Icebreakers For Writers -Lessons That Work

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This year, in semi-retirement, I’m not working at the moment but I’m sure there are teachers/trainers/facilitators who are trawling the Internet or books, for fresh ideas for the first class and will appreciate some of these hints.

At this time of year, as schools reopen, so do neighbourhood houses and other groups providing activities and it is so important to be inclusive and encourage a friendly atmosphere.

People absorb more and learn better when they’re relaxed and happy.

I’m normally preparing first lessons for various classes in creative writing and although many of my students returned, or had been together for several terms, if not years, there would always be someone new so it was important to have icebreakers.

How do you help someone ‘fit in’ quickly and as easily as possible?

In 2017, I wrote a post of 10 icebreaker questions I used with a bit of tweaking for both my Writing Creatively classes and Life Stories & Legacies class.

Try them – even if your group is not specifically for writers.

For years I had a good format that involved people interviewing the person beside them and then introducing each other to the class.  This could be tweaked by changing the questions to be specific, limiting the time so it was like speed dating, ensuring people interviewed someone they didn’t socialise with outside class or didn’t know at all.

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We soon knew each other’s names and a bit about everyone’s personality – maybe even a condensed life story!

Here’s a poem I wrote after my Monday morning class at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House.

What’s in a name?
Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another year we actually ‘broke the ice’ by writing a poem after answering a series of questions. The exercise based on a famous and much-loved memoir poem Where I’m From by George Ella Ryan (writer and teacher).

Click on the link for two templates that are guaranteed to work as an icebreaker and with revision and effort some powerful poetry and maybe a short story or two will result!

Here’s my effort –

Family_Resemblance.jpgWhat Made Me?
Mairi Neil

I am from ‘wakey-wakey’ for breakfast
Storytime books and kisses goodnight.
From hopscotch, skipping, dress-ups,
Backyard games and street delights.

Childish rhymes and daisy chains,
From buttercup tests and bramble jars,
Walking to school or riding bicycles
Streets were for playing – not for cars!

Home deliveries by butcher and baker
Bottled milk at home and school
I’m from coal man black and scary
Clouds of dust when cellar full.

Shouts of ‘any old rags?’ recycled clothes
The buttons and zips Mum always kept
Eager friends traded their Dad’s best suit
Mothers screamed and children wept.

I am from Chinese checkers and chess
Scabby Queen and what card to choose
Roars of laughter, or tears and tantrums
Gracious winning and learning to lose

A migrant family farewelling the familiar
Adjusting to new home across the seas
On a long ship’s voyage. we acclimatised
To be from a house among gum trees.

Hot days of summer and restless nights
Long dry grass and fear of snakes
Mosquito netting to avoid nasty bites
No escaping plum and apple fights.

Bluetongue lizards and pesky possums
A boat full of tadpoles and croaking frogs
Screeching cockies, laughing kookaburras
A house full of stray cats and dogs.

Huntsman spiders sucked up the vacuum
Cicadas chitter to announce summer
Rabbits and hares, native mice aplenty
Magpies swooping – what a bummer!

I’m from Choc Wedges and icy poles
Long summer days at Croydon Pool
Driveway tennis and park cricket
Trips up Mt Dandenong for cool.

I’m from high school softball and hockey
A Holden car swapped for Morris van
Holidays in army tent at Coronet Bay
Shift worker Dad visiting when he can.

I’m from triple fronted brick veneer
Replacing dilapidated weatherboard
Coloured TV, Phillips stereo, cassettes
Furniture wet when rain poured.

I’m from white weddings and sad divorces
In-laws plus nephews and nieces
Heartaches of friends and relatives
Falling apart and picking up pieces…

I’m from sick and ageing parents,
Death’s challenge not ignored
A houseful of wonderful memories
As bulldozers destroyed James Road.

In the hush of evening sunsets
Imagining childhood with closed eyes
Daily shenanigans, laughter and tears
From that ‘wakey-wakey’ surprise.

I’m from hardworking parents
Love always their motivation
Gifting me ethics and values
I’m a product of their dedication.

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Melding the Power of Words, the English Language, Our Imagination and Life Experience

Introductions – Exercise One in Class

This is a fun exercise but requires a little thought and brainstorming before you write and remember to make it as creative as possible.

  • Before you say your name, sit quietly and think of three clues that describe, but doesn’t name, either the country where you were born  (if it is different from Australia) or the place in Australia you were born (could be a city, country town, interstate).
  • Now think of three clues and see if people can guess a foreign country you have visited, your favourite foreign country, or one you dream of visiting.
  • Next, say your name and your clues and others will guess the answers. (You don’t have to make it difficult! It is not a competition but just a way of introducing an aspect of yourself others may not know.)
  • Now say what you like best about your birth country and the favourite foreign country.

Hi, my name is Mairi. I was born where lochs and glens adorn postcards and men are not embarrassed to go without trousers, and our national musical instrument has been declared a weapon of war.

A few years ago I visited a country to climb a mountain and visit a grave. I went to church and prayed for their rugby team to win and ate banana pancakes.

I love the sense of humour and hospitality in my birth country and that warmth of welcome and fun was also experienced in the foreign country of my dreams.  

You don’t have to be Einstein to work out my birth country is Scotland but you may not pick up the clue about Samoa. I’ve written about the journey of my dreams here.

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Samoan survival kit – insect repellant, sunblock, water, fan and cool sarong

Always whatever people write and discuss can inspire the others in the class, and furnish lots of anecdotes, memoir or imaginative pieces to write about later.

Has the exercise, or listening to others prompted an idea for a short story, poem or family history?

AT HOME:

  • Reflect – technology and transportation today give us the opportunity to learn, often first hand, about the rest of the world. You may not have had the privilege of travelling overseas but had the thrill of talking with foreigners online, writing to pen pals, or working beside people from overseas, or maybe even have immigrants or short term visitors as neighbours.
  • The world shrinks and differences are less, the more we learn and understand about each other.
  • And everyone is capable of dreaming about crossing borders, venturing into the exotic, trying something new.

Write at least 300-500 words explaining your connection and love of your birth country and favourite foreign place or perhaps you have a vivid memory to share – good or bad. Maybe travelling advice, or write about a character you met.

Here is a reflective piece of 500 words,  I published in the final anthology of 2018 for the Writing Creatively Class at Longbeach Place, Chelsea.

A Scottish Summer
Mairi Neil

Memory can burst into the present like a firecracker or be kindled like a flickering candle flame.

Proust

Despite Scotland’s dreary weather reputation, I remember lying on dewy grass among bluebells, and purple heather, breathing in the salty air of the River Clyde and freshwater scents from Loch Thom. Clouds drifted over the brae as we wove daisy chains and picked buttercups.

Do you like butter,’ we asked, holding the flowers under our chins. We giggled and chased each other waving dandelions, their touch supposedly making you pee the bed and when they ‘died’ the same flower became a fluffy timepiece to blow ‘fairies’ into the air and call out ‘one o’clock, two o’clock…’

In summer we sucked ice-lollies bought from Peter’s shop, a place pervaded by smells of sugar and syrup from jars of sweeties: musk, mint, aniseed, liquorice… The days seemed endless – daylight lasting until near midnight. Mum begging us to come in for supper and bed, but we romped in the hills of Braeside or played games in the street.

Travellers (tinkers to us) came to camp in the farmer’s field among cow pats and sheep dung. Their decrepit caravans and ex-army tents, a tight encampment we were forbidden to visit. They scoured the local streets for odd jobs, standing on doorsteps, unkempt and dank.

In need of a good bath,’ our neighbour said, ‘they don’t half pong. I gae them a couple o’ shillings just to be rid o’ them.’ It was the 1950s and no bathrooms in caravans or tents, not even a clear burn (creek) in the farmer’s field. My childhood curiosity aroused about people living a different life to me and awareness, not all adults shared my parents’ compassion …

The Rag and Bone man another summer visitor. His van toured the housing scheme looking for goodies. If mothers worked or went shopping, lured with promises of a goldfish or a budgie, but more likely receiving a balloon or plastic water pistol, some children handed over their dad’s dinner suit or mum’s Sunday best, taken from wardrobes without permission or smuggled out of the house among shabby clothes. The smell of brake fluid and burning rubber accompanied the yells of angry women chasing ‘Steptoe and Son’ down the street, wanting to retrieve property obtained under false pretences.

Our neighbour’s wisdom again, ‘Never leave wains to their own devices!’

