Two weeks ago, I moved into ‘Writing HQ’ – a 100-year-old house in central Armidale – where I am in walking distance to most things I need, and where I have a backyard that goes on forever. This is the view from my back door, and one day that red-roofed shed will be my writing studio:

writing-hq-garden

I can’t stop looking at this magnificent garden, which goes on for much longer than the photo shows. Most days I feel like I’m staying at a retreat somewhere, like Varuna or Bundanon, but then I remember that this is actually where I live. I feel very fortunate. When the previous owners renovated the house 18 years ago, they were wise enough to design things in such a way that the garden can be viewed while cooking, washing the dishes, sitting at the dining table, having a shower or even brushing your teeth. I love it!

The garden is full of birds and birdsong. Next door, an elderly Russian birdwoman coos and calls to the birds each morning before she feeds them apples and oranges, placed carefully on sticks near her feet. Sometimes, if the birds are lucky, they get cashews. When I hear her cooing outside, I always think of the song ‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins.

I have landed in a good place – a haven from the outside world – and I think I’ll stay here for a long time. I’ve been reading about Sunday Reed’s garden at Heide, and also enjoying the poems of Rumi and David Whyte. A print-maker friend from Uralla recently gave me a blossom print for my new house which includes these words by Rumi:

Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you.

Rumi’s words couldn’t be more fitting for the situation I now find myself in. But amidst the house hunting, buying and moving, and the unsettled months I had in Uralla, my creative pursuits have been sidelined. It’s time to steer the ship back in the right direction. I’m hoping to find a publisher for my second memoir, ‘Yahtzee and the Art of Happiness’, so I’m going through the manuscript one more time before I send it away – heeding the lessons I’ve learnt from working with editors such as Judith Lukin-Amundsen, Anne Reilly, Jo Jarrah and Kristy Bushnell. ‘Yahtzee’ is a good, strong memoir about pregnancy and birth choices – written before Wild Boys – and I’m proud of it.

Also, the instrumentation for the song cycle I’ve been working on with Christopher Purcell is nearly complete, and I’m really looking forward to hearing how those songs have developed. In the meantime, I’m going to continue writing my own songs and I remain inspired by the late Leonard Cohen. Halleluja.

 

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!

Hello again. No news regarding the memoir – and perhaps that’s why I’m feeling like my literary dreams have come to a standstill. I’m working hard to ‘keep the faith’ and to keep believing that I will one day get published, but this is not always easy to do. A friend of mine often advises me to ‘trust in the universe’ at times like this, and I’m working on that, too. My turn will come … soon I hope. Meanwhile, I’ve been going along to the BackTrack Shed as writer-in-residence, and I’m now also teaching one day a week at the new BackTrack ‘school’, an alternative education centre based at the shed. Teaching a group of boys who don’t fit into mainstream education is both exciting and challenging, especially as we have little in the way of resources and equipment. Some days I could burst with enthusiasm about the possibilities of this work, but other days I wonder: how the hell did I end up back in this shed?

I first arrived at the BackTrack shed in 2007 and began an immersion research phase that lasted nearly two years. Readers of this blog would also know that I’ve spent the last six years writing a memoir about the life-changing events that came out of this experience. I submitted the memoir to a publisher earlier this year, and since then I’ve been contemplating my next major writing project. My thoughts were leaning towards finishing a novella I’ve been working on for the past seven years, and then settling into a family history project that would take me to Barcelona, Manila and Amsterdam, where I would uncover exciting secrets about my family’s involvement in the Spanish Inquisition. Momentarily side-tracked, I took the opportunity to be a writer-in-residence at BackTrack, where I imagined travelling over the countryside attending rural shows with a group of boys and dogs. Yet here I am every Wednesday – standing in a noisy welding shed less than two blocks from where I live, trying to speak over the shriek of a drop-saw, surrounded by boys who eat nothing but devon and tomato sauce sandwiches.

Trust in the universe, Helena.

The next few weeks should sort out my current confusion about what the universe is trying to tell me. As usual, I’m waiting on a few applications, and if any of them come through for me, I’ll follow the signs. In the meantime, I’ll try and keep the faith.

