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.

 

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….

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.

Breaks

Oddly, where I finished my last blog in my remote area nurse story, there was a natural pause, or break in events. I went from being permanently employed by Queensland Health to choosing uncertainty as an agency nurse. My first contract was on Badu island in the Torres Straits. I’d experienced life on a tropical island in Samoa and in many ways I found a similar culture on Badu.

I haven’t written anything here for five weeks. I’ve just returned home after spending time in Tasmania, another island, and at the opposite end of Australia to the Torres islands. Another island culture, but with few similarities to the tropical north. They share being surrounded by the sea and having a relaxed feel, but then landscape, weather and history diverge.

Breaks are essential to the narrative of our lives and their meanings many. We take a rest from everyday busyness, we end one thing and begin another, we voluntarily plan them or they’re forced on us. They’re usually a waiting time, a marking time until life resumes where we left off or we begin an entirely new thing. Either way, we’re never quite the same person. I went to Tasmania to witness a friends wedding, for her it was a wonderful beginning to something new, for me it was the experience of a place of beauty I’ve never seen before and to which I want to return. And which has given me another view of island life, new possibilities. I will return to my remote nursing story this week and write about life on tropical islands but my thoughts for now are very much still on the break I just took on a more southerly, cooler and greener island.

History

History put things in context. It isn’t just a boring subject with datelines and exam questions. It lives when stories are recounted and to the listening ear it gives a lot of answers.

I’m writing a memoir of my working life as a remote area nurse and I’ve struggled with how to write about some things I’ve seen in Indigenous communities. I don’t want to add to the negative views already held by much of the dominant culture. I was pondering all this during my last contract in East Arnhem land in the Northern Territory when I had the good fortune to attend a workshop on cross-cultural understanding hosted by Richard Trudgen. He prefaced the two days by giving a short history of East Arnhem land. After he’d presented the past, the present was more easily understood.

I realized that my writing needed some history of Aurukun and other places to put the present into context. I found three well researched television documentaries about Aurukun from the ABC program “Four Corners”. Dating from the late 1070’s. I wasn’t prepared to be moved to tears by the interruption to the lives of local people from state government intervention with the introduction of alcohol, that alone caused social destruction on a large scale.

Now my writing is stuck at my time in Alice Springs…so here I go again to research some history of that place an

Kindness

Kindness
By Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape is between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises it’s head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Why Warriors Lie Down and Die

A nurse lent me this book in the first week I arrived to work in Aurukun. It wasn’t written about Aurukun people but another group of Indigenous Australians, the Yolgnu, in East Arnhem land in the Northern Territory. Nevertheless, Richard Trudgens analysis of the importance of knowing history, language, cross-cultural communication and understanding another culture from the inside out rather than looking in from the dominant cultures point of view, makes this book invaluable to anyone working with Indigenous people the world over, or indeed, any other culture other than one’s own.

I had the privilege of meeting Richard a few months ago when I attended a two day seminar of his on cross-cultural awareness and learned much more. I’d already found his book insightful, almost like a handbook to me as I navigated my way into remote area nursing. There are few available resources for those of us working outside the dominant white culture, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Seven Seasons in Aurukun

IMG_4326A year after I started work in Aurukun a book was published (2009) Called “The Seven Seasons in Aurukun”. It was written by a woman who’d been a young teacher for two years in Aurukun in 2004/5. It was the book I’d wanted to write, her experiences, her impressions. She didn’t try and explain the “Indigenous Situation”, wasn’t overly political, the book was highly personal. Just want I needed to read at that time, to see how another woman had survived in Aurukun. I’d been writing my own account in a journal with the thought that it would one day make an interesting read. She was a teacher, I was a nurse, both had very different jobs and relationships, but when I heard about her book I assumed I didn’t have anymore to add.
Sitting around the white plastic table in the kitchen of the clinic one morning, the nurses discussed this book. A male nurse loudly stated his opinion that the book was “self-indulgent crap”. I cringed inwardly wondering how he’d judge anything I wrote in the future. It’s taken me a few years to realize someone is always going to say that about anyones memoir, and worse. It doesn’t matter, we all have a story within our one life and only we can express it.
I’m now on the third draft of my remote area nurse memoir and I hope I’m prepared for any opinion, comments and judgements when it’s published. Each story passed on adds to the wealth of human experience.

Learning

There are many ways to learn, many paths to education. I completed my nursing training at Maryborough Base Hospital in 1991. It gave me a Certificate in Nursing. I now have that certificate plus over 25 years of nursing experiencing. I never had the time or money to upgrade my certificate to a degree as I was responsible for bringing up my four children. Now I plan to begin a creative writing degree next year, but I’ve been writing one way or another for over 50 years!

There is endless discussion on whether hospital or university education produces better nurses. Valid arguments come from both sides. Each needs to qualify what they mean by better, but it’s difficult not to be in agreement with both sides. And what about the many writers over the years who have never been to university and yet have produced much loved and treasured stories? The ideas and thoughts around learning and education are endless.

When I began remote area nursing, I had my certificate in nursing, 15 years of paediatric experience and two years in a small private hospital. I wasn’t an emergency trained nurse. The DON (Director of Nursing) in Aurukun told me, when also telling me what skills were needed for remote work which I didn’t have, ” They’re just skills to be learnt, but we need someone of your experience and temperament.”

I was taught to suture, cannulate, plaster, take blood and evacuate patients by ambulance by my colleagues. I was doing the work for six months before I was offered a four day course in remote nursing skills. By then I considered myself capable. I read recently of a post graduate course in remote nursing. My five years of experience has turned me into a competent practitioner.

What am I getting at in todays post? Just a reminder that learning and education comes in different guises and to be open to accepting what’s offered to you, don’t discount learning experiences that come less formally, Life’s a great teacher. I have probably learnt the most during my nursing years from people considered the least important, patients and their families, enrolled nurses and health workers and agency nurses like myself.

The photo is me sitting with visiting desert women to Aurukun in October 2008 learning to weave baskets, they spoke no English.

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