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]

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Working With Words: Amanda Hampson, Author

When visiting a friend up north a couple of years back, she pressed a book into my hands and urged me to read it. The book was The Olive Sisters by Amanda Hampson and it was a most enjoyable read. Hampson has published several books, and the most recent is The Yellow Villa, set in France. She recently gave an author talk at Katoomba library and I was able to go along and listen as she spoke about her writing life.

One of the highlights of her childhood in a small town in New Zealand was library day on Fridays, and it was here where Hampson developed her love of books, working her way through myths and legends and adding Agatha Christie novels and true crime stories over the years. The desire to be a writer was clear to her from an early age, and she thought that a career in journalism would be the starting point.

Hampson moved to the UK and lived there and later moved to Australia. Whilst in the UK, she travelled extensively and visited France regularly, having developed a passion for all things French from her mother. It was during this time that Hampson began to write. This included short stories and articles, and two non-fiction books were published.

Her first published novel, The Olive Sisters, was written over a period of about five years and is a story told across two generations. It deals with the sense of isolation and loss of prestige that can be experienced when giving up city life for the country as part of a tree change. This had been inspired by her partner’s struggle with the change in status and loss of identity following a similar relocation.

Two for the Road was her second novel, set in the macho tow truck industry, and it is entertaining to read of some of the challenges she encountered in researching the industry as background for the novel. Uplifting, escapist reading was one of the motivations behind Hampson’s third novel, The French Perfumer; this provided a contrast to the focus on dark news which was also reflected in the literature at the time. This novel is set in the 1950s during a period of optimism and gracious fashion.

Hampson opened the floor to questions, which included one about how to resist the temptation to move from what you are currently working on to the Next Great Idea. She responded by speaking about the creative destructiveness of moving between projects and consequently not finishing anything. Jot down ideas, by all means, but don’t let it distract you from what you are currently working on. Another popular question for authors is around the writing process – what does this look like? Hampson said that when she begins a novel, she commits to writing 500 words a day at a minimum. Some days that is much easier than others, and once the creative flow takes over the word count increases, but having this minimum amount as a starting point helps to get words on the page.

Amanda Hampson’s website can be found here – it has extracts from her novels along with insights into her writing process. There is also an interesting article on her writing life on her publisher’s website.

[Photo: painted laneway at Hornsby, next to a bookshop]

Cafe Culture

Are you able to work in a creative sense in a cafe? I can sometimes. A lot depends on what I’m working on and whether the sounds and smells around me are overwhelming. Some cafes are really noisy, others have a low background hum spiced with fragments of conversation which can be wound into possible future stories or just provide an interesting point of reference. People are largely unguarded in a cafe – they might be catching up with friends or having a conversation on the phone. Yes, even those one-sided conversations can provide a spark of interest for the eavesdropping writer.

One of my more memorable cafe experiences happened in a small country town. The promise of coffee and raisin toast lulled me inside, along with the cafe’s description as an emporium. After I ordered I had a wander around the cafe which had various shelves, book cases and tables set up with preloved goods. It was one of those places where you would probably see something different each time you visit.

There was a clutch of women at a couple of tables at the front of the cafe, and in the absence of any background music it was impossible not to hear the conversation between the group. I was writing up some notes on some things I’d spotted whilst roaming around the village, but within a short period of time the conversation caught my attention and I felt the need to jot down some of the things that one woman in particular was saying. It isn’t something I would normally do, but I felt like she may have been putting on a performance for an outside audience and it was too good to ignore.

I started to type up some of the phrases that the woman was saying. The trick was that as she was speaking, the woman was also bouncing around the shop, touching this, inspecting that. There were other people in the cafe but they were all women who seemed to know each other and weren’t particularly bothered by her antics.

I was jotting some of the colourful phrases down when suddenly she swooped towards me, placed a hand on my shoulder and asked me what I was doing.

‘Don’t mind me, love, I’m a bit nosy.’

Fortunately I had seen her approach and had managed to flick to another screen. Unfortunately it was a browser window which featured an in-depth article about a murder that had taken place in the town. My claim that I was just reading up on some local news probably didn’t ring true, but she tapped my shoulder and moved on to the next thing of interest.

I wasn’t being deliberately misleading or intrusive. Being able to catch turns of phrase or unguarded moments of conversation is good training for a writer’s ear. Often we speak in a kind of shorthand, or sentences drift off. There can be a lot of murmuring or hand gestures or facial expressions which don’t necessarily translate into the written word. But the cadences and rhythm can be picked up and this can help to provide an authentic tone to a future piece of written dialogue.

It isn’t unusual to be sitting at a cafe and working on a laptop or device. I’m not saying that the person that looks focused on something in front of them is recording your every word and gesture. But you might be inspiring them to some authentic writing in the future!

There is an entertaining post from Pauline Conolly about writers and cafes which you can find here.

[Photo: hot chocolate with home-made marshmallow at Paragon Cafe, Katoomba (before it closed) – one of my favourite scribble spots]

Creative Challenges

I have learned to accept that my writing tends to ebb and flow. In an ideal world, I would diligently write every day or most days at least, and if I didn’t write then I would edit or research or plan the next writing project. There are times when I can be disciplined around my writing, then other times life crowds its way in and a day or two slips by, then a week. I have to scratch my head to think about when I last wrote something in a creative sense.

A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast interview with author Hedley Derenzie. Derenzie had been in a very dark place and had attempted suicide when feeling overwhelmed with grief, loneliness and disconnection. Her road to recovery was long and difficult, but one of her lifelines was a return to her creative path. Derenzie is a writer, but writing had not been a consistent presence in her life for some time. In a moment of inspiration, Derenzie committed to writing 2,000 words a day for a month. There were rules around this commitment, including the need for the day’s writing to be inspired from the events in the previous 24 hours which in turn encouraged reengagement with the world during her creative pilgrimage.

