Friday, 13 November 2015

The Way the Trees Are

Walking with my dog in our local park on a clear November morning, I was thinking about space: How much space we occupy; how we move through space; what kind of energy we leave in a space.  Individual trees were visible on the Adelaide hills against a fantastically blue sky. An old-timer with a walking stick was the only other person in the park. He wore a pair of faded blue tracky pants and a checked jacket that seemed to hang on him like an animal fur. He lurched awkwardly from side to side through space, and was limping toward us when he stopped to pick something off the grass.

    ‘Good morning,’ I said.

    He held up a piece of bark and looked at me over the rim of his specs. ‘Good thing about this is it doesn’t bark,’ he said. 

    I’m slow with jokes so it took me a few seconds to get it, and he didn’t wait.  

    ‘You’ve got to get this stuff now,’ he said.  It only drops once a year.’ 

    His skin was a kind of grey-brown colour, the complexion of a heavy smoker. I was standing close enough that I could smell the sourness of alcohol mixed with body odour.

    ‘I found a piece once that looked like angel’s wings,’ I said.

    ‘Yep, you can find some rare stuff,’ he said. ‘Look at that. All the colours. I’ll use it in the collage I’m making.’ 

    The bark he held looked like it might have been painted with a blend of watercolours: Pink, purple, brown; or it could have been a segment of frozen muddy river.  Where it was ribbed in the middle it resembled an elbow or a headscarf with a wild tunnel of hair flowing over his thick fingers. He turned it over. Against the thick texture of his hairy hands, the bark was as smooth and creamy as vanilla ice-cream. We both took a moment to admire the scrap of tree skin. My dog trotted away from us toward the perimeter of the park.

    ‘Only mad people pick up bark,’ he said. ‘Gives the psychiatrists something to do.’ He grinned.

    Just half an hour before I had been crying while writing about my Welsh grandmother; thinking about the years I didn’t have with her because my family immigrated to Australia when I was young; amazed that grief seems to live permanently under the skin, seeping out at unexpected moments.

    My dog had reached the park perimeter and was rolling in the dirt. 

    ‘I’d better get that,’ I said.

    The man picked up a long piece of bark that looked like a smiling crocodile.

    When I reached the dog he was on his back, shimmying against the carcass of a grey dove. I held my breath against the stink and tried to pull him off. He resisted me; he was having too good a time. We were engaged in this scrappy, smelly tug of war for just a minute or so. I wasn’t annoyed with the dog. It’s what he does, what he’s supposed to do. He also eats cat shit, and food discarded on suburban pavements, mostly sandwiches and take away chicken pieces; cold chips. The dead bird’s belly was open to the morning light and jam-packed with fat, writhing maggots.  None of this was of any consequence to the man collecting bark, and when I looked up he’d gone.

    I’d been going to the park every day for two years, often twice a day, catching up with the same people and their dogs (we know the dogs’ names but not each others’; such is the way with dog owners) and yet, that was the first conversation I’d had about trees and bark and collage. I got the poo bag out of my pocket and collected bark for my own collage. Then I looked up at the tree. It wasn’t the first time I’d noticed it; it’s a lemon-scented gum, an imposing tree, but I didn’t know until that moment that I was in love with it.  I loved its trunk, as mottled as an old man’s skin; I loved the zingy citrus smell of it after rain; and I loved the way it was so present in the space that it occupied. I felt like Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter when he told Robert de Niro he liked the way the trees are; but I couldn’t remember the exact line so I made a mental note to look it up on-line when I got home. I clipped the dog’s lead onto his collar and thought again of how emotional I’d been just a little while ago at my computer, in my study, a space that can be as wild as virgin bush, and that I move through in a frenzy of words and memories and emotions; and there are other days when writing is as  serene an activity as walking in the park and on those days I hover in space, calm and weightless.

