Category Archives: Chronic Illness

A Journey Without Steps…Friday Fictioneers.

All this motivational quackery was rubbish. My journey of a thousand miles was never going to begin with this step, and it wasn’t going to head straight up a flight of stairs either. Surely, there was a lift? Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to ask. Twenty-five years young with the rusty joints of an eighty year old, I was done explaining. I’d shut shop. It was much easier to stay home. Yet, that wasn’t a luxury I could afford. Lingering between the lines of disability and wellness, I had to work. If only I had the wings to soar….

….

For those of you who’ve known me for awhile, I live with some chronic health and disability issues. When I was 25, I was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and had brain surgery to insert a shunt. My road to recovery felt like it was straight up the side of Everest without any safety equipment or assistance whatsoever, even though I was not alone. I really had comprehensive and loving support from my family friends and particularly my OT at Mt Wilga, who really helped me get through this incredibly hellish experience. Yet, I was the only one who could walk in my shoes. I was the only one who truly knew what it was like to put one foot after the other. I still had a job when I was going through that and yet my return to work date kept getting put back and their were complications. The valve of the shunt malfunctioned and I needed further surgery, which I really didn’t expect to survive. By this stage, returning to work seemed hopeless. My relationship had all but ended and it was a bloody hard slog. Yet, through all of that I always saw myself as a career woman. Work was very important to me. I ended up getting a part-time job and then landed what seemed to be my dream job in an advertising agency but the hours were very long and it was very stressful and one night I collapsed at Central Station from sheer exhaustion. I had to slow things down. Find a new path. One that wasn’t quite so steep and allowed me to heal. This was a huge life lesson for me and I clearly remember being told that I was a “human being and not a human doing”. I have a lot of adjustment to do and that is ongoing.

I would like to take this opportunity to raise awareness of the kinds of barriers people face when it comes to returning to work or finding a job when they have a disability, health issue or are just battling with life. How can we make their path a little bit easier? How can we reduce the load? What are we doing as a community to make their battle worse? Indeed, the finger of blame falls too quickly on the survivor instead of a helping hand.

Lecture over.

This has been another contribution to Friday Fictioneers hosted by Rochelle Wishoff-Fields. PHOTO PROMPT © Jilly Funell

Best wishes,

Rowena

 

Our Tenacious Little Dancer.

“I think she is growing up, and so begins to dream dreams, and have hopes and fears and fidgets, without knowing why or being able to explain them.”

Louisa May Alcott

Today, our beautiful daughter suddenly grew a couple of inches taller when she stepped into her very first pair of pointe shoes and she was up en pointe. This has been something she’s been aspiring towards ever since she first started ballet as an almost four year old eight years ago. Indeed, I remember a time when she was very small and she stood in a couple of plastic cups to get the look (and a bit of added altitude). In hindsight, I probably should’ve got those cups off her feet and been more safety conscious. However, she was so happy, and it was too good a photo opportunity to miss.

In typical Rowena fashion, this pointe shoe fitting demanded a bit of pomp and ceremony. Indeed, quite frankly if she wasn’t twelve years old, I would’ve popped the  champagne, even though I’m not that partial to the taste. Even as a child, I was mesmerized by the theatre of it all what with popping the cork and all those bubbles shooting out like stars across the room with unbridled joie de vivre. Bubbly encapsulates the excitement, the celebration the exquisite preciousness of the moment in a way that nothing else does. You don’t even need to drink the stuff.

However, instead of a champagne celebration, we met up with my Mum for lunch and coffee and then the three of us headed off to Bloch’s for her 3.00pm appointment. By the way, our daughter wasn’t the only young dancer who had to get that very special pair of first pointe shoes on the very first day of the school holidays. The fitter had been flat out all day and we were something like her 11th fitting. Yet, she seemed just as excited for my daughter and for us as the first. As a dancer herself, she knew what this moment was about and really helped to make it special and informative. If there’s one thing I now know about pointe shoes, it’s not to get them wet. I also confess that I’ve also seen my daughter’s feet in a new light.

