Writers Write – That’s What We Do – Let’s Hope the Readers Read!

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To be a writer is to embrace rejection as a way of life.

Dana Stabenow.

Over the years, I’ve earned more money from my teaching than my writing, but I remember the day I considered myself a writer and decided to keep scribbling and never abandon an activity that has saved my sanity, brought pleasure and pain, and remains a vital part of who I am.

A Ticket To Write

Mairi Neil

The morning is a brilliant blue with a fresh sea breeze and cliched cottonwool clouds. The dog barks her annoyance at a piercing whistle from a city bound train and from my bedroom window, I watch an envelope flop into the letterbox as the postman pedals past.

Gently, I restrain two-year-old Anne’s ebullient rush outside. This ritual, a highlight of her morning. She loves the challenge of turning the key, opening the Perspex door and retrieving the letters while I hold her aloft as her dainty feet brush the agapanthus and geraniums.

I wonder if she notices my seesawing moods during this ritual: excited anticipation, then wistfulness.

Today, I stare at the black letters on the solitary white business envelope, a distinctive logo bold and embossed. I breathe deeply; try to remain calm. Oh, to be Superman with x-ray vision.

Anne, usually adept at opening the letterbox, fumbles today. My legs begin a nervous tremble – a premonition (or hope) pumps blood through my heart to pulse in already throbbing ears. The clear air seems lighter like my head; the scent of nearby lavender and sturdy eucalypts keeping me focused as I concentrate on Anne’s voice delightfully chanting, ‘Here Mummy… only one ‘vope.’

‘Thank you darling.’ I playfully pat her bottom as I set her on the ground, ‘Mummy’ll race you inside.’ This usual conclusion of our journey to the mailbox, one I always lose.

I pretend to run and keep one eye on the toddling fairy while ripping the envelope open. A cheque, attached to a With Compliments slip from The Herald & Weekly Times, flutters free.

I stare at the slip of paper worth $60.00. Blood rushes to my face and at that moment the world changes. Closing my eyes, I cross into a world only visited in dreams. Someone values what I wrote – enough to pay me for it. ‘I’m a published writer!’ I whisper to the plants not expecting a response like Prince Charles, but I need an audience! I babble the significance of the news to Anne, wishing she could understand more than ‘Mummy is very happy.’ She just giggles and laughs as I sweep her into my arms and swirl and twirl into the house, desperate to telephone John.

My husband’s joy palpable, ‘I knew you’d be published. I’m going out now to buy several copies from the newsagents. Well done, I’m so proud of you.’ A few minutes later, John rings to say my story isn’t in the current issue.

I had sent it six weeks ago – when was it published? I check the ‘with compliments’ slip for a hint, but no luck. I ring my parents who are regular readers of the newspaper. It had been Dad who’d encouraged me to send  a story to their fiction section. He answers the phone, happy and proud, ‘I’ll buy extra copies of the edition.’

‘That’s if, I ever find out, which one it is Dad. They pay on publication, but it’s not in this week’s.’

I ring the newspaper to find out when, or if, my story has been published. The receptionist off-hand, ‘If you’ve received a cheque then it’s already been published.’

I contemplate ringing Dad again; hoping their recycled papers hadn’t been collected, but Mum rings me before I can dial. Great minds think alike! She’d retrieved the paper from the recycle bin. The story published two weeks earlier.

Mum reads every page of newspapers or magazines meticulously. I learn an important lesson –  people read the words – the author’s name may not be noticed or remembered!

That was 1987 when I’d abandoned full-time paid work to be a mother. A confidante to my dreams, John encouraged me to write while I ‘had the time and opportunity.’ Only a man (or non-writer) could make that statement, but I am grateful he valued and encouraged me to write.

The administrative position I held in a busy parish office prior to motherhood hadn’t left much energy for creative writing, although the constant stream of people seeking help and advice fired my imagination, as did church political intrigue. The relentless work of a new baby, breastfeeding on demand and apparently only needing occasional twenty-five minute catnaps throughout very long days and nights didn’t do much for energy levels either! However, I did find time to scribble and polish some words and my imagination never switched off.