Hello again. Yep, still here. Didn’t make the 31st May deadline or the 14th June deadline, and probably won’t make the Winter Solstice deadline either – but I’m getting close! And missing my deadline(s) is not through lack of trying, believe me; I’ve never worked so hard on anything in my life. I cancelled my social life, cancelled my haircut, cancelled the carpet cleaner and even cancelled a complimentary facial because I didn’t want any distractions. I’m like a woman approaching birth. The reward (the baby / the book) will come later. I’m super-tired but also super-happy because I’m finally overcoming the challenges of this memoir. The manuscript is currently 86,000 words, and I’m just doing a final read-through / cut / edit before I send it to my ASA mentor, Judith Lukin-Amundsen. After her feedback, I’ll polish the memoir one last time before sending it to my editor at HarperCollins, Anne Reilly. But really, folks, miracles have been happening behind the closed door of my bedroom, absolute miracles. The creative process is magic, no doubt about that, and it’s just as Judith once said to me: The Book Knows. Everything is falling into place and all is well. I just needed to trust in the process. So, until next time … keep the faith!

Wombat tours! Stampeding cows! Kangaroos! Kookaburras! Giant Bogong moths! Disco dancing! Fabulous al fresco dinner parties! Candle-lit violin concertos on the veranda of the writers’ cottage! Where else but Bundanon? The last two weeks have been life-changing, in so many different ways. It rained for nearly two weeks, the Shoalhaven River flooded, the road out of here was under water, and I should have packed a pair of gumboots. I’m leaving early tomorrow morning, and I’ve just said goodbye to my fellow residents – Madeleine Cruise and Karen Therese. I’m feeling a little sad, but I’ll be laughing all the way home to Armidale, thinking about the adventures we had – especially when we had to leap over a gate (twice!) to escape the supposed bull (but really a red-eyed demon cow) which was running towards us while we were out wombat spotting the other night. It’s surprising just how many things can look like a wombat out here – but a stampeding cow isn’t one of them. The Sydney folk who arrived tonight didn’t quite appreciate the wealth of fun you can have whilst wombat spotting at Bundanon, but as Karen just said to me, ‘We made our own little world here,’ and that world was very special. I’m going to miss it.

And did I do much work on the memoir? You bet I did. I’d planned on leaving Bundanon with a complete draft of the reworked manuscript, but it wasn’t possible for me to reach that goal. However, I did write good drafts of ACT 1 and ACT II, and I dealt with the ‘Varuna blah’ and took from it what I needed for ACT V. Phew! Dealing with the blah was full on … but I relentlessly worked my way through it. I’m weary now, in need of a rest. Earlier, my companions and I were chatting about different artist-in-residence opportunities, and those amongst us who’d been overseas spoke of how Australian artists are often recognised as the ones who work, work, work … usually to fulfil the expectations of funding grants and so on. But, in many places, artist-in-residence programs are less focussed on producing than they are about being in the environment, and experiencing what is on offer – people, surroundings, workshops, food – and allowing yourself time to be influenced by what is happening around you. I like that idea. Because I have a family and work / study commitments, any time to devote entirely to my writing is precious, so whenever I’ve been on a residency I’ve always worked super-hard. But I reckon I could learn to ‘chill’ a bit more in places like this – to spend time on the veranda looking at the view, to converse with other artists, to reflect, to walk in the bush and to enjoy the beauty and inspirational qualities of a place like Bundanon.

Bundanon is the perfect haven for artists of any discipline, a remote bush paradise, and I want to go wombat spotting here again. Being here, and meeting artists like Madeleine and Karen, has opened my mind to exciting new ideas for future projects. Thank you fellow residents – (humans, animals and birds), thank you Regina for welcoming me so warmly, thank you Gary for the sexy legs, thank you Onni for the beautiful smile, and thank you Arthur and Yvonne Boyd for your generous gift. Until next time…

 

Hello again. This post is about distractions, which can be dangerous for writers, and which have recently engulfed me in a big way – even though I’d resolved to be more focussed and dedicated; prepared to spend long hours working alone in my room while declining the more immediate gratifications that life threw my way. Some distractions, of course, are valid – my mother is due to go into hospital to have a knee operation soon, and I’m pretty distracted by that because three and a half years ago my father went into hospital to have a knee operation and never came out again. I’m also feeling crap after a too-short haircut, and have had some busy times over the school holidays with kids and birthdays and so on. Maybe there was something in the stars last week because I heard several people say they reached record lows, but that’s the way it is sometimes – you need the lows before you reach the highs.

