Writing Prompt: It Would Only Take A Couple of Clicks …

It would only take a couple of clicks to do it, to get ahead of Jacko, but I wasn’t sure I should do it. It wasn’t out of pity. Don’t get me wrong. Jacko was a bastard and most of the crew would be pleased to beat him at a session, let alone over a day. He was the gun shearer in the area and everyone knew it. His reputation seeped beyond the district boundaries so that people passing through knew of him if they had friends or relatives in the surrounding towns.

We’d matched each other, sheep for sheep, all day. At first he’d hammed it up, singing out and showboating with his shears, sighing loudly as our calls for ‘sheepo’ came increasingly in tandem. Then, after morning smoko, he started sledging. I ignored him, which made him worse. But I focused my energy on working faster and cleaner, wasting less movement and needing less tar. By lunch we were even again.

He shouldered me as he passed me on the way back, and the afternoon was full of sly tricks and sleights. We were down to the last two sheep of the day, and the rest of the crew had backed off, some cleaning their gear as we went for it, click for click. I was sweating so much I could hardly see, my hands slick with greasy wool that filled the pocked holes where burrs had torn at my skin. All I could see were sheep bellies and chests and legs and a blur of khaki eyes, boggled by fear.

I could hear Jacko grunt with effort, then curse as his sheep buckled. It happens. They’re not as stupid as people think. They pick up on emotions like other animals do.

To hell with it. I gave one last burst of clicks, tossed off the fleece and sent the sheep on its way. The shed erupted in a cheer as I unbent my back, every muscle screaming in protest. As the cheer faded I heard Jacko’s final click. He didn’t raise his eyes to mine. It wasn’t easy to be beaten by a girl.

[Photo: sign at Rydalmere]

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Book Review: Taboo by Kim Scott

Sometimes books cross your path at the right time. Taboo had been recommended by a fellow avid reader as one of several books that I should keep an eye out for. When I started to read Taboo, it coincided with a week with some travel and much time in the air and waiting for flights or on trains was spent with Gerry, Tilly and Dan in the south west of Western Australia.

Recently ABC aired a series called Mystery Road, which is about two young men including a local Aboriginal who go missing from a large cattle station. The background setting is a small town with a mix of locals and backpackers frequenting the local pub. One of the characters is a young woman who was sexually abused when aged thirteen. There are echoes of streets with houses and yards that need attention, a community in disarray and the sexual abuse of children in Taboo as well, but there is also a strong sense of trying to understand and reconcile what has happened in the past.

Whilst there are various viewpoints and characters in the book, the main players are Dan, Tilly and Gerry. Dan is the link with the white colonial past. Recently widowed, he lives on the family farm which is run down and eking an existence in lean times. He is on his own with two small dogs for company. His brother, Malcolm, keeps an eye on him and their sibling bond includes a religious connection. There are early hints of a disconnect between Dan and his son, Doug. There is also a sense of foreshadowing: Dan had thought he’d spotted Doug somewhere, in the city perhaps, and was surprised at his appearance, his shaved head, and even at a glance could see that there was something amiss both with Dan and the woman he was with.

Tilly is at the heart of the story. In her early teens, her mother tells her that her father is Aboriginal, in jail, and wants to see her. They travel together to see him but Tilly is left to go into the jail alone and is guided by an Aunty who she meets there. Aunty Cheryl is to have a significant impact on her life. Tilly meets her father and continues to go to see him with Cheryl’s help and encouragement. Cheryl offers a different way of life, something more exotic and glamorous than what her mother can provide.

Gerry is the link between Dan and Tilly. Gerald is one of the twins – his twin brother is called Gerard. We meet Gerry just as he leaves jail, having been inside for a few months due to a misdemeanour of Gerard’s. It isn’t always clear in some parts of the book, especially from Tilly’s perspective, which twin is the good twin and which is the other as they both are called Gerry and are nearly identical in appearance and dress. Even tattoos are similar. During his stints in jail, Gerry has connected with Tilly’s father, Jim Coolman. Jim has lived a life in and out of jail, marred by drugs and drink and violence. But he has found a sense of connection and belonging by bringing the local Noongar language back into use. Jim has been running sessions in the jail and he speaks to Tilly of the importance of language in their visits.

