We advise athletes to perform warm-up routines before playing a sport, musicians and singers use warm-up exercises too, and in writing class, prompts and creative writing exercises loosen your imagination while honing your writing muscles.
Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.
In Class, We Splurge!
The goal of the prompts is to encourage clear, lively writing. Encourage the use of specific images, well-chosen verbs and precise nouns, “showing rather than telling” and to avoid clichés.
To achieve this ideal takes practice, practice, practice!
The exercises are often more fun in a class, or with two or more people, but doing them alone and at home is fun too.
If, while writing, you’re at a loss how to continue writing consider the five senses (sight,sound, smell, touch, taste); or shift your perspective from high to low (what’s happening in the sky or the floor above or underground, under the sea, in a cellar…), from close to far away; or consider the journalist’s five questions—who, what, when, where, why.
Choose a prompt – and remember, you can take as little of the prompt as you want – one word or the memory or idea it evokes…
Weigh a few possibilities (brainstorm, mind map, outline, list)
Write without interruption for 12-15 minutes. (Use an oven timer or the stopwatch facility on your mobile)
Be surprised at what comes up and continue to write… and remember, you can always change your mind and choose a different prompt. At home, you are teacher, student, writer and reader.
If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.
Variety The Spice of Imagination
First lines, ideas for beginnings:
It was no ordinary date…
It was no ordinary house…
She was no ordinary babysitter…
‘Look, I didn’t want to be a refugee.’
‘Three things happened this morning but only one changed my life.’
‘Welcome aboard,’ said the captain, but his smile didn’t reach his eyes.’
Describe a first – why is it memorable?:
Your first kiss, first car, the first job
Your first pet (kitten/puppy/ rabbit/bird, lizard…)
Your first child, first grandchild, first sibling
Your first day of school, your first day of university
Your first night in a bed by yourself or away from home
Fibs, Excuses, Embellishments, Wishful Thinking …
The dog ate my homework.
She said, ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ but I knew she was lying.
The weekly horoscope said 5 and 8 were my lucky numbers.
I was here the whole time, you just didn’t see me.
The alarm didn’t go off.
He was in the supermarket too. It can’t be a coincidence.
Quotes To Inspire A Reflection, Prose or Poem… Write Your Truth, Your Experience, Your Pleasure, To Know More,
The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. ~ Neil Gaiman
Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come the most unsought for are commonly the most valuable. ~ Francis Bacon
If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. ~ Anais Nin
I write for myself things that I’ve gone through. ~ Dolly Parton
Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The keyword is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for. ~ Ray Bradbury
Usually, I walk and think about things. When I come across a thought that makes me laugh, I write it down. ~Demetri Martin
Writing a story… is simply an exploration of the nature of behaviour: why people do what they do, how it affects others, how we change and grow, and what decisions we make along the way. ~ Lois Lowry
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. ~ Joan Didion
I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.
Choose three prompts from the suggestions above or write whatever thoughts they triggered… look at the challenge as an exercise to warm-up the process, one for ‘homework’ and one to move out of your comfort zone and instil a passion for writing!
Here are three efforts from me triggered by prompts and written in class during a splurge:
Try the following exercise frequently to hone your writing skills:
Create a short story that is 26 sentences long, each sentence beginning with the letters of the alphabet starting with A and continuing to Z.
Add other, arbitrary conditions, such as a sentence should be only one word; there should be one question mark, one quotation, there has to be a definite beginning, middle and end – no loose anecdotes or ramblings. There must be a story, not just a stream of consciousness!
Rigid rules often produce fascinating results—such as with well-written sonnets, which have 14 lines and tight rhyme schemes, each line governed by a specific number of syllables and alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.
Apply some form and rigid rules to your stories and see if that makes writing – and finishing – easier.
I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
Make time in your schedule for writing.
When you sit down to write, don’t be afraid of how it will come out.
Take pleasure in exercising your imagination and writing.
Always celebrate the work you’ve done, no matter the result. Having shown up and done the work, kept to a plan or deadline is an accomplishment. Share here or email it to a friend or send it off to a competition – be brave:)
Trust that you’re making progress, a little at a time, day by day – and have fun!
It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.
For over a month now, every state in Australia has been in some form of lockdown and the measures taken by various levels of government appear to have worked. Unlike other parts of the world, we have successfully flattened the curve quickly and some states are looking at some relief from isolation by relaxing social distancing advice.
However, in Australia people have died and lives of many changed forever.
Each day there are still fresh cases of coronavirus reported, but nowhere near the numbers other countries are recording. Social distancing and quarantining appear to have worked because most of the population have respected the need for and obeyed the rules and the various public health messages.
In my little corner of Mordialloc, it has been strange–and very pleasant–to see less traffic and few parked cars. People are going on family walks, strolling in pairs or singly, entire families take the dog for a walk! Children play in the street, and chalk rainbows, love hearts, and well wishes.
All of this reminiscent of my childhood in the 50s (Scotland) and 60s (Australia).
Friends in other places have similar observations with a friend in Aberdeen who walks several miles a day through the lovely countryside of Inverurie, commenting when she rang me that the lack of cars has meant less pollution. She only washes her hair every few days rather than daily and no ‘black muck’ appears in the water!
A Time of Reflection
The last few weeks I’ve put up posts with ideas and prompts to help people who want to write or who have been writing but can’t go to classes or their usual groups because of COVID-19.
For some people writing will be a fill-in hobby, others may dream of a novel or collection of short stories sitting in a bookshop window.
There will be people writing life stories or a memoir which is a slice of their life, perhaps family history or researching for a school project or essay.
Feedback suggests the posts have been helpful but now as we near a ‘new normal’, perhaps it is time to record the experiences you’ve had over this period. You can incorporate them in a poem or short story or journal about them – but leaving some record for future generations is helpful – create a time capsule if you will…
People will look for historical records about the pandemic, just as we’ve seen plenty of articles about the 1918 Flu Epidemic, the Ebola and SARS outbreaks and even the Bubonic Plague.
“If writers stopped writing about what happened to them, then there would be a lot of empty pages.”
List what you have been doing to cope
How is it different from life before lockdown and social distancing
Make note of what you like and what you don’t like about isolation – I know some people have already made resolutions to value friendship and family more, live with less material things, value the environment more…
Ponder how your life has changed and whether any behaviours or activities will remain even once free of lockdown restrictions
This is a monumental period in history – global pandemics do not happen that often!
You may have experienced personal tragedy but also joy, or have knowledge of someone whose journey has differed from yours.
Have you made recent friends, lost established friends, or discovered qualities such as strengths or failings in people, whether family members or in the community?
What new skills have you learned?
What old skills have you revived?
Has your opinion of technology changed? Have you improved/increased your use of technology or do you regret your lack of knowledge?
How is homeschooling or working from home actually working out?
Have you received or sent parcels? What were the contents? How did the experience work out?
Are you a hoarder, panic buyer or did you manage to go without those items in much demand like toilet paper, flour, pasta and rice.
Did your use of social media increase, decrease, what you shared change?
Did you join any new online groups?
Have you ‘hit the wall’ yet – how are your anxiety levels?
Are You More Present in Your Life?
Rich sensory experiences surround us daily — IF we take the time to observe and as writers note them down.
Become a keen observer and recorder of the sensory intricacies of life. Make it a habit to jot down your observances in a journal or snap a photo to remind you of the weather, the season, the unusual occurrence… on my daily walks with Josie, I take at least one photograph of something interesting or new I notice – a cloud formation or blossoming flower.
Sometimes these changes are close to home – like this Yucca plant of mine that has flowered for the first time in nearly a decade! And the interesting fungi in the front garden – in fact fungi seems to mushroom all over Mordialloc – or maybe I’m just noticing it more.
Or these pigeons sitting in a bird bath – can you imagine the conversation? The one in my garden annoys the lorikeets but loves feeding on the seeds they spit out, and the ones on the deserted footy oval are excellent at social distancing.
What stories can you make up?
Have the parcel postman or couriers visited more than usual?
Contactless deliveries can bring surprises – write the story behind the parcels:
I haven’t seen my daughter, Anne, for weeks because of COVID-19 restrictions and miss her. I know she misses me and her sister but also misses Josie, our Kelpie/Staffy Cross who gives us so much pleasure. She has earned this certificate made by number two daughter, Mary Jane:
She got a special delivery from Anne to celebrate her first year with us. Josie was a rescue dogbut with the Pet Circle parcel became a lucky dog!
I received a parcel to learn pottery, a gift that gives twice because the arts and crafts have suffered from the economic shutdown and this helps to keep a small workshop viable.
One of my sisters sent me a knitted version of my favourite poet Rabbie Burns – knitting her forte but new projects helping her cope with being stuck more inside than usual and of showing she is thinking of family.
