Walking, Writing – Is there a Plan? Hello, 2019!

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On a walk with my dearest friend, Lesley, we paused by a beautiful Illawarra Flame Tree to listen to rosellas, ravens and wattlebirds in conversation – perhaps squabbling over the best branch or sharing neighbourhood gossip birds enjoy.

It was a fitting end to 2018 – especially since the New Year has begun with an ‘unprecedented’ heatwave right across the continent.

A visual metaphor perhaps, a warning about global warming?

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LabInitio NZ cartoon

However, being a glass-half-full person, I’d rather accept the experience as an amazing gift from Mother Nature and a reminder there is countless beauty in gardens around the neighbourhood, and in the wild, for all of us to appreciate and share.

The glorious flaming tree emphasised how important the neighbourhood and nature is to me.

The number of wonderful species of plants and animals we have already lost is a worry especially when the bumblebee was added last year to the ever-growing list of endangered species overseas such as the grizzly bear, the northern spotted owl, the grey wolf, and nearly 1 in 3 of our unique Australian mammals are at risk  – mainly through habitat destruction.

But with a Federal Election coming up and climate change always in the news I am full of hope there are people, like myself who value and will work towards changing attitudes and our current Federal Government.

There is only one Earth to be respected, nurtured and shared, not just dug up, mined, fished, dredged, drilled and concreted over.

Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior docked in Melbourne in November to remind us there is a community of people who care and are prepared to act.

… as a writer, I am dependent on scientific inquiry for information. If I am going to write coherently – about polar bears, for example – I am dependent upon the scientists who work with polar bears for solid information of a certain sort. And yet I am troubled by this because of the way we approach animals as scientists.

Barry Lopez, from a discussion with Edward O Wilson on ‘Ecology and The Human Imagination,’ University of Utah, February 1, 1998.

Let’s celebrate the natural world

We have much to learn from the animal and natural world.

Birds are constantly adapting to changed circumstances, adversity and catastrophe. Recently, I’ve been entertained by the songs of a butcher bird that decided it likes my garden. I noticed the baby bird a few months ago so move over magpies and wattlebirds.

I am one of the few houses in Albert Street that still has a reasonable number of trees as apartment blocks and townhouses mushroom around me. A self-confessed dendrophile I will be planting more trees this year and spending time cultivating the garden with flowers and vegetables. (Even if the possums ate my broccoli and are munching their way through the top of the five photinias protecting the back fence.)

Indulging the senses

There are lots of inspirational ideas from walking around the suburbs – a mixture of indigenous, imported, practical and ornamental trees and plants attract a variety of birds, butterflies and insects.

Lesley and I have already made a pact to share more cuttings and encourage each other regarding our gardens. We are both transitioning to retirement, so my writing will indubitably reflect either success or failure!

I’ll take a leaf out of Thoreau’s practice of walking, observing, pondering and writing…

… we begin to see the whole man as we follow the crowded, highly charged, and rapidly evolving inner life that accompanies the busy outer life and reveals the thoughts behind the eyes of the familiar photographs.

Robert D Richardson Jr: Henry David Thoreau: A Life of The Mind.

Will I be inspired to be more creative and productive and take the advice I’ve meted out to students over the years? Thoreau mined his journal jottings and got essays and books out of his copious notes – not sure I’ll be so talented…

As a person who likes to ‘join the dots’ I value connectedness when memories spring to mind as I walk or travel by public transport. I have a pile of notebooks to be typed up and documents already on the computer to finish or add to and way too many photographs. (My oldest daughter banned me from ever opening an Instagram account!)

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Will 2019 be the year I use time wisely or perhaps discover a niche other than writing and teaching?

Do I write up and polish, start afresh, a bit of both or ‘now for something completely different’?

Maybe just luxuriate in reading and gardening…

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Tales of Our Lives
Mairi Neil

If you want to record your stories
consider what and ponder why –
list all the events to be remembered
and ask, ‘Who for?’

Is that a sigh?

If wondering ‘who’ don’t worry
there’s joy in a manuscript for one
reflecting on life and lessons learned
gives satisfaction when writing done!

Do we need to record our stories?
Some question the wisdom of revisiting years
but most of us have lived experiences
to prompt laughter as well as tears.

Ordinary people live extraordinary lives
an observation you often hear said –
so concentrate on the who and what
think how your stories will be read.

Will you write with pen and ink –
forming copperplated words
or tap myriad computer keys
that easily erase the absurd?

You may even take recording
to another level of authenticity,
digital voice and video programs
reproducing ‘you’ with simplicity.

And if you do go digital –
recording voice and visuals – remember
mobile phones, Youtube, Facebook
retain the serious and the trivial…

Stories have entertained us
from the beginning of humankind
witness Stone Age drawings and
precious artefacts archaeologists find.

