Monthly Archives: May 2015

Writing from Mourning

The dead leave us starving with mouths full of love. (Michaels 1997: 20)

Much of my writing is autobiographically based. Pickle to Pie, although published as a novel was based on my father’s life. This second book is about my thirty-five year pen-friendship with an older American poet. I was three quarters through writing our story when Mickey died.


My writer’s journal remained closed; the novel frozen. How to write the unsayable—to write through silence into a safe space? My mediated text, balanced between fact and fiction, meant that half of my writing was in the real world. I was telling another woman’s story as well as my own. I had worked through many writing issues, and told numerous stories of literary and personal goals, but I came full circle when faced with Mickey’s death. At the heart of the novel were two real women. Now, one was lost and I was grieving.

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I am a writer and writing is the way I make sense of the world. Therefore I could not understand my inability to write. Mickey’s death was not my first introduction to grief. I had grieved for aunts, uncles and close friends, and the ultimate orphaning loss of both parents. During those difficult times, writing had been my salvation.

I write because then I do not have to speak. I write with the colours of memory. I write because I believe it can create a path in the darkness. So why was I suffering from writer’s block? Because, when Mickey died I was in the middle of writing a fictionalised account of our friendship. I was immersed in the autoethnographic exploration of the memories encompassing both of our lives. This grief was different from any others I had experienced. As Didion reveals in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) each individual grief is ‘a place none of us know until it happens’ (Didion 2005: 188). T

The voices of others. ‘She was ninety-three years old’. ‘She had a long life’. ‘She didn’t suffer’. ‘You’re still upset?’ ‘Get over it’. ‘Move on’. ‘Mickey who?’ (Journal 4 2010: 126)

Before I could bring myself to write, however, I had to come to terms with my recent loss. Over ninety years old, recently hospitalised, Mickey had refused to eat; she had willed herself to die. I found this out by chance a week after she had died and my creative drive faltered. There was no funeral to attend nor a healing ceremony, just a hole that could not be filled. I gathered black around me and grieved.

I returned to my journal. When I did not want to write, when I was feeling brain-dead, writing about the ordinariness of life without sorting, sifting, editing, connected me with the living and with the dead (Adams 1998: 4). It created a place to be in ordinary conversation with anyone—from myself to my old penfriend. It connected me to Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Jolley, Margaret Atwood and Margaretta Jolly. I could smell, see, touch and taste the story waiting for its ending. T

he earphones hurt my ears and my fingers tremble as I turn on the tape recorder. Mickey’s highly opinionated deep voice permeates my being. Informal conversations we had in 2002. There are so few. When the tape recorder was on, she rarely wanted to talk, and the best conversations were when I turned it off. For me, it is the sound of her strong, opinionated voice that is important. It triggers deep emotions. I must believe the writing will come to life in her voice. Not mine. Yet woven within the writing is my story. Mickey and I in context with history, revealed via my recollections. (Journal 4 2010: 233)

Life is a tapestry and death leaves a hole. I looked at the empty space and realised I had never willingly allowed any empty spaces in my life. Life had been about hanging on to what you had. Anything I had ever let go had claw marks on it. Yet this empty space was different. With wonder, I began to see it as a creative space, an opportunity to move on through the process of creating (Riggs 2007). It became filled with possibilities. I began to weave the tapestry bigger so the hole was less obvious. Writing the ending to the story allowed me to make visible the size and shape of my grief and through language I could give substance to Mickey.

In May, in water-cooler conversation with another PhD candidate, for the first time I talked about Martha the character in the novel and thought of her as Martha, not Mickey. At that point I realised that a huge shift had taken place: a distancing.

There is a break between friend and character. I can write Martha, talk about Martha, think Martha and keep Mickey, friend and mentor safely tucked in my heart. I’m remembering the woman and writing the character (Journal 5 2011: 29)

But was I writing from an idealised memory of Mickey? Had my grief and mourning turned the novel into a representation of somebody perfect and had I ignored imperfections? ‘Hens Lay, People Lie’ was once again in danger of becoming a hymn of praise—until I remembered Mickey’s opinionated honesty. The character Martha now strides through the pages of the novel warts and all.

