Memoirs

The nest of the Bower bird is an intricate weaving of grasses. I was shown this one recently by a nursing colleague who is also a passionate birder. It’s just on the outskirts of town, a miracle of nature. Looking at it and becoming aware of its’ builder in a nearby tree warning us to clear off made me suddenly aware that whole worlds of life must go on around us all the time and aren’t dependant on humans at all. How does a small bird manage to weave a nest this size as well as collecting his stones and coloured paraphernalia of choice?

I can’t weave a nest like this but finally my Remote Area Nurse memoir has been submitted to a publisher. It has been four years of writing and editing memories, travels and thoughts. Highlights and dark strands of story woven together while living my day to day life; existing not unlike the parallel world of nature that lives alongside us. There may be many more submissions to other publishers yet, or I may decide to self-publish but the creating of it is done.

For anybody writing or wanting to write memoirs or fiction I can recommend a few book companions:

“Still Writing-The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life” by Dani Shapiro. This book got me through the final edit.

“How the Light Gets In-writing as spiritual practice.” by Pat Schneider. The perfect inspiration to put words on a page.

“How Writing Works-A field Guide to Effective Writing” by Roslyn Petelin. The nuts and bolts of grammar which I suspect I will always be learning.

“Writing Without Teachers” by Peter Elbow. Again very inspiring for simply putting words on a blank page and being OK with it.

I will keep you posted on here about publication. Thanks for reading my occasional blog during the writing journey!

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Give up your endless searching

Lay down your map and compass,

and those dog-eared travel guides.

Rest your weary eyes from so much looking,

your tired feet from so much looking,

your aching heart from so much hoping.

Lay down on the soft green grass

wet with morning dew, and watch as

the tree heavy with pendulous pears

bends her long branches toward you,

offering you perfection in every sweet bite.

Give up the weight of knowing,

for the reverence of quiet attention

and curiosity, for the delight of

juice that runs in generous streams

down your chin.

Christine Valters Paintner

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Storytelling

Last May I went to as many events as I could at the Northern Territory Writers Festival in Darwin. The highlight for me was a panel of speakers discussing memoir writing and how family might react to the stories shared. All four women had published a recent memoir.The questions asked ranged from, “Do writers edit out parts to protect feelings?” to, “How much time has to pass before dirty laundry can be safely aired and can it ever be aired?”.The consensus was that you have to tell your own story and navigate the “hard stuff” about who it’s going to affect, the wisest, kindest way you can. There was no easy answer to any question raised. Each writer recognised the problem and each had worked out for themselves how to tell their own story with minimal negative impact on family.

Magda Szubanski reminded us that Aboriginal people are very conscious of not telling a story that doesn’t belong to them.She struggled with writing her fathers story, balancing her words carefully so as not to disrespect the Polish Jewish and Catholic communities the family had been a part of. She taught herself to write by finding her own voice and thus making the telling her own, if not the story itself.The memoir took her eight years to complete.

Each person has a unique story, unlike any other. And to be able to tell it freely enables a person to make sense of their life’s experiences. To clarify their emotions, to heal from losses, to inspire and encourage and to preserve cultural identity and so much more. Storytelling is fundamental to human experience. As listeners or readers we are entertained, we learn, we experience vicariously and we are enlarged by the contact with another person’s world. But, for all the benefits it’s still a balancing act to be honest in our telling and to share our story, without taking away from those closest to us what is rightfully theirs. Their story, their perception, their life. And isn’t that the same compromise we face day after day, whether writing a memoir or living our lives.

 

Belongingness

I don’t think “belongingness” is a real word. But I found an essay with this title on the internet and like the idea of being in a state of belonging. I like the way the word makes me feel, it’s inclusive. I’ve recently begun again to edit my book about my experiences as a remote area nurse. I began it over three years ago and began my blog at the same time, to accompany it visually. I thought I’d have the project finished in a few months but creative efforts have their own timeline and with this one there’s been gaps of months with no writing.

What a writer sets out to write and what a reader perceives are not always the same thing. I asked a good friend who I respect as a reader to read the first draft of my book and he said “oh it’s really a love story isn’t it?” I met my husband during the time I’m writing about and he features in the book but I hadn’t meant it to be any sort of love story. That comment of my friends confused my sense of direction for awhile, probably necessarily so. After a break in writing of many months and after only editing two or three chapters the word “belonging” came to me. And with it a flood of questioning thoughts all around what it means to belong.

In particular I was thinking of what it means for a non-Indigenous person to live and work in an Indigenous community. But the topic is much broader than that. Monty Pryor, an Indigenous Australian writer, in his book “Maybe Tomorrow” tells this account at a school:

White kid: Can you make me an Aborigine?