Storytelling fills a need and
links the present to the past
by exploring our human story –
we ‘nail our colours to the mast’!

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No More Travelling To Bentleigh

It will be strange not going to class Wednesday mornings and catching up with the students in my Life Stories & Legacies class.

As I considered the final anthology, I looked around the room and realised some of the students had journeyed with me for the five years the course has been running. The women scribbling in their notebooks and tapping an iPad now friends, not students. All are amazing writers whose authentic prose and poems from the heart, were written from a depth of experience spanning decades. Edna the oldest will be turning ninety in a couple of months and Anat, the youngest in her thirties.

I watched them grow in confidence as writers, bond and trust each other, learning to be true to themselves and their stories. They shared personal and family secrets, opinions (not always politically correct), anecdotes, and many entertaining and heartbreaking tales of life’s sorrows and joys.

The class established for people who wanted to leave a written legacy. The questions each one had to answer:

  • Who am I writing for?
  • What information do I think they need to know?
  • More importantly, what do I want them to know?
  • What will they remember about me?

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I published 8 class anthologies over the years and if the students finished a semester or year they contributed work. The students who shared their stories 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018:

  • Melissa Quigley
  • Jan Wiburd
  • Annie Crane
  • Edna Gaffney
  • Nora Boghikian
  • Anat Bigos
  • Helen Thomas
  • Donna Hellier
  • Mary Robinson
  • Suzanne Dillon

Some of the students were childless but have dear friends and family to think about or aimed to publish their life stories for the general public.

No students in the final class had a partner – they either never married, were divorced, or widowed. Therefore our stories had a definite female, some may say feminist, perspective.

I am constantly awed at the resilience and determination displayed when journeys are shared – the overcoming or ongoing struggle with illness, disease, disability; the grief and mourning for loved ones touches us all, as well as the additional losses – of country, of culture, of employment, of partners, of children, of health, of pets, of self-esteem… the list can go on.

Writing is appreciating and trying to explain/understand the human condition. Yet a strong aspect of writing classes has always been laughter – not only do we love to laugh with each other but at ourselves.

Another aspect has been the delicious morning teas and birthday celebrations – on Wednesday mornings, Anat’s carer, Jill an integral part of our class family and birthday cake maker extraordinaire!

The tapestry of my life has been so much richer because of Wednesday mornings and although looking to weave new threads, or even have a rest from weaving, I’m going to miss Life Stories & Legacies where I was truly blessed with a wonderful class.

The poems and stories of all past students are important to me and when I read their words I hear their voices, imagine them in class… memories I value.

I have a bookshelf of class anthologies from Sandy Beach, Mordialloc, Bentleigh and Chelsea and reading the poems and stories I can recall the writers:

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Not Everyone is A Digital Native

We are in the digital age and the demands of readers have changed – there are websites, blogs, e-books, podcasts, audiobooks – stories experienced on a variety of devices with different screens and parameters.

If writers want to reach a variety of readers methods must change.

How to adapt is a  personal choice, and for many people, the traditional printed paper is still what they want to read and how they want to be published.

I found most of the students coming to my classes were not digital natives and preferred to keep learning the craft of writing and learning computer skills separate. Some struggled with basic formatting, some were not on email, many had ‘hunt and peck’ keyboard skills.

Fortunately, all were happy to be lifelong learners and even if it was a struggle they’d attend computer classes too, which most community houses or libraries now provide. Coping with a wide range of skills, or lack of skills a fact of life if teaching in community houses and it’s important not to leave anyone behind.

However, whether you write with pen and paper or prefer to tap your laptop or iPad you benefit from regular writing. Writing classes or workshops can be a first step to discovering not only what you want to write while learning the tools of the craft, but also how you want to be published.

Writing helps you reflect on your life and changes you’re making. … Writing regularly makes you better at writing. And writing is a powerful skill to be good at in our digital age. Writing for an audience (even if the audience is just one person) helps you to think from the perspective of the audience.

Leo Babauto

More importantly, writing classes can keep you motivated.  Writing courses proliferate online as well as bricks and mortar but for convenience and cost, community houses are hard to beat. They throw in ambience, friendship, sharing of stories and ideas, and a lot of love and caring so I’m glad the classes are continuing at Bentleigh with other teachers.

Number Nine Godfrey Street

Mairi Neil

The garden a delight from someone’s green fingers
a profusion of pastel colours glistening
while sunshine smiles and fickle autumn spits rain
I watch visitors stream inside the nondescript house
their footsteps echoing on shaded verandah
walkers scrape and stroller wheels squeak
a magpie trills in dinner-suited elegance,
preening glossy feathers and strutting the footpath
as if ushering passersby to enter stage right ––
the Isadora scarf or Hitchcock cigar missing.

