April 2020 has come and gone, but COVID-19 lingers on…

FB_IMG_polar bears
Facebook meme

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.”

Elaine Liner

  • 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?

FB_meme about skills
Facebook meme

Are You More Present in Your Life?

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presents my eldest daughter sent during isolation

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 dog but 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.

David Morrell

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.

Here is a slice of life short story of what my morning used to be like: Mornings by Mairi Neil, a slice of life

Josie enjoys watching them too.

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.

I received an interesting recipe from the Jean Hailes Clinic for Women’s Health devised by naturopath and herbalist Sandra Villella, and because coronavirus disrupted ANZAC Day this year; I tried the new recipe for Anzac Biscuits and can testify to their yumminess (how healthy is that)!

anzac biscuits.jpg

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
  • 125g butter
  • 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?

learning ZOOM
Another Facebook meme

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?

Facetime becomes a regular thing
The first time, I contacted my daughter via Messenger at beginning of COVID-19 crisis

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.

FB_autumn not available

Two days ago we experienced the coldest April day on record in Melbourne.

storm brewing

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.

Jim Tully, Writer’s Digest 1923

Happy Writing

 

 

The sound of Isolation & Quarantine – What sounds do you miss or enjoy?

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The typewriter with italic type my parents bought me for my 18th birthday.

Day 22 – I’ve stopped counting – have you?

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
remembering sacrifice
The Easter story and ANZAC
Love and Hope the best human qualities

© 2013

donna's alarm clock

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
I wake…

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
heralding Spring…

twittering, cawing, whistling
blackbirds, seagulls and crows
dewy feathers a-glistening

© 1994 small talk, poems for children, Employ Publishing Group.

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.

Background Noises

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. To emphasise an exciting moment. Is there a clap of thunder, applause, a balloon popping, laughter…?
  4. To further raise the tension in a suspenseful situation, insert a sentence about background noise the moment the reader holds his/her breath.
  5. 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 write detail by mairi neil 1065 words

The airport by Mairi Neil, flash creative non-fiction, 674 words

Writing Exercise 3:

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.

Action Sounds

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:

  1. The door screeched on its hinges
  2. I sank into the armchair, and the cushion wheezed.
  3. The seat squeaked under his weight.
  4. Stairs creaked as she retired to bed.
  5. Gravel crunched under their feet.
  6. The wheeled suitcase rattled across cracked paving-slabs.
  7. The light plane trundled over the patched tarmac.
  8. The windshield wipers scraped the glass.
  9. The grandfather clock chimed midnight.
  10. The lift shook and grunted to a stop.
  11. His breath rasped as he scraped the mud off his boots.
  12. 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!

Do you wake up to the radio – can you remember a memorable news story that shocked you awake? For me, there were two that stand out: the Port Arthur massacre and the World Trade Centre’s 9/11…

FB_IMG_my current clock!

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!

star wars premiere.jpg

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.

Isak Dinesen

Happy Writing

Writing Techniques Add Value To Poems & Prose

Nobuko looking towards Mordialloc 2020.jpg

Day 21 -We’re still trying for fun!

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.

Rebecca Blood

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.
  • Personification injects 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.

FB_IMG_fox

The Poetry Foundation suggests:

  • 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.

  • Personification can 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.

from museum exhibit 2019.jpg

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

The sun 

  • 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.

A Shadow

  • The shadow crept around the building as furtive as a thief.
  • She huddled cold and forlorn in the shadow, praying for rescue.

A bushfire

  • 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.

Earthquake

  • 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.

Kurt Vonnegut

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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

© 2016

Exercise One:

Write about a character or an event and use personification. Here are some sentences that could start you off –

  1. The cloud scattered rain throughout the city.
  2. The ancient car groaned into third gear.
  3. The daffodils nodded their yellow heads as we walked up the path.
  4. The wind sang her mournful song through the rafters of the barn
  5. The microwave’s alarm told me it was time to eat my TV dinner
  6. The camcorder observed the whole tragedy
  7. The chocolate cake begged to be eaten
  8. The crockery danced on the shelves when the door slammed

Exercise Two:

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?

Here are two of my attempts: Heirloom Horror by Mairi neil, flash fiction of 500 words.

storm in a teacup by Mairi Neil, 400 word flash fiction

Exercise Three:

In poetry and prose personify a piece of furniture you know well.

  • Perhaps it has been in the family since you were born. Perhaps you bought it last week.
  • Giving it a name is optional but you MUST give it an attitude!
  • Be inspired to write about current affairs, or a historical event a la Percy Shelley
  • Use alliteration and personification – experiment and make an effort to try something new.
  • Revisit some of your previous work and see if you can improve it by adding personification.
  • Do the seasons have a personality? An attitude? Write a poem or short prose using personification and reveal the season’s viewpoint or perspective.

 

page seventeen

Rebirth
by Mairi Neil

Lying on the beach
waves roll over me,
smoothing
life’s pain.

the warm waves
caress and massage
manipulating
moulding
malleable me

until colder waves
carve and chip,
with each sharp
intake of breath
a new shape emerges

I am reborn

© 2005 Published page seventeen, Issue 2, Celapene Press.

Happy Writing

 

 

 

 

Do You Talk to Yourself or the Dog or Maybe the Furniture?

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Day Fifteen – Add Dialogue to the Scene

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.

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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.

talking statue Isaac Newton - British Library.jpg
You can ask questions of many of the statues around London and learn about the life of famous people such as Isaac Newton at the British Library…

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

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Try these simple exercises—

Go to a busy place and listen 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 scene where 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.

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Shop in Orkney

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…)

Here is a story I wrote from a prompt that said you had to have three characters with very different voices Without Grace a short story Mairi Neil

FB_Carl Jung on solitude and silence

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.

Hopper 3
Nighthawks 1942 by Edward Hopper a painting that portrays people in a downtown diner late at night. It is Hopper’s most famous work and is one of the most recognisable paintings in American art.
Hopper 2
Chop Suey, 1929, two women in conversation at a restaurant
Hopper 1
Office At Night, 1940, open to endless interpretation.

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
  • a cemetery

OR

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.

Finally – You Can Do a Dr Doolittle…

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Write a story from the point of view of animals at the zoo or domestic pets – give them a voice!

Happy Writing

Armchair Travel Can be Fun If You Share Your Stories

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Day Thirteen – Writing About Where you’ve Been – What Have You Seen?

