Lockdown Extended – Effort Required to Unlock Creativity & Return to Writing!

McDonald Street Oval Mordialloc

Day Twenty – Facing Failures Aplenty

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!

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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.”

T.S. Eliot

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:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and return
  5. Rebirth
  6. Comedy
  7. Tragedy

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

wordplay

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:

  • Dinosaur    Poop
  • Banana    Ball
  • Dog    Stick
  • Bed    Chief
  • Circle    Tongue
  • Eyes    Rocket
  • Guitar    Nut
  • Diamond    Drum
  • Compass    Ship
  • Horse     Punch

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.

For example:

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

man bites dog

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…

  1. Nude, Tsar, model, sheds, tells on, 340lb, wanted
  2. Star, lost, cruel, banker, attacks, saves, hits
  3. Exclusive, Feds, burns, secretary, lady, nun, intern
  4. Dog, snubs, blasts, nurse, sues, wife, blames
  5. Convict, stabs, first, teen, indicted, rare, weeps for
  6. Tot, shoots, mourns, actor, defends, hero,  mystery
  7. Doc, tricks, heiress, beauty, weds, nails, suspect,
  8. Thug, devoted, dumps, strikes, jewels, B’way, Prez
  9. Judge, lover, tourist, missing, crooked, falls for, angry
  10. Blonde, lawyer, D.A., rips off, Navy, vaccine, romantic

Missing Tourist the Lover of Crooked Judge

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 and storymatic

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:

  1. You, Spring, the object that doesn’t want to get thrown away, laundry
  2. Brother or sister, Autumn, reading material, the natural world
  3. Grandparent, Night, restaurant, how love was expressed
  4. Parent, Work, breaking the law, sports event
  5. Friend or cousin, School, storm, stood out from the rest
  6. You, Winter, money for nothing, patience
  7. Brother or sister, Summer, when they were happiest, birthday
  8. Grandparent, Winter, what the handwriting was like, hobby
  9. Parent, Night, rejection, where people gather in silence
  10. 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.

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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.

© 2016

** Mizpah pieces were exchanged as sentimental tokens of affection, some of which even contained a verse from the Bible.

old photo albums

The Photograph Album
Mairi Neil

I find as I grow older,
I hark back to the past
Treasuring those old photographs
Placed in albums made to last.

Behind the plastic-coated pages
Like a novel, Life unfolds
People good, bad – events happy, sad
Memories unearthed like gold.

Other photographs discovered
Stir bittersweet thoughts, I find
And clearly etched like scars
Details easily spring to mind

Where is he now, I wonder,
Does he regret abandoning me?
Did freedom turn out as planned?
Does he drift in the Sargasso Sea?

Forgotten people, forgotten heartaches
‘Remembering’ not always what it seems
If life had taken a different path …
Time stood still perhaps…

Another blurred photo comes into focus

–– what if I had followed that dream?

© 2016

Happy Writing

And stay home, stay safe and stay well!

Poetry and Prose Lets You Still Smell The Rose

roses canberra

Day Nineteen – Write so Readers Smell the Scene

Our sense of smell can do more to revive a memory than other senses and yet it is often a sense writers forget to include. Whether you are writing about indoors or outdoors remembering to include a smell will enrich the scene for the reader.

How often have you caught a whiff of perfume or food cooking and you are reminded of someone or transported to a place in memory?

Many smells are accompanied by a particular taste – sour or sweet, bland or tangy, ‘to die for’ or vomit-inducing… the experience for the reader can be visceral.

Senses empower limitations, senses expand vision within borders, senses promote understanding through pleasure. 

Dejan Stojanovic

A Lesson On Smell

Whenever we had a lesson to encourage the inclusion of smell in writing, I’d ask for suggestions and the student responses often overlapped because certain pungent smells stick in everyone’s mind.

However, the more we wracked our memories ‘to be different’ or recall what made an impression, the list grew – maybe you can add to this collection from a variety of classes:

  • The strong odour of our pets – dogs, cats, reptiles.
  • Gardens enlivened by rosemary, lavender, geraniums
  • Special perfumes – Estee Lauder, Chanel, Christina Ricci…
  • Working as a nurse in hospitals/nursing homes/clinics – the smell of disinfectant, anaesthetics, lotions and creams
  • The perspiration and sweat of fellow teammates playing a sport, the smell of lovers, of commuters, workmates, sweaty feet, old sneakers, shoe polish
  • Fresh country air, honeysuckle in hedges and cow pats in the fields
  • Lilacs and lily of the valley and roses, Daphnes – flowers with a redolence that lingers
  • The smell of the sea, seaweed, tea-tree bushes, rotting fish
  • Steam train smoke, fires burning red gum logs, barbecue and campfire smoke
  • New car smell, leather upholstery, new carpet smell, polished furniture
  • The smell of freshly turned soil, padded down straw in chicken coops, horse manure
  • Foul-smelling tanneries, abattoirs, processing sheep gut, rotting flesh, rotten meat, sour milk, vomit,
  • Antiseptic like Fennel, Dettol, bleach, ammonia, outdoor toilets, raw sewage
  • Chocolate and sweet shops, jam being cooked, baked bread,
  • Mustiness and the dank smell of cellars, caves, old, buildings
  • Dry and decaying wood – the smell of death, animal and human urine
  • Mowed grass, the eucalypts and other trees, dead flowers
  • Fish and cod liver oil, garlic, onion – many different spices
  • Whisky, rum, beer, cordial, coffee, cocoa, tea…

selection of flowers.jpg

Flowers are always a favourite and easy to include in a poem or story because they are found inside as well as outside. Every season has some shrub flowering and pot plants or cut flowers in vases are common whether on balconies or dining tables.

And what if you had no sense of smell?  People can lose it after an illness or injury. At the moment while we fight COVID19, some people are saying their sense of smell and taste are not only affected but don’t fully return once they recover from the virus.

How frustrated and disappointed would you be if unable to smell fresh coffee or baking bread?

It might be dangerous if you can’t smell because sometimes a bad smell is the first sign of danger like a gas or petrol leak.

A student who was a carpet layer said if he didn’t have a sense of smell he’d be more cautious because many of the old carpets he had to remove have animal and human urine stains and other nasties. 

You might have to rely more on the reaction of other people. Think about this if you give a character either no sense of smell or keenly developed olfactory glands. 

A Sense of Smell
Mairi Neil

If I lost my sense of smell
how could I tell
when dinner was ready or
when the dog needed a bath
I’d have to watch visitors up close
for signs of irritated eyes and nose

No memorable scents of changing seasons
to uplift and linger…
spring jasmine
honeysuckle summer
autumn lavender
winter rosemary massaged between fingers.

A walk by the sea to enliven senses
without salty air
could lead to despair
I’d drift disengaged
like floundered fish or discarded shells
without those pungent seaweed smells.

No comfort at home
from the smell of fresh sheets
and clothes newly laundered
no thrill of familiarity from a lover’s body
or distinctive perfume tied like shoelaces
to family, friends, and favourite places.

Gone the delight of visiting the lolly shop
to choose a special treat for the movies
or sniffing freshly baked bread and brewed coffee
and of course, the milky delight of newborn babies
shampooed hair and soft moisturised skin
the list is endless once you begin…

On the other hand
life could be grand
without smelly feet or rancid meat
no dog poo or stinky loo
no foul smells to make the nose twitch
oh, how I wish for an on and off switch!

© 2012

‘There should be an invention that bottles up a memory like a perfume, and it never faded, never got stale, and whenever I wanted to I could uncork the bottle, and live the memory all over again.’

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

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“When you write the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen!(origin unknown but quoted by Gurbaksh Chahal, Huffington Post)

Who Attends Life Story Classes?

In Life Stories Class, for three hours, students write, discuss, chat, laugh and cry, sharing experiences, memories, opinions, dreams and reflections.

  • Most classes vary in age but one class the students spanned 9 decades of living.
  • Families can be traced to colonial times or have arrived with the waves of migrants after WW2. For some English is a second language, others wish they still knew a language or culture that is lost.
  • Some have never married, others are divorced or widowed, some childless, others have children and grandchildren.
  • Some write about ancestors, immediate family, friends, ourselves, the joys and tragedies.
  • Some write prose and poetry, essays and anecdotes, flowery descriptions or minimal words.
  • Some learn how to craft the stories to include the senses, dialogue, humour or pathos.
  • We all remind ourselves how we felt, what we feel now, what we want others to know.

We gift of ourselves as we gift our words, nurturing each other, supporting each other – and most importantly, we have fun!

Here is a list that I give students and ask them to write at least a paragraph of what the smell means to them – later they are asked to expand at least two into a personal essay.

Try it – you are relying on your memory here, you don’t have to break lockdown and go outside. Many of the smells may be found inside your home or garden shed!

Think about the smells – is the smell sweet like perfume, or stinky like sewage, faint or strong, current or in the distant past? What person, place or event does it revive or what character and story can you create?

