I’ve dabbled in writing from the time I was in primary school. One Christmas my beloved aunts gave me a book with a blue mottled pseudo-leather cover, and a small perfumed biro, and I began my first serious diary. My writing in those days was stilted, banal and cliched, a child’s attempt to capture experience in large neat letters, without the verbal resources that would make it sparkle. I submitted earnest pieces to the Argonauts club (I was Mykonos 11) on ABC radio, and I always got good marks for Composition.
High school put a stop to frivolous writing: my pen poured out essays on the continental system and Macbeth, and reports on vaguely understood science experiments, and Latin proses. The only remotely creative thing I remember writing was a book on Antarctica, complete with dust jacket, index, a blurb by my mother (“This author will go far”) and pages beautifully hand-printed and illustrated with black ink and a mapping pen. University stymied creativity even further: five years churning out acceptable stuff that earned me credits and distinctions and, eventually, first class honours.
When my own children were little, I began to go to local writing workshops: one on journalism, one on writing poetry. My experiences living in the bush with a growing family were netted in letters to my mother, and in a journal I kept as we were settling into the rural life and building our house. Four children didn’t leave much time for thoughtful writing. Minutes and reports for parent groups, and for a few years regular contributions to a weekly column on education for parents in the local paper: that was about it, except for an occasional confessional diary, dynamite waiting to explode.
As my marriage crumbled around me, I met a man who wanted a ghost writer for his hitch-hiking stories. He was living in a hut along the Nerrigundah road. I’d go to his place when the kids were asleep, and he’d dictate, I’d question and record on tape, then go home and transcribe, trying desperately to keep his voice. The road answers back grew, but it was far too episodic and disconnected and I didn’t know how to shape it otherwise. I persisted and finally delivered a manuscript. Writing it gave me one of my very few writing ecstasies: a moment of ebullient solitary delight that had me hopping on my pushbike and pedalling downhill from the house, shrieking my head off. Not a state of mind that was altogether comfortable, for me or the neighbours.
Then, I moved to Broken Hill. Suddenly I was no longer chief cook and bottle washer. I had time for myself. The daughter who lived with me was an independent fifteen year old with a separate entrance. One of my new friends was a writer. Writers came to town, and I became connected with any writing community going. Gabrielle Dalton arrived to winkle out stories from different groups, including local bikies. Under her influence I wrote about my experience of a sweat lodge and read it on local radio, not even thinking that students might hear it: “Was that really true, miss?”
Elizabeth Mansutti came to research women’s role in the big miners’ strike of the 1890s. I had the first inkling of what I wanted to do when I retired when I saw her reading 19th century newspapers, a confetti of decomposition rising, even while she handled them with fine care. My project of researching my mother’s birth year was born as I watched her.
My second experience of writing-ecstasy was far quieter than the first. It came in the middle of the night as I sat up in bed writing a free verse account of a holiday trip to the Flinders Ranges: the walk to St Mary Peak; the stroll up Bunyeroo Gorge; the encounter with a powerful stump; the wild night of wind that people were still talking about years later.
My hitch hiking friend came to visit, and at a wishes picnic on my living room floor the Broken Hill writers’ group was formed, and continues still, I think. We met regularly, shared writing, did quick- writes during the meetings and encompassed a variety of people writing about boxing, sailing, family history: it never became quite a community of writers, but it kept me writing regularly, one piece a rumination on a guitar-playing Noah who left Mrs Noah to do all the hard work. I wrote a few love poems in that post-marital chaos that aren’t too bad, all things considered.
The Broken Hill years ended and I returned to the coast. My interest in writing continued, following much the same path: workshops, writers on writing, desultory pen to paper. My most productive time was during weekly writing for Lomandra, a small online community of artists, where I had an audience and a discipline. I had occasional spurts of half-hour writes in my motel rooms when I was on the road as a consultant, which offered me a pale version of ecstasy, this time arising from that mystery in writing: beginning and not knowing where it will take you. I stumbled across such a piece years later, and thought my daughter had written it. I was envious: “She writes so well. I could never write like that”, and suddenly I realised that it was mine.
After I retired, I began the research inspired by Elizabeth Mansutti amongst newspaper flocculence in the Charles Rasp library. What began as my mother’s story through her birth year, became my great uncle’s war experience when I found a pile of his letters to my grandmother, and his two leather bound war diaries. That research produced a series of factional cameos, based on things from his letters that really captured my imagination. I wrote a rather cranky essay On sacrifice, irritated by blithe use of the word by people far from mud and death, as if it was a willed thing. This writing episode culminated in a short profile of my two great uncles for a family history book.
And now of course, there’s blogging.
This is a bit tongue in cheek, but I am in fact pleased with all of these publications for different reasons. I really don’t mind being world-famous in Omsk.
A Year 7 text book for English
A chapter in a book about teaching
Regular columns in the local paper about education
A short piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about returning to teaching after twenty years
Two 500 word profiles of my great uncles in a family history called “The Smalls at war”
Teaching ideas to accompany the NSW School Magazine: about 30 issues
Reviews of books for the Teacher-Librarians magazine: professional books and children’s books
A free verse rappy account of the writing camp in the Living Desert with the poet Komninos, also published in the magazine for teacher librarians
A piece about my experience in a sweat lodge which I read on air myself
A piece about memorable meals and landscapes on a Radio National lifestyle program
Speeches /talks – all carefully crafted, especially the two minute one!
A lecture to a theatre full of high school students on Shakespeare
A two minute speech launching a book about education in the Eurobodalla
A 2 hour talk about travelling alone through Syria and Jordan for U3A
A twenty minute presentation to my consultancy colleagues about life as a country literacy consultant
A ten minute speech launching a friend’s poetry anthology
For ABCOpen, a program to encourage regional writers
And then the floodgates opened when I discovered blogging! 750 posts since I began my own blogs in 2011.
A short story, based on my World War 1 research, commended in the Henry Lawson competition 2008
Champion: craft – writing at the Eurobodalla show, 2011 for a poem called “My mother’s hands”