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]

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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]

 

Writing Prompt: She Rode Off On A Harley

She rode off on a Harley. For a woman who had never caused a fuss or drawn attention to herself, it was an act of defiance. And it wasn’t even her Harley. It belonged to one of my mates, Deano. Lucky he was asleep although how he slept through the roar of the engine and the broad spray of dirt and gravel flung against the wall of the house as if tossed with a careless hand was beyond me. I guess we had drunk a bit the night before.

I was barely awake at the time and had knuckles digging into both of my eyeballs, trying to get a visual confirmation on what I was hearing. There were no raised voices – that would have been expected. I didn’t even twig that something was wrong until Eden woke me up. He said it was urgent, that I had to do something. I’d shrugged him off, rolled over in the bed, but he kept at me. He yanked the blanket off me, throwing it across the room. I swore at him, foul curses that would have earned me a clip across the ears if Mum had heard me. Then I had to get up. It was freezing. The fire must have gone out overnight. But that never happened. Mum was always up with the first light, getting a start on the washing or cleaning or getting breakfast ready.

‘Where’s Mum?’ I’d hissed the words at Eden as I dragged on yesterday’s clothes. They were tumbled and dirty, right where I’d left them. Mum was obsessive about clean clothes. We’d joke that the only way to keep anything out of her endless washing cycle was to not take it off. She must be crook. ‘Well?’ I took a step towards Eden but he slipped around the doorway and scooted off down the hallway.

It was then that I heard the roar of the bike. Loud, rumbling, deep and low enough to give the windows at the front of the house the jitters. I’d made it to the front door just in time to see Mum’s right hand give a rough salute as she disappeared with some mate of Deano’s off into the distance, my old school backpack loaded up and the sleeve of her favourite cardigan catching and waving in the wind.

[Photo: bikes spotted at Marulan]

Write Where You Can

I don’t know if I’ve ever been precious about where I write, but over the last few years I’ve been working on writing wherever I can. This really took off whilst I was participating in NaNoWriMo a couple of years back. Working full-time and maintaining a life whilst generating 50,000 words in a month saw me tapping out words in lunch breaks or whilst waiting in queues. Vague notions of not being able to start to write until I had a pocket of clear time were cast aside as the pressure was on to simply get the words down.

NaNoWriMo is not my normal writing style. I usually wish that I wrote more, and had some sort of discipline about writing practice but that isn’t the reality. Although I relish structure in my professional life I continue to be reluctant about imposing the same sort of schedule around what I write and when. It puzzles me why I am so resistant to adopt a regular pattern of creativity. I know that the muse doesn’t turn up on demand when I finally sit at the desk. The muse is a fickle creature, often putting in an appearance when writing tools are nowhere in sight, such as whilst driving or out walking.

But something that I learnt from the NaNoWriMo process is that it is possible to write anywhere. I am writing the first draft of this post from an outdoor setting at Bunnings, a hardware and gardening chain, whilst the family looks for plants and gadgets. Ear plugs help to drown out the sound of children playing nearby and people having lengthy conversations about the various merits of kitchen fitouts. I can still people watch, but I can also get some words down rather than just be frustrated by another day slipping away with not enough words captured.

Mobile devices make it easier to be able to work on the go. I tend to carry my current writing notebook too, just in case as the act of writing it down still works best sometimes. But it is convenient to tap something out in an application, and the ability to synchronise across devices means that it is easier than ever to write on the move.

The need to write becomes a compulsion at times, especially when a story is taking hold or that missing piece of a puzzle suddenly appears.  The ability to get these thoughts down quickly matters, so the notion of writing where you can comes into play. Work can be edited and rearranged with issues resolved at a later time. Getting the words down gives you something to edit.

I’ve worked in my car, at cafes, in queues and on the train (a particular favourite). Conference calls and work seminars are also great opportunities to think and write differently about works in progress, or to record ideas that occur out of the blue for another story. Airport lounges, shopping centres, hospitals, waiting rooms at professional offices; really just anywhere will do. Over the years I have developed the ability to focus quickly and deeply on what I’m writing on, as if there is no time to waste.

My preferred writing location will always be at home at my desk or kitchen table, where the environment is familiar. But it provides me with a great deal of comfort to know that I can, will and do write anywhere.

Do you write where you can?

[Photo: old telegraph/post office counter display at West Wyalong Museum]

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]

Writing Prompt: Write About Someone Doing An Everyday Task

The prompt: write about someone doing an everyday task that reveals something fundamental about who they are.

She had started before first light, making her way to the laundry in the yard and getting the boiler started as the household slept. The clothes had been sorted the day before and she’d made sure that there was enough kindling and firewood to get the laundry done. The first load was ready to hang out by the time the dawn chorus began to swell around her.

She tucked the basket on her hip, the canes creaking a little. Mary made her way to the clothes lines, long strands of wire held in place by wooden poles which seemed too feeble to hold the heavy sheets and household clothes but they were up to the task.