A motivating factor in my decision to include Mickey’s death within the novel was the belief that writing about my own experience would not only create a way through grief for me, but would also enable other bereaved writers to ‘witness the experience of reconstructing [their] own map’ (Frank 1997: 17) for writing from mourning. Louise DeSalvo’s writing (1999: 206) reinforced my belief that my story would help others to cope with grief and mourning. It was emotionally challenging to follow Caroline Ellis and the other exponents of emotive autoethnography, and reveal a vulnerable self. Whenever I wavered I thought of Hélène Cixous, Virginia Woolf and Laurel Richardson.

To me my texts are elements of a whole which interweaves my own story, are the seasons, days in the Great Year of my life. (Cixous 1994: xv)

Writing is what I do, in spite of the problems. What I had to reclaim was the sheer joy of writing; the intimate relationship between me and the page. Through this practice I hold communion with my deepest self. I did not want to bury Mickey or to praise her, but ‘…to exalt her exceptional contribution to my own happiness and belief in the worthiness of life itself by the testimony of her own’ (Barthes 2010: 260). Perhaps this is the gift of every daughter—even a proxy one. The blackness of loss and grief woven through the text added depth to the colours already woven through the story.


I have always wanted wings. To fly where I belong, to become who I am…winged and moon-swayed. (Griffiths 2011: 3)

Ultimately I learnt to trust myself and find my own safe space to write from mourning. On my magic carpet I let my imagination soar—to follow Jay Griffiths and fly to the moon, to live in my imagination, to experiment with plot and characters, to swoop and fly and write from multiple stray moons.

Morning sun gilds the topmost leaves of the melaleuca gums. I drag my kayak out onto the lake. Suspended between water and sky, my oar dips into reflected clouds. Between two worlds I find the end to our story. (Journal 5 2012: 233)

A writer’s Journey

How do writers discover their love of writing?

Some authors have always been readers and writers. They have grown up surrounded by books and have imagined or written stories all their lives. Others discover, like me, their love of writing by chance.

Follow your dreams


“Write one page on anything you like,” our VCE English teacher said. The other students started to write, but I felt numb, apart from an overwhelming fear that made my hands shake. I knew my children were proof that my body was fertile, but what if my mind was barren? I wrapped my bulky cardigan around me and commenced to scrawl anything, just as long as the paper wasn’t blank.

How many girls were told, “She doesn’t need a higher education. She’ll only get married and have children.” So we tucked our dreams, along with the hand-embroidered linen, into our glory-box.

My life moved on from the frenzied earning and child rearing years. I remember sitting in the Robert Blackwood Hall, witnessing my son receive his university degree and thinking about the difference in our education. At fourteen, I’d left Malvern Girls’ Domestic Arts School to start an apprenticeship. Over the years, in an attempt to self-educate, I’d tried to read the dynamo labelled school books in the bookcase, but they were hard to understand. How could I relate to my two sons? Already they were trying to talk to me in a foreign language of hyperlinks and megabytes. I felt an overwhelming desire for knowledge and decided to go back to school.

Could I cope? What if I failed? My mantra became, ‘one day at a time’, and like a learner swimmer flung into the deep end of the pool I clung to my life buoy of supportive teachers and classmates.

Several weeks later the worst was over and I was part of a triathlon team. We powered forward, exhilarated in heart and mind. With the help of dedicated teachers the code was finally broken to my son’s books and they revealed so many previously hidden biological facts and literary treasures. Acceptance at TAFE, and later Monash, Melbourne and Swinburne Universities, resulted in a joyful ongoing journey of discovery, but the greatest discovery of all was my own innate ability to learn, and most important of all, to write.

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These days, the long hours tapping away seem only minutes. I write anything and everything and beside me is a novel, Pickle to Pie. What writer worth her salt hasn’t written The Book? It was with great pleasure, via an acknowledgements page, to formally thank the many supportive and inspiring University lecturers, TAFE teachers, writing friends, the Mordialloc Writing Group, my family and friends who have helped me on my journey. Their kindness and generosity has changed my life and I no longer have a vague feeling of ‘something missing’.

I am no longer at ‘school’, but after finally completing the writing journey from VCE to PhD I want to say to other mature aged women who yearn for knowledge and need the help of others to show them the way, “Don’t be afraid to take the plunge. It is never too late to follow your dreams.”


Writing About Your Daily Life

What triggers a story for you?

Certain incidents that occur as part of my daily life can often trigger a story. I find that an insensitive shopper, a kind deed or intriguing meeting will fire my imagination. Before I know it I’m tapping away on the computer oblivious to the world. Some people call it a blessing, others and obsession. I’m not sure what to call it but creative story writing is now an integral part of who I am and who I want to be.