A young woman, nursing a toddler on her hip,
grins a welcome to the elderly gent
clutching a chessboard and secret moves
their families farewelled to independence,
seniors care for themselves in exercise classes
small talk in craft sessions produces big results
delightful aromas drift from the kitchen ––
homemade pumpkin soup, sweet chocolate cookies,
spicy curries – recipes shared with curiosity and love
sauced with tales from distant lands.

Oil paintings and pastel drawings, the fruit
of nurtured local artists decorate the walls
this house celebrates learning, laughter and leisure …
friendships bubble, overflow to the neighbourhood
no need to cruise the retail choices of Centre Road,
sup lonely cafe lattes amid chattering conversations
or sit mesmerised by mobile screens
a house in Godfrey Street plants seeds
and grows friendships, welcomes newcomers,
encourages indigenous and immigrant to bloom.

In the house singsong voices of children tinkle
while mellow murmurings of writers’ words
capture imagination, life experience, and wisdom.
pens scratch notepads as the sewing group
across the hall coax machines to whirr into life,
garments appear patterned by creativity
wordsmiths spin sentences for pleasure
every room thrums and hums as
people connect, care, and communicate
a commitment to lifelong learning

I accept the marching magpie’s invitation
submit to being ‘led up the garden path’
and follow a thirty-year trail to discover
like the vibrant blossoms in the garden
community and harmony flourishes
at Number Nine Godfrey Street, Bentleigh.

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Change Is Indeed Constant

 

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Tori’s parting gift to the class

 

Yesterday, a milestone in the Monday class, we farewelled Tori Dowd who has been attending for over a decade. Tori is what you would call ‘a personality’ or  ‘memorable character’ (we are writers after all!) – and she will be missed.

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Tori and me

Tori wrote us a thank you letter plus a card and gave us chocolates. Her mother, Lyn visited with lovely flowers to say thank you and goodbye. Niceties and kindness not everyone remembers and it was truly appreciated.

Lyn wrote:

Thank you to you very special people, Tori’s friends, who have been so inclusive of her at Writing For Pleasure.

To the staff at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House – thank you, one and all. Tori has been welcomed for many years.

With my love and thanks.

Lyn

 Ta Ta Tori
Mairi Neil

A sad Monday Class, farewelling Tori
Admin say the beginning was 2006
Tori a fixture from February to December
A decade of individuality in our midst.

Her wheelchair’s special controls
Enabled whizzing around the room
Two favourites were Barb and Kay
Between them Tori could zoom.

Each Monday, she arrived by special taxi
Most days a grin upon her face
Her greeting “a cup of coffee please”
The other students fetched with grace.

 

Tori’s special loves: her pet dog, Mimi
Watching romance on her bedroom TV
And we’ll remember her sweet tooth
How she looked forward to morning tea!

Chocolate being her favourite food
A love the rest of us also shared
Birthdays celebrated with gusto
Special cakes made because we cared.

But ‘all good things come to an end
Tori’s future safeguarded by sharing
Mother Lyn organised a move to Sydney
Where brothers will help with caring.

Future Mondays will feel strange
No yellow taxi stopping outside
No smiling drivers in coloured turbans
Strong hands the wheelchair’s guide

No teasing about forgotten homework
No whispered, ‘Mairi what can I write?’
No exclamations to Heather or Barbara
Or squeezing hands with all her might.

The dynamics of Mondays will be different
But with prompting poised pens will move
Poems and stories imagined and shared
Writing class mojo continues to groove!

 

Memories To Cherish

Each year as we published class anthologies, Tori contributed her writing, her words a wonderful reminder of who she was and her time with us in class. Although Tori could hold a pen, writing took great physical effort.

However, she was an example, not of disability but making the most of abilities.

Her time with us a reminder of our diversity, the richness it adds to daily life, and the fantastic safe spaces provided in community houses where all adult learners are welcomed to ‘write for pleasure and publication’.

 

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Tori has left her address and so we will now be pen friends in the old fashioned way – Australia Post can expect to be busy!

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Creative Conversations and Observations for a Poet and Writer on Public Transport

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On reflection, having to travel by public transport and perhaps do more walking than others need to, has been a gift for my writing. My notebook is filled with snippets of conversation, details noted, ideas, characters and plots, from daily observations as I travel from A to B by foot, bus or train.

Strange as it may seem in this modern world, I don’t drive and have never held a driving licence.

Why?

It’s a long story, which involves a deeply traumatic accident when I was a teenager, and one I won’t revisit today.

However, I make any situation work for me! I try to enthuse my students to spend more time on public transport (it is better for the planet after all) and to always be alert and have their pen and notebook at the ready.