In a world where COVID19 has locked down, cities, countries, and communities and people are practising social isolation, now is the time to reflect and relive your travels.

Time to sort out memories, photographs and mementoes and write about them from the safety of your home.

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my little bear at the mailbox

You may have had time before but needed the inclination or incentive…  hopefully, you’ll gather some ideas as you read this post.

Reality says it may be many months before we will be able to do anything but armchair travel if the destination we seek is in another country or even another state.

Today, think about writing your recollections as a contribution to collective knowledge and adding to history/herstory – especially if you have photographs.

The spread and damage of COVID19, has produced new border controls, changes to travel, work and leisure… the world is not going to be the same after this global catastrophe.

Your memories and stories have always been important to you, they may now be important to others.

I’ve been privileged to travel widely since a child. Since blogging, I’ve shared some recent travels – to Samoa, to Mongolia, to Russia, to England and to Scotland – and many places in Victoria as a volunteer for Open House Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo.

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.

People have always been fascinated by travel tales, especially of the exotic and unusual. The popularity of Sir David Attenborough or the Leyland brothers is testimony to that!

The shelves of the  Travel Section in bookstores are always overflowing and Lonely Planet publications have been successfully guiding adventurous travellers for years. 

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.

Verona Italy

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.

Armchair travel on steroids! Happy travelling –

Happy Writing!

Tell Me Five Things That Make You Happy

dancing 2008

Day Eleven – Is Alone Time Heaven?

Or would you rather be in Devon? (It rhymes!) Or anywhere but isolation, quarantined and unable to do what you usually do.

There are many memes doing the rounds of Facebook along with thousands of others, plus videos of people joking/coping at their changed circumstances because of COVID19.

Two are relevant to this post because I’m promoting writing as a means to fill in time, relieve boredom, improve your creative output, write that novel, memoir, poem, letter, journal you’ve always wanted to write – or just have fun playing around with words.

Today I want people to think about happiness – specifically –

What makes you happy?

Have you figured out the things in life that truly make you happy? Have those things changed as you’ve gotten older? Or changed since the onset of the global catastrophe of COVID19?

Here is another quote by Anne Frank you can use as a prompt  – write down your answer after you have looked around – whether it be out your window, in your home or garden or workplace.

2 overnight roses

In a 2010 article in the New York Times, (I did say at the beginning of these daily postings, I am recycling old lessons!) “The Keys to Happiness,” Victoria Shannon reports on what we know about how to achieve happiness, according to recent research and expert advice:

Make Friends and Family a Priority

One of the longest-running studies on living well and happily emphasises the importance of your relationships with family, friends and spouses.

At this time of upheaval, this is obvious.  However, it will also have its negatives and be a testing time for many families. Sadly, in times of crisis incidences of domestic violence increase, the likelihood of divorce too sometimes sooner rather than later.

On the positive side, some relationships strengthen and I think in some countries, if not all, there may be a baby boom!

Mj and Anne's tattoo.jpg
My daughters got complementary tattoos to cement their love for each other (inspired by Neil Diamond, their Dad’s favourite singer)

… Especially on Weekends

Busy lives can get in the way of happiness. Our feeling of wellbeing peaks on weekends, largely because of more time spent with friends and family, if you are lucky to have that regular time off. This is when people go to the zoo, visit museums, have picnics, trips to the beach, attend festivals, go for that regular bike ride…

You can’t do any of the above at the moment but you can visit many of those public facilities online – most museum and art institutions have virtual tours, zoos are posting what the animals are getting up to, and unless you are in lockdown, you can walk around the neighbourhood. Obey social distancing rules and wave to others, walk the dog, absorb the beauty in gardens – and you can still go for a bike ride.

Write about what activities you can still do – have you made new friends? reconnected with old friends? Learnt a new skill?

Or you can write about any of the activities you used to do at the weekends – perhaps the most memorable visit. Maybe a character in your story has to adjust to being housebound or restricted in some way – there are many people where being restricted is the norm!

Perhaps Anne Frank’s experience teaches us to count our blessings… write about how blessed you are now.

Income Equality Helps (So Move to Scandinavia)

National unhappiness is strongly associated with a country’s social inequality, research shows. One index finds that Scandinavia, a place with a wide and broad social net, is the location of the world’s happiest countries.

However, perhaps after this global crisis things will change… can you write down some ideas, dreams of what will improve where you live?

There was a lovely video of happy Italians playing music and singing from the balconies of their apartments during their lockdown. Another report from the UK showed a special hour where millions of people stood in their gardens or doorways clapping and cheering the workers in the National Health System to thank them for working during this health crisis.

When we value our community and the workers that keep important facilities and services there is more cohesion and happiness, less war and conflict and we all feel better.

What do you value in your community or friendship circle?

Gratitude Does, Too


Pharrell Williams, the star behind the 2014 hit music video “Happy,” on the happiness phenomenon: ”If you’re grateful, you can find happiness in everything.”

  • Are you grateful for being accepted in a new country, or new suburb, new club?
  • Are you grateful for your parents, children, siblings?
  • Are you grateful for your pets?
  • Are you grateful for your home, workplace, community house?

Now you have the time, reflect on what makes you happy and grateful – and express that thanks in writing.

I am blessed, I know and have often written about being grateful for the constant expression of love from my daughters and friends.

I try and reciprocate and pay it forward too.

The Health Factor

A correlation between happiness and good health has been evident for centuries. But which comes first? Does robust health lead to a good mood or the reverse?

Now is the time to find out, discuss, reflect and write!!

FB_page from a book about being happy
from Facebook – some food for thought.

It’s Really Good for Kids

Happy kids learn faster, think more creatively, tend to be more resilient in the face of failures, have stronger relationships and make friends more easily.

Well, most of them. There have been plenty of reports and investigations into cyberbullying, the negative effects of social media etc. There are unhappy children and adolescents and so adults must all work harder to ensure we create an environment for happy children.

FB_importance of friends

Don’t Overdo It
 or Obsess About It

Happiness engineers, chief fun officers, ministers of happiness … there’s evidence that “fungineering” at work might have precisely the opposite effect: making people miserable.

Write your thoughts on the belief that the pursuit of happiness may be an unhealthy preoccupation. Do some people have too high expectations?

FB_quote about happiness.jpg

If All Else Fails, Fake It


Can you fake your way to confidence and happiness? if you read some of the self-help and advice books circulating, the answer will be ‘YES’.