I’ve always liked this quote by Livia Blackburne,

Stories are more than just images. As you continue in the tale, you get to know the characters, motivations and conflicts that make up the core of the story. This requires many parts of the brain. Some parts process emotion. Others infer the thoughts of others, letting us empathise with their experiences. Yet other parts package the experience into memories for future reflection

The following story was the result of a simple shopping trip to buy my husband a shirt. The lack of sales staff and the obvious apathy of any I did manage to find meant that I left the store seething with frustration.  That night, by writing about the experience I managed to overcome my displeasure and ended up having a good laugh. It turned the whole disastrous shopping trip into sheer fun.


‘That’s what you need,’ Helen says to John as she reads the morning paper. ‘Sports R U are having a sale.  Look at all the shirts.  Go on, have a look.’  She sticks the paper right under his nose.  ‘All shapes and sizes.’

‘I’ve got plenty of shirts,’ John replies.  Helen sighs as she visualizes the stack of pilling polos in the cupboard.  Why was it always so difficult to get him to buy new clothes?  And why, when he did manage to get something, did it have to hang in the wardrobe for months before it earned the right to become part of his life?’

Helen remembers when they first met.  She’d been kept in the ‘closet’ for months before he finally took her home to meet his mother.  He was always talking about this paragon of virtue and she’d tried everything she knew to arrange a meeting but he’d dug his heels in and wouldn’t budge.  Finally, when she’d given up, out of the blue he pulled up outside a solid red brick house with manicured lawn.  Helen argued that she wasn’t prepared, didn’t look her best but…to no avail.

‘You want to meet her don’t you?’  She’d patted her unruly tangle of curls into some sort of shape, quickly licked the corner of her hanki and tried to scrub a mark off the front of her old jeans.  She felt like an overstuffed bear beside the spotless diminutive woman who opened the door.

‘Hello… Mrs…’

‘Please call me Myrtle.’ the woman said.

Helen glances across the table.  ‘We’re visiting your mother this Sunday,’


‘You need a new shirt.’

‘Why?’  She wants to yell at him, you ask me why?  Your mother, stupid.  Remember?  The woman that ironed your underpants?  That packed your bag for your honeymoon?  Everything was placed so neatly in individual plastic bags.  Sock bag, shoe bag, toilet bag.  Your toothpaste had the bottom flattened and secured with a paperclip, and your hankies were like a stack of neatly packed sandwiches, labelled with J for John on the top.

‘Fifty percent off,’ she says.  That should get to him.  ‘They’re very cheap.’

‘Cheep, cheep, cheep,’ he mimics.  ‘Stop sounding like a chicken.  You know my size.  You want me to have new shirts?  You get them.’  He settles back in the couch, grabs the remote and flicks on the television.  The tennis appears and Helen knows there is no chance of motivating him now.


Racks and racks of sports clothes meet her eye as she steps into the warehouse style store.  Track pants, tee shirts, football gear, cricket whites all jumbled next to bins overflowing with socks, headbands and multi coloured underpants.  There is even a section for frilly little tennis dresses that only a midget could wear.  His mother would fit into those.  Helen wanders over to a rack of polo shirts and starts rummaging through the sizes.  Small, medium, where are the extra large?  She finds one but it is bright blue with a large white band just where John’s love-handles would be.  She stands there helplessly looking up at a salesman on a ladder but he just glances her way and continues stacking boxes.  She wanders over to the cash register.  ‘Do you have any other colours?’ she asks.  ‘Anything but blue?’  The girl stops filing her nails and points to the other side of the store.  ‘Men’s Clothes,’ she says resuming her manicure.  The sight of bright pink nail varnish triggers unhappy memories for Helen.

It really was a lovely manicure set so why did she feel so miserable?  There was a file, tiny scissors, a cuticle stick, and six different shades of nail varnish.  However, being a country girl she’d never worn nail polish in her life.  Helen didn’t want to draw attention to her raw boned working hands any more than she had to.  Myrtle’s slender fingers topped with poppy pink nails delicately picked out item after item from the set as she painstakingly explained each piece and its function.  John thought it a wonderful gift and wrapped his arms around both of them saying, ‘Now I’ll have two beautiful girls.’  Girls?  His mother beamed but it had been a long time since Helen had considered herself a girl.  Leaving the farm at an early age and making a life for herself in the city was not the stuff of girls.  Landing that job at the nursery was the chance of a lifetime and she loved every minute, but it was not a job that embraced nail polish.  Even though she’d completed her horticultural degree she still liked to delve her ungloved hands into damp earth.  To plant things and watch them grow.

