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Good At Writing?

Today I’m answering a question that came up in another context: How did you decide or know you were good at writing? 

At school I knew I was pretty good at writing essays, and once, in American history I wrote a “creative response” to an essay topic that my teacher really liked. But generally, creative writing was not something my very academic school encouraged, and when it did, it took the form of “exercises”. Never stories. 

I think the particular teachers I had for English were generally not very imaginative, and didn’t encourage that kind of thing in their students. I remember one exercise where we were asked to write about a rainy night, using as many colors as we could. I did it of course, but struggled — it contained traffic lights, as generally colors don’t show up much at night and in the rain.  I passed, but it was made very clear to me that I wasn’t very good at “creative writing.”

I also remember being shown some examples of “excellent” final year exam pieces (in the state-wide exams) from the previous year.  They were lively and sometimes funny, and entertaining, and I recall thinking, “Wow, are you allowed to write like that in an exam?” Because we were strongly encouraged to be serious and earnest in all things. And when I queried my teacher about it, she said, “No no no!  You should NOT try anything like that.” So I didn’t.

I travelled a lot during university holidays, and wrote lots of letters to friends and family, and when I got home people said how much they enjoyed them, and that I’d made them laugh, etc. But I never thought, “Hey, I could be a writer.” 

Then I started full time work and was so busy I never thought about writing for myself — only work related. But then I was asked to write some non-fiction pieces for an educational magazine. The editor not only liked them she said something like, “These are great. You really can write.”  

My response was, “Can’t everybody write?” — it was an educational publication after all. And she said, “No, you’d be surprised how many people can’t write to be clear, interesting and educational.” That was an eye-opener.

Some years later I took a year off work and went backpacking. I went solo — the friend I’d planned to go with had pulled out. So there I was, in countries where I didn’t speak the language, with nobody to talk to, so of course I wrote lots of letters. But also, stories started to spin in my mind. I bought an exercise book and started to write them down, and by the time I got home at the end of that year, I’d filled several exercise books and had a firm resolve to try for publication. (That photo above is of Quebec, where I bought my first exercise book (cahier) and started writing.)

I’ll talk about that in a future post.

One reason I’ve been thinking about this, apart from the question I started with, is because on the weekend I listened to a TED talk on schools and creativity by the late Sir Ken Robinson. Wonderful talk — funny and entertaining as well as educational and really, really important. If the video doesn’t show up below, you can watch it here.  https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity/

Discovering rain

It’s raining outside, and I wanted to do some gardening, but it’s too wet. But as I stood at my back door and watched the rain pelting down, I remembered an incident from my childhood.

(The image on the right is by Anita Klein, one of my favorite artists. You can see more of her work here.)

When I was a little girl we went to live in Scotland for a year because of my dad’s job. He was a teacher, as was my mum, and he did an exchange with a Scottish teacher — she came to Australia for a year and taught here, while we went to Scotland, lived in her house and Dad taught in her school. 

The Scottish school year was different — in Australia the school year goes from the end of January until just before Christmas, whereas in the UK the school year starts in September and goes until June. So Dad had to go early. He and the younger of my two older sisters left months before my mum, my brother and me. (My eldest sister was doing year 12 and planned to go to teacher’s college, so she didn’t go to Scotland, poor thing.)

I don’t know how Mum did it — she was teaching full time, she had one child doing year 12 (final year of high school) and another doing year 11, and then there was me, just seven years old. She also had to pack up the house, get the furniture put into storage, and because she was a perfectionist, she also scrubbed the house from top to bottom. By Christmas, she would have been exhausted, but she still had to get us all (the dog too) to my grandparents, 4 hours away.

Anyway, we (Mum, my brother and I) arrived in Scotland in the middle of winter, and my brother and I started school more or less right away.

The class I was going into had been prepared for my arrival — the teacher had been teaching them all kinds of things about Australia. 

But in Scotland at that time, not a lot was known about Australia — not like today where there is a wealth of information at our fingertips, and we all know about lots of countries from TV and travel.

So quite early in the piece, I, along with a small gaggle of girls who were very sweetly looking after the new wee Australian girl, came running out at morning recess, and stopped short at the door as it was raining. 

I must have made some exclamation — I was disappointed — I wanted to play outside — but the little girls all clustered around me, full of excitement. Two started patting my hands in reassurance.

“Och, dinna fash yer’sel, hin, it’s just rain.” 

“It’ll no’ hurt you.”

“It’s just water that falls from the sky.”

“It happens here a lot. You’ll get used to it.”

This bewildered me. They were explaining rain to me? And thought the sight of it might upset me?  It did, a bit — but only because we couldn’t play outside in the rain. But that was all. It was quite strange. But then the rain stopped and we headed out to play.

That evening at home I told Mum about this very peculiar reaction, and she laughed. She explained that the class had probably been studying about Australia before I came, and that in the outback there were long droughts and they’d probably read about 7 year olds who lived there who had never seen rain. And assumed that went for all Australians.

So, that explained that. It was very sweet, and I remember those girls with great fondness. And every now and then I catch myself looking at rain pelting down and thinking, “Dinna fash yer’sel, hin, it’s just rain.” And smiling.

And to leave you with a smile, here is a little video that always makes me smile — a little kid, a dog and a puddle. Or if you can’t see the video, click here:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN-MjUC4f9k Enjoy.

 

Mandarins and Memories

It’s mandarin season here in Australia. I love mandarins — so easy to peel and so delicious. Many years ago, during the year I spent backpacking, I spent a month or two island-hopping in Greece. If ever you go to Greece, make sure that as well as the mainland, you visit some of the islands — each one is different and beautiful. When I was travelling, it was out of tourist season and everyone was so friendly.

I remember getting off the ferry at Kalymnos and all along the seafront there were sea sponges on display—Kalymnos is famous for its sea sponges—but there were also mounds of brilliant orange mandarins for sale. I bought some mandarins, and they were so delicious I went straight back and bought some more. 

I spent about a week exploring that beautiful island, and every day I just ate mandarins for breakfast and lunch. Dinner was lamb and salad or some kind of seafood and salad. One evening I ate octopus that had been pulled out of the sea that morning. Up until then I’d avoided octopus, but I figured part of the experience of travel was to eat what the locals did, and since I’d watched a young boy catching one, I decided the time had come. I have to say it was delicious. (Though the suckers were a little off-putting at first.) 

The mandarins were glorious and it was also my first taste of a seedless variety. Every place I traveled on that island, there were groves of citrus trees and olive trees—it was very unspoiled and agricultural back then.

 

I also bought a large sea-sponge, which I still own. And on the ferry leaving that island, which was an overnighter—I forget which island I was going to next—I was put in a cabin to share with a local woman and a couple of little kids. She wasn’t all that pleased, I think, at having a foreign backpacker in the cabin, but I’d brought a pile of mandarins with me and I gave some to her kids. She warmed right up after that, and she gave me a sponge, which I have also kept. It’s the one on the right — not “sales quality” I suppose, but I love it all the same.

It was a long time ago, but even now, when the first mandarins of the season arrive, I often think of that beautiful island and the delicious mandarins they grew. By the way, I bought the dolphin bowl  in the photo above that same year when I was visiting Corfu (Kerkyra). It’s one of a pair, and I managed to bring them both home in my backpack, undamaged, even with all those gorgeous pointy edges. Looking back I’m quite impressed that I managed it.