  1. pine needles
    cut grass
    Sunscreen
    eucalyptus
    rubbing alcohol
    cinnamon
    stale beer
    pencil erasers
    vinegar
    newly-vacuumed carpet
    orange peel
    radiators heating up
    mothballs
    fish – oysters
    a new car
  2. frying bacon
    damp paper
    shoe polish
    paint
    perfume
    petrol
    kerosene
    furniture polish
    floor wax
    BBQ – meat or onions
    roast or curry,
    stewed apples
    baked pie
    fresh bread
    seaweed
  3. soap
    lavender
    roses
    rosemary
    lemon
    blood
    burning
    cigarettes
    pipe smoke
    disinfectant
    nail polish/acetone
    jam cooking
    anaesthetic

Here is a piece I was triggered to write in class Letter from 17-year-old self by Mairi Neil   You might guess what smell by this old photo:

in my smoking days.jpg

Here is a mindmap template you can download for a bit of brainstorming: sensory image and language mind map

Writing Exercise 1:

  • What person, place or event do the smells revive or what character and fictional story can you create?
  • What about writing a poem –  choose one word/smell to write about – fill your white page with associations with the smell you have chosen.
  • write about morning or evening smells The Smell of Morning, 448 words by Mairi Neil

Writing Exercise 2:

List the smells you associate with a particular season:

  • The smells of summer
  • The smells of autumn
  • The smells of winter
  • The smells of spring

Now weave some of them into a story or poem…

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces us to the Buchanans in early summer. He emphasises the breeze blowing through the room, billowing the curtains and the women’s dresses. Later, the same characters are seated in the same place in the heat of summer as weighted down, dispirited, languid.

The story has progressed and so have the characters but he connects them to the place and reveals how they have changed through the weather/season – they are no longer bright, breezy and carefree. Circumstances have changed and so have they and their earlier energy no longer on show.

He has added balance and unity to both character and story.

In their magazine a long time ago, the Victorian Writers’ Centre used to publish a writing prompt for members to practice their craft. I think there was a prize of reduced membership – not sure. I never submitted a story just used the exercise as a bit of fun.

This one had to be exactly 250 words about a ghost haunting a Georgian mansion in Southern Ireland, the visitations always accompanied by a foul smell.

The Truth Stinks
Mairi Neil

The cottage door burst open and several burly members of the local constabulary filled the room. Seamous O’Flaherty blanched with fear.

‘Ye murdering swine,’ barked Sergeant O’Neill, ‘we found your dagger outside the big house, still dripping wit poor William O’Malley’s blood.’

O’Flaherty crouched against the wall of his tumbledown cottage pleading for his life. O’Malley had been the Head Gamekeeper for George Thomas, the English aristocrat who owned half of Kiltmargh in County Mayo and the rights to land with the best game and fish. O’Malley and O’Flaherty often hurled abuse at each other after a few ales in their local.

‘Yerve got the wrong man,’ Seamous whined, ‘lots of poachers use the same kind of knife!’

‘We know ‘tis yours,’ sneered the Sergeant.

‘I’m innocent, please listen. Let me go!’  The constables ignored his pleas and hauled snivelling Seamous into the police wagon.  The rough justice continued, until within the hour, Seamous hung from the rafters of the stables nestled in the shadow of the Thomas family’s Georgian mansion.

If the indignity of such an ignominious death was not enough, the vigilante executioners had dragged Seamous through a pile of fresh horse manure before stringing him up.

On October 31st each year, on the anniversary of that terrible night, Seamous returns searching for evidence to prove his innocence. His visitations are always accompanied by a foul smell, earning him the nickname of the farting ghost.

It appears in death as in life, poor Seamous O’Flaherty stands wrongfully accused!

© 2000

Writing Exercises From Photo Prompts 

A marvellous little book compiled by Michael Marland called Pictures For Writing, published in 1996 by Blackie & Son Ltd, Glasgow and London proved a godsend in early days of teaching.

I used it a lot when I started teaching almost full-time at Sandybeach Centre and Mordialloc neighbourhood House after John died.  Here are two photographs that may spark a story. Remember to introduce smells or a smell:

three girls by shore

fighting bushfire

The bushfire picture is definitely topical as far as those living in Australia are concerned – I’m sure there will be plenty of stories, novels and poems featuring the catastrophic summer we have lived through. Tragedy compounded now by COVID 19.

Here is a short story I wrote in the last class we had for the year inspired by the summer bushfires, Bushfire Blues by Mairi Neil  

Bush On Fire
Mairi Neil
(written after Black Saturday)

The sun is dulled by a veil of cloud
animals culled, Mother Nature a shroud
This defeated giver of life so dear
a dried-up river with power unclear
a red threat creeping, gathering power
creatures weeping, air rancid and sour
It dances with glee destroying with ease
devours blade and bush its direction a tease
whipped and encouraged by wind’s collusion
fiery menace forages and causes confusion
until the sun’s conscience explodes and
a large nimbostratus cloud reveals worth
the life-saving rain soaks the scorched earth.

© 2009

More Writing Exercises

  • You return to the house where you grew up, only to learn it has been condemned.
  • Why I love the smell of …
  • Why I hate the smell of …
  • Two characters are lost in the woods or the mountains – they have to survive overnight before rescue.
  • Write a story, essay or poem using the following title: Yesterday’s Coffee, Sunsets will never be the same again or Unforgettable or The worst mess I ever had to clean up
  • What comes after this opening sentence:
  1. Why is this on the front porch?
  2. I’ve got to get out of these clothes—fast.
  3. If you want to annoy me, just

We have read stories about paparazzi haunting the alleyways and snapping celebrities putting the rubbish out, and stalkers going through bins.

Did you know the City of Kingston do spot checks of bins to ensure people are recycling properly and putting the appropriate rubbish in the right bins? Apparently, you’ll get a note to improve or a sticker to say well done.

Writing Exercises:

  • If someone inspected your rubbish bin – or recycling bin – what could they surmise about you – would they be mistaken?
  • Do you have a favourite celebrity (or one you don’t like) what do you think they’d have in their trash worth writing about?
  • Write about someone who takes shelter. What is the most dominant smell and why should it matter? (Think bus shelters, doorways, under a table, in a foxhole, in someone’s arms, in a church, in a cave …)

Two Quotes For Inspiration

This one is particularly relevant considering the disastrous economic consequences of the current lockdown because of COVID 19 and the pain many people are experiencing with social-distancing and isolation:

The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.

Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” 

Kurt Vonnegut

and from another successful writer:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. 

Stephen King

As always – feel free to share the post and ideas, or any work you’ve been inspired to write:)

Happy Writing

Seasonal Changes Can Inspire Us All To Write

st kilda statue in gardens

Day Seventeen – Melburnians Ditch the Sunscreen

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
vibrant flowers
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
remembering sacrifice
Easter story and ANZAC
Love and hope the best human qualities

© 2013

Exercise 1:

  • 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,

bird in backyard Mordialloc

Other parts of the world are heralding spring and as I discovered when I visited Siberia in 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!

samoan-survivial-kit-insect-repellent-sunblock-water-fan-and-a-cool-sarong

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.

Exercise 2:

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
crushed underfoot

Tranquil and silent
old men hushed
as blossoms on ground

Children play peek-a-boo
mothers ponder
the change in the wind

Vibrant colours everywhere
blossoms float and fall
brightening my day

download.jpg

 

Seasonal Snippets

Exercise 3:

  • What is your favourite season?
  • Why?
  • What season do you dislike?
  • Why?
  • Write a short story so we know what season it is but don’t mention the name of the season

Here is an effort I wrote in class a few years ago The Luck of The Irish by Mairi Neil.

Exercise 4:

  • Have you an opinion about changing the clocks?
  • 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?

Exercise 5:

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.

  • frost, grey, drizzle, crowded, pause, research, lifeless, overheard, swirl, honey
  • flap, dreamy, duty, pondered, valley, obscure, spectacle, scrumptious, harvest, wax
  • wildflowers, whispers, forest, starlight, misted, map, fireplace, trail, tumbling, butterfly
  • umbrella, breezy, peaceful, sandals, cascade, seashells, glance, waves, dolphin, silver

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.

© 2014

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 Sprummer challenging 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.

Djilba (Sprinter) – Aug-Sep
Kambarang (Sprummer) – Oct-Nov
Birak-Bunnuru (Summer) – Dec-Mar
Djeran (Autumn) – Apr-May
Makuru (Winter) – Jun-Jul

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.

Exercise 6:

  • 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…

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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:

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The Fall of 2016
Mairi Neil

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
fanciful names…
Rickshaw red
Obstinate orange
Spiced cinnamon
Frog Pond green
Golden treasure
Moroccan sunset
Chile sunrise…

But like Wall Street’s
soulless stock surprises
and the rust belt of America’s
presidential choice,
winter winds bluster
sweeping lonely leaves loose…
Colours crunched to mush

Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Intoned                      endured
until Mother Nature’s miracle
rebirths Earth…

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.

Vaclav Havel,playwright and former Czech Republic President 

Here is a short story Spring has Sprung by Mairi Neil

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!

© 2017

lone magpie

Happy Writing!

It’s hard to Build a Frame of Mind for Writing – Seek Support and Encouragement

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Day Fourteen – Do you still have a blank screen?

For many writers, it’s difficult to make an initial start on a project – to find the words for that first sentence or paragraph.

When a global crisis strikes we’ve just multiplied our difficulties and anxiety a thousandfold!

But as the quote above emphasises unless you start, you can’t shape your idea into the story, poem, play, script, or novel that is inside waiting to be shared.

