Boys, Bernie, Annabelle and Helena[1]

On the 25th August, Wild Boys was officially launched at the BackTrack Shed by Professor Annabelle Duncan, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England. The launch was an exciting day for me … the public acknowledgement of years and years of hard work was very affirming, and what follows is the gist of the speech I gave that day.

Many years ago, when an early chapter of Wild Boys was published in Griffith REVIEW, Bernie Shakeshaft said to me: ‘How lucky are we that you came down to the shed.’ At the time, my response to him was: ‘How lucky am I that I came down to the shed’, and even though writing Wild Boys has involved a significant amount of personal sacrifice and hardship, I can still say: ‘How lucky am I? I got to be part of something – a whole other world – that not many women experience, and I learned a lot about life in the process.

One of the unexpected outcomes of writing Wild Boys is my ongoing affection for the BackTrack boys – both past and present. I’ve come a long way since my first day at the shed – when I rocked up, full of nerves, to find Bernie driving out the gate, saying: ‘I’ll be back soon… just go inside and meet the boys. They’ll show you around.’ It’s fair to say I was completely out of my comfort zone that day, but I soon realised that there was nothing to fear.

Like many things in life, we fear what we don’t know, and fear and prejudice usually arise from ignorance – from not understanding and not being able to feel empathy towards a group of people who are different to you. Part of the reason why I wrote Wild Boys was to provide an insight into the ‘wild boys’ in our community – to shine a light on what it is to be a teenage boy who, for various reasons, struggles at school and can become known as a ‘loser’ early in life, simply because he doesn’t fit the system. That’s a pretty harsh judgement for a society to make upon a young person, so I wanted to write something that would influence the way people think and feel about wild boys, something that might encourage them to care more and judge less.

Recently, I helped set up the school program at the shed, and I got to know some of the boys who are currently at the shed. One day, we had to go somewhere for lunch on the spur of the moment, so I said to the boys, ‘Let’s go to my house and have a BBQ there.’ When we reached my house, the boys jumped out of the troopie and dashed off to the backyard – where they started making a BBQ and cutting up onions and chopping wood and fixing the back fence and cutting back all the overgrown bushes in my garden.

I remember some people were surprised to hear I’d invited the boys back to my house that day, but I didn’t see any problem – because once again, there was nothing to worry about. Those boys were so generous with their help, and open and friendly – just as they’ve always been with me. I’m not at the shed much these days, but one of the joys of my life is when I’m downtown and I hear someone call out: ‘Hey, Helena!’ and I turn around and it’s one of the BackTrack boys. For some reason, that simple exchange always makes me feel like the world is becoming a better place.

The story of the seven original BackTrack boys who feature in this book is very moving. Yes, there’s a lot of swearing, and a few times where the boys lose their way. But when they were given help to get back on track, those boys made the choice to accept that help and move ahead in life – to rise above the trajectory that was set out for them and to emerge as winners, to become known as the ‘Magnificent Seven’ – and that was a wonderful thing to witness. At the back of Wild Boys is a section where those seven boys share the lessons they learnt from their time at the shed. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to read this section without becoming very emotional because the responses are so deep – so beautiful – and this is from a group of boys who, for the most part, struggled at school and were often in trouble with the police.

That’s why the BackTrack shed is so special – it gives young people who don’t fit the system a place to shine, where they too can emerge as winners in life. It’s like one of the boys says at the end of the book: ‘Everyone needs to find a place … and from there you can grow. The shed gave us that place.’

So, how lucky am I that I got to see all that happen – and to write about it so that others can also experience the beauty of what goes on down here and understand how positive change comes about in a community. Along with documenting the early days of BackTrack, Wild Boys also describes how Bernie helped me through a pretty challenging time in my life. I never expected to write about myself in this book, but, really, once I started coming along to the shed, there was no way that I was going to come out the other side of this experience without my life being transformed in some way because that’s what happens here – people’s lives are transformed.

I used to rely on Bernie’s help quite a lot, but he’s a good mentor – a good teacher – because I hardly ever need to ring him now. I still run into troubles, of course, but mostly, instead of ringing Bernie for help, I go back and think of the lessons I’ve learnt in the past – and how I can apply that knowledge to the current situation I’m struggling with. Many unique ‘Bernie-lessons’ are in the book – and I’m sure others will find them just as useful as I did.

Like I said, I don’t get down to the shed enough these days – I’m like the dog that runs along the outside of the pack – but I think I will always carry the experiences I’ve had at this shed close to my heart, especially some of those times with the BackTrack boys.