I had been writing for years gaining publication of poems and articles at school, university and church magazines, but never actually developing the confidence to send a piece off to a commercial publisher. At work, I was the one people asked to write doggerel on special occasions, or help to write letters. I had the reputation amongst family and friends of being ‘good with words,’ but regarded as a hobby writer. No one saw my writing as a serious career choice – not even me!

The desire to write led me to subscribe to a writing magazine. I read every article I could on the craft of writing. John, a trade union official had long irregular working hours, so attending a writing group, or writing class impossible for me to schedule. I noticed an advertisement in the newspaper for The Writing School. The correspondence course not cheap, but they guaranteed to refund your money if you did not recoup the fee from paid published work by the time you finished the course. Most importantly, it was self-paced with no time limit for finishing the course. What did I have to lose? John gave me the enrolment fee as an early birthday present.

One of the first exercises was to write a story under 800 words based on a character study. My effort returned with positive comments and a couple of punctuation suggestions and the advice to ‘find the story a home’.

Dad, a frustrated writer himself, always encouraged me to write. His love of poetry and frequent recitals of favourite poems made me love the potency of words. Mum, an avid reader ensured our house overflowed with books. Birthdays and Christmas always meant at least one book as a gift. All my life, a daily newspaper had been delivered and subscriptions to various magazines  factored into the family budget. I asked Dad for help to choose a market for my story and he suggested The Weekly Times, a popular newspaper in the 80s.

I sent off an unsolicited manuscript –– a photocopy of the painstakingly retyped story(no home computer then), a covering letter and prepaid self-addressed envelope.

My thoughts on an eccentric tram driver who interacted with commuters and the imaginary past I created for him entitled  A Ticket To Vaudeville became my ticket to publication and a much-needed boost to confidence and self-esteem. (This short story can be read in an earlier post.)

It is easy to become discouraged with writing and I’ve found ‘Life’ events intervene, but there are a lot of supportive groups and writers around who understand the pitfalls and as a writer, regardless of payment or other people’s judgment, I’ll continue to write!

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Reflecting on 2014: Joy, Sadness, Love and Laughter – Mindfulness!

Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognise a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.

Thich Nhat Han

There is a lot of joy in our house at the moment with Anne’s return, although there are days when she misses the travelling life and all the dear friends she made overseas. Joy too because Mary Jane has completed a great year of studies and is embarking on a career in 2015 doing something she likes, but hopefully still allowing time for her creative juices to flow. For me, thank goodness my established classes and links with the three community houses where I work have been confirmed for another year.

There will be bumps along the way for us all, however, the old adage ‘count your blessings’ is a reminder of what is important in life and to nurture relationships and to keep looking forward to adding to those blessings.

When reflecting on my writing year I’m grateful to work with students keen to learn because through preparing the classes and workshopping, I learn too – and I write. I don’t always have the opportunity to edit and polish my work, but the words are there, scrawled in an increasingly large pile of notebooks. Perhaps the pieces I don’t return to are better left as rough drafts, or are waiting to be discovered months, or years down the track and improved upon with the distance of time and increased skill!

Each year I do try to increase my writing and teaching skillset, and with the generosity of the worldwide web, this is easy to do. This year I took more free courses with Open University Australia, Coursera, and an Easy Journalling Challenge as well as reading widely and attending talks by other writers. This year hearing Paddy O’Reilly (The Wonders, AFFIRMpress), Nicole Hayes (Woolshed Press) and Catherine Harris (Black Inc) in conversation with Lisa Hill, a definite highlight.

Nicole, Lisa, Paddy, Catherine and Yours truly

I’m grateful to Poetica Christi Press for being included in their two anthologies published this year and to Melaleuca Blue Life Writing, which will publish my story Broth and Trouble, in their anthology February 2015. I have to thank my writing buddies and dear friends, Maureen Hanna and Glenice Whitting for always being encouraging and honest when reading my drafts. Thanks too must go to writer and friend, Lisa Hill who writes an amazing award winning blog and has encouraged me to publish book reviews and increase my online presence. And then there is the Mordialloc Writers’ Group meeting every fortnight to share and listen to each other’s words. These workshop nights have been running almost 20 years and have helped many writers to be published as well as form lifelong friendships. Along with the monthly Readings By The Bay where we can also share our work and practise reading to an audience, the writing group is invaluable.

