Schooled

I’ve been thinking about teachers lately. How some of them affect us for the rest of our lives.

I know there are some ‘bad apple’ teachers, and I haven’t forgotten the teacher who mocked my seersucker dress at Grade 8 camp, not naming any names Mrs Nichols (who would now be at least eighty, so I guess I can forgive her; also in her defence it was an extremely ugly dress).

But there are so many excellent teachers to remember – teachers who day after day gave their time, their effort, their kindness. Teachers who stood out for their enthusiasm (Ms Yanardasis). For how they made us laugh (definitely Ms Sothman). For their faith in us (dear Mr Sole, who had no children of his own but treated all the Grade 8’s like his beloved children).

I have a real soft spot for teachers. Several friends are teachers. Our lovely neighbour is a teacher. And both my parents were teachers.

My mother taught in special education. She worked hard, focusing on what would benefit each student, rather than striving for an arbitrary standard. For some children, it was learning to chew and swallow solid food. For others, it was discovering how to make a sandwich, or how to take turns in conversation. Mum knew that acquiring important life skills trumped adding 3 plus 4 (though she’d teach that, too, if the child was ready). She often took students home overnight, or for the weekend, to give their parents respite (not something that would ever be allowed these days, but something I remember as typical of Mum’s giving nature).

My father taught high school for most of his career. He was a different kind of teacher – often given the ‘tough’ classes because he had such an air of authority that kids didn’t muck up. But my father was dedicated to his job, too, spending hours at the university library researching his subjects (Geography and Earth Science), so he could teach the latest developments in each field. And though he was strict, he understood that different students had various capabilities. He wanted students to achieve their personal best.

Now my daughter tutors high school students, and I love how she caters to the individual. For one child who is constantly restless and touching things on the desk, my daughter has worked in short breaks for them to dance, or do jumping jacks, and she bought a ‘fiddle toy’ for the student to hold. I’m proud of my daughter’s innovation and commitment.

But the teacher I’ve been thinking about most of all is my Yr 11 and 12 English teacher, Ms B. She wasn’t one of those teachers everyone adores. She was quieter, and more reserved than most. She struggled with controlling the class sometimes, and would get stressed and annoyed (understandably). And many of us, myself included, were shocked when we received our marks for the first piece of assessment. They were quite low compared to other classes, and compared to what we’d been used to receiving. Although my mark was one of the higher ones, I received a 15 or 16 out of 20. At first, I was irritated. Didn’t Ms B know I was a good at this subject?

She was absolutely right. That piece deserved the lower mark, because it was decent but lazy, like all my writing to that point. So the next time I submitted, I spent more time on the assignment. I got half a mark more. I tried even harder with the next one, and my result bumped up again (but only a little). By the time I finished Grade 12, I’d made it to 18.5 out of 20 and I was jubilant! Not at the mark, but at how I’d improved, little by little, by not being satisfied with ‘adequate’ work, when it was within me to do better.

A good teacher leaves a lasting legacy, and that may not be evident for many years. I hadn’t thought about Ms B much since leaving high school, but these days I think of her often and with great appreciation.

When If You’re Happy comes out, I hope to send a copy to Ms B. I’d like to tell her in a card how – over thirty years down the track – she helped me write a better book.

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In the very end

Do you ever struggle with endings? I do. Sometimes a story seems to magically complete itself, but more often I become uncertain as I reach the conclusion. I wonder What happens now?

So what are my tips when this uncertainty descends? Here are my top five:

  1. Look back at your story so far. Have you written past the ending? I did this in one of my stories, Tempest. I was rambling on about other things, completely ruining the piece. I eventually stopped, knowing the ending was bad, but unsure what to do. I read back over the last few paragraphs and got a chill when I realised. There! Right there! In a simple description, I’d already written the final two lines. I cut the rest, and the story was done.
  2. Brainstorm possible endings using pen and paper. (This is something I learnt to do in a writing workshop run by acclaimed Australian author Jaclyn Moriarty). Write your question in the centre of a piece of paper – in this case it might be something very simple like How does this end? (this technique is also great for untangling plot issues, testing alternate beginnings, etc). Draw arrows away from the central question and fill in answers. Write down literally anything that comes to mind, even if it strikes you as ridiculous. Keep going until you have ten or twelve conclusions to your story. Chances are, one of these ideas will jump out at you. Problem solved.
  3. Go back to the beginning of your story or novel. What was the very first scene? Is there an important object, unusual weather, something the protagonist was musing at the start to which you could return? It won’t work for all stories, especially ones where there is a radical shift in the main character’s life, but there is something really satisfying in a story that circles back.
  4. Read the whole piece through, thinking particularly of themes, images and recurring motifs. These are aspects of our work we don’t always notice until we reflect. The ending may lie in deftly using one of these.
  5. Sit with your characters, especially the main character, as you write towards the ending. Know them as well as your closest friend. Imagine what they’re feeling in a physical sense – how their skin feels, what their stomach is doing, how they’re moving their limbs. Think what they’re thinking. See what they’re seeing. Be with them as if you’re inside their mind and body, then write what happens next.