The picture of the praying mantis snapped by me after my daughter told me we had a visitor at the door!
Small delights happen every day and we mustn’t forget to notice and appreciate them and let our imagination roam.
Devote some time to dwell on daydreams. They are spontaneous messages from our subconscious. Not everyone has a daydream-friendly mind. In fact, some people have been taught to repress daydreams as mere distractions.
As writers, however, we should not only welcome daydreams but train ourselves to be aware of them. In fact, the core of most of my novels has come from daydreams. Daydreams are our primal storyteller at work, sending us scenes and topics that our imagination or subconscious wants us to investigate.
Each day, we should devote time (I usually do this before sleeping) to reviewing our daydreams and determining which of them insists on being turned into a story. Don’t push away those daydreams that make you uncomfortable: The more shocking the daydream, the more truthful about us it is. Embrace that truth.
Have Your Rituals Changed?
I’m retired from teaching at the moment – the return of breast cancer and arrival of coronavirus a perfect storm.
My morning ritual of observing the visiting lorikeets goes on for an extended period now and I never tire watching them come and go to feed at other times of the day or enjoying each other’s company in the bottlebrush outside my bedroom window.
Do you have a morning ritual? Has it changed recently like mine has?
Are you doing more cooking? Experimenting? There was a shortage of flour, eggs, sugar – in fact, lots of items disappeared from supermarket shelves in panic buying sprees. This made for some creative recipes being shared on social media.
This variation of Anzac biscuits is a healthier alternative to traditional Anzacs and results in a dark, slightly chewy variety of the biscuit. We understand some ingredients may be difficult to find in supermarkets at present. You could try your local health food shop, otherwise use the substitutes listed under ‘Ingredients’. You’ll still be getting the low-GI goodness of rolled oats.
1 cup wholemeal spelt flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup desiccated coconut or shredded coconut
¾ cup coconut sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons water
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Substitutions (which I used)
Swap the wholemeal spelt flour for plain or wholemeal flour
Swap the coconut sugar for white sugar
Swap the maple syrup for golden syrup
Method:Preheat oven to 160°C and line 2 baking trays with baking paper.
In a large bowl, combine flour, oats, coconut and coconut sugar.
In a small saucepan, stir the butter and maple syrup over medium heat until butter melts and the mixture is smooth. Take off the heat. Stir the bicarbonate of soda with the water and add to butter and maple syrup.
Add to the oat mixture and stir well to combine.
Roll level tablespoons of the mixture into balls and flatten.
Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until golden.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes and then transfer to a wire cooling rack.
Nutritional Info: Our knowledge of nutrition has progressed somewhat since World War II. We now know that we need to eat more whole-foods and less processed foods. While these biscuits are still a sweet treat, the maple syrup is far less processed than golden syrup traditionally used in Anzac biscuits. Coconut sugar is a lower GI alternative compared to white sugar and provides small amounts of nutrients not found in white sugar. The goodness of rolled oats, an excellent source of beta-glucan soluble fibre that helps to reduce cholesterol; combined with wholemeal spelt flour, provides healthy whole grains to balance out the sweetness.
Has technology been Your Friend or Foe?
I’m lucky because I’ve kept abreast of many of the changes in technology and my computer literacy and competency better than others in my age group. Both my daughters are highly skilled with technology so they fill any gaps exposed when dealing with this catastrophic virus.
I downloaded and have now used ZOOM several times. The first time there were minor glitches but subsequently, there have been no problems.
Courtesy of the Health Issues Centre, I’ve heard medical experts and local consumer health reps discuss the current crisis and offer opinions, ideas and suggestions to the government.
Courtesy of the Australia Institute, I’ve listened to economic experts and been able to ask questions of them, including the Shadow Treasurer, Jim Chalmers MP and hope to take part in other sessions with Media, Environmental and Arts representatives.
Courtesy of the trade union movement, I’ve taken part in sessions with the first woman ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus and the first woman General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow.
Many organisations are organising online discussions and hoping for feedback from as many ordinary Australians as possible. This is an unusual time and who knows how much more difficult life will become after the health crisis eases and we must face a devastating economic crisis.
Stay informed, raise your voice, be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
My daughters have used ZOOM and other platforms to catch up with friends all over Australia and internationally, and many people rely on similar software while working from home.
We have had trivia and movie nights and I love hearing the laughter when a group of them get together but I know many people are not so fortunate.
What have been your experiences with technology? Do you have a disaster or comical story? Do you use Face Time on Messenger?
What type of social media helps you stay in touch with those you can’t visit? Or do you prefer a phonecall, text and email?
Here is a piece of flash fiction inspired by a sound (I mentioned incorporating sound in a previous post). The setting is in the 1930s when the world went through the Great Depression – yes; we have survived economic crises before too. Night Terror by Mairi Neil, flash fiction.
But to end on a funny note involving current times and technology, here is another Facebook meme doing the rounds.
Two days ago we experienced the coldest April day on record in Melbourne.
Today is definitely wintry – stay safe inside, stay well and stay strong – and scratch that pen or tap the keyboard. If all ideas fail, you can do what people normally do when they get together – but write don’t talk about the weather!
Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood – you will either write or you will not – and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.
In life, we use five senses and if a writer, we should also use them in our writing to allow the readers to experience poems and prose on all levels.
In previous posts, I’ve talked about other senses and today I’ll concentrate on the sounds in the real world and the world you create when writing.
We are farewelling autumn in Melbourne and because of the COVID-19 lockdown and social distancing, there were some traditional sounds missing from Melburnian lives – minimum playing in parks and on beaches, football and other sporting games cancelled and the annual ANZAC Day celebrations and accompanying parades didn’t happen – although we did light up the dawn…
Autumn Mairi Neil
Autumn… the clocks change
a time to enjoy
an extra hour
snuggled beneath the doona
Autumn… walks in the park
crunching leaves underfoot
a season with warm days
pretending summer still around
Autumn… vibrant flowers
a time of colourful
rainbows dropping from trees
playing peek-a-boo through fences
Autumn… a season to pause
contemplate winter’s chill
prepare body and soul
with warming soups and good books
Autumn… a time of contemplation
The Easter story and ANZAC
Love and Hope the best human qualities
Write about the sounds of your autumn – before coronavirus and what you have experienced recently. What daily sounds do you notice in isolation?
Extend your thoughts and think of a sound that isn’t around anymore: the click of typewriter keys, the tone that played during the test pattern on 1950s TVs, the brrrring of your portable alarm clock, the sound of the dial turning on a telephone, the theme of an old TV or radio program, the sound of a former pet’s paws on the hardwood floor, the sound of the doorbell of a house you used to live in, a steam train’s whistle, the clink of milk bottles…
… What memories do those sounds conjure up?What rooms, people, neighbourhoods and workplaces do you see in your imagination?
Remember the starting handles for cars? Remember, an overheated radiator often spoiled trips in the summer, or cars refusing to start in winter?
Did the roar of a neighbour’s motorbike wake you up, or did they have a Holden V8? What about church bells ringing, a grandfather clock striking? Someone practising a musical instrument (bagpipes/drums), off-key singing – an acoustic versus electric guitar? The tap of dance shoes or a walking stick, the squeak of a pram or wheelchair?
What sounds do you hear now?
does a tree mulcher or leaf blower shatter your peace?
perhaps a chainsaw cutting trees down
how noisy are the garbage men? Do you remember the days of chasing your bin lids down the street?
do neighbours have hens – a rooster? Or perhaps a pig?
what about someone learning a musical instrument?
did you ever stop and listen while someone played a street piano, a busker played their fiddle or guitar?
Sounds of Albert Street Mairi Neil
In the morning, at dawn break
in a dreamlike state
to sounds that jar
electric train whistle
whine of car, after car…
a distant noticeable rumble
the roar of the sea
as white caps tumble…
I picture huge waves crashing
spewing debris ashore
against pier and rocks splashing –
on the street, horses make
a constant clip-clop
as daily exercise take…
familiar daily tapping
announced in suburbia
by family dogs yapping.
a dawn chorus will sing
curlews, starlings, magpies
twittering, cawing, whistling
blackbirds, seagulls and crows
dewy feathers a-glistening
If you are writing a memoir or a historical story or novel, pay a visit to your local museum for research. If you’re lucky, there will be firsthand accounts and exhibits of household and workplace equipment and tools to remind you to include authentic descriptions and sounds.
Spend some time brainstorming a list of descriptive words that you can refer to when needing inspiration. Continually add to your list, expanding memories and categories as they evolve. Your list could look like this:
the soft sound of someone breathing or harsh gasp of breath
buzz of a chainsaw (or bees)
drone of an aircraft or car
bark, yap, yelp, howl of a dog – think of other animals noises
rumble of thunder, wheels on concrete – an empty stomach, that can also grumble
rustle of leaves, bushes, trees, pages of a book
gurgle of a drain, water in a hose, water down the plughole
the wail of a child, or laugh and giggle
quiet as midnight, the hush of morning, the silence of sadness….
