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]

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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]

Writing Prompt: A Christmas for the Senses

The spit and sizzle of ham frying with eggs sends an aromatic waft up the hallway. The bedrooms are all empty now as we’ve been up for hours, allocating out the stacks of roughly wrapped gifts, squinting at times at the scratchy writing on gift tags. Ben, the eldest, makes sure that whilst we can shake and squeeze the presents, there is no ripping of paper or unveiling of gifts. Not yet.

The old Christmas tree, tucked into the corner of the living room, is flashing bright colours through the glittering tinsel. Glass ornaments shimmer with alternating colours, and the odd candy cane at the back of the tree is still intact. Most have been picked off long ago.

From the kitchen comes the sound of carols, badly sung by Dad. Every year he insists on playing Bing Crosby, the old, worn-out cassette tape now replaced by a downloaded version. It doesn’t improve Dad’s singing and as he booms out ‘White Christmas’ we call out suggestions on how it would be better if he stopped. He just gets louder and cheesier. Mum is in the kitchen too, and her laughter eddies through to the lounge room. She’s on the phone to family, too far away to visit.

Daisy finds a box of chocolates on the coffee table and we hook in, hands scrabbling for soft centres, Ben moaning as he bites on a hard toffee. My chocolate was orange-flavoured, my favourite. A good omen, I think, as I run an assessing eye over the tottering pile of gifts. There is one from Santa, supposedly, which is small but soft to the touch. Ben is arguing with Daisy over the last of the chocolates so I slip a finger under the wrapped corner. I ease it in slowly, frowning at the touch of fabric. It is soft. Then a cushion hits me in the head as Ben roars ‘No peeking!’ and we are all off, running and tumbling towards the kitchen to lodge our multiple complaints to management. Dad greets us at the doorway with a raised hand and we fumble to a halt.

‘Your Mum’s on the phone. Five minutes till breakfast. Go and get the yard ready – your cousins will be here shortly.’

Off we go, Ben leading the way as usual. Backyard cricket is the Christmas afternoon game and we get out stumps for one end, find the bat and then Daisy and I are sent off to find the balls. We look in the dog house, around the perimetre of the pool, and I find one nestled in the big pot of mint. I hold it close for a moment, smelling summer.

Then Mum’s calling us and we find our spots at the table outside. Plates of toast, fried ham and eggs are passed around. A big plate of cut fruit sits in the middle of the table, watermelon, pineapple, rockmelon and grapes glistening. We eat quickly, keen to open presents. All eyes are on Mum, and after what seems like an age, once we’ve eaten breakfast it’s finally time.

We race each other back to the lounge room, Bing Crosby still crooning in the background, as we start to rip open the presents, exclamations of delight mingling with moments of disappointment. A jumper with a reindeer on it?Really? What was Aunty Kay thinking of? Mum reminds me that it is cold in Canada at Christmas time but still.

I work my way through my stash, saving the mysterious parcel from Santa until last. Whatever it is, I’m sure that it’s going to be good.

[Photo: Santa spotted at Blackheath]

Writing Prompt: Something Adorable

There are times when my writing seems to dwell upon serious themes. At a writing group session a couple of months back, we worked through several prompts together. There is the option to share your work if you are comfortable to do so, and I did although I was aware that the pieces were darker than usual. At the end of my second piece I’d scrawled “One of these days I’ll write something cheerful”.

The very next prompt was a short challenge to write about something adorable, something as cute as a button. This is what I came up with.

Little girls in fairy costumes,

waving magic wands

Dark green leaves of maiden ferns

delicate, curling fronds

Laughter swirling on the breeze

the wonderful sound of joy

Bright brown eyes of my Buster boy

as he spots a favourite toy.

Do you find your writing tends to find an emotional rut, and if so how do you get out of it?

[Photo: pottery dog amidst ferns at the Driving Creek Railway, Coromandel, North Island, New Zealand]

Writing Prompt: I Only Turned Away For A Moment

I only turned away for a moment. Read any women’s magazine promising true life stories and you will know that’s about as long as it usually takes for disaster to strike. The difference was, I was hoping he’d disappear. Not for me the fear of loss, that distraction which draws you in whilst something happens to those you cherish. I had started to seek these opportunities, the wrinkles in time.