If you, too, find endings tricky, I hope these suggestions help. And if you have tips of your own, I’m keen to hear them!

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The Best of 2020

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably been seeing a lot of those ‘best books of 2020’ lists, lately. I know I have. I read each list, looking for the titles of writers I know, feeling a twist of disappointment if their book doesn’t appear. I can only imagine what it must be like to peruse the lists as an author, and in many cases, not find the name of your book. A book is a piece of its creator, something personal and almost sacred. The term ‘book baby’ exists for good reason.

Not only published authors feel downhearted, of course. There are many of us submitting and getting knocked back in multiple ways. We check longlists and shortlists and don’t see our title. We receive emails that contain that fateful phrase, ‘Unfortunately your (story/poem/essay/piece) was not ….’. We have to pick ourselves up and carry on, having faith that our writing has worth, knowing that the only way to eventually receive acceptances is to keep writing and submitting. This writing game is not for the fainthearted!

So to anyone, anywhere, whose story didn’t win a competition in 2020, whose essay wasn’t accepted by that literary journal last year, whose poem was ignored by an anthology callout, who toiled over a manuscript yet to find a home, or who had an entire book published, not recognised by any ‘best of 2020’ lists ⎯ I hope you can be proud. You created, and you achieved something wonderful in furthering or completing that work, or in being published, especially in a year of worldwide disruption. Your words were chosen with care, and others have the privilege of reading them ⎯ whether friends and family, a feedback group, editors or the wider public.

To all writers who carry on, who keep producing work, who persist despite setbacks ⎯ especially to those writers in countries badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic ⎯ congratulations.

You absolutely are the best of 2020.

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Blasting out of 2020

If you’re a writer, you’re probably only just now catching your breath (and for those living in countries badly affected by COVID-19, I send you much empathy, and hope you’re keeping well).

You’ve likely been working all year at your other job (yes, very few of us can survive on the scant amount of money writing provides). So, hopefully you have at least a few days off, and some time to put your feet up. But before you do, you might want to consider these submission possibilities.

The Stinging Fly is accepting fiction and pitches for non-fiction pieces until January 8, 2021. This prestigious Irish literary journal publishes fiction from around the world. No cost to submit.

Asimov’s Magazine is an acclaimed American sci-fi magazine with a fast response time of around 5 weeks, accepting international submissions. Submissions free.

Overland is accepting non-fiction and poetry submissions from Australian writers at the moment, and also is running the Kuracca Prize which ‘encourages excellent and original works of Australian literature’. Aussie writers can enter poetry (up to 88 lines), fiction, essay, creative non-fiction and memoir (up to 300 words), cartoon or graphic stories and digital or audio storytelling. Entry to the prize costs $20 AUD ($12 for subscribers) and is free for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers.

The Moth Poetry Prize closes December 31, and is open to submissions from around the world. Entry isn’t cheap but prizes are substantial.

You can also submit poetry and fiction to The Moth Magazine for free, any time from September to April.

For those of you who write short short fiction (maximum 1000 words), you may want to try the American Short(er) Fiction Contest which ends on Feb 2nd, 2021.

There’s also the Retreat West Flash Competition on the theme of ‘bridges’ due by December 30, for even shorter pieces (maximum 500 words). Cost is 8 pounds.

If you have a story of up to 2500 words relating to food and/or drink in some way, you might like to try the Mogford Prize, winner receiving 10,000 pounds. Entries due by Jan 13, 2021.

The Fiction Desk in the U.K. currently has 3 callouts due by Jan 31 – general short stories, ghost stories and stories about music. International submissions welcome. Word count 1000-20,000 words (preferred range 2000-7000 words). Fee for submission 4 pounds.

I hope at least one of these options provides a possible home for your work. Wishing you a wonderful break & a Merry Christmas (for those who celebrate), and a healthy and happy 2021!

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Christmas for nerds

Some of you may know I belong to a writing group called the Dead Darlings Society. We started as fellow writers wanting to improve, but over time we’ve become friends, too. They are all very good eggs.