Writing Exercise 1:
Choose any of these images, think of the sounds you will hear if you are also in the picture. Write a story or poem, or memory.
Writing Exercise 2:
Extend one or all of these sentences to make the situation real – pick any genre, add a character, theme and plot – or write a poem. (Team it up with one of the images on this post perhaps?)
The kitten MIAOWED when I left for work.
The puppy BARKED when I left for my jog/to go shopping.
The tree branches SWAYED in the wind.
The cursor MOVES across the computer screen.
The clock TICK-TOCKED in the kitchen.
Sounds for excitement or pizazz
In a piece of writing, a sentence including descriptions of noises creates a strong atmosphere. It rouses the reader’s excitement.
Sound unrelated to the action but characterise the place is perfect for creating atmosphere. You can combine several sounds in a single sentence:
An empty beer can clattered along the pavement
Keyboards clacked, papers rustled, and printers whirred
Upstairs a toilet flushed and water gurgled down the drainpipe
Thunder rumbled in the distance, lightning flashed
Washing machines sloshed, driers rumbled and coins rattled into slots
Motors whined, and tyres screeched on the tarmac
Hooves clattered on the cobblestones below
The train sped up with a low growl that rose to a high whine within moments
Thunder roared, and raindrops hammered against the glass
The fire in the grate crackled and red gum logs hissed and popped
the engine throbbed as the waves slapped the side of the boat
ice clinked in the glass as Bond poured her a martini
Writing Background Noise
You can insert a sentence about background noises in any part of the scene where it makes sense. For example:
The point of view character is waiting (for a job interview, a medical appointment, a rescue, an execution, an exam…) what do they hear? Inside and/or outside noises?
A character pauses or delays replying. A sentence like this implies the pause and is more interesting than ‘he paused’ or ‘she hesitated’… what can fill the silence?
To emphasise an exciting moment. Is there a clap of thunder, applause, a balloon popping, laughter…?
To further raise the tension in a suspenseful situation, insert a sentence about background noise the moment the reader holds his/her breath.
When the setting is dark (at night, or in a cellar), sprinkle sounds throughout the scene to add to the mood suspense, to ground the reader.
Here are two different pieces of short fiction including background and action sounds:
The sounds mentioned above may inspire you; think about the examples shown and write a scene with background noises to create a realistic scene and draw the reader in.
Whenever characters do something – walk, work, fight or rest – their actions, even if in a small setting, will create a link between the action and the setting.
Emphasise this link, especially if you want the reader to become immersed in the story. The best way to do this is by describing the sounds arising from the characters’ interaction with the environment.
She ran out, banging the door behind her.
The door slammed shut behind her.
Here are some other examples:
The door screeched on its hinges
I sank into the armchair, and the cushion wheezed.
The seat squeaked under his weight.
Stairs creaked as she retired to bed.
Gravel crunched under their feet.
The wheeled suitcase rattled across cracked paving-slabs.
The light plane trundled over the patched tarmac.
The windshield wipers scraped the glass.
The grandfather clock chimed midnight.
The lift shook and grunted to a stop.
His breath rasped as he scraped the mud off his boots.
The car keys jangled in the air as he tempted her to go for a drive.
Writing Exercise 4:
Use some above examples to write a story or poem, or perhaps a memory, or let the following images inspire you:
When I visited London in 2017, Big Ben was under renovation, but it still worked.
International tourists cluster beneath Melbourne Central’s famous musical clock as it opens up to reveal Australia’s famous birds
Have you seen or heard any other famous clocks?
What about the clock at Melbourne’s National Art Gallery – what would it feel like to be trapped in a time warp, or trapped inside a clock?
There are famous bells like this ship’s bell in Shetland and the one aboard the Rainbow Warrior – exciting tales of shipwrecks and rescues make a great story with plenty of sounds of the sea and storms:
Sound – the waves crashed on the rocks, the gulls screaming above. Sight – the heavy, grey rocks look as if they will slide into the leaden sea. Touch -the wind lifts my hair and sudden gusts sting my face. Taste – the spray from the waves leave salt on my lips
Do you have a travel tale? A character who goes on a spiritual journey?
There are pictures of churches and temples and tourist attractions to inspire imagination or memory –
Home Delivery of Milk
Sometimes photos remind us of how sex-segregated occupations were in years past. When I was young, librarians were primarily female and milk was delivered by males. Many streets had a post where the horse-drawn milk delivery cart could be tied up.
When I migrated to Croydon in 1962 there was still a horse trough in the main street. And in Mordialloc in the 80s there was one outside Davis’ Laundry in Bear Street. (horse trough and laundry both gone)
The horse always knew where to stop on the route and wait until the milkman delivered the bottles. When I arrived in Australia as a nine-year-old, I thought it was wonderful to have a horse and cart bring the milk and often cadged a ride from the milkman.
Did you ever talk to the milkman or his horse? Feed it? Collect the manure for the garden? Describe a scene you remember including sounds, smells, taste.
Was milk delivered to your home when you were young? If so, did the milkman bring any other items? Can you remember a coalman, firewood being delivered, soft drink (Loys), the iceman? Did you have a refrigerator or an icebox?
Great grandparents may have kept the milk cool in a small stream that ran across their property, or in a bath of cold water. Write about your childhood memories of home deliveries of milk and possibly other groceries.
How often were the deliveries? Daily? Can you remember when deliveries stopped – how did you or your parents feel? Were you over-awed at the first supermarket visit? Were you friendly with the milk bar or corner shop owners?
Have you had home deliveries during the lockdown?How different was that experience from earlier days? Can you imagine home deliveries for a range of goods resuming by drone??
What things are better left in the past and what’s your ideal future?
In the mornings, when the light of day is breaking do you imagine you can still hear the sound of glass milk bottles in wire baskets heading to your front door?
Did you go to the local dairy and get milk and bottles of cream in glass jars?
Reflect on how the way you shop and what you shop for has changed – emphasising sound.
Here is a Facebook meme that made me smile because I still have one of these by my bedside!
Writers describe a sound when the situation draws attention to it – a door creaks, so your protagonist turns her head. They can also use a sound for effect – to get on the reader’s nerves, to alarm or relax them. The soothing babble of a little brook is comforting but the shrieking sound of nails scratching over a chalkboard, the exact opposite.
Has a sudden or particular sound frightened you? Acoustic shock effects are deeply ingrained in most readers. The sudden uproar of a roaring chainsaw is frightening enough, but if it is wielded by a madman bent on murder, you’ve got your shock value!
Nowadays, if writing sci-fi you’d be describing the noise of lightsabers!
Good writers use all the senses to give readers a multi-dimensional experience. Using the senses evokes feelings and responses in the reader.
Senses like sight, sound, and smell can also build tension.
When you’re writing, think about using all the senses to allow your readers to immerse themselves in the world and lives of the characters. Try to incorporate these into your writing.
The most engrossing books are the ones that draw us into their world and evoke many sensations and emotions.
The reader doesn’t just experience what the main character can see. Using sounds and smells can evoke pain and fear.
Great writers make our mouths water as we read about sumptuous feasts, gasp as the main character touches something that they’re not supposed to and grimace when they taste a bitter berry that could be poisonous.
Write a little every day, without hope and without despair.
We are still in stage 3 Lockdown and still practising social distancing – but not from our pens or computer keyboard!
It’s easy to write poorly, but it’s hard to write poorly every day. Wait. Let’s go back a step: It’s hard to write every day.
Writing is a craft and like all crafts there are techniques to improve your work and to make it stand out from others. One such writing technique or device is personification.
PERSONIFICATION is giving human qualities, feelings, actions or characteristics to an inanimate or non-human object. This can include giving human characteristics to animals or animal characteristics to humans or even writing a story from an object’s point of view.
For example: the window winked at me (winking is a human action, the window is an object); the tree clawed at me – tree branches are not human arms.
Personification enriches poetry and prose and may be culturally biased because writers experiment, they express their emotions, reflect their upbringing and education and life experience. They will write personal views of certain human attributes, cultural perceptions, and sayings when they write creatively.
Personification is probably the most common figure of speech we come across and most of us use examples several times a day in speech and writing without realising we do.
Personificationinjects human behaviour into material objects or abstract concepts.
Advertisers and marketers use it to sell products all the time. For example: health educators will try to make vegetables exciting to children.
We talk about shoes killing us, colours screaming, a furious sea battering the coastline, a doona smothering us, the wind crying, howling or whispering…
TV adverts talk about cancer as if it is a bullying soldier, an invading army, an enemy of the state… if you have cancer we must battle it.