It’s important to know that all writers – even the ones with published best sellers – struggle at times to write or to write to a standard they’ve set for themselves. They too will be struggling with the consequences of COVID19 as various dramas play out.

We are all learning that human beings, regardless of who you are or where you live, are in this crisis together.

Fortunately, the World Wide Web is literally bursting with creative people sharing their skills and ideas. There is heaps of advice and encouragement suggesting activities.

But if you are isolated alone and depressed, or sharing a house with little privacy, motivation and serenity hard to muster.

Supporting each other and giving positive, critical feedback on a piece of writing is important. Just as important as being prepared to rewrite and edit your writing. Published writers have professional editors to offer support and feedback but for the majority of writers, support is found in understanding friends, writing groups and writing classes.

I look out my window onto a street normally packed with the cars of commuters, workers and visitors to the Aged Care Centre and also U3A attendees – Kingston U3A classes held a block away. Many workplaces are in lockdown and so are U3A classes, along with classes at community houses, schools, colleges…

Writers and those dreaming of being writers have lost their physical support and the important interaction, feedback and inspiration from face to face contact.

Write from memory?

Sore Feet and Soaring Thoughts – a haibun
Mairi Neil

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

Shuffling slippered feet
walker wheels squeak and sticks tap
dull pleated skirts flap…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For all those finding their writing life interrupted and those new to writing, or using it as therapy, fun, a way to ease the boredom of life in isolation because of COVID9, I suggest you pick up a pen and write whatever comes to mind.

  • Write in response to prompts I’ve posted – not just since COVID19 disrupted our world but there are many posts with suggestions and ideas – just search or flick through the posts.
  • Write whenever a picture, comment, sound, smell triggers a memory or idea – sometimes a walk through your house will do this.
  • Where did you buy that painting? Why? Imagine yourself inside the painting looking out…
  • When and where was that photograph taken? Why? Can you describe the preparation, the occasion … is there something or someone missing?
  • Write a story or anecdote a friend or relative told you
  • Can you remember the funniest story you ever heard? What about the one that revealed life is stranger than fiction? The story you introduce by saying ‘you wouldn’t read about it…’
  • Write whatever you feel like venting about today
  • Write a list of what you have to celebrate
  • Record how you and your friends are coping with the forced isolation and all the conflicting news stories and advice
  • Jot down ideas, lists of observations and descriptions for characters you might use, overheard conversations, remembered dreams, absurd thoughts… all will come in handy when you feel up to writing or have that ‘place of one’s own’ to write.
  • Write a letter or email to a friend you haven’t heard from for a while or start regular correspondence with a friend or relative
  • Send Easter cards, postcards or letters to people you used to catch up with, or in lieu of whatever you used to do at Easter time
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keeping a record of ideas a gift to yourself

Writers Do Need To Write – We Are Society’s Storytellers & Storykeepers

Human beings can’t live without the illusion of meaning, the apprehension of confluence, the endless debate concerning the fault in the stars or in ourselves. The writer is just the messenger, the moving target.

Inside culture, the writer is the talking self.

Through history, the writing that lasts is the whisper of conscience. The guild of writers is essentially a medieval guild existing in a continual Dark Age, shaman, monks, witches, nuns, working in isolation, playing with fire.



When the first illuminated manuscripts were created, few people could read. Now that people are bombarded with image and information and the World Wide Web is an open vein, few people can read.

Reading with sustained attention, reading for understanding, reading to cut through random meaninglessness – such reading becomes a subversive act. The writer’s first affinity is not to a loyalty, a tradition, a morality, a religion, but to life itself, and to its representation in language.

Ego enters in, but writing is far too hard and solitary to be sustained by ego. The writer is compelled to write. The writer writes for love. The writer lives in spiritual debt to language, the gold key in the palm of meaning. Awake, asleep, in every moment of being, the writer stands at the gate.



The gate may open.


The gate may not.


Regardless, the writer can see straight through it.

Edmond Jabès

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Writing Activities To Try Today

MOOD

It was a dark and stormy night’ may be cliched but it is a good example of setting the mood straight away!

  • The MOOD is the created atmosphere or context of your story.

Films set the mood by lighting, sound effects, selected music and the tone and delivery of the actors’ dialogue and actions.

In poetry and prose, writers must rely on the words we use – we must choose the right phrases to paint the scene and create the mood.

By considering the theme and purpose of your story you can determine the mood that will engage the reader:

Sombre, light-hearted, otherworldly, comical, sacred, upbeat, depressing, scary, angry…

  • The PLOT is the sequence of events that happen, the THEME is the underlying thread that connects all of these things.

A theme is what gives a particular work its depth, texture, and meaning.

To remember the difference between plot and theme, author Colin Thiele offers this advice:

A plot is what the book is about. The theme is what the book is really about.”

Points to consider

  • Who is your audience and what do you want to tell them?
  • What effect do you want your words to have on the reader?
  • What word choice will make your work spooky, suspenseful, comical, touching or inspiring…

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Your Turn

Set the mood in the first paragraph and write on the theme of friendship or sacrifice
For example:

  • To have a friend you must be a friend
  • Life is a series of ups and downs

During this catastrophic global crisis – the big picture – there are examples of countries helping each other with medical supplies and workers. There are also many closed borders. What stories can you write about the positives and negatives of borders… narrow it down to the effect on one or two people – lovers separated, families stranded, strangers showing kindness…

Everywhere communities are rejigging how they do things – daily activities turned upside down, new habits formed, a greater awareness of what is important, what are necessities, luxuries, privileges…

  • Scientists sharing knowledge
  • Sudden job loss, facing ill-health, separations but also new friends, hobbies, activities…

Create a character or write from a personal point of view.

Five Writing Prompts Based on Theme

Choose one of the following famous quotes for a story and think of the theme it suggests – you can choose a different one that is assumed:

  1. You never reach the promised land. You can march towards it. (IDEALISM)
  2. At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent. (SUCCESS)
  3. Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow God. You know where. I want to be like everyone else. (YOUTH)
  4. If grass can grow through cement, love can find you at every time in your life. (LOVE)
  5. A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent. (TRUTH)

Here are some of my old efforts written in class – I know you can do better:)

This one was an editing exercise and ironically seems relevant living under the spectre of COVID19. It was prompted by editing but has a theme of truth The Answer Not Blowing In the Wind, a short story of 395 words by Mairi Neil

This one was from a prompt of ‘a parked white van’, theme love See Change – Mairi Neil

This one was from a prompt about changing seasons, theme love and friendship Late Bloomer a short story of 499 words

Happy Writing

To Turn Your Life Into Fiction – Start at Your Local Library

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Last night I attended an author event at Sandringham Library with my good friend, Lisa Hill who is a fellow bibliophile, blogger and writer. Well-respected and fiercely independent, please check Lisa’s reviews of any of the books mentioned in this post.

I’m fortunate she keeps me in the loop about local events and on a cold, dark winter night gave me a lift in her comfortable car!

An eminent book reviewer with an award-winning blog, Lisa concentrates on Australian and New Zealand literature but also reviews an impressive range of international writers, including many translations not necessarily widely distributed.

When she heard about this event in Bayside she let me know especially since I taught  Life Stories & Legacies for several years.

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This event showcased three authors discussing how they used events from life in their novels so how apt to have a bust of Australian writer, Alan Marshall OBE outside. Alan hailed from the nearby suburb of Black Rock.

Alan’s most famous novel I Can Jump Puddles, which was on the school curriculum for years and made into a mini-series on TV, was based on his childhood fight to recover from Polio.

When I came to Australia in 1962, I think Alan Marshall was an author everyone knew and is an excellent example of turning real-life events into novels.

Library renovations are scheduled and this was the last public event before they begin so the 72 in attendance were indeed fortunate.  Before Vivienne, the Customer Service Co-ordinator for Bayside introduced the guest panel, she confided that she was celebrating her 21st Anniversary with the library – so two memorable milestones for the evening.

Vivienne also plugged the library’s campaign to promote its various services and events around the theme Libraries Change Lives, but my guess is she was preaching to the converted!

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Local author, Claire Halliday was the emcee  and in the spotlight were authors

  • Eleni Hale
  • John Tesarsch
  • Lee Kofman

Eleni was asked about the parts of her own life she mined to write her debut YA novel Stone Girl. She admitted to always wanting to write but before she could write other stories she had to write about her childhood in State Government care first.

It was a story hammering inside her to be written although she had ‘redacted being a ward of the state from her life story.’

She had been a university student, a journalist, fiancee, wife and mother but found relief in being able to write about a part of her early life never mentioned.

She released her muse and making the story fiction gave her the freedom to write without worrying about hurting others.

There are 40,000 children in the care system and her story is a compilation of those stories. Her novel a vehicle to open up and talk about her past. She listened to a lot of Metallica and similar music and kept writing!

The writing itself private and personal but became confronting when published and she faced the prospect of the publicity and marketing treadmill because as Claire suggested, journalists love a book where the author can be pressured to share what parts are true.

Eleni, a journalist herself, agreed the ‘real life experience’ is a bigger story than the novel if you expose yourself like she did, so she compiled a list of five talking points to be avoided!

