Smiling and Sharing, Celebrating Success

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I’ve received one of those emails that starts the day with joy. Matilda Butler, an accomplished writer/publisher I met through the Internet in 2009 has produced more remarkable books to help women tell their stories.

Here is part of the email:

Just Released and Already in the Top 3 Bestseller List for Writing Skills

It was just two years ago that I shared news about the release of a four-volume anthology series called Seasons of Our Lives. Those volumes went on to win 9 book awards and were ranked in the top 5 in Kindle’s bestseller list for Writing Skills and in the mid-20s for Memoir.

Building on that success, WomensMemoirs.com held a major contest to seek the best stories that reflect on women’s lives and contribute to our understanding of ourselves as well as others. Today I’m pleased to announce the launch of:

TALES OF OUR LIVESReflection Pond, a two-volume anthology of award-winning, inspiring, women’s true stories told from perspectives that illuminate our diverse lives. The second volume is Tales Of our Lives: Fork In The Road.

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And these volumes are already #2 and #3 in Kindle’s bestseller Writing Skills books and #17 and #31 in bestseller Women’s Memoirs.

Note: You still have a few hours left at the special price of $ .99. Soon the price will go up to $1.99.

When I discovered Matilda’s memoir site the information and inspirational stories led to my first foray into sending my work into cyberspace to be read by others.

The guest writers and writing tips on the site invaluable if you want to improve the telling of your stories. You also learn what other people are writing and reading.

I had three pieces published about my mother and my childhood, and even won the regular writing contest Matilda organised to encourage women to share their stories.

Mum’s Legendary Scones (including Mum’s recipe)

Guising and Galoshens (about Halloween customs in Scotland)

Fairy Cakes A Magical Journey (including Mum’s recipe)

Matilda’s first E-books of stories from women were based on the Seasons of Our Lives and I had stories in three of these books. Over the 4 volumes 100 stories were told!

A wonderful teacher who wants to encourage others, Matilda and her business partner Kendra Bonnett ensured a take-away (writing exercise and advice) was always included at the end of each story.

The concept behind the four volumes of Seasons of Our Lives originated on our website WomensMemoirs.com. The idea was that we’d provide content to help women write their memoirs. Over time, we wanted a two-way exchange. We wanted women to be able to share their stories with us and others. And that was the beginning of a series of contests. Then last year, we decided to have just four contests — one focused on stories from each of the seasons of the year. 
• We received hundreds of entries and soon realized that we had some real gems, stories that needed to be shared more widely than just our website. We began the long process of reading all the entries and selecting just the best. 
• But we didn’t stop with just the best of the stories. We decided to write a takeaway, a mini-lesson, for each story. We wanted readers to have comments that would help them reflect on their own life stories and highlight writing suggestions that they can use as they work on their own legacy stories. 

These books are still available at Amazon:

WINTER         SPRING           SUMMER          AUTUMN

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I had the privilege of meeting Matilda in 2012 when my daughter MaryJane and I travelled around the USA by train. The six-week journey, one of recuperation and adventure. I was still fragile from my mastectomy and chemotherapy and MJ from the devastating consequences of a routine operation that went horribly wrong.

After an exchange of emails, when Matilda discovered our plans, she invited us to visit her home in central Oregon. We couldn’t do this, but we were going to Portland.

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Matilda and husband Bill travelled several hours by car and stayed in a hotel overnight so they could be the ‘host and hostess with the mostest.’ As our travel guides for a day in that gorgeous city, they took us to lunch and then the Portland Art Museum. The visit as fresh in my mind as if it were yesterday and a treasured memory.

We were introduced to the indigenous people’s culture and many modern-day artists.

 

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We were in Portland to travel down the Columbia River to Astoria, tracing the steps of Captain John McInnes, my father’s Great Uncle who captained the Cadzow Forest as it plied trade between Britain, Australia and the Americas.

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Unfortunately, the ship went down with all hands in 1896. Captain John’s namesake, my father’s older brother John, also a seaman, drowned off the coast of Texas in 1927. Mary Jane and I researched in the library at San Antonio for more information about both men.