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Monday Morning
Mairi Neil

Often I wake to early dawn
Pastel colours suffused on lawn
Dewy drops dripping from leaves
Ready to fall if gentle sea breeze…

Daylight comes with steady gait
I breakfast quickly, not to be late
The working day waits for no one
And shining sun now promises fun.

Buds are blooming insects thrum
The birds from the Wetlands come
Magpies chortle, blackbirds trill
Juicy worms now a morning thrill.

Trains trundle past, destination known
A glance at the clock, time has flown
Aurora locked outside with a bone
Handbag checked for keys and phone.

The walk to work an easy pace
Night shadows gone without a trace
Neighbours’ gardens perfume the air
Examples of love, and diligent care.

Cars jostle for parking, traffic grows
Some drivers’ rage leads to blows
Modern living a frenetic dance
But I work within strolling distance

Often I wake to the early dawn
As pastel colours suffuse on lawn
Night shadows leaving without a trace
I whisper blessings for the Creator’s Grace …

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Monday Afternoon
Mairi Neil

The bus arrives to a restless queue
Driver grumpy, wishing time flew
Passengers board like a mutinous crew
No smiles, or greetings, courtesies few.

Timetables set and must be obeyed
When punctual, the memories fade
Lateness, delays, cancellations weighed
Invoking criticism, complaints, tirades!

What do passengers care of roadworks?
Better to assume all drivers are jerks
Perhaps skiving off, looking for perks
Responsibility of time, theirs to shirk.

Traffic jams, stress, interrupted flow
Vehicles broken down, or going slow
Bicycles hesitant of where to go
Negotiating routes even hard for a pro.

Who’d be a bus driver, I often ask
Their daily challenge an unenviable task
The bus arrives to a restless queue
The long-suffering driver wishing time flew…

One of the poet’s I admire is Roger McGough – he writes about a world I recognise and in a recent lesson, we discussed his poem Conversations on a Train and how we could use it as inspiration.

QUESTIONS
Where is conversation taking place?
Why are the women travelling?
What do the people do for a living?
Are they experienced travellers?
What are the Illuminations?
Any more information to be gleaned?
How does the poet use language and dialogue to tell the story?

Conversation on a Train
Roger McGough

I’m Shirley, she’s Mary.
We’re from Swansea
(if there was a horse there
it’d be a one-horse town
but there isn’t even that).
We’re going to Blackpool
Just the week. A bit late I know
But then there’s the Illuminations
Isn’t there? No, never been before.
Paris last year. Didn’t like it.
Too expensive and nothing there really.

Dirty old train isn’t it?
And not even a running buffet.
Packet of crisps would do
Change at Crewe
Probably have to wait hours
For the connection, and these cases
Are bloody heavy.
And those porters only want tipping.
Reminds you of Paris that does
Tip tip tip all the time.
Think you’re made of money over there.

Toy factory, and Mary works in a shop.
Grocers. Oh it’s not bad
Mind you the money’s terrible.
Where are you from now?
Oh aye, dya know the Beatles then?
Liar!
And what do you do for a living? You don’t say.
Diya hear than Mary?
Well I hope you don’t go home
And write a bloody poem about us.

In class, we worked with a partner and transposed the poem into a short piece of dialogue so we could mark the voices speaking and fill the gaps in conversation.

What differences are there between your dialogue and the poem? What’s more effective? Notice how you mentally supply the other half of the conversation because of cultural background and life experience.

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We then tried to write our own poems using McGough’s as a wonderful example.

A Trip to Tassy
Mairi Neil

I’m Mary, she’s Jane
We’re from Mordialloc
Our bit of paradise
Is Mordy –
Sea, sand and serenity.

We’re going to Launceston
Just the weekend. A bit short, I know.
But you need a break, don’t you?
Yes, work’s so bloody relentless
We’re cleaners. That’s right,
In business together.

Bumpy old ride isn’t it?
Gov’ment should fix the roads.
Oh, we’ve heard that, haven’t we Mum?
Road kill. Shocking statistics.
Those bumps were pot holes.
I bloody hope so!

We clean all sorts: houses, factories,
Shops. Too right there’s some sights
And smells. Ha! Ha! That’s funny!
Jane here would love that.
What Mum? A switch on yer nose.
Yeah, people can be filthy.

Everywhere. We went to England
Last year. Buckingham Palace.
Yeah, it was clean
But ya should have seen
The dog poo in the streets.
Like I said, people are filthy.

There can be perks -mostly jerks.
Jane!
Jaded Jane? You could say that.
It’s not a sought after job
For anyone. Of course, I finished
School. The economy’s crap.
What’s your line of work?
Gov’ment huh? Cushy job.
Wow, that was some bump.
Why don’t you fix the bloody roads!