Helping en pointe BW

We really appreciated the care and assistance we received at Bloch’s Hornsby with the shoe fitting. Naturally, the staff are dancers themselves and I felt that our fitter was handing down the mantle to our daughter. They actually gave her a certificate. She’d joined the club.

Our daughter has been learning ballet for eight years now and she’s worked very hard for the last 12 months doing all sorts of stretches to prepare her feet and toes. Indeed, she needed to have a physio consultation before she could go for her pointe shoe fitting. By that stage, her teacher already knew she was ready. However, she likes her students and a parent to be aware of the physicality of ballet and how the muscles bones and other bits and pieces come together to to produce your swan. Through being more conscious of this physical element and looking after your body, dancers can help prevent injury, wear and tear. Given the difficulties I have with movement, I have appreciated these physical realities through a different window, which has given me an insight into the physical demands of dancing. That it isn’t only about costumes, makeup and hair. After all, injury and being on the sidelines is not just an inconvenience for a dancer. It can mean The End, or simply the end of  dance as they know it. When dance is your passion and raison d’etre, that can feel like surviving your own death. (I’ve gone through that with my own battles.)

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There was so much to learn at her fitting and you can see here that Miss is very focused taking it all in. She hasn’t been swept away by the excitement of it all.

For every young dancer along with her birth and dance families, getting their first pointe shoes is rightly an incredible achievement and time for celebration. While you might see those beautiful pink satin pointe shoes and immediately think of the likes of Degas and his dancers and the professional stage, these young girls are still within cooeee of being the “awkward duckling” who started out. There were no guarantees back then and for us, there were  certainly no expectations. I just dropped her off for her first class and the mysteries of dance went on behind closed doors until open days or the concert. From where I sat, ballet was just a part of childhood for a little girl. A bit of fun. An activity. It had nothing to do with my dreams, unless it came to taking her photo. Now, that was something I understood.

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Edgar Degas, The Little Dancer. She reminded me of my daughter until I found out she was quite distorted.

Although I wasn’t so conscious of this at the time, seeing Miss in her pointe shoes really brought home what we’ve all been through to get her there. I don’t think anybody’s road is easy, but everybody’s road is unique with their own particular reasons why getting into those pointe shoes is a personal miracle and a triumph over adversity. Most of you will be aware that I live with a life-threatening auto-immune disease which affects my muscles and lungs. However, Miss has a rare digestive disorder called gastroparesis, which particularly flared up a few years ago and she was barely able to eat. Indeed, she was struggling to get to school or to ballet and she missed months of classes.

Amelia at the san

Miss in hospital waiting for her endoscopy. So brave but she also loved having her own remote control TV!!

As you could imagine, it was very difficult to know quite how to manage the situation. We were very concerned about her actual health and it would’ve been quite a logical decision to cut out dance to focus on her schoolwork. Yet, we’re fighters. We might be holding onto the cliff face by our fingertips and kicking and screaming, but we don’t give up. Indeed, it was only after missing a couple of terms and feeling like all my motivational strength had run out, that I truly started thinking it was time to pull the pin. Her teacher was also very patient. However, dancing is a team sport and it’s hard to manage a team on three legs. So, with the end of year concert rapidly approaching, it was crunch time. As a possible way forward, her teacher suggested that her friend came over and they practice the dance together. I’m so thankful because her friend saved the day. That was the turning point. She picked up the dance. Was in the concert and was back on her dance feet again. Then, the following year, she had a friend at her new school who was a passionate dancer and she also a tremendous encouragement. By the end of that year, Miss decided to audition for Dance Team at the studio and was accepted. She hasn’t looked back and with the incredible training and support from her teachers, is growing from strength to strength. Clearly, with all these dance angels working flat out with her on multiple fronts, our daughter must’ve been destined to get up on those pointe shoes today. It’s been a real team effort.

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Afternoon Tea.

By the way, while we’re talking about life lessons from the road, organization has been another hurdle. While other girls have managed to get to class with a perfect ballet bun and all components of their uniform, all too often Miss could only find one ballet shoe and her ballet bun could well have been reinterpreted as a bird nest of its own unique variety thanks to her superfine hair, where getting the knots out produced spine-chilling screams. Yet, somehow or another, all of this has mostly become a thing of the past.