The early introduction to Tilly is when she travels to a remote location to be picked up by Gerry (both Gerrys are there) and shuttled out to the ironically named Hopetown. There is to be an unveiling at a Peace Park, a plaque to acknowledge the town as the site of a massacre of Aborigines in the late 1800s. The actual site of the massacre is on Dan’s family farm.

There are elements of the supernatural in Taboo, with the people of the past never really that far away. Dan sees his wife in a doorway and is comforted by her presence. Throughout the landscape around Hopetown and Dan’s farm, in particular, there are quickening shadows at various times, including when Noongar people are walking around the property to visit old watering holes and the like. Tilly feels their presence too, especially when danger circles around her.

There are symbols and echoes of images. Early on, Dan reaches for a smooth stone on a windowsill which has been warmed by the sun. Towards the end of the novel, there are stones in Gerald’s pockets as he makes a pilgrimage of sorts across the pathways of his ancestors. When he stops to drink water, he sometimes exchanges one stone for another, then resumes his journey with them heavy in his pockets. There is a circularity to the narrative, starting with an out of control truck with unidentified occupants which becomes clear at the end of the novel. There is also the repetitive cycle of abuse by the powerful over those without power, across the generations. And a sense of the visiting mob being unwelcome in their own country, being met a couple of times with resistance and it is made clear that they should move along, that they have no right to be there.

But the book also brims with moments of humour and sharp observation. It is difficult not to wince at the naive enthusiasm and obliviousness of the newly appointed Aboriginal Support Officer at Tilly’s school who seems determined to create a token performance of dancing, art and didgeridoo.

‘Lots of people lost their culture down this way. We can fix that up. I’ll get some workshops, some classes or something happening. We’ll have excursions – we had one this morning, to the Aboriginal Community College.’ She named the suburb. ‘But it was terrible, those poor kids.’

‘How do you mean?’ asked Tilly.

‘None of them could play didj. Some of us, some of our kids, will have to go and teach them.’

‘Didj doesn’t come from down here.’

‘Oh, Tilly, but it’s so Aboriginal. Didgeridoo means Aborigine to everyone, surely!’

‘Well, I don’t know.’

Then there is the warmth and kinship of the busload of Noongar people, collected by Wally the bus driver, for the gathering and unveiling of the plaque at the Peace Park. One of my favourite minor characters was Beryl, one of those bossy women who help ensure people are fed and things happen, but with an edge that cuts through any insincerity. There is the cheeky elder, Wilfred, who makes bird puppets and recognises the importance of Tilly as one of the next generation, ‘tough and precious’.

It was the kind of book which stays with you, and which challenges assumptions and creates characters that you wonder about, long after the final page is read.

There is an excellent review of this book by Lisa Hill here.

[Photo: The Company of Trees by Ro Murray and Mandy Burgess spotted at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba]

Poem: Ode to Spring

It must be spring
The jasmine’s out
And all the bees
Are buzzing about
The sun is bright
And wouldn’t you know
I think I can hear
The garden grow
I close my eyes
And what do I see?
Acres of blooms
All around me
Freesias and pansies
And daisies too
Jonquils and roses
To name but a few

And then it begins
With the slightest twitch
My poor old nose
Begins to itch
First just a little
Then quite a lot
My vision shrinks
To the size of a dot
I distract myself
Looking up at the light
And give myself
A hell of a fright
The sneeze when it comes
Knows no bounds
I lose myself
In a wall of sound

The dog jumps up
And leaves the room
Frightened no doubt
By the sonic boom
And the cat leaves too
Giving one last glare
Before she struts
Into the spring air
I sniffle and sniff
Then dig deep
For a tissue to mop
The tears that I weep
I curse myself
I must be insane
To always forget
That spring is a pain

Inspired by writing group prompt of ‘pain’.

[Photo: flowers from the garden]

Flash Fiction: Trapped

It had come to this. Thirst had hounded them all for days until the ceaseless circling of the roped off waterholes created tracks deeply rutted by their hooves. All of the usual spots had been blocked, barricaded with old fencing wire and tin. In desperation, one or two brumbies had charged and stomped, aiming flying kicks at the covers, but there was no reprieve. Smelling the water but not being able to drink was torture.

