Short Writing Works

Every now and then a challenge comes up to write a piece within a very tight word count. These tend to be part of a writing prompt or contest, and they can provide a good opportunity to flex a different kind of writing muscle. Having a theme to work towards is also a creative challenge, setting parameters that provide a sense of direction for shorter work.

Recently I came across a piece that I wrote last year. The requirements were to write no more than 25 words, and the work had to include ‘winter’, ‘writer’ and ‘silhouette’. This is what I came up with:

A hunched silhouette

Pen gripped tightly

The writer crafts

Her work nightly

Hours are lost

Worlds splinter

As she creates

Stories of winter

I also had a go at a writing challenge put out last year by wonderful mystery writer and blogger Margot Kinberg. This one was limited to 50 words and I used the word count to set a crime scene where something went wrong.

No-one told him about the dog. He’d had a clear run. The so-called secure complex was barely a challenge, the target easily despatched. The dog had been in the lounge room, cowering. He knew he had to get out, timing was everything. But he couldn’t leave the dog.

There is something about writing in a condensed format that is really satisfying. Another 25 word challenge has been issued by the Australian Writers’ Centre, this one with the words ‘victory’ and ‘violin’ to be included. I’m off to have a scribble – it is hard to resist a writing challenge!

Do you enjoy writing very short stories?

[Photo: Avenue of Honour, Ballarat]

Neighbourly Thoughts

Recently I came across a Chinese proverb in a magazine: Love your neighbours, but don’t pull down the fence. It made me think about neighbours in general and the act of being a neighbour.

Growing up in a Sydney suburb, we knew our neighbours in part because there were other children in our street. Neighbours on one side kept an eye out for us and there was a doorway in the fence to allow easy movement back and forth. These neighbours were older than our parents, and there were grandchildren of a similar age who visited regularly. There was a golden Labrador called Cleo who never seemed to mind being roped into various games and activities. Other delights included a steering wheel attached to a fence, a mulberry tree in a corner and for some reason that I can’t recall, a poker machine in the kitchen. It was an old-style machine that was played with shillings or ten-cent pieces, and what a thrill it was to pull the handle and ‘win’ the occasional jackpot.

I’ve lived in villas, in student accommodation and on a property with acreage as well as in country towns and now in the mountains, and I’ve had a mix of neighbours along the way. The farming neighbour was usually spotted at a distance, and there were sensory delights at cropping time, especially with a paddock of coriander close to the property boundary. Living with an abundance of space made it a bit challenging to get used to people living close by when I moved into town but I’ve been lucky to have had good neighbours.

Neighbours can be a friendly presence, someone to keep an eye on your place if you are away for a while, to collect mail and newspapers and give you peace of mind. A wave and a smile can be enough to make you feel at ease, and it feeds into a sense of being part of wider community. Neighbours share news and plant cuttings, turn up with extra servings of food and even Christmas gifts for my dog. They know what is going on in the neighbourhood, and a quick catch up can be most enjoyable. Neighbours keep an eye out for each other without infringing on each other’s space.

My neighbours are one of the reasons why I love mountain life. From my arrival here I was made to feel welcome, and there are many small gestures of kindness shared between us without any sense of expectation or reciprocation required. During weather events – such as heavy snowfall or the bushfires in 2013 – we keep an eye out for each other and share news and updates. It is impossible to put a value on the peace of mind that comes with having good neighbours.

There was another quote on the page of proverbs that I read: A stranger nearby is better than a far-away relative. There is truth in this Korean saying.

What are your neighbourly experiences?

Proverbs spotted in Issue 3 of Breathe Magazine Australia.

[Photo: snowfall in July 2015]

Writing, Nature and Presence

Recently I attended the inaugural Eleanor Dark lecture which formally closed the Blue Mountains program of the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival. The lecture, held at the grand old Carrington Hotel, was given by Delia Falconer.

Falconer is known for her novels including The Service of Clouds which I’ve referred to previously as one of the books that is intricately linked to the fictional world of the Blue Mountains. Falconer’s book on Sydney as part of the series of books on the Australian capital cities was also wonderfully evocative of place, history and atmosphere. And so it was with interest that I attended this lecture which had as its focus the themes of writing, nature and presence.

It was fitting that Falconer was chosen to deliver the inaugural lecture as she had written part of The Service of Clouds whilst in residence at Varuna, the National Writers House bequeathed by the Dark family. Falconer spoke of her time there with fondness, of coming across Eleanor Dark’s gardening journal which illustrated her exacting practical mind, and the joy that Dark took in the local eccentricity of Katoomba life along with the magnificent landscape.

