We advise athletes to perform warm-up routines before playing a sport, musicians and singers use warm-up exercises too, and in writing class, prompts and creative writing exercises loosen your imagination while honing your writing muscles.
Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.
In Class, We Splurge!
The goal of the prompts is to encourage clear, lively writing. Encourage the use of specific images, well-chosen verbs and precise nouns, “showing rather than telling” and to avoid clichés.
To achieve this ideal takes practice, practice, practice!
The exercises are often more fun in a class, or with two or more people, but doing them alone and at home is fun too.
If, while writing, you’re at a loss how to continue writing consider the five senses (sight,sound, smell, touch, taste); or shift your perspective from high to low (what’s happening in the sky or the floor above or underground, under the sea, in a cellar…), from close to far away; or consider the journalist’s five questions—who, what, when, where, why.
Choose a prompt – and remember, you can take as little of the prompt as you want – one word or the memory or idea it evokes…
Weigh a few possibilities (brainstorm, mind map, outline, list)
Write without interruption for 12-15 minutes. (Use an oven timer or the stopwatch facility on your mobile)
Be surprised at what comes up and continue to write… and remember, you can always change your mind and choose a different prompt. At home, you are teacher, student, writer and reader.
If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.
Variety The Spice of Imagination
First lines, ideas for beginnings:
It was no ordinary date…
It was no ordinary house…
She was no ordinary babysitter…
‘Look, I didn’t want to be a refugee.’
‘Three things happened this morning but only one changed my life.’
‘Welcome aboard,’ said the captain, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes.’
Describe a first – why is it memorable?:
Your first kiss, first car, the first job
Your first pet (kitten/puppy/ rabbit/bird, lizard…)
Your first child, first grandchild, first sibling
Your first day of school, your first day of university
Your first night in a bed by yourself or away from home
Fibs, Excuses, Embellishments, Wishful Thinking …
The dog ate my homework.
She said, ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ but I knew she was lying.
The weekly horoscope said 5 and 8 were my lucky numbers.
I was here the whole time, you just didn’t see me.
The alarm didn’t go off.
He was in the supermarket too. It can’t be a coincidence.
Quotes To Inspire A Reflection, Prose or Poem… Write Your Truth, Your Experience, Your Pleasure, To Know More,
The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. ~ Neil Gaiman
Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come the most unsought for are commonly the most valuable. ~ Francis Bacon
If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. ~ Anais Nin
I write for myself things that I’ve gone through. ~ Dolly Parton
Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The keyword is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for. ~ Ray Bradbury
Usually, I walk and think about things. When I come across a thought that makes me laugh, I write it down. ~Demetri Martin
Writing a story… is simply an exploration of the nature of behaviour: why people do what they do, how it affects others, how we change and grow, and what decisions we make along the way. ~ Lois Lowry
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. ~ Joan Didion
I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.
Choose three prompts from the suggestions above or write whatever thoughts they triggered… look at the challenge as an exercise to warm-up the process, one for ‘homework’ and one to move out of your comfort zone and instil a passion for writing!
Here are three efforts from me triggered by prompts and written in class during a splurge:
Try the following exercise frequently to hone your writing skills:
Create a short story that is 26 sentences long, each sentence beginning with the letters of the alphabet starting with A and continuing to Z.
Add other, arbitrary conditions, such as a sentence should be only one word; there should be one question mark, one quotation, there has to be a definite beginning, middle and end – no loose anecdotes or ramblings. There must be a story, not just a stream of consciousness!
Rigid rules often produce fascinating results—such as with well-written sonnets, which have 14 lines and tight rhyme schemes, each line governed by a specific number of syllables and alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.
Apply some form and rigid rules to your stories and see if that makes writing – and finishing – easier.
I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
Make time in your schedule for writing.
When you sit down to write, don’t be afraid of how it will come out.
Take pleasure in exercising your imagination and writing.
Always celebrate the work you’ve done, no matter the result. Having shown up and done the work, kept to a plan or deadline is an accomplishment. Share here or email it to a friend or send it off to a competition – be brave:)
Trust that you’re making progress, a little at a time, day by day – and have fun!
It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.
For over a month now, every state in Australia has been in some form of lockdown and the measures taken by various levels of government appear to have worked. Unlike other parts of the world, we have successfully flattened the curve quickly and some states are looking at some relief from isolation by relaxing social distancing advice.
However, in Australia people have died and lives of many changed forever.
Each day there are still fresh cases of coronavirus reported, but nowhere near the numbers other countries are recording. Social distancing and quarantining appear to have worked because most of the population have respected the need for and obeyed the rules and the various public health messages.
In my little corner of Mordialloc, it has been strange–and very pleasant–to see less traffic and few parked cars. People are going on family walks, strolling in pairs or singly, entire families take the dog for a walk! Children play in the street, and chalk rainbows, love hearts, and well wishes.
All of this reminiscent of my childhood in the 50s (Scotland) and 60s (Australia).
Friends in other places have similar observations with a friend in Aberdeen who walks several miles a day through the lovely countryside of Inverurie, commenting when she rang me that the lack of cars has meant less pollution. She only washes her hair every few days rather than daily and no ‘black muck’ appears in the water!
A Time of Reflection
The last few weeks I’ve put up posts with ideas and prompts to help people who want to write or who have been writing but can’t go to classes or their usual groups because of COVID-19.
For some people writing will be a fill-in hobby, others may dream of a novel or collection of short stories sitting in a bookshop window.
There will be people writing life stories or a memoir which is a slice of their life, perhaps family history or researching for a school project or essay.
Feedback suggests the posts have been helpful but now as we near a ‘new normal’, perhaps it is time to record the experiences you’ve had over this period. You can incorporate them in a poem or short story or journal about them – but leaving some record for future generations is helpful – create a time capsule if you will…
People will look for historical records about the pandemic, just as we’ve seen plenty of articles about the 1918 Flu Epidemic, the Ebola and SARS outbreaks and even the Bubonic Plague.
“If writers stopped writing about what happened to them, then there would be a lot of empty pages.”
List what you have been doing to cope
How is it different from life before lockdown and social distancing
Make note of what you like and what you don’t like about isolation – I know some people have already made resolutions to value friendship and family more, live with less material things, value the environment more…
Ponder how your life has changed and whether any behaviours or activities will remain even once free of lockdown restrictions
This is a monumental period in history – global pandemics do not happen that often!
You may have experienced personal tragedy but also joy, or have knowledge of someone whose journey has differed from yours.
Have you made recent friends, lost established friends, or discovered qualities such as strengths or failings in people, whether family members or in the community?
What new skills have you learned?
What old skills have you revived?
Has your opinion of technology changed? Have you improved/increased your use of technology or do you regret your lack of knowledge?
How is homeschooling or working from home actually working out?
Have you received or sent parcels? What were the contents? How did the experience work out?
Are you a hoarder, panic buyer or did you manage to go without those items in much demand like toilet paper, flour, pasta and rice.
Did your use of social media increase, decrease, what you shared change?
Did you join any new online groups?
Have you ‘hit the wall’ yet – how are your anxiety levels?
Are You More Present in Your Life?
Rich sensory experiences surround us daily — IF we take the time to observe and as writers note them down.
Become a keen observer and recorder of the sensory intricacies of life. Make it a habit to jot down your observances in a journal or snap a photo to remind you of the weather, the season, the unusual occurrence… on my daily walks with Josie, I take at least one photograph of something interesting or new I notice – a cloud formation or blossoming flower.
Sometimes these changes are close to home – like this Yucca plant of mine that has flowered for the first time in nearly a decade! And the interesting fungi in the front garden – in fact fungi seems to mushroom all over Mordialloc – or maybe I’m just noticing it more.
Or these pigeons sitting in a bird bath – can you imagine the conversation? The one in my garden annoys the lorikeets but loves feeding on the seeds they spit out, and the ones on the deserted footy oval are excellent at social distancing.
What stories can you make up?
Have the parcel postman or couriers visited more than usual?
Contactless deliveries can bring surprises – write the story behind the parcels:
I haven’t seen my daughter, Anne, for weeks because of COVID-19 restrictions and miss her. I know she misses me and her sister but also misses Josie, our Kelpie/Staffy Cross who gives us so much pleasure. She has earned this certificate made by number two daughter, Mary Jane:
She got a special delivery from Anne to celebrate her first year with us. Josie was a rescue dogbut with the Pet Circle parcel became a lucky dog!
I received a parcel to learn pottery, a gift that gives twice because the arts and crafts have suffered from the economic shutdown and this helps to keep a small workshop viable.
One of my sisters sent me a knitted version of my favourite poet Rabbie Burns – knitting her forte but new projects helping her cope with being stuck more inside than usual and of showing she is thinking of family.
The picture of the praying mantis snapped by me after my daughter told me we had a visitor at the door!
Small delights happen every day and we mustn’t forget to notice and appreciate them and let our imagination roam.
Devote some time to dwell on daydreams. They are spontaneous messages from our subconscious. Not everyone has a daydream-friendly mind. In fact, some people have been taught to repress daydreams as mere distractions.
As writers, however, we should not only welcome daydreams but train ourselves to be aware of them. In fact, the core of most of my novels has come from daydreams. Daydreams are our primal storyteller at work, sending us scenes and topics that our imagination or subconscious wants us to investigate.
Each day, we should devote time (I usually do this before sleeping) to reviewing our daydreams and determining which of them insists on being turned into a story. Don’t push away those daydreams that make you uncomfortable: The more shocking the daydream, the more truthful about us it is. Embrace that truth.
Have Your Rituals Changed?
I’m retired from teaching at the moment – the return of breast cancer and arrival of coronavirus a perfect storm.
My morning ritual of observing the visiting lorikeets goes on for an extended period now and I never tire watching them come and go to feed at other times of the day or enjoying each other’s company in the bottlebrush outside my bedroom window.
Do you have a morning ritual? Has it changed recently like mine has?
Are you doing more cooking? Experimenting? There was a shortage of flour, eggs, sugar – in fact, lots of items disappeared from supermarket shelves in panic buying sprees. This made for some creative recipes being shared on social media.
This variation of Anzac biscuits is a healthier alternative to traditional Anzacs and results in a dark, slightly chewy variety of the biscuit. We understand some ingredients may be difficult to find in supermarkets at present. You could try your local health food shop, otherwise use the substitutes listed under ‘Ingredients’. You’ll still be getting the low-GI goodness of rolled oats.
1 cup wholemeal spelt flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup desiccated coconut or shredded coconut
¾ cup coconut sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons water
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Substitutions (which I used)
Swap the wholemeal spelt flour for plain or wholemeal flour
Swap the coconut sugar for white sugar
Swap the maple syrup for golden syrup
Method:Preheat oven to 160°C and line 2 baking trays with baking paper.