The old me was about growing up in an Australian orphanage,’ said Eleni, ‘and I wore that like a cape.’

She still feels separate from the character because the media have been reasonable and looked at the actual issue she wanted to spotlight – the experience of kids in care.

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Eleni holding her novel Stone Girl

Embellishment versus Truth?

Eleni said that in the beginning, her character Sophie is twelve and has lost her mum and ends up a Ward of the State. She meets Milo on the street and he is a cool dude she is attracted to but ends up trapped in his home.

Eleni shared a true story ‘not shared publicly before.

An incident in her own life was the inspiration for the Milo scene. She was fourteen or fifteen and in care. They were encouraged to go out during the day and one day she met a Jamaican DJ who fitted the description of Milo. She ended up scared and locked in his house. The Milo scene in the book has the essence of that real-life event.

Why didn’t she smash a window?

She recalls being groggy so he must have put something in her food or drink and yet she was street smart.

Work In Progress

In Eleni’s new book, a crime thriller and still a work in progress, she will tackle a theme of ‘classism’ and the poverty it creates in Australia.

After Stone Girl was published she was contacted by many people wanting to share their stories. She gathered more knowledge and ideas and became aware of how many people are ashamed to admit they were in care or were poor and had traumatic experiences. There are many stories to be told!

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Claire Halliday introducing Lee, John and Eleni

Claire then focused on John who is a barrister in Melbourne.

He was asked if he used his clients’ stories, particularly since the theme of his book The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman was an estate issue. A daughter finds a will after her father’s untimely death and wonders who is the mystery woman mentioned.

John declared that the intersection of family and money is toxic, which is why as a lawyer, he avoids estate work but it is a rich vein for storytellers.

He doesn’t directly poach client stories because that would be unethical, however, his novel has elements of autobiography. It is about a father and daughter, the relationship between parents and children, and how trauma resonates through generations.

Claire mentioned that the character Sarah is a concert pianist who has to quit music as a career. Did John draw on his experience as a cellist with a stellar career who had to quit?

John explained that when he was in Vienna the skin on his hands began to peel off and he discovered he was allergic to the dark rosin applied to the cello bow. He had to give up playing an instrument he loved.

However, his character, Sarah gave up playing because of stage fright and they both coped with the initial grief differently. He reinvented himself as a lawyer and now a writer believing ‘when one door closes another opens‘ whereas his character just got stuck.

John believes writing fiction is all about imagination and he never runs out of ideas – and hopefully, they will always be good ideas. His ‘compost heap of a mind‘ searches for a response – a counterfactual experience – and he will not worry about running out of experiences to fuel ideas to write about.

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Lee Kofman and John Tesarsch

Balancing Historical Facts, Real Life & Fiction?

Dinner With the Dissidents, John’s novel set in 1971 Moscow has an aspiring author as the main character. An Australian publisher offers him a book deal if he’ll spy on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

John drew on his experience trying to get his first manuscript published to the extent he empathised and appreciated the writer’s desire to be published.

It is daunting to write a novel that sits well with historical facts. He read lots of Russian novels and researched for months about that time in history before coming to the realisation that the human condition is universal. The emotions a character reveals the same regardless of ethnicity.

For his work in progress, John is having a change of pace and genre. He is writing a romantic comedy involving an Elvis impersonator – and he has been that! This drew laughter from the audience, especially when he confessed he may use a pseudonym!

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Lee Kofman is a memoirist and memoir teacher and talked about applying an evocative twist to real-life writing. She admitted to being a prolific confessional writer in three languages.

In the 90s, when she started to write in her style, there was no real creative non-fiction but she fell in love with the memoir genre, which is a slice of your life – not all autobiography.

She found the trick was to examine the difference between herself now and younger self. Look at younger self from a distance, try not to be too attached to current emotions and thoughts – look at younger self, be the cold observer. Ask what are the emotions younger self feel? Why did events happen to cause those feelings? Reveal something that happened intimately, yet do it overtly.

It is confronting to reveal something, or a life that you once hid (she referred to Eleni’s expose of her life as a State Ward) and Lee said she experienced that when writing Imperfect about her body scars.

The balances between what to include or omit difficult to attain. She found Helen Garner a good model as a writer when she advised ‘keep to your own truth and story’. Lee followed this advice when she wrote Dangerous Bride. She stuck to writing her own feelings and emotions and didn’t run down her ex just to make him look bad. It was an intimate expose of a marriage breakdown but it remained her story.

She also admires novelist Robert Dessaix.

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Lee believes successful writing is all in the voice and how you tell your story. One of Helen Garner’s books begins with a description of ordinary people having breakfast yet you keep reading.

It is how you write your voice. Keep it true and natural and your voice will be authentic.

Lee curated/edited an anthology of personal essays, SPLIT. All the contributors were told the stories had to be about endings. Personal essays are a meshing of real life and to be successful

  • the stakes must be high,
  • there must be conflict,
  • a resolution or change in the character
  • or if no resolution, show acceptance of there being no change.

Therefore, in SPLIT, the stories had to be dramatic endings, endings that changed the writer. Good essays include snippets of dialogue and colour to bring the words to life.

John said he had been asked to write a personal essay but enjoys fiction writing. Eleni finds writing personal essays confronting and would be worried about who she’ll affect so prefers hiding behind characters.

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The Editing Process – Writing For Readers or Yourself?

Eleni advised ignoring who will be reading your story and just write and worry about readership later when editing. Write first, think about publishing later; worrying about readers will block your writing flow.

She put Metallica on and just wrote furiously, not worrying about how many words or how they came out on the page.

To be a writer you must read, read and read. Then write, write, write and have tenacity without beating yourself up about how good or bad your work is.

She wrote four drafts of her 80,000-word novel and threw the first three out!

She is with Penguin and they didn’t change anything of the final draft. She only needed a line edit, not a structural edit. However, as a journalist with The Herald Sun, she is not a novice writer.

John is with Affirm publishers, who won publisher of the year. Lee is also with them as well as another publisher. They both agreed you are fortunate if you receive a structural edit. It is wonderful to get attention and good editing, many publishers don’t offer that today.

To have an independent outsider check your work is a valuable and rewarding process for a writer.

Regarding the writing process, Lee told the story of a suicidal Russian poet who left a note for his mother, sister and lover – ‘I don’t recommend it!’ She said she feels like that about memoir!

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How Important is Having Distance Between an Event and Writing About It?

A member of the audience noted the panel had all mentioned having distance between a life event/experience and writing about it – whether that was emotional, time, or relocation of place.

John said that with his music experience, it was a long time ago and he had a sense of perspective about his allergy and his reaction to not being able to play anymore. He believed having that distance adds depth to your writing but he stressed he writes fiction, it is not him but his character who is doing the experiencing. Characters must have their own life.

Eleni said it was about time – she went from someone who didn’t have a voice and became a Herald Sun journalist. But she needed time to write about when she didn’t have a voice.

For Lee, it took twenty years before she was able to write about broken relationships and her marriage.

When Eleni was asked if there was a conflict between what she experienced and how much the reader must know to understand and connect with the story, she said she had woven the story around other kids’ stories and hoped people would see and understand the telling.

She recalled her writing teacher at university saying that writing was like taking a photograph, don’t clutter it up. Good writing is picking what needs to be in the story.

Eleni tried to write an autobiography but couldn’t. Writing as fiction she had to show not tell, although it was important to be truthful. She walked in the footsteps of those who suffered plus showed the bureaucracy, social workers, the homes the kids moved around in and the other kids met along the way.

She hoped readers would see and understand.

John was asked if he thought there was a dearth of political novels in Australia and why? His novel Dinner With Dissidents set in the 1970s Russia and was about surveillance etc but considering recent events in Australia where the Australian Federal Police raided the ABC HQ in Sydney and a News Corp journalist’s home, there is obviously, fodder for political novels.

John suspects it will change here. Although we have had a relatively benign political climate, the whole apparatus of society is changing because of technology and the level of surveillance is different compared to a decade ago.

Another question from the audience raised the crime genre as a vehicle for social realism and asked Eleni if this is why she chose to write another issue based book.

The audience member referred to Wendy Squires article in The Age after the young woman Courtney Herron was murdered in Royal Park.  Wendy revealed she had been homeless and could empathise with the feeling of shame and stigma attached to people like Courtney.

Eleni agreed this was a great example of a writer using their voice and real-life experience to draw attention to an important social reality.

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Do You Write For Self or for Readers?

An audience member told the panel he was recently sent three novels to review. Two were awful. The third he found better because the writer produced a book where scenes came alive as if watching a movie.

Did the panel consider their readers?

Eleni said the first draft of her novel was awful and it would have been a punishment if someone was required to read it! She threw it out.

She believed you must weave description through the characters’ actions and dialogue. Excellent writing is visual.

John is motivated by the joy of the writing process. When he is in the writing zone he feels alive and vivid and doesn’t think about anything else but the story and moving it along. His publisher and agent can figure out the readership. He doesn’t think about what readers will take from his novels.

Lee writes for herself. She wants to answer questions and writes for selfish reasons but redrafts all the time. The last book she was very mindful of the readers.

There was a happy buzz when the panel concluded and a beeline for the table with books for sale. Others queued to talk with the authors.

The organisers can pat themselves on the back for a successful evening.

