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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!

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An inspiring little book on the gentle art of regenerating the bush with minimum disturbance.

One of my teachers, Diane Harwood, has kindly given me permission to share the notes she’s developed on bushland regeneration.  These are based on an inspiring little book by Joanna Bradley plus Diane’s many years out in the Denmark bush, weeding and caring for local reserves, finding out what works and what doesn’t by trial and error.  I have copied these notes below and included an image of the book jacket, in case you want to source a copy for yourself.  We’re reading it as part of our course and it’s a delightful story of two sisters in New South Wales in the sixties who were dismayed by the widespread infestation of weeds along their local walking tracks and decided to take matters into their own hands.  Over the years, they proved  that “systematic hand weeding, carefully done, was a spectacular success.”  Both women were in their fifties and claim they did not work hard, but were persistent, selective and particular about their methods.  Joanne Bradley says, “Bringing back the bush is a gentle art, demanding a strong will and patience.”

I’ve used this gentle approach to bushland regeneration as a metaphor for the personal journey towards sustainable living and creative expression in other posts.  It’s given me new hope that I and others can make a difference to the future of this planet by gently plugging away in our own areas of interest and skill.

I’ve copied Diane’s notes below for your inspiration and education.

ON BUSH REGENERATION

Notes by Diane Harwood

Inspired by
Bringing Back the Bush: The Bradley Method of Bush Regeneration by Joanna Bradley

The “Bradley” Principles of Bush Regeneration

  • Work from good (ie weed-free) areas towards bad
    (ie weedy) areas
  • Make minimum disturbance
  • Allow the regeneration of native plants to dictate the rate of weed removal

Words of Warning

Don’t start on a large weed infestation unless you are sure you will get back to do the follow-up work. Removing the parent plants may create light and space for hundreds of new weed seedlings.

Don’t remove anything you are not sure of. Many weeds have a native look-a-like, and some of the weediest-looking plants are important members of the local plant community.

Aim for control, not eradication, and tipping the balance in favour of the local native plants.


Applying the Bradley Principles

  • Assess extent of area to be weeded, taking into account surrounding land-use, and considering potential sources of weeds. (When assessing, be careful not to brush against seed-bearing weeds.)
  • Note which weeds are present, their growth habits and life cycles, and the density of the infestation. (Remember some plants have dormancy periods.)
  • Plan to prevent the least weed-infested bush from becoming degraded.  Aim for control, not eradication, and to tip the balance in favour of the local native plants.
  • First step is to remove any seed-bearing trees, plants or parts of plants without spreading the seeds.  Catch on tarp or place into bags.
  • You may need to make a traffic plan, especially when working with a group.  This is important to avoid trampling and damaging native plants and spreading weed seeds through clean bush.
  • Next, dig out or cut any isolated weeds or ones that are directly inhibiting native plants.
  • Use a fork or crow-bar to loosen the soil, then pull weed out, allowing all soil to remain in place. Replace leaf litter. This helps to deter further weed outbreaks.  Leave fallen logs, twigs, bark etc from native species to provide shelter and nutrients.
  • In some cases the uprooted plant can be left as mulch, but generally it is best to remove all weed material from the site.
  • Do not allow piles of weeds to get too big to handle; always consider the next step – removal from the site and disposal.
  • Disposal can be a problem: if possible put the material through a mulcher, then compost it if necessary to kill seeds.  Alternatively, place in pit and cover, or burn.
  • Whichever method is used, take care not to infect new areas!

A tangle of Dolichos Pea, Bridal Creeper and other weeds in the Morgan Street bush reserve close to Denmark town

Last year a group of friends and I worked through Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way over a period of about six months.  We decided at the outset that none of us were in a hurry to get anywhere and we weren’t going to have any hard and fast rules for our little group.  And so we met fortnightly instead of weekly, we turned up regardless of whether we’d done our “homework” from the previous meeting and we each set our own pace towards what Cameron calls “artistic recovery.”  No one was excluded or made to feel bad for missing meetings or leaving some tasks undone.  In short, we dispensed with idealism and approached our journey with gentleness.  It was remarkable what we each achieved in that short time.

What if we could form groups like this supporting each other to live more sustainable lives?  Not a twelve-step recovery program based on the disease model of addiction; but instead a spiral path woven organically, uniquely for and by each individual.  No set goals.  No experts on pedestals or prescribed utopia.  No success or failure.

One person’s spiral might travel in wide circular sweeps, tightly layered one above another – little progress apparent from the outside, but from the inside a steady slow strengthening of resolve and deepening of self-understanding across many areas.  With each turn of the spiral we have an opportunity to revisit past issues and insights, taking the lessons deeper into our souls.