In a large bowl, combine flour, oats, coconut and coconut sugar.
In a small saucepan, stir the butter and maple syrup over medium heat until butter melts and the mixture is smooth. Take off the heat. Stir the bicarbonate of soda with the water and add to butter and maple syrup.
Add to the oat mixture and stir well to combine.
Roll level tablespoons of the mixture into balls and flatten.
Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until golden.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes and then transfer to a wire cooling rack.
Nutritional Info: Our knowledge of nutrition has progressed somewhat since World War II. We now know that we need to eat more whole-foods and less processed foods. While these biscuits are still a sweet treat, the maple syrup is far less processed than golden syrup traditionally used in Anzac biscuits. Coconut sugar is a lower GI alternative compared to white sugar and provides small amounts of nutrients not found in white sugar. The goodness of rolled oats, an excellent source of beta-glucan soluble fibre that helps to reduce cholesterol; combined with wholemeal spelt flour, provides healthy whole grains to balance out the sweetness.
Has technology been Your Friend or Foe?
I’m lucky because I’ve kept abreast of many of the changes in technology and my computer literacy and competency better than others in my age group. Both my daughters are highly skilled with technology so they fill any gaps exposed when dealing with this catastrophic virus.
I downloaded and have now used ZOOM several times. The first time there were minor glitches but subsequently, there have been no problems.
Courtesy of the Health Issues Centre, I’ve heard medical experts and local consumer health reps discuss the current crisis and offer opinions, ideas and suggestions to the government.
Courtesy of the Australia Institute, I’ve listened to economic experts and been able to ask questions of them, including the Shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers MP and hope to take part in other sessions with Media, Environmental and Arts representatives.
Courtesy of the trade union movement, I’ve taken part in sessions with the first woman ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus and the first woman General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow.
Many organisations are organising online discussions and hoping for feedback from as many ordinary Australians as possible. This is an unusual time and who knows how much more difficult life will become after the health crisis eases and we must face a devastating economic crisis.
Stay informed, raise your voice, be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
My daughters have used ZOOM and other platforms to catch up with friends all over Australia and internationally, and many people rely on similar software while working from home.
We have had trivia and movie nights and I love hearing the laughter when a group of them get together but I know many people are not so fortunate.
What have been your experiences with technology? Do you have a disaster or comical story? Do you use Face Time on Messenger?
What type of social media helps you stay in touch with those you can’t visit? Or do you prefer a phonecall, text and email?
Here is a piece of flash fiction inspired by a sound (I mentioned incorporating sound in a previous post). The setting is in the 1930s when the world went through the Great Depression – yes; we have survived economic crises before too. Night Terror by Mairi Neil, flash fiction.
But to end on a funny note involving current times and technology, here is another Facebook meme doing the rounds.
Two days ago we experienced the coldest April day on record in Melbourne.
Today is definitely wintry – stay safe inside, stay well and stay strong – and scratch that pen or tap the keyboard. If all ideas fail, you can do what people normally do when they get together – but write don’t talk about the weather!
Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood – you will either write or you will not – and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.
In life, we use five senses and if a writer, we should also use them in our writing to allow the readers to experience poems and prose on all levels.
In previous posts, I’ve talked about other senses and today I’ll concentrate on the sounds in the real world and the world you create when writing.
We are farewelling autumn in Melbourne and because of the COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing, there were some traditional sounds missing from Melburnian lives – minimum playing in parks and on beaches, football and other sporting games cancelled and the annual ANZAC Day celebrations and accompanying parades didn’t happen – although we did light up the dawn…
Autumn Mairi Neil
Autumn… the clocks change
a time to enjoy
an extra hour
snuggled beneath the doona
Autumn… walks in the park
crunching leaves underfoot
a season with warm days
pretending summer still around
Autumn… vibrant flowers
a time of colourful
rainbows dropping from trees
playing peek-a-boo through fences
Autumn… a season to pause
contemplate winter’s chill
prepare body and soul
with warming soups and good books
Autumn… a time of contemplation
The Easter story and ANZAC
Love and Hope the best human qualities
Write about the sounds of your autumn – before coronavirus and what you have experienced recently. What daily sounds do you notice in isolation?
Extend your thoughts and think of a sound that isn’t around anymore: the click of typewriter keys, the tone that played during the test pattern on 1950s TVs, the brrrring of your portable alarm clock, the sound of the dial turning on a telephone, the theme of an old TV or radio program, the sound of a former pet’s paws on the hardwood floor, the sound of the doorbell of a house you used to live in, a steam train’s whistle, the clink of milk bottles…
… What memories do those sounds conjure up?What rooms, people, neighbourhoods and workplaces do you see in your imagination?
Remember the starting handles for cars? Remember, an overheated radiator often spoiled trips in the summer, or cars refusing to start in winter?
Did the roar of a neighbour’s motorbike wake you up, or did they have a Holden V8? What about church bells ringing, a grandfather clock striking? Someone practising a musical instrument (bagpipes/drums), off-key singing – an acoustic versus electric guitar? The tap of dance shoes or a walking stick, the squeak of a pram or wheelchair?
What sounds do you hear now?
does a tree mulcher or leaf blower shatter your peace?
perhaps a chainsaw cutting trees down
how noisy are the garbage men? Do you remember the days of chasing your bin lids down the street?
do neighbours have hens – a rooster? Or perhaps a pig?
what about someone learning a musical instrument?
did you ever stop and listen while someone played a street piano, a busker played their fiddle or guitar?
Sounds of Albert Street Mairi Neil
In the morning, at dawn break
in a dreamlike state
to sounds that jar
electric train whistle
whine of car, after car…
a distant noticeable rumble
the roar of the sea
as white caps tumble…
I picture huge waves crashing
spewing debris ashore
against pier and rocks splashing –
on the street, horses make
a constant clip-clop
as daily exercise take…
familiar daily tapping
announced in suburbia
by family dogs yapping.
a dawn chorus will sing
curlews, starlings, magpies
twittering, cawing, whistling
blackbirds, seagulls and crows
dewy feathers a-glistening
If you are writing a memoir or a historical story or novel, pay a visit to your local museum for research. If you’re lucky, there will be firsthand accounts and exhibits of household and workplace equipment and tools to remind you to include authentic descriptions and sounds.
Spend some time brainstorming a list of descriptive words that you can refer to when needing inspiration. Continually add to your list, expanding memories and categories as they evolve. Your list could look like this:
the soft sound of someone breathing or harsh gasp of breath
buzz of a chainsaw (or bees)
drone of an aircraft or car
bark, yap, yelp, howl of a dog – think of other animals noises
rumble of thunder, wheels on concrete – an empty stomach, that can also grumble
rustle of leaves, bushes, trees, pages of a book
gurgle of a drain, water in a hose, water down the plughole
the wail of a child, or laugh and giggle
quiet as midnight, the hush of morning, the silence of sadness….
Writing Exercise 1:
Choose any of these images, think of the sounds you will hear if you are also in the picture. Write a story or poem, or memory.
Writing Exercise 2:
Extend one or all of these sentences to make the situation real – pick any genre, add a character, theme and plot – or write a poem. (Team it up with one of the images on this post perhaps?)
The kitten MIAOWED when I left for work.
The puppy BARKED when I left for my jog/to go shopping.
The tree branches SWAYED in the wind.
The cursor MOVES across the computer screen.
The clock TICK-TOCKED in the kitchen.
Sounds for excitement or pizazz
In a piece of writing, a sentence including descriptions of noises creates a strong atmosphere. It rouses the reader’s excitement.
Sound unrelated to the action but characterise the place is perfect for creating atmosphere. You can combine several sounds in a single sentence:
An empty beer can clattered along the pavement
Keyboards clacked, papers rustled, and printers whirred
Upstairs a toilet flushed and water gurgled down the drainpipe
Thunder rumbled in the distance, lightning flashed
Washing machines sloshed, driers rumbled and coins rattled into slots
Motors whined, and tyres screeched on the tarmac
Hooves clattered on the cobblestones below
The train sped up with a low growl that rose to a high whine within moments
Thunder roared, and raindrops hammered against the glass
The fire in the grate crackled and red gum logs hissed and popped
the engine throbbed as the waves slapped the side of the boat
ice clinked in the glass as Bond poured her a martini
Writing Background Noise
You can insert a sentence about background noises in any part of the scene where it makes sense. For example:
The point of view character is waiting (for a job interview, a medical appointment, a rescue, an execution, an exam…) what do they hear? Inside and/or outside noises?
A character pauses or delays replying. A sentence like this implies the pause and is more interesting than ‘he paused’ or ‘she hesitated’… what can fill the silence?
To emphasise an exciting moment. Is there a clap of thunder, applause, a balloon popping, laughter…?
To further raise the tension in a suspenseful situation, insert a sentence about background noise the moment the reader holds his/her breath.
When the setting is dark (at night, or in a cellar), sprinkle sounds throughout the scene to add to the mood suspense, to ground the reader.
Here are two different pieces of short fiction including background and action sounds:
The sounds mentioned above may inspire you; think about the examples shown and write a scene with background noises to create a realistic scene and draw the reader in.
Whenever characters do something – walk, work, fight or rest – their actions, even if in a small setting, will create a link between the action and the setting.
Emphasise this link, especially if you want the reader to become immersed in the story. The best way to do this is by describing the sounds arising from the characters’ interaction with the environment.
She ran out, banging the door behind her.
The door slammed shut behind her.
Here are some other examples:
The door screeched on its hinges
I sank into the armchair, and the cushion wheezed.
The seat squeaked under his weight.
Stairs creaked as she retired to bed.
Gravel crunched under their feet.
The wheeled suitcase rattled across cracked paving-slabs.
The light plane trundled over the patched tarmac.
The windshield wipers scraped the glass.
The grandfather clock chimed midnight.
The lift shook and grunted to a stop.
His breath rasped as he scraped the mud off his boots.
The car keys jangled in the air as he tempted her to go for a drive.
Writing Exercise 4:
Use some above examples to write a story or poem, or perhaps a memory, or let the following images inspire you:
When I visited London in 2017, Big Ben was under renovation, but it still worked.
International tourists cluster beneath Melbourne Central’s famous musical clock as it opens up to reveal Australia’s famous birds
Have you seen or heard any other famous clocks?
What about the clock at Melbourne’s National Art Gallery – what would it feel like to be trapped in a time warp, or trapped inside a clock?