Falconer noted that part of the motivation behind Dark’s landmark trilogy The Timeless Land was distaste at the mindless celebrations around the sesquicentenary of European settlement. Dark’s response was to carefully research and write a fictional account of the early years of the colony from the viewpoint of the colonisers and the Aboriginals; this may be seen as clunky from our current perspective but it was revolutionary at the time. The natural world featured strongly in these books, and Falconer quoted someone as saying that Dark’s work gave the reader a sense of sunlight and the scent of boronia. It can be seen as a precursor to Australian nature writing.

From this foundation, the lecture moved to the challenges of writing in a world marked by the loss of abundance in nature. A simple example was given of driving at night through the countryside – or anywhere outside the suburban sprawl – when the windscreen would soon be choked up with moths and the like. Or the movement en masse of Sydney fruit bats over the city skyline at night. Both examples, which were commonplace, are now relatively rare. Some writers in this field maintain that we are going through the sixth great extinction, a time of rapid loss of species that is unprecedented.

I was interested by the idea that we are indirectly impacted by the kind of animals and plants that surround us, yet it is hard to know what you haven’t seen. This in turn could lead to environmental generational amnesia, where elements of the natural world are entirely lost or become so rare as to no longer be on the human peripheral. There is now a term for the psychological distress caused by such significant environmental shifts – solastalgia.

But what can writers do in such a period of change and uncertainty? Falconer urged writers to tell the story. Use autobiography to look back and understand what has changed. Make it uncomfortable. And think ahead to the future.

[Photo: view from Govett’s Leap lookout, Blackheath]

 

Creative Challenges

Every now and then I like to set myself a creative challenge. I should disclose that these challenges are seldom well-thought out, but tend to be based on a suggestion picked up from elsewhere or a random thought which seems like a really good idea. From this somewhat vague beginning I’m off on a journey which may last mere moments or months, depending on the situation.

Recently I attended a workshop on taking photos with a smart phone. It is easy to take for granted the ease and speed at which such photos can be taken then mentally discarded or left to take up space in the cloud – quite a contrast to what was involved in taking and printing a photo previously. Now instant gratification of the impulse to record a moment is within our grasp, but I was interested to learn a bit more about framing a shot and to work on quality rather than quantity.

The course was informative and interactive, and also provided insight into some of the many tools available these days to tweak shots and highlight aspects of a photo. It created a heightened sense of awareness too – on a brisk walk into Blackheath at lunchtime I felt as though there were photo opportunities everywhere. And what better way to embed these skills than to take some photos. Perhaps every day for the month of May. This was decided on 30 April, the day that I completed the course.

Early on in May I was blessed with some stunning sunsets and one morning, whilst thinking about some issue at work, I passed a beautifully painted doorway that I’d not noticed before. Even in a distracted state it seems my mind was scouting about for photo opportunities. But what occurred to me on reflection was that this collection of moments is as much about what isn’t captured as it is about what can be contained in the briefest wink of time.

There were the stunning palettes of sunsets that changed incrementally with silent grandeur when I took the time to be still and admire them. And the graceful dance of autumn leaves eddying this way and that, a meandering waltz towards the earth. The bare branches reaching skywards, as if with outstretched arms waiting for a cloak of spring leaves and blossoms. Or the clarity of the night sky, and the gradual progress of the moon.

It isn’t always possible to capture a moment that seems to hum portentously, nor should it be. Often it is enough to simply experience it, for the moment to leave the lightest of impressions on our minds, something to be called upon and reimagined as required. A perpetual reminder to be present when you can, to be ready for the delights and surprises that await your attention.

[Photo: frost on leaves spotted during a morning walk]

 

Writers’ Journey, Sydney Writers’ Festival Event @ Katoomba

Like many readers and writers I find it interesting to hear how other writers approach their craft, how their interest in writing came about and what their process looks like, not least of all because it is unique to each writer.

And so I jumped at the chance to attend an event about the writing journey as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, held in conjunction with Varuna and the Blue Mountains Library. The four people who shared their stories and insights into the writing life are accomplished Australian writers across fiction and non-fiction and their oeuvre crosses many genres. David White, who facilitated the event, acknowledged the endless fascination that readers and writers alike have in the writing process.

The session began with each writer providing a 15 minute overview of their writing life. Malcolm Knox shared the story of his first day on trial with the Sydney Morning Herald in 1994; Catherine Cole spoke of the influences of childhood, of how the joy and pleasure of reading led to a desire to create. Craig Cormick demonstrated his passion for writing the story that demands to be told by passing around a sample of his many published books, ranging across non-fiction, children’s fiction and short stories. Lisa Chaplin, a self-described housewife with an imagination, outlined her transition from romance writer to historical novelist, and shared her approach to writing which includes a hand drawn visual map incorporating the three act structure, soundtrack and scented candles specific to the current work in progress.