A house might be a demanding baby to be soothed by a coat of paint…
Pay attention to the seductive ditties, words, arguments in marketing and you’ll understand the value of personification to persuade an audience, drawing them into a world they identify.
Contemplating our own mortality is a struggle and confronting – death is a taboo subject to many families and cultures, so we use personification to describe our feelings:
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament – usually named as war, famine, disease and death.
We have depicted death as a serious farm worker (the Grim Reaper) – remember the Aids campaign?
An old woman with a broom (always witch-like) also used to represent death!
There are various representations for someone described as a fox: a sly old fox, a silver-haired fox, a vixen, a good hunter, an evil marauder, a thief, a murderer… depends on your point of view or experience of foxes and what the story is about.
It’s so easy to personify that many poets don’t realise they’re doing it. Be mindful of your personification tools and use them sparingly.
Don’t be obscure – if you are writing about a gymnast, readers shouldn’t think you are writing about a light bulb or a tree.
In Emily Dickinson’s poem Death is a gentleman with impeccable good manners –
Because I could not stop for Death He Kindly stopped for me The Carriage held but just Ourselves And Immortality.
Personificationcan pack a punch.
In 1819, cavalry charged into an unarmed crowd of men, women and children demanding parliamentary reform in Manchester, in the north of England.
About 20 people died and over 400 wounded. The tragedy shocked the country, and it became known as the Peterloo Massacre (the battle of Waterloo occurred four years earlier.)
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem about the incident reveals his anger and contempt for the politicians fighting the reforms and who he blames for the shocking tragedy:
I met Murder on the way He had a mask like Castlereagh Next came Fraud, and he had on, Like Eldon, an ermined gown; His big tears, for he wept well, Turned to mill-stones as they fell, And the little children, who Round his feet played to and from, Thinking every tear a gem, Had their brains knocked out by them
Personification can reduce big concepts, events, even people or authority to a level we can understand. It can turn the ordinary into something extraordinary, memorable, or at least something we see with new eyes.
What kind Of Person?
Decide what kind of personal traits or career each of the following could be. Write a sentence or perhaps write a character profile for a story:
In case you are uninspired or unsure, I’ve shared a range of responses from past students:
A shark – a used car salesman, someone in marketing, a predator A goat– a good climber, a person who eats anything, someone with a ravenous appetite, a stubborn old goat, mindless, randy, agile, nimble, single-minded, socially and physically active A worm – a bookworm, wriggly, a crawler, worm their way into affections, slimy, shy, retiring A rabbit – skittery, timid, shy, bright-eyed, brainless, harmless, breed like a rabbit, sexually irresponsible, randy, cuddly, fluffy bunny A leech – clingy, bloodsucker, parasite, ingratiating, an invader, An elephant – good memory, solid, stoic, get with the strength, clumsy, blunders, too big for their boots A snake – slithery, slippery, dishonest, shedding skin, a fake, a bigamist, dangerous, untrustworthy A wombat– hides away, muddleheaded, determined, a night worker, sleepy, retiring type A lamb – innocent, vulnerable, frolics, gambols, meek, religious person, a follower A rat– selfish, sneaky, dangerous, untrustworthy, crafty, survivor, deserter, attacker, insatiable
When the sun entered the room, he threw his bright light into a dark corner.
Her warm orange glow made everyone feel better.
In the evening, she is a buxom wench in flame-coloured taffeta.
He is the centre of our world, and the day pivots around him.
The shadow crept around the building as furtive as a thief.
She huddled cold and forlorn in the shadow, praying for rescue.
The bushfire raged throughout the night, destroying everything in his path.
Thunder & Lightning
The thunder roared and lightning flashed and she knew the two giants would fight all night.
The earthquake swallowed the city in several angry bites.
We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.
Cat on Condominium Rooftop Mairi Neil
Soaking up the sun
green eyes ignore life below
people scurry to work
forget to look up
marching ants trudge
to soulless jobs
drones on daily grind
a boring bind.
No such limitations for the cat
rising and stretching limbs
warm tiles a luxurious bed
to sleep and dream of
the tramp of footsteps
cacophony of voices
fading rising fading rising
the daily grind
not his bind.
A butterfly flitters past
pauses briefly on a tree branch
trembling wings bathed in sunlight
green eyes blink, a paw twitches
but passersby unaware
of Mother Nature’s show
weary feet tramp and trudge
the daily grind
grips and binds
An elegant stretch, the cat sits
to watch the dying sun
green eyes observe life below
people scurrying home from work
forgetting to look up
they’ve missed the sunshine
the butterfly’s graceful dance
the cat’s sunny somnolence
their daily grind
a soulless bind
Write about a character or an event and use personification. Here are some sentences that could start you off –
The cloud scattered rain throughout the city.
The ancient car groaned into third gear.
The daffodils nodded their yellow heads as we walked up the path.
The wind sang her mournful song through the rafters of the barn
The microwave’s alarm told me it was time to eat my TV dinner
The camcorder observed the whole tragedy
The chocolate cake begged to be eaten
The crockery danced on the shelves when the door slammed
Look around the room, or your home, your workplace, your garden, the local park, a cafe, a place you visit regularly… (some of these will be from memory because of COVID-19!)
Think about inanimate objects and other everyday items – what kind of vocabulary do they have?
The sturdy, dark brown bookcase in the corner- is it male or female? Cheerful or depressed?
Could the corkscrew on the bar be on a diet, have a memory of failure?
Is the bargain basement table sneaky or does it feel second best?
An antique, leather armchair and an Ikea stool do similar jobs, but do they have different ways of looking at the world
How do you feel about computers? Have you been frustrated and yelled at the computer – how did it answer?
What stories about clocks do you have? Write about your favourite or least favourite alarm clock – perhaps it is a baby’s cry and not a clock at all!
You may have the same bed after a failed marriage but does it feel the same – maybe miss the previous occupant?
What stories have you about trees in your garden – removing them, perhaps one fell down and damaged something, perhaps you always got fruit and bottled it, had a tree house… do you talk to the trees and do they answer you?
Those Wedgewood plates you inherited – do they have the same thoughts as you – do they feel fragile, overused, useless, precious?
One of my favourite poets, Scotland’s Rabbie Burns (1759 – 1796), said ‘the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley‘ a truism for most of us because at least once or twice in life we have planned to do something and the plan fails for personal or external reasons within our control, or not.
My plan, to blog every day to help myself and others write through the COVID-19 crisis fell by the wayside over Easter. Each day since there have been medical appointments, other events or just sheer procrastination leaving a post unwritten.
Rather than beat myself up over the failure, I’ll cling to the good intention and try not to fail again but if I do, it is not the end of the world!
I’ve experienced many failures and the whole gamut of reasons to explain writing poorly or not writing – as I’m sure many others have – so while staying home, staying safe and staying positive, here are some more ideas to conquer the isolation blues!
Where Do Stories Come From And What Can We Do With Them
“Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.”
Many things trigger memories and usually, when we want to be imaginative and creative we draw on our own experience or what we have seen, read about, or heard.
Originality is rarely found in the idea but in the words you use, the perspective, interpretation, and presentation of your story. Christopher Booker in his 2005 book The Seven Basic Plots, Why we tell stories listed those plots as:
Overcoming the Monster
Rags to Riches
Voyage and return
Of course, these headings leave plenty of scope for you to exercise your imagination!
However, it is the emotional engagement a writer creates for the reader/audience that makes the difference. Characters, storyline, conflict and setting contribute to making a story memorable too.
An accomplished creative writer can take any one of these basic plots into the realm of a great, entertaining read with perhaps a life-changing effect on the reader.
Today we’ll have fun with words
Word suggestions – A quick exercise in writing triggered by a pair of words – often mismatched. Write whatever comes into your head, a poem or piece of prose, a ditty or an observation. Perhaps the germ of an idea saved for later to be expanded into an anecdote or story.
These are random word pairs I’ve picked from Wordplay – mix and match, pick one or all of them:
As always with these exercises, if you set a timer for 10-15 minutes, or set yourself a time to write, that little bit of pressure can nudge the muse.
This dinosaur poop is a real scoop
The grinning newspaper reporter said
As he munched a banana and bounced a ball
And watched his rival go red.
He hinted the newspaper’s chief editor
thought him top dog, a diamond find
His rival’s eyes glared, tongue clicked
thinking a punch might change his mind
But alas he’d be fired like a rocket
And this boastful nut continue to smirk
So like a ship with a good compass
He went to bed to ignore the horse-faced jerk
Crazy headlines – you are given several cards – use them all or discard the ones that don’t fit. Create a headline and then write a short story or article to match the headline, or depending what newspaper or magazine is leading the charge, and what genre your writing, perhaps the story can be as absurd as the game!