After explaining some of the hurdles we’ve had to overcome, perhaps you’ll understand why I thought this moment might never come and the tears of joy I held back while we were there as I felt like the happiest Mum alive. Back when our daughter was struggling, I remember seeing a group of older girls who’d just got their first pair of pointe shoes. They were exuberant and clearly this meant the world to them not only as individuals, but as a group. I felt so privileged to catch a glimpse through this keyhole and get an insight into just how important this moment is to a young dancer and what it would mean to my girl. Whatever happened with my daughter and dance, I wanted her to hang in there at least until she’d gone en pointe and  been a part of that bubble. Not for me, but for herself. I could could sense something in her soul, which is becoming more apparent with every passing year. Dancing is her thing. It isn’t her only thing but it lights her fire.

So, now we find ourselves at a new beginning. Once she goes en pointe, she has to learn to dance all over again. Although it is tempting to try to fast forward and think about where all of this is heading, he’s only 12 years old. The world is her oyster and there are still so many forks in the road. She doesn’t need to choose one yet. However, it can be difficult to maintain a balance and keep an open mind when you fall in love with such an alluring juggernaut that you could easily sell your soul to dance in ballet’s fire. Somehow, we just need to keep a level head and maintain a balanced path…at least for now.

After the fitting, she went to stay with my parents for the week taking her beloved pointe shoes with her. If they weren’t so precious, it wouldn’t surprise me if she slept with them under her pillow or close to her heart. They meant the world to her and I’m so proud of her for all she’s overcome, her hard work, dedication and most of all her passion for dance. I am also very grateful to all the people who have helped her along the way, her teachers, my parents but also very much her friends who have been so supportive and encouraging and that’s not something you hear much about in the dance world. She has some incredible dancing mates.

That is also why I am sharing our journey via the road less travelled for our daughter to get her pointe shoes.  That parenting isn’t all about bragging rights and showing off about your kids’ talents. It’s also about sharing about the hurdles and difficulties so other girls don’t give up along the way because they feel they don’t measure up. Aren’t good enough without giving it all they’ve got. I belong to the Muscular Dystrophy community and not everyone can get up on pointe shoes or dance in a conventional sense. However, that doesn’t have to stop you from finding a way. Indeed, I’ve done some adult classes myself and have my own pair of pink satin ballet shoes. I think it helps to understand that you’re not the only one who might be going through difficulties and wondering whether to persevere with dance or whether it’s all worth it. No one else can answer that on your behalf. However, we are meant to encourage each other and dance is such an exhilarating experience. It’s worth fighting for.

Do you have any dance stories you would like to share? Or, a story of triumphing over adversity? I’d love to hear from you.

Best wishes,

Rowena

PS I have a strange sense of humour. However, after hearing about how her pointe shoes have paper mache in the toes and are very sensitive to moisture, including sweaty feet, I found I found a great deal of humour in this quote:

“Growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry. But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet”
Joni Ernst

So, if you see a dancer with plastic bread bags over er pointe shoes, you’ll know that’s our daughter!

Weekend Coffee Share – 16th September, 2018.

Welcome to Another Weekend Coffee Share!

This week, you’re in luck. You can fight my husband and I for the remains of the  Lemon Meringue Layer Cake I made on Friday. The cake has two layers of butter cake which are both covered in a thick layer of meringue and then baked. To assemble, you sandwich the layers together with the lemon curd and whipped cream. This was the first time that I’ve ever made this cake and it was a rather ambitious project. More ambitious than I realized because I’d already separated the eggs, when I read that the lemon curd needed to set for four hours or overnight. I didn’t have four hours. At best, I had three including travel time. I was taking it to a friend’s place, which was also why I was making this fancy cake. It was quite big and I knew our family never get through it. So, you don’t need to be psychic to know trouble’s brewing and well you might ask whether the cake part has learned to swim. That’s before we even consider surviving the drive there and going round corners. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. The cake is still in the oven. I have to duck out to pick my daughter up from dance but my support worker is here to keep an eye on it and turn it around. However, somehow the dial on the oven got bumped and in what is starting to sound like a screw up of Masterchef proportions, the temperature has jumped from moderate to hellishly hot and the perfect setting to scorch the outside and leave the inside raw. In other words…DISASTER. Well, it would’ve been a disaster if I wasn’t the master of disaster and know how to cover things up. Snipped off the burnt bits and praised God for the invention of icing sugar. Meanwhile, the lemon curd had magically set in the fridge. It was all a bit flowy and unstable but it looked and tasted spectacular with a luscious lemon zing.