So last Monday night, feeling sad and sorry for myself (and super-ugly because of my haircut), I moped around the house, trying to work out why I was so miserable. I’d organised a catch-up session with my neighbour and fellow writer, Jim Vicars, but felt too fragile for visitors, so I texted Jim not to come. But he rang and insisted on coming anyway, so I had a bath and laid out a fresh tablecloth and lit candles and found the last of a bottle of whisky in the cupboard and put two delicate gold-rimmed glasses on the table … and by then I was starting to feel a little better. It was Chinese New Year and that was something worth celebrating.

Jim brought me some freshly-baked Anzac biscuits which was a lovely treat, and I poured the whisky and we toasted the Year of the Dragon and chatted about our PhD writing projects and other matters. Over the second glass of whisky, I told Jim about an arty home-decorating idea I’d had, and he got very excited and suggested it could be the basis for my next creative nonfiction project – “It’s got legs!” – and we had a fabulous brain-storming session. By the time Jim went home I was feeling born-again, full of joy to be a writer, and the possibilities for the future suddenly seemed endless because yes, this new idea does have legs and it could be a whole new direction in life and oh, the things I could do … But the next day, when I was telling my dear friend, Edwina Shaw, about my wonderful new idea, she very wisely said, ‘Watch out for distractions, Helena.’

She is so right.

My idea is good, I can feel it in my bones, but The Year of the Dragon is my year of completion – I want to have the memoir ready for HarperCollins by April, and the PhD finished by August, and that won’t happen while I’m dreaming about a new project. So I’ve shoved it on the backburner – where it can simmer away for the next eight months while I focus on what is most important right now. With that in mind, I’ve just printed out the Varuna blah. As you know, I’m a little wary about reading it again – 66,000 words written straight from the heart over six days at Varuna last April and not looked at since. It’s scary to think about what I’m going to find in there … and yes, writing this blog post is a distraction, and then I have to make a cake for a party tonight, but I’ll definitely start reading it tomorrow. I promise! Until next time …

Hello again. Happy New Year! I’ve just come to the end of the first of my three one-week blocks of time, and what a remarkable week it has been. Full of brights and darks, which is often the way when you have time alone, but so productive. I’ve whittled away 26,000 words (another 10-15,000 still need to go), have drawn rough maps and narrative arcs for the new structure, and have a clear path to follow in the months ahead. It’s not so hard. Not really. I just needed to face it. I spent many hours walking, and some fabulous thoughts and ideas came to me on those walks. I even found myself going ‘Wow!’ on several occasions. It’s all coming together. Just as my ASA mentor Judith Lukin-Amundsen says: “The book knows.”

For the Summer Solstice, I met with some friends for an evening of pagan festivities. Using four separate packs of tarot cards, we each drew cards for the six months leading up to the Winter Solstice. My cards foretold of a fresh start, creative success, love, family happiness and the creation of a safe haven. What more could I ask for? As a result, I’m feeling very positive about 2012. It’s going to be my year of completion; my year of finishing the memoir and the PhD. Yes!

 Not much more to report – life’s pretty quiet when you spend a week hanging out at home in a room all by yourself. One thing I do want to mention, though, is some of the other people on my ‘support team’. I’ve told you about my dear friend Edwina Shaw, my neighbour James Vicars, my mentor Judith Lukin-Amundsen, and my HarperCollins editor Anne Reilly … but there are others who, although no longer here in the physical sense, are still very much around. One is my father, Antonius Franciscus Pastor – former Olympic boxer, baker, tennis player, Bridge champion, classical guitarist, harmonica player, yodeller, card sharp, Scrabble fiend, and Jack Palance look-alike. He died three and a half years ago. The other is my friend, Sabine Altmann, who died in a car accident on the 31st October, 2011. Giving the eulogy at Sabine’s funeral was a great honour, and because she lived such an inspirational life – and had bucket-loads of talent, strength and drive – I’m going to share it with you today. Until next time …