There are famous bells like this ship’s bell in Shetland and the one aboard the Rainbow Warrior – exciting tales of shipwrecks and rescues make a great story with plenty of sounds of the sea and storms:
Sound – the waves crashed on the rocks, the gulls screaming above. Sight – the heavy, grey rocks look as if they will slide into the leaden sea. Touch -the wind lifts my hair and sudden gusts sting my face. Taste – the spray from the waves leave salt on my lips
Do you have a travel tale? A character who goes on a spiritual journey?
There are pictures of churches and temples and tourist attractions to inspire imagination or memory –
Home Delivery of Milk
Sometimes photos remind us of how sex-segregated occupations were in years past. When I was young, librarians were primarily female and milk was delivered by males. Many streets had a post where the horse-drawn milk delivery cart could be tied up.
When I migrated to Croydon in 1962 there was still a horse trough in the main street. And in Mordialloc in the 80s there was one outside Davis’ Laundry in Bear Street. (horse trough and laundry both gone)
The horse always knew where to stop on the route and wait until the milkman delivered the bottles. When I arrived in Australia as a nine-year-old, I thought it was wonderful to have a horse and cart bring the milk and often cadged a ride from the milkman.
Did you ever talk to the milkman or his horse? Feed it? Collect the manure for the garden? Describe a scene you remember including sounds, smells, taste.
Was milk delivered to your home when you were young? If so, did the milkman bring any other items? Can you remember a coalman, firewood being delivered, soft drink (Loys), the iceman? Did you have a refrigerator or an icebox?
Great grandparents may have kept the milk cool in a small stream that ran across their property, or in a bath of cold water. Write about your childhood memories of home deliveries of milk and possibly other groceries.
How often were the deliveries? Daily? Can you remember when deliveries stopped – how did you or your parents feel? Were you over-awed at the first supermarket visit? Were you friendly with the milk bar or corner shop owners?
Have you had home deliveries during the lockdown?How different was that experience from earlier days? Can you imagine home deliveries for a range of goods resuming by drone??
What things are better left in the past and what’s your ideal future?
In the mornings, when the light of day is breaking do you imagine you can still hear the sound of glass milk bottles in wire baskets heading to your front door?
Did you go to the local dairy and get milk and bottles of cream in glass jars?
Reflect on how the way you shop and what you shop for has changed – emphasising sound.
Here is a Facebook meme that made me smile because I still have one of these by my bedside!
Writers describe a sound when the situation draws attention to it – a door creaks, so your protagonist turns her head. They can also use a sound for effect – to get on the reader’s nerves, to alarm or relax them. The soothing babble of a little brook is comforting but the shrieking sound of nails scratching over a chalkboard, the exact opposite.
Has a sudden or particular sound frightened you? Acoustic shock effects are deeply ingrained in most readers. The sudden uproar of a roaring chainsaw is frightening enough, but if it is wielded by a madman bent on murder, you’ve got your shock value!
Nowadays, if writing sci-fi you’d be describing the noise of lightsabers!
Good writers use all the senses to give readers a multi-dimensional experience. Using the senses evokes feelings and responses in the reader.
Senses like sight, sound, and smell can also build tension.
When you’re writing, think about using all the senses to allow your readers to immerse themselves in the world and lives of the characters. Try to incorporate these into your writing.
The most engrossing books are the ones that draw us into their world and evoke many sensations and emotions.
The reader doesn’t just experience what the main character can see. Using sounds and smells can evoke pain and fear.
Great writers make our mouths water as we read about sumptuous feasts, gasp as the main character touches something that they’re not supposed to and grimace when they taste a bitter berry that could be poisonous.
Write a little every day, without hope and without despair.
We are still in stage 3 Lockdown and still practising social distancing – but not from our pens or computer keyboard!
It’s easy to write poorly, but it’s hard to write poorly every day. Wait. Let’s go back a step: It’s hard to write every day.
Writing is a craft and like all crafts there are techniques to improve your work and to make it stand out from others. One such writing technique or device is personification.
PERSONIFICATION is giving human qualities, feelings, actions or characteristics to an inanimate or non-human object. This can include giving human characteristics to animals or animal characteristics to humans or even writing a story from an object’s point of view.
For example: the window winked at me (winking is a human action, the window is an object); the tree clawed at me – tree branches are not human arms.
Personification enriches poetry and prose and may be culturally biased because writers experiment, they express their emotions, reflect their upbringing and education and life experience. They will write personal views of certain human attributes, cultural perceptions, and sayings when they write creatively.
Personification is probably the most common figure of speech we come across and most of us use examples several times a day in speech and writing without realising we do.
Personificationinjects human behaviour into material objects or abstract concepts.
Advertisers and marketers use it to sell products all the time. For example: health educators will try to make vegetables exciting to children.
We talk about shoes killing us, colours screaming, a furious sea battering the coastline, a doona smothering us, the wind crying, howling or whispering…
TV adverts talk about cancer as if it is a bullying soldier, an invading army, an enemy of the state… if you have cancer we must battle it.
A house might be a demanding baby to be soothed by a coat of paint…
Pay attention to the seductive ditties, words, arguments in marketing and you’ll understand the value of personification to persuade an audience, drawing them into a world they identify.
Contemplating our own mortality is a struggle and confronting – death is a taboo subject to many families and cultures, so we use personification to describe our feelings:
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament – usually named as war, famine, disease and death.
We have depicted death as a serious farm worker (the Grim Reaper) – remember the Aids campaign?
An old woman with a broom (always witch-like) also used to represent death!
There are various representations for someone described as a fox: a sly old fox, a silver-haired fox, a vixen, a good hunter, an evil marauder, a thief, a murderer… depends on your point of view or experience of foxes and what the story is about.
It’s so easy to personify that many poets don’t realise they’re doing it. Be mindful of your personification tools and use them sparingly.
Don’t be obscure – if you are writing about a gymnast, readers shouldn’t think you are writing about a light bulb or a tree.
In Emily Dickinson’s poem Death is a gentleman with impeccable good manners –
Because I could not stop for Death He Kindly stopped for me The Carriage held but just Ourselves And Immortality.
Personificationcan pack a punch.
In 1819, cavalry charged into an unarmed crowd of men, women and children demanding parliamentary reform in Manchester, in the north of England.
About 20 people died and over 400 wounded. The tragedy shocked the country, and it became known as the Peterloo Massacre (the battle of Waterloo occurred four years earlier.)
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem about the incident reveals his anger and contempt for the politicians fighting the reforms and who he blames for the shocking tragedy:
I met Murder on the way He had a mask like Castlereagh Next came Fraud, and he had on, Like Eldon, an ermined gown; His big tears, for he wept well, Turned to mill-stones as they fell, And the little children, who Round his feet played to and from, Thinking every tear a gem, Had their brains knocked out by them
Personification can reduce big concepts, events, even people or authority to a level we can understand. It can turn the ordinary into something extraordinary, memorable, or at least something we see with new eyes.
What kind Of Person?
Decide what kind of personal traits or career each of the following could be. Write a sentence or perhaps write a character profile for a story:
In case you are uninspired or unsure, I’ve shared a range of responses from past students:
A shark – a used car salesman, someone in marketing, a predator A goat– a good climber, a person who eats anything, someone with a ravenous appetite, a stubborn old goat, mindless, randy, agile, nimble, single-minded, socially and physically active A worm – a bookworm, wriggly, a crawler, worm their way into affections, slimy, shy, retiring A rabbit – skittery, timid, shy, bright-eyed, brainless, harmless, breed like a rabbit, sexually irresponsible, randy, cuddly, fluffy bunny A leech – clingy, bloodsucker, parasite, ingratiating, an invader, An elephant – good memory, solid, stoic, get with the strength, clumsy, blunders, too big for their boots A snake – slithery, slippery, dishonest, shedding skin, a fake, a bigamist, dangerous, untrustworthy A wombat– hides away, muddleheaded, determined, a night worker, sleepy, retiring type A lamb – innocent, vulnerable, frolics, gambols, meek, religious person, a follower A rat– selfish, sneaky, dangerous, untrustworthy, crafty, survivor, deserter, attacker, insatiable
When the sun entered the room, he threw his bright light into a dark corner.
Her warm orange glow made everyone feel better.
In the evening, she is a buxom wench in flame-coloured taffeta.
He is the centre of our world, and the day pivots around him.
The shadow crept around the building as furtive as a thief.
She huddled cold and forlorn in the shadow, praying for rescue.
The bushfire raged throughout the night, destroying everything in his path.
Thunder & Lightning
The thunder roared and lightning flashed and she knew the two giants would fight all night.
The earthquake swallowed the city in several angry bites.
We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.
Cat on Condominium Rooftop Mairi Neil
Soaking up the sun
green eyes ignore life below
people scurry to work
forget to look up
marching ants trudge
to soulless jobs
drones on daily grind
a boring bind.
No such limitations for the cat
rising and stretching limbs
warm tiles a luxurious bed
to sleep and dream of
the tramp of footsteps
cacophony of voices
fading rising fading rising
the daily grind
not his bind.
A butterfly flitters past
pauses briefly on a tree branch
trembling wings bathed in sunlight
green eyes blink, a paw twitches
but passersby unaware
of Mother Nature’s show
weary feet tramp and trudge
the daily grind
grips and binds
An elegant stretch, the cat sits
to watch the dying sun
green eyes observe life below
people scurrying home from work
forgetting to look up
they’ve missed the sunshine
the butterfly’s graceful dance
the cat’s sunny somnolence
their daily grind
a soulless bind
Write about a character or an event and use personification. Here are some sentences that could start you off –
The cloud scattered rain throughout the city.
The ancient car groaned into third gear.
The daffodils nodded their yellow heads as we walked up the path.
The wind sang her mournful song through the rafters of the barn
The microwave’s alarm told me it was time to eat my TV dinner
The camcorder observed the whole tragedy
The chocolate cake begged to be eaten
The crockery danced on the shelves when the door slammed
Look around the room, or your home, your workplace, your garden, the local park, a cafe, a place you visit regularly… (some of these will be from memory because of COVID-19!)
Think about inanimate objects and other everyday items – what kind of vocabulary do they have?
The sturdy, dark brown bookcase in the corner- is it male or female? Cheerful or depressed?
Could the corkscrew on the bar be on a diet, have a memory of failure?
Is the bargain basement table sneaky or does it feel second best?
An antique, leather armchair and an Ikea stool do similar jobs, but do they have different ways of looking at the world
How do you feel about computers? Have you been frustrated and yelled at the computer – how did it answer?
What stories about clocks do you have? Write about your favourite or least favourite alarm clock – perhaps it is a baby’s cry and not a clock at all!
You may have the same bed after a failed marriage but does it feel the same – maybe miss the previous occupant?
