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Writing authentically is a journey of faith.

Whenever I write now…and I find my hands hovering over the keyboard or page, while I agonise over a word, or cringe over something I have just written…I can check myself: “Uh oh…You are not in Freefall…” I know that this state of mind will bring forth my juiciest writing and I try to get back there. Fortunately, Freefall is like riding a bicycle…you never forget!

— Catherine Mercer, Denmark FreefallWriting™ Workshop 2009

Reading my friend’s testimonial about Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s FreefallWriting™ course in Denmark last year was the inspiration I needed this morning to quit my email program and turn instead to this empty document, just to see what might fall out of my unsuspecting fingers as they tapped away at the silver and white keyboard on my desk.

You see, I had a title and a topic pre-planned for this post and it scared me. It seized my fingers right up!  It was ‘Unravelling, Unschooling and the University of N.O.W.’ (standing for ‘Nicola’s Own Way’ or ‘Nicola’s Own Writing’; I hadn’t quite decided!).  The bit that scared me the most was ‘Unschooling’.  This is a concept I’m exploring as I stand on the brink of home-schooling my 12-year-old son.  That one word sent me scurrying across the Internet: through Wikipedia via Amazon.com to a book titled The Teenage Liberation Handbook: how to quit school and get a real life and education by Grace Llewellyn.  There were several reviews by teenagers who’d taken the plunge into unschooling.  Reading them, I wished my parents and I had been so adventurous.

My memory of school is mostly of one long unhappy drag that slowly but surely dimmed my creative sparkle and enthusiasm for learning.  As a seven-year-old I used to jump up and down on the bed in excitement when an adult read aloud my stories.  My grandmother thought it was most unseemly behaviour and warned my stepmother she’d have to keep “an eye” on me as I grew up!  (I still wonder what concerned her most: my sheer unladylike exuberance or the vanity of being impressed by my own imaginative outpourings.)

As a five-year-old, I remember quite clearly ‘knowing’ I would be a writer when I grew up. It wasn’t anything I had to try to make myself do or work towards.  Writing for me was like eating strawberry blancmange (yum!), playing medieval dress-ups or climbing the crab-apple tree and swinging upside down while counting buttercups in the garden.  I did it because I loved it, not because I chose it, but because somehow it chose me.

By half-way through high school, I’d lost faith in my ability to write creatively. Sure, I could spin a good essay with persuasive arguments for whatever cause seemed worthy at the time…like the one on euthanasia that won me first-place in a state-wide competition.  And I could romp it in with 10 out of 10 for clear thinking exercises.  But increasingly my stories and poems degenerated into self-indulgent choked-up try-hards that neither my teachers nor I could stomach!  Round about Year Nine, I wrote a melodramatic piece about a depressed character that committed suicide.  I’ll never forget the angry red scribbles of my teacher, Mrs D-S, when she handed it back to me with comments like “Yuck!” and “Over the top!”  Well, maybe it was; but her feedback was the last straw that clammed me into fearful silence, interspersed with self-conscious splutterings, for many long years.  In a theatrical gesture of creative-self-rejection, I burnt all my childhood stories, journals and poems when I was twenty-four.  This sorry (and painful) state of creative-repression continued until I met Barbara and was set free by FreefallWriting™ in my late twenties….thanks be!

What I’ve learnt from Barbara, my writing, and teaching others is that first and foremost we need a safe space to write. This means putting aside self-critical inner voices as well as the advice of well-meaning friends and relatives.  Like the lonely native plant that struggles to grow and reproduce in disturbed soil over-run by weeds, we must create space around ourselves – space in which to breathe, grow tall and find the light of our own inspiration and selfhood.  Our writing is like the native bushland threatened by invasive species that don’t belong. – introduced weeds (our copy-cat attempts to model ourselves on other ‘successful’ writers and styles).  If these are allowed to proliferate they will take over and devastate the natural habitat.

This is why we need teachers like Barbara who see beyond our early stumblings along the path of Writing; who see our potential, and keep urging us onwards, even when we fall down badly.  I tell my students that for every page of good writing I do, I might have to write ten pages of gumph first.  Like turning on disused tap: stagnant water gushes out of screechy pipes before clear water can flow again and fill my cup.

In a recent class, I shared an extract from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.  She tells the story of how she let her upstairs friend and neighbour read a five-foot-high pile of her old spiral-bound journals one weekend.