In the Men’s Clothes department two girls stand chatting.

‘Excuse me,’ interrupts Helen, holding up the shirt.  ‘Have you any other colours?’  The girls look at her as if there is a neon sign flashing ‘needy’ glued to Helen’s forehead.  One points a bright blue fingernail with a tiny gold star on it back the way Helen has come saying, ‘Golf department.’  Helen raises her eyebrows.  The finger waggles.  ‘By the tennis rackets’ the girl says and turning away continues, ‘And did you know that…’.

John loved his tennis.  Nothing stopped him from going to tennis every weekend.  He and his mother often played together and he’d tried to get Helen interested.  Insisted she take lessons.  ‘You’ll love it,’ he’d said.  ‘You like the outdoors, it will be good for you.  Get rid of some of that weight.’  He hadn’t minded the weight when they had first been married.  Cuddly, that’s what he’d called her.  She’d tried, really tried to like tennis but why prance around on a hard clay court chasing a yellow ball when you could be doing something interesting.  John would get so annoyed when she trailed off to look at an intriguing flowering shrub poking through the perimeter wire.  ‘Try and keep your mind on the game, will you,’ he’d grumble.  But she never could.

Helen finds more shirts in the men’s golf department but not in extra large.  She stands there, shirt in hand, looking for some one to attend to her.  She wanders to the back wall and peers down towards the stock room.  No one.  ‘Hello?’ she calls.  No answer, so she wanders back to the two girls in ‘Men’s Clothes’.  The girls are still talking.

‘Excuse me,’ Helen says.  ‘Who is serving in Golf?’  Two pairs of eyes look her up and down.  The starry finger points.  ‘As I was saying…’ the girl resumes.  Helen glares and wanders back towards the legs up the ladder.

John was up the ladder fitting the new curtain tracks.  Helen could see he was placing them too low.  She kept telling him that they would have to be higher or the emerald green draped velvet she’d chosen would be hanging on the floor.  Avoiding her eyes, John said, ‘Mother wants the tracks here.  I’m not supposed to tell you but she’s giving us curtains for our birthdays.’

‘I don’t want her curtains,’ Helen cried.  ‘I want my curtains.  This is our house, John.  Not hers.’

‘But she has such good taste, and she’s paying for it.  You know we can’t really afford it at the moment.  Be sensible.  You can get others later if you like.’  So she’d given in and the blue chintzy curtains had arrived.

‘Are you in charge of Golf?’ Helen calls to the man up the ladder.  He nods.

‘Have you any other colours,’ she calls.  ‘Brown, or even a dark green?

‘Only what’s on the rack,’ he replies, and keeps stacking.

Helen had always liked earthy colours, brown, ochre and green.  She especially liked green.  Why then had Myrtle given them a bright blue bed set for their wedding present?  Blue sheets, flounce, four pillowcases and a doona cover emblazoned with shells, starfish, and seaweed.  She felt as if she was drowning every time she entered that sea of blue.  She feels as if she is drowning now.  Drowning in a sea of indifference.  Who did they think they were to ignore her like this?  They had no right to treat her this way.  She was a person.  With her own wants and needs.  It was time to stand up and be counted.  Damn their shirts, damn their neatly stacked boxes, damn Myrtle.

Striding over to the nearest rack and summoning every ounce of strength in her solid frame Helen shoves.  It crashes to the floor.  Every head in the store pops up like a bunch of kangaroos in a wheat field, ears turned to the source of danger.  Her chest heaving, Helen upends the closest bin, underpants spilling in every direction as she screams, ‘Now do you know I’m here?’  With a wild sweep of her arm she sends every tiny tennis dress onto the floor.  ‘Have I finally got your attention?’ she yells as she jumps on them.  The manager rushes over waving his arms, spluttering ‘Are you being served, Madam?

‘Served?  I hate tennis.  And I hate blue, Helen cries waving the shirt in front of the manager’s nose.  ‘Those curtains are coming down today.’  The manager’s bewildered eyes focus on the shirt in Helen’s hand.  ‘Another colour?’ he guesses.

‘I want extra large.  I want green.  And I want it now.’  Magically a dark green extra large shirt appears and is thrust into her hand.  ‘Game, set, match,’ Helen yells as she slams the door.