Crowd1[2]

 

 

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In less than two weeks, I’ll be appearing in three separate events at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, and I’m really excited about this wonderful opportunity to promote Wild Boys. On Saturday 5 September, as part of ‘BWF in the ‘burbs!’, I’ll be speaking at the Mitchelton Library, and the following day, I’ll be discussing Wild Boys on the Queensland Terrace of the State Library with my dear friend Edwina Shaw (check out Edwina’s blog for her review of Wild Boys). Straight after that session, I’ll be giving a 3-hour Masterclass in memoir writing – ‘Close to Home’ – where I can share all the tricks I’ve learned from working with some of Australia’s best editors over the years. So, it’ll be a hectic weekend, but lots of fun – especially catching up with Edwina again.

Meanwhile … it’s full steam ahead here in Armidale. The official launch of Wild Boys is being held at the BackTrack Shed next Tuesday. Professor Annabelle Duncan, Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England (UNE), will launch the book in the BackTrack classroom – and this event will bring together two very different parts of my life in Armidale. Wild Boys developed as a parallel project while I was completing my PhD in Creative Research Practice at UNE, and the university has always been very supportive of my writing (click here to see UNE’s recent media release about Wild Boys). I think the launch will provide a sense of completion for this writing project … in a way, it’s almost like I’m ‘graduating’ from BackTrack.

Over the last month, while I’ve been dealing with a range of complex post-publication emotions, I’ve been putting in lots of applications for writing opportunities in 2016. Hopefully, some of them of them will come through for me – and I’ll be able to see a bit more of the world next year. Finally, in today’s Sun Herald, Karen Hardy has written a fantastic feature about Wild Boys.

 

 

Finally … a moment to catch my breath. The last few weeks have involved an avalanche of radio interviews – most of them live to air, which certainly had my adrenalin flowing. A few days ago, I had my final interview – with Steve Austin on ABC Radio Brisbane. I’ve really enjoyed the interviews, and I’ve talked to some wonderful radio presenters from around Australia and New Zealand. Thanks to Radio National (Life Matters and Nightlife), ABC Radio New England, ABC Regional WA Drive, ABC Brisbane Mornings, 2GB Sydney, Talk Network Queensland, 2AD Armidale, 2RE Taree, Radio New Zealand, Geelong 94.7FM and Radio Adelaide. The Armidale Express, the Northern Daily Leader and that’s life magazine also featured articles about Wild Boys, and Varuna Writers’ House did an alumni interview. An article will soon be appearing in The Sun Herald. It’s very affirming to see Wild Boys attract so much interest – obviously, people are still looking for answers on how to parent teenagers and understand the nature of wild boys (see Wild Boys for available podcasts).

Also, over the last month, Armidale has become a winter wonderland and my fire has been burning – literally and metaphorically – night and day. Amongst the hubbub of promoting the book, I’ve begun a new collaboration with a local composer – I’m writing lyrics for a song cycle he wants to do, and it’s very exciting to embark on a new project, especially one that isn’t a solo journey and won’t take years and years to complete. Collaborations are fun … and the creative possibilities of life suddenly seem endless again.

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PS: My PhD results came back a few weeks ago – only a handful of minor corrections to do and soon that journey is over!

I sent my brother a copy of Wild Boys the other day, and in return he sent me this photo, taken at Seven Mile Beach on the south coast of New South Wales:

Wild Boys on Seven Mile Beach

In his message, my brother said that he thought the spirit of our father – who we always called ‘Pup’ – was smiling on the beach that day. When Pup died in 2008, his ashes were scattered into the ocean at Seven Mile Beach. I think he would have liked Wild Boys – he was a bit of a wild boy himself during the Second World War in Amsterdam, and he was never one to miss an opportunity. He was also one to always ‘call a spade a spade’, and I guess I’ve inherited that trait from him. Like many of us, my father struggled to be a good parent when his children were teenagers, and he made a few mistakes along the way. I’m sure he’d be the first to acknowledge that he was pretty hard at times, but he always did his best. Anyway, I felt very happy when I saw this photo because it just seemed so ‘right’ to see Wild Boys in the place where my father’s spirit remains.

Advance copies of Wild Boys have arrived … and it’s such a thrill to hold the book in my hands after all these years! A couple of weeks ago, I met up with my dear friend and fellow writer, Edwina Shaw, for one of our regular coastal retreats. Normally, these retreats are full-on hard work – eight-hour days of editing and re-writing and discussing each other’s manuscripts – with only the nights free to hang out and ‘chill’. But this was a ‘no rules’ writing retreat … I had a copy of Wild Boys to hand over to Edwina and we were in a celebratory mood. Chocolate pudding for dinner? No rules! Strawberry champagne at three in the afternoon? No rules! Lie on the sand for hours and just rest? No rules!