    That old timer knew something about trees and space; he knew lemon-scented gums shed their bark in November and where to collect. When I arrived home I turned on the computer and found what I was looking for:

I like the trees, you know? I like the way that the trees are on mountains, all the different … the way the trees are.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Specialising in Story: A short course for new and emerging writers

Specialising in Story: The teacher

'Caroline's guidance allowed me to discover depth and structure that I didn’t even realise was threaded throughout my work. She reads subtext, recognises quality and applies structured technique in order to allow the true meaning of the work to shine through.' 

Here's the thing: On September 9th something new is happening in the Adelaide writing scene. For the first time, a small group of  writers are going to meet in one of the cosy rooms at the Mockingbird Lounge in South Glenelg.

They're going to explore and play while upgrading their writing skills; connect with like-minded people while deepening their story-writing ability; and they're going to be encouraged by a teacher who invests in people.

They're also going to explore the fundamentals of storytelling such as characterisation, point of view, dialogue and setting; how to harness Stanislavski's seven questions when a story doesn't seem to be working; and  learn  more about their own writing by reading and  critiquing the work of others.

There is no magic formula for writing fiction but  their writing teacher (that's me, btw) is passionate about creating a safe, welcoming space that allows people to invent, create and discover. In my experience, the discoveries people make when engaged in intense creative work are not only about writing, but about themselves and the world. This is the magic.

Specialising in Story (Short Writing Course, closed group)

Mockingbird Lounge
Where: Mockingbird Lounge, 63a Broadway, Glenelg South
When:  2nd Wednesday & 4th Tuesday of the month (7-9pm)
Dates:   9 & 22 September, 14 & 27 October, 11 & 24 November
Group size:  Maximum of 6
Investment:  $210, to be paid in advance

Bookings:  Phone Stacey on 7007 2242

A more focussed approach to writing than the casual class. Over six sessions you will be guided through the fundamentals of writing a piece of flash fiction (up to 1000 words). Each session includes writing exercises and reading,  reflection, and discussion. You  will also receive  suggested further reading and extended writing exercises to be completed at home between the fortnightly sessions. At the end of the three months it is expected that you will have completed a piece of short fiction and have gained a deeper understanding of the elements of writing fiction.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Using the power of observation to create poetry

Snowman, chalk on concrete
I've recently been spending my Sundays with some wonderful folk in a park in Berri, South Australia. You can read details about the Manifold Project here and here,  but in a nutshell it's spearheaded by the innovative and enthusiastic Alysha, Hermann, and is an invitation for local residents to tell their stories in collaboration with professional artists (I'm one of those). Alysha sees this project as long term (as in, years) so we're only just scratching the surface. What I want to do in this blog is demonstrate how I harness that power of observation I've talked in previous blogs to create new work as part of a project. In this case, the new work is poetry. But first, a little context ...

Berri is in South Australia's Riverland, and like everything else in the Riverland, Rotary Park on Manifold Crescent has been affected by the recent, severe drought. Water restrictions meant the council stopped watering the park. Trees died. Grass perished. According to Yvonne, a resident of thirty years, the park became ‘a dustbowl’. With typical Australian humour and penchant for telling it how it is, she now refers to the place as Prickle Park. Dry humour to match a dry park.

To find Prickle Park you drive through Berri’s town centre on Kay Avenue and turn left into Derrick Street (opposite the precinct that includes the Library and Information Centre). The park is straight ahead of you. If you turn right at the Rotary Park sign you continue into Derrick Street; turn left and that’s Manifold Crescent.  Bob, Yvonne’s daughter (yes, that’s right) who grew up on Derrick St opposite the park, says ‘Derrick Street has always been a race track.’ When I look it up on Google Maps, I see that Derrick Street makes a perfect (half) race track: No intersections, a good long length with just enough windiness to keep it interesting for the driver. A most excellent road for the souped up, mag-wheeled, vroom-vroom machines we heard and saw throughout the day, their bright green and red finishes gleaming in the winter sun, a kind of blaring creature example of that most ubiquitous of Australian accessories, the car. Manifold Crescent, it seems to me, is Derrick Street’s little sister and is, in contrast, a smaller quieter street used more or less solely by the residents, ignored by everybody else.