Some people swear by the power of positive thinking to banish negativity. They say focus on achieving your dreams or surviving bad times and things will work out.

 

  1. What recent moments of happiness have you experienced, whether large or small?
  2. What do you think made them so satisfying?
  3. Have you figured out a “magic formula” for happiness that works for you?
  4. A few days ago I wrote about a recipe for a good mood.   Can you share your recipe for happiness?
  5. What will change as you get older – or what has changed recently as you cope with COVID19 news?
  6. What is your reaction to the keys of happiness listed above?
  7. Did any of the keys surprise you – is there something missing? A spiritual aspect to life perhaps that is important?
  8. In an earlier post, I talked about keys – did you write about the key to happiness then?

How Full Is Your Glass?

  • People have a significantly lower death rate over 30 years if they maintain an optimistic attitude.
  • Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
  • What do you think is healthy about whichever attitude you possess?
  • What might be some benefits to viewing life from the opposite perspective?
  • Write a story of an optimist and pessimist being trapped somewhere together – unlikely holiday companions, work buddies during a crisis, living in a share house, trapped in a lift – or in a cabin on a cruise ship!

Five Things That Make Me Happy

Mairi Neil

  1. Birdsong in the morning and watching the birds cavort in the garden – especially the wattlebirds feeding on the grevillea and the magpies searching the ground for worms or carolling to each other from the electric wires. I also love when the lorikeets visit each day and feed on the bottlebrush outside my window.
  2. Clean sheets – I love getting into bed between clean sheets, the smooth feel and fresh smell.
  3. I’m happy when my daughters are – Mary Jane’s witticisms and her infectious laugh; Anne’s smile lighting up her deep blue eyes especially when she shares stories of her travels.
  4. I’m happy when the words come and I can finish a writing project.
  5. I’m happy when I get a phone call from friends, to chat or catch up over coffee, or when they drop in for a visit whether planned or unplanned.

Please share what makes you happy – and remember

… once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

                                                      Haruki Murakami

The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them and lessens the threat of their difference.              

                                                      Audre Lord

Here is a short story with a theme of love and happiness – the prompt was a picture of four elderly people sitting on a bench… waiting… Unspoken, a short story by mairi neil

Happy Writing

Is it Time for Some Light Relief?

candle in window

Day Nine – All Writers Can Shine

As I mentioned in a previous post, English is an amazing language and at times a difficult and confusing one! Especially, when a single word can be used in a variety of ways and change the context and meaning of a sentence.

Some English words can be a noun, verb and adjective.

The previous post’s example was ‘key’, today I will examine the way the word ‘light’  and various variations can be used to inspire a poem or a story and used in a piece of writing. 

The dictionary provides an extensive list of meanings –

light (noun)

  • something that makes vision possible by stimulating the sense of light.
  • electromagnetic radiation in the wavelength that is visible to the human eye
  • a source of light – a lamp or candle
  • daylight
  • a flame or spark for lighting something eg. a cigarette
  • a traffic light
  • spiritual illumination
  • understanding or knowledge
  • enlightening information or explanation
  • a particular aspect or appearance in which something is viewed
  • a medium eg a window through which light is admitted
  • a specified expression perceived as being in somebody’s eyes
  • a set of principles, standards, or opinions
  • *bring to light – to disclose or reveal
  •  *come to light – to be revealed or disclosed
  •  *in the light of with the insight provided by
  • * see the light – to understand suddenly, to gain insight and to undergo conversion
  • *see the light of day – to be born or come into existence – to be published or come to public attention

light (adjective):

  • having plenty of light; bright
  • pale in colour or colouring
  • having little weight; not heavy
  • designed to carry a comparatively small load
  • having relatively little weight in proportion to bulk
  • carrying little or no cargo
  • not abundant or intense
  • of sleep or a sleeper; easily disturbed
  • exerting a minimum of force or pressure; gentle or soft; a light touch
  • resulting from very slight pressure; faint; light print
  • requiring little effort; light work
  • graceful, deft, or nimble
  • lacking seriousness; frivolous
  • of little importance; trivial
  • free from care, cheerful
  • intended chiefly to entertain; light reading
  • of industry; requiring relatively small investment and usually producing small consumer goods
  • lightly with the minimum of usage

light (verb):

  • to become illuminated
  • to catch fire; to set fire to
  • to provide light in a place
  • to settle or alight
  • to arrive by chance; to happen

light (adverb):

  • lightly
  • with the minimum of luggage

quote about light

Has your creative light been turned on yet by any of the definitions – a memory triggered, an idea generated?

Examine the way the word ‘light’ and various variations are used in the following sentences, choose one and develop a story after considering:

  1. Will it be an opening line or the ending?
  2. Can it be dialogue?
  3. What type of character or setting?
  4. What about the all-important conflict?
  5. Will it be a ‘slice of life’ piece or a completely fictional story?
  6. What about a poem?

christmas korean town toronto

  • Turn the light on please.
  • Bad light stopped play.
  • He/She/We saw a distant light…
  • She struck a light.
  • He was a leading light in the community.
  • It was the traditional Festival of Light.

Diwali is the five-day festival of lights, celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world. Diwali, which for some also coincides with harvest and new year celebrations, is a festival of new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness. But Christmas and Ramadan are also festivals of light – in fact, most cultures and religions have a ritual or celebration involving light.

  • The parcel felt light.
  • Their financial problems appeared in a new light.
  • I felt lighthearted when dancing at the party.
  • We’ll have some light refreshments later.
  • You are standing in my light.
  • She didn’t believe her mother’s insistence that there ‘is always light at the end of a tunnel.’
  • There is something about twilight I love.
  • Ted laughed when he saw Mark – what a lightweight!
  • Jack’s strength will lighten the burden.
  • She was the new lighting technician.
  • It was a lightbulb moment.
  • Sheets of lightning stampeded the herd and terrified the drovers.
  • Tread lightly on my dreams.
  • When you alight from the train the police will be waiting.
  • The children are such a delight.
  • Oh, please, enlighten me!
  • That planet is thousands of light-years away.

moon and venus

Lively Limerick by Mairi Neil

A young woman was named Lily Light
A glance in the mirror caused fright
she’d stacked on the weight
any diet too late
Lily’d ballooned like a building site.