Last week, wasn’t just about cake.

It’s Spring here and all that increased sunshine and balmy warmth, went to my head. Lights. Camera. Action. I accepted that our garage sale wasn’t going to be happening any time soon and sorted through the mountain of clothing and kept the best of put on eBay and filled up the car and took the rest to the charity shop. Walked out of there with a new slow cooker and a Wedgewood jewelry box for my Mum. She had something like this when I was little and I’m not sure if she still has it. I remember poking around it looking at her jewelry which a special treat.

Wedgewood box

Do you remember something like this from your past? 

I’ve also gone through some of my writing and am trying to do some editing and find some direction for some dog stories I wrote almost ten years ago. I’ve been thinking about them as kids’ books, which clearly they were not and I’m now revisiting them as potential short stories or even a series of interconnected stories. Either way, there’s a fair bit of work ahead, but the foundations are there. It would be such a relief to get something finish and in a format that works.

Do you have a few projects up your sleeve like that? Isn’t it a writer’s lot? Well, this writer is trying to convert a few goals. Or should that read trys? I’m not into sport.

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My husband’s lawn protection growing device is achieving wonders. 

The garden is also progressing nicely and we even have lawn in our backyard. That was such a breakthrough, that it warranted a post all by itself: Making the Grass Greener

The other big news this week, is that the family and I attended a disability access meeting run by our local State MP Paralympian, Liesl Tesch. A new disability access web site, Wheeleasy which is like an equivalent of Trip Advisor was being launched and the idea was for us to go out for lunch afterwards and rate the access of local cafes. We skipped that part but I appreciated the opportunity to raise a few of my local frustrations and know Liesl takes my opinions seriously. Hopefully something will get done. By the way, while I’m not in a wheelchair myself, I have some mobility issues stemming from an autoimmune disease which attacks my muscles, but which is fortunately in remission. Yet, I am still part of the disability community, and also not. Having an invisibility puts me into something of a No Man’s land.

Road Kill CafeIn terms of what I’ve posted this week, for Friday Fictioneers, there was Cuckoo Clock House and for Thursday Doors, we were off to Tasmazia’s  Road Kill Cafe.

No wonder I’m feeling tired.

How was your week? I hope you’ve had a great one!

This has been another contribution to the Weekend Coffee Share hosted by Ecclectic Ali. We’d love you to come and join us.

Best wishes,

Rowena

 

 

 

 

Cuckoo Clock House…Friday Fictioneers.

As soon as he walked in, Jan was at peace. The boy with the cuckoo clock heart, had finally found his tribe in this museum of intricately carved clocks. No longer an outsider, they even shared the same heartbeat.

Unable to afford a human heart, his father had found a mysterious cuckoo clock at the local market, which he prayed would save the life of his beloved son. Yet, although the operation was a success, there was a strange side-effect. Dvorak’s American Symphony played like a broken record in his head.

At last, he understood. It was all about the house.

….

Welcome to another contribution for Friday Fictioneers hosted by Rochelle Wishoff Fields. This week’s photo prompt is © J Hardy Carroll and was taken at the Bily Clock Museum in Spillville, Iowa. The museum building was the residence of Antonín Dvořák during the summer of 1893 where he composed his String Quartet in F (also known as the “American Quartet”) and his String Quintet in E-Flat. You can hear it Here

 

 

The Journey Home…A Personal Quest.

“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

– Matsuo Basho

For those of you who have been following my blog for awhile, you’ve probably sensed that I’ve been grappling with something. Something like a whole lot of random puzzle pieces, and wondering why they won’t all fit together. Arranging and rearranging them and then darting down another wombat tunnel (these are rather long and extensive by the way) searching for another missing piece, hoping that this time, I’ll finally be able to see the entire picture. Or, at the very least, have all four corners and the edge pieces in place.

