Writing Prompt: The Seed

It was all he had left of his old life. The only tangible object, separate to himself. When he looked in the mirror there were faint glimpses of what he had been. The sharp lines of his cheekbones, the clarity of his brow, the deceptive softness of his lips, all of these had faded. It seemed impossible that the image in the mirror was the man he’d become.

It had become a morning ritual. Get up (this step was harder than he thought it ought to be), wash and dress. Turn to the mirror to make sure the shirt buttons were aligned with their correct holes, then shuffle over to the armchair in the generously named living area. He’d cadenza down into the chair and gaze at the husk of the once succulent fruit and lose himself for a while in thoughts of earlier times. Back to when his body was taut, muscled and capable of anything that he put his mind to. His life had seemed overripe with possibilities.

Some mornings he frowned, adding additional wrinkles to his furrowed brow, trying to identify the turning point, that precise moment in time when equilibrium shifted, when his seemingly limitless strength started to trickle away. He was yet to identify that moment but he knew that the decline was quick and relentless. It took him too long to realise that he was waning, that all that was strong and sure was gone. His memories of home seemed to leach away too, and all that he had left was the dried husk of a pomegranate.

It had travelled with him across the world. His mother had pressed it into his hands in her last act of benevolence. He hadn’t been able to eat it and had wanted even then to keep it with him. A vague plan formed of growing new life from its seeds when he found somewhere that would hold his heart. But somehow he never found that place. It puzzled him and yet there was peace in knowing that the pomegranate was still with him, a spent force perhaps, but with the promise of warmth and sunshine, of life.

[Photo: pomegranates]

This story was inspired by a dried pomegranate, one of several props in a writing group exercise.

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A Creative Hero: Carmel Bird

Hero is a term that is easily thrown about these days. Skilled sporting stars are named heroes, as are people who complete an extraordinary act in an otherwise ordinary life. It is a badge that I’m a little bit wary of, yet I like the idea of a creative hero.

For me a creative hero is someone who is versatile in their field, passionate not only about the act of writing but the craft of it – being willing and generous in their sharing of knowledge. They would be able to write in various styles and genres, from poetry to prose, non-fiction to fantasy, offering a breadth of approaches and worlds for their readers to enjoy.

A creative hero would have an impact on readers and writers alike, perhaps have a wider profile than many writers, and be advocates for the power of creativity.

There are many eligible candidates out there, both living and otherwise, but if I was put on the spot I would have to say Carmel Bird is an Australian contender for my creative hero. I came across Bird’s fiction years ago with a mystery novel Open for Inspection, and have read many of her short stories in various compilations.

Her contribution to the craft of writing is extensive, through workshops, classes, and author talks. My introduction to the world of writing via Bird’s viewpoint was through a chance finding of a second-hand copy of Dear Writer. I found it in the wonderful book town of Clunes in Victoria, and enjoyed reading through the correspondence between an aspiring writer and their patient and wise tutor. The warmth and humour made it stand apart from many of the books that I’ve scoured over the years, and I was pleased when it was re-released a couple of years ago with some updates as Dear Writer Revisited. There is a review on the NSW Writers Centre site here.

There is an extensive interview with Bird on the Sydney Review of Books site written by Rachel Morley. This provides insights into Bird’s creative process and practice, including travelling with a small paper notebook and capturing three good things from each day, from simple moments to more complex events. Bird also outlines the importance of observation for a writer, of how the act of writing is a way of making sense of aspects of life.

For me a creative hero is someone who I admire, with work I respect and enjoy, who is prolific and inventive and has an evident joy in the act and art of creation.

Who is your creative hero?

[Photo: detail from stained glass door in Hydro Majestic Hotel, Medlow Bath]

John Clarke on Nature and Walking

I think one of the useful things about an interest in nature and in walking and looking is a loss of the self. To completely lose yourself is a great pleasure especially if what you do for a living is put yourself up in some way which is psychically tiring. One of the principal joys of birdwatching is that you are being responsive to the world, you’re just another creature. You are the tool of the world. You are not mastering it, or moulding it to your image or any such piffle, you are reminded of what a pipsqueak you are.

John Clarke 1948-2017

There is a link here which shares some of John’s amazing photos. Also check out this link to his website.

When was the last time you lost yourself in the natural world?

[Photo: superb blue wren spotted in Canberra]

Flash Fiction: 100 Words – Superpower

No-one suspects an older woman. Especially one who has reached an invisible status. She had felt a creeping despair when she realised that people – men in particular – would rarely acknowledge her existence. No longer worthy of an assessing glance, there was an anger at first which mellowed as she realised that there may be some benefits. As a child the superpower she most admired was invisibility, and now she had it. She tested this new power with small acts of theft and deception. Being able to fade into the background was a blessing. Her wildest dreams were now within reach.