Off The Rails
Off The Rails

Frankston to Flinders Street
Mairi Neil

Jason and Trev
Yeah, just finished TAFE
Our holiday gear
Is that why you thought
We were Tradies?
Jason’s tools need
A harder case than that
Like he is – Ha! Ha!
Have a guess. No, not sparkies.
Do I look like a painter?
Jas here’s a carpenter, I’m a baker.
And you’re a secretary.
Oooh! sensitive.
Nothing wrong with being a secretary
They record minutes and write too.

Trev’s sister’s a secretary
For the CEO of Metro
Pity she wasn’t the CEO
This train line needs a makeover.
You could write about that in your paper
We’re getting off at Southern Cross
Heading for the Ghan
And the desert.
You been there Pam?
Plenty of stories for you.
She’s going to write about us Trev.
Make us celebrities – eh Pam?
Front page news
Tradies Take Over Train
Tradies Testing Transport’s Timetables

Yeah, we were the jokers at TAFE
And school Jas – remember that
Trip to Springvale?
Very droll Pam – not the cemetery
But just as dead heh, Jas?
Deadly Trev – we missed the bus
Home remember? Aw getting off
So soon! Don’t you want to know
What we did? All right be like that.
Go on Trev, she like you…
Fancy coming with us Pam?
To record our story, of course!
Smile Trev I think that blonde’s
Heading this way…

Another poem by Roger McGough I love is –

Waving at Trains
Roger McGough

Do people who wave at trains
Wave at the driver, or at the train itself?
Or, do people who wave at trains
Wave at the passengers? Those hurtling strangers,
The unidentifiable flying faces?
They must think we like being waved at.
Children do perhaps, and alone
In a compartment, the occasional passenger
Who is himself a secret waver at trains.
But most of us are unimpressed.
Some even think they’re daft.
Stuck out there in a field, grinning.
But our ignoring them, our blank faces,
Even our pulled tongues and up you signs
Come three miles further down the line.
Out of harm’s way by then
They continue their walk.
Refreshed and made pure, by the mistaken belief
That their love has been returned,
Because they have not seen it rejected.
It’s like God in a way. Another day
Another universe. Always off somewhere.
And left behind, the faithful few,
Stuck out there. Not a care in the world.

Trains play a big part in my life and it is no surprise they inspire me to write.

Currently, I live opposite the Frankston railway line and 500 steps from Mordialloc Railway Station, and have done for 31 years.

Before that, I grew up in Croydon with the Lilydale line two paddocks away from our back fence. Before that, I lived in Scotland and watched my father drive trains, thrilled when he was on the Weymss Bay route and we’d wave a sheet from the back landing of our Braeside home. He’d toot the horn to let us know he’d seen us. (My Grandfather, also a locomotive engine driver in the age of steam so Dad was carrying on a family tradition.)

Dad drove steam trains, also diesels and was at 23 years of age the youngest diesel instructor for British Rail. When we arrived in Australia in 1962 with good references and proof of his 25 year career with British Rail, I can’t even imagine his devastation at being rejected by Victorian Railways, deemed too old at 40 to be a driver, and offered a job as a cleaner. ( A common immigrant story)

His active connection with working with trains forever severed – except at the dinner table where we feasted on stories of Papa and Dad’s exploits.

Trains are one of the most efficient and sustainable forms of public transport. For years I travelled to the city for work: red rattlers caught at Croydon Station at 7.30am and the infamous 5 o’clock flyer home from Flinders Street.

When I lived in Prahran for 5 years, I trammed to North Melbourne – and using the trams gave me my first paid published short story!

A move to Mordialloc in 1984 entailed travelling in and out of the city on Blue Harris trains, Silver Comengs, and now Metro’s Siemen trains. If given a choice, I opt for train travel over car, bus or plane! And I always have my writer’s notebook at hand.

3.05pm Flinders Street to Frankston
Mairi Neil

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

She swigs Kamboucha
for inner health
what about 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 care
sucked in and swallowed
by consumerism

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

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What’s your favourite form of transport? What transport inspires your writing? Have you written a poem based on overheard conversations or observations? Please give me a link to share.

Thank you

Icebreakers, Introductions, Innovation, and Sharing the ‘Inner’ You…

There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.

Ernest Hemingway

My teaching year began this week and although I have many returning students there are also new enrolments. The first lesson always includes writing exercises to help us get to know one another, but coming up with innovative icebreakers isn’t easy.  I think I’ve exhausted all the usual suspects and planning that first lesson takes a great deal of time.

How do you make the information shared ‘new’ for the same people who have been meeting and writing together for over a decade? How do you make someone coming into that established group feel excited about joining and wanting to belong? The variety of ages, life experience, abilities and expectations in adult classes  makes them interesting and enjoyable, but also a challenge.

