Fashion Meets Fiction To Help Writers With Authenticity

In January 2013, I attended a wonderful exhibition at the Burrinja Cultural Centre in Upwey, presented by Eastern Regional Libraries Corporation and the Centre, to celebrate the National Year of Reading.

The exhibtion promised ‘travels through time and fiction of the periods, drawing together the threads of character, period, fashion and finery.’

The costumes on display accompanied by a novel of the period. I recognised many of the books, either read in school or turned into television or cinema classics. The costumes spanned 170 years of fashion history and were overwhelmingly for females. Women’s clothing underwent many radical changes of style, and until recently, despite ‘clothes maketh the man‘, the mention of fashion usually conjures images of predominantly female models on catwalks and shining in events like the Melbourne Cup’s Fashion on the Field.

I’m writing this blog as the postmortem on the recent United States Presidential Inauguration Ceremony is being mulled over with comments on the clothes of the participants – Bernie Sanders’ mittens, leading ladies purple outfits, Lady Gaga’s stunning appearance – and of course everyone wearing face masks and sending a powerful message about COVID19 and the mutant viruses.

Including costumery for characters important for writers and can improve a story on many levels, with detail valuable, whether you write fact or fiction.

The exhibition I attended, provided a mine of information for writing historical fiction. There were rare items such as a delicate crinoline dress dated 1860, bustle dresses from the late 19th century, suits from the Second World War era, 1950s ball gowns and 20th-century cocktail dresses and pant suits.

Accessories featured too: hats, gloves, shoes and handbags, jewellery … a feast of fashion for designers and researchers; especially wonderful for writers looking for colourful authenticity.

Most characters for a short story or novel require relevant research, and if you are delving into a particular period of history, the knowledge and inclusion of fashion, social mores, and specific idioms or jargon help the reader enter the world you have created.

If you make a mistake, believe me, there will be a critic somewhere who will notice!

Your blunder may not be as obvious as Brad Pitt wearing his 20th Century wristwatch in a fight scene in the 2004 Hollywood version of ancient Greece’s Troy, but may encourage the reader to question other details in your story.

I speak from experience.

A friend picked up a mistake in a Facebook post I made when I mentioned the first bicycle I owned in Australia bought secondhand at a high school fete in 1963. I said it was 50 cents when I should have said 5 shillings because Australia didn’t introduce decimal currency until 1966.

Details matter. When it comes to fashion it might alter the storyline, the timeline you decide to use and the location – even the need for minor characters. Consider the time it took a female to dress when layers fashionable: underwear (vest, knickers, corset, bloomers, stockings, underskirt, bustle and hoop), dress/skirt and outerwear of shawl/cape/coat/jacket, hat, gloves, shoes.

Depending on their wealth and station in life, they may have a dresser or maid, butler, hairdresser, even someone to apply make-up and choose jewellery. Or they may be so poor, they have one outfit, whatever the season that is altered and repaired!

When I spent a Christmas period in Toronto Canada that coincided with their worst winter blizzards in 50 years, I learnt to allow 10-15 minutes to take off or put on, the boots, coats, woollen hats and scarves. Each time you moved from outside to indoors visiting or shopping became a repetitive exercise.

Museums, art galleries and libraries often have permanent displays, plus special exhibitions, which provide a wealth of visual reminders about life in other eras and may contain hidden gems of information or give ideas useful for your writing. Events are sometimes free or available at a minimum cost.

Display at NGV focusing on French fashion and inspirations for artists

The Darnell Collection

I’ve blogged about the Jane Austen era a couple of times before and also an exhibition on the women in Dickens‘ novels. Fabulous exhibits to mine for information.

The Fashion Meets Fiction exhibition in 2012- 13 was created from a collection that grew from one woman’s passion for vintage clothes and accessories. Doris Darnell, a Quaker from Pennsylvania collected for over 70 years. The social history behind the items donated and gifted from around the world was ‘as important as the items themselves and preserving them and their stories for future generations became an important part of her passion.’

Letters, photographs and stories accompanied the gifts linking them to their original owners or donors, often detailing the occasion/s they were worn. The Australian goddaughter of Doris, inherited the collection in 2004. Charlotte Smith has grown the collection to 7,500 pieces, representing 23 different countries, to become the largest private international vintage clothing couture in Australasia.

Often the focus is on women’s clothing – and usually the glamorous items – however, clothing for men and children are represented. There are wedding dresses and sportswear, plus many reference library books, journals and exhibition catalogues.

The Darnell Collection provides fashion history education and is a design resource. Charlotte, the current custodian promotes the collection’s mission ‘to preserve, develop and enhance the collection’s ability to educate, interpret and inspire existing and new audiences for the better understanding and appreciation of the art of fashion.’

At the Burrinja Cultural Centre, the focus was on the style of memorable characters from popular novels: Scarlett O’Hara, Holly Golightly, Phryne Fisher, Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Woodruff and others. The backstory of the clothes and accessories explained too.

This ball gown of rayon, cotton thread and sequins, by Margeaux Couture is c1950s America. The ornate handbag of silk, velvet, gold and glass beads from Hong Kong, same era. They were chosen to represent the world of David Dodge’s novel, To Catch A Thief, where the main character, a daring cat burglar thieves from hotels and villas on the French Riviera. I remember watching the film on black and white television. I can imagine Grace Kelly in this stunning red gown.

Since the 1950s, formal attire has evolved from private events to public ones – from debutante balls and gala evenings in sumptuous venues to red carpet entrances. As written in Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, “Carefully chosen for special occasions, a ballgown should not only flatter the wearer and demonstrate her sense of style but also illustrate an understanding of the event to which it is worn.”

Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, is set in the 1870s. The two-piece dress chosen for the exhibition is American c1880 of silk faille, silk velvet and gilt metal to suit her upper-class characters.

Silk faille a popular fabric during the Victorian era with its strongly defined, ribbed texture and dramatic draping qualities. It is weighty and has to be cut carefully to ensure the ribbing of the two connecting pieces match to avoid uneven patterns. The material came back into vogue with Christian Dior’s New Look and is popular today with wedding dress designers.

