Today I launched Recollections 2010, the Hawthorn Community Education Centre's, Life Writing anthology.
I had a wonderful morning, with a truly receptive audience of absolutely switched on participants. What an inspiration. Senior citizens writing, learning, publishing and growing into and beyond their octogenarian years.
As you weren't able to come to the launch. And as you hang on my every word :-), I thought I'd better publish my thoughts.
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I received my copy of the anthology from Kath a little over a week ago and have been living in the ‘past’ ever since. Reading of red rattlers and steam trains, old cars and Joe’s ice-cream, weddings, kitchen mistakes and unexpected friendships, hot air balloons and silence, a rose, a gull and even a humble bumble bee.
Mulling over your memoirs, I have been surprised by the stab of long forgotten memories, have found myself walking down the byways of my own remembered past. And as I mulled, I fell to wondering: What could I say to you today?
What is it that Recollections has shown me about the writing life?
The need to Show, is the compelling motivation in an anthology such as Recollections.
In her foreword, Fran Cassar expressed this succinctly:
‘I promised the family I’d write my memoirs one day to record a life growing up in Far North Queensland.’
I wonder how many others were compelled by such a promise? Maybe you have always wanted to write but the business of life somehow got in the way? Or maybe, you have looked into the uncomprehending face of a grandchild as you tried to explain a life before computers and mobile phones, and thought, how do I explain?
You have seen so many changes: The nineteen thirties depression, for example, a world at war, the emergence of air travel, the growing dominance of the motor car. You have lived in homes without a television or telephone, maybe even without refrigeration or flushing toilets. And you have thought: I I’d better write these memories down before I run out of time.
Now, one of my claims to fame (which is alas almost ancient history), is that I won a short story prize. The other thing about me is that, although I have written contemporary short stories, most of my fiction is set in the past. The story that won the Bristol Prize, was one such story. It was based on a World War Two memory. Such a tiny memory fragment, seen through the eyes of a child, an event that may not even have happened, yet, I had a desire to write about it.
Now in case you have not already drawn this conclusion, I was not alive in World War Two. If you haven’t already concluded this, please do so now, or I won’t talk to you over a cup of tea. I may have wrinkles, and yes, my hair is coloured, and some mornings I certainly feel like I was alive in the 1940’s, but I am not that age!
Writing this particular story, involved research.
My first port of call was Mum (yes, it was her memory), I pumped her for details: descriptions of her house, the scullery, the kind of stove they used, what they ate for dinner, the colour of the wallpaper, the kind of carpet on the floor. I wrote reams of notes, asked a roll-call of questions, and looked at a cabinet full of old photographs. Then, after I had exhausted mum’s memories, the real fun began.
As part of the sixty years since VE Day celebrations, the BBC put together an archive of memories, called: WW2 People’s War. In the months leading up to the sixtieth anniversary, they encouraged people to write down anything, anything at all, that they could remember from the war and submit it to the archive – and people did!
Even those who were children at the time.
Why am I telling you this? I hope you have already guessed.
I used many of those first person accounts to create my story of Swansea, during the Three Nights Blitz, as seen through the eyes of a child.
Furthermore, I hope you have already realised, you are providing the same level of detail in Recollections. The description of a new kitchen, for instance, a new jazz club in Balwyn, late night shopping in Terang. In your urge to Show, you are laying down an eyewitness account for a future generation. As a researcher, I know this to be true, and as a librarian with City of Boroondara Library Service, I can affirm we have has almost every edition of Recollections.
They are regarded a valuable, first-person local history resource.
Have, I made my point? Good. Let's move on.
In reading Recollections, I realised that many of the stories don’t simply Show the past, they grapple with it – interpreting and coming to terms with events, with the benefit of distance and hindsight.
I call this the need to Know. And to my mind, it is one of the most profound and important aspects of the writing experience, for as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:
‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are minor matters, compared to what lies within us.’
It is no coincidence therefore that many of the stories recount mistakes. Calling the Thames – Burcote Brook, for example, eating someone else’s scone, dropping a freshly pie on the dog’s blanket while trying to live up to a mother-in-law’s culinary expertise, a bag of tomatoes breaking in Myers and leaving you wondering, to this day, what your new daughter-in-law said under her breath, mulling over the origins of an unusual name, questioning God and lost faith while stuck in the mud, or cleaning up after a late night visit gone wrong.
But it is not only mistakes I find in Recollections. Other stories, highlight patterns, events coming full circle: a son buying a boat at forty, for example, a light look at the differences between a mother and daughter, the return of a school bully in later life, an unexpected letter from a grandmother long after she has died, the cure of a potentially disfiguring birth mark, a strange obsessive friendship, the reason your dad never, ever ate Frankfurts.
Human beings are purpose driven creatures. We seek to find meaning in the patterns of our lives. I see this in Recollections. And I affirm your explorations. As a fellow traveller, I celebrate your daring – for I see the same need in myself.
Why else do I, a migrant child, write a novel about migrants? Why do I, a librarian, recount one of my early library experiences? Why am I, the child of parents who both lived through the Blitz, writing war stories? Why am I going back to research another such story this June?
George Tooker said: ‘Painting is an attempt to come to terms with life. There are as many solutions as there are human beings.’
For me, and for many of you, I suspect, writing is that canvas: it helps us find meaning and purpose in the seemingly random events of our lives.
The final motivation I find in Recollections, is a desire to Grow.
In her foreword, Fran spoke of the Life Writing Course giving her the confidence to persevere. She spoke of working with encouragers, embracing new technologies, all day workshops, radio readings, and Tele-links.
Other authors, spoke of not yet realised dreams, to travel on the Ghan, for instance, and the Overland, the desire to foster a love of reading in a grandchild, or to ride a motor bike one last time. The joy of dabbling and collecting, walking groups and café culture, the beauty of nature, in its various feathered, furred and floral forms. The wonder of mime and indigenous culture, the plight of refugees, and the terrible beauty of a bushfire.
These are today’s issues, seen through the lens of a long life, and they tell me there is much to look forward too – that no matter how long life’s journey, there is always room to Grow. I found the image of lying in bed on a Sunday morning and watching hot air balloons drift across the sky particularly moving. Such a small private moment, such a powerful image of buoyancy and hope.
So, thank you for the memories – for the courage to re-visit those that are difficult; the love that infuses your fondest; the humorous spark by which you have illuminated the ordinary, and the philosophical musings by which you make sense of life.
It is my pleasure and privilege to launch this edition of Recollections. I wish you all the best as you continue to Show, Know and Grow in your writing life.
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Long may it be so! In my life and yours.