How lucky we are to have authors willing to sit in a suburban library on a cold winter’s evening and generously share their time, skills and writing tips.

Now to put some of that expert encouragement and inspiration into practice!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

A visual metaphor perhaps, a warning about global warming?

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LabInitio NZ cartoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s celebrate the natural world

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

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

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

Indulging the senses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe just luxuriate in reading and gardening…

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Tales of Our Lives
Mairi Neil

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

Is that a sigh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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No More Travelling To Bentleigh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not Everyone is A Digital Native

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leo Babauto

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

Number Nine Godfrey Street

Mairi Neil

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

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

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

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

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

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Anniversaries and Birthdays Come too Soon

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Anne Brown Courtney 1937

My mother would have been 95 years old on April 15th but she died in October 2009, six months after her 88th birthday. I often think of her – not just on her birthday – but this April, a milestone in more ways than one because it is the 75th anniversary of the Belfast Blitz, an experience Mum never forgot.

In December 2003, when I asked Mum to talk into a tape recorder and share stories about her life, it was obvious the despair and devastation of that night in World War Two had left traumatic memories.

In Easter 1941, Belfast was blitzed and like the incendiary bombs dropped that night, the damage Mum witnessed forever seared in her mind and heart.

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As mentioned in a previous post, I researched Korean poetry because I have a new Korean-Japanese student. I discovered a Korean form called Sijo, which has particular syllable rules and a three-line, or six-line, songlike structure.

NaPoWriMo prompts may be by the wayside, but I’ll still make attempts to write poems.

Belfast Blitz a Sijo by Mairi Neil

Lord Haw Haw, delivered his big Easter Eggs as promised
The bombs pounded; buildings collapsed, land mines exploded
Belfast aflame. That destructive April, the people sacrificed.

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Mum’s Memories:

I joined the army in October 1940 just after Dunkirk, but my eyes took bad. I developed iritis among other problems and the civilian doctor advised me to resign to get my eyes fixed. ‘If you want you can rejoin the ATS but don’t trust army doctors.’

He advised me to take my discharge and the day I received confirmation a rule was passed in parliament about conscripts. However, as a volunteer I was able to get out of the army on medical grounds.

I arrived back in Northern Ireland from Scotland on Good Friday in 1941. I went out to the farm with my brother, Tom and stayed with Uncle Arthur and Aunt Mary at Saintfield.

Everybody was warned to get out of Belfast because Lord Haw Haw had said Hitler was going to give Ulster their Easter eggs. Lord Haw Haw often came on the radio. He talked through his nose and had a distinctive drawl. ‘We’re going to give the people of Ulster their Easter eggs,’ he said.

Well, Belfast emptied – those who could get out. Some of them had to work Saturday. Good Friday wasn’t a holiday in Belfast or Scotland, only in England. But Glasgow and Belfast got Easter Tuesday, so we had Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday off. We were expecting the planes but they never came.

There had been a raid the week before.

The Luftwaffe launched its first attack on Belfast April 7th and 8th. They attacked the docks. That Dockside Raid was a shock. The government thought we were too far away for the Luftwaffe to reach. We’d had 22 air raid siren alerts – each one false – people were careless about the blackout curtains or going to bomb shelters.

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Even London didn’t think we’d be a target and had told Stormont to build air bases. We only had 200 air raid shelters for a population of 500,000. When more than 500 Luftwaffe bombers and escorts took off from northern France – heading for Clydeside and Greenock no one expected eight bombers to veer off to Belfast.

They dropped about 800 incendiary bombs on the dock area. That shook everyone up! Workers lived near the factories and docks, they were sitting ducks. Lots of homes were destroyed. Incendiary bombs set fire to large timber yards. Harland and Wolff dockyards were hit and the Rank Flour Mill. Thirteen people were killed and the Germans discovered how weak our defences were.

However, that Easter weekend we thought we were okay. Everybody returned Tuesday night to start work on Wednesday morning and the beggars came around 11 o’clock Tuesday night.

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It was one of the longest raids of the war. They started about 10.30pm, actually. The first bomb fell before the sirens went and got the main water line in Royal Avenue coming from the reservoir and shortly after 2.00am they got the other water line so there was no water.

About 150 to 160 Luftwaffe bombers dropped over 200 tons of explosives. They targeted the city’s waterworks. At first we thought that the reflection off the reservoir had fooled the pilots into thinking that they were near the docks. But they were no fools. The waterworks were deliberately hit.

The water pressure was so low fire crews found that their hoses were of little use. It was an inferno. It was fire that damaged Belfast – fire did most of the damage.

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It was after 6.00am before the all clear sounded. In the morning when I first looked out Belfast seemed to be surrounded by fire, there were still blazes burning.

Later people said Dublin had warned the politicians the bombers were on their way. Dublin wasn’t in the war but they wouldn’t do anything against us. I don’t know what we would have done without them because things would have been a darn sight worst.

They could see the fires in Dublin and were asked to help and said we’re sending you up fire engines and tanks of water. They sent up every available fire crew about 70 men and 13 engines and they fought the fires for 3 days without rest. They were relieved by fire crews from the Clyde and Liverpool.

I don’t know what we would have done without those volunteers.

“In the past, and probably in the present, too, a number of them did not see eye to eye with us politically, but they are our people–we are one and the same people–and their sorrows in the present instance are also our sorrows; and I want to say to them that any help we can give to them in the present time we will give to them whole-heartedly, believing that were the circumstances reversed they would also give us their help whole-heartedly …”
Eamon De Valera President of Ireland after the Belfast Blitz.

We were four houses down from the top of our street where a landmine landed. A shop stood alone with little damage but there was nobody in there. Nearby two houses took a direct hit.

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One of the houses was empty but in the middle house two daughters and their mother were killed. The father was a guard in the gaol down the road and the brother was in a granary sheltering with the boys brigade so they were saved. The mother had been across the road visiting but when the siren sounded she saw a tiny light through a crack in the blackout curtains and knew that her daughters were home.

Oh, the girls are home I better be with them.’ She rushed out as a landmine fell and the house was demolished. Her body was discovered atop a lamp post and the girls crushed and killed inside their home.

Belfast-blitz

My stepmother went to Comber to her folk and my uncle pleaded with us to stay with them at the farm until Wednesday morning but Tom said, ‘Oh no, my mammy said we had to come home because she was coming home.’

Well, we got home about half past eight or nine o’clock but she never arrived until nearly half past ten. We had to sit on the doorstep because she wouldn’t give us key.

We had just got into bed and the sirens went so of course it was panic stations. We made our way down the stairs, but before we got down they dropped the landmine at the top of the street.

Our two front and back doors blew in and some of the windows shattered although they weren’t too bad because we had sticky tape on them. We had a Yale lock, plus a big ordinary lock on the door and we had a bar across, yet the door was blown in.

We got down below the stairs and huddled together. We never had a back garden and the nearest air raid shelter no one would go in because it was stinking, dogs peed in it and everything else. It wasn’t kept in good repair at all.

The bombing went on until half past six in the morning.

We always sheltered under the stairs. It was a funny thing although houses were bombed it worked out under the stairs was the safest place to be, and many people survived.

I’ll never forget when I came out of the house and looked out. We lived at a bit of a height and the city seemed to be ringed by fire.

 

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There were unexploded bombs all over the place and this little lad came down the street – he was eleven or twelve years old – and he had some of his belongings over his shoulder wrapped in a sheet that had once been white, but was now dirty grey.

He held a canary in its cage. ‘Were are you from son,’ I said.

Oh up from the Bally streets.

These streets were at the top of the Old Park Road. Four or five streets: Ballyclare, Ballymoney, Ballywalton…Ballymena. They ran to the Clifton Park Road.

Those streets bombed because the Germans were actually aiming for Aldergrove Airfield and the RAF, which was on the other side of the hill called Devil’s Mountain. The RAF boys told us it was easy to confuse from the air because the way the tram lines ran they look like runways and the houses looked like huts.

On one side of the Cliftonville Road was the football ground and the other was the cricket ground so the Germans thought they were bombing the airport but they were on the wrong side of the hill.

The wee boy said, ‘Missus, there’s hardly a house left standing, the Bally streets are flattened.’

‘Oh my goodness,’ I said.

‘I don’t know where my parents are,’ the wee boy cried, ‘they were at the Crumlin Road pictures and they haven’t come back yet.’

Where are you going?

I’m making for my aunt’s down the Shore Road, York Street East.’

I often wondered how he got on because that street was badly damaged. I wonder what happened to that wee boy and so many others like him. It was a terrible night. Around 56,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Nearly 1,000 people were killed and 1,500 injured. 400 of those were seriously and 100,000 homeless.

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War is ugly. I would hate to see another world war. Australia should never have been in Vietnam and should keep out of other countries. Too many innocent civilians suffer.

Two hospitals were hit that night in Belfast, so bodies were lain out in St. George’s Market to be identified. Some were never identified and were buried in mass graves.

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Ronnie Finnegan’s father was the groom at Wilton’s Funeral Parlour and my friend, Mrs Calvert, said she would never forget to her dying day the squeals of the horses.

The hay took a direct hit and they only managed to rescue a couple of the horses because there was no water to fight the fire. They were the most beautiful horses you could ever see.