We were so close, yet so far from the younger John’s grave at Corpus Christi, but due to poor planning and the train timetable a visit, there will be an excuse for another trip!

However, by experiencing the mighty Columbia River and visiting the Maritime Museum at Astoria, we imagined and absorbed life through the eyes of men aboard the Cadzow Forest. The information and exhibits in the gallery filled in gaps and provided ideas for research about what life must have been like over a century ago.

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There is no better way to experience a place than through the eyes of an informed local and everyone we met in Portland, including Matilda and Bill were friendly, knowledgeable and hospitable.

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There were amazing exhibits at the gallery that told stories of the human condition. As writers, we want to engage emotionally and use words. Artists use other skills and several of the pieces at Portland confronted and delved into the darkest aspects of the human soul as well as the brightest and uplifting.

As a parent who frequented art galleries and museums with my children from a young age,  I appreciated this sign, which I have never seen anywhere else.

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An exhibition that will inspire a host of poems or stories for a writing class if they chose to visit was this one by American Edward Keinholz: The Western Motel 1992.

 

 

I was struck by the poignancy the artist has created by attention to detail and my imagination went into overdrive. If ever people feel the need to reinvigorate their love of writing and feel bereft of ideas, I suggest a visit to an art gallery or museum!

Another exhibition that impressed both MJ and me was one around storytelling. By pressing a button you could see a video of Portlanders (not sure if that’s what they’re called) who responded to a request to bring in an object and explain in a couple of minutes why it is important to them.

I can still feel the weight of Mary Jane’s arm as she slipped it through mine, and the warmth of her body as she cuddled close to me while we watched a young woman explain why she had held onto her mother’s X-rays long after her mother had died of an aggressive brain tumour. The story resonated with both of us for different reasons.

I kept John’s X-rays and MJ incorporated them in an amazing short film to explain grief and the human toll of industrial diseases like asbestosis.

Artists thousands of miles apart telling stories through different mediums, purists and cross-pollinators of media – but always focusing on the detail and that all-important human condition. Emotional engagement equals remembering – and we’d all like to be remembered.

Matilda’s latest books, as well as her others, excellent examples of well-written and engaging stories that you can harvest to spark your own stories and improve your readability.

More than that, they are a record showing how extraordinary the lives of ordinary people are!

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Celebration of Classes and Community facilitates Christmas Cheer and Goodwill!

‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.’

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Read The Little Prince, a wonderful example of never giving up your dreams.

This quote and the great example of the author’s life so appropriate when I think of why I teach and the positive reinforcement approach I use in my writing classes at local community houses: Writing for Pleasure & Publication, Writing & Editing, Memoir to Manuscript and Life Stories & Legacies.

This past week as the classes end for the year I distributed anthologies I’d prepared of people’s work so they could see their writing published. At Godfrey Street we also produced a calendar – writing haiku and terse verse inspired by the work of the painting & drawing classes. The calendar is sold as a fundraiser. Most students were amazed at the quantity, quality, and range of their polished pieces. Looks of pride, accomplishment and joy abound when the writers see their names in print!

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It’s a labour of love preparing these books, extra work at home, but they are an invaluable historical record, as well as a wonderful legacy of the fantastic writers I’ve met over the years. When I read the poems and stories I hear the voice of the writer, picture them in class and often relive the lesson or social interaction. Many of the students return each year, others come back after a gap of years, others spend a term, a semester or a year and then move on – all leave an impression on me. When the receptionist at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House had an enquiry about what we do on a Monday morning,  ‘ what do they write about?’ she said, ‘I’m not sure, but they laugh a lot!’ And indeed we do. Our class is marvellous therapy for Monday morning blues. Nicknamed ‘Minnie Ha Ha’ by my parents when I was growing up, I’ve always believed in laughter as therapy and many doctors will agree!  It helps of course when you have people who enjoy a laugh with you. One of my students is unpredictable and delights us with the various props she will bring along to illustrate her homework!

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First and foremost I try to instil a passion for words  – for reading as well as writing. Encouragement to move from comfort zones to try different genres, write from the heart, start with stream of consciousness, but then go back and edit, rewrite, edit – even start from the beginning! A writer’s life is hard work.