What stories have you about trees in your garden – removing them, perhaps one fell down and damaged something, perhaps you always got fruit and bottled it, had a tree house… do you talk to the trees and do they answer you?
Those Wedgewood plates you inherited – do they have the same thoughts as you – do they feel fragile, overused, useless, precious?
One of my favourite poets, Scotland’s Rabbie Burns (1759 – 1796), said ‘the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley‘ a truism for most of us because at least once or twice in life we have planned to do something and the plan fails for personal or external reasons within our control, or not.
My plan, to blog every day to help myself and others write through the COVID-19 crisis fell by the wayside over Easter. Each day since there have been medical appointments, other events or just sheer procrastination leaving a post unwritten.
Rather than beat myself up over the failure, I’ll cling to the good intention and try not to fail again but if I do, it is not the end of the world!
I’ve experienced many failures and the whole gamut of reasons to explain writing poorly or not writing – as I’m sure many others have – so while staying home, staying safe and staying positive, here are some more ideas to conquer the isolation blues!
Where Do Stories Come From And What Can We Do With Them
“Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.”
Many things trigger memories and usually, when we want to be imaginative and creative we draw on our own experience or what we have seen, read about, or heard.
Originality is rarely found in the idea but in the words you use, the perspective, interpretation, and presentation of your story. Christopher Booker in his 2005 book The Seven Basic Plots, Why we tell stories listed those plots as:
Overcoming the Monster
Rags to Riches
Voyage and return
Of course, these headings leave plenty of scope for you to exercise your imagination!
However, it is the emotional engagement a writer creates for the reader/audience that makes the difference. Characters, storyline, conflict and setting contribute to making a story memorable too.
An accomplished creative writer can take any one of these basic plots into the realm of a great, entertaining read with perhaps a life-changing effect on the reader.
Today we’ll have fun with words
Word suggestions – A quick exercise in writing triggered by a pair of words – often mismatched. Write whatever comes into your head, a poem or piece of prose, a ditty or an observation. Perhaps the germ of an idea saved for later to be expanded into an anecdote or story.
These are random word pairs I’ve picked from Wordplay – mix and match, pick one or all of them:
As always with these exercises, if you set a timer for 10-15 minutes, or set yourself a time to write, that little bit of pressure can nudge the muse.
This dinosaur poop is a real scoop
The grinning newspaper reporter said
As he munched a banana and bounced a ball
And watched his rival go red.
He hinted the newspaper’s chief editor
thought him top dog, a diamond find
His rival’s eyes glared, tongue clicked
thinking a punch might change his mind
But alas he’d be fired like a rocket
And this boastful nut continue to smirk
So like a ship with a good compass
He went to bed to ignore the horse-faced jerk
Crazy headlines – you are given several cards – use them all or discard the ones that don’t fit. Create a headline and then write a short story or article to match the headline, or depending what newspaper or magazine is leading the charge, and what genre your writing, perhaps the story can be as absurd as the game!
For an extra exercise of your writing muscles rewrite the story in the style of several newspapers from tabloid to academic, print to online…
Today, a packed Supreme Court was shocked to hear that one of its own judges was crooked. It is alleged that Judge Lilow aided and abetted the infamous Jessica James who is wanted in three continents for fraud and money laundering.
Ms James, an American tourist became Judge Lilow’s lover before embroiling him in shady dealings. The judge remains in custody and is said to be angry and ready to turn Queen’s evidence since he discovered that he is not the first senior judge to fall for Jessica James. The 25-year-old tourist is an expert in manipulating older men proving that there is no fool like an old fool!
Rememory – share a memory – a character (could be you, a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, cousin, or friend), place the character in a setting (a season, work, night or day…) and a topic – could be a word, a phrase, an idea, a comment…
Write a story, true or false, your own memory or someone else’s.
It can be a definite season or the season of life, Spring can mean April or September depending on the hemisphere, or the springtime in your life. Likewise work, school or time of day. Interpret the way it works for you.
Who is your main character? It’s okay if you want to start with ‘I remember’ or ‘once upon a time’, or ‘I don’t know for sure but I imagine my grandmother did/said/thought’ or ‘I wonder if my mum/dad ever… ‘
By evoking the person (character) and season/setting take whatever topic or word you were given and let it lead you to the door of memory… open the door and write about a real life experience or complete fantasy.
Here are some random scenarios I’ve picked for your inspiration, again you can mix and match, swap words or settings – whatever the muse dictates:
You, Spring, the object that doesn’t want to get thrown away, laundry
Brother or sister, Autumn, reading material, the natural world
Grandparent, Night, restaurant, how love was expressed
Parent, Work, breaking the law, sports event
Friend or cousin, School, storm, stood out from the rest
You, Winter, money for nothing, patience
Brother or sister, Summer, when they were happiest, birthday
Grandparent, Winter, what the handwriting was like, hobby
Parent, Night, rejection, where people gather in silence
Friend or cousin, Autumn, chores, haven’t been there in a long time
Take a deep breath before writing, draw on your thoughts, memories, ideas!
It’s okay if what you remember seems small, or inadequate, hardly worth mentioning – small is BIG, even small memories can illuminate the great themes of our lives!
Write whatever you want to write and enjoy writing – memoir, poetry, essay, fiction, creative non-fiction…
Your memories and life experience can take you just about anywhere you choose and you can write on any subject matter as diverse as paint, divorce, singing, food, travel, dancing … whatever
Friends, family, neighbours or colleagues – you have a lifetime of characters to choose from or imagine.
The Chocolate Box Mairi Neil
I open up the chocolate box,
lift out a piece of lace,
crushed and yellowed, badly stained
the condition a disgrace!
My eyes spy a matching piece,
needing examination too
discover a pair of baby shoes
crocheted with love when new.
I gently remove other treasures
the box has stored within ––
a ration book, faded cards and letters,
felt needle case and Mizpah pin.
Why had these particular items
earned the right to be kept?
A legacy of more than eight decades –
with no one left to ask – I wept.
Major upheavals rocked the world
adding turmoil to Mum’s life
but perhaps the profound change
was becoming a mother and a wife.
I caressed again the contents -–
this chocolate box of delight,
pondering a girl becoming a woman,
–– and imagination took flight.
A journey spanning continents,
Working, birthing, building a home
Mum, I promise you, I whisper,
your stories will fill a tome.
With a grieving, weighted heart
and pressure of unwept tears
I write so she won’t be forgotten
hoping words survive the years.
Winter isn’t supposed to start until June in Australia, but yesterday and today in Mordialloc, after torrential rain most of the night, we woke to a decidedly, wintry chill.
When I opened the door to take Josie for her walk, a cold blast of wind from the sea had collected the temperature from the South Pole and Josie gave me a look that said, ah, now I know why you put that coat on!
For those who don’t know, Melbourne has a reputation of ‘four seasons in the one day‘ so this quick turnaround in the weather (temperatures dropping from low 20s to 8 degrees) doesn’t really come as a surprise.
However, it is still autumn and I’ve always advised overseas friends to visit Melbourne in autumn, the season when I think the city looks its best. Here’s hoping the icy blast is an aberration and not the future because of climate change, the other catastrophe we face along with COVID 19!
Autumn Mairi Neil
Autumn… a time to enjoy
the clocks changed
an extra hour
To snuggle beneath the doona
Autumn… a season with warm days
pretending summer still around
walks in the park
crunching leaves underfoot
Autumn… a time of colour
rainbows drop from trees
playing peek-a-boo through fences
Autumn… a season to pause
contemplate winter’s chill
prepare body and soul
with warming soups and good books
Autumn… a time of contemplation
Easter story and ANZAC
Love and hope the best human qualities
Write down your thoughts on autumn, or any other season for that matter?
Think of the likes and dislikes, the activities you can or can’t do,
Other parts of the world are heralding spring and as I discovered when I visited Siberiain April 2017, there are places where winter lingers longer than others.
And if you live in the Pacific Islands, summer seems to last all year. Here is the survival kit I advise everybody to have when they visit Samoa like I did!
No matter where you live you can write about the seasons and if you have been lucky enough to travel there is the added material of comparison and maybe even the awe factor depending on where and when you travelled.
Look at any photographs to jog your memory and help add colour and authenticity to your stories if you describe what you see.
Some countries specialise in having breathtaking seasons like Cherry Blossom time in Japan, where I was fortunate to visit in 1984. Here is a short piece about the trip. cherry blossom time by Mairi Neil
I also wrote some haiku after the visit – that’s almost compulsory!
Haiku Mairi Neil
Cherry blossoms fall
pink velvet raindrops
Tranquil and silent
old men hushed
as blossoms on ground
Children play peek-a-boo
the change in the wind
Vibrant colours everywhere
blossoms float and fall
brightening my day
What is your favourite season?
What season do you dislike?
Write a short story so we know what season it is but don’t mention the name of the season
Write a story about the main character forgetting to change the clocks.
have you ever forgotten to change the clocks? What happened – were there consequences?
Choose a group of words and write a story, poem, anecdote – set a time limit of 10-20 minutes – this would be the average writing time in a class. You can change the form of the word but try and include them all.
Remember – leave your writing for a day or two and then reread, edit, rewrite:)
Playful Seasons Mairi Neil
In dewy meadow, Spring flowers bright
buttercups bloom, a magnificent sight
while strolling upon this carpet of gold
a test is remembered from days of old
a yellow flower waved under the chin
do you like butter, we asked with a grin.
In dewy meadow, under strong Summer sun
childhood revisited as we have some fun
clumps of wild daisies smile up at me
their perfect white petals fluttering free
a bunch of daisies transformed with love
necklace and bracelet feather soft as a dove
In dewy meadow, Autumn leaves fall
dandelions transform into puffballs
with gentle breaths, we blow and blow
discovering Time as spores drift like snow
one o’clock, two o’clock –– maybe three
until naked stem is all we can see.
In dewy meadow, Winter walks are brisk
the puddles ice over putting feet at risk
I spy a toddler wearing bright rubber boots
splashing in puddles, not giving two hoots
a flashback to childhood appears in the rain
it’s worth wet socks to feel carefree again.
How many Seasons Are There? Does Australia Have More Than Four?
In 2014, Dr Tim Entwisle, the director of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens wrote a book called, Sprinter and Sprummerchallenging the traditional four seasons, and encouraging Australians to think about how we view changes in our natural world. He said, since 1788, Australia has carried the yoke of four European seasons that make no sense in most parts of the country.
When he was on the ABC to explain his book and ideas he stirred up interest, support, antagonism and fascination. Many people agreed with the author that the reality for Australia is many more seasons than the traditional four but few liked Sprinter and Sprummer as names!