For an extra exercise of your writing muscles rewrite the story in the style of several newspapers from tabloid to academic, print to online…
Today, a packed Supreme Court was shocked to hear that one of its own judges was crooked. It is alleged that Judge Lilow aided and abetted the infamous Jessica James who is wanted in three continents for fraud and money laundering.
Ms James, an American tourist became Judge Lilow’s lover before embroiling him in shady dealings. The judge remains in custody and is said to be angry and ready to turn Queen’s evidence since he discovered that he is not the first senior judge to fall for Jessica James. The 25-year-old tourist is an expert in manipulating older men proving that there is no fool like an old fool!
Rememory – share a memory – a character (could be you, a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, cousin, or friend), place the character in a setting (a season, work, night or day…) and a topic – could be a word, a phrase, an idea, a comment…
Write a story, true or false, your own memory or someone else’s.
It can be a definite season or the season of life, Spring can mean April or September depending on the hemisphere, or the springtime in your life. Likewise work, school or time of day. Interpret the way it works for you.
Who is your main character? It’s okay if you want to start with ‘I remember’ or ‘once upon a time’, or ‘I don’t know for sure but I imagine my grandmother did/said/thought’ or ‘I wonder if my mum/dad ever… ‘
By evoking the person (character) and season/setting take whatever topic or word you were given and let it lead you to the door of memory… open the door and write about a real life experience or complete fantasy.
Here are some random scenarios I’ve picked for your inspiration, again you can mix and match, swap words or settings – whatever the muse dictates:
You, Spring, the object that doesn’t want to get thrown away, laundry
Brother or sister, Autumn, reading material, the natural world
Grandparent, Night, restaurant, how love was expressed
Parent, Work, breaking the law, sports event
Friend or cousin, School, storm, stood out from the rest
You, Winter, money for nothing, patience
Brother or sister, Summer, when they were happiest, birthday
Grandparent, Winter, what the handwriting was like, hobby
Parent, Night, rejection, where people gather in silence
Friend or cousin, Autumn, chores, haven’t been there in a long time
Take a deep breath before writing, draw on your thoughts, memories, ideas!
It’s okay if what you remember seems small, or inadequate, hardly worth mentioning – small is BIG, even small memories can illuminate the great themes of our lives!
Write whatever you want to write and enjoy writing – memoir, poetry, essay, fiction, creative non-fiction…
Your memories and life experience can take you just about anywhere you choose and you can write on any subject matter as diverse as paint, divorce, singing, food, travel, dancing … whatever
Friends, family, neighbours or colleagues – you have a lifetime of characters to choose from or imagine.
The Chocolate Box Mairi Neil
I open up the chocolate box,
lift out a piece of lace,
crushed and yellowed, badly stained
the condition a disgrace!
My eyes spy a matching piece,
needing examination too
discover a pair of baby shoes
crocheted with love when new.
I gently remove other treasures
the box has stored within ––
a ration book, faded cards and letters,
felt needle case and Mizpah pin.
Why had these particular items
earned the right to be kept?
A legacy of more than eight decades –
with no one left to ask – I wept.
Major upheavals rocked the world
adding turmoil to Mum’s life
but perhaps the profound change
was becoming a mother and a wife.
I caressed again the contents -–
this chocolate box of delight,
pondering a girl becoming a woman,
–– and imagination took flight.
A journey spanning continents,
Working, birthing, building a home
Mum, I promise you, I whisper,
your stories will fill a tome.
With a grieving, weighted heart
and pressure of unwept tears
I write so she won’t be forgotten
hoping words survive the years.
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.
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
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…
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
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…
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!
‘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
“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?
radiators heating up
fish – oysters
a new car
BBQ – meat or onions
roast or curry,
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!
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:
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.
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.
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:
Why is this on the front porch?
‘I’ve got to get out of these clothes—fast.‘
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.
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.”
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.
As always – feel free to share the post and ideas, or any work you’ve been inspired to write:)
Winter isn’t supposed to start until June in Australia, but yesterday and today in Mordialloc, after torrential rain most of the night, we woke to a decidedly, wintry chill.
When I opened the door to take Josie for her walk, a cold blast of wind from the sea had collected the temperature from the South Pole and Josie gave me a look that said, ah, now I know why you put that coat on!
For those who don’t know, Melbourne has a reputation of ‘four seasons in the one day‘ so this quick turnaround in the weather (temperatures dropping from low 20s to 8 degrees) doesn’t really come as a surprise.
However, it is still autumn and I’ve always advised overseas friends to visit Melbourne in autumn, the season when I think the city looks its best. Here’s hoping the icy blast is an aberration and not the future because of climate change, the other catastrophe we face along with COVID 19!
Autumn Mairi Neil
Autumn… a time to enjoy
the clocks changed
an extra hour
To snuggle beneath the doona
Autumn… a season with warm days
pretending summer still around
walks in the park
crunching leaves underfoot
Autumn… a time of colour
rainbows drop from trees
playing peek-a-boo through fences
Autumn… a season to pause
contemplate winter’s chill
prepare body and soul
with warming soups and good books
Autumn… a time of contemplation
Easter story and ANZAC
Love and hope the best human qualities
Write down your thoughts on autumn, or any other season for that matter?
Think of the likes and dislikes, the activities you can or can’t do,
Other parts of the world are heralding spring and as I discovered when I visited Siberiain April 2017, there are places where winter lingers longer than others.
And if you live in the Pacific Islands, summer seems to last all year. Here is the survival kit I advise everybody to have when they visit Samoa like I did!
No matter where you live you can write about the seasons and if you have been lucky enough to travel there is the added material of comparison and maybe even the awe factor depending on where and when you travelled.
Look at any photographs to jog your memory and help add colour and authenticity to your stories if you describe what you see.
Some countries specialise in having breathtaking seasons like Cherry Blossom time in Japan, where I was fortunate to visit in 1984. Here is a short piece about the trip. cherry blossom time by Mairi Neil
I also wrote some haiku after the visit – that’s almost compulsory!
Haiku Mairi Neil
Cherry blossoms fall
pink velvet raindrops
Tranquil and silent
old men hushed
as blossoms on ground
Children play peek-a-boo
the change in the wind
Vibrant colours everywhere
blossoms float and fall
brightening my day
What is your favourite season?
What season do you dislike?
Write a short story so we know what season it is but don’t mention the name of the season
Write a story about the main character forgetting to change the clocks.
have you ever forgotten to change the clocks? What happened – were there consequences?
Choose a group of words and write a story, poem, anecdote – set a time limit of 10-20 minutes – this would be the average writing time in a class. You can change the form of the word but try and include them all.
Remember – leave your writing for a day or two and then reread, edit, rewrite:)
Playful Seasons Mairi Neil
In dewy meadow, Spring flowers bright
buttercups bloom, a magnificent sight
while strolling upon this carpet of gold
a test is remembered from days of old
a yellow flower waved under the chin
do you like butter, we asked with a grin.
In dewy meadow, under strong Summer sun
childhood revisited as we have some fun
clumps of wild daisies smile up at me
their perfect white petals fluttering free
a bunch of daisies transformed with love
necklace and bracelet feather soft as a dove
In dewy meadow, Autumn leaves fall
dandelions transform into puffballs
with gentle breaths, we blow and blow
discovering Time as spores drift like snow
one o’clock, two o’clock –– maybe three
until naked stem is all we can see.
In dewy meadow, Winter walks are brisk
the puddles ice over putting feet at risk
I spy a toddler wearing bright rubber boots
splashing in puddles, not giving two hoots
a flashback to childhood appears in the rain
it’s worth wet socks to feel carefree again.
How many Seasons Are There? Does Australia Have More Than Four?
In 2014, Dr Tim Entwisle, the director of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens wrote a book called, Sprinter and Sprummerchallenging the traditional four seasons, and encouraging Australians to think about how we view changes in our natural world. He said, since 1788, Australia has carried the yoke of four European seasons that make no sense in most parts of the country.
When he was on the ABC to explain his book and ideas he stirred up interest, support, antagonism and fascination. Many people agreed with the author that the reality for Australia is many more seasons than the traditional four but few liked Sprinter and Sprummer as names!
Living in Sydney, London and now Melbourne, I’m convinced that the four traditional seasons don’t make sense in Australia. My proposal is that we instead have five seasons based on the climatic and biological cycles we observe around us.
… minutes, hours, days and months are the way we organise our lives—sowing crops, attending job interviews, picking up kids from child care, playing footy, getting our hair cut and so on. Seasons are for noting, celebrating and tracking the changes in the world around us. If we get them wrong we don’t lose our crop, job or children.