Fueling this quest has been a sense that something isn’t quite right, which might’ve been blown off as anxiety or misplaced perfectionism if the story had been a little different.

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The Good Little Girl.

Of course, the general recommendation was “to go with the flow”. The only trouble being, that I was beyond the flow. Moreover, nobody ever presented me with a map or gave me any directions whatsoever to try to find the flow, let alone a lift. Indeed, since whenever, I’ve never gone with the flow or even known what it was.  Hence, why I’ve called my blog “Beyond the Flow”.

Rowena 1981

Here I am in Year 6 aged 12. The Serious Student.

Lately, this sense of not going with the flow re-positioned itself, and I felt more like I was living in between the lines where I perhaps don’t belong to either group but see something in between that other people miss. This perspective is also rather interesting when you look at it from a visual perspective, as you’re inhabiting that white space between two sentences. Not that I can actually read either sentence, as I’m up too close. It’s all a blur. I’m just there. Indeed, I could well be fast asleep, and quite at peace in what actually seems an uncomfortable, or even isolating position.

Rowena Dressing up

I used to love dressing up and performing. My brother and I put on little shows at home.

By the way, I didn’t say that I was alone. I’m not. Indeed, I’m actually starting to wonder just how many of us hover in between worlds not really knowing where we belong and yearning to find our home. Or, perhaps we/they have reached a point of acceptance, or even giving up, and have pitched a tent where they are and set up camp.

For many of us, there’s a complicating factor which heightens this sense of living in between the lines. Of not going with the flow. Even, grappling to know who we are within our own skin, before we can even attempt to work out how we can find our place in the outside world.

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The Irrepressible University Student. You can see I’ve jumped right out of my box by now.

Personally, my struggle to know and understand myself raised up into something of a tsunami wave, after I was diagnosed with hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain when I was 26. Apparently, it had been there since birth, but randomly became symptomatic in my mid-20s. Suddenly, thanks to my diagnosis, I had an explanation for being quirky, uncoordinated, and not fitting in. Better still, I had a cure. A magic fix. I had brain surgery and was given a shunt, which not only reduced the pressure in my brain and improved my coordination, it also felt for a time like the lights had gone out. Indeed, I started to believe that the theatrical, extroverted independent woman I had always been, was largely the fabrication of this disease. That all this pressure in my head, had made me disinhibited. That at least some percentage of who I thought was me, was in actual fact the disease stepping into my shoes and even inside my very skin and taking over.

Poetry Reading

Performing My Poetry in Paris in 1992.

This, of course, left the door open for way too many questions, and they not only moved in, but also made themselves at home.

Indeed, it left many doors and pathways open as I grappled to find some rock solid sense of myself. That core at the very centre of my being. The bit that is left, when you remove and take off all the layers and external forces and just is.

“To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment.”

Eckhart Tolle

Much of this exploration has either been unconscious, or going on in the background while I’m getting on with the realities of life. If you’ve lived with this , you’ll know what I mean when I say the front screen is running but there’s another screen running behind closed doors, behind the curtain, or even somewhere at the back of your eyeballs (the eyes being the window of your soul). I never intended to live and operate like this, and I must admit it’s been very frustrating. I’ve really struggled to know quite who I am, and then to confound it further, I developed a debilitating auto-immune disease, which side-swiped me like a massive monster truck. Of course, it didn’t stop to see if I’m okay, or to even help me get my bearings. It just kept going.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

Aristotle

Anyway, as I said, I’ve been niggling with this in the background and moving very much by feel. I feel comfortable, belong and really thrive in some settings, but in others, I shrivel up and am almost screaming in my skin to escape. I feel awful. There doesn’t need to be an explanation. Indeed, there often isn’t one.