When I turned back he was still beside me, one grubby finger poked up a nostril. I muttered something, pushed his hand away and absently plumbed the depths of my handbag for something to wipe his face with. No matter how I tried, his face was always smeared with something, even if we left the house in a pristine state.

We’d rarely eat out. It was too much, too exhausting to make sure he didn’t throw his food around like he did at home. I’d seen the blank horror on the faces of the staff in enough cafes to know that all I could hope for over the next few years was for us to eat in McDonald’s where poor nutrition cultivated poor behaviour, or al fresco in parks. Parks without other people, that is.

And so I’d started to daydream of losing him, of accidentally leaving him behind. But he always found me, was always returned to me in more or less the same state. He was like a homing pigeon, wired to remain within my orbit. Even when I didn’t want him nearby.

Even though I knew it was futile, I persisted with the fantasy. I got so deep into the daydream this time that when I bumped into someone waiting at the traffic lights I ricocheted back, lost my footing and tumbled down, a swift yet slow collapse to the ground. All the shopping bags clattered, a tin of alphabet spaghetti bounced and hit me in the forehead. I closed my eyes as noise and people swirled around me. Someone helped me sit up, a woman’s voice calmly told me everything was all right. I could hear things being gathered, the crackle of plastic bags. I wanted to leave my eyes closed, for someone else to sort and fix everything for a change.

But the woman must have brushed something off my face, the touch was gentle and reassuring. I opened my eyes, expecting to see a kind stranger’s face. But it was Billy, using my handkerchief to wipe away the tears that had started to roll down my cheeks.

Inspired by a writing group prompt.

[Photo: writing journal collection]

Let’s Get Critical

Over the years my attitude and approach to providing feedback on the work of other writers has changed considerably. This isn’t too surprising in hindsight, but after providing feedback on a handful of short stories recently, it made me think a little deeper about what has changed and why.

In my first writing group, we had the opportunity to prepare up to 300 words on a topic which was provided prior to the meeting. The work could be prose or poetry, factual or fictional, and it was brought along, sight unseen, to the gathering. Time was put aside for reading the work aloud and receiving feedback if requested. By listening to the feedback provided by others, I began to learn how to identify what worked and how to articulate constructive criticism on other people’s writing.

Constructive criticism is challenging to prepare and to give, but the benefits of being able to make suggestions which may clarify unclear points and strengthen the work are significant. By reading and thinking critically about someone else’s writing, it provides the opportunity to be exposed to a wide range of different styles and approaches, often in genres that you might not spend much time in. It stretches the mind and helps you to see what is possible.

Most of my critiquing these days is completed at my desk with a copy of the work to hand. I prefer to read the work through quite quickly, resisting the urge to mark up sections or make corrections, trying to focus instead on the story and the impression that it leaves on me. If I can, I will leave the work for a day or so before returning to read it slowly, taking my time to write comments and scribble thoughts. I will then jot down impressions of the piece, along with what worked and what might be improved. In my writing group we share feedback at regular critiquing sessions, and it is helpful to see what resonates with others along with picking up on insights from other writers. It is a great way to hone critiquing skills.

I find that bringing a critical eye and a different perspective helps me with my own work as well, reminding me that sometimes you need to step away in order to really see how a piece comes together.

There are many online critiquing groups where writers share their work and provide feedback on other people’s stories. For now I find that there is enough critiquing to be done in my existing writing circles, but I may venture into online critiquing in the future.

What is your experience in providing constructive feedback?

[Photo: bikes spotted in the small village of Marulan – offering a different viewpoint of something familiar]

Writing Prompt: A Musical Moment

One of my earliest memories of writing to music was when I was about ten years old. I can still picture the classroom and the pens poised over exercise books as we were instructed to listen to the music and to write what it brought to mind. The music was the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky, and I wrote a poem about war and battle – hard not to as the canons boomed and the music built to a crescendo. The rattle of the drums and the call to arms was impossible to resist.

On a recent writing retreat, music was used as a prompt. There were three short pieces played, all exquisite and evoking surprisingly similar responses amongst the writers gathered around the table.  The first piece was a Norwegian folk song called Heiemo Og Nykkjen performed by Kirsten Braten-Berg. For me, the music was a melancholic song of farewell.