It’s a tweaking of the current system. The familiar anchors, summer and winter, are there, but the bits in between and the duration of the seasons are adjusted for the southern Australian climate…
We could embrace one of the Aboriginal seasonal systems, but I fear this might be just too radical for most Australians (who, contrary to popular belief, are a rather conservative people)…
Then there is climate change and the fact that the seasons are changing, whether we like it or not. Perhaps we need an evolving system of seasons. However, we should at least get it right in the first place and try to reflect, if not our specific region, then large sections of the country.
There are no perfect or correct seasons. I am happy for my system to be rigorously debated and tested, and I would be thrilled if, through more people observing and monitoring the natural world, I have to totally redesign it.
In the South West of WA – there are some widely acknowledged Noongar Seasons which correspond well with what is suggested in the article.
People in Melbourne should also visit the Indigenous Garden and Forest display at the museum (after lockdown is over) and learn what our indigenous people call the seasons – and there are more than the arbitrary four we cling to, although I have devoted past posts to writing about winter.
What are your thoughts on Sprinter and Sprummer? Have you alternative names?
How do you cope with the seasons – is there a special ritual attached to your changing seasons, maybe they should be called that eg. Vegetable planting season, tree trimming season, burning-off season …
in suburbia, it could be tourist season and roadworks season
or maybe we should have flu and COVID19 season and healthy season…
There will be plenty of creative writing around coping with COVID19 and speculation as to how the world coped with the global crisis.
Writers draw inspiration from observing the world, people, situations, politics, trends – we are all opinionated! Sometimes it is good to let your thoughts marinate and have the benefit of hindsight or reflection.
Most people are worried about the next few months but many are also planning the shape of the world’s recuperation and recovery:
The Fall of 2016
For some the change of seasons
can be bitter chocolate…
Autumn succumbs to winter,
days darken like spiced cider
and blackened bark,
heralding winter’s deadly cull,
lauding lifeless landscapes.
Sticks and stones underfoot
not grassy knolls or mossy rounds.
Colourful autumn foliage invites
Frog Pond green
But like Wall Street’s
soulless stock surprises
and the rust belt of America’s
winter winds bluster
sweeping lonely leaves loose…
Colours crunched to mush
Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
until Mother Nature’s miracle
And a tiny shoot springs to life.
We Always Need Hope especially In Today’s World
Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the conviction that something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences.
Hope is the quality of character that sustains belief under seemingly impossible situations – when kindness seems impossible or poverty inevitable or when the world seems cruel and life unbearable.
People encounter sources of hope in the imagination, in the words and examples of others, and in witness to the natural wonders around us every day.
Hope does not extinguish suffering but sustains the belief that there can be an end to it, if not in your own life, then in the future. And so hope propels you into action.
And just because it has been so wet this weekend, here’s a reminder we are a country of ‘drought and flooding rains’ with a poem and a piece of flash fiction written in class splurge time A Roof Over One’s Head by Mairi Neil
Flash Storm Flushes and Flusters Mairi Neil
Who will be the first to drown
from the heavens challenge
of a waterfall tumbling down?
‘Not me,’ said those with umbrellas held high
‘Nor me,’ said others huddled inside and dry.
‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’
Thunder roared and growled –
was that a lightning flash?
People braved the downpour
and made a dash – for bus shelters
snuggled close to strangers – others
crossed streets ignoring dangers.
‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’
Any port in a storm a cliche true
doorways and porches home
for more than drenched few
downpipes sagged and gushed
collapsed under watery weight
surging water made rivers of roads
scheduled transport cancelled or late.
‘I don’t care,’ cried the child with glee
splashing in puddles; yelling, ‘Look at me!’
Soaked, sodden, and shivering
commuters crowd tram, train and bus
meteorological or seasonal confusion?
No, – it’s Melbourne – no need to fuss.
Who cares? cries the inner child with glee –
splashing in puddles looks fun to me!
How we talk and what we say is part of our personality and our character. Others will often judge us by our speech (the content as well as manner), may even identify us by the way we talk.
For instance, because I still have a recognisable accent people will refer to me as ‘that Scotswoman’,’the Scots lass’, ‘the lady with an accent’, ‘the woman who speaks funny’, ‘Jock’, ‘the Pommy’, ‘the Brit’, ‘the Irish one’ – I’ve also had variations not so complimentary ‘the foreigner’, ‘the red-ragger’ ‘that wog’ …
What you say and how you say it is important. It is important in real life and therefore is important in writing– with a few tricks and rules of what not to do thrown in.
People pick up your mood by your tone of voice – those who know you will not only pick up the obvious mood but also the nuances.
You know, how a domestic scene can play out:
Do you like my new dress?
A few seconds pause.
Of course, I do, dear.
You didn’t even look.
Yes, I did dear.
No, you didn’t.
Remote Control for TV is grabbed, stabbed and television silenced.
You can have a really good look now.
Hmmm. Very… nice… dear.
Dialogue Is Important
But it can be difficult to write so that it sounds natural. you don’t want your characters to sound like a talking statue – wooden, without warmth, boring, unrealistic…
Dialogue is difficult to master as a writer. You have to constantly work at it to sound natural but you can’t be over the top with accents or else characters can become caricatures.
Most people don’t speak in grammatical or even complete sentences but you can’t write in all the ums and ahs either. There has to be a balance.
It is as author Stephen King advises,
“Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft.”
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino adds,
“If I’m doing my job right, then I’m not writing dialogue; the characters are saying the dialogue, and I’m just jotting it down.”
This is what I tried to do in a class exercise years ago – the students could choose a picture as a prompt and had to write more than one voice into the scene without using he said, she said etc. A Fishy Story by Mairi Neil
Try these simple exercises—
• Go to a busy place andlisten to people. Dialogue moves a story along quite quickly but it must sound authentic.
At the moment with COVID-19 if you are in lockdown, you will have to rely on memory or eavesdrop on neighbours or whoever is sharing your house, or put on a DVD of a film or watch a documentary, game show, (even adverts) to make notes of conversations. (Scroll down for exercises)
If people are with friends or family, they will speak more naturally. Find someone who is sitting with a friend and listen (don’t be too intrusive or you might be accused of stalking or receive threats with violence for being rude and nosy!).
If you’re in a coffee shop, you might overhear people talking to friends about what’s been going on in their life. This is the best way to hear a conversation you can write as natural dialogue. For me, the best inspiration for stories and dialogue tips found when travelling on public transport.
The old man eased into the seat opposite and raised his trilby. His courteous nod revealed a bald patch atop thinning grey hair. A Lancashire brogue boomed, ‘Morning ma’am, Fred’s the name, pension bludger’s me game.’
Doris smiled. In her cultured Australian accent, she said, ‘I’m Doris and I’m retired too.’
‘I’m eighty-five,’ Fred said waving a gnarled hand, ‘and feeling it today.’ His rheumy blue eyes darted from Doris to other passengers engrossed in conversation or plugged into mp3 players. ‘ I don’t know why I’m still alive,’ he added with a fit of coughing.
Brown eyes widened as Doris squirmed in the vinyl seat; picked at an imaginary spot on her linen skirt. In a barely audible voice, she said, ‘I’m eighty-five too and thank God for still being here.’ She blinked. ‘Many of my friends aren’t.’
Fred adjusted silver-rimmed spectacles slipping close to the edge of his hooked nose. He rubbed at his short beard; licked creased lips. A garden gnome coming to life flashed into Doris’s mind, but her smile disappeared when he said, ‘I don’t believe in God or Eternal Life. Don’t worry about shuffling off. Don’t give a toss what happens when I die.’
Doris kneaded her wedding ring and clasped her hands to still restless fingers. Fair eyelashes flickered behind tortoiseshell glass frames as she noted Fred’s blue-grey cotton bomber-jacket and matching trousers, his fashionable fine-checked shirt. Tieless, but neat; plus his black leather loafers gleamed and screamed ex-army. Arthur always said, ‘you can tell an ex-serviceman by their polished shoes.’ He was inevitably right.
Not wanting to give offence, she chose her words, adopting the placating tone she used when her husband got in one of his moods. ‘Our generation, who served throughout the war, question what we were taught to believe.’ She tensed thin shoulders. ‘A wiser power than us will reveal the truth when ready.’
Fred ignored the last sentence. ‘That’s right love, eight years in the Royal Navy – joined up for the duration and stayed on a bit.’ His voice flattened, ‘survived being bombed, being sunk twice and,’ he ended with a flourish, ‘bad grub and too much grog.’
Doris laughed. Students sitting nearby smirked, the plump matron lowered her magazine. Doris thought of Arthur and the legacy of his experience. The tram stuttered past towering office blocks, darkened inside as a large cloud swallowed the sun. She shivered. Did Fred suffer night sweats and awful dreams? She remembered Arthur’s flashbacks of the trauma of his war; his years of heavy drinking. Did Fred’s wife contend with erratic and sometimes violent outbursts amid his jolliness?
