by Jim Belshaw
Back in Armidale on a visit, I went down to the Newie (Armidale’s New England Hotel) for a Friday night drink with Uncle Ron and some of his country mates. The stories flowed, some of them very entertaining indeed.
“Why don’t you write them down," I said.
Everybody suddenly got very self-conscious.
“We’re not writers”, they said.
This is a not unusual reaction. The problem, I think, is that we have mystified writers and writing, turning it from a simple process into a capitalised art form. This is compounded by school experiences that have taught us not that we should write but that we must write in a particular way, that focus on the mistakes we make in writing.
I am not being critical when I say this, nor am I downplaying the importance of grammar and spelling. Schools need to teach people to read and write effectively, to communicate in a variety of ways. However, I am concerned when school experiences create a barrier that stops people doing things. The reality is, as our politicians would say, that most people write and are therefore writers. In fact, with the internet, I think that there is more writing (and writers) now than at any previous time in human history.
To illustrate.There has been a proliferation of special interest groups across the internet. On Facebook, for example, the Armidale Families Past and Present group has 2,246 members. Not everybody contributes, but hundreds do, exchanging reminiscences and information in threads that can run for pages. Some members of the group had to leave school at twelve, others rebelled at formal schooling. In this friendly, supportive atmosphere, nobody critiques spelling or grammar. What is important is what is said, not how it is said.
We also live in the age of the family historian as more and more seek to discover details of their past. Many are older, seeking to preserve family details for their own interest and in the hope that what they discover will be of interest to younger generations when they choose to become interested. All these people write and are, by definition, writers.
At this point I need to plead a special interest. As a regional historian, all these things are gold to me. They stimulate me, they tell me about the past and provide the evidence I need for my own writing. I don’t think people realise just how important their own stories are. I also think they don’t fully understand just how good some of their writing is. A turn of phrase, an interesting anecdote, grabs my attention and cause me to chortle with laughter. This can be dangerous in the evening if I have just taken a sip of wine! So I wish to encourage all writers and writing regardless.
I am sometimes asked how people might improve their writing. I have one simple suggestion. Keep a pen and notepad. This needs to be small enough to fit in you bag or pocket. Date each page and jot down things that are important to you from shopping lists to turns of phrase to random thoughts. The audience is yourself. You will be surprised as you look back at how much you remember, at the increasing value of those notebooks.
by Becky Holland
Fiona left school in year 11 and did a variety of jobs. In 1985 to 1990 she attended the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney. Founded in 1890, it is the oldest continuous fine art school in Australia and is still operating today in assisting artists achieve their dreams. Over the years, Fiona has thought of herself mostly as a visual artist doing black and white pen drawings, but also gouache colour pictures.
Most recently, Fiona took an opportunity to be part of Stuff of Tales. Each writer or artist is paired up with a museum in the New England area and conducts workshops. Fiona had the chance to explore Saumarez
Homestead with the view to select an item from the collection to become the basis of a story. We will have to wait to see what story emerges from Saumarez with great anticipation.
I asked Fiona if her personality is reflected in her work, she said, with my pen drawings, I build up detailed, highly rendered scenes, in which I like to add bizarre or quirky elements. Not sure what this says about my personality but I think people who know me would identify me by my pictures.
A few examples of Fiona’s illustrations are included in within The New England Muse.
At times, we all have creative blocks and Fiona is just the same and her way of moving past a creative block is to, just draw, doodling is great to overcome blank paper syndrome. Fiona uses Kate Grenville’s automatic writing technique where you sit and write for two minutes and don’t stop to think. You have to write whatever is in your head at the time, even if it is “I don’t want to write”.
We all have methods or even a muse to get those creative juices flowing and Fiona begins her process with thumb nail sketches of a scene to work out composition. She then, lightly draws in the main components in pencil before rendering them in pen, or paint. Recently, Fiona was asked to produce roughs for an entire book, which she found really hard yet turned out to be a very good exercise.
In conjunction with the illustrator David Allan, Fiona has developed Authors’ Elves. A business that will cater for any aspect of book production. They will even ghost write a book for you as well as edit, design and arrange to have it printed. A manuscript assessment service and the opportunity to host workshops is also available.