They were Belgian and kept in beautiful condition. They shone at funerals, coats gleaming. Ronnie said his father never really got over the loss of the horses because they were like his children.

Aunt Martha ran all the way, through streets of unexploded bombs, from Armagh Road to Albertville Drive to plead with us. ‘Please get out to the farm.

She then went on up to Woodville Road to ask Aunt Minnie to leave. She’d run all that way and was so insistent, we packed to go. Tom had a canary and asked what to do with it.

Take it with us,’ I said. We were about ready to leave when the canary died – delayed shock.

Tom was breaking his heart over the bird when my stepmother grabbed it and flushed it down the toilet. She was like that – a heartless woman.

Of course, there was little public transport because lots of the road had been damaged. We walked to a shortcut we knew to see if there were any buses. Passing Mr and Mrs Scott’s place we noticed their boys had come in from their dad’s farm, which was just above our family farm.

The boys had come in to get Mrs Scott because she was a widow. Bob Scott was dead and they had come to evacuate their mother who said, ‘I’m sorry we can’t take you because there’s no room in the car.’

We understood but asked if they could take our bags. ‘Oh aye, we can squeeze them in the boot.’

What a relief to get rid of the luggage because as we walked downhill everywhere was thronging. The smell of burning flesh, clothes, furniture – everything – clung to our nostrils. We managed to get a bus out to the farm and stayed there for most of the war.

I never went back to Belfast until much later because I got a job in Saintfield and worked there until my eyes took really bad and I had to see a specialist who saved my sight.

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Without Mum, another Sijo

Mairi Neil

Without Mum, the world is sadder
Without Mum, wisdom is diminished
Without Mum, hearts are crushed
Without Mum, life is less appealing
A mother’s love potent and powerful
My mother’s love not broken by death

 

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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.

Family pets are important characters in your Life Stories!

josie at rest in garden 2

As I write a post to introduce Josie and record how she came into our lives, I’ve revisited one written four years ago to remind myself how important pets are to family life and the memories they spark.

We farewelled Aurora recently, after almost fourteen years and the house was not a home until we filled the void she left!

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.

Anatole France

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Pets are not people but most families, if they have a pet, become attached to the animal and some are almost treated like another child.

Students in creative writing classes often include animals in their stories but sometimes when people write family history or memoir, they forget the interesting stories pets generate, or they miss the opportunity to show why particular pets were important.

These stories don’t always have to be sad or end with the death of the pet. Most people have lots of interesting anecdotes.

Vignettes written from the pet’s point of view can be unusual and entertaining!

With an endless assortment of children and animals living under one roof, there was always some absurd crisis that gave comic relief to my problems.

Sally Jessy Raphael

One of my students who grew up on a farm in the country realised her only daughter, a city child, had missed building relationships with a variety of animals.

‘D’ came to my classes and by the end of a semester had produced a wonderful collection of animal tales. She included pictures of the pets from her childhood and after a trip to Officeworks, various family members received a copy of the book as a gift.

D’s daughter now has a priceless record of her mother’s memories of a childhood in the Australian Bush.

Writers can use a variety of techniques to convey the pet’s intentions and ‘thoughts’, particularly if writing about dogs and cats, the most common domesticated pets. Describe their body language:

  • how they move, their paws, their ears,
  • the sounds they make;
  • how they react to the weather, interact with others outside the family, and so on.

A pet becomes another character in your memoir. A pet’s life span is usually short enough that humans can see a life journey unfolding from beginning to end.

I can still remember a family cat, Smoky giving birth – she chose my brother’s bed and his school jumper for comfort – much to my Mother’s horror since she had prepared a comfortable and quiet ‘bed’ for the cat!

  • Often, our first lessons about birth and death come from observing pets.
  • We learn about love, devotion, belonging, life and death.
  • In many cases, we learn about compassion, tolerance, responsibility and consequences of behaviour.

Stories about pets slotted into your memoir or collection of life stories will reveal a lot about yourself and family dynamics.

Marley & Me

Marley & Me by John Grogan was a runaway success as a book before being made into a very popular film. The pleasure, pain, embarrassment and pride of owning and trying to train Marley, a gorgeous golden labrador, is entertaining and memorable reading. The book and film’s success reaffirms there’s a market for animal stories.

All my life I’ve lived in homes with pets – growing up in Scotland we had a collie dog, Cuillin, and a black rabbit called Sooty. My brother, Iain also kept a hamster, but I can’t remember its name, or even if it had one. We spent most of the time retrieving it from a  variety of hiding places because it was a great escape artist.

The hamster was supposed to live in its cage by the hearth – the warmest place in the house. Unfortunately, our concern for its welfare led to its demise because it choked on a piece of cinder that it must have picked up to store in its mouth.

Pets After Immigration

When we came to Australia, to live in semi-rural Croydon, we inherited Tibby, a part Persian, part feral cat. We soon added other pets: Ossian ( a black labrador) and Lassie (a labrador cross), a blue tongue lizard, and a hare we thought was a rabbit!

When we moved from the rental property to our own home the menagerie grew: goldfish, more dogs and cats (strays and otherwise), plus chooks.  Notably, a black hen and a brown one – proceeds of a raffle for the ALP.

We named them Gough and Billy after the Prime Minister of the day (Gough Whitlam) and the leader of the Opposition (Billy Sneddon).

Ossian was bitten by a snake and died, but not before he and Tibby tussled for household supremacy, their tempestuous relationship always uneasy.

The old cat would sit on the edge of the laundry roof (it was a separate outhouse) close enough for Ossian to see. He’d bark and jump up hoping to grab her or at least knock the cat off her perch. Each bark resulted in a flinch from Tibby but she didn’t move away. I’m sure she enjoyed teasing Ossian and he never tired of reacting.

Along with a chum Ian McDonald, who was staying with us, I discovered Lassie. One Saturday morning, Ian and I were out exploring when we met an old lady leading a young dog with a couple of men’s ties knotted into a halter.

She explained that someone had dumped the dog from a car. She liked animals but her finances, advanced age and health made keeping the dog impractical.

‘No worries,’ I said and took the dog home.

The McInnes household always made room for one more, whether people or pets! Luckily, Mum fell in love with Lassie; the dog’s quiet, sedate behaviour the exact opposite to excitable Ossian.  My little sister, Rita put Lassie in a doll’s pram and wheeled her around like a baby and they developed a close bond.

Lassie lived to a good age before being hit by a car. Our family bereft, and so my older sister and brother searched newspaper advertisements and one evening, they came home with two Labrador pups – one dark-haired, the other a honey colour because ‘We couldn’t choose between them!’

Tommy Roe’s 1969 hit popular on the radio at the time so the puppies were named Heather and Honey.

They were boisterous and mischievous – Honey more so than Heather. My brother, George who was always first up at 5.30am to catch the train to Burnley where he was serving his apprenticeship with Russell Manufacturing would wake me around 6.00am so I could study for my HSC.

It was the only time the house was really quiet, however, Heather and Honey thought it was playtime.  I can still see George struggling to pull on his overalls, while Heather grabbed one trouser leg and Honey grabbed the other.

Years later, we found another dog wandering near the railway line with a severely broken paw, which had mended into a hook. We called this little terrier Faulty after Basil Fawlty.  A play on words, because of his disability, but also his strange, unpredictable personality.

Faulty used his paw to lever the lid off the plastic bin where Mum stored the dried cat food, he’d also hook any food on bench tops or tables onto the floor. The cats and Heather and Honey loved the unscheduled feasts!

One day, visitors commented on Faulty’s ingenuity and my brother Iain, known for his caustic wit, said, ‘Oh, he’s not that clever – I can still beat him at chess.’

Mordialloc Days

When John and I bought our house at Mordialloc in 1984, of course, we’d have a dog – I couldn’t imagine life without one!

Luckily for us, friends were returning to Northern Ireland and we adopted their Irish Setter, Orla, who was beautiful to look at and also lovely natured.  We were besotted, as were many of our new neighbours.

We discovered a dog-loving community in Mordialloc and Orla helped us make new friends. When Anne came along her first word was not ‘da, da or ‘mum, mum’, but ‘Orla’!

Orla and John 1985 Orla and Mairi 1985

Anne and Orla

Unfortunately, Orla had a stroke and died after an operation to remove a growth on her side. She was relatively young at nine-years-old and we were devastated.

I have strong memories of Orla sitting regally in the front passenger seat of John’s Commodore like King Canute when he came to pick me up from Elanora in Brighton where I was working at the time.

She’d have a few laps around the oval, feathers fluttering in the wind and looking absolutely happy and gorgeous until relegated to the back seat!

Anne never forgot Orla and although we had Chirstie, a tri-colour Collie for a brief time, Orla’s name crept into conversations daily until we rescued Goldie, an abandoned Labrador puppy, who lived until almost 15.

Anne & ChirstieGoldie as a pup

The story below features Goldie, but also DJ, another dog rescued after being mistreated. It is an example of how you can write stories about pets in a creative way.

DJ was 18 months old when we got him, but lived to be a grumpy old man and holds an indelible place in my heart. The grief I felt losing DJ compounded because I was going through Chemotherapy at the time and at a low ebb – another story that can be added later to a collection of life stories revealing the important milestones we remember.