The long summer holidays the time to collect firewood to build a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night, to make a guy from old clothes and stockings stuffed with newspapers to drag around the neighbourhood on a homemade bogey (go-cart) shouting ‘penny for the guy’. The Davaar Road Gang made up of neighbourhood children clubbed pocket money to amass a kitty for fireworks: Catherine Wheels, Sky Rockets, Whirly Gigs, but mainly penny bungers.

Sometimes we couldn’t wait for November 5th, and the acrid smell of gunpowder in the backyard tipped off our mothers we were exploding fireworks without supervision and we’d hear, ‘Wait until your faither gets hame. He’ll skelp your backside.’

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Three years old me with new found friends wearing their mum’s shoes!

 

Introductions – Exercise Two in Class

This one is a variation of an oldie that often does the rounds – I think there was a radio programme based in it too called Desert Island Discs…

If you were marooned on a desert island, who would you want with you? Or what (a favourite pet, perhaps…?)

  • Sit quietly and think about the situation for a couple of minutes.
  • Choose three people who you would want with you if you were marooned.
  • Introduce yourself and name the people. They can be alive or dead, imaginary, famous or infamous, literary characters, television personalities, family or friends…

My effort:

Hi, my name is Mairi and if I were marooned on a deserted island, I would want John to be with me. Ex navy he understood the vagaries of the sea, was strong, clever and practical. His common sense and calmness a balance to highly strung, impulsive me. He was great fun and an incurable romantic – we wouldn’t be a small population for long!

My second choice would be AJ Cronin, a great ethical doctor but also a wonderful writer and storyteller. We’d have many stimulating discussions and I’d get some great writing tips. And he’d ensure we stayed healthy.

My third choice would be my Mum, the best no-nonsense cook in the world and someone who was amazingly adaptable – making homes in Ireland, Scotland and Australia – she could be relied upon to adjust and settle into the new situation. And no better confidante to give unconditional love.

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Reflection and Discussion Enriches the Lesson

  • How hard was it to choose people?
  • Did you substitute a pet?
  • Were your choices all imaginary? Celebrities?
  • What surprises did you find when listening to others?

Each time I do this exercise with different classes, I change my choices and now as I look over my notes from the years of teaching, I’ve garnered a lot of information and jumping off points to write my own story or even stories.

As always, encourage writing and rewriting at home…

Write an imaginative story about being marooned – either one person or more than one.
Think and perhaps revisit Gilligan’s Island or Lord of The Flies, or perhaps Robinson Crusoe.  No genre is excluded – remember the TV sitcom setting the Family Robinson in Space? Why not have them land on Mars – or even the moon…

Explore your choices of the three companions and write in depth about why you chose them. Is there a relationship with one or more of them that can be explained in a personal essay?

For example, I may write about my mother’s cooking ability or her life’s migration journeys, perhaps choose the move from Ireland, or concentrate on emigrating to Australia.

OR

About being inspired by AJ Cronin – (1896 – 1981) a Scottish novelist and physician who wrote The Citadel (1937), the story of a doctor from a Welsh mining village who moves up the career ladder in London.

I loved this novel. It was recommended by my father and I can’t remember if I read the copy in the house or bought my own. It had controversial new ideas about medical ethics and Dad said it inspired the launch of the National Health Service.

Cronin’s other popular novel was The Stars Look Down. Both were mining novels adapted as films, as have Hatter’s Castle, The Keys of the Kingdom and The Green Years. His novella Country Doctor adapted as a long-running BBC radio and TV series Dr Finlay’s Casebook. This series compulsory viewing in our household and in a piece of serendipity, one of the housemaid jobs I had when I travelled the UK in 1973, was at the Killin Hotel – a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Callander where the series was filmed.

Another bit of serendipity and personal history was in 2017 when I stayed with my cousin in Scotland. She had recently moved to Cardross and walking around the neighbourhood led me to this discovery:

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I don’t expect Cardross to be on the list of places to visit if you went with a packaged tour but it is a bonny place, steeped in history, and definitely worth a look:

I came across lovely gardens and some attractive social housing for the elderly – and as a bonus, the spring flowers were in bloom and the cafe was friendly.

See how that exercise has triggered stories for me…

Please feel free to share your thoughts and add any good icebreaking exercises because I guarantee there will be a teacher/trainer out there trawling the Internet who’ll appreciate it.

 

 

Writing Creatively About St Patrick’s Day

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All of us are influenced by everything we have experienced in our lives but like a gigantic sponge, writers absorb more than most.

The small details, the unusual objects, the striking character, the overheard conversation, the beautiful sunset, the changing leaves – the possibility of story everywhere –

like the pub dedicated to Sherlock Holmes and Baker Street in the heart of Melbourne advertising St Patrick’s Day that I discovered on Friday!

Many writers worry they are regurgitating ideas seen or read somewhere, ideas that have been written up ad nauseam

I remember when this was mentioned at a workshop I attended years ago, the presenter said, ‘Don’t worry there’s no copyright on ideas and whatever you write will be from your perspective, you’ll have your own take on it.”

Just as the owners of The Sherlock Holmes at 415 Collins Street have done – creating their version of the famous character’s story.

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Do they worry about appropriating ideas from Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterpiece? Worry about cashing in on the desire of the Irish (and on March 17th it seems a worldwide desire) to celebrate St Patrick’s Day?

Not at all.

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I tell my students – even if the idea isn’t fresh, still write the story or poem because you can change everything (names, place, people or events) after you have let your creativity loose.

The finished work is yours – a unique perspective – an original manuscript!

Ideas are free and flexible.

Focus on writing your life experience, your dreams and fantasies, adding your research, your interpretation of what you’ve absorbed and your thoughts…

… and whatever results will be a new work of art.

The recipes listed in Mrs Hudson’s Pantry below are just a variation of well-loved British or Australian delicacies. There may be a pinch of a special spice or sauce that makes it ‘original’ like a story that is enhanced by wordplay, metaphor, flawed character, or exotic setting to vary one of the acclaimed seven basic plots authors keep writing!

Do you know the what, why, or when of St Patrick’s Day?

Brush up on your history of St. Patrick:

‘ before him, there were no farms, sheep, or deer, but there were saintly women who slew dragons and performed miracles’.

(This quote from an article St. Patrick’s Day Facts: Shamrocks, Snakes, and a Saint by John Roach in 2010, available from the National Geographic magazine online quoting St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography.)

  • Can you write about St Patrick from a position of knowledge?
  • Do you know anyone called Patrick (are they saint or sinner?) that you can write about or make a character in a story Irish and called Patrick – or why not Patricia!
  • Write a story around the theme of immigration, or slavery (sadly, still two very much alive and contentious issues)
  • Or perhaps religious zealots, or cults – or maybe how important partying and having fun is to health!

There are many stories waiting to be written from a variety of angles… who would have thought Ireland, a staunchly Roman Catholic country would vote for marriage equality long before Australia got its act together?

What Colour is Tolerance?
Mairi Neil

Green comes in forty shades
The Irish folk group sings
Soft moss by rivers streaming
Tarragon glory of faerie rings.
Ireland the true Emerald Isle
Celtic forests delight and intrigue
Crushed pine perfumes the air
Woodland ferns soften history’s deeds.
When English mist descended
Paradise green became no more
Even Dublin Bay was laced with blood
Years of bomb blasts and ghastly gore.
Like the famed Amazon jungle
Impenetrable; a hope of peace deemed futile.
But as spring buds banish winter
Persistence gave reason to smile ––
From green felt to cameo silk
Ireland’s metamorphoses proudly displayed
Acceptance of all shades –– green and pink
In May 2015, history indeed made!

bunch of red roses

10 Things You May Not Know About St Patrick

  1. The apostle and patron saint of Ireland wasn’t even Irish! He was born in western Britain, probably West Glamorgan circa 389AD. His father, Calpurnius, was a Roman official and deacon.
  2. As a boy, Patrick was captured in a Pictish raid and sold as a slave in Ireland. he escaped to Gaul, studied in a monastery and returned to Ireland to spread Christianity.
  3. Although landing at Wicklow, Patrick travelled north and converted the people of Ulster first!
  4. He died in 461AD and is buried in County Down, Northern Ireland.
  5. There are many stories ascribing miraculous powers to Patrick, including one that credits him with ridding the island of vermin (snakes) Slowly, mythology grew up around Patrick until centuries later he was honoured as the patron saint of Ireland.
  6. No native snakes exist on the island today, but they never did so the story about St Patrick casting out the snakes was fake news in his time. (However, snakes symbolically represent evil and Patrick was the power of good.)
  7. St. Patrick’s Day was basically invented in America by Irish-Americans. (I can hear my Irish mother groaning and saying ‘typical Americans claiming everything!)  However, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade did not take place in Ireland. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City in 1762. As the years went on, the parades became a show of unity and strength for persecuted Irish-American immigrants, and then a popular celebration of Irish-American heritage. 
  8. Patrick used the three leaves of a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and sometime in the 19th century as St. Patrick’s Day parades were flourishing, wearing the colour green became a show of commitment to Ireland.
  9. Until the 1970s, St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was a minor religious holiday. A priest would acknowledge the feast day, and families would celebrate with a big meal, but that was about it.
  10. In 1962 the show of solidarity took a spectacular turn in Chicago when the city decided to dye a portion of the Chicago River green. Similarly, pints of Guinness, the famous Irish stout brand are dyed and consumed. The party went global in 1995 when the Irish government began a large-scale campaign to market St. Patrick’s Day as a way of driving tourism and showcasing Ireland’s many charms to the rest of the world.