I asked Fiona five things that inspire her right now, she said, fairy lore, as I’m rewriting a story from some years ago, which I knew had a weakness three quarters of the way through. It is now much richer and has a lot of layers and excites me very much. I’m also thinking about goblins in some form, maybe a picture book, maybe even a satirical novel.
Finally, Fiona leaves us with some advice, Work hard. Do lots of workshops, classes and practise, practise, practise. Do not make excuses for not doing the work, such as you don’t have time, or inspiration won’t come. Inspiration is just a word for a sudden thought, most ideas have to be wrestled out of your brain with hard labour. Follow your passions always.
How do you begin a poem?
For me, a poem begins with an inspired, though fleeting, thought or impression that I realize I must write down promptly, or risk losing. I tend to begin poems outside, in contact with the earth—with a notebook, leaning against a tree or smelling a plant—but I usually finish poems indoors, in insulated comfort, and occasionally a long while after I initiated them. I’m fascinated by language, and particularly by archaic and scientific terminology, so poems can be prompted by odd words. On a much different note, a poem sometimes begins with a broiling sense of indignation that I feel I should set free.
What poets do you continually go back to?
As I was born, raised, and educated in the United States, I continually go back to Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Robinson Jeffers, and Mary Oliver as well as Native American poets like Joy Harjo and Simon Ortiz. I enjoy the poetry of Judith Wright, Les Murray, and other Australians too. I’m intrigued by Murray’s book Translations from the Natural World in which he speaks from the perspectives of plants. At the moment, I’m reading British poet Elisabeth Bletsoe’s short work Pharmacopœia—talk about odd words and plants!
Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
Definitely. My idea of what poetry is changed today—and will change again tomorrow, or tonight. In fact, it’s changing as I write this now. I used to go for Romantic rhyming poetry (as a teenager) and then I went free-form when I learnt that rhyming and Romanticism were apparently outdated (as a twenty-something). Now I’m back to rhyming. Who knows how long it will last. I try to experiment with unpredictable placements of rhymes or off-rhymes. I oscillate between poetry that tells a story—narrates events and describes actual objects—and poetry that tries to evoke an nondescript mood, essence, or memory. Poetry is a wonderfully diverse thing.
Are you on Facebook or Twitter? Does that fit into your writing life, and if so, how?
To be honest, I tried to integrate Facebook and Twitter gracefully into my writing life but failed or didn’t try hard enough. I find that, because I spend a lot of time writing (and on a computer writing), I am reluctant to spend more digital time maintaining a Facebook or Twitter profile. As someone who craves privacy in world increasingly without the luxury of anonymity, social media doesn’t entirely suit my disposition. Having said that, I think Facebook and Twitter can be very effective ways to publicize one’s writing and build contacts with other writers and with publishers. I’ve found that presses are more interested in authors with established social media followings and online platforms. That helps to ease their minds about marketing a book.
Do you have a writing group or community of writers you share your work with? Who are they?
When I lived in Perth between 2008 and 2015, I was quite active, as a poetry workshop facilitator and participant, in the three centres there (Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre, Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre, and the Fellowship of Australian Writers, WA). I edited a number of anthologies and journals promoting local writing. I believe that having a few trusted fellow writers with whom to share work is exceedingly valuable, but it’s not essential for everyone. Indeed, the craft of some shines with reclusion. It’s important to work out what will benefit one’s current and future writing the most. When I lived in northern Thailand in 2016, I had no access to a writing community because everyone around me spoke Thai. I had to become a reclusive scrivener then.
What’s the best advice you ever had about how to be more creative?
The best advice I’ve been given is to write regularly and everyday if possible. Write for 10 minutes at 6.30 am. Write for 6.5 hours at 10pm. Write when opportunities present themselves: weekends, retreats, workshops, on the bus, lying in bed, at the dreaded airport. Privilege writing as a practice, habit, requirement, compulsion, priority, orientation, way of making sense of the world. Creativity comes with some form of continuity or, even, discipline. I learnt a lot from a well-regarded poet (now over 80 years old) who scribbled poems on the back of handouts or napkins while attending lectures. Another poet (also well-known, and also almost 80) taught me much when he said he chose poetry, as a young man, when he realized he didn’t have the sustained concentration necessary to write a novel!
Interview with Trish Donald by Becky Holland
Trish Donald is in her fifth year as a board member of the New England Writers’ Centre. Her artwork regularly makes an appearance in the newsletter.