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A Bald Request
by Mairi Neil

John glanced over the top of his newspaper and smiled his thanks as I gave him a mug of tea. Gentle rain pattered on the tin roof of the veranda, Goldie luxuriated in the warmth of the summer evening, her breathing synchronised with the rhythm of the rain as she sprawled at her master’s feet. Every now and then, the air punctuated with a snore and twitch of her long hairy legs.

Did she dream of chasing sparrows and rock pigeons from her water bowl? Or maybe she relived running from side gate to side gate, guarding her territory against passersby who walked along Albert Street to the railway station, school or shops.

I tapped John’s shoulder, ‘The old girl spends a lot of time sleeping and snoring now, she could do with some company to perk her up.’

John looked up from his cryptic crossword, lips pursed, eyes wary. He knew me too well and his response abrupt, ‘We don’t need another dog while we have Goldie.’

At the mention of her name, the old dog’s snoring ceased; one ear stood erect like a sentry on duty.  I paused in front of John’s Jason recliner, ‘Anne and you have Goldie. MaryJane and I don’t exist when either of you is around.’

John removed his reading glasses and placed them on the coffee table with his pen. I was going to get his full attention.

His tone relaxed,  ‘Well, we bought Goldie for Anne to ease the pain of Chirstie’s premature death. MaryJane was a baby so Anne naturally assumed ownership.’

He massaged Goldie with a slippered foot, ‘And I feed the old girl. Of course, she’s going to stick close to me, like Orla and Chirstie before her!’

Whack! Whack! Goldie’s tail a metronome, the wooden deck vibrating and my sigh just audible.

‘I understand all that and a pet is a wonderful way of coping with grief.’

‘Agreed,’ said John, ‘… and when Goldie dies we’ll obviously get another dog.’

Goldie quivered as if understanding every word. Her tail flopped silent. Quick to reassure the old girl, John said, ‘A long time off, I hope.‘

He sipped his tea and picked up the spectacles to resume the evening ritual of solving The Age crossword.

Determined, I pushed on. ‘Grief isn’t just about death John. MaryJane’s best friend is moving to Gippsland next week.’

Only half-listening, John mumbled, ‘So?’

I felt my cheeks flame. Exasperation crept into my voice, ‘Emma’s been part of MaryJane’s life since they were babies. Don’t you remember how important your first best friend was? MaryJane’s devastated.’

For a moment, John closed his eyes. I imagined an image of Emma and MaryJane holding hands and giggling, merging with a recollection from his own childhood as it was with mine.

I recalled John describing the pain of saying goodbye to his school friend Danny and being dragged by his stepfather while told not ‘to blubber like a baby’.

I watched his face flush and defensive about underestimating MaryJane’s impending loss, he said, ‘And she’ll still be sad even with the distraction of a puppy.’

‘Not a puppy exactly… ’

John stared at me over the top of his glasses, probably trying to fathom what was coming next. The spectacles were placed into their case with deliberate care and the case snapped shut. He folded the crossword page into a manageable rectangle and let the rest of the paper crinkle to the floor. A startled, Goldie jumped up, assuming her ready-for-anything pose.

John patted her head, murmured reassuringly, ‘Good girl,’ before his lips twisted into a wry smile. ‘You’re right Goldie, we both need to be alert,’ then grinning at me he added, ‘but not alarmed, I hope?’

I grinned back acknowledging the reference to our erstwhile prime minister and the wasted taxpayer dollars on fridge magnets delivered to every household after 9/11, advising citizens to be ‘alert and not alarmed’ in the War Against Terror.

Heavier rain drummed on the roof. Resident possums foraging in the fig tree elicited a low growl from Goldie. A train rattled past in the distance, car tyres swished on wet streets.

John’s sea blue eyes glistened. ‘You always have marvellous timing, my love. Plying me with a drink before introducing some controversial issue and hovering like a cat watching cornered prey.’

I shuffled uncomfortably as he added, ‘And I don’t like the sound of exactly – in fact, I don’t like the way this conversation is heading.’

I picked up the abandoned newspaper and began to smooth and fold it methodically. ‘It’s just that I saw in the local paper that the young girl who assists the vet is…’

John’s interruption swift, ‘She’s always appealing for a home for unwanted pets. I don’t want some traumatised animal here.’

I waved the rolled newspaper in the direction of the chair, ‘John!  Goldie was from the pound.’ He flinched.

Goldie placed a protective paw on John’s knee and he rubbed her chest. She snuggled a wet snout between his leg and the arm of the chair, waited for her fur to be ruffled in favourite spots. Contrite, John said, ‘ but she was a puppy, love…’ and I finished the sentence, ‘… who had been mistreated.’

Touché, I thought!

’Oh, all right what’s this dog’s story.’

I took a deep breath. ‘Well he’s…’

With memories stirred, John interjected while vigorously rubbing Goldie behind her ears, ‘I remember this one when we first spotted her at the RSPCA pound. Never seen such long legs on a pup, a cross between a Labrador and a giraffe.’

I laughed.

‘And once the markings developed we realised she had Rhodesian Ridgeback…’

‘As well as Lab, Whippet, or Greyhound,’ added John, ‘a real Heinz 57 variety.’

I steered back to my purpose, ‘This little fellow is pure-bred.’

John almost spilt his tea, ‘A pedigreed dog abandoned?’ He glanced at the scar on his wrist. Shuddered at the memory of his six-year-old self bitten by the German Shepherd trained to be a guard dog. His stepfather mistreated the dog and it became aggressive like its master.

Suspicious, John said, ‘He’ll be pugnacious. I’m not having an angry dog here.’

I kissed his forehead, lightly stroked the scarred wrist. ‘Darling, when you hear little DJ’s story you’ll weep. I know you worry about Goldie’s arthritis and I’ve seen your eyes tear up when you look at her and realise she’s over twelve – in human years that’s 61…’

I smiled and added, ‘almost ready for the pension.’

The rain stopped but the air hummed as the insects of the night made their presence known.

Goldie fidgeted. John squirmed and blustered, ‘that’s because Goldie’s farts are getting worse as she gets older. If she flopped down near you and let one go your eyes would water too!’

He brushed dog hair from his trousers, ‘Little dogs are generally more in-the-house dogs. We’d need to buy more plug-in air fresheners –– extra expense on top of dog food!’

The love accumulated in our twenty years together palpable as his lips twitched and he tried to hold back a smile. I sensed victory.

Neck muscles loosened as the tension eased from my shoulders but I kept my voice matter-of-fact, ‘Yes, he will live inside most of the time because he doesn’t have any hair.’

The Jason recliner whipped upright with a loud metallic click.

‘You want to adopt a bald dog? For goodness sake, no wonder he’s abandoned.’

John shook his head in disbelief. ‘Who’d want a deformed dog? Or, was he burnt? Darling, please don’t tell me you want to take responsibility for an injured dog that’s going to cost a fortune in vet fees!’

At her master’s raised voice, Goldie shook her rear. Her tail wagged erratically, she pranced around, paws tapping and scraping on the decking. We both reached out to calm her, but I moved out of the way of the lethal weapon her tail had become, my voice soothing as I repeated, ‘calm down old girl.’

I hissed, ‘Panic over, John? May I please continue with some facts?’

‘Well, you nodded your head when I asked if the dog had been burnt.’

‘I know, but that isn’t why he’s bald. His breed has almost no hair – another reason why I think this dog is meant for MaryJane because she sometimes gets asthma.’

I lowered my voice, ‘The little fellow was deliberately burnt with cigarettes. He’s been starved and left out in the cold. ’

John exploded. ‘The cruelty of some people sickens me!’

He shook his head in bewilderment. ‘Why pay a lot of money for a purebred dog and then ill-treat it?’

Muted singing from cicadas and soft crackling from the overhead light the only intrusion as we pondered humanity’s capacity for brutality.

John shivered and I assumed he relived again his stepfather’s treatment of the German Shepherd. The stories of his stepfather’s abuse of the dog but also the treatment meted out to John and his mother saddened and angered me.

One day, John unwittingly poked his finger near the German Shepherd’s nostril. Chained and angry, the dog snapped and sharp teeth tore at John’s wrist. What followed still haunted John. His mother’s panic, her attempts to stop the bleeding, her worry about infection. His stepfather’s fury. ‘The dog’s tasted blood, he’ll have to go.’

John’s sobbing ended in a scream when the bullet from his stepfather’s rifle shattered the tethered dog’s skull. The silence that followed like a signal to his mother. She sobbed for a long time too. John often wondered if that was the moment she realised she had made a mistake remarrying.

I recalled the early days of Goldie’s settling in.

‘Do you remember how we had to lift Goldie over the threshold because previous owners had punished her if she tried to enter the house? She never made a sound for days and we thought it unusual until we found out she’d been debarked.’

John nodded. ‘Another act of brutality. Somewhere there’s a vet that should be struck off!’ Goldie inveigled her furry body between us as if reminiscing too.

John’s curiosity aroused, ‘This dog is naturally bald, you say?’

‘He’s a Hairless Chinese Crested Temple Dog. They look like those gremlins in the Disney movie: hair on the head, and around the ankles. Miniature Shetland ponies… that’s how they’re described because they trot and hold their head high like show ponies. They were rat-catchers for the Dowager Empress in China and also used aboard ships as ratters.’