Fenceless and gateless, the park invites us in.

It's the third Sunday in August, getting closer to spring and the weather shows it. It’s a day full of sunshine with fast moving clouds obscuring the heat and light from time to time, prompting me to reach for my jumper. Still, it’s warm enough for Winifred (Winnie), one of the kids who joined us to chat and make art, to be wearing her bathers, her jumper a mere accessory tied around her waist all afternoon. In a moment of pure joy she looked up, face tilted at the sun, eyes squinting, and exclaimed ‘Finally! It’s a sunny day to go outside and play in the park!’ I was struck by the pure pleasure on her face and in her voice. Enjoying a sunny day. Such simple a pleasure, isn’t it? Sometime it takes a child to remind us how lucky we are. Of course, there is more to Manifold Crescent than sun-shiney days, but that's another story for another time. 

At home the next day I was trying to conjure up what David Foster Wallace refers to in his essay A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again as "a kind of hypnotic sensuous collage of all the stuff I've heard and done ..." It's true that he was writing about having just spent 7 days on a luxury cruise liner, and a day in the park with some kids in Berri may seem a little smaller, but who am I to reduce my own experience? When your senses are open, every experience has a little magic. And anyhow, the point is about the detail of observation. I read my notes, looked at the photographs I took and thought about what resonated with me the most, where the energy was, and the answer was - with the children and play. And then a poem began to take shape incorporating play,  the comments and conversation we had (direct speech being an important sensuous detail) and the comings-and-goings of the afternoon. Here is the result. Have a go yourself. How can you utilise all that detail that you've written into a new work of art?:

Into Spring

Winnie’s face is tilted toward the late-winter sun.

Finally!  she says. It’s a sunny day to go outside and play in the park.
I can hear the wind, says Darren.
It sounds like air, like breath.
Eugene says, I can hear paper rattling.
I can hear leaves.
I can hear the shovel scraping on the ground.

Sounds like a fart, says Darren.

I can see snow, letters, words, sentences, colours, leaves, dirt, rocks, sticks, says Eugene.
He holds a metal spade
Darren holds the bucket
The brothers work together to clear the cricket cage of dirt and leaves
They work fast
They tip the dirt over by one of the trees

The falling dirt is gentle,  a soft sound
None of us can say exactly what it sounds like
but we know what it doesn’t sound like
The falling dirt does not sound like a waterfall,
or drums, says Eugene.
or the radio.

The cage looks much better when they have finished clearing it out

There is a whipper snipper
and a saw going in someone’s backyard

I can hear talking, says Darren.
A cockatoo, says Eugene.
I can hear brothers talking, I say.
That doesn’t count, says Darren.
Yes it does, says Eugene.

Winnie uses pink chalk to draw a love-heart on the cement
She colours it in,

a big fat pink love-heart right there on the concrete
Alysha draws

and writes

and takes photos
Bob sketches in a notebook
Jess uses green and purple wool
to weave a sculpture

We all look up when we hear
a souped up
vroom-vroom machine,
a kind of blaring creature,
its sparkly green finish gleaming in the winter sun,
a bright example of
that ubiquitous Australian accessory –
the car.

Derrick Street has always been a race track, Bob says quietly,
We all nod.

They car disappears up the street
We all go back to what we are doing

Jess says, Lavender is my favourite flower.
Winnie says, I put lavender in my shoes to make them smell nice.
Jess makes a lavender stalk sculpture out of the green and purple wool
She weaves it into the cage

Winnie, Eugene and Darren go home
They come back

The bike belongs to Darren
His brother asks if he can use it
You can’t miss Eugene
He wears a bright orange jumper,
dinking his brother over the cement pitch
across the concrete
across the prickles and grass in Prickle Park
They giggle all the way

We meet a chihauhau named Lady

Winnie says I remember when there was three mounds here in the park.
She points them out. One, two, three.
We could sit on them.
In the shade?
In the shade.
Winnie says, When they put seeds here it’s going to be like a jungle.

Darren says, I’m bored.
But he stays.