Most recently, Trish launched her first book with Little Pink Dog Books who were looking for emerging authors and illustrators. Little Pink Dog Books liked some of her monster drawings and asked if she would write and illustrate a book where those monsters were Worry Monsters. Where they would be manifested by a young girl’s anxiety. They asked if she could overcome her Worry Monsters by using mindful breathing, that would help young children cope with their anxiety. It aligned with Trish’s desire to help parents and children connect through books.
Trish’s creative process begins with play and exploration. She starts with a shape whether it is drawn or cut out and adds to it. Often she makes the same shape or character over and over and does different
things with it; give it extra arms, hair, multiple eyes, no eyes, make it really tall. Then she might cut it out of the paper and add a different medium such as a squashed bottle cap she found on the road, or put it into the computer and play with the scale of the character. When she has a specific purpose such as developing Tissywoo and her friends at school then she does lots and lots of working drawings. Their bodies usually come later. When working on Tissywoo’s expressions Trish created pages with multiple images of her head and drew in her face exploring all the emotions. She has pages full of little drawings of her toys and the objects in her bedroom. She then assembled all the elements together until the composition and flow of the page worked to help tell the story.
We all have someone we aspire to be like or who grows our work and for Trish that is Shaun Tan. Trish loves his use of texture, industrial images, and his unusual characters. “Shaun Tan gives everything he
draws such personality and his stories are whimsical and touching and my favorite is Eric”, Trish says.
Trish is always part of the Writers’ Centre events. You might not see her there every time, but she is collecting presenters from the airport and working behind the scenes on posters and graphics for the
We asked her if she’d like to share something with the readers of The New England Muse and she said, “if you want to be published join a writer’s centre, go to as many workshops as you can and be open to
feedback. Even if the workshop is about a topic such as fantasy and you are interested in crime, go. You will find they share commonalities such as plot and character development, dialogue, how to write to the targeted age group, tips on editing and approaching agents. You also make vital connections and build a community of support around you. Lastly, you have to really want it because it is not easy. It is hard fitting everything in; work, family, friends, creative projects, staying healthy, it is not easy and you have to make sacrifices but for me, it is definitely worth the effort.”
Pitch Independent — Sophie Masson (NEWC Chairwoman)
As one of the three co-ordinators for the New England Writers’ Centre’s big Pitch Independent program, I am happy to report that it was a brilliant success! The prep day two weeks ago went really well, with lots of people getting advice and practising their pitches in front of local publishing professionals. And last weekend, we hosted a fantastic lineup of some of Australia’s best small and independent book publishers and literary magazine editors, who participated in a lively and engaging symposium, heard lots of one-on-one pitches from writers in all genres as well as illustrators, and generally gave generously, and warmly, of their time, knowledge and expertise.
It was an inspiring, creative and fun weekend, and we are so grateful to all who participated–publishers, editors, pitchers, presenters, attendees, and University of New England staff and students. All of our participating publishers and editors came from a long way away, in some cases a very long way, from Western Australia, South Australia, and Victoria as well as various locations in NSW, and we are so very appreciative that they were willing to travel to our region. Thanks very much to all the people who supported Pitch Independent by attending the symposium, and/or pitching their work–we know it takes courage and we salute you for it, hope you felt encouraged, and wish you the very best for your work, whatever the outcome of your pitch. Big thanks goes to UNE for their generous and major support of the event, financially, promotionally and with venues; to the Small Press Network for its kind support and encouragement–and to SPN Chair Michael Webster for making the long trek from Melbourne to speak at the Symposium–and to the Armidale Bowling Club for sponsoring the great venue for Saturday’s big pitch day. And of course huge thanks to the New England Writers’ Centre and all my fellow Board members who supported the creation of this event in so many ways. And to my fellow co-ordinators, John C.Ryan and Catherine Wright–hurrah! We made it! And it worked so well, worth all the hard work and all that midnight oil we burned
Pitch Independent was a unique event–nothing like it, with its focus on bringing creators and small and independent press and literary magazines together–has ever, to or knowledge, been held in Australia before. And the response has been amazing, from all, publishers, editors, pitchers, and attendees alike. It was a massive amount of work, but I am so proud to have been involved in initiating an event that we think people will be speaking about for a long time, and which will have a significant impact. We intend to continue building on the fantastic momentum created by Pitch Independent–watch this space!