Living in Sydney, London and now Melbourne, I’m convinced that the four traditional seasons don’t make sense in Australia. My proposal is that we instead have five seasons based on the climatic and biological cycles we observe around us.
… minutes, hours, days and months are the way we organise our lives—sowing crops, attending job interviews, picking up kids from child care, playing footy, getting our hair cut and so on. Seasons are for noting, celebrating and tracking the changes in the world around us. If we get them wrong we don’t lose our crop, job or children.
It’s a tweaking of the current system. The familiar anchors, summer and winter, are there, but the bits in between and the duration of the seasons are adjusted for the southern Australian climate…
We could embrace one of the Aboriginal seasonal systems, but I fear this might be just too radical for most Australians (who, contrary to popular belief, are a rather conservative people)…
Then there is climate change and the fact that the seasons are changing, whether we like it or not. Perhaps we need an evolving system of seasons. However, we should at least get it right in the first place and try to reflect, if not our specific region, then large sections of the country.
There are no perfect or correct seasons. I am happy for my system to be rigorously debated and tested, and I would be thrilled if, through more people observing and monitoring the natural world, I have to totally redesign it.
In the South West of WA – there are some widely acknowledged Noongar Seasons which correspond well with what is suggested in the article.
People in Melbourne should also visit the Indigenous Garden and Forest display at the museum (after lockdown is over) and learn what our indigenous people call the seasons – and there are more than the arbitrary four we cling to, although I have devoted past posts to writing about winter.
What are your thoughts on Sprinter and Sprummer? Have you alternative names?
How do you cope with the seasons – is there a special ritual attached to your changing seasons, maybe they should be called that eg. Vegetable planting season, tree trimming season, burning-off season …
in suburbia, it could be tourist season and roadworks season
or maybe we should have flu and COVID19 season and healthy season…
There will be plenty of creative writing around coping with COVID19 and speculation as to how the world coped with the global crisis.
Writers draw inspiration from observing the world, people, situations, politics, trends – we are all opinionated! Sometimes it is good to let your thoughts marinate and have the benefit of hindsight or reflection.
Most people are worried about the next few months but many are also planning the shape of the world’s recuperation and recovery:
The Fall of 2016
For some the change of seasons
can be bitter chocolate…
Autumn succumbs to winter,
days darken like spiced cider
and blackened bark,
heralding winter’s deadly cull,
lauding lifeless landscapes.
Sticks and stones underfoot
not grassy knolls or mossy rounds.
Colourful autumn foliage invites
Frog Pond green
But like Wall Street’s
soulless stock surprises
and the rust belt of America’s
winter winds bluster
sweeping lonely leaves loose…
Colours crunched to mush
Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
until Mother Nature’s miracle
And a tiny shoot springs to life.
We Always Need Hope especially In Today’s World
Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the conviction that something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences.
Hope is the quality of character that sustains belief under seemingly impossible situations – when kindness seems impossible or poverty inevitable or when the world seems cruel and life unbearable.
People encounter sources of hope in the imagination, in the words and examples of others, and in witness to the natural wonders around us every day.
Hope does not extinguish suffering but sustains the belief that there can be an end to it, if not in your own life, then in the future. And so hope propels you into action.
And just because it has been so wet this weekend, here’s a reminder we are a country of ‘drought and flooding rains’ with a poem and a piece of flash fiction written in class splurge time A Roof Over One’s Head by Mairi Neil
Flash Storm Flushes and Flusters Mairi Neil
Who will be the first to drown
from the heavens challenge
of a waterfall tumbling down?
‘Not me,’ said those with umbrellas held high
‘Nor me,’ said others huddled inside and dry.
‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’
Thunder roared and growled –
was that a lightning flash?
People braved the downpour
and made a dash – for bus shelters
snuggled close to strangers – others
crossed streets ignoring dangers.
‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’
Any port in a storm a cliche true
doorways and porches home
for more than drenched few
downpipes sagged and gushed
collapsed under watery weight
surging water made rivers of roads
scheduled transport cancelled or late.
‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’
Soaked, sodden, and shivering
commuters crowd tram, train and bus
meteorological or seasonal confusion?
No, – it’s Melbourne – no need to fuss.
Who cares? cries the inner child with glee –
splashing in puddles looks fun to me!
I’ve been inspired to write poetry as well as short stories or personal essays to explain memorable experiences:
Visiting Singapore 1973 – a haibun Mairi Neil
We crowd on deck as the cruise ship glides into Singapore harbour, a week after leaving Fremantle. The silver sun aglow in a cloudless azure sky. Skin fiery scarlet from too many hours in the ship’s pool as Singapore City wobbles and wilts in the heat.
I ache for relief
from this tantalising veil
and covet the sea
Engines thrum and screeches of gulls mask the first hint a change is on the way. Rain falls in sheets and shafts. Solid blocks of water pound the decks.
Clouds scud across sky
the veil now a fog blanket
hiding the city.
Beneath our feet racing rivers fill deck gutters and our shoes. On automatic pilot, we slosh for cover, although there is no icy wind in this downpour.
No unsettling chill
just instant relief
from relentless heat
Rain hammers metal, swamps furniture and people, drenching everything not covered. Metal rails hiss. Steam sizzles on the shrinking, not sinking ship. No crevice escapes. A continuous stream of trickles and dribbles demonstrates the power of this deluge.
A turmoil of grey
idyllic tropics in grip
of monsoonal rain
Yet, within minutes, the ship docks and the downpour stops as quickly as it began. Singapore city a perfect watercolour painting showcases sunlight and serenity. The tropical shower and haze but a dream as perspiration leaks from every pore.
Share Your Travel Memories
Once you have organised a story – or many – enjoy the pleasure of armchair travel and swap with those in isolation with you. Or share online via Skype, Face Time or Zoom. The digital tools available ensure your photos or slides will be more entertaining than the slide shows of old.
I remember more than a few family and friends falling asleep when I showed my China slides in 1979!
However, when I taught at Sandybeach Centre 20 years ago, they ran a regular program for people with limited mobility called Armchair Travel, and I volunteered one afternoon to share my China travels. I had learnt to choose the most interesting slides for that audience. I targeted correctly and they retained interest and were appreciative. Make sure your pitch matches your readers, listeners or viewers:)
Anyone who travelled in the 50s – 70s will remember those family slide nights before Super 8 movies superseded the modern version of ‘magic lantern’ shows in village halls.
Updates when friends travel flood social media with Facebook and Instagram designed for travel photos more than any other.
But these pics are soon forgotten unless you put them into context with words. Write a few sentences about each pic or retell your experiences over a beer or cuppa.
What Travel Experience Can You Write About?
Think and share what made your travel experience different from those of thousands of others. Even if you haven’t travelled overseas or interstate you have a travel story because you can write about your neighbourhood and everyday journeys.
In 2012, Mordialloc Writers’ Group published our 8th collection of poems and stories, Off The Rails, around the theme of the Frankston Railway Line – a journey thousands of people do daily and a topic the 21 featured writers embraced with relish and creativity.
You might have journeyed on the Orient Express, the Trans Siberian, the Flying Scotsman or Puffing Billy – write about:
why you made the journey
who was with you
the people you met
the best memory
the worst memory
if you would do it again
Remember too, those walks around the neighbourhood you are allowed during COVID19 can turn up ideas for stories – fictionalised if you want. Set a story in one of the houses that intrigues you or garden you admire…
Ask questions that you don’t know the answers to:
Who, what, why, when, where… and make up the answers!
I took these pictures this morning when walking the dog.
Who did the drawing? What was their motivation? How long will the drawings stay there?
Write up the reactions of people – good and bad – was seeing them transformational for someone? Did it trigger memories?
The drawing of Frida Kahlo stunning for a child or teenager to draw – could be the start of an intriguing mystery or a memory of a visit to Mexico?
There are houses with bears or pictures of bears in the window – I’ve put my bear outside yet there are no children living here now.
Your characters in the story don’t have to be obvious or stereotypical.
A house advertised a birthday boy – 8 years old today. His party probably cancelled yet his parents found a way to make him feel special and stay connected to the outside world.
Write a story where you or your character has to find a creative solution to a problem.
How do you make someone feel special in this catastrophic time if you normally treat them to an outing?
What’s your funniest travel story?
Humour is a great way to make a story memorable and different from everyone else’s experience. The stuff-ups or unexpected laughs are usually the tales we recount first (and often) when we return from our trip.
Humorous framing or retelling can also ease the embarrassment or shame when you make a cultural faux pas or do something stupid like miss a flight, board the wrong train, get lost in a foreign city or say something strange in a foreign language you just learned.
Here is my tale of travelling with a young child in the 90s:
What is the strangest thing that has happened to you travelling?
What is the nicest (or most horrible) food you have eaten when travelling?
(A class exercise Monday 15th October 2012 )
Have You a Taste For Travel? Mairi Neil
When I went to Alice Springs in 2011, to walk the Larapinta Trail, I braced myself for the time when I would be offered a witchetty grub. I remembered a student, Amelia reading a story of her encounter with the delicacy when she worked as an infant welfare nurse in the Northern Territory in the 1950s. I didn’t want to shame myself by refusing and offending indigenous hosts if they offered me a meal.
Five giggling Aboriginal girls had arrived at Amelia’s house with outstretched hands, displaying half-a-dozen thick white grubs whose sluggish twists indicated they were still alive.
The girls’ gift a gesture to show Amelia she had been accepted by the community. Amelia assured me that once cooked, the grubs tasted meaty. She shared a picture of herself, sitting on the ground in a circle around a campfire, head tilted back and mouth open, ready to accept the long white grub poised above her. Her eyes sparkled as a friend snapped the photograph for posterity.
Could I be as gracious and adventurous as Amelia?
The thought of putting what looked like a fat white caterpillar into my mouth, never mind swallowing it, made me nauseous. I’ve always had what my mother referred to as a ‘weak’ stomach – perhaps if I closed my eyes I’d be able to eat enough not to offend. If I concentrated I’d be able to keep it down rather than gagging or vomiting – my usual reaction to nasty tastes.
The more I thought of eating witchetty grubs the more obsessed I became of what they would taste like. They looked shiny and soft. What meat could they be like with that texture? Perhaps they firmed when cooked. A vision of people crunching on cooked insects surfaced as I remembered the fascinating produce of street vendors when I visited China in 1979.
I remembered too, the constant dissection and examination of every meal on that tour by one of the other travellers in our group. She made me long for a Vegemite sandwich as she poked and dismembered every meal with chopsticks looking for evidence we were being served rat, cat or dog. Cultural assumptions and prejudices rife when it comes to food and her behaviour shameful.