The reality and challenges of a writing life were acknowledged by all of the writers. Self-doubt, how your best work isn’t always your published work and how success does not always correlate to talent were some of the points agreed upon. Cormick said that writing exposes your heart and that publishing takes a bite (out of it), but write anyway. A couple of good examples of learning from the masters was provided by Chaplin, who learned the art of editing through the Romance Writers of Australia, and Fiona McIntosh Masterclass. All agreed on keeping drafts of your work, and to remove your darlings to a separate document rather than to kill them off completely – a character or situation which might not fit one piece of work may suit another.

But there are many upsides to a writing life as well. The importance of small things, of celebrating the success of other writers and of keeping in mind the need to engage in the world around you. How the best you can expect is a life in which there is space and scope to write.

Write anyway – this was the overarching message. Embrace the power of creation, and believe in yourself as a writer.

[Photo: Lisa Chaplin, Malcolm Knox, Catherine Cole & Craig Cormick, left to right]

Book Review: The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn

When I spotted the front page of the Blue Mountains Gazette last week, I was delighted to see that The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn had been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. There is a link to the interview with the author here.

Shortly after I moved to the mountains, I attended a poetry reading by Mark at the newly opened Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. A poet’s eye and love of language is evident throughout this novel, with a sense of place and mood evident from the opening line of the section titled Morning: ‘Dawn cracks like an egg against the fibro walls of the derelict shack.’ Word choice matters to Ava Langdon, who is described below:

Catching sight of herself in a little wedge of mirror perched on an exposed joist, she stops. Who is that hideous creature? What form dost thou take? Her hair like the thatch from a mattress used for nesting material, with lavender bags under her eyes.

Words are chosen carefully to capture the essence of an eccentric personality living in extremely basic conditions in a shack on the outskirts of a mountain village. There is a blurring between the character’s sense of reality and her very active imagination, interwoven with recollections which at times seem unlikely yet not impossible. The vivid evocations of a familiar landscape appealed to me, and I enjoyed pondering what Katoomba would have looked like decades ago. Ava’s interactions, especially at the post office and tea shop, have stayed with me months after reading the book. I am reminded of her whenever I spot the old post office in Katoomba Street:

The red bricks of the post office are darkening now where a downpipe has leaked over the facade. May as well go in, she thinks, and mounts the steps. The door. The dimness. All that detail.

‘Never fear, I have arrived.’

The door swings shut behind her, light, dark, light, dark. Several people at the counter turn to stare, she who is dressed so extraordinarily, the cravat like a golden goiter spilling down her shirt front, the pinstripes, the braces.

The book is loosely based on the life of Australian writer Eve Langley, who is best known for her novel The Pea Pickers. Like Langley, Langdon is an unorthodox writer who wrote a successful novel but didn’t reach the same heights of success again in her career. The hope, anticipation and despair of a writing life is poignantly portrayed:

And here are her four fibro walls which guard her boxes of rejected manuscripts, each one four hundred pages long and typed on rose-colored paper. Each encapsulating an aspect of her life, the romance of it, the creative force of it.

This is one of those books which once read I want to hang on to, to be able to dip back into and savour again. There is an excellent review of it here.

[Photo: Old Katoomba Post Office]

 

Writing Prompt: A Familiar Scent

At a recent writing group gathering, we wrote to a prompt of ‘A Familiar Scent’. A few of the pieces have been posted on Writers in The Mist – you can find them here. Below is my contribution.

There was a familiar scent in the air. Annie paused, momentarily struck. It was the soft, sweet scent of freesias, a fragrance of her grandmother’s garden on a warm spring day and not something that she expected to smell in hospital in the depths of winter. She cast a look around the room but there was just one other woman resting opposite her. She was snoring softly and hadn’t woken when Annie had been wheeled into the corner.

Annie leaned forward, thinking that perhaps it was just a floral scent being worn by one of the nursing staff. But there was no-one in sight and all that she could smell now was the brazen note of antiseptic, strong enough to singe nasal hair and cover most of the bodily odours in the ward. She sighed and closed her eyes. It might have been the effect of the medication or a delayed impact of the anaesthetic but as she closed her eyes, suddenly drowsy, she could smell it again.

Annie let her mind wander back to when life was simple and relatively pain-free, when her school holidays were spent at her grandparents’ house and days passed by playing in the wonderland that was their garden.