Last Saturday, along with Glenice Whitting, I represented Mordialloc Writers’ and ourselves at the local end of the year author thank you hosted by Mentone Public Library. Local children’s author George Ivanov spoke about his recent success in gaining a publishing deal with Random House that has changed his life. George was generous and enthusiastic in sharing his long journey to success, his process of writing and tips and the knowledge he has garnered along the way.

The one message that came across loud and clear was EVERY writer, no matter how successful, must consult a good editor! Even if you are competent to edit your own work someone else needs to read the manuscript and give you an honest opinion, not so much about line editing such as spelling and grammar, but the all important structure! Do you need that paragraph, or chapter? The plot comes unstuck and doesn’t make sense in chapter six because those characters have never met before! Who are your audience because chapter seven is gruesome/too childish/airy fairy/romantic mush…? Do you need to lose chapter three because it slows the pace too much…

In a world where authors are taking control and self-publishing proliferates this is an important point to be mindful of and to follow. A friend and fellow writer Lisa Hill who has an award winning site reviewing books refuses to review self-published work for that very reason. Inundated with books to review from traditional publishers here and overseas, she gives their books priority because she knows they have at least gone through a professional editing process and that is how she chooses to use her precious reading time. More and more there are sites where authors can share their work and receive feedback and use these reviews to improve and promote their work, but they should do this process BEFORE releasing their work to the general public, to ensure their writing is the best quality it can be. The other alternative of course is to belong to a writers’ group and receive regular support and feedback. Mordialloc Writers’ Group has been helping authors this way for 20 years.

I founded the group because I wanted to meet others who loved writing and to have their support and critique. A couple of stories were commercially published and I’d started a writing course by correspondence, but craved the company of people who understood what it was like to have characters and ideas taking over thought processes and lying awake at 3.00am figuring out plots and storylines! At a local exhibition of my children’s poetry a man with a look of incredulity on his face, said, ‘ how does your mind work?’ I’m still working out whether it was a backhanded compliment or a suggestion I needed help! The company of fellow creatives a great solace.

I love history and mythology, but don’t write fantasy or horror. Most of my short stories are character driven. To have the reader believe in your characters and engage emotionally and care about their journey, always my starting point. I want to write about ordinary working people; celebrate their lives, struggles and triumphs – the cliched ‘human condition.’ Not surprising when I grew up with a father who quoted ‘our Rab’ daily especially these verses from Address To The Unco Guid, Or The Rigidly Righteous, 1786:

Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark, –
The moving Why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.

Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.

Deconstructing the message, this poem celebrates what I love about writing and writers – the insight and ability to express the experience of the flaws and foibles of human nature, but plead for tolerance and understanding. Put yourself in another’s shoes, look through my eyes…

Considering the state of the world at the moment and tragedies such as Australia experienced yesterday when a very angry and disturbed man decided on a suicidal path for publicity and innocent people were caught up in the turmoil, the world needs writers to dig deeper, comment, suggest alternative views, explore what it means to be human and how we do, should or could relate to the world we live in, and the possibilities of what happens afterwards.

I don’t want to live in the kind of world where we don’t look out for each other …
I want to touch the heart of the world and make it smile.
Charles de Lint

As I reflect on the year, I also reflect on my writing journey. Each year I strive to improve by doing professional development, and each year I realise how far I have to go! Here is the first piece of writing I was actually PAID for (if it was today I would have taken a picture of the cheque with my phone, it’s such a rarity!), published in The Weekly Times, a Victorian newspaper that had a circulation of 125,00 in its heyday – big numbers considering the population at the time, but now I think it is mainly read online, like so many others.

I was inspired by a character of course – a tram driver well-known to public transport users in Melbourne in the 70s and 80s. A man I observed, one night a week for a term, when I travelled out to Stonnington after work for night classes in creative writing with Gerald Murnane and John Powers.

A Ticket To Vaudeville

Pierre waited at the depot for the duty inspector to allocate the routes. Leaning against a stationary tram, he grinned at the friendly banter of the milling trammies, the conversations reflecting the varying backgrounds of the multicultural crews. I’m lucky, he mused. I have good health despite nearing sixty. I have a job I enjoy, although I still get confused with figures. My friends are loyal, and most of all… I am free.

