? A place that may hold a strong emotional attachment or memory? Writing about it may help capture the calmness and peacefulness the place represents. 

Perhaps there is there an activity or place in your daily routine easily adapted to isolation rules.

Here are more writing suggestions:

  • Imagine yourself where you find serenity. Why are you there? Has something prompted the visit?
  • Describe your serenity setting.
  • Compare at least two visits to your serenity place.
  • What happens when this place disturbed, or no longer available, or your plans must change?
  • Do you have an alternative?
  • Write a poem inspired by the word serenity.

What is the opposite of serenity for you? Is there one particular time that stands out?

Write about how you unwind or handle anxiety – this may have changed over the years.

List the various ways you are meeting the challenge of isolation and practising social-distancing. 

Did you ever consider ‘stress’ before it became a much talked about ‘modern’ disease?

(When I recorded the history of our local primary school in Mordialloc on its 125th anniversary, I interviewed many past students and staff.  I’ve never forgotten a woman who attended the school during the depression years of the 1930s and coped through the war years commenting,  ‘ No one had stress then – we just got on with life.’)

Reflect on the lives of your parents and grandparents. Do you think they suffered stress – even if they didn’t call it that?

Do you know how they dealt with the tough periods of their lives? Were the pace of life and the responsibilities they had really that different from nowadays? If so – how?

ducks happy

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

Steve Jobs

Happy Writing!

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

pavement writing.jpg

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

 

FB_meme about reading
Facebook meme

 

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

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Facebook meme

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Time of Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine Liner

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

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

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

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

FB_meme about skills
Facebook meme

Are You More Present in Your Life?

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presents my eldest daughter sent during isolation

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

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

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

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

What stories can you make up?

Have the parcel postman or couriers visited more than usual?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Morrell

Have Your Rituals Changed?

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

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

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

Josie enjoys watching them too.

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

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

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

anzac biscuits.jpg

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

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

Substitutions (which I used)

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

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

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

Has technology been Your Friend or Foe?

learning ZOOM
Another Facebook meme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FB_autumn not available

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

storm brewing

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

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

Jim Tully, Writer’s Digest 1923

Happy Writing

 

 

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

Poetry and Prose Lets You Still Smell The Rose

roses canberra

Day Nineteen – Write so Readers Smell the Scene

Our sense of smell can do more to revive a memory than other senses and yet it is often a sense writers forget to include. Whether you are writing about indoors or outdoors remembering to include a smell will enrich the scene for the reader.

How often have you caught a whiff of perfume or food cooking and you are reminded of someone or transported to a place in memory?

Many smells are accompanied by a particular taste – sour or sweet, bland or tangy, ‘to die for’ or vomit-inducing… the experience for the reader can be visceral.

Senses empower limitations, senses expand vision within borders, senses promote understanding through pleasure. 

Dejan Stojanovic

A Lesson On Smell

Whenever we had a lesson to encourage the inclusion of smell in writing, I’d ask for suggestions and the student responses often overlapped because certain pungent smells stick in everyone’s mind.

However, the more we wracked our memories ‘to be different’ or recall what made an impression, the list grew – maybe you can add to this collection from a variety of classes:

  • The strong odour of our pets – dogs, cats, reptiles.
  • Gardens enlivened by rosemary, lavender, geraniums
  • Special perfumes – Estee Lauder, Chanel, Christina Ricci…
  • Working as a nurse in hospitals/nursing homes/clinics – the smell of disinfectant, anaesthetics, lotions and creams
  • The perspiration and sweat of fellow teammates playing a sport, the smell of lovers, of commuters, workmates, sweaty feet, old sneakers, shoe polish
  • Fresh country air, honeysuckle in hedges and cow pats in the fields
  • Lilacs and lily of the valley and roses, Daphnes – flowers with a redolence that lingers
  • The smell of the sea, seaweed, tea-tree bushes, rotting fish
  • Steam train smoke, fires burning red gum logs, barbecue and campfire smoke
  • New car smell, leather upholstery, new carpet smell, polished furniture
  • The smell of freshly turned soil, padded down straw in chicken coops, horse manure
  • Foul-smelling tanneries, abattoirs, processing sheep gut, rotting flesh, rotten meat, sour milk, vomit,
  • Antiseptic like Fennel, Dettol, bleach, ammonia, outdoor toilets, raw sewage
  • Chocolate and sweet shops, jam being cooked, baked bread,
  • Mustiness and the dank smell of cellars, caves, old, buildings
  • Dry and decaying wood – the smell of death, animal and human urine
  • Mowed grass, the eucalypts and other trees, dead flowers
  • Fish and cod liver oil, garlic, onion – many different spices
  • Whisky, rum, beer, cordial, coffee, cocoa, tea…