A good ice breaker helps create a memorable first impression and often encourages lasting friendships – that enjoyable feeling where you say, ‘we just clicked!’

As a teacher I listen attentively to everyone’s responses and encourage the class to do the same – being a good listener very important, but especially so for writers. Often we interview each other and then introduce our interviewee to the class before writing either a story based on some piece of information gleaned, or a journalistic profile or mini biography.

However, when the same people return each year I have to come up with targeted interview questions or word games. This year we went around the room several times describing ourselves with adjectives that began with the same letter as our name (alliteration), but added why we chose the word.

Meticulous Mairi – I love paying attention to detail when I write.
Moneyless Mairi – The need to have a regular income to pay bills keeps me grounded, but also eats into writing time.
Mysterious Mairi – An intriguing song from my youth often plays in my head, Peter Sarstedt’s “Where do you go to My Lovely…” I never want to be described as ‘an open book.’

The ice was certainly broken by the first round as people helped each other to come up with adjectives and explanations of why they chose the word – those with names beginning with ‘I’ having to stretch the mind muscles with inimitable, illogical, immaculate, inventive, innovative, irrepressible, ingenious and informal… One student’s name began with ‘J‘ and we understood why jolly and jocular were easy to say, but jam-lover revealed an interesting snippet we hadn’t heard before!

Not everyone can think ‘off the top of their head’ and although I always leave a dictionary and thesaurus in the centre of the table it was heartening to see how everyone joined in to help each other out when someone got stuck. It’s not as easy as it sounds, to come up with words beginning with the same letter or sound as your name – especially to match descriptions you want to be accurate!

A feature of my classes is always laughter – and my students have never disappointed – a little bit of humour whether self deprecating, satire or full on comedy should be a component of everyone’s day.

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The assigned homework will add to our knowledge of each other if the writers choose my suggestion of modelling a profile on the alphabet. Like list poetry I have discussed in a previous post, using the alphabet as a jumping off point can be helpful to a writer:

Write the alphabet down the page – Underneath the letter or off to the side, write:
A is for __________.
For example, A is for Australia (if you were born in Australia, or perhaps Apple if that’s your favourite fruit). Write a couple of sentences of explanation, description…fantasy, memoir… wherever your thoughts take you.

Next week you will share this ABC profile of yourself and also any story ideas it may have given you. This is a FUN exercise to flex your writing muscles and imagination.
Perhaps the ABC profile might be about a character in a story you are working on, or some other person you want to write about. The more bizarre or unusual the words you choose, the more interesting and original the writing and the more you stretch your imagination! RELAX and keep a good dictionary handy.

Last year among the targeted questions the class pondered and answered we thought about our names. Your name is an integral part of who you are, how you perceive yourself (many people change their names). Names often generate a discussion when you first meet someone – whether it is about culture, origin, similarity to your own, never been heard before, unusual spelling…

Biblical-Names

From a writer’s perspective choosing a character’s name is an important part of the writing process. At the end of the first lesson last year we certainly knew each other better and had some interesting ideas for stories and characters.

What’s in a name?
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014

Ice breakers help the class explore their thoughts on a common issue and for a group of writers they can be a perfect segue into a topic or technique important to the craft of writing. When I reflect on the class responses I may see a snapshot into their current thinking or knowledge of writing, as well as recognising changes in the lives and health of those who have been attending for a long period of time. The lessons from that first lesson shape the term as we continue on that wonderful road paved with words, ideas and more words!

A writer’s problem does not change. It is always how to write truly and having found out what is true to project it in such a way that it becomes part of the experience of the person who reads it.

Ernest Hemingway

Memories, Mirrors and Musings to stir the Muse!

She glances at the photo, and the pilot light of memory flickers in her eyes.

Frank Deford

Typewriter-Think

Where have the summer holidays gone? What happened to all my writing plans? The household tasks? The ‘to participate’ list for Melbourne’s wonderful festivals, events and permanent art venues? The catch-up cuppas with friends?

Some of the above were achieved, but not as many as I hoped and now it’s lesson planning time and in less than a fortnight I’ll be back at work at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, Longbeach Place, Chelsea and Godfrey Street, Bentleigh teaching: Writing for Pleasure & Publication, Writing & Editing, Memoir to Manuscript and Life Stories & Legacies.

I’ve spent many days researching and organising to make the lessons fresh and interesting, the revision and research reminding me of the importance of always honing the craft of writing to learn and apply a variety of techniques. The learning curve necessary for tutor and student alike – I need a challenge too, or I’ll become stale and boring.

At least the writer’s mantra has been applied over the holidays:  read, read, read – and write, write, write – then rewrite, rewrite rewrite!! This blog has helped keep me on my toes,  given me insight to what writers are doing in many other parts of the world and freshened my outlook. Variety indeed the spice of life!