So, if you are like me, with a partial or full Irish heritage, you can be forgiven for thinking all the fuss and ‘green’ everything around St  Patrick’s Day, is a modern phenomenon because it is!

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Today, March 17 is a day of international celebration, as millions of people around the globe put on their best green clothing to drink beer, watch parades and toast the luck of the Irish.

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What’s your experience of St Patrick’s Day in Australia – after all, we have lots of Irish immigrants?

Writers, especially if they want to be journalists or write blog posts should have eclectic tastes and always seek to improve their general knowledge.

In this day and age of instant news and a proliferation of people competing online and in print to be writers, those who want to see their name in lights and/or earn a living from writing need to be up-to-date and in fact, with the 24-hour news cycle, they need to be up-to-the-minute!

If you are writing family history you may just have a touch of the Irish in you because Ireland is a country with a long history of exporting people.

Or perhaps you have an Irish Setter? This dog breed falls into the category of ‘love them or hate them’ and as an ex-owner of one of these lovely dogs, I challenge the stereotype that they are stupid. Our Orla was indeed the queen of dogs.

Did you learn or love Irish dancing, Irish music and songs?

My music collection ranges from wonderful tenors like Father Sydney McEwan to The Dubliners folk group and Eithne Pádraigín Ní Bhraonáin (anglicised as Enya).

When you hear a particular song – When Irish Eyes Are Smiling or Its a Long Way to Tipperary – what memories are evoked? What about The Unicorn song or Lily The Pink by The Irish Rovers?

Have you visited Ireland or is it on your travel Bucket List?

To get more inspiration wear something green, or sit in the garden — perhaps the luck o’ the Irish will heighten the muse!

Grab a stout and join the craic at a celebration – visit The Sherlock Holmes, or even Ireland itself!

 

The Richness of Celtic Culture Can Be Mined For Stories

Before the introduction of Christianity, Ireland was largely pagan. However, with the arrival of early Christians, missionaries preached where people already worshipped and folded pagan places of pilgrimage, including holy wells, into a new faith. Saints replaced pagan deities and existing places of prayer were given a Christian flavour.

Despite Anglo-Norman attempts to replace veneration of Irish female saints with the veneration of the Virgin Mary, and later efforts to suppress rituals and beliefs around wells, dedication to the saints persisted, and they remained regionally significant. 

The endurance of particular saints became connected to the success of dynasties that were attached to certain territories and their endowment of land for churches and abbeys.

(Did you know that professions have patron saints? St Matthew for accountants and bankers, St Genesius for actors and for secretaries, St Jerome for librarians, and writers have two saints, St John the Evangelist and St Francis de Sales – is this because we may sin more than most or need more looking after?

What happens to those saints of professions no longer prolific or even existing? St Crispin (cobblers), St Sebastian (pin-makers), St Hubert (huntsmen) – do they get reassigned to the new professions created by technology?)

For many wells, their mysticism extends beyond their connection to a saint. Known for their healing capabilities, some wells were believed to specialise in treating diseases such as tuberculosis and whooping cough.

Today they are sought out more for maladies like sore throats, head, back, stomach, and toothaches, warts, and other skin-related problems, anxiety, and even cancer.

Researchers’ studies determined that some wells are rich in specific chemicals, for example –

  • waters associated with skin remedies are often high in sulphur, an effective ingredient in acne medication.
  • Wells connected with “strengthening weak children” are generally iron-rich.
  • The wells in County Kerry’s “Valley of the Mad” contain lithium and were effective in treating mental illness.

    …a few hours into the dark of night, an intergenerational crowd encircles a large, smoky bonfire near the sites of two holy wells dedicated to St Brigid. Just over 100 participants have gathered outside Kildare town for an annual event celebrating both the ancient Celtic holiday of Imbolc (the beginning of spring) and St Brigid’s Day (February 1st). Led by sisters of the Brigidine Order, they bring lanterns and candles to welcome “the light of Brigid” and the end of an unusually cold winter.

    Quite literally in spite of the cold, the crowd is sprinkled with water from St Brigid’s nearby healing well. A woman sits by the fire and begins weaving a large St Brigid’s cross of local rushes. As the crowd falls silent— her actions are explained as symbolic ritual labour; she weaves into the cross the dreams and worries of those present…”

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  • This practice of observing a modern religion and a pagan precursor is known as ‘syncretism’. You can find it all over the world among former slaves and indigenous peoples who are nominally Catholic, but who identify their saints with pre-Christian gods.
  • In parts of Latin America, Indians in the more remote regions especially, observe rituals that are derived from both Latin Catholicism and their ancient animist traditions.

Story Ideas

  • Write about a saint or someone who turns up at the well to be healed.
  • What story can be written about the failure to keep the sacred feminine well?
  • Do you have a ‘miracle’ cure story?

BelleGibson

Did you Know These facts about The Shamrock?

Trifolium dubium, the wild-growing, three-leaf clover is what some botanists consider the official shamrock.

However, many refer to other three-leaf clovers, such as the perennials Trifolium repens and Medicago lupulina but according to the Irish these plants are “bogus shamrocks.”

The custom of wearing a shamrock dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries, but there is no evidence to say what plant people used, therefore, the argument over authenticity is purely academic.

Botanists say there’s nothing uniquely Irish about shamrocks. Most species can be found throughout Europe so is this just another example of the Irish ‘gift of the gab’ and great marketing?

Spiders are supposed to be lucky too – so I guess my run-in with this greenery cocooned in webs in Northern Ireland was extremely lucky!

STORY IDEAS ABOUT IRELAND &  ST PATRICK’S DAY

Think of words associated with Ireland and St Patrick’s Day – list them and see if a story or poem is triggered:

WORD LIST TO GET YOU STARTED:

Ireland, luck, leprechaun, a pot of gold at end of the rainbow, Guinness, stout and beer, blarney (kissing the Blarney Stone), brogues, dancing, bagpipes, the fiddle, Gaelic, Erse, potatoes bread, Irish Stew, scones, shamrock, shillelagh, limerick, poetry, jigs, faeries, banshee, pints, poteen, marching, clover, green, Irish, happy, St. Patrick’s Day, holiday, myths, legends, stove pipe hat, buckles, shoes, surprise, superstition, seventeen, Dublin, Belfast, magic, four-leaf clover, tradition, celebration, family, emigrants, Emerald Isle…

  • Pretend that you have found a four-leaf clover that will bring you extraordinary good luck for exactly one day. Write about that lucky day.
  • What does it mean to get a “lucky break?” Write about a time when you got one.
  • James Garfield (the 20th US president) said, “A pound of pluck is worth a ton of luck.” What do you think he meant? Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • Draw a mindmap in the shape of a large four-leaf clover. In the centre write: I am lucky because… Then, write a different way that you are lucky on each of the four leaves. Use the words to make a poem.
  • Do you have a good luck charm? Describe your lucky keepsake and how it brings you luck. Do you have a lucky number? An item of clothing that you wear that always seems to make you happy or good things happen when you wear it?