Performance Queanbeyan 1886

 

I am coming to wonder whether it’s been this struggle within myself, which has taken me so deeply inside my family history. Indeed, now that I’ve found the missing piece of the puzzle, it feels like this is what I’ve been searching for my entire life. It wasn’t a coincidence that I wanted to swing from the chandelier. Or, that I wanted the be an actress right through high school (in addition to being a journalist). There was this pull from somewhere deep within my DNA, which didn’t connect with Mum and Dad or anybody in the near vicinity. However, deep within the lines of historic newspaper text, there it was. My grandmother’s grandmother performed in an amateur Minstrel Show in Queanbeyan, near Canberra. While it wasn’t New York, the programme was printed in the newspaper, and she wasn’t only the pianist. She was also acting. Indeed, Lizzie Johnston was playing Louisa in a romantic farce: The Rival Lovers. Finally, I had permission and acknowledgement of who I’ve always been. A constant beyond the ups and downs of life and collisions with life-threatening illnesses. An extrovert who doesn’t need a stage to perform, and can even perform in words upon the page, just like my kids sing and dance across the stage. Indeed, I don’t need a drink to perform a on stage either. Rather, I need someone to tie me to my seat in the audience.

Of course, that is not to say we’re pre-determined by our genes. However, personally I found it very encouraging that someone else in my family has been down this road, and I’m not crazy. That it wasn’t the result of too much pressure on the brain. It’s simply me. Moreover, there are quite a few performers on both sides of my extended family tree.

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My Great Great Aunt, Rose Bruhn, owned an elite hair and beauty salon in Brisbane but could also make kookaburras laugh on command, had a budgie who recited reams of Shakespeare. She appeared with them at charity fundraisers where she also performed poetry and she played the violin.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost.

Rowena Lizottes

The humble violinist. I was actually a rank beginner when this photo was taken, but I have an in-built sense of theatre.

However, I’m not sure that this discovery is going to change a hell of a lot. These days, I’m pretty content with what I’ll call “my lot”. I’ve been doing some performances on my violin, which isn’t quite the same as jumping out of a cake or swinging from a chandelier, but I now understand a little better why I wanted to perform, and wasn’t content to only play alone at home.

While this journey is incredibly personal, and having problems with your brain isn’t something to brag about, it was a story that needed to be shared. While it’s been a catharsis for myself, I wanted to reach out to people grappling with similar issues, and hold your hand. We are not alone.

The Missing Piece

Lastly, I wanted to share an animation of a favourite book of mine by Shel Silverstein: The Missing Piece . It might be simple, but it’s very profound.

If this post connects with you in any way, I would love to hear from you via the comments.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Dealing With Characters in Non-Fiction.

Not every writer aspires to write a novel. Although I have stumbled into a passion for both writing and reading flash or bite fiction, my book-writing aspirations focus almost exclusively on writing non-fiction.

By non-fiction, I’m not referring to something along the lines of memoir and motivational writing. However, a few years ago, I stumbled upon some gripping stories through my family history research, which were writer’s gold. You know, the sort of stuff which could easily be described as “the Big Bang”.  After all, as the saying goes, “fact is often stranger than fiction”.

Anyway, after having yet another monumental tussle with a character this week, I thought I’d share a few peculiarities I’ve encountered dealing with characters in non-fiction.

Obviously, the very clear distinction between developing characters in non-fiction, is that your characters are or were real people. They’re not products of your imagination, even if they were inspired by real people.

This places certain limitations on how you construct and develop your character. For example, you can’t just make up where they lived, their occupation. Moreover, something real has happened to spark the story in the first place. So, as the author, you’re not really in command of character development or plot. Indeed, you’re role is more that of a meticulous restorer, than a designer.

Using the Proust Questionnaire.

This is where turning to the Proust Questionnaire can be particularly helpful, as it allows you to focus on and bring out the idiocyncracies of your character. It poses a series of questions, which may be used to “interview” your character. Here’s a brief snap shot, which was taken from the Vaniety Fair version.

1.__What is your idea of perfect happiness?

__2.__What is your greatest fear?

__3.__What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

__4.__What is the trait you most deplore in others?

__5.__Which living person do you most admire?

Character Have Limitations in Non-Fiction

Clearly, with your characters being real, this places all sorts of restrictions and limitations on how you can develop your character if you are trying to be truly authentic, rather than using a real person as a launching pad into fiction.