The freesias were planted in a neat row along the driveway, forming a fragrant guard of honour along the entrance. There were several garden beds at the front and back of the property, and Annie could picture the native trees marching along one fence line, bristling with banksia men and their fierce brown faces. The front garden was encircled by camellias, their blooms both large and small providing a colourful carpet of petals as the seasons changed. A large macadamia tree stood sentry over the driveway, its barbed leaves protecting the tough nuts. Bright bottle brushes and grevilleas tempted the birds, honeyeaters dancing swiftly about when the shrubs were in bloom.

The steep back garden had been terraced in part to grow vegetables. Crisp beans grew against the back fence, sharing a space with colourful sweet peas in spring. Parsley grew in pots, and Annie had loved to pluck and lightly crush the curling herb between her fingers. Large cabbages grew in winter, their dark green and purple leaves encasing the heavy hearts of the vegetables. The cumquat tree had enchanted her; the zesty skin of the carefully harvested small fruit later transformed into jam. A gum tree towered high above the clothes line, a favourite podium for the magpies to sing their beautiful songs.

Annie walked herself around the garden again, taking slow steps to enjoy the multicoloured freesia blooms, almost too heavy for their stems. She walked over to the camellias, marvelling at the marbling of pinks and whites and reds on the petals, such a contrast to the glossy emerald leaves. She reached out and felt once more the soft and comforting warmth of her grandmother’s hands as the scent of freesias surrounded her.

Creative Lessons from Pets

Recently I was remembering when my dog, Buster, appeared in my world. I had wondered how this puppy, full of energy and noise, would fit into my life.

This led me to consider some of the lessons and habits that he has taught me which foster creativity in my days. Here are some of the learnings so far.

Naps

Dogs are brilliant at sleeping. There are bursts of activity and they will run and jump and bark and chase anything. Then there’s nap time. Naps can be short or long, and napping is permissible at any time. And life is generally better after a nap. Ideas emerge, sometimes fully-formed plots or ways to move a story forward. As I write this, Buster is napping nearby, as if on cue.

If In Doubt, Shake It Out

Have you ever watched a dog discover something new in the yard, or find a forgotten toy stashed somewhere? Usually they will sniff around it and maybe poke it with a paw before picking it up and throwing it around. This also works for trying out new approaches or routines. It is easy to get into a rut, creatively speaking. Sometimes you need to throw it all up in the air and see what falls down.

Discovery Tours

Also known as walks, these outings provide endless material from a dog’s perspective. So much to sniff and scratch, even if the walk is a familiar one. These regular airings are great for writing material too, or for solving plot or scene problems. There have been many times when I’ve untied a writing-related knot whilst walking my dog. Even a short jaunt helps.

Don’t Be So Serious

Buster is always ready to play. Any excuse for silliness and he’s there. There’s no moping about the past or fretting about the future. There’s just right now. This sense of play can be harnessed when writing to prompts or brainstorming and coming up with different ideas.

Pay Attention

Dogs are alert most of the time. Even when apparently resting and doing nothing, they are listening to what’s going on around them and taking in sights and scents. Sometimes these small details can be telling, and can provide a creative spark.

There is an excellent post called Dogma for Writers by Sue Owens Wright here, inspired by her basset hounds. Have you picked up any creative tips from your pets?

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Buster enjoying autumn leaves and keeping an eye on a singing magpie

Book Review: The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea by Randolph Stow

Sometimes books live on my peripheral before the time seems right to read them. The Merry-Go-Round by the Sea is one such book. I have glimpsed it over the years on the bookshelves in my Mum’s extensive library, and the title itself became quite evocative and telling in its own way – the image of a merry-go-round conjures up visions of childhood and freedom of a kind. A recent biography of Randolph Stow (Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow by Suzanne Falkiner) was extensively reviewed earlier this year; enough to remind me of an Australian author who I was yet to read. Then I spotted the audio book recently in the Blue Mountains Library online collection and it was available for instant download. The time was right.

The book steps with confidence into the lives of Rob Coram and his family, living in Geraldton, Western Australia, during the Second World War. Nearly six-years-old when the story begins, Rob is curious and direct and emotional with the intensity of a child. It is easy to believe his excitement at visiting the family farm, and it’s touching to see his affection and admiration for his Uncle Rick. The visit coincides with Rick’s twenty-first birthday, and Rick’s departure for war. Rob’s despair and grief is palpable, and throughout Rick’s extensive absence he maintains an avid interest and belief that Rick will return, even when his mother and aunts seem to lose faith.