Writing About Leprechauns

  • Do you believe in leprechauns? Why or why not?
  • Write the Legend of the Leprechaun. Create a story about the lucky Leprechaun (or one who lost his magical powers).
  • What do leprechauns do all day? Make a daily schedule for a leprechaun – what will happen if one leprechaun tears up the timetable?
  • You have caught a leprechaun (how?).  He/she gives you a pot of gold in exchange for freedom. What do you do with it? Or maybe you are granted 3 wishes… but there are rules/consequences
  • A mischievous leprechaun paid a visit to your garden during the night and caused all kinds of trouble. How do you cope/ fix it?
  • Make a list of the advantages or disadvantages of being as small as a leprechaun. Can you write a story?
  • You are a leprechaun who is tired of the old-fashioned hat, suit, and shoes and you’ve decided green is not your colour. You want a new, updated look for today’s modern leprechaun. Write a letter to the leprechaun fashion designer explaining why you think an update is a good idea and what the new leprechaun outfit should be. Or write the dialogue between a grandmother/mother and teenage leprechaun daughter or grandfather/father and teenage leprechaun son.
  • Describe a magical land “over the rainbow.” How do you get there? Do you stay? Is it really Nirvana/Paradise/Heaven?

Acrostic poems can be written about anything…

You can use one word for each letter, create a full sentence, have it rhyme, or just write random phrases. Acrostic poems are whatever you want them to be – I’ve used GREEN and LUCKY from the word list above.

Grass is always greener somewhere else
Really you make your own luck
Each of us can pay it forward
End the myths about magic
No leprechauns just as there were no snakes!

Leprechauns are too small to see
Unlucky for some, but not for me
Can a rainbow grant wishes, or promise gold?
Kids love these stories and beg they be told
You can see the ‘wee people’ if you’re bold!protest outside parlt.jpg

Are you Green?

Today ‘Being Green’ has everything to do with the environment and recycling, or having a ‘green thumb’ in the garden.

But perhaps you were ‘green’ once upon a time when you were learning something new?

Or perhaps ‘green around the gills’ from a wave of nausea?

recycling Groomsport NI

Mairi Neil’s attempt at St Patrick’s Day Limerick

Have you ever tried writing a blog
Through a St Paddy’s Day partying fog?
The brain is numb
Words don’t come
Until you sample ‘the hair of the dog!’

May your muse function better than mine – Happy Writing and feel free to share!

Rekindling The Desire To Write

desk

The other day, I received an email from a young man who wanted to write – not a book or novel but ‘perhaps for the screen‘. He believed his future was to write stories and present them in a way people understand just ‘not in paper format‘…

Unfortunately, Mordialloc Writers’ Group is no more but his desire to tell stories and write made him seek guidance from other writers.

His request rekindled memories of why I founded the local writers’ group in 1995 and maybe he and several others who have contacted me will be motivated to establish their own support group.

I remember that ache to be with people who understand the desire to write.

I remember wanting to not feel isolated or alone; needing to be with others who understand the fascination with words.

Sometimes I wonder where that eager, passionate writer has gone.

empty beach

It’s Easy to Become Jaded

Over the years, through my involvement with the group and my teaching, I’ve managed to keep writing, but not always, writing what I want – and sometimes not from the heart. There have been periods of avoidance or dissatisfaction with whatever I’ve written. Periods of feeling overwhelmed by the expectations of others.

At times it took a conscious effort to remember and appreciate the sheer joy of stringing words together into a meaningful sentence, a memorable metaphor, a funny rhyme, an interesting character or setting…

When there are workshops to organise, deadlines to meet, lessons to plan, and editing of other people’s writing, the passion and pleasure, spark of imagination and fun are often smothered, spontaneity lost.

george orwell quote.jpeg

  • I’ve never had ‘making money’ as the main aim or motivation for writing – just as well because few writers ever become wealthy like JK Rowling.
  • My ego has never been so demanding that celebrity status or becoming famous kept me motivated to write.
  • And unlike George Orwell, I have never been so driven that I could neglect family responsibilities or my friends.

However, I do want to be able to respond proudly and without hesitation,  to the questions, ‘What are you?‘ or ‘What do you do?’

I want to respond with, ‘I am a writer.’

I believe I am, and I do – even if not as successful as many others in the field.

laptop and desk

  • I still want to record my own stories and help others record theirs.  Let their voices be heard regardless of whether they have a university degree or dropped out of high school.
  • I want to meet anyone who enjoys playing around with and understanding the power of words, whether it be writing ditties, letters to ‘the editor’, romantic and creative cards, bookmarks, popular or literary short stories, healing personal stories, or the ‘one novel everyone has inside them’.

Mordialloc Writers Group produced nine anthologies between 1997-2016 and gave 66 writers a voice and an opportunity to be a published author. Many have gone on to write novels, poetry collections and memoir.

I have a shelf of class anthologies from paid teaching positions at several places, including the Sandybeach Centre 2002.

Writers gather to workshop
Read their prose, poems, and plays
In the Studio
Tuesday morning
Each week at Sandybeach

Mairi Neil 2002

blue moon rose

The anthologies from classes at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House, Godfrey Street Community House and Longbeach Place, remind me to appreciate the privilege of meeting so many different women and men of varying ages and abilities, all with a desire to write.

I have pages of imaginative, poignant, amusing and serious poems and prose from so many different writers.

What a privilege to share their stories, poems, plays, songs – even an opera – as they delighted in being with like-minded people with a passion for words.

Writing groups and classes bring together people from all walks of life writing what they want to write, but also valuing the techniques and tools of the craft.

Some write as part of a healing process, recovering from accident, illness or grief. Exercising their imagination not just therapy but a glorious release of ideas perhaps not revealed before.

Some write with the aim of helping others recover or learn from their journey, or impart knowledge and ideas they care about.

Some write because at long last they have the time or the courage to nurture their desire to write that novel, or book of poems, or rhymes for children, memoir, autobiography, family history or screenplay for Television, Holywood, or the Web!

Digital technology opening up choices not dreamt about when I first started writing creatively.

The young man who wants to tell stories by writing but not on paper an example of the digital revolution and the future. Maybe he’ll find an online group…

What Am I?
Mairi Neil 2004

I’m a writer.
A phrase with connotations galore –
author, biographer, journalist, poet,
columnist, editor, dramatist, copyist,
novelist, playwright, reporter,
essayist, wordsmith, hack ––
Need I name more?

Writers write!
Unless up against the dreaded block.
They author, communicate, compose, pen,
scratch, sign, autograph, indite,
correspond, create, draft, inscribe,
note, pencil, record, scrawl ––
Scribble frantically around the clock!

The literati boast lucubration at escritoire,
manuscripts cause graphospasm,
and corpus oeuvre fill posterity’s chasm,
from palaeography to grammatology,
stenography preparing bibliography ––
Pseudonyms detected by graphology!

Whether freelance or fabulist using
nom de plumes, ghostwriters or epistolary,
thank goodness people of letters
still continue orthography.

Scriveners scribble in scriptoriums
producing poetry and prose to fascinate,
enlighten, entertain and have their say!
Words that uplift, educate –– or challenge,
even offend –– to promote a cause célèbre!

5 Ways to Rediscover or Retain Writing Mojo & Spirit…

Number 1:

Write something for fun or like me vent your frustration. Form poetry is a good place to start – maybe a limerick or two.

Current Affairs But Who Cares?

Mairi Neil

Barnaby’s no longer Deputy PM
No longer the National’s gem
But tone-deaf Tony
And Bernardi the phoney
Both agree he’s not one of them!

Meanwhile, Malcolm’s losing the polls
Trying to dodge social media trolls
Tony keeps sniping
Ol’ Barnaby’s griping
Mal’s struggling to hold the controls.

Yet, who wants Bill as the boss?
Both the left and the right are cross
Bill tried to be canny
Lying about Adani
Now Labor may face electoral loss.

Aussie politics seems such a joke
Weekly stuff ups by bloke after bloke
Time for the choice
Of a strong female voice
The glass ceiling again must be broke.

Number 2.

Keep a journal or maybe a blog – experiment with poetry, flash fiction, citizen journalism…

Searching for Words and Meaning…
Mairi Neil

In writing class
we explore language
seek living words
lively words
alive words
volume high
sentencing each other
to work it out
or perhaps not
just listen, absorb and be
explore the language
search for words
taught in childhood
read in books
overheard on the train…
volume doesn’t matter
one sentence or two
from me or you
language exploration
job description
happiness prescription
research for a living
search for meaning
out-search a life
my sentence
to teach
writing in class…

Number 3.