Another site I visit often to learn about memoir and life writing is Women’s Memoirs  established by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett. After winning one of their competitions, in 2010, I now correspond with Matilda and when Mary Jane and I visited America we spent a wonderful day with Matilda and husband Bill, in Portland, Oregon. Writing has given me so much pleasure as well as new friends – and even a bar of Mindfulness Soap!

WOMEN’S MEMOIRS CONTEST WINNER FOR FEBRUARY
Kendra and I are pleased to announce the winner of last month’s Women’s Memoir Contest. This woman created an exceptional story complete with recipe and photos for our KitchenScraps feature.
Once we published it, she got out the word to friends, family, and sister writers. When they responded to her story, she promptly added her own comments. She motivated several readers to prepare her mother’s scones and got rave reviews. In other words, she began creating a community around her story.

Of course, when we announced our contest, we didn’t realize that our February winner would live in Australia. So, as I write this blog, Mairi’s bar of Mindfulness Soap is making its way across the ocean. She promises a photo of her once the prize arrives and we’ll post it here.

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This year I pushed myself to learn new forms of poetry and a site I love to explore is The Poetry Foundation because you can hear poets recite their poems in their own voice and there is a broad range of articles and examples of poems from all over the world.

This year too, I encouraged my classes to write pantoums – poems especially suited for memoir:

The pantoum originated in Malaysia in the fifteenth-century as a short folk poem, typically made up of two rhyming couplets that were recited or sung. However, as the pantoum spread, and Western writers altered and adapted the form, the importance of rhyming and brevity diminished. The modern pantoum is a poem of any length, composed of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The last line of a pantoum is often the same as the first… One exciting aspect of the pantoum is its subtle shifts in meaning that can occur as repeated phrases are revised with different punctuation and thereby given a new context.

Mum’s Wisdom

Least said soonest mended
A mantra for good relationships
Wisdom from Mum I respect
Especially when ill-feeling grips

A mantra for good relationships
Helps the journey that is life
Especially when ill-feeling grips
And friendship turns to strife

We all face hard choices in life
Dignity retained when mending rifts
No one wants unsettling strife
Or the fear allegiances may shift

Maintaining dignity, mending rifts
Valuing all the views rendered
Shattering of relationships swift
So least said soonest mended.

Valuing each view rendered
Mum’s mantra for good relations
Wisdom I always respected
And a lesson for warring nations!

Mairi Neil 2014.

Springtime Sorrow

I remember that spring of sorrow
When sadness shadowed every hour
I dreaded facing the morrow
Stopping time not within my power

When sadness shadowed every hour
Minutes smouldering like a claro
Stopping time not within my power
I prayed for courage to borrow

Minutes smouldering like a claro
Facing your death made me cower
I prayed for courage to borrow –
The bitterness of loss oh, so sour

Facing your death made me cower
Dread facing every future morrow
The bitterness of loss still tastes sour
When I remember that spring of sorrow.

Mairi Neil 2014

Mirror to the Past

I could be looking in a mirror
When my daughter smiles at me
Her hair is dark, eyes hazel too
A younger me, I see.

When my daughter smiles at me
Tilts her head and laughs aloud
A younger me I see
No shadow of ageing’s cloud

She tilts her head and laughs aloud
With a chuckle so infectious
No shadow of ageing’s cloud
Her expression purely joyous.

Mary Jane’s chuckle is infectious
Dark hair shines; hazel eyes sparkle
Youthful expression purely joyous
I wish I was looking in a mirror!

Mairi Neil 2014

Seeking Serenity

A stroll by the sea at the close of day
When life’s busyness needs to go
I watch the sun sink and always say
Sunsets give the world its glow

When life’s busyness needs to go
Worries crumble and be blown away
Fears tossed with one easy throw
At waves lapping or roaring at play

Worries must crumble and blow away
Their power not allowed to grow
Waves lapping and roaring at play
Nature’s balm a constant flow

Troubles not allowed to grow
As I watch the sun sink, and say
Nature’s balm is a constant flow
With a seaside stroll at the end of day.

Mairi Neil 2014