Another person’s spiral might move upwards very quickly, impressive from the outside, a gleaming tower of silver coils.  It’s easy to gain height quickly when we narrow our focus.  Such individuals blaze a pathway for the rest of us as we travel more slowly, attempting to gather in all the strands of our complex lives: to parent consciously, to eat healthily, to recycle, to grow our own food, to find meaningful work, to express ourselves creatively, to contribute to our community, to find inner peace etc…

Who can do and be all of these things?  And yet how harshly we judge ourselves when our weakness in one area is shown up against another’s passion and commitment:  the mother of three who rides with her children to and from school by bike every day; the young man who grows most of his food in the backyard and tells us we should all be doing the same; the musician who spends her days and nights writing and recording music to inspire hope and change.

Diane Harwood, lecturer in Conservation and Land Management specialising in Bushland Regeneration.

I think again of our lecturer at the Great Southern Institute of Technology, Diane Harwood, who through decades of commitment to caring for local bush reserves has developed the philosophy of a peaceful eco-warrior.  (I will share some of the guiding principles she has developed over the years for bushland regeneration in another post.)

“If you go out to work with hate in your heart, it’s not good for anybody,” she tells us about weeding the bush.  “Cleaning up and making it all nice is not what it’s all about” (i.e. making it look good for the public.)  She tells us the story of the Bradley sisters working in Sydney in the seventies, who developed an approach to weeding the bush that focussed on working with the good areas or supporting the natives.  “We’re encouraging the bush, not the weeds.”  And that’s very different from setting out to eradicate what we don’t want.

If I apply this approach to my life, I can look at my strengths and ask how I can use those talents, interests or capabilities to create a more sustainable world for myself, my family and my community.  My strengths are equivalent to the native plants that belong in the bush and that thrive when uninhibited by disease, pests, weeds or a harsh climate.

I’m not a gardener (I’m famous in my family for not noticing we had a back lawn until we’d been in our current rental home a couple of years); so growing food looks almost impossible from where I stand now.  I live in a big house with lots of stuff I don’t need (see my first post), with a family who devour boxed cereal, packaged snacks and sugar.  We have two cars and an ecological footprint I dread to measure.  I could go on about all the ways in which my family and I fail to live sustainable lives.  (And sometimes I do ‘go on’ to myself.)

The question is does this help me to change?

Perhaps the most passionate environmental activists are their own worst enemies – setting the bar so high we listen to them and feel defeated before we’ve begun.  Driving home with my twelve-year-old son in the car the other day, he announced out of the blue “I think we should all kill ourselves.”

“Who?”

“The human race.”

“Why?”

“Because we’ve messed up the planet.”

Is that the message we want to give our children – one of fear and despair?  And even if the situation is hopeless and civilization is on the verge of collapse (as some predict), does this mean we shouldn’t try to make a difference in whatever small way we can?

I draw comfort and inspiration from Di’s philosophy.  Bringing it home, I see I have strengths in writing and communication, and this is one place I can make a difference.  In other areas, like understanding the bush or growing food organically, I’m a child taking baby-steps and I know I’m not getting anywhere fast.

I have decided to step slowly and patiently, to seek out and be guided by teachers who are wiser and more experienced than I (more about them in future posts).  Mostly they aren’t people you’ve heard of — unless you live in the small town of Denmark, Western Australia.  They haven’t written any books or won any national awards.  They are ordinary people living quietly extraordinary lives, following their passions, building on their strengths, changing the world for the better and gently inspiring others to follow their lead.

And so I say: Let us be gentle on ourselves — set small achievable goals.  Nurture and build upon those strengths and interests that come naturally.  Anything that undermines or strangles these native talents is a weed requiring attention.  These are the habits most important to replace with self-nurturing behaviours.

One of my bad habits is skipping my morning exercise routine and starting the day feeling fuzzy-headed and unmotivated.  Learning qigong has given me something I can do for ten or fifteen minutes to lift my spirits and energize my body quickly on days I’m in a hurry.  This simple life-style change has helped me find the time and energy to recommit to my writing projects.

Focus on one step at a time.  Set realistic targets and be prepared to let them go, change them or revisit them until they are second nature.  Above all, don’t compare yourself with anyone else.  No one is quite like you: no one has your unique combination of strengths and insights, and no one has lived through the challenges you have met.

Sustainability isn’t just about living in harmony with the Earth.  First and foremost it’s about living in harmony with our selves and each other; setting aside the judgements that arise from idealism or comparison and recognising each of us has access to an innate wisdom that will guide and strengthen us, if only we let it.

Di with some of our merry band of Conservation and Land Management students. We come from all walks of life, each of us passionate about understanding our local bushland and making a difference.

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