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. Someone aptly likened it to being on a carousel of the 5 stages of grief. 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, all using 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. I began by spewing out bittersweet memories of an emotionally underprivileged childhood. It didn’t matter that no-one else wanted to 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 aloud 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’s “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 sequences of events, structure, characterisation and dialogue. Unlike fiction, the main requirement is to pare back the complexity of events in a life through finding an engaging and relatively narrow focus. It must also relate to universal concerns.
This chosen pathway of developing creative writing skills is an ongoing journey for me.