Reflections on two days of writing

I know I just posted a couple of days ago. And I try to not post too often and clog up reader’s inboxes. But I’m at a Writer’s Festival. I’m writing. Words are flowing and stories are being written. I can’t stop. I’m meeting wonderful people with gorgeous, rich stories overflowing with meaning and life. It’s exciting.

I’m having a fabulous time so far. And it’s only day two of seven.

Yesterday’s workshop, ‘Everyone has a Story’, was technical but still creative. The workshop mentor, Alan Close, taught us about the power of writing a memoir. We spent a lot of time writing in bursts looking at character development and the importance of place, action, summary and reflection in writing a memoir. And we talked a lot about boundaries. What secrets it’s OK to share when writing a story and what secrets aren’t OK to tell.

I was also made to remember things I had long forgotten. We had to write a story about a place that was important to us in our lives. Mine was about arriving in Australia in 1993 for the first time, to start a job swap with a girl named Yael. I was on my own and didn’t know a single person in the country. We had 7-9 minutes to write what we remembered. Here’s what I remember:

I passed through the Customs hall and was spat out into the arrivals area at the Sydney International airport. I had sent Yael a fax with my flight details and she had confirmed that she would pick me up and take me to the apartment. She told me she would wear a WWF panda t-shirt so I would be able to recognise her. I was sure it would be easy and it would go without a hitch. Except that as I entered the arrivals area I didn’t see a single person wearing a panda t-shirt.

I pushed my trolley with my one suitcase and one small box back and forth from one end of the arrivals area to the other. Still no panda t-shirt. No Yael. I checked to see if this was the arrivals area listed on the screen for my flight. Yes, that’s right. Arrivals area A. I did another pass of the area, still not seeing anyone who fit the bill. I thought I’d walk down to Arrivals Area B, just in case. That killed another 5 minutes. But still no panda t-shirt. I walked back to Arrivals Area A, kicking myself for leaving area A even for a minute. She might have arrived, not found me and left. And I would never know. It’s amazing how your brain can play tricks on you when you’ve been on a plane for almost 24 hours and you aren’t used to traveling by yourself. All of my enthusiasm for my adventure was quickly going up in smoke. I couldn’t even get a lift out of the airport to start my adventure. How was I going to make it on my own in this huge country where I didn’t know anyone?

Another five minutes passed…and another. I started to think about contact numbers I had for Yael. They were all connected to the office and since it was a Sunday morning at 6am, I was pretty sure no one would be in the office to get my distress call. I also realised I had no Australian change for the pay phone. I did have some strange plastic money in my pocket but it felt more like Monopoly money than anything that could help me make a phone call.

Finally, I sat down on my trolley with all of my worldly belongings for the next year and waited. I thought about grabbing a cab and finding a hotel but that seemed silly and expensive. I mean, if she didn’t show up by 10am, then fine. But at this point, she was only half an hour late. So I waited. Waiting isn’t my strong suit. And in my tired state of mind, I came up with all kinds of disaster scenarios. Notably, she’d had a car accident on her way to the airport and was dead so she wouldn’t be able to pick me up but she also wouldn’t be able to show me the ropes in the office over the coming week. And of course, it would all be my fault since she would have been on her way to pick me up so everyone in the office would hate me forever and not want me to stay.

An hour after my flight landed, I looked up and there was a girl in a panda t-shirt coming in through the sliding doors. She didn’t look stressed or worried. She did look a bit hungover and tired. I waved her down and she came over. ‘Oh good. You’ve arrived.’ No apology for being late. Just an ‘I am just getting home from an all night farewell party with friends. It was a great party! Come on. Let’s go!’ As if I were somehow the late arrival and needed to be chivvied along. This was Yael. Always in perpetual motion and perpetually talking.

Welcome to Australia.

I was glad yesterday that we didn’t have to read our work aloud or share it in any way. As we learned about the importance of action and character, I wrote a piece about the morning I ended my marriage. It was written in the first person, as memoirs are. But then, in a twist, Alan made us write the same story in third person, through the eyes of another character in the story. Having to re-write that scene from four years ago through my now ex-husband’s eyes was difficult. It brought up a lot but the end result was actually more powerful. It was fascinating to see how just changing the viewpoint changes the same story.

If yesterday’s workshop was technical, quiet and introspective, today’s was about laughter. Entitled ‘Airing Your Family’s Dirty Laundry’ it was run by comedian and author Mandy Nolan. She’s hilarious and sees something funny in almost everything. We were kept in stitches all day.

Mandy’s style of teaching and writing are so different to Alan’s although they both talk about the importance of vulnerability, writing your truth and the fact that writing any kind of family history will upset someone. His masculine style was about technique, giving us handouts with everything we needed to know. Mandy’s style was more go with the flow, write a bit, chat a bit, share stories. One of the best parts of her workshop was that we all had to share our work with everyone else and read it aloud. I loved hearing other people’s stories and the voice they use when writing.

We started today having to write 7 word sentences to describe our family experience growing up, discipline in our family and family holidays. Seven word stories. My family experience story was: Everyone talking, no one listening, me reading.

We also had to write longer stories in five to seven minute periods. One about food and our families, one about a family photo where we had to address something that someone in the photo didn’t really want anyone to know, a confessional story of something we’d done in our life that we weren’t proud of, and a story using a family object. Some of the confessionals were hilarious. A number of them coincidentally dealt with similar themes but in very different ways.

My favourite piece both to write and to listen to others was about a favourite family object. Mine was a globe I inherited from my grandmother. Since I’ve shared it with my workshop friends, I’ll share it here with you. I had five minutes to write it and it hasn’t been edited so bear with me.

I am the world traveler of our family. The only person to have lived and traveled all around the world. Growing up I avoided my extended family as much as possible by hiding away reading books. Books gave me an insight into beautiful, incredible places far away from my crazy family and I knew, even as a small child that I would travel to as many of these places as possible as soon as I was able.

I love traveling and meeting new people wherever I go. I love being part of different cultures, trying new foods, learning new words, having great adventures. I love the differences, but I love seeing the similarities just as much. On a recent trip to Jordan I had dinner with a woman and her two teenage nieces in her family home. Despite the food being different, eating on the floor and with our hands and the conversation taking place in Arabic, the energy of the room was very similar to that of the dinner table in my own home with my own girls. It was the moment I was most homesick on the whole trip.

When my maternal grandmother died, each grandchild was asked to choose one object in the house to remember her by. I chose the family globe. I had heard the stories about how this cheap, dime store globe had sat next to my great grandfather’s chair during World War II. He read the letters sent by his four sons from all points around the world and despite the censors removing all place names from the letters, he would try to figure out on the globe where they were serving at that moment.

I figured no one else would want the globe and I was right. It sits pride of place in my own home and is one of the only objects I took from my family home when I separated from my husband. Monetarily it has no value. Geographically, it has no value as most of the countries in Europe and Africa and even some in Asia are called by different names now. But to me, it is a reminder of how small the world is, how far I’ve come, the people I’ve met all over the world and how similar we really all are. We all have families. We all have stories. We all get attached to simple, small things that others might not even notice. But they matter to us. This globe represents so much of who I am and where I’m from.

So two days down. They’ve been overwhelming in a way. It’s like a drug in my veins, this passion to write and to get to spend a whole week doing so with other amazing, beautiful people with incredible stories is such a gift.

At the end of the workshop tonight I hit the beach for an hour to clear my head and breathe in the evening salt air. It gave me a chance to reflect on what I’ve learned and how to continue to work at my writing when I get home. It’s obvious to me that I’m exactly where I need to be this week. At this moment, life is good.

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