Just before starting to hang the linen she paused, listening for movement, sniffing in the cold dark morning for other wood smoke. A small smile tugged at her lips. She would be the first to have her washing out again. Last week she’d noticed that Maggie from next door had hung her washing out the night before. It didn’t count, doing it late in the day. With the dust and muck from the mines it wasn’t worth it anyway; the clothes would need washing twice if you tried that trick.

With wooden pegs tucked into her mouth, Mary flicked and pulled and straightened the cotton sheets until they flapped neatly in the light breeze. A quick glance upwards at the lightening sky as the stars retreated then she was heading back towards the laundry, stepping carefully on a well-worn track, her mind slipping forward to what the day ahead would require of her. The weekly rhythm was ingrained and she liked to get a head start on washing day to set herself up for the week ahead.

[Photo: display of laundry at Cascades Female Factory in Hobart]

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]

The Reading Hour

Whilst catching up on some podcasts recently I discovered that I had missed the inaugural annual reading hour. This event, promoted by the Australian Library and Information Association, called for Australians to spend one hour reading. One of the activities was to encourage parents to read to their children for at least 10 minutes a day over a week. There was also encouragement for anyone to make a date with a book. It  made me reflect on my reading habits and what reading means to me.

It is hard to think back to a time when I didn’t read, when the words were merely scribbles on a page, yet to be deciphered. I remember some early reading books such as Dick and Jane (anything that had my name in it assumed greater importance) and books of fairy tales. There were illustrated versions of the childhood classics, including Black Beauty and a book of Aboriginal legends. I delighted in odd compendiums of facts, like The Big Book of How and Why or something similar.

A lesson learnt early on was the incredible power of books to transport me to another time or place, to parts of the world both familiar and strange, to characters that seemed as real and complex as any that were in my daily life. The pleasure of being so caught up in a story that it slips into your mind whilst you’re doing other things, as you ponder on what might happen to this character, or how this seemingly impossible situation will resolve itself – these are some of the many joys that reading provides.

In the podcast, a few writers were interviewed to see what reading meant to them. For Chris Womersley reading takes place anywhere and it is difficult to imagine life without it. Sometimes life is understood more through literature than real life, and books play an important part in his internal narrative about what was going on in his life at a particular time. Kevin Kwan spoke of the pleasure that reading gives him – more pleasure than just about anything else, opening up a world of possibilities. For Kamila Shamsie, happiness is being in a hammock, reading. Reading means you never have to be alone, or that your life is limited to your own experiences. According to Shamsie, it enables you to develop empathy and imagination.

It is often claimed by many writers that to write, one must read. Reading widely is encouraged, not just in the genre that you write in or your particular field of expertise. Reading widely offers insights and approaches that can complement various styles, and I’ve heard interviews where some authors deliberately read non-fiction whilst writing fiction, for example.

I like to read a couple of books at any given time, and over the years this has evolved into a mixture of books, ebooks and audiobooks. I’ve just finished reading The Dunbar Case by Peter Corris as an ebook from the library after listening to The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman for my book group. Next on the book group list is The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy, an author I haven’t read in decades since I toted War and Peace around at the end of my teens. Recently I finished reading The Museum of Words by Georgia Blain, which was beautiful and devastating. I’m also reading Where Song Began by Tim Low. A friend has given me a couple of books on meditation and I’m also keen to read a couple of Australian crime thrillers that have been in my reading pile after reading some enthusiastic reviews lately.

What does your reading life look like?

[Photo: detail from my favourite reading chair]

Writing By Hand

I was rather bemused to see a large stationery chain advocating the benefits of writing by hand. With actual pens and paper. There was a mention of an Australian survey which confirmed that people who wrote in this way for 15-20 minutes a day reported various benefits including a greater sense of well-being and life satisfaction. My inner cynic wondered if this was just another way to sell more stationery.

But perhaps that is because I already do what is advocated by the survey. For years I have kept a brief diary with a line or two about each day. Looking back, I’m not sure what started it. I think it may have been a way to record subtle changes and events, and it has come in handy when I’ve wanted to see how I reacted to something months or years after the event. These record of the passing of days have been on Filofax diaries, and I have years of these scored with pens of varying colour, the pages heavy with the moments of a life. In recent months I have added three things I’m grateful for to the end of each day.

The twenty minutes of handwriting happens in my A5 journals. These are usually hard backed books with enough pages to capture three months or so worth of daily morning pages. These pages capture in more detail what is going on in my life and the world in general, along with snippets of news and updates on people I care about. Frustrations and victories are afforded equal billing, and I always feel better for having spent the time to write, even on days when I think there is absolutely nothing in my mind worth recording.

Occasionally I flick back through these pages, and I am usually rewarded with something to smile or laugh about, or reminded of something that seemed to dominate my life at a particular point. Until the next obsession came along. And there are snatches of dreams and story ideas which can be teased into something more substantial.  It has become a habit, and it is rare for me to miss a morning session. Occasionally I write at the end of the day, but I prefer to start the day with the rhythm and routine of the words on the page.

And I still write some creative work by hand. My notebooks are full of scratchings and thoughts, and as I write much slower than I type there is a different level of focus or energy about these writing sessions.

Do you write by hand?

[Photo: writing notebook scratchings]

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]