Winnie goes home
She comes back with oranges for everyone
She says, Eugene has to put out the washing.
Eugene goes home to put out the washing
Then he comes back

Do you like it? asks Winnie.
I suck on the sweet juicy orange
It’s delicious, I say. Thankyou.

I spy an abandoned black sock
a pair of green shoelaces

Winnie’s Mum calls them to go home
I mean it, you kids!

See ya, we say

See ya next time.
See yas, they say

See yas next time.

White moths flit over the grass in Prickle Park
A blowie hums close by, buzzes past my ear
It might be the first fly of the season

Friday, 14 August 2015

What to do with all those pieces of paper #collage

As a writer you probably have piles of paper, drafts of stories, poems, and notes stacked away and sure, you could throw them in the recycle bin or print on the other side of the paper (if you haven’t done so already) but here’s another suggestion – try transforming some of those pages into art. It can be a cathartic experience and a pleasurable distraction from writing (and we all need that from time to time!) Here’s a recent example …

It began with my withdrawal from a creative writing Masters course at the University of Adelaide. (I’m happy to say I don’t regret withdrawing, nor do I regret attempting it and that I haven’t abandoned the project, a work of fiction that has sisters as its focus). But the experience was a bit stressful and challenging and because I like to process stressful experiences through writing and making art, I thought about what I could do with the printed pile of project proposal drafts that I had filed away; I thought about the photocopied images I had of my and sister and I when we were small children; and I thought about colour.  I began by weaving an enlarged photocopied image of me and my sister (the photo was originally passport size, taken in a booth) with a draft page of my recently abandoned Masters proposal and, because I wanted the final woven image to have something delicate and beautiful within in, something that suggested patterns found in nature (as opposed to the artificial patterns of written language), I added strips of Japanese origami paper. As I typed the visible words and fragments of words, a surprising title leaked out of the weave.

Here, then, is the final cut-up, where image and text intersect and the reader/viewer (hopefully) interacts with both. The text is fragmented, meaning the reader (you) must be more active in creating meaning, (your) own meaning:


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uncons nursed decades.

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Thursday, 6 August 2015

A-Z writing exercise

Before I dive into some fairly intense or dense writing as I have been doing lately, it's nice to begin each day with a warm up exercise or two, in the same way that a musician does their scales and arpeggios before they begin practising the piece they're working on.

This is one of my favourite writing warm-ups. I allow myself to write nonsense, be playful and if it's very early in the morning I also find myself reaching for the dictionary, especially with those last few letters.

What you are going to do is write a story where each word begins with a new letter of the the alphabet (in order). Do it a few times to get the hang of it and to see if there isn't something in it you could use. (in my example below I was surprised and pleased by the term 'mournful night'). At the very least, like all good exercises, this one gets you thinking about specific word choices and how a single word can change the direction of a story. Enjoy!

My example:
Abalone ballerinas chooky dance every Friday, gambolling, hirsute, inky. Jealous knives lengthen. Mournful night opposes pirouettes. Quiet rival shuffle-tops unnerve vampires where Xmas yowies zig-zag.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Power of Observation

It took me writing a lot of words to find how to write the right words.

What I mean is this: I've been writing in journals for well over a decade and that has been very useful. I still write in a journal most days. Even if I begin the entry by whinging and moaning, by the end of it I've turned things around (or the writing has turned me around) and I'm feeling inspired & ready for the day. I rarely re-read my journal. It's a purge for me, a splat on the page, an exorcism of sorts.

But there is a different kind of writing that requires me to pay more attention, to notice, to look out into the world, to develop point of view. It's as simple as noticing what's around me and writing down those observations. I say simple, but like most good new habits, it does take a little while to get into the swing of things.

In her address at the 2015 Humana Festival of New American Plays, Ann Bogart said:

"I've written in a journal every day since I was about thirteen years old.When I was eighteen, I had a friend who said I shouldn't write in a journal what I did, I should write three observations. So then rather than saying: today I went to a bank and then to a restaurant, instead say: I noticed today in front of the bank there are more homeless than last year. It was really hard ... So in order to get unstuck, I would question the words you use, the story you tell, and can you do more than just report. Can you actually do the extra effort of point of view?"