She forced her attention to the present as her companion said, ‘I had eight brothers you know –– and they’re all dead. I’m the lucky last!’ He paused. ‘Well, I don’t know about luck, but I’m the bloody last.’
from Just for The Moment, Mairi Neil
• Watch a good movie. Quentin Tarantino movies are known for their excellent dialogue, but there’s an endless list of what you can watch to improve your writing. Dialogue is usually well planned in films for maximum value. There’s only a limited amount of time to say something on the screen. The film is a great reference for studying good AND bad dialogue.
• Write a scenewhere each character can only say one sentence. How will you convey what they’re trying to say and move the story along with a limited amount of dialogue? This will also help you improve your descriptive writing. Remember, sometimes less is more when it comes to dialogue. You want to show your readers what’s going on, not tell them.
• Watch a clip from either a TV show or a movie, and rewrite the dialogue in that scene. How can you improve it? What can be cut out? What can be added? This will help you understand dialogue and how you can improve your own.
Be a good observer and listener
Identify some key variables and play with them. if you write good dialogue, the reader feels they are in the story with the character. They are right there and can hear the voice. You have to avoid just having talking heads with no real action or using the dialogue to dump a lot of information rather than move the story forward.
Think back and analyse a recent conversation and ask these questions:
What was said?
How was it said?
Who said it?
Why was it said?
How did you perceive it?
If you can remember the last argument, debate or disagreement you had or witnessed even better to capture it in words.
If you can “hear” the character’s voice in your head, that’s better than any worksheet. Think of the key variables influencing dialogue:
Perhaps goals and agendas, characters’ knowledge of each other, characters’ attitudes toward each other, relative status of the characters …
What type of vocabulary does a character use (formal, slang, profane, simple sophisticated… )
How does the character structure their sentences (hesitations, complex or simple, fragmented, long-winded… )
What attitude or tone of voice does the character have (abrupt, sarcastic, imperious, humble, polite, rude, boastful, flirtatious, angry, pedantic… )
What subject matter or commentary does the character prefer ( egotistic, talking about self, sensitive, gossipy, apologetic, religious, anxious, worried about money, bombastic…)
It is also important to remember that silence or a pause in a scene can be realistic dialogue and reveal more about the character and plot development than pages of dialogue or telling.
Action is the best way to show external conflict and dialogue and internalisation by the character (thoughts) the best ways to present the internal struggles.
Your Turn To Write
I’ve chosen some pictures of scenes that scream story – you can manipulate the setting and people to any country or era you choose.
I love Edward Hopper‘s paintings – they are evocative of an America from an era I remember in movies, television shows and many novels.
These pictures are from a beautiful book of his most famous works I picked up in a wonderful bookshop in Melbourne’s centre. They sold Remainder hardback stock at a fraction of the original cost. I’ve never been in a job with a high salary but when I was young and single and working in the city in the 70s and 80s, I haunted Mary Martin’s bookshop.
Throughout his career, Edward Hopper was concerned with the relationship between “the facts” of observation and the improvisation that happened when making a work of art. Use your imagination and write about the characters.
Reveal their personalities and character through dialogue as well as behaviour.
Things to think about:
You can write from the point of view of one character – what is their goal or agenda?
Does the non-point of view character have a hidden agenda? What is their backstory?
Change one character’s attitude toward the other
Change one character’s knowledge about the other.
Change the relative status between the characters (increase or decrease the difference in status, or swap their statuses)
If these pictures don’t spark your imagination then practise writing dialogue by:
Write a scene with two characters having an extremely tense conversation in a peaceful setting such as
the botanical gardens,
an avenue of cherry blossom trees,
an empty beach
an empty church
Imagine a courtroom scene or a police interview room, a telephone conversation between a teenager and parent, or a scene at a reception desk where there has been a mistake with a booking.
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
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.
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
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.
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…
Set the mood in the first paragraph and write on the theme of friendship or sacrifice
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:
You never reach the promised land. You can march towards it. (IDEALISM)
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)
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)
If grass can grow through cement, love can find you at every time in your life. (LOVE)
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:)
I’ve been inspired to write poetry as well as short stories or personal essays to explain memorable experiences:
Visiting Singapore 1973 – a haibun Mairi Neil
We crowd on deck as the cruise ship glides into Singapore harbour, a week after leaving Fremantle. The silver sun aglow in a cloudless azure sky. Skin fiery scarlet from too many hours in the ship’s pool as Singapore City wobbles and wilts in the heat.
I ache for relief
from this tantalising veil
and covet the sea
Engines thrum and screeches of gulls mask the first hint a change is on the way. Rain falls in sheets and shafts. Solid blocks of water pound the decks.
Clouds scud across sky
the veil now a fog blanket
hiding the city.
Beneath our feet racing rivers fill deck gutters and our shoes. On automatic pilot, we slosh for cover, although there is no icy wind in this downpour.
No unsettling chill
just instant relief
from relentless heat
Rain hammers metal, swamps furniture and people, drenching everything not covered. Metal rails hiss. Steam sizzles on the shrinking, not sinking ship. No crevice escapes. A continuous stream of trickles and dribbles demonstrates the power of this deluge.
A turmoil of grey
idyllic tropics in grip
of monsoonal rain
Yet, within minutes, the ship docks and the downpour stops as quickly as it began. Singapore city a perfect watercolour painting showcases sunlight and serenity. The tropical shower and haze but a dream as perspiration leaks from every pore.
Share Your Travel Memories
Once you have organised a story – or many – enjoy the pleasure of armchair travel and swap with those in isolation with you. Or share online via Skype, Face Time or Zoom. The digital tools available ensure your photos or slides will be more entertaining than the slide shows of old.
I remember more than a few family and friends falling asleep when I showed my China slides in 1979!
However, when I taught at Sandybeach Centre 20 years ago, they ran a regular program for people with limited mobility called Armchair Travel, and I volunteered one afternoon to share my China travels. I had learnt to choose the most interesting slides for that audience. I targeted correctly and they retained interest and were appreciative. Make sure your pitch matches your readers, listeners or viewers:)
Anyone who travelled in the 50s – 70s will remember those family slide nights before Super 8 movies superseded the modern version of ‘magic lantern’ shows in village halls.
Updates when friends travel flood social media with Facebook and Instagram designed for travel photos more than any other.
But these pics are soon forgotten unless you put them into context with words. Write a few sentences about each pic or retell your experiences over a beer or cuppa.
What Travel Experience Can You Write About?
Think and share what made your travel experience different from those of thousands of others. Even if you haven’t travelled overseas or interstate you have a travel story because you can write about your neighbourhood and everyday journeys.
In 2012, Mordialloc Writers’ Group published our 8th collection of poems and stories, Off The Rails, around the theme of the Frankston Railway Line – a journey thousands of people do daily and a topic the 21 featured writers embraced with relish and creativity.
You might have journeyed on the Orient Express, the Trans Siberian, the Flying Scotsman or Puffing Billy – write about:
why you made the journey
who was with you
the people you met
the best memory
the worst memory
if you would do it again
Remember too, those walks around the neighbourhood you are allowed during COVID19 can turn up ideas for stories – fictionalised if you want. Set a story in one of the houses that intrigues you or garden you admire…
Ask questions that you don’t know the answers to:
Who, what, why, when, where… and make up the answers!
I took these pictures this morning when walking the dog.
Who did the drawing? What was their motivation? How long will the drawings stay there?
Write up the reactions of people – good and bad – was seeing them transformational for someone? Did it trigger memories?
The drawing of Frida Kahlo stunning for a child or teenager to draw – could be the start of an intriguing mystery or a memory of a visit to Mexico?
There are houses with bears or pictures of bears in the window – I’ve put my bear outside yet there are no children living here now.
Your characters in the story don’t have to be obvious or stereotypical.
A house advertised a birthday boy – 8 years old today. His party probably cancelled yet his parents found a way to make him feel special and stay connected to the outside world.
Write a story where you or your character has to find a creative solution to a problem.
How do you make someone feel special in this catastrophic time if you normally treat them to an outing?
What’s your funniest travel story?
Humour is a great way to make a story memorable and different from everyone else’s experience. The stuff-ups or unexpected laughs are usually the tales we recount first (and often) when we return from our trip.
Humorous framing or retelling can also ease the embarrassment or shame when you make a cultural faux pas or do something stupid like miss a flight, board the wrong train, get lost in a foreign city or say something strange in a foreign language you just learned.
Here is my tale of travelling with a young child in the 90s:
What is the strangest thing that has happened to you travelling?
What is the nicest (or most horrible) food you have eaten when travelling?