Whenever I see these voluminous dresses with complicated layers, frills and beading, I think of the seamstresses because even with the invention of machines much of the sewing would be by hand.

The first functional sewing machine was invented by the French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, in 1830. Thimonnier’s machine used only one thread and a hooked needle that made the same chain stitch used with embroidery. The inventor was almost killed by an enraged group of French tailors who burnt down his garment factory because they feared unemployment as a result of his sewing machine invention. https://www.thoughtco.com/stitches-the-history-of-sewing-machines

My Aunt Chrissie, a tailoress, served her apprenticeship prior to WW2, and opened her own sewing school when she emigrated to Melbourne from Scotland in the 1950s. My older sister Cate, inherited her talent but my sewing skills are average.

However, sewing and fashion touches everyone’s life in some way. My generation experienced compulsory needlework classes at school, homemade clothes the norm for many working class people. Hundreds of stories and characters can be created around the subject.

The dress chosen for Daisy Miller, in Henry James’ novel Daisy Miller also c1880s, and made by Mrs C Tracey of New York. This silk faille Bustle Dress with silk taffeta lining and lace, has metallic thread, metal sequins and glass beads.

Bustles were semi-rigid structures of wire half circles held in place by cotton tape and secured around the women’s waist, sitting over her bottom thus creating an unnatural protrusion in silhouette. Less cumbersome than the crinoline, it still required a restrictive corset to achieve the tiny waist fashionable in the Victorian and early Edwardian eras.

This desire for a tiny waist had shocking consequences. A family story about my paternal Grandmother who married in 1900 mentions how she fainted twice donning her wedding dress because the corset strings had to be pulled tight to ensure the obligatory 18 inch waist!

The crinoline dress chosen for Eleanor Bold in Anthony Trollope’s, Barchester Towers, published in 1857 is from that era and also American. It is silk taffeta with silk thread and wooden buttons and the shape has been altered from the enormous dome usually found in crinolines to early bustle shape.

The mannequins used to display many of the Collection’s Victorian dresses are the equivalent to the average modern 12 year old! Most Victorian women were tiny, including Queen Victoria who was only 150cm tall. (That’s under five feet for those still dealing in feet and inches!) Mum was 150cm and was resigned to taking hems up on bought skirts and dresses.

The Day dress, c1860 America of roller printed cotton with natural dyes, chosen for Lucinda Leplastrier in Peter Carey’s novel of colonial Australia, Oscar & Lucinda. It has a wire hoop petticoat to create a domed or bell shape. An ungainly and dangerous style blamed for women swaying too close to an open fire and being trapped in smouldering garments. Hoop petticoats provided fodder for cartoonists to lampoon female social gatherings depicting the cumbersome dresses in small Victorian parlours.

I can vouch for the accuracy of the difficulty negotiating movement with a hoop in the hem of your dress. For my 60th birthday, I held a party inviting friends to dress as their favourite literary character. I went as Jo March from Little Women, after she sold her hair! A plastic hula hoop bought from a Two Dollar Shop provided the shape.

A friend helped me make this dress for my 60th Birthday bash

If your fictional heroine is wearing one of these dresses don’t add to her clumsy misery by having her drink a lot of tea or other beverages requiring visits to the bathroom!

Another Bustle Dress c1880s America was chosen for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles. It is one of the most individual Victorian dresses in the Collection; an apt choice for Sarah Woodruff. Wool with Mother of Pearl buttons it has unusual paisley panels, which suggests the dress was made by a small town dressmaker or to be worn by the maker because apart from the bustle, it does not follow other Victorian fashion trends.

I remember reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman for HSC English Lit in 1970 and can imagine Sarah wearing this dress. Even with a dark cloak and hood, she looked striking and attracted attention ensuring her walks along the cliff top and by the sea did not go unnoticed.

Two of the displays triggered more memories of Mum. A wool suit with silk crepe lining by Paul Horla for Fritzels, Milwaukee c the early 1940s is a wonderful example of fashion during World War Two. It was chosen to represent Dominique Francon, a character in Ayn Rand’s, The Fountainhead, first published 1943. It reminded me of Mum’s wedding suit but of course, in 1948, Scotland still had rationing and her suit was not as upmarket as pure wool and silk crepe. However, the style is similar.

When material was rationed, wool fabric allocated to uniforms and war related outfits was still difficult to obtain and dressmakers and tailors ‘took extraordinary steps’ to ensure no scrap of fabric wasted. Skirts became pencil shaped, requiring minimum metres and jackets tailored for a snug fit.

The clever details of this suit, which makes it look truly decadent in a time of austerity, are the collar, pockets and cuffs are fake… actually layers of leftover fabric cut and sewn individually… the ‘pockets’ are scraps of fabric stitched to the bodice and not usable.”

My Mother loved reading and had a penchant for genre novels – mysteries and romances her favourites. She introduced me to Agatha Christie and when I lived with a friend, in a Canberra flat while attending ANU, I discovered Margaret loved Agatha Christie too and worked my way through her bookshelf.

No surprises that Mum liked to read Maigret novels, Georges Simenon’s French detective and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series, like The Case of The Lonely Heiress. Perry Mason being a Californian lawyer and both of these characters subjects for popular television series and films. I can remember watching them in the 1960s and 70s and Maigret has been revived recently with new adaptations.

Perry Mason had a devoted secretary, Della Street, who helped him solve cases and the Ball Gown with Shawl by Lucy Sector captures the evening glamour c1950s. This outfit of silk brocade and silk satin was made in Melbourne. The Governor’s secretary wore the gown when she attended a ball at Government House, Sydney 1954.

Lucy Sector’s fashion career began in Melbourne in 1930s and her respected label became fashionable and exclusive with dresses sold throughout Australia, including her own shop in Northbridge WA. The black handbag of glass beads and silk brocade lining was from France c1950s.