Two dry nights were spent warily watching the last waterhole. On the third night, some of the brumbies were on their knees, trying to inch closer to the moisture contained within the maze of fence runs. With a frenzied whinny one entered the compound despite knowing there was no way out. The gulping sounds drew the others in, no longer able to resist the trap.

This piece was a writing group challenge to write a piece of up to 150 words inspired by the word ‘Trapped’. It was based an image that had been rattling around since I had listened to a podcast about Eric Rolls and the Pillaga, months before. I couldn’t shake the image of the brumbies from my head, so the only solution was to write it out. You can find the section about brumbies around the 14 minute mark of the podcast.

[Photo: horses on Norfolk Island]

Writing Groups: Every One Is Different

It is well known that the writer’s lot can be a lonely one. Regardless of whether you are an occasional scribbler or someone who dedicates their working life to the task, it is seldom a group activity. In order to grow and develop as a writer, it is helpful to put on a brave face and go forth to find other writers.

The first writing group I joined was a well-established group in the central west. The meetings were structured, with writing news, the sharing of success stories around publications and submissions, mini-workshops and a session on critiquing work that had been prepared based on a prompt provided at the previous meeting. Feedback was also provided on work in progress if requested.

As is usually the case, there was a wide range of experience in the room, from published authors and a particularly prolific and successful bush ballad poet to new writers. The group was very supportive and even though I felt self-conscious, the group helped me develop my own writing style. It was also beneficial in learning how to present your work when sharing, to read it out clearly and with confidence, even if the piece was still a work in progress.

I did find the critique work challenging. It wasn’t just learning to be able to listen and take on critiques of your work but to be able to assess the work of others and to provide useful feedback. Liking a work isn’t enough in these situations: it is far more helpful to the writer to be told what worked well, what created ambivalence, and what jarred for the reader.

Since then I have experienced a couple of different writing group styles. I prefer an informal organisation, by which I mean a group that isn’t run as a writing group with not-for-profit reporting requirements. This requires administration and seems to take time and energy away from the writing. What I also like are groups where writing takes place. You might think that’s a given but it isn’t. There are groups where critiquing takes the focus, which is good, but I like it to be balanced somewhat with writing practice.

For me, that’s the gold of a writing group. Maybe it is due to the link with writing comprehension pieces in primary school where everyone had paper, a pen and their imagination. Once the topic was provided, the scratching commenced. Scratching on the paper, scratching of heads as ideas were coaxed into existence. A particular joy is the sheer variety of ideas that emerge from a single writing prompt, even from groups of people that have written together for a while. Sometimes there are eerie similarities in a writing prompt session or echoes of an image or idea that appear across the work of usually disparate writers. Being able to share these rough and raw pieces of writing, if you choose to, provides a jumping off point for extended pieces in the future.

Having the chance to meet fellow writers is an interesting experience, which can be exhilarating on a number of levels. It can genuinely foster growth in writing style, and open your mind to possibilities beyond what you might have come across if you remained chained to your desk at home.

Do you belong to a writing group?

[Photo: old typewriter]

Working With Words: Amanda Hampson, Author

When visiting a friend up north a couple of years back, she pressed a book into my hands and urged me to read it. The book was The Olive Sisters by Amanda Hampson and it was a most enjoyable read. Hampson has published several books, and the most recent is The Yellow Villa, set in France. She recently gave an author talk at Katoomba library and I was able to go along and listen as she spoke about her writing life.

One of the highlights of her childhood in a small town in New Zealand was library day on Fridays, and it was here where Hampson developed her love of books, working her way through myths and legends and adding Agatha Christie novels and true crime stories over the years. The desire to be a writer was clear to her from an early age, and she thought that a career in journalism would be the starting point.

Hampson moved to the UK and lived there and later moved to Australia. Whilst in the UK, she travelled extensively and visited France regularly, having developed a passion for all things French from her mother. It was during this time that Hampson began to write. This included short stories and articles, and two non-fiction books were published.

Her first published novel, The Olive Sisters, was written over a period of about five years and is a story told across two generations. It deals with the sense of isolation and loss of prestige that can be experienced when giving up city life for the country as part of a tree change. This had been inspired by her partner’s struggle with the change in status and loss of identity following a similar relocation.

