Moree, with a population of about 8,000, is situated in the north-west of NSW on the Mehi River and at the junction of the Gwydir and Newell Highways. It is famous for its Artesian Spa waters, which were discovered accidentally in 1895 when a bore was sunk in search of irrigation waters. Instead, mineral water heated naturally to 45 degrees spurted upwards flooding the area. For years I had wanted to return to this town, so loved by my father.
Zac followed my partner along the footpath near our home, one afternoon when Mark was walking towards the gym. An Aussie Terrier, starving and weary. These gym sessions were daily events and sacrosanct at the time. This day, instead of continuing on his route, Mark bent down, picked the skinny runt up in his arms and proceeded to knock on dozens of doors up and down the hills, asking: “Does anyone know this dog?” No-one answered in the affirmative. We rang several vets in the area, looked out for ads and put up notices; nothing.
Once the two children saw him, his white coat shot over by a splattering of deep grey and a dash of beige round the eyes and ears, they fell in love. Fast. Two weeks later and our daughter had fallen so madly in love with the little mutt, it started to look as if he was ours to keep. And we had finally settled on ‘Zac’ for a name.
Like many adoptive parents, we dreaded, during the days that followed, the knock on the door, or the phone call that might announce the arrival of the ‘natural’ parent or parents of this undernourished, but otherwise perfect, little fellow. Luckily that never happened, and he fitted into our household like another family member.
He was the gentlest little creature. He put on weight quickly so that I didn’t have to carry him on long walks anymore. He loved chasing the ball that my husband threw almost to the moon.
From Paris to Russia and Back
I was living in Amiens, in the north of France at the time. I’d spent the previous twelve months in Paris, working as a clerk at the Australian Embassy, the Air Attaché section, handling secret files labelled “Mirage Jets”. It was boring work, but I’d earned enough money to move on to a more interesting job as a teacher’s assistant in a provincial lycée for primary school teachers. I was also enrolled in the university there: first year of an Arts degree. During my time at the Embassy, I’d made some good friends, in particular, two girls from Melbourne. Liz was studying Linguistics at the Sorbonne, while Kay was writing a thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre. I was an ex-primary school teacher from Sydney with no degree under my belt. At the end of the twelve month Embassy position, instead of saving my money, I’d acted impulsively, as usual, and lashed out on a second-hand car.
It was the start of the summer vacation. I’d just lived through the student and workers’ strike in France, which turned into a near-revolution, with the threat of General de Gaulle’s troops hanging over our heads.
We three friends decided, over a map and a bottle of rough red Moroccan wine, to leave on a voyage in my car, setting out from Paris and heading for Northern Italy, thence southward to the warm Mediterranean countries, then eastward as far as Turkey, and onwards to the Ukraine, behind the Iron Curtain. It was the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. Luckily, Liz spoke a spattering of Russian and we were French/Australians, not Americans. We would travel in a 1960 model French Citroen—a “deux chevaux” (two horse-power) car—through fifteen countries, and get caught up in Soviet troops en route to Prague to quell the uprising there. The car looked like a battered jam tin on wheels, until it moved into action, when it resembled a dazed beetle with the hiccups. It bumped and tottered along. This was the first car I had ever owned.
The First Day
Left on trip at 1.30 p.m. We travelled practically non-stop, without eating, until midnight, when we arrived at Pontarlier, near the Swiss border in France, and were directed to the Youth Hostel. The woman kindly let us in. It was wonderful to wash and collapse on to our bunks.
The Second Day
We set off fairly early, after coffee at a terrace café, and crossed the Swiss border about lunch time. It was exciting to be in our first foreign country, after France, and we noticed the signs in different languages, Italian, German and French. By then, well into mountainous countryside. We were following the route to Lausanne, and the scenery was charming, but the going became harder and harder, the car straining in first gear. Driving along Lake Leman was breathtaking. We stopped about 4p.m. in “Heidi, Girl of the Alps” countryside, flowery and hilly, to give the car a rest; and we drank freezing water from a flowing stream. I picked some flowers and put them in a book. After more climbing and dust, it was like a magic moment to hear the melodious Italian voice at the border, and to find that the mountainous road was over. We made very good time once on the autostrada and were in Milan and at my Sydney friend, Julie’s place by 11p.m. We had to ring for the concierge to let us in, but soon we were in the apartment, talking, eating Italian fruit cake and drinking champagne… That night, we three interlopers slept seven storeys above Milan on a small balcony, side by side in our sleeping bags. I dozed off with the worrying idea that I might sleep-walk, but slept like a log.