I have just started reading Write Way Home: Writing My Way Back To A Meaningful Life. This is the result of not only that month of writing and experiences, but reflections on what reengagement with creativity can mean. And it isn’t necessarily just for writers; Derenzie encourages connecting with those creative outlets which we love, but which tend to fall by the wayside when life gets busy, or when it is realised that they will not result in employment or income generation. It isn’t the outcome that matters here, it is the action and that sense of joy and engagement that creativity brings to each of us.

About a month ago I decided that I would write 250 words a day. This is my minimum goal and it can be in any format. It can be a personal piece, something creative or a blog post. The words can be a continuation of a story in progress or something entirely new. It isn’t the output that is important, it is the activity. It is early days, and I didn’t have an end date in mind, but I wanted to see if I could keep up what feels like a small commitment to write each day. So far, I’ve made it, even if it is sometimes the last thing I do before I call it a day. And I do feel more engaged, and my mind is finding a creative rhythm of sorts.

Do you set yourself creative challenges?

[Photo: close up of some creative craft adorning a tree in front of St Hilda’s Church at Katoomba]

Poem: Mr Nobody by Anonymous

I know a funny little man,
As quiet as a mouse,
Who does the mischief that is done
In everybody’s house!
There’s no one ever sees his face,
And yet we all agree
That every plate we break was cracked
By Mr Nobody.

‘Tis he who always tears our books,
Who leaves the door ajar,
He pulls the buttons from our shirts,
And scatters pins afar;
That squeaking door will always squeak,
For prithee, don’t you see,
We leave the oiling to be done
By Mr Nobody.

He puts the damp wood upon the fire
That kettles cannot boil;
His are the feet that bring in mud,
And all the carpets soil.
The papers always are mislaid;
Who had them last, but he?
There’s no one tosses them about
But Mr Nobody.

The finger marks upon the door
By none of us are made;
We never leave the blinds unclosed,
To let the curtains fade.
The ink we never spill; the boots
That lying round you see
Are not our boots, – they all belong
To Mr Nobody.

With thanks to the Poetry Foundation – it was a joy to track down a poem I remember from my childhood. I think Mr Nobody is still out there somewhere!

[Photo: craft shop window display at Lindfield with lots of buttons in the background]

Flash Fiction: Red Mood

She thinks of it as his red mood. Alcohol hurried it along but lately it had become so regular that it no longer needed a big drinking session to bring it about. That scared her more than she could say. In quieter moments, when she used to be able to knit as he watched tele of a night, she’d find her mind searching for a rhythm in his actions, a discernible pattern that she could learn regardless of the workings of his mind. Something that she could gauge with markers along the way so she could change tack and unpick the knots that only he could see.

He cried the first time. Huge bawling sobs which jarred her out of the fog of pain. She’d crawled across the kitchen floor, stockings slipping on the polished lino then sticking where her blood had sprayed. With a trembling hand, she’d reached out, unsure of how he would react. Everything that had been certain before was skewed. He’d grabbed her, holding her so tight that she winced which only made him cry more. His head in her lap, her fingers tight in his dark curls. The hair now is long gone with just soft wisps edging his scalp, leaving nothing to hold onto anymore.

Lately, after years of nothing more than a rough passing shove or a sly meanness in his words, the blows had started again. With the children gone, returning for ever briefer visits with her beautiful, bold grandchildren, she offered to volunteer in the town. She’d always helped out at the annual show and fundraisers, but with Theo spending more time at the pub or helping his friends with endless projects, she started working at the op shop.

The other women made her laugh. For years they’d admired her careful needlework and she was asked to show a couple of the younger women, still in their fifties, how to do it. There was coffee and cake and gossip. At first, Rita used to stiffen, feeling almost prudish as they spoke openly about their sex lives, their husbands, the joys and disappointments of their children. She kept quiet, realising that everything was fair game. It took her a while to catch the surreptitious glances cast her way when they spoke of the aggression of their men whose lives were winding down as their physicality faded in a town that had lost its livelihood. She felt relief, briefly, knowing that she wasn’t the only one. Then she realised that they knew.

Rita called in sick for her next shift, too shamefaced to return. But Theo heard her lie and had asked with rare interest what was stopping her from going. She nearly told him, and part of her wanted to yell and scream at the disgrace he had brought upon them both. All those years ago she had known at the moment of impact that he had broken more than her nose. But she hadn’t realised that the breakage would keep on splintering for the rest of her life.

At the next women’s gathering, during a rare lull in the conversation, Rita cleared her throat. She kept her eyes down, her voice so soft at first that it was like something she was whispering to herself. But slowly, she spoke a little louder, not daring to look up. The words took on a rhythmic flow. It was the story – her story – that she had carried for so long, a litany of her life with Theo.

They let her speak, even Marcie who constantly interrupted and talked over everyone. As Rita spoke, condensing decades of hurt, pain, and confusion into a few sentences, she began to feel lighter. The burden wasn’t gone, but it felt less all-encompassing than before.

When she’d said enough, there was still silence. Rita looked up, her cheeks aflame with a sense of disgrace that was never far away. Marcie reached over and took her hand, and Rita was startled to see the tears on her cheeks. ‘Stupid old bastard, that Theo.’ Then the room was alive with laughter and tears and she was no longer quite so alone.

Inspired by a call for pieces inspired by red and published recently in The Wild Goose Literary e-Journal in April 2018.

[Photo: smoke clouds billowing towards Katoomba]

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.

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]