Two for the Road was her second novel, set in the macho tow truck industry, and it is entertaining to read of some of the challenges she encountered in researching the industry as background for the novel. Uplifting, escapist reading was one of the motivations behind Hampson’s third novel, The French Perfumer; this provided a contrast to the focus on dark news which was also reflected in the literature at the time. This novel is set in the 1950s during a period of optimism and gracious fashion.

Hampson opened the floor to questions, which included one about how to resist the temptation to move from what you are currently working on to the Next Great Idea. She responded by speaking about the creative destructiveness of moving between projects and consequently not finishing anything. Jot down ideas, by all means, but don’t let it distract you from what you are currently working on. Another popular question for authors is around the writing process – what does this look like? Hampson said that when she begins a novel, she commits to writing 500 words a day at a minimum. Some days that is much easier than others, and once the creative flow takes over the word count increases, but having this minimum amount as a starting point helps to get words on the page.

Amanda Hampson’s website can be found here – it has extracts from her novels along with insights into her writing process. There is also an interesting article on her writing life on her publisher’s website.

[Photo: painted laneway at Hornsby, next to a bookshop]

Cafe Culture

Are you able to work in a creative sense in a cafe? I can sometimes. A lot depends on what I’m working on and whether the sounds and smells around me are overwhelming. Some cafes are really noisy, others have a low background hum spiced with fragments of conversation which can be wound into possible future stories or just provide an interesting point of reference. People are largely unguarded in a cafe – they might be catching up with friends or having a conversation on the phone. Yes, even those one-sided conversations can provide a spark of interest for the eavesdropping writer.

One of my more memorable cafe experiences happened in a small country town. The promise of coffee and raisin toast lulled me inside, along with the cafe’s description as an emporium. After I ordered I had a wander around the cafe which had various shelves, book cases and tables set up with preloved goods. It was one of those places where you would probably see something different each time you visit.

There was a clutch of women at a couple of tables at the front of the cafe, and in the absence of any background music it was impossible not to hear the conversation between the group. I was writing up some notes on some things I’d spotted whilst roaming around the village, but within a short period of time the conversation caught my attention and I felt the need to jot down some of the things that one woman in particular was saying. It isn’t something I would normally do, but I felt like she may have been putting on a performance for an outside audience and it was too good to ignore.

I started to type up some of the phrases that the woman was saying. The trick was that as she was speaking, the woman was also bouncing around the shop, touching this, inspecting that. There were other people in the cafe but they were all women who seemed to know each other and weren’t particularly bothered by her antics.

I was jotting some of the colourful phrases down when suddenly she swooped towards me, placed a hand on my shoulder and asked me what I was doing.

‘Don’t mind me, love, I’m a bit nosy.’

Fortunately I had seen her approach and had managed to flick to another screen. Unfortunately it was a browser window which featured an in-depth article about a murder that had taken place in the town. My claim that I was just reading up on some local news probably didn’t ring true, but she tapped my shoulder and moved on to the next thing of interest.

I wasn’t being deliberately misleading or intrusive. Being able to catch turns of phrase or unguarded moments of conversation is good training for a writer’s ear. Often we speak in a kind of shorthand, or sentences drift off. There can be a lot of murmuring or hand gestures or facial expressions which don’t necessarily translate into the written word. But the cadences and rhythm can be picked up and this can help to provide an authentic tone to a future piece of written dialogue.

It isn’t unusual to be sitting at a cafe and working on a laptop or device. I’m not saying that the person that looks focused on something in front of them is recording your every word and gesture. But you might be inspiring them to some authentic writing in the future!

There is an entertaining post from Pauline Conolly about writers and cafes which you can find here.

[Photo: hot chocolate with home-made marshmallow at Paragon Cafe, Katoomba (before it closed) – one of my favourite scribble spots]

Creative Challenges

I have learned to accept that my writing tends to ebb and flow. In an ideal world, I would diligently write every day or most days at least, and if I didn’t write then I would edit or research or plan the next writing project. There are times when I can be disciplined around my writing, then other times life crowds its way in and a day or two slips by, then a week. I have to scratch my head to think about when I last wrote something in a creative sense.