*

Sabine Altmann was a woman of strength, passion, creativity and courage. A courageous campaigner for social justice, Sabine confronted the wrongs of the world like a Germanic Warrior Woman. She believed in a future without violence, a future where children were safe. Sometimes, when challenged on her strong sense of justice, or her beliefs, she would say: “That’s not ridiculous! You’re ridiculous!” or, “Nothing is impossible,” and then get on with the job of making things right. Her influence was huge, even on community programs she wasn’t directly involved with. As one of her colleagues puts it: “There are women and children who sleep safely in their beds at night, men who have fought the dark sides of themselves and won, who laugh and love and now live their own good lives, as a direct result of Sabine Altmann.”

Like an intricate work of mosaic, Sabine’s life was made up of lots of little pieces that came together to make something very special. Along with her passion for social justice, she was a homeopathic healer, with a special connection to PNG which began after she walked the Kokoda trail. Known for her incredible energy, Sabine was also a prolific print-maker, renovator, gourmet cook and an outspoken member of numerous committees and groups.

During the last twelve months, which she referred to as the worst year of her life, Sabine still lived hard and fast. While working full-time as a regional Domestic Violence Officer for the NSW Police Force, travelling over much of north-west New South Wales, Sabine renovated two bathrooms in her house, made several trips to PNG, travelled through India, created and exhibited her artworks, spoke at conferences and brought meetings into line in her characteristic way: “We talked about all this last meeting. What are you people doing?”. All this while she suffered suspected tuberculosis, anaemia and underwent major surgery. Yet she continued to bowl through people’s front doors, with her signature greeting: “Hello darling! It’s alright – I’m here now”, and had the rare ability of making everyone in her life feel special.

Sabine was born in 1964 in Griesbach in Bavaria, and grew up with her mother, Ilse Bleek, in Hamburg. Later in life, Sabine came to know her father, Friederich-Wilhelm Kaiser, and his new family, which included her siblings – Jessica, Matthias, and Alexander. When Sabine was four years old, her mother married Werner Altmann in Bucholz, and later, Ilse and Werner had a son, Andre. Because they lived in a little town outside Hamburg, each day Sabine and her mother would catch the train into the city so that Sabine could attend kindergarten. One day, a dark-skinned man sat opposite them, and Sabine looked at him and said, “What beautiful black eyes and hair you have.” The man smiled warmly at her, kindling Sabine’s life-long fascination for other cultures.

Her interest in social justice began early too. In Hamburg during the 1980s, while Sabine was studying natural medicine, she was an active member of the peace group and the women’s movement, and also worked in a youth centre. There she met Stephan Heidenreich who would become her partner. In 1995, Sabine and Stephan spent nine months in Australia and fell in love with Gunnedah. They returned to Germany for a year, where their son Niclas was born, and then immigrated to Australia in 1997 to settle in Gunnedah. Their second son, Philippe, was born in 2002. Shortly after, Sabine and Stephan separated, but they remained good friends and supportive partners in parenting. In 2006, Sabine became an adopted-mother to Sebastian Murray-Wessberg and Atlanta Wessberg, after their own mother died of breast cancer.

Although Sabine was frustrated when she first started managing non-government organisations in Gunnedah, and commented that Australia was twenty years behind Germany in its social policies, it wasn’t long others began to support her forward-thinking ideas. In those early Gunnedah years, Sabine also developed an interest in print-making, and created her artwork in the same frenetic way she did everything else. In workshops, while others would manage perhaps two prints a day, Sabine would do at least ten. Valued by many in the Arts Community, Sabine was a founding member of The Frida Group, which helped women increase their well-being through art.