My writing development has been a weird ride, not a linear arc at all. In the sixties and seventies, I found little time to write, apart from in journals. I had no idea about genre, apart from “short story”, “novel”, and “autobiography”. I’d read the great classics in English and French, with the omniscient narrator, all-knowing, standing back from the characters and from the reader.
On returning to Australia, I was still carrying emotional baggage from the past that I wanted to exorcise. Pouring out my feelings on the page was one of the methods I used for this. Apart from depth therapy, that is. I began by spewing out bittersweet memories of an emotionally underprivileged childhood. It didn’t matter that no-one else could access my writing. It was something I needed to do at the time. Later on, I was seduced by the aesthetics underpinning creative writing: narrative structure, features such as voice, point of view and metaphorical usage. I wanted to learn more, to become better at it. This would become an obsession for me.
In the eighties, starting a family put paid to any ambitions of mine. My desire to be a good parent, to nurture emotional intelligence in my children, something I felt that I had missed out on and lacked, took precedence over the other “selfish” passion of writing.
I joined a Life Story Writing class in the early nineties, when my children were a little older. The first time I read from my therapeutic outpourings in class, it ended in tears. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was too close to the writing.
My first attempt at what I thought was a novel, “Frogs and Other Creatures”, based on childhood memories, was little different from the journal writing. I was still just narrating events, rather than dramatising them. And it was structured like a collection of short stories, with titles at the head of each chapter. It didn’t matter that my classmates were enthralled by some of the stories, the manuscript didn’t fit into any genre, and I was dissatisfied with it. Publishers and booksellers hate these hybrid genres, as they don’t know where to place them. I was beginning to want more from my writing.
Studying writing at the UTS, Sydney, in the late nineties helped me get a handle on the features of creative writing, and to gain valuable feedback from classmates and tutors. I started learning about, and practising, narrative form through writing short stories, which is a great way to gain knowledge of structure in general. We read “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”. I began to think more and more about structure.
When I retired in 2008, I had more time to practise writing. By that time, I’d learnt about the relatively modern genre of “memoir”. This is defined as “a part of a life”, as distinct from autobiography. At its best, it utilises the same features as fiction, including sequence of events, structure, characterisation and dialogue. Unlike fiction, the main requirement is to pare back the complexity of events in a life through finding a relatively narrow focus.
This chosen pathway of developing creative writing skills is an ongoing journey for me.
According to American author Marian Roach Smith’s definition, “Memoirs are selections from your life story, shaped by theme, driven by a few burning questions. So the question the reader brings is: why these bits of your life? The answer to that question will lead you to your opening.”
See her website for more gems about this genre that I love to read and strive to write well.
One part of my life that I enjoyed was the post-adolescent period of adventure, spent in Paris, France, and travelling throughout Europe and into the USSR during the “Cold War” years. However it was the Inner Journeying that I had to set out on after I returned to Australia that forms the important part of my memoir. I now wonder if these two journeys are too much to include in one memoir?
The Inner Journey
I had, for a long while, been addicted to self development. It was like peeling onion layers; more were always waiting for you to deal with. But I was determined to recover from the effects of crippling emotional baggage I’d carried since childhood.
I’d felt an outsider most of my life, especially at school, even though there were times when I was popular. I rarely felt happy inside, even though I had a smile on my face much of the time. It started in early childhood. I wasn’t as bright as my older brother and younger sister; I wasn’t as pretty as my two younger sisters. Mum didn’t actually say the words, but when she talked, and she talked a lot, I read between the lines: ‘He’s a genius… she’s pretty…’ etc etc.
There was more to it than that, there always is… But I grew up believing I was unworthy: stupid, ugly. It was all untrue and I couldn’t shake it off as I grew. I believed it at my core.
The change in me started around the time leading up to, and immediately after, my father’s stroke.
It would take a long time, and much inner work on my part, to rid me of the bad feelings I carried about myself.