She said it was empowering to read my notebooks because she realized that I really did write “shit,” sometimes for whole notebooks….“If you could write the junk you did then and write the stuff you do now, I realize I can do anything.”…She said the main thing she saw in the notebooks – whole notebooks of complaints, boring description, and flagrant anger – was an absolute trust in the process. “I saw that you kept on writing even when you wrote, ‘I must be nuts to do this.’”

We all breathed a sigh of relief to be reminded that even successful writers like Natalie Goldberg write self-indulgent shit…not just a little of it, but a lot!  Every great artist will tell you the same thing: that only by practising and making many mistakes do we approach excellence in our art.

Writing is like talking. When we script ourselves before we open our mouths (or pen-nibs), the words come out stilted and the rhythm jars. In the words of Brenda Ueland  in her book If You Want to Write, you must “Be careless, reckless!  Be a lion, be a pirate, when you write.”  Or as one of my favourite poets and cartoonists puts it:

Let it go.
Let it out.
Let it all unravel.
Let it free and it can be
A path on which to travel.

— Michael Leunig

I’ve often wrangled with myself over whether to go back to University and study the art I am passionate about, acquiring qualifications and credibility in the field.  Or whether to keep unravelling, Leunig-fashion, in my own merry but messy way (at the University of N.O.W. – Nicola’s Own Way).

Some time ago, I met up with an old friend and fellow-writer from Melbourne.  She entered post-graduate studies after publishing a prize-winning novel years ago, and has since completed a Masters and PhD in Creative Writing.  I was bowled over by her first book, but haven’t been as moved or gripped by what she’s published since.  So I asked her the question that was jumping up and down in the back of my mouth:

“Have your University studies helped your writing?”  She contemplated me for a moment through shiny spectacles, before answering.

“No.  I’m a better editor and critic of my own and others’ writing, but I’m not a better writer.  I wrote a novel for my doctorate that is completely unpublishable…it’s so over-written and over-worked that I’m probably going to have to put it aside and start all over again.”

She didn’t regret the path she’d chosen as it had brought her many rich experiences, such as teaching, ghost writing and being immersed in an elite world of fellow literary-adepts.  But she did acknowledge the Melbourne writing scene could be competitive and bitchy…not always conducive to creative authenticity.

I was reminded of my brief sojourn at University, several years after I’d discovered FreefallWriting™.  Before I began the Creative Writing course, I was just beginning to be confident in the voice I had found and the stories I wanted to tell.  After six months, I was a nervous wreck, juggling two young children with assignment deadlines and the pressure to write prose that was edgy and cliché-free.  I had one poetry tutor who was truly inspiring.  (Isn’t it always the good teachers, and not the curriculum, who give our education meaning!)  But otherwise, I was suffocating in a ruthlessly competitive and critical environment.

Somehow or other I managed to get a ‘High Distinction’ for my efforts.  But my FreefallWriting™ friends watched in dismay as my authentic writing style was rooted out and replaced with some impressive but definitely foreign flowering words (or weeds).  Thank goodness they cared and were honest enough to tell me (gently) that my writing had got worse rather than better since I’d started at Uni, and that it no longer sounded like me.  Worse than weeds, I was cultivating plastic flowers I’d bought from the shop of  “I’m a cleverer and more original writer than you!”

I still cringe at my  prose writing from that time. As a writing teacher I am also horrified by the unhelpful feedback I received from my tutors.  Instead of (like Barbara) focussing on and reinforcing what was working, they underlined, circled, crossed-out and vilified what didn’t work in my writing.  They were like those bushland warriors I mentioned in an earlier post who are so hell-bent on removing and obliterating the weeds, they don’t realise they are doing more harm than good. With destructive chemicals, big machinery, control-burns and unnecessary soil-disturbance, such warriors fail to recognise and protect the native seedlings lost among the weeds.

Collecting seeds from the bush after a savage control burn. Writers and plants are resilient and can regenerate!

Here are a few samples I picked out from one page of my Uni journal, just to give you the flavour of their faint praise:

“most of this redundant – edit”
“too sentimentalist – weakens the experience”
“this is OK”
“too cliché”
“TRITE”

Occasionally, I’d receive more encouraging feedback, like: “Don’t give up!  We’ve all been here.  I am incredibly older than you and more experienced, that’s all.  Besides, talent is nothing without diligence!”  (At this point I was starting to think that much more of this kind of diligence and all my joy in writing would evaporate in a toxic chemical fug.)

