Zing Stories

This Teaching Life

Writing Queensland published this reflection on a decade of teaching life stories in July 2006.

I started teaching the genre of life writing a decade ago to meet a community need. As a high school teacher morphing into writer, it was easy to develop an introductory course of study. My preference was (is) literary fiction but since I'd read many writers' biographies and experimented with personal essays - off I went! Ten years on, I realise that, besides supporting hundreds of aspiring writers, the genre has had a profound influence on my own work. My two collections of poetry are lyrical life-stories - the first a Korean travel diary, the second a tragi-comic romp through a woman's life.

In my very first class were two paraplegics. The younger was still adjusting to a life without a workable voice or legs. Her response to a simple warm-up exercise of listing haves and have nots, became a series of images of her life Before paraplegia, and After: I have heard a doctor say, ‘She's better off dead.'/ I have not died. It was a heart-breaking experience for everyone. Early last year, sponsored by Queensland Arts Council (QAC), I had the privilege of supporting emerging writers in western Queensland. The men and women in attendance ran farming properties and faced drought and ruin. One participant articulated the fear gripping everyone: We are living through the consequences of global warming. In our lifetimes we are witnessing the end of viable farming.

Stories such as these knock my socks off.

I recently contacted some of my past students to discover what impact the workshops have had on them down the track. Here is a cross-section of their responses.

Kim Yabsley of Brisbane: I went off with lots of ideas. The next day I started a book and wrote 2000 words. Michelle Faraday of the Gold Coast: I am writing the memoir I've always hoped I'd write. Jenny Old of Toowoomba, a participant of the week-long McGregor Winter School writes: I have completed my first draft and I am so excited.

This cluster of comments reflects the kind of enchantment that grips almost everybody initially. Of course, staying with it is the hard part.

Whatever the student wants to work on is okay with me. Autobiographies, family histories, biographies, memoirs, topic memoirs, letters, journals, oral histories, travel, and experimental works - all are valid. Students benefit from the mix of possibilities. Where else can a New Guinea missionary rub shoulders with a Gay Mardi Gras organiser? Everyone receives respect for the life they have lived and their desire to share it. Sure, it's extra nice to come across something highly publishable but as anyone in the writing industry knows, there's an element of chance as to who ultimately falls across the finish line into the arms of a publisher. Attending a workshop is a way of making a start, regardless of the desired outcome.

Writing about life can have a powerful effect on the writer. A workshop can usher in a whole new way of seeing personal and family issues. As a child, Faith Baigent of Maleny was abandoned by sect-member parents who belonged to one of the Pentecostal churches. (‘Sorry dear, you're out of the nest because it's the will of God.') Faith used weekly writing classes to get going and finished her full-length manuscript a couple of years later. She tried publishers, so far without success. She acknowledges: You created a safe, confidential space and the tools to start. The process turned out to be confronting because of an enormous cache of repressed anger. The greatest value was that the trauma of my childhood lost its power. In the end I realised that it had made me into a strong person.

Many of the writers I encounter are very innovative people. Darryl Hill from a QAC-sponsored workshop at Wynnum-Manly describes his experience: I asked Mum to write a short memoir. No, she couldn't do that!!! Well, how about you just tell me about what the old days were like? I started writing as she spoke and it went from there. [A booklet resulted, ready for her 80th birthday celebration.] The end result was well received. I ran off about 30 copies, inserting a dozen photos into the Word document. Everyone was thrilled that I had bothered to go to the trouble, and they read their copies there and then after lunch.

Pat Ritter from Brooloo writes: Since I've last spoken with you I've written and self-published Confessions of an Alcoholic. I should have had my work edited professionally as you suggested because, despite all my proof-reading, mistakes crept in. I'm now working on a book about my days as a detective in the Queensland Police Force. I've decided not to self-publish this book but to place each chapter on my website www.patritter.com.au . Self-published books are hard to market so I've decided to be in control of my own destiny by converting them to e-books. I will soon have pay-pal installed.

Cecily Matthews, a successful children's writer who belongs to Kilcoy Writers, initiated two RADF-funded workshops. Within a month she had generously collated and printed an anthology of workshop writings.

The major obstacle my students report is ‘making time' - other activities tend to get in the way. That is why, following Patti Miller's lead in her seminal handbook, Writing Your Life, I ask workshop students to prepare for the writing journey. What workspace, equipment, research is needed? What time can you realistically commit? (HINT: Commit lots!) Brian Abbey, a Brisbane engineer commissioned to write a property developer's biography, is not alone in admitting wistfully: Progress has been slower than I'd hoped.

After a life of work and family, Maleny retiree Sam Dawes, surprised himself: I sat down, it poured out and I kept going until it was done. His joy would make American writer Janet Malcolm eat her heart out - she calls the vocation of authorship colourless to the point of sensory deprivation.

My job is to signal the major landforms to be expected on road ahead - memory, ethics, dialogue, conflict, movement (use active not passive tenses to make the past feel immediate), and so on. A day of oral storytelling, as well as reading successful published examples and getting on with writing snippets of one's own life story, can mean the student discovers that essential - a unique voice. A day is also enough for a student to identify with a special community of writers - those using lived experience to create.

The life stories I've been privileged to share, deserve audiences. I can give advice about publishing but ultimately it is up to the writer to find a place for their work. This may range from creating intimate, family-oriented audiences, to contributing to local studies collections, to writing feature articles for print or radio, or - most ambitious of all - publishing books.

Digital storytelling is an exciting new medium. From now on, I'll be suggesting writers go online to check out the State Library's collection of Queensland stories www.qldstories.slq.qld.gov.au and to consider adapting this technology to their own needs.

My thanks to the above past students for sharing their wisdom, in essence:
• Get help, especially to start with.
• Be prepared for a long haul and patches of emotional difficulty.
• Think outside the square to reach an audience.
• Transfer your new skills to enrich the lives of others.
• Enjoy yourself!

Lesley founded the Real Life Story Workshop in 1996. She has crossed memoir with poetry in her own work, Mountains Belong to the People who Love Them and Organic Sister, and has compiled and edited Nine Lives: Personal Stories of Mental Illness for the charity Open Minds.


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Zing Stories
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