selection of flowers.jpg

Flowers are always a favourite and easy to include in a poem or story because they are found inside as well as outside. Every season has some shrub flowering and pot plants or cut flowers in vases are common whether on balconies or dining tables.

And what if you had no sense of smell?  People can lose it after an illness or injury. At the moment while we fight COVID19, some people are saying their sense of smell and taste are not only affected but don’t fully return once they recover from the virus.

How frustrated and disappointed would you be if unable to smell fresh coffee or baking bread?

It might be dangerous if you can’t smell because sometimes a bad smell is the first sign of danger like a gas or petrol leak.

A student who was a carpet layer said if he didn’t have a sense of smell he’d be more cautious because many of the old carpets he had to remove have animal and human urine stains and other nasties. 

You might have to rely more on the reaction of other people. Think about this if you give a character either no sense of smell or keenly developed olfactory glands. 

A Sense of Smell
Mairi Neil

If I lost my sense of smell
how could I tell
when dinner was ready or
when the dog needed a bath
I’d have to watch visitors up close
for signs of irritated eyes and nose

No memorable scents of changing seasons
to uplift and linger…
spring jasmine
honeysuckle summer
autumn lavender
winter rosemary massaged between fingers.

A walk by the sea to enliven senses
without salty air
could lead to despair
I’d drift disengaged
like floundered fish or discarded shells
without those pungent seaweed smells.

No comfort at home
from the smell of fresh sheets
and clothes newly laundered
no thrill of familiarity from a lover’s body
or distinctive perfume tied like shoelaces
to family, friends, and favourite places.

Gone the delight of visiting the lolly shop
to choose a special treat for the movies
or sniffing freshly baked bread and brewed coffee
and of course, the milky delight of newborn babies
shampooed hair and soft moisturised skin
the list is endless once you begin…

On the other hand
life could be grand
without smelly feet or rancid meat
no dog poo or stinky loo
no foul smells to make the nose twitch
oh, how I wish for an on and off switch!

© 2012

‘There should be an invention that bottles up a memory like a perfume, and it never faded, never got stale, and whenever I wanted to I could uncork the bottle, and live the memory all over again.’

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

lorikeet in bottlebrush.jpg

“When you write the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen!(origin unknown but quoted by Gurbaksh Chahal, Huffington Post)

Who Attends Life Story Classes?

In Life Stories Class, for three hours, students write, discuss, chat, laugh and cry, sharing experiences, memories, opinions, dreams and reflections.

  • Most classes vary in age but one class the students spanned 9 decades of living.
  • Families can be traced to colonial times or have arrived with the waves of migrants after WW2. For some English is a second language, others wish they still knew a language or culture that is lost.
  • Some have never married, others are divorced or widowed, some childless, others have children and grandchildren.
  • Some write about ancestors, immediate family, friends, ourselves, the joys and tragedies.
  • Some write prose and poetry, essays and anecdotes, flowery descriptions or minimal words.
  • Some learn how to craft the stories to include the senses, dialogue, humour or pathos.
  • We all remind ourselves how we felt, what we feel now, what we want others to know.

We gift of ourselves as we gift our words, nurturing each other, supporting each other – and most importantly, we have fun!

Here is a list that I give students and ask them to write at least a paragraph of what the smell means to them – later they are asked to expand at least two into a personal essay.

Try it – you are relying on your memory here, you don’t have to break lockdown and go outside. Many of the smells may be found inside your home or garden shed!

Think about the smells – is the smell sweet like perfume, or stinky like sewage, faint or strong, current or in the distant past? What person, place or event does it revive or what character and story can you create?