The Swinging Sixties & Groovy Seventies

The 60s and 70s heralded big changes in acceptable attire for women with dresses becoming shorter and more revealing and pantsuits designed for afternoon and evening wear. Candice Bushnell’s, Sex and the City, a popular bestseller in 1997 as a collection of essays on the lifestyles of her social circle. Later a movie was made and television series. The silk faille cocktail dress by Christian Dior chosen for the character Carrie Bradshaw has glass beads, sequins and silk lining c late 1990s.

In 1997, John Galliano replaced Gianfranco Ferre as Dior’s head designer. He combined his love of theatrics with inspiration from the Dior archives and the fitted, elegant and feminine dress is reminiscent of the 1950s.

The leather shoes are more recent c2009 by Manolo Blahnik and come with a fascinating backstory, inspired by a similar pair of shoes Blahnik produced for designer Ossie Clark in the 1970s. Blahnik was producing men’s shoes in his shop in Chelsea, London when Clark asked him to create shoes for his next couture collection. Making women’s shoes filled a creative void for Blahnik and his outrageous and flamboyant designs became the fashion must-have. Bushnell’s novel republished in 2008 and the 2009 television series of Sex and the City gave Blahnik shoes cult status.

In Octopussy, Ian Fleming’s final James Bond book, a collection of short stories and published posthumously in 1966, the main character is Octavia Charlotte Smyther (aka Octopussy). Attractive, smart and athletic women a feature of Bond novels and movies so the pant suit by La Gaye Parisienne, Sydney of lurex and lame fabric perfect. A pant suit fits the 1960s setting but vamped to look trendier and sexier than the ordinary.

London 1956, saw the first couture collections using metallic yarn. By the 1960s, silver and gold lame fabrics (as well as pastel colours) replaced black as the favoured colour for the popular cocktail scene.

Love Story by Erich Segal, set in the 1970s and first published in the USA 1972 to popular acclaim, capturing the mood of the era of breaking down barriers and shifting boundaries. One of the main characters Jenny Cavilleri is studying music in Massachusetts and is matched to a machine-made lace and silk pant suit by Ann Pakradooni, a well-known dressmaker in Philadelphia in the 1960s and 70s.

Two years ago, this suit was part of a small display at the Philadelphia Art Institute. An 80 year old visitor asked if she could take a closer look at the inside of the jacket. Upon inspection of the stitching of the hooks and eyes, she realised she had made the suit when she worked for Mme Pakradooni in the early 1970s. She recognised her stitch work and explained each seamstress had a unique signature stitch, their secret signature for every garment they made.

The straw Hat with cotton flowers and satin ribbon is Australian c1970s, and the leather Handbag, French by Pierre Cardin c1970s.

Agatha Christie’s, Death On The Nile, a Poirot Story was first published in 1937 and set in that era. The silk organdie Day Dress c1930s an example of the softer more feminine look to replace the boyish 1920s. Soft, transparent fabrics like silk organdie were popular with colourful and complicated designs printed on silk, rayon and crinkle crepe. Daywear became less decorative and more practical, reflecting women’s busier roles in society. The brown straw Hat has cotton and plastic flowers on velvet ribbon.

The Great Gatsby, by S Scott Fitzgerald is out of copyright this year so prepare for a slew of adaptations and interpretations. It was first published in 1925 and featured the memorable Daisy Buchanan and the Roaring 20s United States. The blue silk chiffon and satin Dance Dress has paste diamantes and the silk shawl c1920 from China is stitched with silk thread.

The Evening Bag by Whiting & Davis is c1920 America and is woven metal mesh with hand screened-printed pattern and gilt metal frame. Whiting & Davis was one of the biggest and best known mesh handbag manufacturers and still manufacture today. Screen printing allowed for a myriad of patterns and colours.

The shoes by YuYee c1920s China with the maker’s stamp reading ’embroider shoes made in China’ and comprise of cotton, silk thread and leather soles. China’s export industry ensured wealthy expats could purchase garments and accessories with a ‘westernized’ Chinese look. in the 1920s, popular fashion included the wallpaper effect of Japanese decoration and rich embroidered patterns of flowers from China.

Georgy Girl, by Margaret Forster embraced the Swinging Sixties, and is another popular novel that made it to the big screen. It also inspired The Seekers hit song Georgy Girl used for the movie. The Cocktail Dress by Guy Meliet is silk faille from Caracas, South America, and the hat is synthetic mesh with faux pearls, c1990s, England. Although made in the 1990s the hat is 60s inspired and pairs well with the straight A-shape of the dress and suits the personality of the novel’s swinging Meredith.

Guy Meliet trained in Paris before moving to Caracas. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many designers and milliners trained in Paris alongside a well-known couturier before launching their their own salons in countries demanding expensive, French inspired clothes. Meliet is credited with dressing some of the most beautiful socialites in Venezuela, including Chesley Larson, the owner of this dress. A world that was anathema to Forster, a lifelong feminist and socialist.

Although published in 1963, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre, characterises the late 50s and early 60s, known as the Cold War era when spies and double agents were in the news. The chosen dress is Italian c1960, woollen and by Spinelli.

Elena and Sante Spinelli immigrated to Australia from Italy in 1958. In 1960 their luxury knitwear label, Spinelli began in Adelaide, South Australia. Their international influences and flair spiced Australian fashion, evidenced by this ‘mod’ 1960s dress. Combining fine Australian merino wool and the skill of Italian craftsmanship produced a unique Australian fashion statement. The wool Hat by Mr M c1960s America and the Australian crocodile Handbag with leather lining finishes the elegant outfit.

What would any fashion or life story be without the ubiquitous wedding dress. Nicholas Sparks 2003 novel The Wedding, focuses on a couple celebrating 30 years of marriage and while planning their daughter’s wedding, the husband is ‘re-courting’ his wife. It is set in the 70s and the Wedding Dress by the House of Henry Josef, Sydney, is machine-made lace, silk satin, net and polyester.

There were many other novels and outfits to satisfy a variety of historical periods and a writer’s curiosity. I’m sure many exhibitions are available online, especially with the disruption of 2020 and the continued adjustments to life trying to be Covid-normal.

Explore, research, read – then write!