Dewdrops glistened like beads of sweat on tram doors, tram windows, even uniforms and Pierre rubbed his bony hands together like firesticks, willing the sun to melt the hazy early morning mist and produce another glorious autumn day for Melbourne. A smell drifted past and Pierre sniffed, contorting his large hooked nose to imprison the aroma forever. Freshly baked bread and the fragrance of certain cheeses reminded him of his hometown Toulouse, in southern France. He smiled and shook his head.

I tell Banija not to refer to Yugoslavia as home, yet here am I doing the same thing although I’ve lived here half my life in peace and freedom , away from Gestapo jackboots. Why I’d probably get lost in Toulouse now…

Jack’s strident Australian voice shattered Pierre’s reverie. ‘Come on dopey Pierre. We’re on Route 67. Shake yer gangly leg, we leave in five minutes!’ Gathering his money float and bag of tickets, Pierre followed Jack to the empty tram. Performing his Rudolph Nureyev imitation he leapt aboard, smiling to an appreciative audience of laughing trammies awaiting their allocation. ‘Au Revoir Pierre,’ they chorused. Pierre laughed too, the sound banishing memories of war-torn France from surfacing.

Tram Number 67 trundled through the city streets filling rapidly with peak hour commuters. Pierre said, ‘Gude Morning’ to each passenger as he collected fares. There were some familiar faces. He punched their tickets before they spoke. Sally blushed yet again when he commented on her beauty. The hospital matron giggled like a schoolgirl when he kissed her hand with exaggerated Gallic gallantry. The suited business brigade hid their faces in newspapers to avoid Pierre’s piercing blue eyes peering over his bifocals. A mischief maker, Pierre rustled their papers, pestered them to join him in song. Ignoring their embarrassed silence, he rejoiced, clicking his puncher rhythmically, ‘Money, money, money eez all I want…’

Schoolboys bunched in the doorway sniggered at the ‘loony conductor’. ‘I won’t deeezapont youz ma frens.’ Pierre called as he clicked the last ticket. Prancing down the aisle with practised ease, he pulled a yellow yo-yo from his pocket and flicked it in front of astonished passengers. ‘Flash those concession cards, eh boys! You think I’m an old fool but I do my job well!’

The tram shuddered to a halt at Flinders Street Station. Pierre bowed with a flourish to the departing throng, satisfied most customers left smiling. ‘Roll up! Roll up! Take your seats for the next show,’ he announced before the tram chugged onwards. While collecting fares, Pierre began his ritual of greeting each passenger with crazy antics and candid comments. Most responded with surprised chuckles.

At the end of the aisle, Pierre turned to see some downcast faces. He pushed his hat sideways, twisted his angular face into a comical, shape, pursed his lips and whistled, ‘Let’s Twist Again’. Weighed down with his satchel, he gyrated awkwardly in the confined space. Another stop. More giggling commuters alighted. A couple climbed aboard. The tram trembled before proceeding.

Pierre pretended to be Tarzan, swinging through the length of the tram using the ceiling straps. Two ladies convulsed with laughter couldn’t ask for a ticket. Pierre pulled off his hat, threw it in the air, bowed slightly, then caught it expertly with his balding head. ‘At your service mademoiselles.’

The tram turned into Toorak Road for the final leg of the journey. Pierre plonked into a vacant seat. Bathed in a beam of sunlight, he confessed,

‘Ladeez and Chentlemen, remember these words from Pierre. Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone.’

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Waiting Rooms, Patience and Patients…

It is my annual check-up with the breast surgeon in Brighton. I made the appointment for 8.30am because in the afternoon I have  my last class for the year at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh. Of course, the traffic has to be horrendous. Patience is a virtue, but I keep this thought to myself as my daughter curses the idiots abroad. Every set of traffic lights turns red as we approach – it’s always the way when you’re stressed or pushed for time.