Pryor: I can’t make you an Aborigine. But I think deep inside you’re asking questions and you’re listening and you’re learning. It’s sort of making you into an Aboriginal person in your heart. Because that’s what everybody has to do, is to be open. Then the learning will come.”

To know what it is to belong we need to listen to ourselves, deeply, and to what’s going on around us, closely, and learn what it is that makes us glad to be alive. The ancient poet Rumi said to follow what we love and it will never lead us astray. I think it will also lead us to the serene state of “belongingness”.p1030137

 

Fragments

Do you enjoy fragments? I do. A glimpse of a strangers face, a remembered line of an old song, a whispered conversation on a bus, a delicious aroma teasing from someone else’s house, the middle of a movie you haven’t got time to watch till the end, a dream that vanishes on waking, a phrase you just have to copy down…

They arouse my curiosity and imagination more than any completed experience.

Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley, wrote fragments  on scraps of paper for years before she was first published in her fifties. She was too busy raising a family and working at an assortment of jobs to have enough time to write at length and at leisure. I was one of her many correspondents whom she  encouraged to write short notes about the weather, landscape, overheard conversations, because I too had a full life with little time. She was quoted in 1986 as saying: “If anybody had asked to see a work in progress it would have been lots of bits of paper with scribbles on.”

A fragment is defined as “an isolated or incomplete part”. But, although incomplete, it is at the same time complete in itself because it contains the potential of what it may become…a story, poem, song, healing memory, nourishing meal, something understood, a puzzle solved.

Fragments allow mystery into our lives and curiosity leads us on….

Surprises

My thought today is simply, that we can be surprised by beauty in unexpected places and what a delight that is!

I saw this drawing in a community hall in Yirrkala a few months ago and was drawn to the expressive movements of the women in dance and how well the art work was executed. When I asked if anyone knew the artist I was told it was a local worker, not someone who made their living from art. It’s not there now, maybe the artist wanted it back, or maybe a lucky person purchased it The day I saw it was a working day for me, driving around in the heat of midday  looking for patients in the community, the passionate dancing image twirled my mind into a place of joy for just a few moments.

Surprises like this give me reasons to smile and remember that days, especially working days, aren’t only filled with serious effort, there’s lightness as well if we’re open to it.

Stories

In an on-line version of Anchor Magazine I recently read an article called “Original Voices, teaching everyone to write”, by Pat Schneider, founder of Amherst Writers and Artists. She is a well known writing teacher who holds workshops that make writing an experience within the reach of anyone who picks up a pen or types at a computer.

She writes, “Every human has a story and every story is valuable. Most of us would agree to that. What might be more difficult for us to agree upon is this: all of us, speaking in our own original voices, achieve at times literary art. It may not be published, but the artistry is there”. Pat goes on to tell the story of a Vietnamese man who attended one of her workshops hoping to learn to write better in English, but each day he became more and more frustrated, until finally on the last day Pat asked him to write in the language he dreamt in, the language of his birth. He then wrote a flowing and moving account of his father, which he read back to the other participants in English. The point she makes from this is that we can all write our stories, despite any perceived lack in ourselves of education, language, or opportunity if we write in our own voice, of our own experiences. These things, so important in the dominant culture, are no guarantee of wisdom or insight. The sparks in a story that light up our interest come from the deep honesty of who we are and what we’ve experienced.

Last month in Gove, in the Northern Territory, where I live and work the Garma festival was held. Four days of Indigenous dance, song and various cultural workshops in the open air and heat of the North Australian bush.It was an enriching experience made possible by the generous sharing of local Aboriginal people teaching us aspects of their culture we could understand. Objective things we could listen to, the resonance of the didgeridoo, hands-on weaving, jewellery and spear making and the colourful visuals of their dancing. Stories were the one thing missing, there was no event or place we could participate in where we could listen or read stories of these ordinary Aboriginal people’s experiences. I wondered what Garma meant to the women teaching us to weave or to make shell necklaces. I wondered what they would have been thinking as they collected multitudes of tiny colourful shells in the months before or for those who would have collected the pandanus grasses for weaving and roots for dying. What did all that mean to them? How did these activities take them away from their families? And the older man who patiently taught the didgeridoo class under the grass-covered shelter, what did he think of young white men wanting to play his traditional instrument? Who can hold workshops for these people in remote communities so they can tell their stories in their own voice? How would they be accepted if they could?

Stories give us insight into other lives, other places and enable us to connect to a much wider world beyond our own thoughts and experiences.They help us develop an inclusive attitude to others different to ourselves. Connection to, and inclusion of, other people is what makes us mature human beings.