To end with a smile (and we certainly need more of them!) here is a poem I wrote last Christmas for one of my daughters who loves cosplay and comes up with wonderful ideas for costumes, which we make on a low budget.

In 2021, the Earth can’t risk the Groundhog Day Effect

sunrise nearing Shetland

Although it is difficult to make headlines or initiate a public discussion about anything other than the global pandemic or Trump and his supporters’ refusal to accept the results of the USA Election, Greta Thunberg who just turned 18, has reminded us global warming is still happening with devastating consequences.

For those who have never seen the movie Groundhog Day, perhaps take a few minutes to Google,  or accept the explanation below…

Groundhog Day Effect

Based on the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. It is the idea that every action that one makes; the rewards and consequences of those actions are not followed through the next day. If someone were to make a big choice, commit a crime, offend someone, make a mistake, or meet someone throughout a period of a regular 24 hour day, those rewards and consequences for all of those actions are not carried through the next day. It is all forgotten. In other words, it’s like yesterday never happened. Therefore this pattern can keep on repeating for an unknown amount of time.

 I’ve known about the dangers of the Greenhouse effect, global warming, climate change – call it what you will – all my adult life and yet each year the public discussion seems to be the same. I’m with Greta – why aren’t we woke yet?! 

A Member of the Victorian Parliament Warned about Climate Change in 1990!

Here is an extract from the Gazette the Victorian MP Jean McLean used to deliver to her constituents.

Before social media, many members of parliament made an effort to keep the electors informed via regular newsletters. Jean McLean was especially interested in the environment and social justice issues – climate change most certainly an environmental AND social justice concern.

(It was time-consuming to get the message out with the tools of typing, Gestetner printing or photocopying, hand stapling and enveloping, even before relying on Aussie Post or volunteers like me to distribute, but I am so glad Jean did! )

extract from Jean McLean MP's Gazette.jpg

Currently, we are in the midst of a pandemic with a coronavirus never seen before and mutating at an alarming rate.  My recent diagnosis of melanoma (and I know many others in my circle of friends who have had skin cancers) proves the scientists’ predictions tragically spot on!

Pollute And  Perish – a Catchcry of the 70s

selection of protest badges
selection of badges from the 70s onwards – anti-nuclear, pro-solar, warning of radiating our food

Environmentalists and conservationists have been warning about global warming since April 22, 1970, when the first Earth Day was held in the USA and scientists coined the term Greenhouse Effect. They forecast the Earth’s future in doubt because air pollution was warming the planet – pollution primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

In the 80s the anti-uranium movement gained momentum against those seeking nuclear power because of the Chernobyl disaster, a place still contaminated 35 years later. It wasn’t the first but is perhaps the worst nuclear power station disaster,  yet some people still suggest nuclear power as an alternative energy source.

Since the 70s, environmental activists usually lumped in with  ‘the Left’,  disbelieved and vilified, shrugged off with contempt as ‘greenies’ and ‘tree huggers’.  Although social media favours ‘snowflakes’ and ‘leftards’ and other generic insults to cover numerous issues, not just the perceived ‘hoax‘ of climate change!

Not surprisingly, many who disbelieve climate change also favour the conspiracies around COVID19, although ironically there are some who believe the science of climate change but not the science of epidemiology (and vice versa)!

Climate messengers have expanded, from both sides of the political divide and even in the corporate sector. They admit climate change is real and we are experiencing dire human and economic consequences by ignoring the science. 

Natural disasters on the rise mean the tragedy of global warming can’t be ignored, but we shouldn’t forget many of our current political and corporate leaders have always KNOWN!

They’ve had:

  • Access, to scientific reports and data like the World Oceanographic Commission and World Meteorological Organisation, mentioned above,
  • plus a variety of other national and international research bodies. 

acrostic poem about earth day

Ignorance and lack of action a choice we really can’t afford now:

This time last year I was at home watching news of bushfires ravaging Victoria and NSW and making pouches for rescued wildlife.

Friends in the USA and Canada have shared the devastation of the 2020 fires in California that compounded the grief of coronavirus suffering.

Since the global pandemic struck, I have increased email correspondence to friends overseas or locals keeping social distance because of lockdown. Often the discussion is about the future and we recognise the existential threat of global warming. It may be off the front pages of newspapers but not forgotten by the people living with the memory of last summer’s fires in both hemispheres.

majestic tree copy.png.

Shirly is 88, and a dear friend in England who is married to a cousin of my husband’s, and like many living in the UK, she copes with what she describes as a world ‘in a mess… it’s as if Margaret Atwood wrote the year we’re living.  Dystopian.

On January 4th she wrote
 
Yesterday, quite accidentally, I turned the news channel on and your PM was extolling the joys of coal and the fact that this was Australia, not some little country dependant on Europe or America.
 
We can do what we like. We have coal and we’ll use coal.
 
He said it as though he was giving the people an enormously good piece of news. As though global warming had nothing to do with your country.   I couldn’t believe my ears.
 
But there are so many non- believers, we shouldn’t be surprised…

How right she is and the many reports about climate change updated because of another year’s data prompted others in Australia to remind the population of  PM Morrison’s pathetic position:

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I published a version of this poem in 2019 appealing to the then PM, Malcolm Turnbull. The appeal is still the same, although the PM, date, and increasingly worrying data have changed, plus we have the new ill-informed Deputy Prime Minister in the mix.

Easy actions many of us can take is to care and plant more trees, become a dendrophile. Also reduce, reuse and recycle,  and start conversations with friends and neighbours to lobby local councillors and politicians about the importance of renewable energy and government policies that help create a sustainable environment.

ancient tree.png

Most importantly, we can use our voice and our vote. This year there will be a Federal election in Australia, we must make sure climate change is addressed.

 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

A Public Health Crisis Requires Personal Responsibility and a Personal Response

leaflet from chemist.jpg
A leaflet freely available on the counter of my local chemist

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

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

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

life stories anthologies

Health Literacy Must Be A Priority

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

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

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

From the Australian Commission on Safety & Quality in Healthcare:

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

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

Volunteering To be  A Health Advocate May Help Others 

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

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

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

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A reference letter explaining my early involvement with community health.

