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 …

Finally getting back in the groove again after several super-busy months of doing everything but creative writing. Aside from having a number of part-time jobs – like maybe four! – I’m edging towards the final stage of my PhD in Creative Research Practice, so I haven’t had much time to devote to new work. But over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about a new idea that will combine my two passions in life – singing and writing – with a fascinating slice of Spanish history. Olѐ! I’ve also made progress on ‘The Bakery Stories’ novella, and, after working on my PhD for what seems like the last eight hundred years, I finally understand the concept of a ‘research question’ and how to master the academic voice. I tell you, life is good!

I didn’t get a Hedgebrook residency and still haven’t heard back from the publisher, but I feel buoyant and happy. One thing which helped was re-reading The Artist’s Way, especially the section on ‘Recovering a Sense of Strength’. In this chapter, Julia Cameron offers a range of strategies for dealing with artistic ‘loss’ – for example, instead of thinking: ‘Why me?’ after a rejection, we can think: ‘What next?’ Simply changing a thought can help us keep moving forward. Julia Cameron also writes about the importance of ‘filling the form’ – which means taking one small action each day towards achieving a creative dream instead of becoming stuck because life isn’t presenting the perfect conditions. The concrete goal that signifies the accomplishment of this dream is an artist’s ‘true north’.

As I read through Julia Cameron’s advice on ‘Recovering a Sense of Strength’, I realised I’d become ‘stuck’ in recent months because I’d been thinking: ‘I can’t possibly write anything new until I finish the PhD / secure an agent / get published / go to America / win a $40,000 grant / hang the washing / cook dinner / (insert any excuse here).’ But since I started taking one small step every day – like reading through my father’s recollections of the war in Holland, or writing an updated synopsis for a grant application, or having a go at writing a parable – I’ve re-discovered the joys and the excitement of the creative process, and I’m back to thinking: ‘Holy heck! How lucky am I?’

Another thing which helped recently was a friend’s advice: ‘Energy follows intent,’ he told me. ‘Work out what it is you want, then go and get it.’ So I’ve set the compass to my own version of ‘true north’, and, step by step, I’ll get there!

Until next time …

Hello again. No news on the writing front, except that an agent has expressed interest in my work and is currently reading the manuscript. I hope to hear some news soon. Meanwhile, through my teaching position with BackTrack Youth Works (the youth work organisation that features in my memoir), I was involved in an inspiring writing-related activity earlier this week when I attended the BackTrack School’s inaugural poetry camp with eight dogs, nine teenage boys, my co-teacher Simmo, three youth workers – Dusty, Blissy and Matt, and one bush poet: Murray (Muz) Hartin. We camped by the Macdonald River at Marinka, a property near Walcha, and slept in swags under the stars.

Four nights after leaving the riverbank, my head is still filled with images of the camp: the oaks along the river; the boys unloading their truckload of firewood; sitting around the campfire sharing songs, stories and poems; the change in Murray Hartin’s face when he recited poetry; Dusty reading ‘The White Horse’ from his note-book of poems; Simmo’s torch-lit rendition of Tonchi’s song Gallipoli; stone sculptures popping up everywhere; a midnight yabbie feast; eight black and white and brown dogs gathered by a tree, watching everything; and a circle of swags around the fire. Murray Hartin was very entertaining, and by the end of the first day, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one whose cheeks were aching from laughing so much.

After breakfast the next morning, I saw Blissy and a group of boys sitting some distance away – guitars and notebooks in hand – thinking up words to fit the tune of Stand By Me, while others sat back and read their signed copies of A Whole Lotta Muz. Later, we dragged the rolled-up swags into a circle in the shade and shared poems, thoughts and feelings, and everyone rated the camp well into the 80s or 90s out of 100. Before we left, we did charcoal drawings on large sheets of white paper – some people drew the trees and rocks along the river, and others drew what was in their heads. Murray did a tree ‘rubbing’ by holding his paper against the bark of a tree, Matt sketched the sheep’s skull I’d found on my walk that morning, and two of the boys asked if they could move away and spend time drawing in solitude. That’s where we were at by the end of the camp.