  1. pine needles
    cut grass
    Sunscreen
    eucalyptus
    rubbing alcohol
    cinnamon
    stale beer
    pencil erasers
    vinegar
    newly-vacuumed carpet
    orange peel
    radiators heating up
    mothballs
    fish – oysters
    a new car
  2. frying bacon
    damp paper
    shoe polish
    paint
    perfume
    petrol
    kerosene
    furniture polish
    floor wax
    BBQ – meat or onions
    roast or curry,
    stewed apples
    baked pie
    fresh bread
    seaweed
  3. soap
    lavender
    roses
    rosemary
    lemon
    blood
    burning
    cigarettes
    pipe smoke
    disinfectant
    nail polish/acetone
    jam cooking
    anaesthetic

Here is a piece I was triggered to write in class Letter from 17-year-old self by Mairi Neil   You might guess what smell by this old photo:

in my smoking days.jpg

Here is a mindmap template you can download for a bit of brainstorming: sensory image and language mind map

Writing Exercise 1:

  • What person, place or event do the smells revive or what character and fictional story can you create?
  • What about writing a poem –  choose one word/smell to write about – fill your white page with associations with the smell you have chosen.
  • write about morning or evening smells The Smell of Morning, 448 words by Mairi Neil

Writing Exercise 2:

List the smells you associate with a particular season:

  • The smells of summer
  • The smells of autumn
  • The smells of winter
  • The smells of spring

Now weave some of them into a story or poem…

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces us to the Buchanans in early summer. He emphasises the breeze blowing through the room, billowing the curtains and the women’s dresses. Later, the same characters are seated in the same place in the heat of summer as weighted down, dispirited, languid.

The story has progressed and so have the characters but he connects them to the place and reveals how they have changed through the weather/season – they are no longer bright, breezy and carefree. Circumstances have changed and so have they and their earlier energy no longer on show.

He has added balance and unity to both character and story.

In their magazine a long time ago, the Victorian Writers’ Centre used to publish a writing prompt for members to practice their craft. I think there was a prize of reduced membership – not sure. I never submitted a story just used the exercise as a bit of fun.

This one had to be exactly 250 words about a ghost haunting a Georgian mansion in Southern Ireland, the visitations always accompanied by a foul smell.

The Truth Stinks
Mairi Neil

The cottage door burst open and several burly members of the local constabulary filled the room. Seamous O’Flaherty blanched with fear.

‘Ye murdering swine,’ barked Sergeant O’Neill, ‘we found your dagger outside the big house, still dripping wit poor William O’Malley’s blood.’

O’Flaherty crouched against the wall of his tumbledown cottage pleading for his life. O’Malley had been the Head Gamekeeper for George Thomas, the English aristocrat who owned half of Kiltmargh in County Mayo and the rights to land with the best game and fish. O’Malley and O’Flaherty often hurled abuse at each other after a few ales in their local.

‘Yerve got the wrong man,’ Seamous whined, ‘lots of poachers use the same kind of knife!’

‘We know ‘tis yours,’ sneered the Sergeant.

‘I’m innocent, please listen. Let me go!’  The constables ignored his pleas and hauled snivelling Seamous into the police wagon.  The rough justice continued, until within the hour, Seamous hung from the rafters of the stables nestled in the shadow of the Thomas family’s Georgian mansion.

If the indignity of such an ignominious death was not enough, the vigilante executioners had dragged Seamous through a pile of fresh horse manure before stringing him up.

On October 31st each year, on the anniversary of that terrible night, Seamous returns searching for evidence to prove his innocence. His visitations are always accompanied by a foul smell, earning him the nickname of the farting ghost.

It appears in death as in life, poor Seamous O’Flaherty stands wrongfully accused!

© 2000

Writing Exercises From Photo Prompts 

A marvellous little book compiled by Michael Marland called Pictures For Writing, published in 1996 by Blackie & Son Ltd, Glasgow and London proved a godsend in early days of teaching.

I used it a lot when I started teaching almost full-time at Sandybeach Centre and Mordialloc neighbourhood House after John died.  Here are two photographs that may spark a story. Remember to introduce smells or a smell:

three girls by shore

fighting bushfire

The bushfire picture is definitely topical as far as those living in Australia are concerned – I’m sure there will be plenty of stories, novels and poems featuring the catastrophic summer we have lived through. Tragedy compounded now by COVID 19.