Last night was our Christmas party, and there were the usual nibbles, champagne and platters. We talked about our writing setbacks and successes throughout the year. Then came my favourite part of the evening (because I am a huge writing nerd). We all took turns reading Christmas-themed ‘homework’ pieces, as set a couple of weeks ago by Dan the high school English teacher. Each story was pulled from a hat, so we didn’t know who wrote what, and after each reading we tried to guess the author. This year it was really difficult. Every story was enthralling, whether moving, suspenseful or hilarious. I was so proud of the creativity of my fellow writers.

The brief this year was to write a story with the first sentence containing 1 word, the second containing 2 words, etc, up to a 25 word sentence. It’s a lot of fun. If you’re feeling creatively stifled, you could give it a go. (Feel free to leave your story in the comments!)

Here’s mine, which no one guessed I’d written — partly because I pulled it from the hat myself, and deliberately ‘stumbled’ over a few words as I read, but also because it’s fairly light-hearted. No one expects that from me, evidently 😉

🎄 The Visit 🎄

Doorbell. He startles. Someone’s knocking downstairs.
Donald finishes his whisky. Lumbers to his feet, sways. Why hasn’t someone answered the door? Where’s Harrison, or Robbie or dopey Alan?
‘Hello?’ he calls from the living room, ‘Hello?’
He can’t believe this, can’t understand where everyone is. Melania’s probably sulking upstairs, but his bodyguards should be nearby. Apparently not tonight; maybe they’re scoffing Christmas cake in the kitchen downstairs. Or drinking whisky in the Mar-a-Lago gardens, laughing at him, doubled over.
The doorbell rings, and the knocking starts again and he calls, ‘Okay, okay!’ As he walks across the carpet and down the staircase, he sees no one. Suddenly the carols through the new Bose speakers sound a little creepy, and he shivers.
Donald approaches the front doors, slippers scuffing on the marble tiles, his forehead cold with sweat. He reaches a hand out, then retracts it, instead leaning to peer through the peephole, breathing fast.
On the other side is a man about his age in a crazy red suit, carrying a sack.
‘What do you want?’ Donald shouts, pulling back from the peephole as Jingle Bells pipes through the vast foyer.
There is a short silence, and he freezes, then a voice bellows from beyond the door, ‘Have you been good?’.
‘I’ve been good,’ Donald shouts, ‘I’ve made everything much, much better and if anyone says different they’re wrong, it’s fake news.’ He opens the door and Santa stands in the doorway and his face is sad and disappointed; he shakes his head.
‘Donald, Donald, Donald,’ Santa says as the Christmas music flows around them and something worms in Donald’s heart and he’s close to tears.
‘You’ve been very naughty, Donald,’ Santa says, ‘And now everyone is gone, because you treated them badly, and no one likes a Christmas arsehole.’
Santa upends his sack, and books fly out, titles like ‘Conquering Narcissism’ and ‘Make Yourself Great Again’, and Donald whispers, ‘Santa… you’re my only friend.’

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Sparks in the Dark

The Queensland Writing Centre kindly asked me to write an article for their WQ (Writing Queensland) magazine. The theme of the issue was ‘endurance’, and I was requested to provide a piece about having positive news in an otherwise challenging year.

I struggled a bit in writing this, not wanting to talk about myself when life has been so difficult for many people here (at the time of writing, Victoria was still in varying levels of lockdown) and of course in many countries overseas where the situation is much worse. At the same time, I wanted to show my appreciation and excitement, and to give other emerging writers hope for their eventual publication.

If you’d like to read what I wrote, the link is below (article on page 4, but lots of other reading you may enjoy, too, including essays by my lovely friend Edwina Shaw and Twitter pal Bianca Millroy).

https://fionahrobertson.files.wordpress.com/2020/12/ad983-wq271.pdf

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standing on the outside

Lately, people keep asking what my book of short stories is about. It’s a question I struggle with, because each story is different, and each piece is an exploration of a separate issue.

But there are commonalities. Like most writers, I have my obsessions.

The collection is called If You’re Happy, and happiness is certainly a theme. How people imagine happiness, the ways they achieve it, and how they are hindered in reaching that goal.

I’m also fascinated by wild weather and natural disasters, so there are stories involving a melting glacier, an earthquake, a tornado, a violent storm, a tsunami, a blizzard and a sinkhole. I’ve just written a new story with an erupting volcano.

But most of all, my stories revolve around loneliness or isolation. The characters are people who don’t completely fit in, or feel like outsiders in some way. It’s a subject close to my heart, because I’ve often felt on the outer, especially as a child.