So this is the writing challenge: to write 3 or 4 or 6 observations in your journal every day, or most days. Notice the detail of life.  Be specific. Use all of the senses. One of the intentions is to stop you from generalising or summarising. After all, it's detail that makes stories interesting, emotional and believable.

C x

Monday, 20 July 2015

What is Reasonable and Democratic? #freethearts

In case you hadn't heard, earlier this year Minister for the Arts George Brandis announced an $104.8 million cut from the well established & democratic national arts funding body The Australia Council. Why?  To fund Brandis' own proposed National Programme for Excellence in the Arts. How can he do this with no consultation or peer review process? Just because he can. Who will be most affected? Small to medium arts orgs and individual artists. Result? A whole lot of anger and questions  from Australia's arts sector. You can read and sign the open letter to George Brandis, Australians for Artistic Freedom. And have a look at the details of the Senate Inquiry into the impact of Brandis' decision. (Report date for that one is September 15).

Please, don't do nothing.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.


So Please, do something. The deadline has passed for letter submissions to the Senate Inquiry but you can still write a letter and send it to your local member and State Senators. 

  • There is a list of contacts at the bottom of this post. 
  • Send a letter by post rather than email. It is widely believed that this has more impact.  
  • Not sure what to write? Go here for a template.

I struggled to stay within the one page suggested template. Nevertheless,  my letter has  been sent to the Senate Inquiry into the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts. I couldn't help but get a little cheeky .. here is the little prayer that I included:


Dear God,

Poor Minister Brandis. Clearly he is unwell. Please grant him as much resilience as the Australian artists and companies whose livelihoods are affected by his unbalanced decision making: The small to medium companies who intended to apply for the now scrapped Australia Council’s six-year funding program; the independent artists who were going to apply for the axed June grant round; the communities and artists affected by the cancelled ArtStart, Creative Communities Partnership Initiative and Artists in Residence programs. And they are just the tip of the iceberg.

God, I’m sure Minister Brandis didn’t mean to say ‘F*!k You Lot’ to the Australian arts sector. Please grant him as much humility, creativity, good sense and gsoh as the wonderful Australian artists who are not employed by Australia’s major performing arts companies and who often struggle to earn a minimum wage.


ps Let him know that when I say ‘grant him’, I don’t mean he has to apply for a grant. God, no! He is far too busy making important, reasonable, democratic decisions; I totally understand he has no time for that applying-for-grants palaver.

List of  contacts:
The Prime Minister, Minister for the Arts and South Australian senators 

The Prime Minister
Hon A.J. Abbott MP
Member for Warringah
PO Box 450
Manly  NSW 2095
The Minister for the Arts
Senator G.H. Brandis
P.O. Box 143
Albion DC QLD 4010
South Australian Senators

Senator  N. Xenophon
Level 2, 31 Ebenezer Place
Adelaide SA 5000
Senator S.C. Hanson-Young
Level 7, 147 Pirie Street
Adelaide SA 5000

Senator P.L. Wright
PO Box 8117
Station Arcade, Adelaide
SA 5000
Senator A.M. Gallacher
265 Churchill Road
Prospect SA 5082
Senator A. McEwen
PO Box 55
Torrensville Plaza SA 5031
Senator P. Wong
PO Box 6237, Halifax Street
Adelaide SA 5000
Senator C. Bernadi
PO Box 2192
Kent Town SA 5071
Senator S.J. Birmingham
107 Sir Donald Bradman Drive
Hilton SA 5033
Senator R.J. Day
77 Fullarton Road
Kent Town SA 5067
Senator S. Edwards
187 Grenfell Street
Adelaide SA  5000
Senator D.J. Fawcett
Commonwealth Parliament Offices
Suite 4, Level 13, 100 King William Street
Adelaide SA 5000
Senator A. Ruston
PO Box 1671
Renmark SA 5341