(A class exercise Monday 15th October 2012 )
Have You a Taste For Travel? Mairi Neil
When I went to Alice Springs in 2011, to walk the Larapinta Trail, I braced myself for the time when I would be offered a witchetty grub. I remembered a student, Amelia reading a story of her encounter with the delicacy when she worked as an infant welfare nurse in the Northern Territory in the 1950s. I didn’t want to shame myself by refusing and offending indigenous hosts if they offered me a meal.
Five giggling Aboriginal girls had arrived at Amelia’s house with outstretched hands, displaying half-a-dozen thick white grubs whose sluggish twists indicated they were still alive.
The girls’ gift a gesture to show Amelia she had been accepted by the community. Amelia assured me that once cooked, the grubs tasted meaty. She shared a picture of herself, sitting on the ground in a circle around a campfire, head tilted back and mouth open, ready to accept the long white grub poised above her. Her eyes sparkled as a friend snapped the photograph for posterity.
Could I be as gracious and adventurous as Amelia?
The thought of putting what looked like a fat white caterpillar into my mouth, never mind swallowing it, made me nauseous. I’ve always had what my mother referred to as a ‘weak’ stomach – perhaps if I closed my eyes I’d be able to eat enough not to offend. If I concentrated I’d be able to keep it down rather than gagging or vomiting – my usual reaction to nasty tastes.
The more I thought of eating witchetty grubs the more obsessed I became of what they would taste like. They looked shiny and soft. What meat could they be like with that texture? Perhaps they firmed when cooked. A vision of people crunching on cooked insects surfaced as I remembered the fascinating produce of street vendors when I visited China in 1979.
I remembered too, the constant dissection and examination of every meal on that tour by one of the other travellers in our group. She made me long for a Vegemite sandwich as she poked and dismembered every meal with chopsticks looking for evidence we were being served rat, cat or dog. Cultural assumptions and prejudices rife when it comes to food and her behaviour shameful.
Why I couldn’t I embrace a meal of witchetty grubs, when research provides evidence of their nutritional value? Was I riddled with prejudice too?
Near the end of the five-day trek in Central Australia, I had to face the witchetty grub dilemma. Throat constricted and mouth dry, I could barely form the words to ask our Aboriginal guide, Nicholas to describe the taste of the large fat witchetty grub wriggling in the palm of his hand.
Sweat bubbled on his lip from exertion. A streak of dirt above one eye where he’d wiped his brow, gave a warrior glint to his expression as he showed the delicacy with pride. Nicholas and his auntie had spent almost an hour digging at the roots of an acacia bush to retrieve the prize. ‘It tastes like the yolk of an egg,’ he said, ‘and has a similar texture.’
He watched me closely and must have seen the mix of emotions cross my face, perhaps heard the gulp as I tried to swallow. Egg is not one of my favourite tastes.
‘One witchetty grub,’ he said, almost to himself.
I realised how much he craved the wriggling grub in his hand but innate generosity obliged him to give it to me.
‘It’s not really big enough to share,’ I said. ‘You and auntie did all the hard work. Maybe I’ll taste them another day.’
Our smiles of relief a mirror match as Nicholas hurried away before I changed my mind.
What Armchair Travels Will You Create?
Can you match a photograph with a short poem like haiku or terse verse? I write this after a trip to Italy but it could apply to many famous places crowded with tourists. The joke about ‘exiting through the gift shop’ is very much a reality in our consumer-driven world. What do you think those communities are like now?
Write about what a place was like when you were there and research what it is like now and write a comparison.
Memories of Lago Di Garda, Italy Mairi Neil, 2013
Lake Garda absorbs the rainbow on her shores,
sways to the call of African and Indian hawkers,
moans softly as the Peler, a northern breeze,
blows from pine-clad slopes, and is
ready for the challenging midday switch
when Ora, a cooler wind, whistles from the south.
Reminiscent of a Norwegian Fjord
She is the lake who thinks she is the sea
Each afternoon she lifts the rocky hem
of her blue dress and sashays to pick at
sun-bleached pebbles or reedy soil.
Fat ducks and swans float and gossip. Gulls dive,
searching the lake’s belly for lunch or supper
Rumbling planes overhead ripple her dress
and she runs icy fingers through sandy frills
sparkling with a thousand scattered gems.
She ignores the constant drone of tourist motorbikes,
bicycles, cars and coaches speeding through galleries
built by Mussolini and prefers the memories of
Hannibal, Hardy, Goethe, Rilke and Wharton.
Torbole fishermen, tend boats and mend nets
as they have done since the fifteenth century,
amused and puzzled by modern foolishness,
their dark eyes follow colourful flapping sails.
Lake Garda’s duty is to be Madame Bountiful,
nurturing sardines, eels, carpione and trout.
Tourists and locals, promenade to and fro Riva
or ride the ferries that trust her arms.
Summer and winter sun attracts holidaymakers,
but Lake Garda indulges lovers of sports trophies,
scantily clad onlookers, and awestruck children
who worship at the shrine of physical prowess.
Lake Garda – the lake who thinks she is the sea.
More Writing Prompts
Write a prose poem about a place or a short story recreating the setting.
What memories are evoked?
Choose a place that makes you happy or sad; or two different places where you have had contrasting experiences. (Perhaps a childhood compared with adult experience, going somewhere alone compared with a trip with family or friends, seasonal visits – winter compared to summer, idyllic memories compared to the place after a natural disaster.)
Contrast the two places or the mixed feelings about the same place.
Write a HAIBUN ( a combination of prose and haiku) – about your journey/journeys.
HAIBUN (hie’-bun, the “u” pronounced as in “put”) A Japanese form in which a prose text is interspersed with verse, specifically haiku. A haiku typically appears at the end of a haibun, but other haiku may appear earlier, even at the beginning. Haibun often takes the form of a diary or travel journal.
Write a poem or story using the technique of an extended metaphor:
Life is a journey
Life is a mere dream
Life or love is a camera full of memories
Home was a prison
Have you ever had the holiday from hell?
Have You A Favourite Holiday destination?
Currumbin a Sanctuary of Serenity Mairi Neil, 2001
Looking from the balcony of our Currumbin holiday flat, the Pacific Ocean roared and vomited white foam onto the golden sand. This was not a beach for non-swimmers or the faint-hearted. Waves crashed against jagged rocks in the distance, massaging them smooth by the next millennium but the continuous licks and slaps hadn’t altered their shape in any noticeable way since my last visit.
I stared at the black shapes rising and disappearing in the waves. Dolphins or sharks? Then laughed as the black shape rose on a wave, stretched and balanced and fell. The group of dedicated surfers braving morning chill certainly needed wet suits, and their crouching and clinging in the force of the gigantic waves an amazing workout.
A group of rosellas arrive on the balcony. They line up on the railings waiting for the plate with seed, confident I will provide their breakfast. Chittering and hopping from ledge to chair back to patio tiles, they nag me to perform my act of goodwill.
Music drifts from above. A radio disc jockey drones, children’s sing-song chatter wafts from the swimming pool below, a van backfires in the distance and the pump that tirelessly cleans the swimming pool chugs into life at regular intervals. There are ten floors of holiday flats but if inside and the balcony door is closed, each flat is soundproof.
Peak hour traffic builds, Currumbin is coming alive and I know if I don’t go for a morning walk I’ll be dodging retirees and their pet dogs, fitness fanatics in lycra shorts and Reeboks, and crew for magazine and film photoshoots because this apron of sand is immensely popular. Thank goodness the flotilla of boats on the horizon don’t try to sail closer to shore.
The rosellas are a mass of squawking as I place the seed plate on the balcony table. A hot rising sun dispels the remaining coolness and shadows of the night. The ocean sparkles turquoise. I shake yesterday’s sand from my sandals, grab a hat and make for the lift. The half-hour walks along the beach towards the surfers just what the doctor ordered.
Even More Writing Prompts
Write a poem or story where you are describing the joys of summer to an extraterrestrial life form.
Write a story that begins, “She tripped and fell into the burning sand…”
Write a story that ends, “Roll on winter.”
Write a poem or story where everything that provides relief during the summer randomly breaks down. The air conditioning suddenly stops working. The power goes out in your home. You can’t seem to start your car.
Write a story that begins “This was no ordinary day…”
Write a story that ends – “She found her paradise after all.”
Enjoy A Cultural Experience Without Leaving Home
A friend I met when I was working on celebrating the 125th Anniversary of Mordialloc Primary School, told me her husband was scared of flying. They were teachers and all they wanted to do when they retired was travel overseas but she refused to travel by ship.
No flying, no sailing – what could they do to satisfy their desire to visit other countries?
They compromised and innovated. They borrowed books and documentaries from the local library and researched the customs, costumes, music and food of a country. After a few weeks, they visited the place via armchair travel.
They dressed appropriately for the season, cooked a custom meal, played the music you’d expect to hear and totally immersed themselves as if they were in the chosen country. They even spoke learned phrases from a new language to each other.