In Gunnedah, Sabine also became Queen of Garage Sales – collecting cots, doors, windows, dresses, children’s clothing and wine glasses. Her aesthetic sense was finely-tuned, and she would go to any lengths to fulfil her desires. For example, when she bought her house in Armidale, she knew those old glass doors from Gunnedah High, that were now part of her ex-neighbour’s chicken coop, would be perfect, so she went and got them, even though her neighbour had sold the house and moved on. Sabine’s creativity was also expressed through her love of cooking, entertaining and catering. For many Europeans, hospitality is important – the German word for this is gastfreundschaft – and Sabine had it in bucket-loads. It was also the serving size she usually operated with. Famous for her mousse au chocolat, coq au vin and other dishes, she always made catering-sized quantities, no matter how large the crowd.

In 2006, Sabine moved to Armidale because she wanted her children to attend the local Steiner school. After travelling to PNG and Borneo in the last five years, mainly to walk the Kokoda, Black Cat and Death March Trails, Sabine started to work closely with PNG communities on community development, particularly health, education and gender violence. Using her knowledge as a social worker and homeopath, she engaged with women, elders and clan leaders to address social issues in the remote villages of the Huon Gulf district and the Morobe Province.

On one of her Kokoda walks, Sabine met community leader, Matthew Bumai, and after she returned to Australia, they worked together on community development. On her next visit to PNG they became lovers, which meant a lot of travelling, usually with one of the children. Matthew died suddenly in December 2010, and Sabine grieved his loss deeply. However, she was committed to maintaining her links with PNG, and had already bought tickets to return in December and have a house built.

Sabine’s commanding physical presence is no longer here, but she’s going to be stronger and even more powerful in her death. Just as the Australian soldiers had the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels to help them on the Kokoda Trail during World War II, we all now have a big blonde angel to help us when we falter on the path, especially her children – Niclas, Philippe, Atlanta and Sebastian – who she believed in and loved so much. And Stephan and his wife, Jo, who have been so strong and brave over the last week. Sabine is now someone we can call upon when we need to be tough, when we need to be strong, when we need to stand up and say: ‘Enough of this fucking bullshit!”, and when we need to remember: “Nothing is impossible.”

But, oh Sabine … we are going to miss you.

Hello again. I’ve been thinking a lot about my sister lately, and about the huge influence she had on me as a child. Nine years older, she was like a second mother … a cool ‘hippie’ version of a mother, though, in her velvet hotpants and floppy felt hat. We lived in an old bakery house and I hung out with her a lot. Her bedroom door was covered in posters, and some were what we’d now call ‘affirmative messages’. I often think of those posters. I’d read them over and over, trying to make sense of what the words meant, never really understanding. One was: To see a world in a grain of sand / and a heaven in a wild flower / hold infinity in the palm of your hand / and eternity in an hour. What the …? Another proclaimed: Today is the first day of the rest of your life. That also had me stumped at the time, but I sort of get it now, and it is exactly how I felt yesterday when I began re-working the memoir. Yes, the time has finally come!

It’s been a long break from the manuscript, but maybe I needed it. The problems in the work are so clear now; for example, the flat-line narrative of one of the threads in the story, how there is too much dialogue, how I need more reflection, and how large sections need to be cut, cut, cut. Back in September, I did a read-through with a pencil and noted where things needed to be cut or changed, but I just hadn’t been able to face it until yesterday. Probably because the past year has been full of emotional highs and lows – or brights and darks, as Judith would say – and I didn’t feel strong enough. But I do now. And it’s exciting! With my read-through notes beside me, I’m going through the draft on the computer, cutting and editing, and new thoughts and connections are already starting to happen – and it’s only been two days!

This is the first step in re-working the memoir into a loose five-act structure. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the current manuscript – drastically reduced – will form Act Three, Act Four and the first half of Act Five. Then I’ll go back to the ‘Varuna Blah’ – I’m ready now! – and use parts of that to write Act One, Act Two and the last half of Act Five. Can I do all of this before April, so I can submit the manuscript to HarperCollins? Yes. I’m going to meet my deadline. In fact, I will get a final draft to Anne and Judith some weeks before that. The time is right. I’m strong, I’m ready, I’m back … this time for good. I’ve suspended my PhD for seven months – as you know, the memoir forms part of my PhD so it’s not like I’m going to stop working on it or doing my reading for the exegesis, but stopping the clock has given me the breathing space I needed.

