Some Thoughts on Storytelling by Marion Halligan

Recently I came across a collection of stories, poems and essays gathered in a book called Storykeepers, edited by Marion Halligan and released in 2001. The collection includes contributions from a broad range of Australian writers and poets, and was triggered by the centenary of Australian Federation. Each contributor was asked to select an Australian writer from the past who was of interest or an influence upon them, and to write a response to their work.

In the introduction by Halligan, some thoughts on storytelling are offered. Stories offer an immense scope for ambiguity and complexity. From childhood, the phrase once upon a time is like “a code that brings a multitude of small exhortations and large promises with it”.

Storytelling is described as one of the most natural of human activities, something we instinctively do as children returning home from school, or upon arriving home from work. An example is given of a child telling a story of an event at school with enthusiasm, sound effects and a natural instinct for timing and plot. When asked to repeat the impressive story, the child looks vacant, mumbles something and heads off: “The story has been told, its narrative impulse has been obeyed, the teller is no longer interested.”

The ability to polish, edit and embellish stories improves as we grow older. It becomes less about what actually happened in some instances: “We are all unreliable narrators when it comes to crafting good stories.”

We are all storykeepers, writes Halligan, from the personal and intimate to family lore and even the stories of countries.

This book was found by chance in a second-hand bookshop in Kiama (south coast of New South Wales), and I was pleased to find that another blogger had also stumbled across it – there is a review of it here.

Storykeepers edited by Marion Halligan (2001)  ISBN: 1876631104

[Photo: shared circle]



A History Lesson

Recently I attended a talk by Grace Karskens, a noted colonial historian. Her published works include The Rocks and The Colony. Karsken’s talk was about her upcoming book, Recovering Vanished Places: Stories from the Hawkesbury/Nepean River.

History is approached by Karskens by an ethnographic focus, a wide lens which includes archaeology, ecology and geography amongst other studies. Sources range from official documents and historical texts to newspaper articles, paintings, local and family histories, letters, poetry and folklore to provides a broader context to understanding history on a deeper level.

Part of the challenge lies in what cannot be found or ascertained. Of course not everything is recorded or accessible, and sometimes all that remains is a sanitised version of real events.

Something that resonated with me was the snatches and snippets of past events that are woven into stories. As a writer I feel at times that my mind is swirling with scraps of stories, real and imagined. Some are recent, others are not my memory fragments but those of parents, grandparents and other relatives. And it isn’t just family that provide threads to weave stories from; chance conversations with friends and strangers also provide material.

Whilst some fictional scribblings require little in the way of research, unlike academic endeavours, it was interesting to hear Karskens talk of how obsessive the need to know can become. It is this attention to detail and intellectual vigour which creates work which resonates with readers. Again this has similarities in the fictional space. Research is an important aspect across many genres: as a reader few things jar more than reading something factually wrong in a story.

The talk provided a taste of what is to come, a book which promises accessible and illuminating insights into vanished places along the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers. There is a link to a TED talk by Karskens here.

What lessons from history do you take on as a writer?

[Photo: view of Hawkesbury River near Wisemans Ferry]

Put Your Stamp On It

It is inevitable that after a while there is a consistency around the voice in your writing. There are words that you tend to use, sometimes even a similarity in the kind of characters that you create. This isn’t necessarily a conscious act; it is an inherent element of your writing style.

These echoes in writing help form the voice, the viewpoint that distinguishes the writing as unique. Some writing is so distinctive that if an excerpt of prose was provided, the author could be identified without any additional clues.

Perhaps it is due to the maxim ‘write what you know’. Opinion varies as to whether this is a good approach or whether a more adventurous path is recommended, but what is familiar to the writer comes through what is written, even if it is only through small details.

Recently I was looking through some of the short stories that I’ve written. In about a third of them there is at least one dog, and sometimes there is more than one. In most instances this wasn’t a deliberate plot decision; they just seemed to wander into my writing. There are other animals as well, but for me dogs do seem to have a habit of turning up on the page.

This is probably due to the sighs of my mostly patient pup nudging my subconscious as I’m writing early of a morning. The more rascally dogs that appear would be when he’s doing his border patrol, advising all and sundry that this is his space. He seems to leave paw prints on my work from time to time.

Now that I’ve identified this element in my writing, I will be more aware of it. This doesn’t mean that dogs will cease to feature in my writing; I love dogs and this will continue to seep through in my stories. But now that I know, I can use this where appropriate to reinforce my writing voice.

What leaves a mark on your writing?

[Photo: signage at entrance to council depot at Rydalmere]

It’s just … a little crush*

In last week’s post I referred to the Hydro Majestic as one of the many landmarks along the Great Western Highway through the Blue Mountains. While poking about on their website, I came across a link to history tours. The tours are held daily and bookings can be made for tour groups or smaller gatherings. I’ve been intrigued by the Hydro for a while, so I thought I’d go along.

The tour commenced in the Casino Lobby, a place that was familiar from old photos of the Hydro. A few of the guests of the hotel were on the tour as well, and we were given an overview of the history and the driving personality behind the hotel. Inspired by sanatoriums and health spas in Europe, entrepreneur Mark Foy travelled up and down the highway looking for a site that would meet three specific needs: a railway station, highway access and a spectacular view. Medlow Bath (or Medlow, as it was then known) offered all three.

From the imported casino dome to the breathtaking views in the Wintergarden restaurant, the old-world warmth of the old billiards room (originally a male-only domain) to the most unusual incline of Cat’s Alley, the hotel is a fascinating mix of styles, designs and architecture. Foy’s preference for arches has been acknowledged in the newly built areas of the complex, and original artwork commissioned for the hotel is on display. This includes a number of hunting murals painted by Arnold Zimmerman which form the backdrop to the stylish Cat’s Alley. The views of the Megalong Valley are spectacular, and from the top of Cat’s Alley it is possible to look down to where the farm that provided much of the produce for the hotel in the early years was located. The food was whisked up and down via flying fox.

There are several novels which refer directly or otherwise to the Hydro Majestic. These include the recent Palace of Tears by Julian Leatherdale, Evergreen Falls by Kimberly Freeman and Miles Off Course by Sulari Gentill in the clever Rowland Sinclair series which includes a cameo appearance by Mark Foy.

For me, the amazing scenery within and without the hotel only added to my interest in the Hydro. I was fortunate to have an excellent tour guide, Patrick, who wove a spellbinding story around the history of the Hydro and made it come alive.

What brings history to life for you?

*Taken from ‘Crush‘ by Jennifer Paige

[Photo of Cat’s Alley, Hydro Majestic]