Make the time to read a book or see a film, visit an art gallery or a museum – it may inspire you to write a review.

Haiku Book Review by Mairi Neil

Crime and Punishment
Dostoevsky challenges
ethical nightmare

Number 4.

Be creative – sew, knit, garden, paint, take photographs – find pleasure and satisfaction in other projects and free your mind to return to writing.

Number 5.

Dance, listen to music, walk, meditate, enjoy the silence of nature.  Nurture your inner self, the words will come when you are ready and your creative energy returns.

writing quote.jpg

Good luck – and wish me luck too!

 

Writing Classes – A Wealth of Wisdom, Wistfulness, and Wellbeing…

kingstonmycityfinalcover-copy1

Why Enrol In A Writing Class?

I’m grappling with this question as I prepare lesson plans to start the new writing term. Putting myself in the shoes of prospective students. I know some of my past students are returning – they’ve already been in touch, checking dates and times with several looking forward to continuing their projects, meeting up with old friends, learning new techniques and returning to some structure to their week.

mongolian script.jpg

But why do we write?

I’ve been addicted and passionate about words and writing all my life so it’s a question I’ve often asked and been asked!

Is it a desire or need to scribble thoughts on paper, record imaginings, in a belief it is important, or fun, urgent or pleasurable – or a combination of all of these?

So many people express the desire to write and record their story ‘if they had time’ or ‘when I finish work’, ‘when the kids leave home’, or numerous other excuses. Just as many start a book and don’t finish.

And despite stating how much I love writing, I can identify with all those categories and excuses!

Maybe that’s why I love teaching writing classes – it keeps me writing, keeps me motivated and engaged, and keeps the dream of the printed word alive.

The novel may be unfinished but hundreds of stories and poems are written, shared, and published.

class anthologies 2017

Emotion, Trauma, Social Justice – Strong Motivators For Writing

A life-changing experience or strong feelings often encourage people to pick up a pen or switch on a computer. The opposite, of course, can be true – many people write from boredom. They need the adrenaline rush of exercising their imagination and writing the books they love to read!

I am always fascinated by the variety of responses to a single prompt.

Students can fill a page with characters and plot, or pluck beautiful prose from their memory, write original metaphors and similes and then weave the words into remarkable settings to immerse readers and listeners in the power of story.

Or they address and simplify concepts, share life-transforming events that speak to profound truths and touch the heart…

stretch limo.jpg

Writing Poetry And Short Stories Can Solve Dilemmas

A problem shared is a problem halved,” Mum used to say.

Sleep on it” or “take a walk and mull it over” some other good advice if a burning resentment must be exorcised,  difficult decisions faced, or a dilemma solved.

Rather than real life exposes or rants, writers can put characters in a situation, give them the problem to solve, the ethical conundrum, the family feud, the injustice to fight – work it all out on paper.

It’s useful and even therapeutic to have characters take the criticism or kudos, make the mistakes, work through the issues.

julie signing her book at launch

Many people have a need to be creative and writing may satisfy that need. You may not have the stamina to produce a novel but exploring poetry can be exceptionally satisfying and fun.

Wordplay, riddles and even returning to childhood rhymes and fairy tales and writing new ones all valid and satisfying writing projects.

Form poetry a good starting point and everything from affairs of the heart, the devastation of war, to the meaning of life can be expressed through poetry.

Writing isn’t all about entertainment or amusement nor does it have to be obscure or difficult to understand but it does have to connect with the reader in some way.

view from train between LA and San Fran 2012

Playful And Powerful – English Has A Word That Fits…

English… What’s That?
Mairi Neil

English is definitely a funny language –
funny peculiar and funny ha ha!
So many words with double meanings,
unusual spelling – can drive you ga ga!

Let’s take a word like mean,
an average word you understand,
unless like Scrooge you won’t share
or be a bully – and don’t care.

So many words that sound the same,
they’re annoying and confusing,
their meaning drastically different –
mistakes often highly amusing.

Some words sound how they look,
so clap for onomatopoeia and be glad,
but knowing phonetics doesn’t stop
those silent letters making you mad.

You can pinch a pinch of salt,
and we know a flea can flee,
that ship’s sail may be on sale –
but no way can a pea, pee.

The pale moon won’t fit in a pail,
but every tale can have a tail,
a little mite has a lot of might
and that rite may not be right.

A mayor can ride a mare,
he may stand on a stair to stare,
and eat local fare at a fair,
their jobs are always there.

Your genes may fade like jeans,
and I’ll shed a tear over a tear,
worry about the whole of a hole,
being the sole keeper of my soul.

Criticisms of English usage has weight,
when you can eat a date while on a date
and meet a terrible fate at a fete,
by discovering pâté on your pate!

A male can deliver the mail
and a hare without hair is rare,
but both can be weak for a week
if bones creak because of a creek.

And English has many phrases,
difficult for learners to understand,
like ‘pot calling the kettle black’
oh, the language is underhand!

Advice ‘from the horses’ mouth’,
‘without a shadow of a doubt’,
advises dreaded cliches to avoid –
but it’s hard weeding those phrases out.

English language confusing and amusing,
yet its richness can be rewarding –
once mastered, you’ll be addicted,
and it’s not banned or even restricted!

 

workshop board longbeach place
Henry Ford advocated lifelong learning

 

Do You Need to Write or Just Want to Set Your Imagination Free?

Kingston Seniors Festival with Mary O Rourke + Mordialloc Writers Group - Sat. 11.10.2014 (23)

I’m looking forward to the start of another teaching year. Meeting new and old students coming together to write. Each one will have their own voice and style and a dream or project.

All will be united in their love of words.

Some will write fact, others fiction.

Some will struggle with the blank page. Their words dripping like a slow-leaking tap, while the ink from the pens of others gushes like Niagara Falls.

Stories that have waited a lifetime to be written will astound, others will be fictionalised to be more palatable or easier to write.

Short story fantasies or gritty realism, profound poems or funny doggerel – all shared to inspire each other.

Passions rekindled and new passions created as genres are explored.  From comfort zone to brain challenging learning. Each class new friendships will form as we become a writing community.

The price of wellbeing rarely factored in when the beancounters in government look at community education today. It is all about being job ready or being digitally and technologically savvy.

Wellbeing, not a word to use when applying for education funding apparently.

Yet, some of the most talented writers in my classes have lived 80 years or more. They still want to learn, still want to write, and are producing wonderful stories and poems. Seeking employment and digital glory, not their highest priority!

Octogenarian
wise, retired
writing, learning, producing
lifelong learner combatting isolation
Student

They create a legacy for the next generations, they focus on writing and building new friendships for a few hours a week… forget age and ability … they have aptitude and attitude!

They’ll embrace new techniques and tools but it’s about the words, emotions and engagement.

walk in Skye

 

WHY WRITE?
Mairi Neil

A has aspirations to write a novel
B likes to play with words
C has a loveless life and seeks romance
D thinks Mills and Boon absurd
E loves family history
F reads and journals a lot
G creates settings with descriptive flair
H just loves to plot!
I preaches grammar absorbed from school
J admits to being a hopeless speller
K always suffers from writer’s block
L is an expert storyteller.
M adores purple prose
N employs similes galore
O aches to be published one day
P escapes household chores
Q uses metaphors imaginatively
R nurtures the inner child
S writes for children but libertarian
T is erotica gone wild
U is definitely a poet
V writes doggerel and verse
W fears rejection
X is tense and terse
Y dramatises everything writing  drama to entertain
and Z – well –
Z writes to understand the world – the musings society’s gain!

If You Are A Writer…

You do need to write!

So, join a class at your local community house – I’ll be at Chelsea on Mondays and Bentleigh on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

We’ll be Writing Creatively and passionately, recording Life Stories and sharing others.

Supporting each other, forever learning, observing, commenting on and enjoying life because that’s what writers do!

learning fil editing

 

Winter Inspiration – Inside or Out

 

beach in winter.JPG
Mordialloc Beach in Winter

 

Mordi Beach In Winter
Mairi Neil

A winter’s day, yet the beach is warm
sheltered from the blustery streets
the blue water of the sea is still
peaceful and calm
a mirror for Nature’s beauty.

Clouds, fluffy and soft kiss the horizon
blurring the pale yellow sun
peaceful and calm
birds glide playfully on the water,
an ice-skating rink for seagulls

the beach is almost deserted
a few hardy individuals searching
for what?
Seeking solitude as they stare out to sea
while looking inward towards soul?