Family connections form a constant yet changeable backdrop during the war years. Rob, his younger sister Nan, and his mother stay with various parts of the family as the threat of invasion increases then gradually fades. There are reminders of war everywhere, from trenches being dug into tennis courts to the rough justice in the school yard playgrounds. Rob’s father is an absent presence, initially stationed nearby and visible at odd intervals, only to disappear on war service and return in a perpetually distracted and absent state of mind.

The portrayal of Rick’s war imprisonment is devastating without being dramatised. Insights into the relationships formed during impossible times are shown in various guises, including the mateship between Rick and Hughie, a friendship which survives the war years but is tested in peacetime when the challenges of returning to a ‘normal’ life after near death existence are difficult to overcome, for Rick in particular.

Throughout this, the relationship between Rob and Rick develops, and Rob provides the sometimes brutal insights that children unintentionally make. Rick is direct in speaking of some of his wartime experiences with Rob, disturbing as they are. Rob in turn shares part of the rocky and awkward path towards adolescence with Rick.

The warmth and wit and humour of an extended family who love and mostly support each other is woven throughout the story, including some delightfully eccentric aunts. And then there is the landscape itself, countryside with a changeable beauty tracked by Rob through the seasons. He is saddened when he realises that he is a ‘townie’, wanting instead to be from the land. The harshness of the continent is shown too, but the natural beauty is conveyed with such genuine affection that the sights and sounds are vividly experienced.

By rock pools and creeks the delicate mauve-petalled wild hibiscus opened, and the gold dust of the wattles floated on water. Wild duck were about, and in trees and in fox-holes by water he looked for the nests, staring in at the grey-white eggs, but touching nothing. Climbing a York gum, he was startled when a grey broken-off stump of branch suddenly opened golden eyes at him. He gazed into the angry day-dazzled eyes of the nesting frogmouth and felt that he had witnessed a metamorphosis.

Listening to this book in the lead up to Anzac Day made it more poignant somehow, making me wonder how it was received when it was initially published in 1965. I was sad to finish it, and pleased a couple of days later when I found a copy on my own bookshelves at home. I thought I’d picked it up somewhere in my travels.

There is a comprehensive review of the novel on the ANZ LitLovers LitBlog site here.

Have you discovered a hidden gem in your reading lately?

[Photo: flowering gum]

Sydney, Her City: Short Fiction

She had watched the bridge take shape. It had seemed an impossibility, an absurd idea that the sheer expanse of the harbour could be tethered by steel and iron. There had been talk of it for so long that it seemed like an intrinsic part of her childhood memories, its design a favourite topic of debate. Then suddenly whole streets and entire neighbourhoods began to vanish, houses and shops and factories that had been familiar were pulled apart and families were forced to relocate.

Ella’s family had been lucky. They had been earmarked for relocation but changes to plans meant that their street was spared. She could recall heading off to school of a morning, walking through nearby streets with her brothers and sister, then the shock of arriving home to find rubble and dust where houses had been. Her mother had complained of the dirt and the rats that seemed to be in plague proportions as buildings that had stood firm for decades were pushed over and destroyed within a day.

Her eldest brother had landed a job on one of the many construction crews that worked on the bridge. He would come home with stories about the movement of massive sandstone blocks that would form the pylons to anchor the bridge. Bert’s excitement at being part of something momentous was tangible and contagious.

But the building of the bridge took so long that Ella’s interest eventually waned. By the time it was almost complete, the magnificent arch tantalisingly close to joining, she was working at a tea shop in the city, down near Circular Quay. The bridge was visible, a looming presence in the background, but she was busy with work and stepping out of an evening on dates and going to dances.

After marriage Ella stopped working, settling quickly into domestic life. She found herself drawn to the harbour, taking the pram along the narrow city streets and steep gradients down to the foreshore. She loved to walk past the ferries, puffing out smoke, their sturdy shapes seemingly insignificant as they motored their way underneath the enormous arch of the iron coat-hanger.

When Ella and her husband moved to the suburbs, she still managed to visit the city occasionally, especially when Christmas shopping trips came up. To turn into a street and glance up at the bridge gave her a thrill that she couldn’t quite explain. The bridge became less extraordinary over time to most Sydneysiders, just a way to get from one side of the harbour to the other. But for Ella it remained one of her favourite things. Her birthday treats invariably included a trip to the city to take in the splendour of the bridge, now a constant presence against a changing city skyline. For Ella, the bridge was the essence of Sydney, her city.

Inspired by a writing prompt using a postcard painting of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Do landmarks appear in your writing?