I was a gawky kid who read a lot of books, had weird hand-me-down clothes and a bowl haircut (see picture, aged ten or eleven). I was overly earnest. I had no siblings until I was eight and a half, so I spent years playing on my own, and had no idea how to ‘fight back’ if picked on in the playground. We moved to Australia when I was nine, and I was mocked for my Canadian accent, my tendency to cry easily, and my very white skin in the land of tans. I felt odd and lonely much of the time. It wasn’t until high school, when I met other kids more similar to me, that I found good friends and realised I wasn’t so hard to like, after all.

I really hope readers enjoy If You’re Happy, and find stories that resonate. I especially hope that anyone who feels lonely, or who feels they sometimes don’t belong, can take comfort in knowing this emotion is universal. We all feel awkward, or on the outer at times. We feel alone even when surrounded by others. We chase happiness, it slips from our grasp and then we grab it again. And in the end, we’re all just trying to find our way in this wild and turbulent world.

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keeping it fresh

pink tulip flowers under white clouds blue skies at daytime

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

On the weekend, I joined an online workshop run by Caoilinn Hughes (author of Gathering Evidence, Orchid and the Wasp & most recently The Wild Laughter) as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. It turned out all participants, myself included, were emerging writers at most; several participants hadn’t yet started writing, but were hoping the workshop would get them motivated. When I heard this, I thought perhaps the content would be too basic. I wondered if I would learn anything new, since I’ve been writing and attending workshops for several years now.

I was completely wrong. The workshop sparkled with new information and advice, and I found myself scrambling to write it all down. But one tip stood out above the others.

Avoid cliches.

I thought I’d learnt this already. But when Caoilinn gave a few examples, my toes curled in recognition (hmm, is this a cliche too?). She warned against the old, hackneyed ways of showing what our characters are feeling – he bit his lip, she clenched her fists, he raised his eyebrows. Caoilinn Hughes suggested we try something different. Steer away from familiar, well-worn phrases.

And I realised that eliminating cliches, as much as possible, is what I need to do next to become a better writer. And that after that, there will be something else that needs addressing. And then another way to progress. And though I’ve known this a long time, I was reminded yet again that the writing life will be a constant process of learning and levelling up.

I find that daunting in some respects. It’s exhausting to think of always striving, never quite reaching a goal. But in other ways, the thought is exhilarating. To know that writing is a lifelong pursuit, that there is no ending besides our own deaths, that we will forever be discovering, examining, imagining and improving. It seems a thrilling and remarkable way to spend our days.

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A Burst of Sunshine: Review of How to Be Australian

The latest book by Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a burst of sunshine on a grey-sky day, a fresh take on life, love and this vast country we call Australia.

Strictly speaking, How to Be Australian is memoir, relating Kalagian Blunt’s experience of moving from her birthplace, Canada, to Australia, while at the same time adjusting to marriage with her husband Steve. The book details Ashley’s impressions and discoveries, and reveals how she and Steve cope with this geographical and emotional transition.

But How to Be Australian is more than straightforward memoir.

It describes intriguing facts and unusual incidents with bemusement, admiration or even horror; it analyses some of Australia’s foibles, brilliance and oddities. I was about to close the book when I flipped a page and saw the headline ‘Why I put a cracker up my clacker’.

It’s funny, but also sweetly tender. It wasn’t brazen or overt. His love was a quiet pat on the hand. It was the loyalty to come and sit beside me while I dripped my messy emotions everywhere…

It expresses Kalagian Blunt’s big, blossoming love for Australia. Taking in the busy splendour of Circular Quay, I felt like someone had handed me the crown jewels.

Yet it’s more than these things, too. The book asks questions about the concept of home. I lay awake, feeling homesick for a home I hadn’t yet found. It addresses the issue of fitting in, or not fitting in. It relates to pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, or feeling unable to cope when anxiety rises. It’s about intimate relationships, how they fray, and how they strengthen. It seeks to understand friendship — sometimes a delicate dance, but even more so when there are cultural differences. I was earnestly — still too earnestly, after all these years — trying to understand this country…

How to Be Australian brims with acute observation, hilarious anecdotes and honest emotion. It’s a dazzling combination.

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fragments from suburbia

Most of my neighbours are staying home. They’re fighting with their loved ones and they’re bonding with their loved ones. They talk, laugh, shriek and bellow. I hear fragments of their frustration and their delight. I overhear most of these conversations when I’m hanging washing.

IMG_1436

Snippets from this week:

Male, yelling: You need to help me here. I need your help!

Female, in a cheery voice: Let’s look at Scrabble, hey?

Female, shouting: I’ve been folding for this family for 17 years!

Small boy next door, playing soccer with his mum: Okay my lovely mummy!

Female, screeching: How hard is it to clear your plate?

Actually, that last one was me.

Hope you’re all keeping well and relatively sane. xx

 

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