In the distance, fossickers bend
searching for treasures left behind
metal detectors sweep gently
and keen eyes will shifting sands
to make their day.

Three children paddle in the sea
rolled-up trousers wet with rising damp
their pink toes tingling and wriggling
tiny teasing waves cause giggles
and footprints magically disappear.

Moored boats at the pier silent sentinels
Their masts bobbing in neat rows,
a lone tanker looms black on the horizon
lack of wind meaningless
to workhorses.

It is time to leave the sea to reclaim the sand
the children clutch a treasure of pretty shells
wet clothes are exchanged for dry
the trappings of civilisation put on feet
memories and mementoes packed away.

The children are tired from play
peaceful and calm
It has been a wonderful day.

Tomorrow is the first day of The Walking Neighbourhood at Arts Centre, Melbourne and after glorious winter days, rain has been forecast!

Seasonal Sneeze
Mairi Neil

The warm sun belies winter’s chill
Yet the calendar doesn’t lie
The first day of June in Melbourne
Is officially winter – I hear you cry.
But where are the southerly winds
Dewy grass transformed with frost,
The accumulation of bruised clouds,
Upon grey skies embossed?

Temperatures more like autumn
Blue skies reminiscent of summer
Mercurial Melbourne’s reputation
Is that of a seasonal actor.
We soak up this surprising sunlight
The delightfully warm days
Look forward to outdoor events
Dispelling winter’s malaise.

Wait! Our optimism is fleeting
The weekend promises rain
Umbrellas, scarves and coats
Will be needed once again.
Four seasons in one day
This city’s reputation after all,
Looks like we’ll be wet and shivering
While sheltering from a squall!

The seasons provide so many writing prompts and inspiration for poetry – especially form poetry. here is a Triolet.

Winter’s Whisper
Mairi Neil

Winter came a’calling today
With its bitter winds and rain
Chills no thrills; sneezes not gay
Winter came a’calling today.
Autumn debris about us lay
Squelching footsteps a sad refrain
Winter came a’calling today
With its bitter winds and rain.

 

window at NGV
water wall National Gallery of Victoria

 

Winter Blues
Mairi Neil

Tears on the windows
Melt Jack Frost’s artwork
A crackling fire
Steams clothes on the pulley
Hot broth simmers on the stove

A splatter of rain on roof tiles
Interrupts the murmuring television
As the eiderdown of white
Disappears from garden path

Slippers soaked from
Collecting the newspaper
Cradled in a pool of slush
The death throes of winter

Toasted marshmallows and
The warmth of electric blanket
Cannot banish the cold
Like a yacht adrift we wait
For spring’s balmy breeze…

Mornington beach in evening.jpg
Mornington Beach

HAIKU
Mairi Neil

Deserted barbeques
Empty swings motionless
Winter by the sea

Pool of blue rippling
Exhaling colourful buds
Life’s serene promise

Mother Nature’s arms
Always soothes and refreshes
Whispering sweet peace

Tree blossoms despite
Salty air and sparse rocky soil
Resilience plus!

Gusty gales blow boats
Forceful waves and jagged reefs
Gnashing angry teeth

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Mordialloc Winter Rhythm

Mairi Neil

In morning winter fog
a row of ghostly gum trees
Signpost the traffic

Seagulls soar skywards
tossed by winter thermals
an aerial ballet

Blackbirds and magpies trill
as morning sun
penetrates tea-tree bush

By late afternoon
at Mordialloc Pier
fishing eskies overflow

Palm trees quiver
with chattering birds
as the sun sets

The full moon’s glow
suffused across a sea
now mirror calm

 

 

A daisy a day
Emblems of Nature’s beauty
Brightens and revives

Winter’s skeleton
Hides the promise of Springtime
And the buzz of life.

Mother Nature’s arms
Always soothes and refreshes
Whispering sweet peace

Wattlebirds feasting on
flowering grevillea
wake me from deep sleep

Huddling together
In aromatic profusion
The colours of love

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Coffee for two, please
Friendship needs refills
Our regular fix

Winter Walk
Mairi Neil

Walk quickly, it’s cold
Walk quickly, be bold

The winter moon bright
On this dark wet night
Naked branches creeping
Towards skies weeping

Walk quickly, it’s cold
Walk quickly, be bold

Chill wind shivers
Gutters now rivers
Night sounds
Shadows abound

Walk quickly, it’s cold
Walk quickly, be bold

Mordialloc Parliament
Mairi Neil

A winter morn in Mordialloc
cloudless sky a washed-out blue
melting frost on grassy blades
glistening bubbles of dripping dew.

A magpie family carol and cavort
breakfasting from territory marked
the wattlebirds have departed
with harsh caws and hurried darts.

From grevillea to bottlebrush
my garden their summer home
feeding on nectar’s syrupy sweetness
until chilly winter makes them roam

This garden planted as a refuge,
a tiny oasis in suburbia’s dream
native flora to encourage fauna
so many creatures––some unseen

Showy parrots squeal and screech
their sunset songs a welcome delight,
but the proud magpies’ debutante dance
a morning joy and favourite sight.

winter tree2.JPG

Seeking Serenity

Unknown

The downside of the digital age is bad news travels more than fast – it’s instantaneous. At the moment in Australia, we have a Federal government performing poorly in so many areas that once again ‘the war on terror’ must take central place to keep us living in fear and to make an out of touch government relevant to ordinary citizens.

Unfortunately, throughout the world, there are plenty of images and stories to keep the fires of fear alight. Many stories so horrible that it’s easy to forget the majority of people in Australia live life at peace. Daily life is caring and interacting with friends and family; trying to do their best at work, home, school or play, not coping with bombs like some other countries.

There are bad people in the world, in fact, the epitome of evil judging by the horrific scenes delivered in full cinematic colour and sound to our flat-screen televisions. However, ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ is not new as this Rabbie Burns poem  often quoted by my father reveals:

‘Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And Man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

Robert Burns, From Man was made to Mourn: A Dirge, 1785

To appreciate life is not always ‘gloom and doom,’  I give my students a writing task to write about a favourite place. In the Life Stories and Legacies classes, they ponder about a place that is or was special and reflect on why. This pleasurable exercise invariably calms and reminds us life can be happy, interesting, even satisfying.

Most of us have an idyllic place we visit in our imagination, or a place precious in our heart, perhaps a childhood home or holiday. It may be a longing to visit a dream place,  the motivating thought of crossing it off our bucket list. Nostalgia or desire powerful draw-cards to provide a feeling of wellbeing, relief, and distraction.  It could be a memorable travel experience – finding your Shangri-La.

One of my favourite places is Stony Point on Western Port Bay. This quiet semi-rural coastal spot has a caravan park with 50 powered sites, but no obvious cluster of permanent houses. Popular in summer, it’s the railway terminus for anyone wanting to take a ferry across to Phillip Island (famous for its fairy penguins) and French Island with the little diesel train an oddity on the electrified Metro network.

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I’m a regular traveller to Stony Point since 2002 because my husband, John’s ashes were scattered off the pier at his request. The tide swept them far out to sea, an ideal final journey for someone ex-Royal Navy with a love of the sea. ‘I’ll be on every tide no matter where you are in the world,’ he said and this has been a great comfort to me and our daughters Anne and Mary Jane. We always head for the sea on John’s birthday and the anniversary of his death whether in Australia, USA, Canada or New Zealand… places we’ve been at those times.

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Stony Point’s a popular fishing spot, but in earlier times was the centre of communication by land and sea for the whole of Western Port. All rail and ferry traffic began and ended at Stony Point. The locals were mainly fisherman and farmers and sent their produce to distant markets by train or ferry. A prison farm on French Island and the needs of nearby HMAS Cerberus naval base meant there were government contracts. However, the closure of the prison and subsequent development of French Island and nearby towns have left Stony Point almost in a time warp.

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Tourists who stay in the caravan park can explore the whole of the Mornington Peninsula including the galleries, cycle tracks, wineries and golf courses. The three-lane boat ramp kept in excellent condition and well-used. It attracts flocks of well-fed pelicans. The birds hang around the mud flats and gutting tables until boats return. They are rarely disappointed and fight for the scraps fishermen discard. This misquoted and misattributed poem always comes to mind:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!