Why I couldn’t I embrace a meal of witchetty grubs, when research provides evidence of their nutritional value? Was I riddled with prejudice too?
Near the end of the five-day trek in Central Australia, I had to face the witchetty grub dilemma. Throat constricted and mouth dry, I could barely form the words to ask our Aboriginal guide, Nicholas to describe the taste of the large fat witchetty grub wriggling in the palm of his hand.
Sweat bubbled on his lip from exertion. A streak of dirt above one eye where he’d wiped his brow, gave a warrior glint to his expression as he showed the delicacy with pride. Nicholas and his auntie had spent almost an hour digging at the roots of an acacia bush to retrieve the prize. ‘It tastes like the yolk of an egg,’ he said, ‘and has a similar texture.’
He watched me closely and must have seen the mix of emotions cross my face, perhaps heard the gulp as I tried to swallow. Egg is not one of my favourite tastes.
‘One witchetty grub,’ he said, almost to himself.
I realised how much he craved the wriggling grub in his hand but innate generosity obliged him to give it to me.
‘It’s not really big enough to share,’ I said. ‘You and auntie did all the hard work. Maybe I’ll taste them another day.’
Our smiles of relief a mirror match as Nicholas hurried away before I changed my mind.
What Armchair Travels Will You Create?
Can you match a photograph with a short poem like haiku or terse verse? I write this after a trip to Italy but it could apply to many famous places crowded with tourists. The joke about ‘exiting through the gift shop’ is very much a reality in our consumer-driven world. What do you think those communities are like now?
Write about what a place was like when you were there and research what it is like now and write a comparison.
Memories of Lago Di Garda, Italy Mairi Neil, 2013
Lake Garda absorbs the rainbow on her shores,
sways to the call of African and Indian hawkers,
moans softly as the Peler, a northern breeze,
blows from pine-clad slopes, and is
ready for the challenging midday switch
when Ora, a cooler wind, whistles from the south.
Reminiscent of a Norwegian Fjord
She is the lake who thinks she is the sea
Each afternoon she lifts the rocky hem
of her blue dress and sashays to pick at
sun-bleached pebbles or reedy soil.
Fat ducks and swans float and gossip. Gulls dive,
searching the lake’s belly for lunch or supper
Rumbling planes overhead ripple her dress
and she runs icy fingers through sandy frills
sparkling with a thousand scattered gems.
She ignores the constant drone of tourist motorbikes,
bicycles, cars and coaches speeding through galleries
built by Mussolini and prefers the memories of
Hannibal, Hardy, Goethe, Rilke and Wharton.
Torbole fishermen, tend boats and mend nets
as they have done since the fifteenth century,
amused and puzzled by modern foolishness,
their dark eyes follow colourful flapping sails.
Lake Garda’s duty is to be Madame Bountiful,
nurturing sardines, eels, carpione and trout.
Tourists and locals, promenade to and fro Riva
or ride the ferries that trust her arms.
Summer and winter sun attracts holidaymakers,
but Lake Garda indulges lovers of sports trophies,
scantily clad onlookers, and awestruck children
who worship at the shrine of physical prowess.
Lake Garda – the lake who thinks she is the sea.
More Writing Prompts
Write a prose poem about a place or a short story recreating the setting.
What memories are evoked?
Choose a place that makes you happy or sad; or two different places where you have had contrasting experiences. (Perhaps a childhood compared with adult experience, going somewhere alone compared with a trip with family or friends, seasonal visits – winter compared to summer, idyllic memories compared to the place after a natural disaster.)
Contrast the two places or the mixed feelings about the same place.
Write a HAIBUN ( a combination of prose and haiku) – about your journey/journeys.
HAIBUN (hie’-bun, the “u” pronounced as in “put”) A Japanese form in which a prose text is interspersed with verse, specifically haiku. A haiku typically appears at the end of a haibun, but other haiku may appear earlier, even at the beginning. Haibun often takes the form of a diary or travel journal.
Write a poem or story using the technique of an extended metaphor:
Life is a journey
Life is a mere dream
Life or love is a camera full of memories
Home was a prison
Have you ever had the holiday from hell?
Have You A Favourite Holiday destination?
Currumbin a Sanctuary of Serenity Mairi Neil, 2001
Looking from the balcony of our Currumbin holiday flat, the Pacific Ocean roared and vomited white foam onto the golden sand. This was not a beach for non-swimmers or the faint-hearted. Waves crashed against jagged rocks in the distance, massaging them smooth by the next millennium but the continuous licks and slaps hadn’t altered their shape in any noticeable way since my last visit.
I stared at the black shapes rising and disappearing in the waves. Dolphins or sharks? Then laughed as the black shape rose on a wave, stretched and balanced and fell. The group of dedicated surfers braving morning chill certainly needed wet suits, and their crouching and clinging in the force of the gigantic waves an amazing workout.
A group of rosellas arrive on the balcony. They line up on the railings waiting for the plate with seed, confident I will provide their breakfast. Chittering and hopping from ledge to chair back to patio tiles, they nag me to perform my act of goodwill.
Music drifts from above. A radio disc jockey drones, children’s sing-song chatter wafts from the swimming pool below, a van backfires in the distance and the pump that tirelessly cleans the swimming pool chugs into life at regular intervals. There are ten floors of holiday flats but if inside and the balcony door is closed, each flat is soundproof.
Peak hour traffic builds, Currumbin is coming alive and I know if I don’t go for a morning walk I’ll be dodging retirees and their pet dogs, fitness fanatics in lycra shorts and Reeboks, and crew for magazine and film photoshoots because this apron of sand is immensely popular. Thank goodness the flotilla of boats on the horizon don’t try to sail closer to shore.
The rosellas are a mass of squawking as I place the seed plate on the balcony table. A hot rising sun dispels the remaining coolness and shadows of the night. The ocean sparkles turquoise. I shake yesterday’s sand from my sandals, grab a hat and make for the lift. The half-hour walks along the beach towards the surfers just what the doctor ordered.
Even More Writing Prompts
Write a poem or story where you are describing the joys of summer to an extraterrestrial life form.
Write a story that begins, “She tripped and fell into the burning sand…”
Write a story that ends, “Roll on winter.”
Write a poem or story where everything that provides relief during the summer randomly breaks down. The air conditioning suddenly stops working. The power goes out in your home. You can’t seem to start your car.
Write a story that begins “This was no ordinary day…”
Write a story that ends – “She found her paradise after all.”
Enjoy A Cultural Experience Without Leaving Home
A friend I met when I was working on celebrating the 125th Anniversary of Mordialloc Primary School, told me her husband was scared of flying. They were teachers and all they wanted to do when they retired was travel overseas but she refused to travel by ship.
No flying, no sailing – what could they do to satisfy their desire to visit other countries?
They compromised and innovated. They borrowed books and documentaries from the local library and researched the customs, costumes, music and food of a country. After a few weeks, they visited the place via armchair travel.
They dressed appropriately for the season, cooked a custom meal, played the music you’d expect to hear and totally immersed themselves as if they were in the chosen country. They even spoke learned phrases from a new language to each other.
Writing Post for Day Five – Count Your Blessings To be Alive
Keeping a sense of perspective and humour amidst all the gloom and doom can be difficult but for mental health – and physical as shown by the fights in supermarkets – it is necessary.
Many people are doing their bit online – sharing jokes, funny memes, clips of singing, dancing, live performances of every creative art and hints, like mine, to ease the anxiety and stress of being cooped up while in quarantine or working from home.
Working at home doesn’t necessarily mean you are alone – especially if children are home from school. Perhaps the only time alone will be in your head! Put those thoughts to good use, focus on ideas (the more positive the better), grab a notebook, and write.
This post is about writing recipes, not for food or cooking. There are plenty of free recipes for that on the Internet and I’m sure with the panic buying and shortages there will be a host of new food recipes doing the rounds.
Not to mention books: How I Survived Covid19 When The Pantry Was Almost Bare…
(I could write that one because I refused to panic buy and with a compromised immune system I’m avoiding the queues in shops!)
Humour & Love Is Needed
I started with my Dr Seuss inspired poem written in a lesson about rhyming poetry to grab your attention. I mean who doesn’t know or love Dr Seuss?
But now, here are some ‘rules’ or suggestions:
Eight Steps For Writing A Recipe To Lift Your Mood
What would your ideal day consist of? Jot points down – often a list is a good format – or maybe even start with the same introductory phrase: Each day I’d love to
Now make a mind map. In the middle of a blank piece of paper write ‘My recipe.’ Here is an example of a mindmap from the Internet from ResearchGate:
Now describe your ingredients. Go through them one by one
All recipes specify quantities for every ingredient. Add these to your ingredients on the mind map.
Try adding similes or metaphors to make your recipe more interesting and imaginative.
(A simile is a comparison of one thing to another using the connecting word ‘as’ or ‘like’, a metaphor just is and doesn’t need the introduction. For example:- When my first daughter was born a popular song at the time was ‘A Little Ray of Sunshine’. If I was using a simile, she’d be like a little ray of sunshine, but with metaphor, she is my little ray of sunshine. A subtle but important difference.)
Method of Preparation – it’s your recipe so explore, be daring, be innovative – give readers a window into your soul…
Serving Suggestions are necessary, of course:
(Add a ‘garnish’ to your recipe, these are the finishing touches that present a dish to perfection.)
Add a title – What word or feeling would sum up your recipe? Try and keep it relevant and short. Or call it like it is:
A Recipe For A Good Mood Mairi Neil (2016)
a chorus of Mary Jane’s chuckles
an eyeful of Anne’s excitement
a cacophony of birdsong
a dash of possum
a snuggle and lick from Aurora
a strong trace of walking on the foreshore
a breath of rosemary and lavender
large helpings of writing time
a ladle of television murder-mystery
unlimited cupfuls of English Breakfast tea
a glass of cider (or two)
a shower of sunshine
a whisper of an autumn breeze
a turntable of favourite music
a reflection on the love of family and friends
Add liberal dollops of Mary Jane’s infectious laughter
Organise Anne’s surprises to drizzle at intervals
Enjoy Aurora’s daily cuddles and friendly licks
Encourage the possums to nestle in the trees
Welcome the magpies’ morning trill, the butcher birds’ songs,
the wattlebirds’ chok-chok and the doves evening coos.
Wait for the aromatic profusion of rosemary, lavender, geraniums
and roses and rainbow colours of seasonal displays
Embrace the sea air and lapping of waves
Mix and serve daily, in no particular order. Whether sunshine or rain this recipe has my personal guarantee.