Inspiration is all around when it comes to light because we see the sunrise and the sunset – daylight in between those two beautiful times and then the moon and moonlight takes over…

Melbourne for Southbank.jpg

In case you are struggling to connect with any of the ideas so far think on these:

Other words for light (illumination) –

beacon, beam, brighten, bulb, candle, dawn, daybreak, fire, flame, flare, flash, fluorescent, glimmer, glow, ignite, illuminate, kindle, lamp, lantern, luminary, luminous, radiance, moon, neon, shine, spark, sunny, sunrise, torch.

Other words for light (of mood ) –

carefree, casual, cheerful, dainty, deft, delicate, easy, ethereal, faded, fragile frivolous, gentle, graceful, happy, lively, merry, mild, nimble, pastel, petty, portable, simple, slender, small, soft, trifling, trivial, undemanding, untaxing, weightless.

Other words for lighthearted –

blithe, buoyant, carefree, cheerful, gay, glad, happy, insouciant, jovial, lively, merry, rollicking, spirited, unconcerned, untroubled, upbeat, vivacious, volatile.

Other words for lighten –

allay, alleviate, bleach, brighten, decrease, dilute, ease, fade, gladden, gleam, illuminate, jettison, lessen, reduce, relieve, shine, trim, unburden, unload.

Other words for lightly –

daintily, easily, effortlessly, faintly, gently, gingerly, mildly, softly, subtly, tenderly

lightness and gaiety –

levity

Advice from the Moon
Live life to the fullest
Be someone to look up to
Don’t be phased by difficulties
Take time to reflect
Enjoy a little space
Honour the cycles of nature
Light up the night!
–In Llan Shamir’s Advice from Nature series published by Leanin’ Tree

We are used to the sun being used as a symbol in song and poetry, not so many about the moon unless it is in a romantic or true love kind of way.

We tend to think and talk much more about light than darkness. But what about light in the darkness? This is a good definition of the moon —  it is light in the darkness.

colchester castle dungeon

  • Has there been anyone or thing that has been your light in the darkness?
  • A belief system, a philosophy, a mantra, a person, a book, a song…
  • There is a song – You Are My Sunshine – who or what is your sunshine, bringing happiness into your life?
  • How do you create light when darkness surrounds you or those you love? This is especially relevant as we cope with the effects of COVID19 – share your antidote or secrets to keep those around you sane!
  • Write a paragraph and give yourself the pleasure of seeing how you bring light to the darkness.
  • Have you or do you ‘cheer’ someone up (perhaps yourself). Comforted someone grieving? Sponsor a child or a charity? Volunteer for a community organisation? Visit someone regularly? Listen to other people’s woes?

Make a list and write about one of the items

  • Explain how the activity makes you feel like you are living life to the fullest — that you are at the phase of a full moon.
  • When you are writing about this reflect on what you did when younger, what you do now – is it different? Why?
  • Can you pinpoint the change/s?
  • pets bring happiness and light into our lives as this Facebook meme confirms

FB_dogs brighten our day

Nuanced Words Of Light

  • ethereal = light and airy
  • ecru/sorrel = light brown
  • aureole/corona/nimbus = light around a celestial object
  • chiaroscuro = light and shade in art
  • crepuscule/twilight/gloaming = fading light at end of day
  • incandescent lamp = light bulb with filament
  • laser = light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
  • photosynthesis = use of light energy by plant as an energy source
  • aurora = light phenomenon of the night sky
  • gossamer = light as gauze
  • photic = concerning light
  • douse/extinguish/quench/snuff= to put out a light
  • optics = study of light
  • radiate = giving off light

john knox house scotland

  • soufflé = light fluffy baked egg dish
  • opaque = not allowing passage of light
  • balsa = light buoyant wood
  • refraction = turning or bending lightwave
  • sprinkle = light rain
  • arsonist = person who lights fires
  • light = lamp with light impulse
  • klieg light = carbon-arc lamp making intense light

And finally…

aphasic = having no light flashes – linked to language – aphasia – the loss of power to understand words

Can you write a story about someone with aphasia – what would it be like to have no ‘light come on’ or flashes of light to understand what people were saying or what you were reading?

Have You Stories About Firelight? Sitting around a Campfire?

Firelight Fantasies Freed
Mairi Neil, 2017

Campfire flames give permission to dream,
to imagine dancing nymphs – places unseen
firelight glow spreads warmth and peace
our everyday worries and stress to cease
bodies relax – almost back to the womb
when childhood stories banished gloom.

Fascination fired as fairytales surface –
princesses and princes acting with purpose
vanquished dragons and giant slayers
underdogs winning despite naysayers…
the blue smoke curls, orange flames sway,
mind given permission to stretch and play.

Memories triggered – some good, some bad
a treasury of tales, more dreams to be had
for a life, well-lived gathers light and dark
appreciating its richness just needs a spark –
a moment to sit, pause, stare, and detect
before pens record words sweet to select

Myriads of tales and thoughts a-swirling
like the flickering flames ideas distilling
sentences shaped ‘neath moon glowing bright,
inventiveness excited by shadow-filled light –
campfire closeness dispels city affectation
unleashing the desire for literary creation

Here are four short pieces of fiction using different interpretations of light and nuanced words. 4 flash fiction pieces by Mairi Neil

Enjoy flexing your feel-good writing muscles and feel free to share. I hope you can be inspired by some of these words, ideas or images to write!

Happy Writing

Do You Know Who’s Telling The Story?

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Day Eight – Storytelling Is Great

What story will you tell? How are you going to tell it?

  • What style? Short sharp sentences? Long flowery paragraphs?
  • Who will tell the story?

These are two important questions to answer and the impact on each other of your choice matters.

Point of View (POV) is very important because it is linked closely to ‘voice’ which determines style, and is usually individual and recognisable. (This is why we often get attached to particular writers, not just because of the subject matter of their novels but how they write.)

Point of View

Is the perspective from which a story is told and generally these are the most common ones used in creative writing:

  • Third Person Omniscient – the narrator knows all the thoughts, motives and feelings of each character
  • Third Person Limited – the narrator stands outside the action and focuses on one character’s thoughts, feelings and observations.
  • First Person – the main character tells his/her own story and refers to himself as I, or another character tells the story from their point of view – a voyeur watching/interpreting the protagonist’s life
  • Second Person – the story is told by a narrator talking to the reader, using the key words You or your. (This is a difficult one to sustain in a long piece of writing and can become irritating for the reader too.
  • Third Person – the story is told by the narrator using the key words He/She/They
  • Objective – the Narrator does not tell the thoughts or feelings of anyone, so only action and words are reported

Some writers favour one particular point of view, others change their style depending on the story and genre.  Some writers will experiment, perhaps flitting between more than one narrator.