Dixon Lanier Merritt

I’ve taken hundreds of photographs of the pelicans, on visits to Stony Point over the years. The girls laugh at my obsession, but I find the pelicans’ behaviour entertaining, and there is something comforting about their dignified presence. I’ve captured the place in all its seasonal glory, always amazed at how little it changes.

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Although there was drama in 2004 when the Federal Government under Prime Minister John Howard decided we must be “alert not alarmed.” Security around defence establishments was increased and Stony Point changed.

As a writer, carrying my trusty pocket notebook and pen, listening and observing, I share a story from that time – a snapshot of one visit…

Journal Entry January 2004

The kiosk atop the hillock to the left of the railway station has a perfect view of pier and harbour. The dowdy dull building could do with a makeover and I wish again for the capital to give the owners an offer they can’t refuse. It would be an ideal home and income – close to the sea and John. I’m struggling with being on my own with two teenage daughters – a quiet backwater seems attractive.

I buy a cup of coffee and sit down at an outside table to soak up the serenity I crave. A whiff of Peter Jackson brings back memories of John,  a waft of white wine makes me wonder if he floats in on the tide and visits the kiosk to be re-energised.

It’s Saturday. The baby blue water reflects a brilliant cloudless sky as the weekend summer crowd builds. A  light breeze plays with the multicoloured plastic strips hanging from the doorway of the dilapidated kiosk. They’re already pushed and stretched at regular intervals making their purpose of preventing flies entering the shop irrelevant.

It’s not quite noon, but Amy, a local, sits outside on one of the half dozen outdoor table and chair sets. Dressed in summer shorts and skimpy halter-neck top, she could be mistaken for a middle-aged tourist. Crinkled skin on a too-thin neck and slim berry brown arms and legs reveal a life exposed to the sun, salt and sea. Her only encumbrances, a cigarette in one hand, and a half-full wineglass in the other.

The constant chug of boat engines competes with the chattering of noisy miner birds, interrupted at regular intervals by the rhythmic thwack-thwack, as cars trailing boats bump over the speed hump, placed with strategic significance, at the entrance to the ticket box for the carpark.

On the wooden bench beside Amy sit a couple of similar age, plus a young woman bearing such an uncanny resemblance, including her attire, that she has to be Amy’s daughter. They all hold wine glasses recently topped up from a bottle of locally produced Chardonnay now warming in the sun.

Amy sips before speaking, ‘Lil, you should’ve seen the sunrise this morning. It was liquid gold. Just pure gold, before the sky, turned orange and pink.’

‘You must’ve been up early.’

‘Yeah, the navy boat for training cadets closed off half the pier – security they say.’
The occupants of the table follow Amy’s gaze, taking in the hastily erected wire fence.

‘I reckon it was spite meself,’ said Amy, ‘ that’s why they made as much noise as the invasion of Iraq. Honestly, I bet the poor buggers in the cemetery at Crib Point sat bolt upright!’

Lil laughs. ‘What dya mean spite?’

‘Well, there’s always fights at the pub between them and the locals.’ Amy takes another sip, ‘and the muscles you get from hauling nets and sails sure beats the hell out of training that revolves around pushing buttons and tapping keyboards. Navy cadets ain’t what they used to be Lil – not like when we were young.’

Lil blushes, twists her wedding ring, looks at the man sitting beside her. The fifty-something bloke with leathery skin and balding head stares at the pier oblivious to the banter. His deep voice almost a growl. ‘Not many fishing today… the locals are usually spread along both sides of the pier.’

The relaxed group follow his gaze as a ribbon of cars hauling boats, arrive and park. The kiosk a backstop if the anglers have forgotten some item of food or bait, but most are self-sufficient. Liquid to celebrate a good catch or lament a bad one stashed in Eskies amid layers of crushed ice.

Amy sips her wine looking pensive. ‘Word is Ted that they’re gonna erect a permanent wire fence so locals won’t get access to the left side of the pier at all.’

Ted shrugs. ‘Well, it does belong to the Feds. The Port Authority just enforces policy.’

Lil’s slate grey eyes have been following the stream of cars in and out of the carpark by the jetty. Her voice is sharp, ‘Always has done and no-one bothers, Ted. So why make a big deal now? My family’s fished here for years. Everyone knows the best elephant fish and salmon are bagged from that side.’

Amy snorts. ‘It’s all that war on terror stuff,’ she shakes her cloud of red-dyed curls and rolls blue eyes skywards, ‘as if terrorists could be bothered blowing up anything here.’

Lil’s indignation flames her cheeks. ‘HMAS Cerberus is at Crib Point, and the oil refinery, fractional plant, liquid petroleum and ethane gas plant and a crude oil shipping plant – every bloody plant except the kind that will actually keep us breathing!’

She empties her glass with a gulp, ‘the security fences should be a few miles up the road if they’re serious. They only man this depot here during the week.’

The young woman smirks. ‘Maybe we can ask Al Qaida operatives to work to union rules and only attack 9 to 5, Monday to Friday?’

Ted is not amused. ‘They might do it just for the helluvit – we supported the Yanks blowing up Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. The whole point of terrorism is to be unpredictable and strike fear into ordinary people. To disrupt and cause panic…’

Lil places a placating hand on Ted’s hairy arm; her voice much calmer, ‘Okay Love, we don’t need a lecture. It’s too nice a day to worry about the war on terror.’

The persistent whine of a boat engine draws eyes seaward before Ted notices the source and points over to the far right. ‘Look at the yachts beyond that motorboat, not often you see yachts down here.’

Amy holds her hand above her eyes to deflect the glare of sunlight. ‘It’s sheltered here. I often get phone calls asking what the weather is like from people who are further up the coast. Mainly from Yaringa, that lovely boat harbour to the top of us.’

She lights another cigarette and takes a long drag. ‘Did you see in the paper a guy on a jet ski was fined for harassing dolphins? Another guy comes down with a hovercraft and goes over the mudflats – you should hear the noise that makes.’

Ted’s voice a grumble, ‘ Probably looking for abalone, the illegal trade will wipe out locals. Bet there’s divers on that yacht and they won’t stop at 5 bags.’

‘Mmm, the most delicious shellfish you’ll ever taste,’ said Lil, licking her lips.

Amy sucks at her smoke, ‘Abalone? Shell useful too, you know. They’re pearl shells,’ she stubs out her cigarette, ‘you can use them as an ashtray like this one.’

Lil’s expression suggests she can taste abalone right now. ‘You know if you are cooking Chinese stirfry cut it against the grain like you’d do meat. Don’t beat it, just dip it in breadcrumbs and egg, then drop in hot oil for a few seconds. Oh, it is beautiful!’

Sunlight bounces off the gleaming glasses, dances on the table, Amy’s silver rings and bangles shooting rays like spears. All eyes focus on several groups fishing at the pier. Families, father and son couples, mate duos, primary school children alongside teenagers, lone anglers. Mesmerised they appear to have run out of conversation. The war on terror may be headlines in the newspapers but is remote here.

Meanwhile, residents of the small fishing village use the kiosk as a backstop, a pick-up point for newspapers or the place to keep up with local gossip. Visitors to the adjacent Caravan Park or local fishermen collect the latest government circular, frequent the sandwich bar or perhaps buy the ubiquitous microwavable packaged pie and sausage roll.

Day-trippers, like me, from Melbourne, off-loaded at the terminus by the old-fashioned diesel train, sit at the tables beneath shady orange and red flowering grevilleas, sipping hot drinks from polystyrene cups or cold drinks from glass bottles or tins. We read the complimentary paper and tourist brochures or contemplate the surprising mellowness of this backwater until it is time to either catch the ferry to French or Phillip Islands or return on the train.

 I walk toward the pier. The tide is coming in with speed now and the water gurgles and glubs as it slaps against the pier pylons. I drop a sprig of rosemary and a strand of lavender into the water and whisper, ‘for you my love, memories of home. We’re doing all right.’

the flowers float from the pier

I feast on the glorious vista of the sea and islands beyond. This oasis of calm embedded in my heart. Worries dissipate and I know I’ve told John the truth – despite life’s upheavals, despite all the madness in the world, we are fortunate and doing all right!

I walk back towards the train station snatching a final look at the sea, sand and endless horizon. In a few hours, I’ll be back in the fray trying to make a difference, being bombarded by shocking news and reminding myself there is a place of serenity!

Carol always remembers
For 10 years on the anniversary of John’s death, Carol, who was the local florist and a close friend left 3 roses on our doorstep.

Alphabet Wordplay and A Blessing of Unicorns.