Australia is a country in love with the car and with governments reluctant to invest in public transport, traffic congestion is the norm all over Melbourne, especially during morning and evening peak hours. Mary Jane drops me off a few minutes late and goes hunting for a parking spot – as rare as gold in some places, especially around shopping centres, railway stations, public buildings – the places we all want to go! The cluster of medical specialists in Brighton are popular and never short of patients. As I hurry into the waiting room I envisage MJ’s face reddening, to match the colour of her little Hyundai as she trawls the nearby streets for a parking space; frustration feeding her worry.

My daughters fear this visit as much as I do. An unforeseen complication after my initial mastectomy four years ago led to an emergency operation and they had to approve refusing life support (my wishes) and wait a harrowing few hours to see if I survived.  Traumatised onlookers, they are haunted by memories  I don’t have because of effective modern anaesthetics.  Carers now have more recognition and much deserved praise, but there’s still a lot we could do within primary health care to support them, especially when events turn dramatic!

So, here I am again – twelve months disappear fast. I remember my Mum lamenting time passing more quickly as you age – at least I’m down to annual visits…

Christmas tree in the corner, bamboo stars in the window, tinsel trailing along the windowsill. Christmas filling a corner of the waiting room for the patients, brightening the severity of the black leather lounge suites interspersed with black vinyl chairs. My hazel eyes are drawn to the silhouette of a bird sitting on the electric wires outside the window. A crow? A premonition? (I have a lot of my Irish mother in me and the Scots are no slouches when it comes to being fey!)

From the corner of the room a ghetto blaster tuned low, plays music – not predictable Christmas carols, but soothing melodies. I recognise the song and struggle to suppress the tears lurking behind my eyes,  raw emotion threatens to undo the calm exterior I  portray on these visits. I take a deep breath, this is a positive omen, surely?  John is with me as our special song wafts across the room, Always On My Mind...  his spirit definitely here!

I glance around the room. There are two couples and three single women, including me. Another couple sit outside the Pathology Lab. I don’t think we are all waiting for the same doctor, he’s usually well organised. However, it is Christmas and the long summer break ahead, a time of year always difficult to schedule.

The reception area filled to capacity; six receptionists working hard, including a male, a new addition since last visit. They’ve claimed a little of the Christmas atmosphere by stringing glittering gold balls along the counter. One young lass even has tiny reindeers dangling from her ears.   The couple beside me are called into pathology and one of the women is led into a nearby room. The doctor works from two rooms. This is year four for me, I know the drill. He deals with one patient while another is disrobing for examination in the other. Almost immediately another woman is called to pathology. The doctor’s efficiency won’t let me down, it will soon be my turn.  I try not to stare at the couple leaving. She is pregnant and they have a toddler. Cancer sucks.

Waiting Room – such an apt title and great writing prompt. In fact, I gave the following scenario (courtesy of one of the many writing prompt sites on the Internet) to my writing class this week. A surprising coincidence because I plan my lessons well in advance. Perhaps my sub-conscious was at work to create such serendipity!

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Three strangers are sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for their appointments. A patient’s bag tips over on the floor and something falls out. What is it? What do the characters say to each other that makes this a significant moment in their lives?

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How many waiting rooms have I (and many others) sat in during a lifetime? Dentists, doctors, hospitals, train and bus stations, job interviews, government departments, council offices, schools, universities, funeral parlours … enough to become a patient with patience!

I try to remember the first waiting room and decide it was the dentist’s and I determine to block that 1950s experience out because I can still taste the horrible rubber mask, smell the gas and feel the bitter mouthwash as my blood swirls down a tiny sink attached to the chair.  I can hear Mum promising to buy me ‘something special for being a brave girl.’

There were no childhood visits to the doctor because in Scotland our family doctor, Dr Reid,  made house visits. He delivered me at home.  Scotland also had a system of health visitors, district nurses a la the popular television series Call the Midwife. No waiting rooms filled with harassed mothers and hyped up, bored, or crying children.

Dr Reid was a regular visitor to our house in Braeside, Greenock and had a penchant for Mum’s baking. A fresh pancake, Irish soda bread, scone or fairy cake served with a cup of tea whenever he called. Mum was a ‘tea jenny‘ her greeting to all visitors, ‘a cup of tea?’