If you choose the first-person often it is a personal narrative. (Memoir/Life Story/Autobiographical) but it can also be used in a short story fictional story.

  • Will you make it moody with lots of description? Chatty and informal? Dark and/or Gothic?
  • One hazard of writing in the first person is that your readers tend to think that I-the-narrator is actually I-the-author – so be clear if you are writing fiction.

Whatever your point of view, when choosing the tone, pick whatever POV you feel you can sustain and remain easy and consistent.

  • Don’t take on a  tone that is unnatural for you.
  • Watch you don’t change tone or direction – perhaps taking too long to write the story, and in the long gaps between sessions, your mood and motivation have changed.
  • also, be wary of editing to perfection, or for brevity and destroying the flow of your story:)

A consistent tone is preferred for each short story and usually, it works better if told in one voice.

POV is a writer’s closest connection to the readers.

  • It creates meaning beyond that offered by the simple combination of character and plot; it adds subtext and secrets and suspense.
  • It is a writing element every bit as important as pacing or setting and, for that matter, is an essential part of developing plot and character.
  • It filters the experience of the plot events through the personalities and perceptions of the characters. Who is narrating the event (that is, the POV character) determines in great part how the reader experiences it.

Therefore, it is considered best practice to stick with just one point of view telling your story. (But there are always exceptions… once you are a confident writer.)

In a short story, that means the hero or heroine, the main character, the protagonist – whatever you want to call them is telling the story.

  • Too many points of view and the reader may be confused. Let them see the world of the story through the eyes and feelings of one character.

If you are writing in First Person, be careful not to read the thoughts of others in your story! 

The modern way is to tell the story from a single point of view. Head-hopping is discouraged.

Always remember, if writing from ‘I’, the first person, you cannot witness events you are not directly involved in, just like you cannot know what another character is thinking. If you want to be all-knowing then choose third-person omniscient!

Experiment and see what is right for your story and what POV you will use.

As always, once you know what you are doing you can experiment and break the accepted rules but expert writers usually advise not to experiment with POV – think about the confusion you can visit upon the reader!

However, an example of originality is a novel I loved, but I know many didn’t: The Time Traveller’s Wife, (2003) the first novel by  Audrey Niffenegger. (Please note, I loved the book, not the movie!)

Written in the first person, the novel is divided between the viewpoint of the two main characters Henry and Clare. The reader has an insight into the detailed emotions, feelings, thoughts and experiences of each main character.

Here is an example of a short story I wrote in 2004, influenced I admit by reading The Time Traveller’s Wife, (I got the courage to move away from the straight first person and my usual third person).  I tell a story from the viewpoint of three characters.

Impasse a short story, by Mairi Neil

Directions anthology.jpg

My story was published in Directions, an anthology by Bayside NightWriters  and written in one of my classes from a prompt:

  • Tell a story from different viewpoints of at least two characters, include a mobile phone, a truck driver and a traffic accident.

Writing Exercises For You:

  1. Take the prompt I had and write a story with two or three characters involved in an accident (could be traffic/air/boat)
  2. Kay frowned as she opened her locker. A few feet away Alexis and Christine grinned. I stood unsure of what to do.
  3. He grabbed the waitress by the arm and said, ‘ I’m senior detective Frank Jones and…
  4. Twinkling eyes can mean many things but the one twinkling at me right now is…
  5. I woke up to a strange noise and looked around the room. Where was I and how did I get here?

Ask questions to get a start on a story:

  • Who are all these people,
  • where are they,
  • what was in, or had been removed from the locker.
  • Why is the police officer grabbing the waitresses arm?
  • Are the twinkling eyes human? Is this set indoors or outdoors?
  • Are you the cold observer, or are you involved in some way? How?

Write from the first-person or third-person point of view and perhaps experiment with the others – whatever you feel the most comfortable with to make the ideas and words flow.

Stories Are Influenced By Current Events & Inventions

I can imagine we are going to be hearing about COVID19 for a long, long time! Writers are important to historians – we chronicle the time we live in, we exercise our reflective powers, our insight, our perspective, we discern the mood and we add our imagination and flair.

In 2004, mobile phones were just starting to proliferate although some business people had been using them for years. They were expensive, many thought them intrusive and unnecessary, and rumours they caused cancer abounded.

They were the latest invention/technology to be included in a lot of writing prompts with many pieces produced – usually not seeing them as a plus for society!

How things change!

Today, in this crisis of social isolation, we are grateful for having mobile phones – especially Smartphones!

Last night and tonight,  it was wonderful to hear laughter resonating throughout the house as my daughters caught up with friends using Facebook Messenger and Skype!

Each day of the Coronavirus Crisis I have been able to ring or message friends, family and ex-students to check they are okay.

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Not so long ago this was a common sentiment:

My parents did not even have a telephone or a TV set until the early 60s and thank God no mobile phones or computers, which take up an extraordinary amount of time these days.

When I wrote this poem in 1998 I was an observer and by the tone, you can see I held a different viewpoint from today because of my lived experience. In writing, context is everything.

Social Mobility a la 1998
Mairi Neil

They’re at the beach on a hot day,
in the queue at the Post Office,
interrupting a teller at the bank,
in the supermarket aisles and the checkouts,
sitting outside at a sidewalk cafe
at Southbank,
sitting inside in the Food Court
at Southland,
on trains, buses, trams,
on bicycles,
in cars, trucks, taxis,
walking the streets,
waiting at bus stops,
on train platforms,
at school gates,
in department stores,
in shopping malls,
in museums and art galleries,
at the zoo,
at meetings,
on picket lines,
at demonstrations,
outside courtrooms,
in lifts, on stairwells,
in public toilets,
in the school ground,
at school concerts,
at school assembly,
in church, at the theatre,
at the cinema, in hairdressers,
in classrooms at community houses,
and even at a funeral…
anywhere… anytime…
mobile phone
… anyone?

Today I might add Ubers and perhaps I would use a different tone, content, and context. perhaps I’d emphasise different experiences. That’s what is so wonderful about being a creative writer and continually being observant. Detail matters too.