Each morning, I walked for miles along the beach at Evans Head, dressed only in my swimmers and a sarong. The air felt easy on my skin and my hair went curly from the salt water. One day, Edwina and I went to Chinamans Beach, one of my favourite places on the coast. In our bare feet, we followed a path to the top of the headland, where the grass was so soft and spongy that I just had to lie down, spread-eagled on the ground, staring at the blue sky above me. It felt like we were on Kirrin Island with the Famous Five – all we needed was a bottle of ginger beer and some sardine sandwiches. Oh, heavenly times … I drove home to Armidale feeling very grateful for my friendship with Edwina.

Wild Boys will be publicly available in July, and it’s a strange thing to imagine other people reading such a personal story. I’m trying to stay calm and focused – remembering why I wrote the book, and not letting the pre-publication rollercoaster of emotions knock me over. I’m ready for whatever’s coming my way … and, besides, riding a rollercoaster is exciting and fun!

Photo on 30-05-2015 at 12.19 pm

 

Well, I’m out of the editing wilderness at long last, and lots has happened since I last wrote. First pages are done and dusted, second and third pages have been checked by the team at UQP, my memoir has a new title – Wild Boys: A Parent’s Story of Tough Love, and the book is now at the printers. Hooray! A friend came over the other day with a couple of fancy beers; we sat by the table – with a candle, a platter of food, and some wildflowers in a jam jar – and celebrated the end of this stage of the process.

Wild Boys_first pages

Receiving the typeset pages in the mail was very exciting. For nearly two weeks, I read and re-read the pages until the words were a blur – adding things, rubbing them out, adding things again, making sure everything was right – and then I sent the pages back to UQP. Since then, it’s been hard to settle. My editor says the time between finishing work on a book and waiting until it actually comes out can be a bit weird for an author. I’m finding that to be true, so I’ve decided to use the next two months to get healthy. In an effort to restore a normal sleep pattern (after all those early mornings / late nights of editing!), I’ve given caffeine the flick. I’m slowing my mind, sleeping more, and, like a bear waking up after a long winter, I’m noticing a few changes in my world. My back fence is falling down, the house needs painting, and my garden has turned into a jungle. I think I need to find a friend with a chainsaw … but, first, I must take some time to recover.

So, instead of frantically trying to get the house in order, I’ve been playing guitar, writing songs, catching up with friends, and watching movies with my ten-year-old son. I’m still dreaming about the caravan I wrote about in my last blog post. I even wrote a song – ‘Caravan Dreaming’ – where the chorus is: To me it looks like freedom / a life of simple ease / hear the sea outside my door/ saltwater’s on the breeze. I’ve been writing songs for about a year now. I like how the music and lyrics come to me unexpectedly – while I’m out walking, or cooking dinner, or hanging the washing. I have to listen closely and ‘catch’ each song before it disappears. As for the caravan, my 19-year-old son has taken it to a permaculture farm in northern NSW, a bush wilderness with pigs and chickens and geese. I’m heading up that way soon for a visit – to meet his friends, to swim in the river, to sit around the fire pit and share meals, and to collect wildflowers to put in jam jars.

A goose I'd like to meet

A goose I’d like to meet

One day, when I’m out of this editing wilderness, a place I’ve been stuck in since Boxing Day, I’ll write a proper blog post again. First, I need to regain some energy. The last six weeks have been huge. I’ve learnt a lot about writing, life, truth and forgiveness. I’ve had some lonely times, and I’ve had a few weird anxiety attacks in the night. But I’ve also done a lot of good work. None of it has been easy, though. On my walk this afternoon, I noticed a family having relaxed Sunday drinks, and a woman was laughing – loudly and freely – like she didn’t have a care in the world. I was envious.

A few weeks ago, I bought an old caravan for my 19-year-old son’s birthday. Today it arrived in my front yard, where it is resting for a few days before my son heads off to the north coast. I sat in the caravan today and looked at the bamboo leaves outside the levered window and thought: I could live here. Such a simple home – and I only paid the equivalent of a week’s groceries for it. Why did I give this caravan to my son, I wondered. I want to go away in it myself … escape from endlessly editing my manuscript.