Try writing another recipe with different ingredients or write a recipe for a friend, a family member, based on what that person likes:
Or perhaps a recipe based on current affairs (especially if you have a solution to the current catastrophe – remember we’re focusing on a good mood but absurd is okay), the perfect holiday, a travel experience…
**And if you are not into poetic -style recipes whatever is stirred up and remembered can be written in prose – another life story, or piece of fiction!
There Are Benefits To using A Mindmap To Brainstorm Ideas Before Writing
A mind map is a diagram that uses words or sketches to note ideas linked to a central keyword. (This is often called theme in creative writing. A piece of writing can have many themes but often there is an overarching one.)
A mind map gives you the opportunity to explore many different concepts and shows the process of developing them. There is no limit to size – if you want to be expansive grab a sheet of butcher’s paper!)
Mind maps are useful for generating, visualising and organising ideas. They are often used to make decisions and solve problems in the corporate world, but for creative writers, we generate ideas for stories or poems, and to recall memories.
What Does Your Ideal Day Consist of?
Prepare the mindmap –
Favourite time of day
Favourite hobby & activity
Favourite films/TV shows
Use whatever interests you, add extra categories.
Write examples next to all or chosen categories – there may be more than one answer. (Go with your initial one perhaps)
When describing your ingredients go through them one by one.
What words would you use? Think of associations with your central ingredient and write them around that. Think of descriptive words that you could use along with similes and metaphors.
Let your mind roam freely, don’t think too hard or edit yet. Try not to judge one word as being better than another at this stage.
Repeat for as many ingredients as you wish and if you use the senses in the description it will help to make your recipe poetic.
This is a Recipe For a Good Mood, rather than a recipe for food, but all recipes have measurements – some are exact like half a tablespoon of sugar…
In your recipe, measurements don’t have to be standard. You can use traditional measures but be creative and add more inventive indications of quantity.
A small amount could be –
A large amount could be –
Think of other ways we measure things, such as time, space, height and distance.
Here is a list of words for measurement (some traditional, others not) – you can add more in the comments:
This recipe is about feelings, therefore, make it as richly descriptive as possible.
Similes add depth to a description. eg. A summer’s evening as soft as velvet Spring blossom falling like snow
If your ingredient is A tranquil summer or A Quiet Summer Day/Evening
Think about comparisons: What things are quiet? for example tranquil as…. a soft wind in the trees, a sleeping mouse (or any pet), an owl in flight, a swan gliding…
Rather than repeat the description of ‘quiet’ twice, choose different words to mean the same thing eg.. A sprinkle of quiet summer, tranquil as an owl in flight.
Do this for one or two ingredients, not every line because you can defeat the impact of the mood you want to create.
•There’s no right or wrong way to approach your method of preparation.
Write out the list of your ingredients onto a piece of paper.
What will you mix your ingredients in?
In what order will you add them?
Is there a special way they need adding?
This is where you can grab one of those recipe books off the shelf that you have stopped using because it is easier to Google but you haven’t thrown them out because of an emotional attachment, they were a gift, or sometimes it is quicker to check a page than wait for Malcolm Turnbull’s oh, so slow, NBN to download.
Check out the instructions on a favourite recipe and substitute your ingredients:
fold in gently,
beat with a fork
You might put a fractious toddler in a large garden and lightly whisk a sprinkle of quiet summer….
Look at the methods of preparation from the list below or choose your own:
Garnishing & Serving Suggestions:
Add a ‘garnish’ to your recipe, these are the finishing touches that present a dish to perfection. You may like to think of it as the cherry on top of your Recipe For a Good Mood
Serve with a sprig of stories and a warm feeling.
Garnish with a cuddle from a sister and enjoy with a relish of friends
Best enjoyed with a glass of Cider
Serve with optimism and chocolate cake.
You can say how many people it serves – perhaps the ‘recipe poem’ is for a special celebration – birthday, anniversary, wedding, christening…
Add a title. What word or feeling would sum up your recipe? Try and keep it short.
Fun, Warmth, A Giggle, Feeling Blessed, Chilling Out…
Write Your Recipe For a Good Mood –
prose or poetry!
And here is a bit of history in a recipe book – a selection of pages of a book put together on my kitchen table for Mordialloc Primary School as a fundraiser in the 90s.
Most parents contributed a recipe, and some helped with surveys and collection and encouraged their children to illustrate. Some of the data is worthy of a time capsule!
There were no computers, no money for offset printing and the book was divided into sections, with bits of general knowledge and current research regarding food sprinkled throughout.
The aim was to encourage harmony, tolerance and an appreciation of each other’s culture and it worked – families had fun contributing and we learnt a lot about different countries and foods.
We even got a review in the Herald Sun – not bad for a wee school and complete novices. You never know where your ‘kitchen’ creativity will lead!
I can’t believe it is seven years since Mum passed away, and as usual, on anniversaries of a loved one’s death or other special occasion, thoughts drift to the past.
I love my Life Stories & Legacies class at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh because each week I can conjure a memory and reflection as well as record family stories and history: growing up, studying, working, having my own children, and all the incidents, major and minor events, coincidences, and occurrences that weave to make the rich tapestry of our life.
This morning, my older sister sent me a message to say ‘thinking of us all today’ and as messages flew back and forth, we shared memories of Mum and her legacy – so different for each of her six children and fourteen grandchildren.
No matter how old you are there can be something special about a mother’s love – here’s a memory I had one day on the train going to work.
Shelter From The Storm Mairi Neil
Bruised clouds sweep the sky
a gloomy ominous pall.
I remember your voice
‘a thunderplump is on its way.’
I wish to be six again
to feel comforting arms
gather me close.
Cushioned against your chest
my anxious heart
Pit pat, pit pat, pit pat
Until attuned to your
gentle breathing, and steady
ba boom, ba boom,
To relax, as your hands
usually burdened with chores
keep me safe
in rhythmic caress.
Last year, in class we talked about childhood games and memories of the parks and places where we’d play. Children haven’t really changed but childhood has and oldies like me notice the change – the way we parented and the way new generations parent.
We were certainly left to our own devices for more hours in a much less structured day!
Parks and Places to Play
My first nine years were spent in Greenock, Scotland. I can’t remember much of the first three years living at number 2 George Square, a tenement, in the centre of town, but the move further out to Braeside and starting school at Ravenscraig Primary, provides plenty of material and memories.
Despite the rustic name (brae means hill in Scots), there were no parks as such for us to play in. We spent a lot of time in back gardens (‘back greens’ as they were called) and playing games in the street. Traffic minimal in the 50s and early 60s with Dad being one of the few in the street to own a vehicle. He had a motorbike at first, then bought a Bradford van. We played on pavement and road rarely disturbed by cars. In those days it would be rare not to see children playing in the street.
Our games were rowdy affairs: hopscotch (called ‘beds’), skipping with lengths of rope salvaged from washing lines, football (soccer), rounders – often with homemade bats, and the exhausting body-bruising but fun British Bulldog and Relievers (an equally physical game).
We also roamed the hill opposite and the farmer’s fields at the bottom of the road. The housing scheme stretched on a steep hill. Our house at number 35 Davaar Road in the middle of the street’s curve. Davaar Road the topmost homes in the scheme. Across the road from us, behind the last row of grey Corporation houses, the hill climbed high to view or walk to Gourock and the River Clyde on the other side.
This brae devoid of tall trees, but spread with scrub, granite boulders, and heather. Enough natural flora to keep us entertained with games influenced by episodes of popular shows broadcast by the fledgling television industry: The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Robin Hood and his Merry Men (my favourite, Maid Marion), and whatever wonderful land Walt Disney invited us into when we wished upon a star on Sunday evenings.
Up the hill, I learned how to make daisy chains and to check who liked butter by waving buttercups under their chin and was shocked when a neighbour’s six-year-old asked if I wanted to see his ‘willie’. I shared Saturday night baths with three brothers, so couldn’t see the point!
A memorable part of the long summer holidays we spent collecting twigs, branches and anything that would burn in preparation for bonfire night in November. We never forgot Guy Fawkes or the rhyme, ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason, and plot!’
The hills also experienced children roaming in hordes, buckets and jam jars in hand, seeking blackberries when in season. The taste of Mum’s delicious bramble jam a great incentive to risk getting scratched and clothes torn picking the hard-to-reach ones, which always seemed the fattest and juiciest.
At the bottom of the street spread the farmer’s fields, where we weren’t supposed to go. His bull known to be a danger to life and limb. Of course, we incorporated a deliberate dare in some of our games.
There must be a guardian angel for stupid children.
The other reason the fields were off-limits was because the Tinkers (or Gypsies but now correctly referred to as Travellers) used to camp there. Mum and Dad didn’t practise overt bigotry or prejudice against Travellers like some people. Mum, in fact, helped them whenever she could: letting them do mending and other odd jobs, and buying some of the goods they hawked (like wooden clothes pegs).
She often repeated a story of the ‘Gypsy Woman’ who knocked on the door when she was a little girl in Belfast. Her mother bought clothes pegs but also gave extra money and food. In return, for the kindness, the woman offered to tell her fortune but being a devout Christian Grandmother declined. Instead, the old woman took Mum’s hand and prophesied that she would travel across the sea, not once but twice, and the last journey would be far away across a large ocean. Mum would also bear seven children.
You cross The Irish Sea to get to Scotland, so all of us knew the first part of the prediction was right! (It wasn’t until much later that we found out Mum gave birth to seven children and my older sister’s identical twin died soon after birth. Of course, the largest ocean was the journey to Australia by ship when we migrated.)
Mum also believed you don’t go ‘looking for trouble,’ stranger danger not indoctrinated like modern times and we were not made overly fearful, but we were warned to be careful and obey the limitations placed on us, ‘no visiting the Tinker’s camp.’
Again, rules we chose to ignore!
Unfortunately, as a consequence, for years a vivid nightmare recurred, of being terrified and running in fear of my life, yet unable to ask for comfort because I played in the forbidden fields.
Sometimes we live to regret not obeying rules!
I must have been seven years old and had wandered away from the usual gang of playmates, including my older brothers and sister. Always inquisitive, I decided to explore the fields at the bottom of the road. I discovered the remnants of an army camp – underground bunkers abandoned at the end of WW2 and no doubt used by the Travellers. Perhaps I’d heard the more adventurous boys talk about it – I can’t really remember. I do remember spending most of my childhood playing with my two older brothers and their friends because we were all so close in age – only 13 months separated me from George and 17 months separated him from Iain.
In the campsite, there were the usual discarded items: an old army boot, rusted tins, broken furniture, and piles of accumulated recent rubbish, including the ubiquitous empty whisky and beer bottles. Exciting finds for a curious child.
I never heard or noticed a movement from a bundle of dirty, grey blankets.