Pandemic Restrictions Resume in Victoria

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

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

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

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

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

Recording The Pandemic For Future Generations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID 19 SURVEY RESPONSE SWINBURNE UNI

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

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

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

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

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

The Use of Technology Has Zoomed During COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

My initial thank you to the organisers:

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

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

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

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

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

And my thank you after everything went as planned!

Dear Georgia,

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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World Environment Day 2020 – A Time To Appreciate Mother Nature

 

lake in Victoria Gardens

This year’s World Environment theme is time for nature:

The foods we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the climate that makes our planet habitable all come from nature.
Yet, these are exceptional times in which nature is sending us a message:
To care for ourselves, we must care for nature.
It’s time to wake up. To take notice. To raise our voices.
It’s time to build back better for People and Planet.
This World Environment Day, it’s Time for Nature.

World Environment Day 2020

COVID-19 lockdowns restrict movement in neighbourhoods, towns, cities and countryside in countries throughout the world and have done so for several months, and most people now realise how important it is to breathe fresh air and to enjoy outside activities.

The easing of some restrictions in Victoria saw hundreds flock to national parks. Many places were overwhelmed and had to be closed because the recommended 1.5 metres of social-distancing couldn’t be enforced.

We are in the middle of a pandemic that has forced governments to act for the greater good of the public health, even closing international borders despite severe economic consequences.

Ironically, because of less air travel and movement of people, plus reductions in road traffic and industrial pollution, there has been an improvement in some natural areas such as cleaner waterways and a resurgence of wildlife.

However, the consequences of climate change are still severe and deadly and as many people have pointed out – if you believe and obey the science regarding the COVID-19 pandemic why are we not believing and acting urgently on the science about climate change!

As this picture doing the rounds of Facebook shows, the damage fossil fuels cause is not a new discovery – this newspaper date is 1912!

FB_early warning of global warming
a sobering Facebook meme when you look at the date!

The Speech A Prime Minister Should Make in 2020
© Mairi Neil

Men and women of Australia
and those who identify as other
there is no time to waste
you must listen to our Mother

Mother Earth, I’m referring to –
the mountains, snows, and sea
the seasons, soil, and sunlight
sustaining you and me

Mother Earth is terminally ill
Man has definitely not been kind
we’ve raped, polluted and poisoned
for wealth, we craved to find

Addicted to manufactured comfort
we’ve gouged mountains into craters
safe harbours are now wharves
to accommodate gigantic freighters.

Explosions altered landscapes
concrete towers replaced trees
animals hunted to extinction
polar ice caps no longer freeze.

Climate change is not a phrase
but a reality for the natural world
Global Warming’s rising tides
cities consumed as tsunamis swirl

Leaving disasters in their wake
human structures or nature’s design
Mother Earth almost beyond healing
permanent solutions we must find

Climate deniers knuckle draggers
as are those mouthing ‘innovation’
drought, bushfires and failed crops
the word should be desperation!

The time for procrastination gone
also the sand for burying your head
Earth’s lungs struggle daily to breathe
how long before humanity all dead?

dead bird and dandelion

Mordialloc Beach
Mairi Neil © 2013

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. The scent of eucalyptus and pine compete with salty air and whiffs of abandoned seaweed.
The cyan sea a mirror for whipped cream clouds. Dainty dollops on a baby blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop the glassy surface. Bathed in brilliant white sunlight, I imagine I too float and dream.
But in the distance, palm tree fronds tremble, casting lacy shadows on the warm sand. The clink of moorings and creak of masts drifts from the creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand to sting legs and face. Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the steel blue mirror swallowing the fluffy clouds.
Peaceful contemplation disappears, waves soap around my feet, slap at ankles, sunlight fades. I retreat to the shelter of groaning eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt bittersweet.

cormorant and seagull

Living Fossils (a villanelle)
Mairi Neil © 2014

Celebrate parks and open spaces
how they let us breathe and play
they put smiles upon our faces

Nature provides wondrous places
adding beauty to the everyday
wildlife parks, wilderness spaces

Trainers recommend 10,000 paces
exercise and be healthy they say
and put smiles upon our faces

In childhood, egg and spoon races
kite-flying, hide-n-seek, even croquet
celebrated parks and open spaces

Living demands no ‘airs and graces’
whether skies are blue or grey
let’s put smiles upon our faces

Find joy in parks and open spaces
because they let us breathe and play
and they put smiles upon our faces

In the future, they’ll discover traces
of how we spent our lives each day
they’ll dig up parks and other spaces
and put names to forgotten faces.

The importance of trees to our wellbeing and the earth’s health is, at last, being recognised by local councils (including Kingston) and I hope many more will become dendrophiles.

tree at park

We Have An Extinction Crisis In Australia

Today, I received an email from birdlife.org.au

Dear Mairi,

This year hasn’t been what any of us expected.

Australia was already in the grip of the extinction crisis, which meant our birds were facing unprecedented threats… and then the devastating bushfires struck. Fighting the extinction crisis became even more urgent.

Now we’re in a pandemic. While it’s changed how we live and work, COVID-19 hasn’t impacted our commitment to save Australian birds for future generations. We know the bushfires have compounded the extinction crisis. And we need your support to continue our vital conservation work.

Our experts estimate that the number of nationally threatened birds could rise from 134 last year to over 150 after the fires. And among them, for the first time I can recall, are birds such as the usually resilient and successful Superb Lyrebird. A wet forest bird, once considered relatively safe from bushfires, this iconic species lost over half its habitat in the inferno.

We fear the Superb Lyrebird may have plunged from being ‘common’ to being ‘threatened’ in just a few devastating weeks over summer.

Lyrebirds now desperately need a refuge.

Are We Birdbrained?
Mairi Neil ©2020

If the birds disappear or die
will bugs be kept in check –
what are the consequences
if Nature’s balance, we wreck?