A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast interview with author Hedley Derenzie. Derenzie had been in a very dark place and had attempted suicide when feeling overwhelmed with grief, loneliness and disconnection. Her road to recovery was long and difficult, but one of her lifelines was a return to her creative path. Derenzie is a writer, but writing had not been a consistent presence in her life for some time. In a moment of inspiration, Derenzie committed to writing 2,000 words a day for a month. There were rules around this commitment, including the need for the day’s writing to be inspired from the events in the previous 24 hours which in turn encouraged reengagement with the world during her creative pilgrimage.

I have just started reading Write Way Home: Writing My Way Back To A Meaningful Life. This is the result of not only that month of writing and experiences, but reflections on what reengagement with creativity can mean. And it isn’t necessarily just for writers; Derenzie encourages connecting with those creative outlets which we love, but which tend to fall by the wayside when life gets busy, or when it is realised that they will not result in employment or income generation. It isn’t the outcome that matters here, it is the action and that sense of joy and engagement that creativity brings to each of us.

About a month ago I decided that I would write 250 words a day. This is my minimum goal and it can be in any format. It can be a personal piece, something creative or a blog post. The words can be a continuation of a story in progress or something entirely new. It isn’t the output that is important, it is the activity. It is early days, and I didn’t have an end date in mind, but I wanted to see if I could keep up what feels like a small commitment to write each day. So far, I’ve made it, even if it is sometimes the last thing I do before I call it a day. And I do feel more engaged, and my mind is finding a creative rhythm of sorts.

Do you set yourself creative challenges?

[Photo: close up of some creative craft adorning a tree in front of St Hilda’s Church at Katoomba]

Poem: Mr Nobody by Anonymous

I know a funny little man,
As quiet as a mouse,
Who does the mischief that is done
In everybody’s house!
There’s no one ever sees his face,
And yet we all agree
That every plate we break was cracked
By Mr Nobody.

‘Tis he who always tears our books,
Who leaves the door ajar,
He pulls the buttons from our shirts,
And scatters pins afar;
That squeaking door will always squeak,
For prithee, don’t you see,
We leave the oiling to be done
By Mr Nobody.

He puts the damp wood upon the fire
That kettles cannot boil;
His are the feet that bring in mud,
And all the carpets soil.
The papers always are mislaid;
Who had them last, but he?
There’s no one tosses them about
But Mr Nobody.

The finger marks upon the door
By none of us are made;
We never leave the blinds unclosed,
To let the curtains fade.
The ink we never spill; the boots
That lying round you see
Are not our boots, – they all belong
To Mr Nobody.

With thanks to the Poetry Foundation – it was a joy to track down a poem I remember from my childhood. I think Mr Nobody is still out there somewhere!

[Photo: craft shop window display at Lindfield with lots of buttons in the background]

Moments of Zen

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a podcast about zen moments. The podcast was also about cat burglars and included an entertaining collection of stories about cats who like to bring things home, including gloves, other people’s underwear and cooked legs of lamb.

But it was the zen moments which resonated with me. These were predominately ordinary actions or repetitive tasks which induced a sense of calm in people. The moments themselves varied quite considerably, and included the untangling of masses of electrical cords or looping up a long length of rope following abseiling, to the act of weeding and creating a sense of order by putting laundry away. The common element was focusing on the task at hand and finding a simple pleasure in creating order or establishing a working rhythm. A sense of calm was created in the mind and these tasks which might otherwise be seen as irritating or time-consuming instead contributed to a sense of well being.

Apart from the ordinariness of the actions, I was struck by how individual these responses were. What created a moment of calm in one person might seem inexplicable to the next. Perhaps it was the mindset applied to the task, or simply a sense that the task had to be done and approaching it with calm acceptance was better than to greet it with resistance and irritation.

This isn’t to say that there won’t be times when the feelings of zen-like calm fail to materialise but it is nice to know that there are instances in which they can appear, regardless of the mundanity of the task. For me, it is the repetitive, endless chores of washing up and hanging out laundry that come to mind, along with the sense of order that follows putting things away. Perhaps it is because there is little required of the mind in those moments apart from repeating actions that have been carried out so often they require little concentration and provide time in which the mind can be satisfied in the motions.

What creates a zen-like moment in your day?

[Photo: a single cloud skipping across the sky, also known to induce a zen-like moment]