I’ll get through it, of course – and the UQP team have been absolutely wonderful – but there are big decisions to face when you are about to publish a book which is, among other things, a family memoir. Recently, when I was complaining to my online writing group about some of the problems I was encountering, one of the members said: ‘Helena, although I know it really sucks right now, I think the difficulties that are making you never want to write memoir again are also what will make the memoir excellent.’

I think she may be right, but oh my goodness … who’d be a writer, eh?

PS: I submitted my PhD on the 16th December!

So much has happened since I last wrote. First of all, the PhD paralysis passed and I finished the semi-final draft of my thesis at the end of September – yes, even the exegesis! I had to spend a long time in the PhD isolation ward, where I swore profusely at my computer screen, googled things like: ‘How do I muster up the energy to finish my thesis?’, and listened to Bob Dylan’s Desire album … where he sings ‘The way is long but the end is near.’ Oh, so true. Strangely enough, I actually like my exegesis now and I can’t understand why it took so long to write. As I wait for my supervisors’ final comments, I can relax – take a breath – and re-enter the world.

I’ve just returned from a celebratory writing retreat at the coast with my dear friend, Edwina Shaw. After reading and commenting on Edwina’s latest manuscript – a gripping work of fiction based on a horrific true crime – I spent the remainder of the retreat walking on the beach, swimming, and lying on my swag under the trees. In the evenings, Edwina and I sat on the verandah of our cabin and drank whisky and chatted about writerly matters – like the best way to write bios of different word lengths and our next projects. I’m so fortunate to have a writing-friend like Edwina. Check out Edwina’s report about our retreat: http://edwinashaw.com/2014/10/08/retreat-by-the-sea/

Along with celebrating my ‘almost-finished’ thesis, Edwina and I also raised our glasses to … wait for it … my book contract with University of Queensland Press! YES! In July 2015, UQP are going to publish my memoir about my involvement with BackTrack Youth Works in Armidale. All of this came about through the efforts of Brian Cook, who is now my literary agent. Thank you, Brian, and thank you Alexandra Payne, the non-fiction publisher at UQP, who loved my manuscript and pushed it through the acquisitions meeting. Life can change so quickly – I signed contracts for a publisher and an agent in one week. After I heard the news from UQP, I rang Bernie Shakeshaft, whose work features in the memoir-manuscript. I could barely form coherent sentences I was so excited, and when he heard the news, Bernie said: ‘It was always going to happen … but good that it happened.’ Yes. What a relief.

Edwina now calls me her ‘poster girl for resilience’, and although it has been a long haul, my experience confirms that successful writers are the ones who don’t give up. Keep the faith.

Reading under the trees at the coastal retreat

Reading under the trees at the coastal retreat

 

 

Yep, I’m procrastinating. Currently engulfed in PhD paralysis, but I’m expecting it to pass in approximately … hmmm … fifteen minutes or so. I’ve never known anything like this sort of inertia. Me – the former Deadline Queen – reduced to applying for endless PhD extensions. Sigh.

Anyway, onwards and upwards – and I’d better hurry up and finish this post because I only have fourteen minutes left and need to make coffee. The latest news is that Bernie Shakeshaft, whose unique style of youth work forms the focus of my memoir-manuscript, has won a 2014 Churchill Fellowship to research international methods in youth work. In 2015, Bernie will spend seven weeks in America and Canada, where he will visit a range of innovative youth programs and learn some new ways of doing things. Bernie’s latest success is not only hugely inspiring, but it has also helped generate a bit of action on the manuscript. I’ll keep a lid on it for now – but there’s definitely ‘movement at the station’.

I’ve also just finished working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way again. I introduced the book to a friend six months ago, and then decided to accompany him on his rather relaxed journey through each of the chapters. About halfway through the book, I found myself experimenting with a new genre – a different outlet for my words – and the ability to work with this new genre feels like an unexpected gift, like magic. I love what’s happening, but I’m going to ‘zip the lip’ for now because this new work needs nurturing and protection. As Julia Cameron says: ‘The first rule of magic is self-containment … don’t give away the gold’. A good rule for me to follow.

Well … time’s almost up. Better make myself an extra strong coffee and get back to the thesis.

Long absence … PhD almost done and dusted … will post again when it’s gone. The memoir manuscript? What? Oh yeah, that’s right … the one this blog is supposed to be about … will get back to it when I finish the semi-final edit of my thesis and work out my referencing and bibliography. There was some action about a month ago – where I edged a little closer to publication … but now another lull. All you creative writers out there … think very carefuly before taking on a PhD in Creative Writing or Creative Research Practice … biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life. If I sound weary, that’s because I am … and I know another long stretch of early mornings is coming up – always the best time to work. Until I’m free …