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.
You can connect with Maureen on her website, Facebook and find her books at Stone Publishing.
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).
Thank you for allowing us into your world, Maureen, certainly a busy one but a very successful one too. What an inspiring woman you are! I love that you never gave up on your dream to write.
I agree, Marlish! She’s a great inspiration! x
Thanks, Marlish. I’m not sure I ever had the option to give up on my dream. It was more like an obsession, and still is.
What a beautiful never-say-never story! Thank you Maureen and Louise. I’m inspired all over again!
It is a great never-say-never and it’s-never-too-late-to-start story! Thanks Fi! x
Thank you Fiona. And thanks to Louise for this chance to write about my writing journey.
I love this because it shows that dreams live within no matter what age. Thank you, Maureen, for this insight.
And it shows it’s never too late to go for those dreams! x
What amazes me, Monique, is that I keep having new dreams. Even before one dream is realised, another seems to come onto the horizon. I’m grateful I still have the energy to pursue what interests and calls me.
May I achieve as much in my next twenty years as you, Maureen. Your post reminds me of my mother, who also had nine children and lost a few along the way. Her life was so consumed by parenting that she too never had the chance to write as much as she might have done were she born in a different era. At least she self-published a memoir and managed a few short essays about her life. Now I treasure these. When I was young I did not offer her as much recognition as I should have. So caught up in my own ambitions. I’ve read elsewhere that children are bit characters in their parents’ memoirs and it makes sense to me but I find myself wondering about your children and whether any of them have also taken up the pen? Lucky them to have such a wonderful writer for a mother. I see now that I was lucky, too, only it’s taken me sixty years plus to see it. Thanks for a beautiful post.
Wow! Lots of similarities between the two, Elisabeth—I guess because of the era. How lovely to have some of your mother’s writing—it’s recorded history, and so meaningful when it’s your own family. It’s more precious than hand-me-down silver or antiques. I so wish my forebears had recorded even just a few snippets. Writing and photos—so important to keep.
My father wrote a memoir, too, Elisabeth. It is something our family cherishes, even though it was not published.
I never thought about children being bit characters in their parents’ ,memoirs. It doesn’t seem to ring true for me, even though I was lucky enough to have a career I enjoyed with lots of twists and unexpected highlights. My children still feel central to my own well-being. They, my grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren occupy the centre of my life.
None of my children has so far taken up writing. But with the example I’ve set as such a late starter, who know what will happen?
By ‘bit player’ Maureen, I think Carolyn Steadman who coined the phrase, meant something along the lines: parents rarely write about their own children, at least not in detail, unless of course their children suffer some misfortune, like the memoirs that deal with mothering a child with epilepsy or autism for instance, as against the idea that children often write about their parents. In my mother’s memoir she records the date of my birth, and that of my siblings and that’s all she has to say about us in the story, and then at the end she lists our achievements as adults. We don’t feature much except as props to her role as mother. Her story is her own story through life, migration, motherhood, a difficult marriage etc. Except she goes into details about her first daughter who died during the war at five months of age. As I suggested, the living children who are well enough can write their own stories if they choose to do so. They tend not to want their parents to write about them, at least not much. At least that’s the way it is with my kids. My family of origin is up for grabs, to write about, as some of us do, but not my children.
Thanks for such an interesting response, Elisabeth. Of course, it now makes sense about children being big players in our memoirs, although not necessarily in our lives. I don’t imagine I would write about any of my live children, although i do sometimes think I might write about my baby sons who died, one of SIDS and the other of Hyaline membrane disease, now almost a non-event because it is so easily treated with oxygen.
My children, if I wrote about them, would be in relation to my own story, as you point out. It would seem quite wrong to write about them except in that way.
Thank you again for taking the time to explain this in detail.
I understand what you’re saying, Elisabeth, and I agree. Our childhood experiences formed and shaped us, and I suspect we write them to make sense of the past and ourselves. And it really does help! Sometimes, it even helps others who read it, which is a fortuitous side effect.
I suspect it’s similar for mothers of children with disabilities or children who have died, because those experiences change you.
Motherhood itself is so significant, and also changes us, and we write lots about that in a general way, but no, we don’t often write about our individual children. I don’t even want to. I’m totally in love with my kids and completely biased—I think they’re wonderful and amazing, and they’ve taught me more than I ever taught them. So, I only write about a particular experience because of what I learnt from it—how it changed me in some way.
Maybe that’s why we write autobiographically—to make sense of the big things in our lives, those events that form and shape and change us.
By the way, Maureen, I’ll never forget your blog post about your baby’s death—it was very moving indeed. And beautifully told. xx
What a lovely essay. I’m so glad she has fulfilled some of her dreams. (It doesn’t sound like she is anywhere near done yet. 😉 The word that came to mind for me while I was reading this was “tenacious”. Her desire to help others is admirable. Her whole essay resonated with her personality that of a sincere and caring person.