Visual Prompts For POV

  1. What could these two lorikeets be talking about? Who took the picture? Why and from where? Is there danger lurking?

lorikeets feeding

  1. Who lives in this broken-down house? Why? What are the neighbours like? What conflicts could arise? What would happen if a developer bought it?

old house ormond street

It is a time of rapid change and anxiety – don’t be too hard on yourself – perhaps just aim for one great sentence or even a great idea for a story or poem you will get to ‘one day’.

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Happy Writing

 

Purpose, Persistence, and Perspiration make Edna a Published Author for her 90th birthday!

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There is no greater thrill for a teacher of creative writing than to see the joy on a student’s face when they hold in their hands, the book they have written.

When that student has put years of effort into making the dream a reality and overcome health problems, the moment even sweeter.

Yesterday, I met up with some past students of my Life Stories & Legacies class that ran from February 2014 – December 2018, at Godfrey Street Community House in Bentleigh. We gathered in Sandringham to celebrate with Edna Gaffney the publication of her memoir, Chibby From Brandy Creek.

The Life Stories class at Godfrey Street, one of the most cohesive, supportive and friendliest classes in my 20 plus years of teaching, which has included four community houses. Several of the students still meet monthly and email or phone each other regularly.

Edna is the second to publish a memoir, another student will have one out for Christmas and another perhaps in the New Year. A great bunch of writers dedicated to their purpose of leaving a legacy for family and friends. They have all led amazing lives spanning decades.

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Edna was in her mid-eighties when she came to my class with a determination to write a book about her mother, family life in Gippsland between the wars, and also her own life as a nurse, particularly, as one of the first nurses to be trained at Cabrini Hospital to care  for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

In her Dedication, Edna wrote:

These efforts to record memories, I dedicate to my family and future generations. I wanted to describe my early life living in Gippsland, rural Victoria, and to honour my mother. Our family experienced a lifestyle and events different to many others and to the expectations of people today.

Miracles can occur in most families, maybe not suddenly, but over time, and I consider the eventual reunion of my siblings after the death of our mother, a miracle. Six siblings were adopted during 1943-44 and the family split up, yet we eventually reunited as adults and became a family once again. I am writing down some details of our early life for those siblings who have no memories of our natural mother.

I also record my own experiences of family and career. Change of attitude, much-needed patience and endurance to cope and care for others, are some of the qualities I learned in my working and family life – becoming a parent a profound change. My chosen profession of Nursing has altered dramatically since I began Mothercraft Nursing at the Berry Street Babies’ Home in 1947.

A Powerful Story Shared

When Edna enrolled in 2014, like many older students, she had no computer skills and in fact, no computer. However, after absorbing what it means to be a writer in the modern world, Edna enrolled in computer classes at the Community House and bought a laptop.

I don’t think she’d mind me saying that her success in writing this book was not replicated in the computer class! Wisely, she concentrated on the writing and saved money and time by allowing her daughters and me help with typing. I have no idea what happened to the laptop except it was often threatened and may indeed have been ‘chucked out the window’.

Edna’s daughter, Jane-Maree arranged the launch yesterday and was a driving force in the final stages of the project as her mother’s health deteriorated. We were determined the book would be published before Edna’s 90th birthday on July 2, 2019, and made the deadline.

However, the actual launch delayed while Edna settled into a nursing home – a disruptive, often devastating, and certainly time-consuming challenge for everyone concerned.

Fortunately, Edna likes her new home and Jane-Maree said, ‘they were great’ providing the comfortable space for the celebration.

The Journey To Publication

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Over the years, I published five of the nine anthologies for the Mordialloc Writer’s Group. Along the way I threw myself into lifelong learning, grappling with InDesign, attending workshops on desktop and digital publishing, reading books, online articles, trawling websites and information from email lists, and watching webinars to keep up with the rapid changes in the writing and publishing industry.

It is a privilege to share those skills with writing students and to be trusted with their precious words when they decide to publish. I know there are some disastrous self-publishing efforts and looking back at my early efforts, improvements can certainly be made, but I have become a small press publisher by accident and will continue to learn on the job.

Software and hardware capabilities and printing options have radically changed in a few short years.  The cost, which has a big impact on choice has changed too – you get a bigger, better bang for your buck nowadays!

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The aim of most writers is to be published – not necessarily a novel, memoir, or poetry book, but perhaps simply a short story or poem that begged to be written, or a slice of family history or an anecdote so memorable, it must be committed to print. (I prefer printed books.)

Some students come to class with a definite project in mind. They have a dream to publish a book with a target audience of friends and family.

Not everyone aims to have a book in Readings or become rich and famous with a bestseller or win a prize.

Not everyone wants to monetize (how I hate this buzz word) their talent or creativity.

Most want to write and publish for the joy and satisfaction of telling a story/stories and being able to share their writing with others who will read and appreciate their words. They desire to write or would feel strange not writing, perhaps love being a wordsmith.

When you believe in yourself and writing, being published is a realistic achievable dream.

Edna had a powerful story to tell and I gladly helped with advice and editing. My talented daughter, Mary Jane designed the cover, as she has done for several book ventures. (A reluctant book cover designer, she doesn’t refuse to help her mum.)

The class gave Edna feedback and encouragement and through this collective effort, a beautiful and readable book was offered free of charge yesterday with an option to donate to Berry Street Babies Home. (most people did!)

When you read Edna’s book you understand her strong commitment to Berry Street, where she trained as a Mothercraft Nurse, but also the deeply emotional link because of family circumstances.

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Books for Purpose Not Profit

This is the third book I’ve produced whereby the writer has donated all or most of the profit because of their commitment to a cause or appreciation of events or people. There was no profit involved with Mordialloc Writers’ anthologies either, with any money from sales going towards the publication of the next book.

When Mordialloc Writers’ Group folded in 2018, I donated group funds to Mordialloc Beach Primary School to create a scholarship and encourage creative writing. The Principal, Sue Leighton-Janse suggested the money provide ongoing writing awards for Junior, Middle and Senior school, in the name of MWG.  I only hope this happens.

You can read about Julie Wentworth: A Life Shared here. Julie, a teacher of Yoga, mentor and spiritual guide, donated the sale of her books to an orphanage in Africa caring for children with HIV.