An International Exposition of Wordplay

For all the efforts of purists like Johnson to defend it, the language is incomparably flexible. It is like molten glass: you can stretch it, shape it, chop it, misspell, mispronounce or misinflect it, cruelly misplace its elements and somehow you still end with English. It’s a fun tongue.

The British Council is about to send an exhibition, under the title of “Wordplay”, on just that theme for four years around Eastern Europe. It is backed by The Economist–what is the Czech for “blowing your own trumpet”?–and fun it is, full of puns and palin­dromes, dialects, jargon, simplicity and pomp, cliches, metaphors, oddities, inventions (Bernard Shaw’s famous spelling of “fish – ­ghoti, with gh as in cough, 0 as in women and ti as in -tion–is only just beyond the bounds of the possible). No one, maybe, will learn to write a better computer manual from this exhibition; anyone who does not profit from it, be he as English as Johnson, must be a dull stick. Or, if you prefer nowspeak, a lamebrain.

The Economist, 23 Oct 1993

Just as the quote explains, English is a fun and flexible language and as a writer, I love exploring the different ways you can tell a story, or write about an experience.

Alphabet poems have been around a long time and can be a fun form to try. Often associated with children’s writing, or writing for children, it can be a good tool for adults too. Here is another site with examples of poetry, including alphabet poems and below is a poem I wrote many years ago when I started teaching at Sandybeach Centre.  I used it to introduce the class anthology produced at the end of the year.

WHY WRITE?

What motivates people to put pen to paper? In writers’ groups and creative writing classes, people reveal much more than words…

A has aspirations to write a novel
B likes to play with words
C has a loveless life and seeks romance
D thinks Mills and Boon absurd
E loves family history
F reads and journals a lot
G creates settings with descriptive flair
H just loves to plot!
I preaches grammar absorbed from school
J admits to being a hopeless speller
K always suffers from writer’s block
L is an expert storyteller.
M adores purple prose
N employs similes galore
O aches to be published one day
P escapes household chores
Q uses metaphors imaginatively
R nurtures the inner child
S writes for children, but is libertarian
T is erotica gone wild
U is definitely a poet
V writes doggerel and verse
W fears rejection
X is tense and terse
Y dramatises everything producing performance pieces to entertain
and Z – well –
Z writes to understand the world – the musings society’s gain!

Mairi Neil 2002

The poem by Australian Bruce Dawe that inspired me to use the alphabet is a lot grittier because it’s about prison life.

Behind the walls

the walls begin,
behind the bars
are bars
A can make a knife of tin
B can cut out stars
C can get you what you want
a needle, drink or smoke
D can laugh through broken teeth
E can tell a joke
F can fake a heart-attack
G can throw a fit
H can write a letter home
as quick as you can spit
I can con the chaplain
J can con the con
K will know someone to ask
just where your wife has gone
L can keep an eye out
M can pass the word
N can hear the gospel truth
and then forget he heard
O will know which warder
can be got at – and the price
P will offer nothing
but a lot of free advice
Q will want no part of it
R will not be told
S will roll a cigarette
and shudder with the cold
T will hum a lonely tune
U will turn his back
V will lie as still as death
W will crack
X will read his bible
day by holy day
Y with eyes like torches
will burn the bars away

and Z, poor Z, will think the walls
must end where they begin
and that a man, outside, will be
the same as he went in.

Bruce Dawe

Please explore Bruce Dawe’s poetry – he writes about ordinary people facing the everyday. However, his use of poetic techniques makes his poems resonate. They are emotionally engaging and memorable – what more can a poet ask?

Although often used to encourage children to write, I’ve found students in my adult writing classes have a lot of fun with form poetry and having a set structure can encourage the creative juices to flow.  I certainly enjoy the challenge and always write when my students are writing! A lesson I prepared about Acrostic poetry and some of my other poems can be found in Celebrating Poetry: 2014 Poetry Anthology, by Karenzo Media.

I decided to use the alphabet form to describe a wonderful experience I had this year when I went to Sydney with my daughter and experienced my first Oz Comic Con. It was a different way to write about the experience!

The glimpse into a world I had heard my daughters and others talk about, but didn’t really appreciate, an amazing weekend. A world where cosplay lets everyone dress as their fantasy character regardless of gender, race, body build or age. A world of tolerant people who know how to enjoy themselves without hurting others, or themselves, and where there are activities for all the family. I expect for those into popular culture, attendance is deemed compulsory. As a writer/observer there are a hundred stories jumping at you – even as you queue to enter the convention hall.

We flew to Sydney, stayed in a backpacker hostel, and walked to catch the ferry across to Glebe Island where the convention was held. The return ferry trip each day across Sydney harbour a delight, especially at night when the harbour lights twinkled and reflected on the water.

A Blessing of Unicorns

At Glebe Island Sydney on a weekend in September, Comic-Con 2014 was held.

Because my daughter, Mary Jane wanted to attend, I went along for the ride, courtesy of a cheap flight on Tiger Airways.

Celebrities from popular culture such as: films, television, web shows, Anime, Manga, and conventional comic books, attend every year to entertain fans at forums.

Day one, on the Saturday was manic with hundreds of excited attendees queuing to be inside where stalls loaded with merchandise beckoned, plus the possibility of bumping into favourite actors.

Excitement and enthusiasm bubbled; laughter and loud cheerful conversations bouncing off the concrete walls and echoing around the cavernous entrance area.

Friendliness and good humour everywhere despite the wait for the gates to open.

Good vibes from the participants, stallholders, and a host of volunteers with wide smiles and bright green t-shirts created amazing energy reminiscent of childhood anticipation of Christmas or birthdays.

How some of the people squeezed into their costumes a mystery, as was the effort and ingenuity so many displayed to create accurate depictions of their heroes.

I have never seen such an array of characters with so many different interpretations; the cosplay truly remarkable and I could see why Mary Jane found the event attractive.

Just when I thought a character too outrageous or too magnificent to beat, another super hero, or comic book character appeared and my camera worked overtime.

Knights in shining armour, fairytale princesses, royalty galore walking the aisles, their servants, guards and army captains from various historical periods or fantasy worlds, following close behind.

Loki from The Avengers came in different genders as well as all shapes and sizes, as did several other easily identifiable legends.

Marvel Comics have spawned a number of super heroes and villains, their readership spanning generations as well as decades;  their inspiration and influence evident everywhere.

No two costumes looked alike, even if the person inside cosplayed Batman or Wonder Woman.

Over and over again, I witnessed the generosity of those dressed up, as they patiently posed for photographs or shared facts about who they represented, and how their costumes were made.

Photos were available with celebrities too – at a price – William Shatner and Orlando Bloom the most expensive, but generally prices started at $30 upwards to $100.

Queues for tokens to meet the celebrities and for photographs could be lengthy and take up to an hour or more, however fan dedication knows no bounds and manifested in good humour and patience.

Remembering my childhood fantasies, I recognised some of the characters, but as queens and kings roamed the centre, their regal bearing clearing all before them, I struggled to name many, especially the cast of the popular Game of Thrones.

Some characters of course were interpretations and adaptations from literary books that have now become comics, films or graphic novels.

Transformation an obvious theme because cosplay is ideal for shy or introverted people to act out their fantasies or face their internal demons by pretending to be another persona.

Underneath lycra, cotton vests, an array of wigs and headgear, cardboard shields and other paraphernalia, anxieties and feelings of inadequacy disappear.

Various incidents of kindness and courtesy marked the convention too, whether it was people sharing knowledge, helping repair a costume, or saving a place in the many lengthy queues.

Witches and wizards, from Maleficent to Harry Potter, mixed happily at lunchtime; a mutual admiration society gathering around tables sharing pizza slices and sandwiches.

X-rated costumes were few because it is a family convention, although female super heroes in comics and graphic novels have trademark sexiness, and many aspiring lookalikes flashed the flesh.

Young and old, fat or thin, all displayed the same enthusiasm with whole families dressed as the crew from Star Trek, Game of Thrones, the Hobbit, Unhappily Everafter, Guardians of the Galaxy, Firefly, Serenity and numerous other fantasy families.

Zany behaviour perfectly acceptable at these conventions with people indulging in outrageous poses and play-acting, leaving an indelible impression of tolerance, harmony and acceptance of difference and I ponder how truly blessed I am to have been part of Oz Comic-Con 2014.

Mairi Neil 2014

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