I hope she achieves and feels fulfilled by whatever project she undertakes. She has inspired me on so many levels. Thank you for sharing her story.
I agree, Karen. Tenacity and sincerity came to mind as I read Maureen’s essay, too—they permeate the whole piece. I’m lucky enough to know Maureen, and she’s incredibly inspiring in person, too! Thanks for reading. x
Oh, I am loving this, Louise. And thank you Karen for your lovely comments and good wishes.
Your head’s swelling, Maureen? Lap it up—it’s not often you get acknowledgement in this writing game! xx
I wish there was a like, or better, a love button, on your comments page, Louise!
Loved reading your journey Maureen and I believe there is so much more you have to write about. You are living an amazingly fruitful life and we are lucky to have you share it with us.
I agree wholeheartedly, Dee! Thanks for visiting. x
Glad you enjoyed it, Dee, and thank you for commenting. I’m so lucky to have this opportunity to be Louise’s guest, and be so welcomed by her readers
Maureen… you are incredible. What a fabulous story you have and what an inspiration you are to all of us.
Couldn’t agree more, Pinky! Maureen’s story makes me feel as if it’s never too late to start. x
Thanks, Michelle. I am lucky I have the energy and the encouragement from my family and friends to keep pushing new boundaries.
I am thoroughly moved and awed, Maureen. I will be relieved when I have at least one of your books in my hand, like almost undiscovered gold. Write on, sister!
I echo your sentiments, M! I have two of Maureen’s books here, actually, and they’re both beautifully written—you could borrow one/both, if you like. Thanks for your lovely comment. x
I read this post late after nearly a week without internet. It’s made my day. Lovely to hear your story again, Maureen, and thank you, Louise, for hosting it. You are an inspiration Maureen, and a role model, not least in your tenacity and community mindedness.
As for children and mothers and memoirs, it’s an interesting perspective. I agree about not wanting to write about my children’s lives, except as reflected through mine. Perhaps because their lives are still unfolding, and it is such a privilege to watch that, I don’t feel I have licence to do that. But I am taking licence to write about my mother’s life, intertwined with my own memoir, and it is very hard, and I feel in some respects I’m walking on forbidden ground, since some surviving members of my birth family would regard me as trespassing. Yet I feel my mother is ok with it, from her beyond-life perspective; and perhaps, as long as I am respectful as well as truthful, she sees the appropriateness of me seeking to know her more fully. When she lived, there were always barriers between us. Those barriers are dissolved by her death, and I feel closer to her than I did when she lived.
Happy writing and researching, Maureen!
This post has certainly been popular with readers and I agree with everything you say about Maureen.
I understand that feeling of ‘trespass’, and it wouldn’t be normal not to feel it, I don’t think. But write anyway! No human being is all good—it’s simply not possible—and it’s important to hold the good and the bad about someone together. Relatives can’t always cope with a less-than-idealised version of a deceased relative, but it’s just not realistic. Not to mention frustrating …
As you know, I’ve written about my mother on this blog. It’s upset her to the point of contacting me and others, and saying that she’s recording the ‘truth’ for her grandchildren. I have difficulty understanding why she won’t accept what she’s done, why she wants to keep blaming me, and how she she can’t see that the problem is her. My life is good and only getting better, whereas she’s lost just about everyone and everything she ever had. Instead of writing about me, she’d be better off writing about her own mother and childhood because that’s where it all started—her mother was abusive and her childhood was horrible. But instead of looking internally, she’s chosen to blame everyone else and repeat history to her own children.
The bottom line is there’s a lot to be gained from writing about your childhood, in particular your relationship with your mother. x
Thanks for sharing Louise. You are brave to write about your mother while she is alive. I wasn’t brave enough or ready to do it, and it’s taken me a long time to come to terms with her, to the point where I now feel she understands and I can speak the truth. Others may not consider that I have when I publish, but that is the way of writing writing memoir. There’s always someone who feels misunderstood or misinterpreted or just plain upset or offended.
It is in understanding our beginnings and our childhood influences that we set ourselves free from the ghosts of the past, we resolve the knots of old wounds and grudges and losses. We need to break the cycle, as you imply.
I don’t know that it was brave, or just necessary. I’d bottled it for so long, it was a release to be able to put it into words.
Writing memoir is fraught and I’m sure your mother understands your need to write your story. The thing is, we can still tell the truth and honour someone’s memory. I thought Magda Szubanski did a great job in ‘Reckoning’—she didn’t hide her father’s past history but it was told with so much love.
Maureen, we shared part of the writing journey together as ECU postgrad students. I found it touching and fascinating to learn about earlier parts of your life, and the continuing journey. You will always be a writer. Thanks for posting this Maureen and Louise. Fab series.👌💃🏻