The Internet a seemingly infinite place/space to research, read, find jobs, markets, meet people, network, but most of all learn and much appreciated by a lifelong learner like me.

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Mirror Mirror on the Wall…
Mairi Neil

In the mirror there’s an image I see
Grey hair and wrinkles – how can that be?
Is that old woman really me?

In my head there’s whimsy and fantasy
My body bursts with playful energy
And my growing soul aches to run free!

In the mirror this image I see
Grey hair and wrinkles – who can she be?
An old woman – yes –  but not really me!

A mirror mirage with lips that plea
The grey hair and wrinkles others see
Belong to a future that’s still to be…

In the book of life I accept my age
Uncomplaining – feel no need to rage
As long as each day begins a new page

Wrinkles represent life’s trials -a trace
Of hardships and triumphs we all face
Effects of ageing accepted with grace

In the mirror there’s an image to see
Grey hair, wrinkles layered as a tree,
But that  woman is not the real me!

I still believe in whimsy.  Need fantasy
So must harness lots of playful energy
To be the me, I want to be!

The variety of classes I teach make life interesting and a challenge, particularly when many students return for another year and there is a range of age groups (the oldest student will be 94, the youngest 24), backgrounds, abilities, dreams and needs (some students have mental and physical health issues, but thrive in the safe friendly environment of a community house).

What a blessing and privilege to be teaching a subject I love in local centres with students who choose to be there,  to share their life experiences, imagination and personalities,  knowledge spanning several generations, countries, genders, continents!

A shelf groans with class anthologies and revisiting their delightful contents – each poem, story, anecdote and memoir takes me back into the classroom to hear the voice of the writer, picture them writing and reading… imagining… ‘pilot light of memory’ flickering.

Memory… is the diary that we all carry about with us.

Oscar Wilde,The Importance of Being Earnest

We put so much of ourselves into our words. We share each other’s triumphs and support each other’s writing goals. When a poem a student wrote in my class was accepted into Poetica Christi’s latest anthology her joy jumped off the Christmas card she sent me. Let’s hope there are more successes to come. it’s wonderful when the words work and are appreciated by others.

The Mirror
(after Sylvia Plath)

Why do you challenge me every morning? Do you think muted morning light will make a difference to the harsh incandescence of nightly fluorescents? Your eyes seek what I cannot give. I cannot stop you turning into your mother, or give you back your youth. I cannot heal the surgeon’s scar; replace the slice that changed your life.

I know you think I’m fickle. You rub to polish my view, seek a clarity I cannot give. It may make me reflect more clearly your desires, but not reality. A trick of the light your excuse as those once bright eyes mist and dull. I cannot control your heart or mind. I tell it how it is for me. I may be silver-coated but not silver-tongued.

But, why believe me? Does my opinion matter? I cannot reach out into the world, engage with people the way you can. Take well-worn advice, seek and ye shall find. There’s a window to your soul only you can unlock, and change is constant. Don’t challenge me because my view will always be limited. My reflections dependent upon light.

My power is gifted – take it back.

Mairi Neil 2013

Now back to my planning, revising and writing because …

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How Haiku led me to Haibun and the importance of Kintsukuroi to my Writing Life

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Oh, how we need inspirational quotes and prods from friends and that nagging inner voice, to pick up the pen, or in modern parlance, sit in front of the computer and tap doggedly at the keys.

Today, when so many people are writing it is easy to be discouraged if you go down the track of comparing your offerings in a negative way. Instead of learning, experimenting, editing and rewriting, you give up because you think I can’t write like that… my book won’t be as popular as that… he/she writes so much better than me…no one wants to read what I write… I’m a poet, a short story writer, a musician, a blogger, a novelist, I don’t understand other genres… I’m not good enough… it’s too hard to change… (or is it in Robert Louis Stevenson’s words ‘the malady of not wanting’!)

Almost everyone in the creative arts, not just writers, suffers at some time on their journey from the fear of failure, rejection, inadequacy and ridicule, but we also experience the incredible satisfaction of doing what we love and when it works its akin to ecstasy! For me, as a writer, the secret is to ‘hang in there’ like a surfer clinging to a board in a turbulent sea. I also venture into unknown waters, sometimes a paddle, other times a deep dive, and most of the times I’m waving not drowning!

One of my changes of directions involved learning haiku, which led to experimenting with other forms of Japanese poetry and like most form poetry, attempting to ‘get it right/write’  can be a wonderful and creative distraction when words fail elsewhere in your writing life. I’ve shared some of my haiku in earlier posts and want to thank Nobuko Sakai, a longtime friend for introducing me to Japanese verse. Nobuko came into my life when I was sixteen and she attended my high school in 1970 as a Japanese exchange student. We have been friends ever since, visiting each other here in Melbourne, Tokyo,  and in London, England where she now lives.