Birds are landscape gardeners
planting seeds throughout the land
a tiny wren may be responsible
for the towering ash so grand…

Where would you live if your home
vanished from the neighbourhood?
If someone decided it was needed
for farmland, furniture, or firewood…

Would you relocate? Permanently migrate?
It’s Hobson’s Choice – face extinction
or take another’s territory to populate –
hoping survival is your fate.

Not only birds are endangered
global warming threatens us all –
We must act now to stop
habitat destruction, water shortages,
population pressure and urban sprawl!

magpie in garden

3.05pm Flinders Street to Frankston
Mairi Neil © 2016

He shovels a healthy salad
into bearded mouth
his bamboo fork environmentally friendly ––
but not the plastic container…

She swigs kombucha
for inner health
ignoring Mother Earth’s digestive tract
blocked by the plastic bottle and cap.

Fast food aromas embedded
in train carriage upholstery
waft in the air, cling to clothes.
Junk food litter clutters floor
peeks from discarded plastic bags…

Excess packaging the norm
as the world chokes
and even those who profess to care sucked in
and swallowed by consumerism

Landfill dumps grow garbage
litter        refuse       muck
There is no ‘away’ in throw!

Parks and Places to Play Important For Childhood Memories

  1. Write about the wild or natural places you remember playing in as a child.
  2. Where do you go today to breathe in and experience the natural world?
  3. How important is your garden, and what pleasure does it give?
  4. Describe your favourite walk?
  5. What bird, tree, flower do you see from your window/s?

yellow daisies

I spent my first nine years in Greenock, Scotland, an industrial town on the River Clyde that used to be famous for shipbuilding – the yards built the Queen Elizabeth and first Queen Mary, plus submarines for Australia.

I can’t remember much of the first three years living in a tenement in George Square, the centre of the town, but when we moved to Braeside where I started school, there is plenty of material for trips down memory lane.

Despite the rustic name (brae means hill in Scots), there were no built parks for us to play in. We spent a lot of time in back gardens (‘back greens’) and playing games in the street. Traffic minimal in the 50s and early 60s with my dad being one of the few in the street to own a vehicle. He had a motorbike at first, then bought a Bradford van.

Cars rarely disturbed our play which included hopscotch chalked on pavements (we called it ‘beds’), skipping (often with rope leftover from the clothesline), football, rounders, and British Bulldog and similar games involving lots of chasing, hiding and rough and tumble.

However, we also roamed the hill towering over the houses opposite and the farmer’s fields at the bottom of our road and a swathe of land separating upper and lower streets. The housing scheme stretched up a steep hill, Davaar Road being the topmost street and in the middle of that street, our house was number 35.

Across the road, behind a row of houses, there was a path we could climb to the top of the hill and see Gourock and the River Clyde. There were no tall trees but plenty of scrub, granite boulders and heather. Enough natural flora to keep us entertained with games influenced by episodes of popular shows broadcast by the fledgeling television industry: The Lone Ranger, the Cisco kid, Robin Hood and His Merry Men, and whatever adventure story Walt Disney promoted when he invited us to ‘wish upon a star’ on Sunday evenings.

Up the hill, I learned how to make daisy chains and to check who liked butter by waving buttercups under the chin. A memorable part of the long summer holidays was collecting twigs, branches and anything that would burn to prepare for bonfire night in November.
We never forgot Guy Fawkes and to “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot!”

The hill also welcomed children roaming in hordes carrying buckets and jam jars to seek blackberries when in season. The incentive of Mum’s delicious bramble jam spurned us on. We even spread our hunt into the farmer’s fields at the bottom of the street where we weren’t supposed to go. We knew the resident bull to be a danger to life and limb – plus when the Tinkers (Gypsies/Travellers) came they camped in the fields and we were warned to respect their privacy.

Mum and Dad didn’t practice overt bigotry against Travellers like some people. Mum helped them whenever she could by paying them to do odd jobs and buying some goods they hawked, such as wooden ‘dolly’ clothes-pegs.

However, any place forbidden meant we incorporated them as a deliberate dare in games. There must be a guardian angel for stupid children!

Stranger danger not indoctrinated, and we were never overly fearful, although warned to be careful, not ‘ask for trouble’ and to obey the limitations placed on us. But I remember roaming even further afield and going to what we called ‘the secret lake’ along the Aileymill Road. This pleasant track linked the new housing scheme with isolated cottages on the way to Inverkip and Skelmorlie, tiny towns further down the coastline.

If she knew, Mum would never have sanctioned that sojourn, but we fished for tadpoles and hunted frogs and let loose our imagination and energy.

I revisited the secret lake in the 70s and like everything else seen through adult eyes; the lake had shrunk to a large puddle rather than a lake. The farmer’s fields smaller too, and the bull nowhere in sight!

I checked out my old house in the 70s and again in 2017 – Davaar Road has not changed much although the houses modernised inside; sadly Aileymill is no longer bush to roam but another housing estate.

fb meme

 

Walk the Neighbourhood Absorb the Beauty of Your Place

Walking to Mordi Station in Winter
Mairi Neil © 2009

Plane tree stripped bare
branches black against
the fading daylight
roosting rosellas
rainbow decorations.
The aroma of roast chicken and gravy
drifts from the Main Street café —
Christmas in July!

“birds are the always-present possibility of an awakening to the natural world that too many people have not yet experienced.”

Corey Finger of 10,000 Birds

egret by creek

A Little Bird Cried To Me
Mairi Neil ©2020

A world without birds, I refuse to imagine
nature’s poetry and music gone
the only tweets from computer geeks
and no delights of avian song…

Marshlands, waterways, local creeks
forests, grasslands – our neighbourhood
birdlife helps keep the climate stable
feathered friends do a host of good!

