Every week when I introduce the next writer in the attic, I say how excited I am to welcome them as my guest. It’s probably starting to sound as if I’m just saying it because I must, but it’s true. Every week I am excited—and thrilled and honoured—to host my guest writer. Each essay I’ve received has been inspiring and wonderful, and shone a light on a unique aspect of what it means to be a writer. I’m having the time of my life reading them as they come in—they’re all so different and there’s always something I relate to as a writer. And every one of them has an insight or wisdom from which I gain.
The essays seem to be striking a chord with you readers, too, as every Monday there’s a spike in visits to this blog!
This week, my dear friend Maureen Helen joins us. Maureen says she missed her original vocation as a writer by miles. Instead, she embarked on a career in the helping professions and developed a passion for social justice. She started writing regularly when she was in her sixties, and is the author of two memoirs: Other People’s Country and Elopement: a Memoir.
I was moved by Maureen’s tale of courage and tenacity and grace, and found it truly inspiring. She never gave up on her dream to become a writer, or on finding love, as you’ll see …
On the edge of eighty
Writing, I like to think, defines me, as it does other writers although I came to it later than most.
When I was about seven and an avid reader, I figured out that books were written by authors. From that day, I longed to add my voice to theirs, but life intervened with different plans. A daughter of the 1930s, I left school earlier than I ever wanted, and pursued paths that did not include creative writing.
For most of my life before sixty, more urgent preoccupations undercut my childhood desire to write. There was always too much else that demanded my attention. Learning to be a nurse and having eight children (seven of them in eight years) ensured that writing time was scarce. The deaths of two full-term babies within five years took their toll of my resources.
Still longing to be an author, all that I managed to write in my child-bearing years were miniscule articles for tiny Catholic magazines. My published articles and stories all dealt with some aspect of Catholic motherhood. Being the mother of eight children gave me some authority for that audience. Payment, small as it was, paid for dozens of cloth nappies and an occasional new bunny rug.
Stories of young women, who manage to write novel after novel while their toddlers nap or play happily at their mothers’ feet, amuse me. Those stories seem like fairy-tales, far outside my own experience of sheer hard work, that sometimes felt like drudgery.
Creative writing became an almost forgotten dream when I needed to work outside the home to support my children and myself as a single mother after divorce. My writing was mundane. Assignments for a university undergraduate degree, articles, papers, reports, submissions and the occasional newsletter satisfied some urge. But nowhere near enough.
But during all those years, indeed for decades, the desire to write creatively simmered somewhere in my psyche. On odd occasions when I focused on my longing, the searing pain of not-writing shrouded me.
Happily, when I was in my early sixties new opportunities presented themselves. One of my short stories was awarded first place in the Karrinyup Writers Club competition. A story was published in the short-lived journal, Scope, and another in the anthology, And the dance goes on. Writing consumed much of my time and energy. I felt happy and fulfilled. Not writing, on the other hand, made me grumpy. I had stories bubbling away. I needed to write them.
As I neared retirement, I began to take better care of myself and my creative needs. Knowing I had already spent a life-time not-writing, and wanting to hurry the process, I enrolled in a Master of Arts (Writing) at Edith Cowan University. I wrote an unpublishable novel and an exegesis. I learned from the process.
Retired for the first time at sixty-five, I completed a PhD (Writing). For the first time, I had the luxury of being a full-time student on campus. I immersed myself in writing, researching and thinking, loving everything about my new life.
On odd occasions when I focused on my longing, the searing pain of not-writing shrouded me.
The year I turned seventy, my memoir, Other People’s Country, part of my thesis, was published by ABC Books, the first publisher to whom I sent it. The book, which tells about my life as a Registered Nurse on an Aboriginal community in the Pilbara, was long-listed for a Walkley Award (Best Non-Fiction Book Section) and short-listed for the WA Premier’s History Prize.
Invitations to speak at Writers’ Festivals in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane followed. I thrived on the excitement of public speaking to large audiences. I enjoyed discussions about my book on radio. An interview with the Australian was published as a full-page feature. My book was listed by Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation as one of the best books for understanding Aboriginal issues. It became a text for several university Community Nursing courses and has since been reprinted.
In Perth, my hometown, Other People’s Country created hardly a ripple. Naïvely, I did not work out that writers must also be entrepreneurs. I did not promote my book or myself.
Still compelled by the urge to write, my next book took shape. Elopement: a Memoir tells the story of my secret marriage to an old friend. Our beautiful wedding and romantic French honeymoon were followed by trials and tribulations as two old people settled down to life together. After a few rejections along the lines of ‘beautifully written but not commercial’, I decided to enlist an alternative publisher, Stone’s Publishing. That decision was a good one. I could move on. Book sales trickle in, and I am pleased.
Three years ago, I discovered another urge, one almost as strong as the compulsion to write. This new interest includes, and in some way surpasses, the earlier creative writing urge because it consists of helping others to write or to tell their stories.
My father used to say that those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. I don’t know if that’s true, but there is magic in enabling others to tell and write their stories. I still waver between writing and not-writing. A painful tension flares between the two when I choose to do one to the exclusion of the other. So I post regular blog posts and almost always write creatively for half an hour every morning.
I now have a part-time position as project leader for a narrative research project with the Spirit of the Streets Choir. Many of the members have come to the choir from severely disadvantaged backgrounds. We aim to produce a book of life-stories and the history of the choir in time for the choir’s tenth anniversary next year. Rewards flow. The tensions of a writer ease in the joy of watching others realise that they, also, are meant to create stories.
Next year, I will return more fully to the draft novel that sits on my desktop. While I work at other things, the story percolates. I make notes, play with concepts. In the meantime, I continue to enjoy my (somewhat) writerly life on the edge of eighty.
If you’re a writer—published or unpublished, in any genre—and you’d like to write something for this ‘Writers in the Attic’ series, please drop me a line via the Contact page. I’d love to hear your story—about what writing means to you, your inspirations and goals, the reasons you write, and the obstacles and battles you face. If you’d prefer a Q&A, I can send some questions.
I’m drawn towards personal writing that digs beyond the superficial, but only write what you are comfortable sharing. Pseudonyms are welcome, too. Most posts are 600-1200 words in length, but that’s not set in stone. I also need a photo, a concise bio, and a link to your website and publications.
If I publish your essay, I like to send a small thank you gift of a $20 book voucher from Booktopia (or Amazon if you live overseas).