I think I’m still absorbing the experience – which was right up there in the 90s out of 100 for me. In our ‘outdoor classroom’ at Marinka, we may have learnt about rhyme, rhythm and rap, but, for me, the poetry camp also offered a lesson in cooperative living and respecting each other and our environment. I’d never been camping with so many men, boys or dogs before, and it’s not common for a woman to be on a BackTrack camp either, but I felt an accepted and welcome member of the group. I also noticed that whenever the word ‘black’ was used in any context, like describing a black horse or a black container, someone was sure to joke: ‘Don’t be racist!’ – but as far as race relations were concerned, I thought we lived in harmony during our time by the river, and we can all take that lesson away into our everyday life.

Thanks to Regional Arts NSW for funding the poetry camp, thanks to Murray Hartin for being such a fabulous guest artist, thanks to Sally Denyer for providing us with a range of nurturing and delicious food – to sit by the fire and eat pavlova with local berries and freshly-whipped cream was probably worth 100 on the rating scale – and thanks also to BackTrack’s Jen Kealey and her family for sharing their beautiful property with us, and for joining us in poetry and song. All in all, the poetry camp was a huge success and we’re keen to organise more professional artists – starting with a singer/songwriter – to join us in 2014. Check out some of our photos at http://backtrack.org.au/1000-words/

This project was made possible through a Quick Response Grant provided by Regional Arts NSW through the Regional Arts Fund, an Australian Government initiative supporting the arts in regional, remote and very remote Australia.

quick reponse picture

We meet at six on the stone verandah.

I bring merlot, spiced pear paste, blue vein and crackers;

the others – a Mexican artist and an opera singer from Melbourne –

bring roasted almonds, an opened packet of Granita biscuits,

and five squares of dark chocolate. I wave off their apologies –

shopping day for car-less residents was a week ago.

In the fading light, we settle on wooden benches

and prepare to share wine, food and stories.

When she heard only two other women were here, my mother said:

‘Hopefully a man will arrive soon … more interesting then.’

Hmmph!

During their time at Bundanon, the two women before me

collaborated on a site-specific event involving seven tree-based mesostics

and performed it for groups of visitors, and for me, on Open Day.

As the opera singer stood by each tree in the garden –

Jacaranda, Orange, Weeping Willow,

Olive, Quince, Red Cedar and Magnolia –

her hair blew wildly in the wind, and at the end of each song

I said ‘Oh!’ in surprise and gratitude.

Mesostics.

Silence.

John Cage once wrote a mesostic for a stewardess when she asked.

Mid-flight.

I knew nothing about any of this.

More interesting when a man arrives?

I don’t think so, Mum.

I’m interested in anyone who gives themselves over to creativity.

Like Arthur.

And I’m curious when someone gives it up.

Like Yvonne.

In the gift shop I found a photo-card of Yvonne in Tuscany;

dressed in a blue-patterned skirt and white sleeveless turtle-neck,

she turns away from the camera, her feet hidden in long grass.

I like the way I have to imagine her face,

just as I have to imagine why she stopped painting.

On her stone verandah, the three of us raise our glasses to Yvonne,

and to Arthur, and to my artist-friend Sabine,

who died in a car accident two years ago.

Then we sit back and watch the goings-on in the paddocks.

‘Look at the ducks,’ the Mexican artist says, pointing.

‘Over near that wombat … can’t you see? Just behind the cows?’

The ducks, like us, are on a huge adventure –

from dam to paddock, from artist complex to homestead.

Before we leave, the opera singer – a mezzo soprano –

performs her composition of the Jacaranda mesostic;

her voice, unencumbered by wind, floats poignantly over the garden,

honouring a tree planted in memory of a father and daughter,

long ago drowned in the river.

Bundanon has seen sad times. Joyful ones, too –

like this impromptu communion of artists.