Nobuko sent me The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (1964), translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite, which introduced me to the great Matsuo Bashō and Kobayashi Issa and so many others, as well as giving a potted history of 1500 years of Japanese tradition. (There is a not so glowing review of the book here, but sixteen years old me did not have the knowledge (or desire) to critique like this, I was just enthralled to discover a new world of writers!)

A more recent gift of a carload of books by a generous daughter from the estate of her mother, a local writer/artist, included Classic Haiku, a Master’s Selection (1991), a gold mine of poetry translated by Yuzuru Miura with a poet’s eye and they fit Bownas & Thwaite’s description:

(a haiku’s)… seventeen syllables should ideally – and nearly always did – end in a noun or an emotional ejaculation, and should contain their ‘season word’ (kilo) or expression hinting at the time of the year appropriate to the context.’

However, like all adaptations, if you become involved in the poetry scene you’ll find those who insist on traditional haiku, and those who accept changes to the form, whether in syllable count or subject matter. My advice – just write a three line image, manipulate the words as best you can and say what you want to say whether it exactly fits the parameters, or not. (It’s amazing how often it does!)

A frozen puddle
trip back to my childhood
worth wet socks all day

Mairi Neil, Hobo Poetry Magazine, Issue 21. (no longer in print)

Last year I introduced myself and the class to Haibun and without becoming too pedantic about the rules I tried to combine haiku and prose to tell a story aiming for the moon, but sometimes remaining on earth:

In good haibun, the prose deepens the understanding of the poetry, and the poetry gives greater energy to the prose. The relationship is like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful.

Here is my first effort at haibun (it doesn’t follow the rules of some traditionalists), but was  published in Celebrating Poetry by  Karenzo Media 2014:

Visiting Singapore 1973

Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

No unsettling chill
Just instant relief
From relentless heat

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

A turmoil of grey
Idyllic tropics in grip
Of monsoonal rain

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

I tried to write another…

Sore Feet and Soaring Thoughts

Mairi Neil

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

Shuffling slippered feet
Walker wheels squeak and sticks tap
Dull pleated skirts flap…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The internet is a great resource for reading haibun online. To access several fine sites go to this link and here.

Saturday Morning Sojourn
Mairi Neil

Magpies trill
Ravens squawk, and parrots squeal
In morning mist chill…

The sea breeze tastes salty and brings a whiff of fish. Eucalypts counteract the exhaust fumes from an idling bus. My footsteps tap and click to compete with the clang of bells from the railway crossing, while a pink glow tinges a pewter sky.

An absence of folk
At seven Saturday morn
Commuters sleep-in…

The Frankston train grunts to a standstill, brake fluid turning the air rancid. Carriage doors open at the touch of a button. I smile. The heating works too.

Friday night’s residue
Stale beer and body odour
Bottles, cans, litter…

Fresh air, a relief at Chelsea Station. Community gardens glisten with dew, their morning hush disturbed by eager joggers and dog walkers.

Curtains, and eyes closed
Newspapers asleep on lawns
Doorstop cats restless…

Enticing smells float from a bakery and a group of young people huddle outside the tennis courts. Their dedication triggers memories of school hockey practice.

Teasing and giggling
the scantily dressed teens
Gather for sport…

I walk towards the medical clinic, a sixth sense telling me the lightness of step justified. I chuckle and feel ageless.

I’ll return to these poems and try to salvage the essence or write a new poem because that’s what I do – keep aiming for perfection and searching for words and form to share my thoughts and observations and ‘an overactive imagination’ – my Mother’s words!

And I’m grateful I came across this delightful image, which led to a discovery of another gift from Japanese culture and one I will share with my students when classes return as well as this delightful fable of its origins. The message to me as a writer is to never give up, find a home for those words, or rejig them into something different, perhaps even better, or just accept them for what they are – an expression from a moment in time – whether it be a deep and meaningful observation, a description or fanciful thought!

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As a philosophy kintsukuroi ,  treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. As a philosophy kintsugi can be seen to have similarities to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, an embracing of the flawed or imperfect.

Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated… a kind of physical expression of the spirit of mushin….Mushin is often literally translated as “no mind,” but carries connotations of fully existing within the moment, of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions. …The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject. This poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in Japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, or perhaps identification with, [things] outside oneself.

Christy Bartlett, Flickwerk The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics

Writers know about knockbacks, shattering truths, and lucky breaks – we also know about rebuilding dreams and that often requires rebuilding or salvaging our words – I can definitely relate to Kintsukuroi in my general life as well as my writing life!