‘Sounds a bit weird… and… ugly.’

‘To some people perhaps. In fact, one of them was voted the ugliest dog in the world.’

I smiled and shrugged, ‘But they’re loyal, sensitive, territorial, and highly intelligent and like nothing better than to curl on your lap like a cat.’

At the mention of a cat, Goldie bristled.

We laughed.

Our stroking hands and comforting noises provided immediate reassurance to the old dog. John’s blue eyes twinkled as the pulsating warmth of Goldie reinforced the joy she brought to our lives.

A light drizzle began massaging the roof; the scent of wet grass filled the evening air and the insects a gentle hum. Still fussing over Goldie, John whispered, ‘And when do we pick up the four-legged Yul Brynner?’

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Animals are reliable, many full of love, true in their affections, predictable in their actions, grateful and loyal. Difficult standards for people to live up to.

Alfred A. Montapert

A truism indeed!

Aurora was accepted by DJ once Goldie died just as Goldie accepted DJ. Our pets great examples of love and tolerance…

Friday 13th – Lucky For Me that Memories are Made of Love

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”

Stephen King, Different Seasons

Friday 13th, unlucky for some, but today, March 13, it is my Dad’s birthday. If he’d lived he would be 93 and would be expecting a Tattslotto ticket in at least one of his birthday cards because 13 was his lucky number.

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Dad had 13 letters in his name – George Taylor McInnes. He was born on the 13th March 1922; the thirteenth child in his family. I grew up with those statistics being recited regularly, but knew from my Irish Mother that the rest of us would not be so lucky with the number!

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In fact, one Christmas Day, when Mum realised there would be 13 around the table, we had to telephone friends until eventually my young sister, Rita, found someone able to come at short notice, otherwise Mum would have sat in the kitchen eating her meal alone. Rita’s friend Louise saved the day and enjoyed two Christmas dinners.

Irish Mum had other superstitions to avoid disaster:

  • never put an umbrella up in the house,
  • don’t put new shoes on the table,
  • if you spill salt, throw a pinch over your left shoulder,
  • an itchy palm means you will come into money,
  • an itchy, hot ear means someone is speaking about you and if you think of a number and apply it to the alphabet that’s the initials of the person,
  • if you break a mirror expect seven years bad luck!

Other beliefs were crossing the palm of any baby you meet with silver (Mum had a store of 50 cent pieces for just such an occasion), inserting a coin if you give a purse or handbag as a present, and exchanging a coin if you ever receive a present of a knife or anything else that has a sharp edge – this even applies to brooches. And of course the well-known ‘must haves’ for a bride ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.’

Dad was not superstitious, but indulged Mum, discretion being the better part of valour! He died in 2005 and I think of him every day and know that he loved me and my brothers and sisters unconditionally. He had his flaws, but was a good father and how I wish I could pick up the phone tomorrow and wish him a  happy birthday!

I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl, that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid.

Bell Hooks

A Pause in Time

A blast of night air penetrates the cocooned warmth of the bed. I shiver and pull at the dishevelled blankets, then roll over to seek comfort from my older sister, Catriona, who sleeps undisturbed in the three-quarter sized bed we share. Long black ringlets cover her face except for a gleaming white pebble chin atop snugly tucked blankets.

I sneak another peek at the window. The yellowy-green chrysanthemums on the curtains still bear a lingering resemblance to the leering gargoyles of the nightmare that woke me up. Shadows cast by the dying moonlight and the glowing street lamp, create menacing monsters of the bedroom furniture.

Fear fuels my urgent whisper, ‘Treena, Treena please wake up,’ but the ramrod figure doesn’t respond. Despite the thudding of my heart, a murmur of familiar voices drifts through the partly open bedroom door and without hesitation, I scramble out of bed, dash for the doorway and slip through the narrow opening.

A short scurry to the staircase and my hand finds the comfort of the polished bannister. A filtered strip of moonlight from the landing window beams torch-like on the carpeted stairway. I descend on tiptoe, avoiding the stairs that creak, until the smell of cooking and promised warmth seeping from the kitchen, spurs a race to the bottom.

The icy coldness of the waxed linoleum of the lobby floor ends my flight and has me gasping in shock. If only slippers could magically appear. Hand-me-down floppiness unsuitable for silent speed, but so necessary as another Scottish winter day begins.

Breathlessly quivering, I gently twist the kitchen doorknob and push, squinting at the harsh incandescence of the naked light bulb, suspended from the whitewashed ceiling. Mum materialises beside the stove, stirring porridge in a large aluminium pot. Dad sits nearby, his folded arms resting on the grey Formica table; his newly scrubbed face ghostlike above soot-stained railway overalls. He senses my presence and stops mid-sentence, turning toward the cold breeze I’ve let in from the hall.

Our eyes meet. Smiles a mirror match. ‘Come into the warmth little…

Interrupting another sentence, I catapult into outstretched arms; burrow deep within his loving hug. Snug, safe, relaxed – not a monster in sight. Coal dust mingled with the distinctive smell of Lifebuoy soap, teases my nostrils. Rough stubble and wiry moustache scratched soft six-year-old skin.

With a knowing smile and without comment, Mum ladles porridge onto another plate. I bask in the joy of this attention; dip my spoon into Dad’s cup of Carnation Milk…

All too soon, the ceiling light vibrates as slamming doors, running feet and the flushing of the toilet, announce my three brothers are awake. Uneven thuds and bumps herald the usual morning competition as the boys race downstairs. A prolonged wail from baby Rita sends Mum hurrying up to collect the toddler.  Catriona still sleeps soundly.

Dad whispers, ‘here come the rest of the clan,’ and reluctantly places me on a nearby chair. Mum returns and so begins the breakfast melee that so enthralled Catriona’s friend when she visited. ‘Breakfast at your house is like a party,’ Wendy declared wide-eyed and envious.

I suppose it seemed like that to outsiders when the eight of us crowded around the table to eat porridge, toast and marmalade, or if it was the weekend, slice (Scottish sausage), egg and tattie (potato) scones. Unlike my parents’ Victorian upbringing when children were to ‘be seen and not heard,’ our mealtimes mostly noisy and cheerful affairs whether breakfast or supper. My parents’ mantra ‘don’t speak with your mouth full’ often ignored.

Although Irish, my mother cooked porridge the traditional Scottish way – soaking the steel-cut oats in water overnight and boiling in the morning, stirring with a wooden spoon to avoid lumps, and clockwise to prevent bad luck! The only additive, a sprinkling of salt.

I remember the shock of discovering on the migrant ship to Australia in November 1962 that others put sugar on their porridge! On P & O’s SS Orion other choices were tastier, the ‘snap crackle and pop’ of Kellog’s Rice Crispies and the crunch of Cornflakes. Liberally spread with cold milk and sugar, breakfast cereal became an enticing alternative when we arrived to live in a scorching Australian summer. However, toast spread with Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade or Mum’s homemade bramble (blackberry) jam consumed a loaf of bread regardless of the continent! The Portuguese gave English the word

Liberally spread with cold milk and sugar, breakfast cereal became an enticing alternative when we arrived to live in a scorching Australian summer. However, toast spread with Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade or Mum’s homemade bramble (blackberry) jam consumed a loaf of bread regardless of the continent!

The Portuguese gave English the word marmelada and shiploads of the fruit-based jelly. The first imports considered a digestive or dessert and eaten at supper. By the 18th century, tea and toast with marmalade became the standard Scottish breakfast with Scottish manufacturers favouring bitter Seville oranges and creating their own recipes. I can remember Mum searching the supermarket shelves in Australia to buy the imported tangy Scottish marmalade she loved. Some of us, however, acquired a taste for the Aussie staple of yeast laden Vegemite with breakfast toast. Nutritionists insist breakfast is the most important meal of the day and I can still hear my mother’s voice admonishing us not to leave the house ‘on an empty stomach’.

She regaled us with the tale of my Scottish papa who in the ‘Hungry 30s’ had only a spoonful of jam to ‘break his fast’. My parents struggled financially most of their working lives but I never experienced real hunger, a testimony to their hard work, good household management, and Mum’s eye for a bargain ‘eking out’ meat, and seasonal fruit and vegetables bought on special. Childhood meals consisted of plain food, with breakfast the plainest meal of all, only varied at weekends or holidays if our much-frazzled mother had the time and energy.

Dad, always diligent, tried to do his best for the family – at one stage as a new migrant, working three jobs to ensure our quality of life. The pressure to always provide for our big family must have been difficult, but he never shirked the responsibility. A shift worker for most of his working life, his body clock had to adjust and adapt to mealtimes and sleep patterns that affected his health – no doubt there were times when he went to work exhausted yet he contributed to church and community life, was active politically and in the trade union movement. When he worked for British Rail in Scotland, he’d walk 5 miles in the snow to get to Ladyburn Depot to drive the first train out, and a similar walk home when he finished on the last shift.

All his life Dad showed a work ethic not many people can rival, but more importantly he was my mentor in so many ways. Full of wisdom, patience and encouragement, he also had a keen sense of humour and sharp wit. Some of the best memories I have are of family mealtime discussions and riotous practical jokes and laughter. I count myself very lucky indeed!

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