On The Joys of the Written Word

Recently I had my blog posts for 2017 printed. My usual process is to print off a draft copy, edit, reprint, edit and hopefully have a final version of the post that I’m happy with. This copy, in a rough black and white form, is kept in a folder. Occasionally I go back and reprint a post in colour, especially now that I am using more photos in my posts.

Last year I looked into having some of my posts published in a format that I could keep handy. I ended up having three small books printed: one for my alphabet adventures, one for mountain musings and the final one on words and creativity. They were in A5 size, soft covered and a delight to receive. It really was a different experience to see the posts arranged in order, especially as when I was writing them I was alternating between topics.

Months pass by and many blog posts later, I thought it would be good to have a copy of the posts from 2017 in a single volume. One of the things about content is that it accumulates. There are times when something comes to my attention and I remember that I’ve written a post on that topic. WordPress is great with the ability to search a blog using a keyword and it is easy to be reacquainted with something that has been written previously. But in this format, the posts are still, well, virtual. Being able to flick through a body of work with it in hand is a different experience to scrolling through links online.

So I had a look through the BlookUp site and selected a hardcover book style to hold a year’s worth of words. It is simple to export the posts from a set period, and there is some scope for editing the content for things like formatting errors. I then designed the front and back cover, adding a little content and photographs, and saved the work. I thought it best to leave it overnight as I contemplated the cost for the physical printing and postage from France. Was it self-indulgent to go down this path?

The next day I felt no different. A cursory glance through the book content – I had amended what I could, within reason – and I proceeded to order the book. The timeframe for delivery was 15 days which I thought was generous. The last order had taken seemingly ages to arrive, but this time I had the book in my hands within a fortnight. Not bad considering it had to be printed and sent to Australia.

It is perfect. Well, I should say that any errors in the book are mine as my hastiness in editing and ordering could have been tempered a little. But it is hard to convey the buzz I felt when holding this book which represented a year of words and photos that meant something to me. The pages are glossy and the photos pop with colour. Already I am looking to my 2018 edition, and I haven’t finished the year off yet!

My learnings would be to run a draft copy and really look closely at the formatting of quotes and poems in particular. I had picked up one photo as a header early in 2017 but couldn’t work out how to fix it without updating the post itself and running the export again. At the time it was too much effort. I might take a bit more time with it next year.

But to say I’m really impressed with the results is an understatement.

Do you keep a copy of any of your favourite posts?

{Photo: front cover of blog book for 2017}

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Flash Fiction: Owl

Owen wasn’t the sharpest owl in the tree, but it wasn’t his fault. His Mum said it was because he fell out of the nest when he was only a few days old. She reckoned that he landed on his head and that was why his eyesight was a bit out of alignment. It certainly made flying a challenge. He could still remember his first few attempts. The sense of trepidation, the trembling of his wings as he flung them out, mimicking the deep swoops and thrusts that he’d seen the others do. The first few wing beats were spectacular, or so they told him afterwards. Or perhaps they were spectacular when compared to his spiralled tumble to the ground.

But over time he’d found a way to adapt. By squinting, just a little, his vision seemed to balance out. When the others took off at night he was the last to leave. It was better that way. Less chance of somehow tangling his way into another owl’s flight path. This had happened a few times and the indignant squeaks and squawks were worse than any trapped prey that he’d heard.

And Owen found it easier to whistle, just a little, as he flew. This had caused rumblings of discontent within the parliament and he’d been lectured several times on the importance of silence in flight. It wasn’t all about the stereotype, or so he was told, but there wasn’t a lot of tolerance for an owl who whistled.

He had to admit that it was impressive to watch other owls go about their nightly hunts. The extraordinary vision and finely tuned senses picked up any movement within microseconds with a degree of accuracy which was breathtaking, especially for the prey. The typical image of an owl was still, quiet and wise, but he knew that it was their ability as honed killers that deserved praise.

Over time he trained himself to whistle after the kill. He had learned the importance of fitting in, mostly, with his fellow owls.

{Photo: three green owls}

November is NaNoWriMo

Like many writers around the world, I will be participating in NaNoWriMo this year. This annual event calls out a challenge to writers to put procrastination aside and commit to writing 50,000 words in a month. A daily average of 1,666 words, give or take, will get you to the finish line. But as with all memorable experiences, it is more about the journey than the destination.

This will be my third NaNoWriMo. I don’t do it every year for various reasons. The majority of my writing is in the short story form, so writing 50,000 words in a month doesn’t really fit in with that approach. But there are often stories or ideas that cannot be confined to a restricted word count. Sometimes it is good to explore an idea over a longer format, to give characters a chance to develop and discover things along the way.

The word count is a challenge but I’m not overly concerned about it as I was able to meet the target at my last two attempts. It was easier the second time as I knew what to expect, and on days when the words were flowing, I made the most of it to provide a buffer for the days when life got in the way. There is comfort in knowing that even if the word count isn’t met, I will have more words written by the end of November than if I’d not participated.

And I do like a creative challenge. Since May I have been writing a minimum of 250 words a day on various topics. This has included short stories, flash fiction, blog posts and general personal rants that help to keep my sanity in check. It has helped me feel connected to writing, and on most days I write beyond the minimum. There are some days when it is a bit of a challenge but I’ve surprised myself by maintaining the momentum. Ideas seem to pop up throughout the day, or I’ll wake up with a clear idea of what I want to write, which is a special kind of thrill.

The prospect of writing 50,000 words in a month is a challenge, even with a regular writing habit to draw strength from. But I like the idea of pushing myself creatively for a month, to give writing extra focus, and to be part of a worldwide community of writers who are also out there, scribbling and tapping and creating worlds of their own at the same time.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo – or some other creative challenge?

[Photo: a reminder that you can do hard things, spotted at Lane Cove]

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]

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]