Phew!  The methods we were taught for planning and conceiving poetic or fictional works left me as dammed up and desperate as I’d been before I met Barbara three years earlier.  And it took another week-long intensive with Barbara, lots of support from my friends and complete abandonment of the academic/analytical path for me to begin to recover my confidence as a writer.

Writing authentically is a journey of faith. Writing is the vehicle in which we travel, and the journey, to borrow words from the seer J. Krishnamurti, is “a pathless land”.  Barbara often reminds her students to abandon any plans or plots they’ve pre-formulated in their heads.  Just as I had to abandon my title and plan for today’s ramblings.  We scare ourselves when we set our sights too high and our goals too grand.  By letting go and trusting, we may yet find ourselves arriving at longed-for destinations, almost by accident.

Since I left Uni, I’ve learnt it doesn’t matter whether I’m published or not, successful or not. What matters is to write it in my own words – however plain or clichéd they may be when they first fall out.  By reading other writers, by listening to each other’s writing, by giving and receiving feedback about what works, by abandoning all plans and by keeping faith in the journey—no matter what—we continue to move forwards.  We continue to evolve as writers, as human beings and as souls on a path of self-understanding.

What I hope for myself and my students is that we will have the courage to write stories, poems, plays, articles and books that no-one (not even us) could have imagined; and that we will continue to support each other with caring and astute feedback, enhancing strengths and removing impediments for each writer.  Only thus may we find the courage to write, not only what we dare not say, but what we do not know we will write until we have written it.

As a non-artist, I did this painting with Dawn Meader (www.DawnMeader.com) who teaches art like I teach writing...so that anybody can do it and have fun!


Pacific Black Ducks. (Photo by Micah Oberon).

Last week I walked into a conversation between two friends.  I’ll call them Leslie and Glenda.  They were admiring each other’s scarves.  Leslie’s burgundy floral brocade with traces of gold thread was draped in a shawl about her shoulders.  Glenda wore a cheerful red cashmere scarf, casually looped around her neck.  I bemoaned the fact that I had many beautiful scarves gathering dust at home as I wasn’t sure how to wear most of them.

“You’re either a scarf-wearing person or you’re not,” said Leslie, and told us about a friend of hers who always looked awkward wearing scarves.  She demonstrated by knotting her shawl tightly around her neck and mimicked her friend’s self-conscious appearance in a half-choked voice, “look at me, I’m wearing a scarf!”  We all laughed, but Leslie and Glenda laughed even louder when I told them I’d bought two books on scarf-tying techniques in my twenties.

“They’re both still sitting on my bookshelf gathering dust like my scarves.  I was so bamboozled by the complexity of all the different techniques for tying and wearing the damn things, I gave up all together.”

“It’s about being yourself, isn’t it?” said Leslie.  “When I was a young woman I used to feel so unattractive and, sure enough, I didn’t have many suitors.  I thought it was because I didn’t have long blond hair and a willowy body.”

“Oh yes, I know what you mean,” said Glenda, throwing her arms wide in cheerful surrender.  “As a girl I longed to look like Katherine Hepburn.  I thought she was so elegant.  I’d imagine myself swanning around like she did. Then I’d look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘no, my dear, you’re just a little blue duck and that’s all there is to it.’”  Leslie and I nodded empathically.

I was surprised to hear of Leslie’s lack of confidence as a younger woman.  To me she seemed poised, clear and authentic….someone who was widely admired and liked.  She was always fresh-faced and happy and it was easy to relax in her glowing presence.

“As I grew older,” said Leslie, “I realised I was trying to attract the wrong kind of man—one for whom outer appearances are important.  And, you know, there’s a real advantage to being a little blue duck.  By the time I’d grown comfortable in my body and stopped worrying how I looked, I noticed the women who’d been conventionally beautiful when they were younger were struggling with the aging process.  A great deal more than I was.  They found it difficult losing their outer beauty and youth.  So, in a way, their looks were an impediment to their deeper contentment.”