Without warning, an unkempt man reeking of alcohol made a grab for me. I ran for my life and didn’t stop until I was home, safe behind the gate. Davaar Road was steep but my little legs pounded the pavement without a pause.
The drunk maybe didn’t mean any harm, my presence probably surprised him as much as he startled me. I vaguely remember him murmuring about a match. Perhaps he woke up craving a cigarette – the two addictions of nicotine and alcohol often go together. All I remember is knicker-wetting terror; the sound of panting breath and thudding heart in my ears.
The proverbial wild horses would not pull me into the farmer’s fields! I didn’t care if I was accused of being a scaredy-cat because I was after that encounter. The smell and fear of the abandoned army camp forever part of my nightmares.
A more pleasant memory is playing near the secret lake. We’d walk along the Aileymill Road, a country trail linking the new housing scheme with isolated cottages on the way to Inverkip and Skelmorlie, tiny seaside towns further down the coast.
The hedgerows home to Willow Tits and Warblers singing their delightful ditties, the Golden Ringed dragonfly patrolling and the final goodbyes of the Swallows and Cuckoos before they left for Africa.
Cotton Grass swayed in the breeze and the heather’s vibrant colours bright amongst scented summer foliage not found in our home gardens with their neat rows of dahlias and roses. The hedges camouflage for lizards and beetles darting at our feet and the hilarious attempts of the boys to capture them.
We fished for tadpoles, and hunted frogs and toads, in our secret lake. Logs and stones upturned along damp paths. Bumblebees buzzing and Blue Bottles humming and maybe a hare or deer spotted, fleeing our noisy play. Sojourns to the secret lake a highlight of the long summer holidays as we ventured further afield than allowed.
I revisited Braeside in the 70s and like everything else seen through adult eyes, the secret lake had shrunk. More a puddle really, just as the farmer’s fields seemed a small tract of land with plenty of cowpats, but not a bull in sight!
However, the hillside and view to Gourock was still a scenic wonderland and looking across the sparkling River Clyde revived memories of delightful Sunday School picnics at Kilcreggan and trips ‘doon the water’ to Millport and Dunoon. Children’s laughter still echoed and with a deep breath and strong imagination I could smell Mum’s blackberry jam.
We farewell summer to greet autumn and I’m grateful Melbourne has distinct seasons. I’d hate to live somewhere without a changing climate for inspiration to write. (Not to be confused with climate change!) It is cliched I know, but the seasons are metaphors for our journey through life.
a time of falling leaves,
the days often have
a cooler breeze.
Morning and night are chilly
yet Melbourne days can be hot –
you have to dress silly…
at breakfast you don
warm jumper or jacket,
by lunchtime layers removed
like unwrapping a packet.
But, dinner time requires
warm clothes once again…
unpredictable autumn weather
can be quite a pain.
This morning, as I look out the window, the house over the railway line is barely distinguishable from the filmy grey wash of sky. Faint bruises of clouds drift from the sea, promising a dullness to the day as a breeze carries the chilly air from the foreshore to swish through open windows. Hopefully, by lunchtime, the sun will remove the blanket of autumn haze, and blue sky will triumph.
It is Melbourne after all.
A Glimpse of Mordy Foreshore from The Bus Mairi Neil
The sea, shades of grey, blue and green
has a line of white sails parallel to the pier
boats happy to leave the confines of the creek.
Tables and chairs outside cafes fill with families
soaking up the autumnal sun.
A kaleidoscope of colour dots the beach
as groups and singles lay claim to a patch of sand.
In the distance swimmers brave the chilly sea
their wet suits mimicking dolphins
often seen offshore on warmer days.
Seagulls circle above gannets poised on rocks
myriad hungry eyes ever-watchful for a feed.
No butterflies are flitting gaily in the garden. Instead, the agapanthus droops and die, their brilliant purple flower head replaced by a crinkled fawn and faded green petals nursing tiny brown seeds, ready to drop and hide until spring. The wind is not strong enough to whip fallen leaves and other debris to skitter along the street like children let loose in a playground.
Leaves die and fall in autumn Each work of art farewelled And as the trees become bare and Very sad through winter days Early buds herald the onset of Spring and promise new life!
An Indian Myna sighs and whistles in triumph from among the Banksia enticing mates to land. A juvenile Magpie declares to the world, in happy squeals, that he now hunts and fends for himself. While his parents perch proudly on the overhead wires chortling and singing his praises, he makes considered stabs at the earth in a steady sweep of the nature strip.
A single Blue Moon rose brightens my verandah, and I focus on its delicate beauty, ignoring the scabbing paint that needs renewing and the couch grass to be removed before it chokes the flowerbeds. At least the geraniums splash a red, white and pink welcome to the constant stream of passersby on their way to the station or shops.
Autumn Chores Mairi Neil
A surprising spring-like day in autumn Melbourne
finds me on my knees, apologising to weeds
pulled from their cosy beds.
Recalcitrant couch grass trembles at my curses,
muscles ache as each tug trails tentacles,
loosened from their choking grip on tender plant roots.
Perspiration weeps and eyes sting, but
I acknowledge passersby who pause to
compliment the beauty of freed flora and
inhale the wafting perfume of rosemary,
admiring white daisies guarding the mailbox.
A baby wattlebird swoops onto the
orange grevillea victoriae for its daily feed
joyful satisfaction declared with distinctive bark.
This rewarding distraction reminds me
to ease aching knees, massage throbbing back
and return indoors for yet another cuppa!
The leaves of the wattle tree in the right spirit of autumn, are beginning to turn yellow and drop, reminding me of a children’s poem I wrote to explain to my daughters about “Fall”:
Colourful autumn leaves are falling
they carpet my lawn so green
the fairies have been at play again
silent and unseen.
They’ve climbed or flown into the trees
and selected a leaf for transport,
on their magic carpets they’ve race around
until too exhausted to cavort.
When gentle moonlight politely gives way
to the brightness of dawning sun
the leafy vehicles will be discarded…
until darkness permits more fun.
Despite the formidable reputation of Scotland’s weather, my early childhood is filled with memories of playing outside, especially during the long summer school holidays in July-August, but even at other times during the year. Autumn days in the northern hemisphere, as I’ve mentioned before, were taken up practising for Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ night. I’ve written about Guising and Galoshens, published here and about collecting ‘pennies for the guy’.
I recall more time spent playing hopscotch, skipping, tramping over the fields and hills among the heather (corny as that sounds) than anything else. We also played British Bulldog and the robust Relievers – boisterous games, which certainly kept us fit as well as warm.
We performed impromptu plays for each other, along with the regular games of Cowboys and Indians and Robin Hood and his Merry Men, which reflected the influence of the fledgeling British television industry in the 50s and 60s.
The yet to be developed, and newly established backyards and front gardens of the houses in the new Braeside development took on many personas. Indian badlands, seas populated by Captain Pugwash and his inept pirates, Sherwood Forest, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, Colditz prisoner of war camp, and many other land or seascapes from island to a desert.
Locations and scenarios limited only by our fertile and stimulated imaginations fed on books, comics, television and radio.
The first couple of years in Australia we transplanted many of these games, revelling in much kinder weather. We could play outside for most of the year – no need to hibernate from winter snow.
All those childhood hours, playing outside in different continents, provide wonderful memories.
We are influenced by everything we have experienced in our lives and many in each generation experience similar things, therefore it’s natural there’s often a familiarity about stories. However, as I’ve discovered in my classes, most people will have stories from childhood or another period of life that can be shared in an original way, if written from a personal perspective including details and their reflections.
AUTUMN Mairi Neil
Autumn… a time to enjoy
Clocks altered to give
An extra hour snuggled beneath the doona
Autumn… a still warm season
Days pretending summer still lives
Walks in the park crunch leaves underfoot
Autumn… a time of colour
Rainbows drop from trees
Vibrant flowers play peek-a-boo through fences
Autumn… a season to pause
Contemplate winter’s chill
Prepare body and soul with warming soups
Autumn… a time of contemplation
Remembering Easter sacrifice and ANZAC
Courage and Faith, admirable human qualities.
I was brought up in a Christian household and have many happy memories participating in rituals that gave meaning to our beliefs and practices.
I never knew about the Easter Bunny until we came to Australia, nor did I consider the giving of chocolate eggs as the most important part of the celebration. I no longer attend church, but still, value and respect the rituals and beliefs inherited from my parents. I try to avoid the rampant consumerism around Easter that appears to have become the norm just as I avoid the over-the-top materialism that has transformed Christmas.
In Scotland, and for many years here in Australia, we painted boiled eggs and rolled them down a hillside, the winner being the family member whose egg survived with the least cracks. This ritual (I think!) based on the stone rolled away from the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed.
However, the most important part of the tradition being family get-togethers, sharing a meal and enjoying hot cross buns and each other’s company. There was also Pancake (Shrove)Tuesday, which was a treat because Mum was a pancake-maker supremo. All genuinely happy times.
As children, we received a chocolate egg or a selection box of chocolate bars to enjoy on the school break that coincided with Easter, and when my children were young, this tradition continued. Many family traditions, including those at Easter, have altered or been abandoned after the loss of my parents, and changing family dynamics over the years with siblings growing older and the lives of our children diversifying.
Such is life, which is why recording memoried by writing or with photographs important for family history.
Perhaps future grandchildren may revive old traditions (with Fair Trade chocolate and Free Range eggs of course…), or create new ones. As the truism suggests – the one thing constant in life is change!
My sister Cate (Catriona), a talented quilter, created the “Lest We Forget” block pictured above. It was chosen as one of the 100 finalists for the particular display at the Australasian Quilt Convention this April in Melbourne. The entries, along with their 100-word stories will tour Australia.
Postcards from Gallipoli Mairi Neil
He survived the assault on Gallipoli
to die an unheroic death
from ‘enteric fever’ in Alexandria.
Weak, miserable, hungry and alone,
the tent hospital overcrowded,
too few nurses overwhelmed.
Our family’s Aussie digger
buried in foreign fields.
His working class parents too poor
to visit his grave
and the body count too high
to return him home.
A nineteen year old larrikin
eldest son farewelled,
a rabbit skin vest, Holy Bible,
and pipe welcomed home.
His war brief,
like his life.
Postcards ‘from the trenches’
sent love to family and friends
missing home and wishing for peace.
Passed down through generations,
the neatly pencilled sentences
hint at the man he could have been.
A great uncle I never knew.
Each ANZAC Day I think of
George Alexander McInnes
and the thousands like him,
acknowledge the debt owed
to previous generations
for sacrifice, trauma, and loss.
But, in the remembering there is
no forgetting the madness
and futility that is war.