Mary Jane and I had the privilege of working with Peter Hocking, who wrote about his recovery from a stroke and sold books to support The Stroke Foundation.

I’m sure writing and publishing is often a labour of love, and if articles discussing the state of publishing in Australia are to be believed, poetry books, even traditionally published, seldom make a profit with publishing houses using the sales from more popular books to counter-balance the low-profit margin in some literary genres.

Another book I worked on this year was a huge labour of love for a woman who wanted to celebrate her 70th birthday by publishing travel diaries kept by her parents on their first overseas trip in the 1970s.

Ruth inherited the handwritten exercise books, 500 slides and meticulously detailed itinerary notes and letters home. What to do with this material so that her brothers and sisters, her children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren will enjoy the old school and very personal travelogue?

She had a friend type the 55,000 words, paid to digitise then print the slides, and commissioned a nephew to draw maps of the route her parents travelled through continents and several countries, to introduce the three separate parts of their trip.

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Ruth only printed 25 of this A4 landscape book, which I edited and published.  Muriel and Len’s observations were side by side and Mary Jane chose 100 of the best photographs. Mary Jane created Ruth’s vision for the cover using Muriel and Len’s passport photos, the best close-up photographs Ruth possessed.

Not every book needs a launch or a large audience. Often writers can cover their costs and break-even. Family members may contribute or if written for a target audience (sporting/hobby club, regional or historical relevance) writers may make a small profit by self-publishing.

Writers keep control and have important input to the content, cover and cost of their book every step of the way from conception to birth if they self-publish.

It’s an exciting and worthwhile journey – not always smooth – but as John Denver sings in one of my favourite songs, ‘some days are diamonds, some days are stone,‘ and yesterday for Edna, her family and friends was a diamond day.

Well done Edna and thank you for allowing me to be a part of your dream!

Ducks and Albatrosses Down Under

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The beginning of the year always a mixed blessing because January 10th is John’s birthday and a reminder my husband and best friend is no longer around, yet it is a new year and the future beckons and being a glass-half-full person, I look forward to whatever challenges await.

For the last sixteen years, the girls and I have visited Stony Point each January to reflect and remember John – and yes, we chat or share our thoughts with him.

Whenever I give my writing class an exercise to write about their happy place, or a place where they feel serene, I have Stony Point in mind.

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Serenity Writing Exercise

Once a year, sometimes more often, I visit Stony Point on the outskirts of Melbourne. This tip of the Victorian coast looks across to French Island among other smaller islets and the tide flows out to the sea. There is a pier always populated with anglers – more in some seasons than others.

There is a ferry to French Island and half the pier is now fenced off for Navy patrol boats installed during John Howard’s ‘be alert not alarmed’ crusade.

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John requested his ashes be scattered where they would be carried out to sea, being ex-Royal Navy, John was more comfortable on the water than land and Stony Point fitted the bill.

There are mini-wetlands (or mud flats) at Stony Point frequently visited by shearwaters, pelicans and of course the ubiquitous seagulls. The area is attractive to fishermen and regardless of the season, you will always see boats coming and going.

The gutting and scaling table regularly visited by a host of birds who seem to know just when to land and wait for a feed. The take-offs and jockeying for advantageous positions to catch thrown leftovers provide a rambunctious display by the birds, especially the pelicans.

My daughters laugh at my delight and are convinced I have the largest collection of photographs of pelicans in the world! This year, I think they had a bet going and were counting how many pictures I took – I never discovered whose guess was correct!

Many people visit Stony Point and there is a caravan park with permanent residents as well as frequent holidaymakers. Every day there could be bushwalkers, anglers, picnickers, fossickers, commuters to French Island, naval personnel from nearby Cerberus base and a handful of locals who operate a rundown cafe/shop.

But there are times, like the other day, when we were the only ones soaking up the serenity for an hour or so before one boat returned and two families arrived to visit.

I’m sure others like me,  come to sit or walk by the short strand of sand or along the pier. Others relax while waiting for the ferry to French island. The kiosk, the railway station, the car park – so little change in sixteen years.

Stony Point is the end of the line for the train – a little diesel that comes from Frankston. The station personnel seem to be from another era of railway culture – a more friendly era – attuned to the age of steam perhaps – like my Dad and Grandfather…

However, just like the rest of the Victorian rail system, upgrading is happening to the only non-electrified rail line operated by Metro. There will be electrification to Hastings soon, but who knows when the upgrade will reach Stony Point, a place where change is rare.

 

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John’s Story Forever Linked to Stony Point

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea. The vivid memories of years in the Royal Navy he loved to share. His time at sea an escape from a violent step-father. It gifted skills and room to grow. Life below deck a creative exercise in space management and curled in a hammock beneath clambering pipes was not conducive to sleep. In the 1950s and 60s, he served on destroyers and stowed belongings in lockers between gurgling pipes. Ironically, the life he loved contaminated him with asbestos…

When I think of John, I recall he joined the navy as a fifteen year old ‘boy sailor’ and said he learned to respect and consider others, to cook, clean, and iron, to share, to care for himself, to operate radar and radio, sort and deliver mail, be the butcher and food buyer for the mess, and also train as a deep-sea diver. He mastered calligraphy and latch-hook weaving and became the Mediterranean Fleet’s high jump and long jump champion in Malta. Above deck, he discovered the pleasure and benefits of breathing fresh sea air;  the joy of time to scan for exotic lands, learn to read the stars, be entertained by dancing dolphins, flying fish, and the unforgettable sight of the majestic blue whale.

When I think of John, I hear his voice reciting poetry and doggerel, quoting favourite passages from books he loved or people he admired (he could recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address!) and singing songs from favourite entertainers. A man of few words, each sentence counted. John didn’t do small talk…

His stints at sea gave him time to sit and think, to listen to the stories of others, and absorb some of life’s harsher lessons. He witnessed horrific scenes while based in the Mediterranean when Britain became embroiled in the Suez Crisis. He visited many European ports and also South America and South Africa, experiencing a variety of cultures and cuisine. Moved out of the comfort zone of his childhood English village, people and places expanded his heart and vision.

When I think of John, I remember his love for the sea and how it shaped his character. A sea he now roams as his ashes float from shore to shore, revisiting the lands he loved, being part of a marine world he admired – free of human form, he can dance with the dolphins, fly with the fish, or ride a whale.