[Photo: near Parliament House in Wellington, New Zealand]

Where to begin with a novel edit?

This is a question that has been on my mind a lot lately. Over a year ago I finished the first draft of a novel. It was an exciting moment, and I can still recall how I typed the final sentence with a sense of bewilderment. I’d done it. I’d written a novel. But even in that moment I knew it was just the beginning.

Like many guides recommend, I let the work sit for a bit. A couple of months later I read it through on a warm spring day. There were some typos and clunky bits and repetition but overall I was rather chuffed with my efforts. It could be improved without a doubt, but I felt that it held together well.

I’m not sure what happened next. Other projects and life got in the way. And the thought of making a start (where and how??) with wrangling over 95,000 words was overwhelming, let alone any consideration of what I would do with it once it was edited. How many first novels live in drawers or backed up in a cloud?

But one of my writing friends kept asking me about The Novel. Where was it up to? How was the rework going? Finally the message got through. It’s time to rework the novel.

Have you ever googled novel editing? There is a vast amount of information and resources, tips and techniques out there to guide the novel novelist. But I soon realised that, similar to the writing process itself, there is no single way to complete the novel edit. Established authors vouch that there are variations to most of the novels that they have edited. Some authors have editorial teams behind them but when starting out it is just you and the page. The temptation is strong to spend considerable time researching various approaches but after a brief foray this began to feel like procrastination.

I have to keep it relatively simple. I have referred back to a post by Australian author Allison Tait that I kept in readiness for such a moment. And I also found a frank clip on editing by Jenna Moreci that aligned with my goal of a simple yet thorough approach.

The reality is that there are no shortcuts. I will need to keep moving through the stages of editing until the novel is in the best shape it can be. And rather than being overwhelmed, it is best to keep it in manageable steps.

How do you approach big creative tasks?

[Photo: mist in the Hartley Valley]

Learnings from a 30 Day Writing Bootcamp

Making time to write has been on my mind lately. I recently completed a 30-day writing bootcamp where motivational writing goals arrived each morning in my inbox. I found this to be effective on a number of levels, not least of all because I am quite literal and will usually respond to written instructions!

Below are some learnings after completing 30 days of writing ‘bootcamp style’.

  • Mix up the writing times to keep it interesting.
  • Any reluctance I had around the relevance of writing 10,000 words in 30 days (which was the bootcamp goal) when I’m not currently working on a novel were unfounded. By day 3 I’d notched up over 3,000 words on short stories that had been stagnating for months.
  • It became a fun challenge to see where I could fit in pockets of writing time, regardless of how small.
  • It has been a while since I felt this motivated to write.
  • I enjoyed the challenge of writing to different word counts at various times of the day. I thought I knew when I ‘could’ write, and it was really good to challenge this perception and find out just how effective writing in smaller timeframes could be.
  • It was also surprising to realise just how much I could write in a short period of time. All of those times when I was telling myself that I only had ten minutes and that it wouldn’t be worth making a start was just a fib. I can get stuff done in mere minutes.
  • I found myself more likely to be thinking and planning what I was going to write at the next opportunity, knowing that if I have something in mind before I start the words really do fly.
  • The goal was to add 10,000 words to an existing manuscript. My word count for the month was 16,616 which exceeded my expectations.
  • By challenging my perceptions about what and when I could write, it has opened up feelings of dynamic possibility regarding how I can regularly write in a variety of timeframes and locations.

The challenge then becomes where to from here? I thought about maintaining momentum by scheduling the prompts in my calendar on a five-week cycle, with a few days scattered in for editing as I found that I was generating lots of words but needed time to trim some of it up to be useful or to continue on in a coherent manner with larger projects.

But what I’ve done instead is created a document with the 30 days worth of prompts, plus a handful of editing and planning days, and popped them in a jar. I want to retain the sense of spontaneity that I so enjoyed during the bootcamp. Because better than before I started the bootcamp, I know what my writing self is like.

How do you maintain momentum in your writing life?

[Photo: bowl of writing goals]

Feeling Retro?

There is something about this time of year that encourages reflection. It is normal to want to spend a moment or two reviewing the year that was and thinking about plans and hopes for the year ahead. This pocket of reflection allows for consideration of personal and professional goals, and it is good to be able to think about what has been accomplished. It is easy to get caught up in the doing sometimes.

Lately I have been enjoying various posts from some of my favourite bloggers about their blog and book highlights of 2017. At times it can feel that there is so much content out there that it is hard to simply stop and revisit those snippets of writing that really had an impact throughout the year, and the recaps of popular posts are a handy reminder. Some of my favourite book bloggers have posted about a year in first lines (including Whispering Gums and Lisa Hill) which makes me think about the year in reading.

But what of my own year in writing?