Another reason for Dr Reid calling frequently was my parents’ generosity with the telephone. When making visits in our area, Dr Reid would check in with his surgery or family, or perhaps arrange an ambulance or book people into hospital – all from our phone. Today with the proliferation of mobile telephones it is sobering to recall a childhood where ‘being on the phone‘ was an expensive luxury for most, and a rarity in working class homes.

My parents made the decision to have a telephone because it would allow Dad to work more, therefore a good investment. A train driver easily contactable was offered more shifts – an important fillip to our budget. Supporting a wife and six children never cheap!

Number 35 Davaar Road was the first house in the immediate housing scheme to get the telephone connected, and to my knowledge the only one  to generously share the instrument. (Some people left coins in the money box that sat beside the phone, but not always. Calls were timed therefore many people were reluctant to risk big bills by trusting others.)

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Mum had a clatter of eager messengers. My older siblings ran to fetch or tell neighbours a relative was on the phone, they had to report to work early, travel arrangements were changed, or a myriad of other personal messages. Mum was privy to emergencies, planned celebrations like marriages, sad news of illness and death, joyous (sometimes) announcements of pregnancies, job offers, exam and scholarship results, visiting relatives, holiday plans… the full gamut of community life.

A natural disaster in America meant a distressed neighbour worried about her sister. Mum rang the US Embassy, got a number to call for information, and after several anxious hours, exacerbated by the time difference, reached the neighbour’s  sister on the phone. Those women never forgot Mum’s kindness and continued to thank Mum every year in a Christmas card until their death. There were other dramas witnessed – all because of a revolutionary communication tool, which in my lifetime has been transformed beyond recognition.

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Today, with instant communication across the world via satellite, the expectation everyone has either a mobile phone or access to the Internet, reflecting on my Scottish childhood confirms the past is indeed ‘another country’ in more ways than one!

A receptionist ushers me into a room for the next stage of waiting for the doctor.  I put on the gown with the flap open at the front. My surgeon is one of the most respectful, professional men I’ve met on this journey, but despite his manner I always feel vulnerable clutching the white cotton gown at my chest, sitting in a chair staring at the examination table and waiting…

It is good news. Another year notched up without the cancer appearing in my remaining breast or other parts of the body (metastatic disease). I can breathe normally. I text my daughter and wait outside looking skywards and soaking in the sunshine. The bird on the electric wires not a crow, but a  butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) that has a beautiful call. I hope he will sing. This patient with patience waits and is rewarded. Another year to feel blessed.

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Mercurial Melbourne

From not posting for 4 years, to posting daily, is me struggling to work out the possibilities of blogging – the old adage ‘practice makes perfect.’ I have now worked out how links work properly (thanks again Liz!), but still have some way to go to feel comfortable navigating the intricacies of the bells and whistles of this site.

However,  writing triggers are everywhere…

What a night we had in Melbourne! The city put on a storm like no other: heavy rain, thunder and lightning and even an earthquake in the Eastern suburbs. This photo is courtesy of the Victorian Storm Chasers fb site:

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Along with my daughter Anne, I spent a sleepless night calming our nine year old dog, Aurora,  so spooked she ran between our bedrooms panting. Not content to be comforted in the normal way she tried to burrow under the quilts and into the back of our necks. Plenty of midnight cups of tea and frustration at the Neil household last night, which even with the curtains drawn,  lit up like a shopping centre, as the sound and light show played outside.

Anne said she resorted to a Youtube video at 3.00am, playing music to calm puppies, after trawling the Internet in desperation, for tips on how to help dogs scared of storms! Anne has been away for 3 years travelling North America, living and working in Toronto, and checking out the UK, but now realises what hard work her gorgeous and temperamental dog can be on stormy nights. Aurora’s fear increases as she ages, poor love (not the endearment I was saying under my breath last night), so let’s hope mercurial Melbourne won’t deliver weather like that too often. We are all exhausted – even Aurora:

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The weather and various seasons are fabulous fodder for writing and when the girls were small I wrote a lot of poetry and stories to entertain them. It was a period of wonderful inspiration. Here are a few triggered by the girls’  reactions to storms.