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When I think of John, I remember his keen sense of humour, can hear his laughter and know he would laugh with us and enjoy the story I’m about to tell of our visit to Stony Point last Wednesday.

I was taking pictures of some Shearwaters and Pacific Gulls sunning themselves on the edge of the slipway jetty when a man in his early 40s and his two children, a boy of 8 and girl of 6, followed me towards the birds. Their conversation –

‘What kind of birds are they Dad?’

‘They’re ducks, son.’

‘No they’re not.’

‘Yes, they are – look,’ he points to the pelicans,’ see how small they are to the albatrosses.’

I’ve seen gannets and black swans at Stony Point but never an albatross.

When I shared the father/son conversation with the girls, we laughed – it reminded us of that funny TV ad for Bigpond or maybe Google, some years ago – when the young boy asked his Dad why the Great Wall of China was built and the dad replied, ‘to keep the rabbits out.’

For the record, the next evening on a walk with buddy Jillian, I took a picture of a duck in Mordialloc Creek.

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And this is a pelican –

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Pelicans – symbols of mutual aid and love

The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is the largest of the shorebirds that can be found along Victoria’s coastline. It has a wingspan of 2.3-2.5 metres and weighs 4 to 6.8 kilos. Wild pelicans can live up to 25 years. Predominantly white with black along the perimeters of the wings, it has a large pale, pinkish bill. An Australian pelican was recorded with the longest bill of any bird in the world. It is the most southerly breeding of all pelican species and is the only pelican found in Australia.

Between the bones on the lower bill is a stretchy patch of skin called the gular pouch. The gular pouch will stretch when it is filled with water and can hold up to three gallons. Pelicans also have a large nail on the tip of the upper part of the bill. They have short legs and large feet with webbing between all four toes.

Their diet is mainly fish but they are carnivores and will eat turtles, crustaceans and other waterbirds. They can soar to heights of 10,000 feet and can commute 150 kilometres to feeding areas. Highly social, these diurnal birds fly together in groups which can be very large. They breed in large colonies of up to 40,000 individuals.

Strong, slow fliers they often glide on thermals to conserve energy. During flight, they pull their head inward towards their body and rest it on their shoulders. They have been known to remain airborne for 24 hours as they seek food.

Pelicans pair up every breeding season and stay with the one mate for the rest of the season.

Adult pelicans rarely use the few calls they have but can hiss, blow, groan, grunt, or bill-clatter. The young are more vocal than the adults and will loudly beg for food. Australian pelicans primarily communicate with visual cues using their wings, necks, bills, and pouches, especially in courtship displays.

Like all birds, Australian pelicans perceive their environment through visual, auditory, tactile, and chemical stimuli. Opportunistic feeders, they adapt to human activity quite easily and directly approach humans to be fed or will steal food, which is problematic because they get caught on fishing lines and hooks.

The Pelican’s Paparazzi
Mairi Neil

Always gathered at Stony Point
pelicans wait for boats to arrive
yet with beaks and wings so large
it’s fishing skill keeps them alive

perhaps these pelicans are lazy
or maybe they’re super smart
stocking food for a week in that beak
without having to dive and dart…

Stony Point’s fishermen’s table
a magnet for seabirds galore
shearwaters, seagulls – even swans
compete with pelicans for more

discarded fish guts, heads and tails
whatever fishermen don’t want to eat
I love to watch and capture on camera
the birds vying for a treat after treat

I can’t explain my pelican fascination
except they soar skywards with poise
and whether they stand, sit or float
they exude serenity without noise

they don’t screech, squeal, or twitter
but seem content to ‘just be’
if reincarnation is really a thing
then it’s a pelican I choose to be!

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Anne and me with French island ferry in the background 2018

So little has changed at Stony Point thank goodness, although over the years signs have been added like the new banner announcing the naval facility is now managed by http://www.portofhastings.com and the new sign about French island is detailed and attractive.

Love for More Than One Place

When I developed cancer in 2010, I had lived in Australia nearly half a century, yet still felt I didn’t quite belong, still found myself homesick for Scotland, the land of my birth. I loved Australia, especially my home in Mordialloc where I have lived for thirty-five years. I married there and gave birth to my two daughters and brought them up in Mordialloc, but there was a passion missing, a sense of belonging I needed to ignite because if I was going to die should I return to Scotland?

After I finished chemotherapy I decided to create a bucket list because breast cancer and the treatment had me on the brink of death several times due to complications. I had always wanted to visit Australia’s red centre and see Uluru, in Australia’s heart and a sacred place for the Aborigines. I felt if I could get closer to the earth sacred to Aborigines, a connection to their mother, the country, would perhaps rub off on me.

Through research on the Internet, I discovered a tour company taking a group of writers to walk the Larapinta Trail called Desert Writers. Led by Jan Cornell, we’d spend five nights camping in the desert and walk the trail with two indigenous guides.

I didn’t hesitate and booked to fly to Alice Springs in July 2011 – still almost bald and a little fragile from a lumpectomy, haematoma, then radical mastectomy, three months of chemotherapy and a nasty bout of pneumonia thrown in for good measure.

The trip would not only realise a dream but would affirm I could still travel, which is one of my passions. It promised to encourage me to write, the most important passion I have. However, more importantly, I hoped to gain a greater appreciation and deeper connection to my adopted homeland, something I had not felt since being uprooted from Scotland as a child.

The journey fulfilled all my hopes and last year when I returned to Scotland after a twenty- year absence I loved being back, but returning to Mordialloc was coming home.

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My place is Mordialloc, where I can walk along the seashore and as far as I can see there is freedom, an infinite sea, and endless sky.

I can stroll by the Creek enjoying the beauty of native and imported flowers and trees, listen to birdsong, laugh at the antics of ducks and seagulls.

I can breathe and feel secure, even at night, because wherever I am near the sea, John is with me. We sprinkled his ashes at Stony Point so he can wander distant lands, many he’d visited as a boy sailor but always his spirit can return when he feels inclined to touch these shores again.

Whenever the girls or I am near the sea we know John is there, just as the Aborigines know their country and walk in the knowledge their ancestors are protecting their place and their stories.

When I die, my ashes will be sprinkled into the sea at Stony Point. My first journey will be to my birth country, the Western Isles of Scotland, but I will always return to these shores as long as the girls are here and so much of my life’s story.

At Stony Point, I feel calm, serene and comfortable. It is one of several places I cherish as well as marvellous Mordi!

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