A couple of months back I sat down with a notebook and thought about how I was travelling with my writing. I took into account what I had written, what I considered finished and what I still wanted to write. It didn’t take long to assess where I was, or to plan out what I would like to write in the short to medium term, but I found it to be a worthwhile exercise. It can be easy to get caught up in the doing and to lose a sense of direction.

This quick check-in helped to refocus my attention on the areas that I wanted to work on. It is not a one-off event, nor should it be yearly. It is something that I need to do on a regular basis, especially when I feel that I am creating but not completing, or maybe not even creating and I need to revisit what I have already done to help cheer me on for the next phase.

How often do you check in with your creative goals?

[Photo: some of the many signs at Portland, NSW]

Blanket Stitch: Musings on Craft for the Soul

Recently I was thinking of Pip Lincolne’s book Craft for the Soul and how much I like dipping into its pages. My mind meandered off, thinking about how I’m not really a crafty person. I can do basic mending and can knit squares and scarves. For a while, I used to make my own tops, frustrated at the lack of colour and choices available in a regional town. It was something that brought much pleasure: the thoughtful selection of fabric based on design and texture, and matching the thread and buttons to the material. I enjoyed the process of preparing the fabric, cutting and shaping it to suit. I think, too, this was when my love affair with audiobooks started. Making clothing is a mindful task, and I enjoyed listening to stories as I constructed something wearable out of a block of fabric.

That night, after thinking of how little craft I have done, I woke thinking about my blanket. It is made of many woollen rectangles, knitted over months. Most are stocking stitch, although a few show some more sophisticated patterns. Some of my favourites were made using blended wool, incorporating a variety of colours. Seeing one colour fade out and another take over was one of the pleasures of the yarn. The rectangles are in a range of colours; the shape of each piece is the common thread.

One winter I took the piles of woollen rectangles to my Nan’s place. We laid them on a table and moved the squares around to get colours working together. We decided on the number of pieces required for width and length, making piles in the agreed row order.

Then the stitching began, using multicoloured yarn to link the pieces together. With Nan’s help, the blanket began to take shape as squares were joined by blanket stitch, then rows linked together until the blanket grew into a recognisable form. As we worked there was conversation and companionship amidst the cups of tea. The blanket continued to grow until all the pieces had a place of their own.

The blanket has been a constant source of warmth and comfort for many years. In winter it is the base layer as other blankets and quilts are added to counter mountain chills. In summer it is often the only source of warmth for the early hours when the night cools down in preparation for the day ahead.

When there were severe bushfires through the mountains in 2013, this blanket was one of the few possessions I put into my car, just in case I couldn’t make it back and my home was lost.

Some squares have fared better than others over the years, but overall it is holding together well. It is a daily reminder of a precious pocket of time with someone who I loved, and who loved me. And a reminder too of a time when there was craft in my soul.

Do you have craft in your soul?

[Photo: part of the blanket]

One Change to Your Writing World

Deadlines are a motivator for me, reliably generating action. About a year ago I enrolled in an online course about making time to write with content access for 12 months. I’m not quite sure how but I managed to forget about it entirely until about three weeks before it was to expire. In my mind I’d been moaning about not having time to write. If only I’d made the time to do the course earlier …

With writing courses there are usually actions that can be incorporated into existing routines. As I worked through the course, I thought about how I could mix up my process to reclaim the sense of joy that writing provides in my life. One of the last sections was about tools to help you write, including a tip to check out available writing applications. I have tried many apps but find that writing in Word or Pages, with using Scrivener for larger pieces, works well enough. I can synchronise through the cloud and over time it has become easier to track down documents, regardless of the application used to create them.

One of the icons that popped up for writing applications was Ulysses. I had seen it before but it didn’t appeal at the time. Upon revisiting it, I saw there was a 14 day trial available. The online reviews were largely positive and upfront about the differences compared to traditional word-processing applications. There was talk of markdown and coding along with an assurance that it wasn’t critical to get too involved in this side.

What appealed was writing across my phone, tablet and laptop with automatic synchronisation. The ability to export in various formats was attractive, as was the option to export straight into WordPress. Whilst I can use the draft blog post section in WordPress, the idea of having draft posts in the one spot but sortable by keywords or groups suits the way my mind works.

So I’m giving it a go. Whilst I don’t want an endless proliferation of programs and platforms to write on, this meets my current needs as I’m working on a number of short stories, blog posts, and a couple of longer pieces. I can easily see work in progress, and move around projects without jumping between applications. There is a very simple writing environment which also helps to focus on the task at hand.

By taking on this suggestion I have had a burst of writing activity. Whether it is sustainable will tell over time. For now, I’m glad that shaking up my routine has lead to a feeling of reconnection with the world of writing.

When was the last time you made a single change to your writing?

[Photo: butterfly in the garden]

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]