The music swirls around me, holding me close in its grasp. I want to weep, to turn back, to return to where I belong. But it is my song of farewell. My people are letting me go. I walk slowly, one heavy foot in front of the next. I know the tune so well; it is carved into my heart from so many other farewells. I have sung it myself when my brother left the valley, leaving our village behind. We were sure that he’d return, that it would only be a brief separation. But he has not returned. And now I, too, must go.

My sister’s voice lifts and as the notes tremble around me I stumble. But I cannot turn back now, as much as my heart breaks. I must continue on.

One of my fellow writing group members has written of the impact of the musical prompt session here.

Have you used music as a muse for writing?

[Photo: mural spotted in Hornsby next to second-hand bookshop The Bookplate]

Putting Creativity Out There

Over the last couple of years I have been writing fiction. This has mainly been in the form of short stories along with the first draft of a novel. The words have been growing slowly, building up in the background.

Some of the short stories have had an airing in my writing group, and this has been invaluable in a number of ways. Following constructive feedback, I have usually come away with a couple of areas to rework. I’ll admit that there are times when the feedback has been a bit challenging to hear, but usually once I digest the suggestions and revisit aspects which were confusing, the work feels stronger. I have been filing away the updated pieces, satisfied with the knowledge that they were as good as I could get them at this time.

There are lots of writing competitions out there, but I have been a bit reluctant to send these pieces out into the world. Late last year I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert which made me think that perhaps it was time to let some of my work go, to see if it could stand up on its own. In my writing group there was encouragement to get our work out there with a clarion call to collect rejection slips as we set our stories free.

I had been keeping an eye on competitions through a free weekly newsletter from the NSW Writers’ Centre and had printed out an entry form for a writing competition in Victoria. The form was filed and promptly forgotten until I discovered it, a day or two before the closing date. Fortunately submissions were online and I picked a story that met the competition criteria and sent it off before moving on to my next thought. When I came across the competition form a month or so later I tore it up, thinking that was the end of it but at least I’d tried.

Then I received a phone call. From Victoria. A phone message to let me know that I had won first place. I listened to the message a couple of times, stunned. The judge’s comments on the website said my story was charming and well-constructed. I felt giddy with delight. My story, inspired by a podcast about the vital role played by memorial halls in small country communities, had been good enough. You can find the story here.

So I will continue to create and dream and polish and put my work out there. I have recently come across the following in Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. It sums up how to behave as an ambitious writer:

The ambitious writer doesn’t hide her short stories in a drawer when she completes them, she sends them out. She starts with The New Yorker and works her way down. She doesn’t hesitate to approach a successful writer and ask questions, or follow an agent into the elevator so she can give a pitch. Even if she’s shaking in her Hush Puppies, she goes after what she wants. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, getting lucky, a chance encounter, a fortunate happenstance – all these might play a role in getting what you always dreamed of, but the ambitious writer is the one with energy and fortitude and stick-to-itiveness that the Elmer’s folks would like to patent.

Do you let your creative work go out into the world?

[Photo: three green owls]

Notes On A Writing Retreat

I see distant mountain ranges framed by trees, a spider speeding along a railing. Birds are swooping and swaying overhead, and distant sounds carry on a warm breeze. I am in a space where there is scope to let the words fall where they may.

It is true that you cannot schedule inspiration, but you can create an environment which is conducive to it. Space to let thoughts eddy and swirl, where incomplete projects can be nurtured back into life or new projects commenced. Pockets of time in which the usual miscellany of life is held in abatement – it can and will wait for a few hours. There is freedom and wistfulness and the possibility of the exploration and creation of other times and places.

Time is passed in a casual routine of writing together, sharing what is written, and writing solo. There is something both industrious and intimate in creating in a group environment. Solitary yet not alone.

Giving yourself permission to create: it seems like something so simple but I find it is somehow harder than I expect. I know how fortunate I am to have a home where there is space to write yet these occasional days of being in a supportive and collaborative space is something else entirely, bringing a different element to what I write.

I strongly recommend participation and creation in such a space. Create it yourself if you need to!

Have you ever been on a writing retreat?

[Photo: some writing journals]