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When I gave author talks, I confessed the girls were the reason why I wrote, and often the reason why I didn’t write – parents, especially mothers, understood!  I published two books of poetry: small talk poems for children, Employ Publishing Group, 1994, and more small talk poems for children, BEST(Inc.), 1995, paying  for some illustrations and using Anne’s kinder or school artwork for others. My husband, John always supportive and encouraging my passion with an amazing faith in my ability.

For a few years, I enjoyed being a productive writer, presenting workshops at local schools and libraries, plus running a holiday program at the local neighbourhood house, for children aged Prep to end of Primary, combining Creative Writing & Craft. The children made a puppet and wrote a poem or short play, they made a pirate’s map or treasure box and wrote poems and stories about pirates, or the sea, they made animal masks and used them for inspiration – many activities to adapt from wonderful craft leaflets the Playgroup Association produced or from the school library at Mordialloc Primary. Sometimes mothers would stay in the sessions and enjoyed releasing their inner creativity  as much as the children.

My daughters participated in all the workshops often as helpers and of course as cleaners. It is amazing how messy glitter, glue and scraps of paper and material can be. Anne and Mary Jane are both talented writers in their own creative fields (Media Arts & Stop Motion Animation and Film & Television).  I hope their memories of that period in our lives are as happy  as mine – a time before their father became ill and life took an unexpected turn…

Who hasn’t experienced plans falling through, being struck from left field, or the totally unexpected? The Neil family has big time! The Scottish poet Rabbie Burns, said it in a few words, quoted and paraphrased around the world:

‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley’

My childhood was littered with proverbs, wise sayings, Bible texts and Celtic wisdom. I don’t think there was a day that passed without my wee Irish mum exhorting us that ‘if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well,’ or ‘a stitch in time saves nine,’ but most importantly ‘do unto others as you’d have them do unto you‘ and many similar pieces of advice!

Dad shared his wisdom and values too, but through anecdotes,  parables like The Good Samaritan, and more often recitations of the poems and songs of his favourite bard, Rabbie Burns. If he was alive he’d be thrilled that Scotland now has a poetry library, and one specifically for children – it may be a country with a small population, but it respects the written word and poetic form and finds the money to fund these public institutions.

Although Burns only had a short life (he died at 37), his  insight into humanity and human foibles, relationships, society and the natural world, produced a prolific creative output astounding for the eighteenth century. He certainly understood the human condition and produced hundreds of poems and songs in the Scottish dialect to challenge your emotions: you weep, you laugh, you yearn, you get fired up, you love!

Rabbie (sometimes referred to as the ploughman poet), spent a great deal of time working the land and observing the natural world. He respected animals, and exhorted  mankind  to understand and appreciate their contribution. They too deserved a protected place – even the humble mouse.

To a Mouse (On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785)

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty not,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murdering pattle!

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An’ fellow-mortal!

Challenging the power of the Presbytery of the Church of Scotland and the way the law favoured the wealthy also a  favourite theme for Burns.

Epistle to a Young Friend. May, 1786

The fear o’ Hell’s a hangman’s whip,
To haud the wretch in order;
But where ye feel your Honour grip,
Let that ay be your border:
It’s slightest touches, instant pause—
Debar a’ side-pretences;
And resolutely keep its laws,
Uncaring consequences.

Burns often poked fun at pretentiousness and stressed the commonality between people regardless of their position in society. Here when sitting behind a posh lady in church he noticed the nits in her hair!

To a Louse, On Seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And ev’n Devotion!

Auld Lang Syne is now a staple throughout the world to be sung on New Year’s Eve and romantics love his My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, but Burns revealed his burning desire for equality, tolerance and freedom for everyone in:

A Man’s a Man for a’ That

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

When I read Burns, or listen to others reciting his poems or singing his songs I’m transported into delightful memories of growing up in a warm, loving, noisy household with five siblings. I can hear Dad quoting Burns, or singing one of the many songs he loved, in his magnificent tenor voice .

I teach memoir and life stories and advise my students to put on their favourite music, or listen to a song that evokes a particular time in their lives – it’s amazing what thoughts will be triggered, how the words will flow.