Yet, species disappear or struggle to exist
habitats destroyed by so-called progress
when wildlife families decimated
conservationists struggle for success

Intensive farming and overuse of pesticides
reduce available safe food for birds
wholesale slaughter by hunter psychopaths
killing for ‘sport’- barbaric and absurd

Factory farms breed fowls for food
exotic birds for the fashion industry
collectors and others cage birds as pets –
but birds are meant to fly free

The world will soon descend to chaos
if all the birdlife disappears from Earth
fragile ecosystems are finely tuned
each creature has an intrinsic worth

A world without birds, devastating
Nature’s poetry and music gone
the only tweets from computer geeks
unless we work to save avian song…

FB_Poem for peace
another lovely gift of words via Facebook

Words can Warm, or Wound, Comfort or Control, Clarify or Confuse…

Aboriginal flag in Mordialloc

I acknowledge the Boon Wurrung as the traditional owners of Mordialloc and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

Yesterday was Mabo Day, a significant day for First Nation Peoples, a day to honour the vision, commitment and legacy of Eddie Mabo, who paved the way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights and Native Title in Australia.

It is also the end of Reconciliation Week, which occurs from 27 May – 3 June every year.

The dates mark the May 27,1967 Referendum that amended the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census and ends with June 3 when in 1992, the historic Mabo judgement by the High Court of Australia recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have rights to the land.

A map of the lands of Australian First Nations
A map showing First Nations

The Mabo decision acknowledged the First Nations longstanding and unique connection to the land for the last 65,000 to 80,000 years and declared Australia was not terra nullius – a claim used to justify the colonial invasion and acquisition of the land by Britain. In 1993, the Native Title Act passed in Federal Parliament and this has returned some sovereignty in some areas to First Nation peoples.

I wrote several posts in the last few days on other subjects, but each time stopped before posting because creative writing hints or other topics paled into insignificance with what is happening in the USA and other parts of the world after the recent murder of George Floyd. 

Coupled with news of COVID-19, we have a perfect storm of misery.

George Floyd’s tragic murder captured on mobile video and replayed millions of times throughout the world has led to scenes reminiscent of the 1960s.

Scenes of civil unrest in the USA I remember watching as a teenager as they played nightly on the television news.

Sadly, many of the issues around systemic racism have still not been resolved and most politically aware people know this because what happened to George Floyd has happened to other African Americans, year in, year out!

Why do we remain silent? Why in Australia have we mostly ignored the 2015 death of David Dungay, an Aboriginal man who also struggled and said I Can’t Breathe when pinned to a bed by several prison officers in Long Bay Gaol? (The video of that incident also circulating on social media and just as distressing as George Floyd’s murder.)

Social media has fuelled the current protests, but my newsfeed often filled with videos of appalling racist incidents, particularly since the election of Donald Trump.

I only hope the rage is maintained and results in a definite change.

Too many people are still reluctant to acknowledge systemic and institutionalized racism and white privilege exists or that people of colour are targeted by the police here in Australia and the USA.

Australia had a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987-1991) but there has been a lack of action on the recommendations and avoidable deaths are still occurring.

FB_hope for the future

Please Deal the Cards Again
Mairi Neil © 2020

English has a list of words describing you
I checked the dictionary and thesaurus too
but really words will fail to record
your harmful legacy of bitter discord

How sad the office of American President
is sullied by you, the 45th resident
a narcissistic, dastardly, vainglorious fool
boastful, vacuous as you let ego rule

Pusillanimous, brutish, pompous, offensive
spouting ignorance when on the defensive
craven, fatuous, corrupt, and oafish
your addled tweets so often malicious.

A destructive numbskull you need to resign
the current civil unrest another warning sign
just go to Florida and there please stay
allow decent adult voices to have their say

Your election a nasty global surprise
a long three years have exposed your lies
let’s hope the tide will really turn blue
and in November we’ll be rid of you!

Civil Rights An Ongoing Struggle

I recall vividly hearing the news of JFK’s assassination in November 1963, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968, and of Bobbie Kennedy in June 1968. I’m sure many people my age remember where they were exactly when they heard the news of the killings.

I’ve reviewed the film Selma, and the documentary I Am Not Your Negro – two good starting points for the background to what is happening in the USA now, also the film Hidden Figures.

Martin Luther KingJr 1968

When I went to university in Canberra in 1970 and took part in the protests supporting the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and Land Rights, I learnt firsthand the depth of Australia’s institutionalised racism and started on a journey to educate myself and to seek ways of being part of the answer and not part of the problem.

It is important not to remain silent – words in the form of poems, essays and stories are my way of working through the pain, anger and powerlessness I often feel when events like the murder of George Floyd or Aboriginal deaths in custody occur.

I also write letters to politicians and write blog posts and have conversations with people – encouraging others to be more aware and accept systemic racism exists.

When I look at the poems, I wrote in the 90s and in 2000; it seems there has been little progress, but I’ll keep writing because words are all I have and effective cultural change takes a lifetime.

When Mordialloc Writers Group hosted regular monthly Readings by The Bay, the poems and stories shared often sparked important conversations about racism. That forum no longer exists, but every community group can start conversations!

Our Burning Shame
Mairi Neil © 1992

We watched with horror
as they beat you to the ground…
on the ground
into the ground

The gang of four wielding batons
grasped tightly to
beat your head
beat your body
beat your legs…

Pounding, pounding, pounding,
pound.

A steady funeral dirge
burying the myth
of racial equality –
of equal rights

Middle-class liberals gasped
horrified at the naked truth
victims sighed with relief
the truth at last revealed
those with power to change
shrugged –
what’s the fuss about?

Rodney King – who gave you that name?
A king in black skin – a hint of irony
– or is it okay if a surname?
Your destiny now entwined
with that other dreamer…

A picture is worth a thousand words
a video worth a thousand affidavits
television news worth a thousand protests
political decisions worth a thousand votes…

Time dimmed the anger and horror
even brutes are innocent until proven guilty
at the scheduled trial
will Nuremberg be revisited?

We waited for the sentence
believing we knew the judgement
but a jury without black faces
proves society controlled by red necks
and white lies let injustice triumph…

Los Angeles burns along with our shame
those with power remain unchanged
cosmetics mask the ugly face
waspish capitalists sting… again and again.