Why has all this come about?

Well, first of all, a good friend died in a car accident on the 31st October. Death is always a shake-up and often involves a re-assessment of your own life. A week later, I gave a talk about my research at a Creative Writing Symposium at UNE – I spoke about the memoir, the transformative experience of writing it, what still needed to be done and the fabulous support I’d received through gaining Anne Reilly’s editorial guidance with the Varuna HarperCollins Award, and having Judith Lukin-Amundsen as my Australian Society of Authors mentor. But after giving my paper, I felt confused … why wasn’t I working on the memoir when I had been given these wonderful (and rare) opportunities? The next day I emailed Judith and Anne, asking for professional advice about whether or not to suspend my studies. Judith was a little evasive – she wasn’t going to make the decision for me – but said: ‘In the writing you’re best to follow your gut desire: ie. Why are you doing all this? And – Why do you write? The answer to these two questions should clarify your confusion … yes?’

Yes, it clarified my confusion. I emailed Judith with this reply: ‘I write because it’s very satisfying and (mostly) makes me happy. I want my books to be published. I want to keep writing for the rest of my life. Also, a good friend died three weeks ago in a car accident. Just like that you can go. And if I die tomorrow, what is more important? The book … NOT the exegesis. It can wait.’

And that is how yesterday came to be the first day of the rest of my life. I’ll finish now, but for your interest, I’ve added a story called ‘Wedding Coat’ to my ‘writing’ page. It’s from a collection of short fiction I’m working on called ‘The Bakery Stories’, and is based around my sister and I. Until next time …

Hello again. What a month it has been. No, it’s not what you’re thinking . My index-card box is still empty; I haven’t written or developed any further scenes. In fact, I’ve hardly looked at the manuscript. What’s going on? Well, I think I’m in the ‘writing without writing’ stage. In a recent ‘Writing Class’ article in Spectrum, Mandy Sayer says that the ‘art of “writing without writing” is a process that allows the imagination to wander freely; to make unconscious connections between narrative possibilities without the pressure of producing a consistent tone, a tight prose style, beautiful sentences and startling metaphors.’ Not to mention a full box of index-cards. Recognising that I’m in a kind of ‘pre-rewriting’ phase has helped me understand that I’m nowhere near ready to put scenes onto index cards. There are many other things to do before I reach that next phase in the development of this memoir.

Also, if I’m honest with myself, I recognise that a large part of my ‘writing without writing’ phase is due to fear. The task ahead remains overwhelming at times, especially as my marriage ended ten months ago, and I’m less than five months away from submitting my PhD. The other day, seeking some reassurance, I rang my HarperCollins editor, Anne Reilly, and together we worked out three simple steps to help me ease into the task and dispel some of that fear. Step one is to sketch out yet another map – almost a statement of intention – of what I want the re-worked memoir to be, and to see that map as the bones of the story; second step is to read over the memoir draft as it currently stands and fit parts of that draft onto my map, and see it as adding flesh to the bones; step three is to go back to the ‘Varuna blah’ and match parts of that to the map in the same way. Anne believes that these three steps will enable me to merge the old draft with the new (without freaking out).

Even though I haven’t progressed far with the memoir, other positive ‘writing without writing’ things have happened. I enjoyed a brief but fruitful email correspondence with SMH Good Weekend journalist, John van Tiggelen, who responded to my questions about ethics and other matters with openness and generosity. What a gift to an emerging writer like myself. I also gave a paper about one aspect of my writing process – whether or not to show the subjects of your writing early drafts – at a UNE School of Arts conference. It was well-received, and I’ll post the talk here in the next week or so. I also gave my first tutorial in a ‘Writing in Genres’ unit at UNE which was immensely enjoyable, especially as I was able to participate in the same creative writing exercise as the students. We had to write about a place. Normally I find these write-on-the-spot exercises difficult, but this one was surprisingly easy. I thought I was going to write about my regular meetings with my PhD supervisors at a local coffee shop, but this is what ended up on my piece of paper:

The windows at my favourite coffee shop are large, and slide across to allow outside and inside to merge. At the end of each shift, the glass needs to be wiped clean of sticky fingers and handprints. Late, on the Saturday morning my father died, I walked past this coffee shop and saw a friend, who worked there, cleaning the windows. I think I was still in shock. I’d been shopping: first to Kmart to buy a new bra and some underpants to wear to the funeral (these items seemed terribly important that morning), and then to Darryl Lea to buy dark ginger chocolates, my father’s favourite. When I saw my friend, I stopped and said hello. ‘My father died this morning,’ I told her. She leant through the window and hugged me.