Here is a short story I wrote in the last class we had for the year inspired by the summer bushfires, Bushfire Blues by Mairi Neil  

Bush On Fire
Mairi Neil
(written after Black Saturday)

The sun is dulled by a veil of cloud
animals culled, Mother Nature a shroud
This defeated giver of life so dear
a dried-up river with power unclear
a red threat creeping, gathering power
creatures weeping, air rancid and sour
It dances with glee destroying with ease
devours blade and bush its direction a tease
whipped and encouraged by wind’s collusion
fiery menace forages and causes confusion
until the sun’s conscience explodes and
a large nimbostratus cloud reveals worth
the life-saving rain soaks the scorched earth.

© 2009

More Writing Exercises

  • You return to the house where you grew up, only to learn it has been condemned.
  • Why I love the smell of …
  • Why I hate the smell of …
  • Two characters are lost in the woods or the mountains – they have to survive overnight before rescue.
  • Write a story, essay or poem using the following title: Yesterday’s Coffee, Sunsets will never be the same again or Unforgettable or The worst mess I ever had to clean up
  • What comes after this opening sentence:
  1. Why is this on the front porch?
  2. I’ve got to get out of these clothes—fast.
  3. If you want to annoy me, just

We have read stories about paparazzi haunting the alleyways and snapping celebrities putting the rubbish out, and stalkers going through bins.

Did you know the City of Kingston do spot checks of bins to ensure people are recycling properly and putting the appropriate rubbish in the right bins? Apparently, you’ll get a note to improve or a sticker to say well done.

Writing Exercises:

  • If someone inspected your rubbish bin – or recycling bin – what could they surmise about you – would they be mistaken?
  • Do you have a favourite celebrity (or one you don’t like) what do you think they’d have in their trash worth writing about?
  • Write about someone who takes shelter. What is the most dominant smell and why should it matter? (Think bus shelters, doorways, under a table, in a foxhole, in someone’s arms, in a church, in a cave …)

Two Quotes For Inspiration

This one is particularly relevant considering the disastrous economic consequences of the current lockdown because of COVID 19 and the pain many people are experiencing with social-distancing and isolation:

The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.

Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” 

Kurt Vonnegut

and from another successful writer:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. 

Stephen King

As always – feel free to share the post and ideas, or any work you’ve been inspired to write:)

Happy Writing

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…

charles dickens quote.jpg

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:

poster at st michaels 2016.jpg

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.

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Nighthawks 1942 by Edward Hopper a painting that portrays people in a downtown diner late at night. It is Hopper’s most famous work and is one of the most recognisable paintings in American art.
Hopper 2
Chop Suey, 1929, two women in conversation at a restaurant
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Office At Night, 1940, open to endless interpretation.

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

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

Things to think about:

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

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

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

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

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

OR

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

Finally – You Can Do a Dr Doolittle…

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

Happy Writing

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

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Day Fourteen – Do you still have a blank screen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write from memory?

Sore Feet and Soaring Thoughts – a haibun
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside culture, the writer is the talking self.

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



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

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

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



The gate may open.


The gate may not.


Regardless, the writer can see straight through it.

Edmond Jabès

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Writing Activities To Try Today

MOOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Points to consider

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

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Your Turn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Writing Prompts Based on Theme

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Writing

Armchair Travel Can be Fun If You Share Your Stories

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

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

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

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my little bear at the mailbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visiting Singapore 1973 – a haibun
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

No unsettling chill
just instant relief
from relentless heat

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

A turmoil of grey
idyllic tropics in grip
of monsoonal rain

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

Share Your Travel Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Travel Experience Can You Write About?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I took these pictures this morning when walking the dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What’s your funniest travel story?

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

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

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

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

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

(A class exercise Monday 15th October 2012 )

Have You a Taste For Travel?
Mairi Neil 

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

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

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

Could I be as gracious and adventurous as Amelia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Armchair Travels Will You Create?

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

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

Verona Italy

Memories of Lago Di Garda, Italy
Mairi Neil, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

More Writing Prompts

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

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

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

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

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

Have you ever had the holiday from hell?

Have You A Favourite Holiday destination?

Currumbin a Sanctuary of Serenity
Mairi Neil, 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even More Writing Prompts

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

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

Enjoy A Cultural Experience Without Leaving Home

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

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

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

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

Armchair travel on steroids! Happy travelling –

Happy Writing!