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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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