Hmmm … interesting what goes on inside us, eh? I read my piece to the students because even though it’s very simple, I like it. It showed me that I miss my father more than I thought, and that his death is still just under my skin – even though it’s been over three years. The piece was probably a little heavy for the students – they wrote about happier memories of places – but gee, it was good to be in a room where so many young people were writing and openly sharing their work (and who all listened quietly as one older person shared a piece of her heart). I think we’re going to have fun.

Until next time.

Hello again. This week’s post is about organising your work. When I was discussing this subject with Judith Lukin-Amundsen (my Australian Society of Authors mentor) the other week, she said: ‘Writing a book and trying to keep it all in your head is like holding your breath for a year.’ I agree – except for me, it’s been nearly four years. Having some sort of organising process in place will hopefully enable me to breathe again – even if it’s just little gasps – and make it through to the end.

During our last ‘phone-meet’, I explained to Judith that I was going to try an index-card method to help me cope with the task ahead. As mentioned in a previous post, I have 66 000 words of loose-writing – the Varuna ‘blah’ – from which I now need to choose pieces to craft into scenes that will help me create a bigger picture of who I am for the reader of my memoir – and then those scenes will merge with selected scenes from my existing manuscript (85 000 words) to form an improved narrative based around a five-act structure. Sounds easy? No way. In fact, lately I’ve been feeling somewhat panic-stricken at what I have to do. However, easy or not, the job has to be done. I’m not sure whether it will be better to go through the ‘blah’ from beginning to end, or, alternatively, to pick and choose and go with what I feel like writing about on that particular day, but whatever strategy I decide on, once I finish writing a new scene I will print out its basic details onto an index card and file the card in a box. Each week I hope to add three index cards to the box. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron says it is important to set small gentle goals and meet them, so you feel like you are achieving something. Three new scenes a week is manageable for me at this stage. Once I finish going through the ‘blah’, I will then go back to the existing material and re-write selected parts into scenes which can also be filed on index cards.

When the time comes to merge the old material with the new, the index cards (along with the three sheets of cardboard that map my ‘life-journey’) will help me to structure the memoir into a different shape. I can imagine spreading the index cards over the floor and placing scenes that work well next to each other, much like piecing together a patchwork blanket. Judith said many writers use this method, although she warned that a feeling of randomness can develop and it is important to pay careful attention to the bridging between sections. Although the job ahead is daunting, I’m excited about it as well. I already have two scenes just about ready to slot into the box, and it’s refreshing to be working with new material again.

Over the last fortnight, I was also chatting with my friend, Edwina Shaw, and she said something which made me understand the need to form a clearer picture of myself in my writing. Edwina, with whom I share a deeply supportive writing-based friendship, also won a mentorship with Judith Lukin-Amundsen last year, and the two of them recently met at a coffee shop in Brisbane (I’ve never met Judith – we just have phone-meets). At some point in their conversation, my name was mentioned, and Judith said to Edwina that she thought of me as petite, perhaps a little fragile (all that weeping!). ‘Oh, no,’ Edwina had said in surprise. ‘Helena is tall, strong, beautiful!’ Gee thanks, Edwina … I’ll run with that for a while! (Why are there no photos on this blog, you ask? Never mind about photos … this is a blog about writing process). But, jokes aside, if Judith, after reading both of my memoir manuscripts and working closely with me for over a year, visualises me as petite – which is definitely not the case (emotionally fragile, maybe) – then something is missing from my work. And that is what I need to fix.

 Anyway, more about my friendship with Edwina in the next post, along with some wisdom from Leonard Cohen and Chris Lilley. Until then …keep writing!