I think I’ll go now and follow my own advice and leave worrying about sidebars, categories and working links for another time. The sun is shining, last night’s storm is a memory, Aurora is curled up asleep, and my garden gleams, reinvigorated by nature’s liquid gold.

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Teaching an old dog new tricks!

I set up a blog four years ago, determined to not only learn, but actively participate in the digital revolution changing so many aspects of everyday life. As a writer I was aware that ebooks were increasing in popularity while publishers of printed books and bricks and mortar bookshops, dwindled. An online presence deemed a necessity because even traditional publishers expected authors to promote and market books as well as write them. To paraphrase the words of Bob Dylan, one of my favourite singers, the times were definitely changing.

And four years ago my life certainly changed – one of the reasons why the new blog remained with one entry. My enthusiasm for the blog tied up with being halfway through a master’s degree in creative writing, which of course encouraged writers to be relevant in today’s world and get online. However, diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2010, I faced rearranging priorities. I completed my degree with the study helping me to focus on the future as well as being a distraction from hospitals, doctors and chemotherapy, but I lost the confidence and the will to create an online presence. Perhaps ‘chemo brain’ kicked in – fatigue definitely did!

However, the desire to remain relevant as a writer and a teacher of writing has made me try again. I must thank Liz from Healthy Voices for giving me the confidence and that all-important push to do so. The eight week workshop I attended recently at Bayside Medicare Local encouraged ‘harnessing the power of words for positive change’ and was such a comprehensive course on social media and various alternatives for participating online, any feeble excuses I had disappeared.

I want to share my writing plus helpful tips and information I’ve gleaned from years of teaching creative writing, but I also want to write about social justice and equity, the places I’ve travelled to, as well as my journey with breast cancer, the books and articles I’ve read and any other topic that inspires me.  The internet is a great medium for communicating, sharing knowledge and staying in touch – and maintaining a blog will ensure I write regularly, the most important habit for a writer to cultivate.

I coordinate a local community writing group, Mordialloc Writers’ Group and as well as meeting fortnightly to workshop, we host Readings by The Bay on the last Sunday of the month whereby writers can read their work to an appreciative audience. Last Sunday was the last Readings for 2014 and we made it a fundraiser for Medecins Sans Frontiers Australia to go towards their work with victims of Ebola. I explained this frightening health crisis by reading an acrostic poem I had written to present the facts in a more memorable way. We raised $150.00.

Ebola is a river that became a virus, hemorrhagic fever, fatal illness – now uncontrolled fear infects night-time stillness because bacteria flows with ease like a breeze around the globe, contamination transferred with the touch of a robe.

Blood oozes internally and from gums and bowels. The fever fatigue, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, diarrhoea, rashes, kidney and liver death has patients writhing in pain –– a continent howls.

Outbreaks in Africa since 1976 have killed thousands in the Congo, Sudan, Gabon, Uganda, now Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal –– just names in countries remote to most, but if the world takes responsibility we could make this virus a ghost.

Laboratories, hospitals, doctors, rehydration treatment, immunological and drug therapies neutralise and a cure we might see, but community engagement, expensive medical intervention, safe burials and social mobilisation the key.

African leaders plead for world help as their people die. 7000 lives already lost this year as this river of death bursts its banks to spread while nations capable of helping appear immobile with dread.

Vaccines in the experimental stage offer some hope to countries struggling to cope, with a virus flooding the city, drowning crowded urban communities –– showing no pity.

Infection of healthcare workers feeds international fear, confirming when vigilance lapses the virulence of this virus is clear.

Reducing the risk of human transmission means protective clothing and rigorous hygiene, in poor countries where clean water and sanitation is rarely seen. Transmission from wildlife means no contact with infected fruit bats, antelope, porcupine, monkeys, apes or chimpanzees and all meat must be cooked – advice not implemented with ease.

Under maximum biological containment conditions this virus is not a deadly threat, but in so many infected countries necessary practices can’t be met.
Semen and breast milk will contain the virus for 7 weeks after recovery from this illness ––
no wonder fear disrupts night time stillness.
© 2014