I related to Leslie’s reflections on two levels.  I am definitely a little blue duck in the physical looks department; and no amount of scarf-tying flair can disguise me as a swan.  As a friend from my past once told me, “you weren’t exactly a beauty.”  He did go on to say other nice things about me, but funnily enough I’ve forgotten them!  And it’s true that as I’ve grown older, I’ve learnt to accept what are often seen as flaws – my freckled skin that never tans (even when smothered in coconut oil and burnt raw as a teenager), my small chin, a short body that inclines towards plumpness and a drooping belly (the sacrifices we make for our children!).  These days, I’m able to rest more often in an inner space that’s unconcerned and unconstrained by outer form.  From this space my energy, my joy and my inspiration flow…and it’s from here also that my best writing emerges.

On days when I read back anxiously over preceding paragraphs, trying to think of something clever to say, or desperately inserting one of those metaphorical scarf-tying techniques (perhaps a pearl necktie or a silk rosette) in the midst of simple cotton prose, inspiration falters and I realise I’m trying too hard to be someone other than myself.  As a writer, I am also a little blue duck…but even little blue ducks can swim and dive and fly.  They just do it in their own special way; and it’s meaningless (and mean) to compare them with swans.

I’ll be forever grateful to my friend and teacher, Barbara Turner-Vesselago, who helped me to find my writing-wings and fly again, with child-like trust in air-currents of inspiration— allowing them to sweep in out of nowhere and carry me exhilarated through wide blue skies and uncharted countries.

After years of feeling terminally blocked as a writer, I attended one of Barbara’s FreefallWriting™ Workshops in the early nineties.  Listening to her talk about the writing process and finding an authentic voice, quoting from such common-sense luminaries as Brenda Ueland (If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit) and Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)…it all made perfect sense.   For too many years I’d been focussing on producing poems, articles or books I thought others would be impressed by and want to read.  Instead of being content with the simplicity of my writing style, I was reading literary tomes like The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, wondering desperately why I could never pile images and metaphors on top of each other quite so impressively.  To use scarf-tying terminology, I was trying to turn a basic square into palazzo pants or a bead chevron braid, and ending up instead like Leslie’s non-scarf-wearing-friend, half-choked by my own self-conscious techniques and disguises.

Barbara taught me to turn off my screen and write into the blue. “Don’t look back and don’t change anything,” she told us.  “Don’t edit while you write.  They’re two different modes and one gets in the way of the other.”  Like Ueland, Barbara believes everyone can write, and having been to many of her workshops over the past fourteen years as well as running my own classes, I can confirm I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t.  You might not be able to write like Michael Ondaatje or JK Rowlings, but you can write like you….and that’s something that nobody else can do.

So if you, like me, are a little blue duck, remember you have wings and webbed feet….just like those elegant white swans….and they can carry you far and wide by water, land or air, if only you give them a chance.  As for literary scarf-tying techniques (yes, all those books on your shelf with scary titles like Scene and Structure or Conflict, Action and Suspense or Writing Articles that Sell or Metaphors for Booker-Prize-Winners – okay I made that last one up)….forget about them, for now.

All you need are the word-feathers you’re wearing, two webbed feet to paddle through blank pages and ink, and a pair of wings to catch the winds of inspiration when they blow your way.  And they will. Just begin: one word at a time, one page at a time, one day at a time.  Writing is a journey for which there is no map and certainly no GPS. It may help to have a goal in mind when you set out, but be prepared to diverge and take advantage of prevailing winds.  You might freefall through towering cumulus and rainbow arches into an imaginary world you’ll never see if you keep paddling in circles round the same old garden pond.

Wandering-Whistling Ducks playing Follow-the-Leader in the pond. (Photo by Micah Oberon).

Peter Bishop, Creative Director at Varuna, The Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains, says the first draft (of anything) should be a free-for-all (=freefall!).  “Dare everything,” he said during a retreat I attended in 2007.

“Don’t show the first draft to anybody.  This is your time to explore, to find out what’s there, without fear or favour.  It’s a process of discovery, where you, the writer, find out things about yourself and discover whether you have a story to tell.  Never think about what a publisher or an audience will want.  The purpose of the first draft is to find a story only you can write.”

Kate Miller-Heidke sings “Ducks don’t need satellites/They probably don’t know they’re up there (and don’t care)…They most likely think the sky ends blue/Don’t you wish you did too?”  So spread your wings and launch yourself into the Wide Blue Wonder Of Writing.  You never know what you’ll find.

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