Australians are shocked. Horrified!
Yet reality reveals our guilt.
Our smugness shattered
when black deaths in custody
inspire jokes among police
our custodians of law
don’t need lessons in brutality

We watch L.A aflame
but closed minds switch off
like television sets.
Will Australia suffer the same fate?
Today
Tomorrow
Next Week…

FB_IMartin Luther King Jr quote

I can only imagine the despair of many people of colour in the USA and our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here but I stand in solidarity with their struggle for justice and will continue to promote events, books and articles to help others to stand in solidarity too.

It’s 20 years this week since the Reconciliation Walk across Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, a defining moment in the tortured history of Indigenous affairs in Australia.

Reconciliation
Mairi Neil, © 2000

The Past

Ningla a-Na!
We are hungry for our land!
The catch cry of the seventies
as angry black activists
reclaimed a slice of land…
They protested by establishing
an Aboriginal Tent Embassy
opposite Parliament House, Canberra

When the Embassy brutally dismantled
thousands of people
black and white together
linked arms to prevent
dispossession, yet again.

The Present

We celebrate Corroboree 2000
hundreds of thousands of people
black and white together
march across the Sydney Harbour Bridge
but how far have we come when
Treaty is still a dream
Mandatory sentencing a reality
Black deaths in custody a shame
Government statistics used to deny
the devastating generational horror
of the Stolen Children!

Despite historical misinformation
and the cultural exclusiveness
of our education system
we cannot say we did not know!
We must be honest and admit
we didn’t care enough to seek the truth
confront the injustice
move out of our comfort zone…

The Future

It is a new century
we have a second chance
to right past wrongs
resolve to move forward
all contributions important – so
write a letter of protest
challenge a racist remark
invite Aboriginal speakers
to address schools and clubs
one nation honouring
the First People of this land
Ningla a-Na
This our land.

FB_Jenny Leong MP

#black lives matter

Lament For Another Aboriginal Death In Custody
Mairi Neil ©February 2000.

What were your thoughts, young man
When you stared out the window each day
were they of family and friends
now replaced by walls tall and grey?

Did the future look bleak and sad
as inside your spirit ached
for the call of the distant past
and colours of earth sun-baked?

Did you dream of lying beneath the stars
on a blanket of gum leaves and grasses
at odds with European ideas of comfort
and structured constricting classes?

Did the dark shadow of depression
devour teenage thoughts of fun and love
your inner child struggling to grow –
plans abandoned like an ill-fitting glove?

A young man caught between two worlds
coping with life’s most turbulent age
a fifteen-year-old orphan feeling lost
confined to a cold and lonely cage

Colonial laws stole your land
foreign culture crushed traditional way
and mandatory sentencing ensures
more despair-filled cells each day

Your name now recorded in history books
will your desperate act be in vain?
Australia as a nation can only progress
if we acknowledge your people’s pain.

tree by creek

Resources Abound To Learn About Racism & Diversity

The ABC has a lot of educational resources, including videos written and produced by First Nation Peoples.

Lisa Hill’s Indigenous Literature reading list, which she compiles and adds to each year, is a fabulous resource for readers and writers.

The Little Bookroom bookshop has compiled an excellent list of books for adults and children, which they have in stock or can obtain for you.

WordPress.com has a special blog about the situation in the USA and have a detailed list of links to find out more about current events, the political context, and what you can do to help and where you can donate.

Here are practical ways you can support Aboriginal Lives Matter and a guide to researching and educating yourself on the issues.

The Victorian Women’s Trust has also compiled a list of anti-racism resources.

FB_love these messages
another fabulous meme circulating on Facebook

In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.

Angela Davis

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

 

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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?

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Facebook meme

Are You More Present in Your Life?

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presents my eldest daughter sent during isolation

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

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

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

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

What stories can you make up?

Have the parcel postman or couriers visited more than usual?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Morrell

Have Your Rituals Changed?

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

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

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

Josie enjoys watching them too.

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

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

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

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

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

Substitutions (which I used)

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

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

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

Has technology been Your Friend or Foe?

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Another Facebook meme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

storm brewing

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

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

Jim Tully, Writer’s Digest 1923

Happy Writing

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

© 2013

donna's alarm clock

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

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

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

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

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

What sounds do you hear now?

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

Sounds of Albert Street
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

familiar daily tapping
announced in suburbia
by family dogs yapping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Exercise 1:

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

Writing Exercise 2:

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

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

Sounds for excitement or pizazz

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

Background Noises

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

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

Writing Background Noise

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

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

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

The write detail by mairi neil 1065 words

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

Writing Exercise 3:

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

Action Sounds

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

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

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

Here are some other examples:

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

Writing Exercise 4:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Delivery of Milk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FB_IMG_my current clock!

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

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

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

star wars premiere.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isak Dinesen

Happy Writing

Writing Techniques Add Value To Poems & Prose

Nobuko looking towards Mordialloc 2020.jpg

Day 21 -We’re still trying for fun!

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

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

Rebecca Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FB_IMG_fox

The Poetry Foundation suggests:

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

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

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

  • Personification can pack a punch.

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

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

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

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

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

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What kind Of Person?

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

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

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

The sun 

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

A Shadow

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

A bushfire

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

Thunder & Lightning

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

Earthquake

  • The earthquake swallowed the city in several angry bites.

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

Kurt Vonnegut

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Cat on Condominium Rooftop
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

© 2016

Exercise One:

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

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

Exercise Two:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise Three:

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

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

 

page seventeen

Rebirth
by Mairi Neil

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

the warm waves
caress and massage
manipulating
moulding
malleable me

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

I am reborn

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

Happy Writing

 

 

 

 

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

McDonald Street Oval Mordialloc

Day Twenty – Facing Failures Aplenty

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

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

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

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

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

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

T.S. Eliot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today we’ll have fun with words

wordplay

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

man bites dog

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

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

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

Missing Tourist the Lover of Crooked Judge

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

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

rememory and storymatic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Chocolate Box
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

© 2016

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

old photo albums

The Photograph Album
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

Another blurred photo comes into focus

–– what if I had followed that dream?

© 2016

Happy Writing

And stay home, stay safe and stay well!