With the pieces I’m currently working on, I’m trying to be as authentic as possible. Indeed, I am in effect being, in effect, more of a restorer, than a designer. I’m working with my tweezers and magnifying glass to get those little details right, and yet at the same time, using a broad brush to create suspense, action and all the usual tools that you usually use to make a story worth reading. After all, a reader has no obligation to read anything we write, and there has to be an exceptionally good reason for them to even read the title, let alone the opening page. The days of readers bowing and scraping to the almighty author are long gone. We are the ones who need to get down on our knees and thank the reader. Be thankful they gave us their precious time.

Meticulous Research, Minimal Use.

This is why you don’t want to burden your reader with too much detail, even though you may have volumes of research. They should only see the tip of the ice berg. That’s not to say you don’t need the ice berg, but the reader is also interested in the other bells and whistles. You need to know your stuff. They need to know you know your stuff, but they don’t want you to regurgitate it all over them.

There is beauty in simplicity, something I’ve been appreciating more and more through writing and reading flash or bite fiction. A well-chosen object, piece of clothing, or even the use of language, speaks volumes. You don’t always need to write a novel.

Best Guess is Good Enough.

Another challenged I faced writing non-fiction, was working out about how to fill in the gaps. There’s stuff I don’t know. Can’t find out. Making things up bother me. Was it lying? However, I don’t believe there’s any harm in a best guess scenario. After all, the lines between fact and fiction are really quite blurry once you look into them. There’s always an overlap. Well, at least, that’s my humble opinion. I certainly wouldn’t call it “lying” or “fabrication”, and I am fairly fastidious about getting historical detail right.

The Character Drives Plot. The Author is the Passenger.

This week, I struck a another challenge peculiar to writing non-fiction. You are not writing or making up the plot. Rather, your character is in charge, and doesn’t care whether their next step is going to scuttle hours of work, and your entire philosophical position. No. They just do what they like and all you can do is structure and arrange facts and events, through your own editing lens.

The project which brought this to light, was actually my family history research. While I have been developing a series character sketches, which I’ve been posting on the blog in preparation for a book, I actually had nothing to say about my 4th Great Grandfather, John Johnston. I couldn’t find anything.

Plot is Unpredictable

However, after 20 years of passive research, I found out John Johnston was convicted of bigamy in New Zealand in 1864. Indeed, not only was he still married when he married my 4th Great Grandmother, Maria Bridget Flanagan. They even had four children, and it wasn’t like they weren’t living nearby either.

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This could well be John Johnston approx 1886.

As you could imagine, this changed a lot of things. Indeed, it actually changed his name. He was known as “Alexander John”, despite having a younger brother who was Alexander.  Moreover, instead of immigrating directly from Scotland to New Zealand, I found out that he had been living in Liverpool. Indeed, he had married Jane Ellen Jones at St James Church, Toxteth Park, Liverpool in 1855. Alexander John and Jane Ellen then lived with her parents for four months. They ultimately had four children and at least two of them were born in England. Alexander John moved to New Zealand around 1860 and three months later, Jane Ellen and the children sailed out. They settled in Dunedin where Alexander John was licensee of the Argyle Hotel until he went off to the diggings.

Understandably, my impressions of John Johnston nose-dived sharply. Although I’d never found any signs of greatness,  family legend had it that he’d built the North Sydney/Cammeray Suspension Bridge in Sydney in 1892. As it turned out, that was built by his brother, although we’re sure he was in there somewhere. Previously, I was thinking very much in terms of right-hand man, not the family charity case. Meanwhile, his other brother, Angus Rutherford Johnston was some kind of Indiana Jones type character who’d fought in Nicaragua, had been shipwrecked and captured by Indians, escaped, found gold and settled in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island where he ran a successful store. This has been, and continues to be, a family of high achievers. I’d always thought it was just a matter of time until I found out that John had built a railway, a monumental bridge or somehow made a name for himself somehow, and certainly NOT as a bigamist.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of the bigamy case here, except to say that he stared straight at his first wife in court and denied being married to her, despite their four children. Indeed, when he took the the detective round to see his wife, he really seemed to apply the charm: ” Jane, my girl, you wont prosecute me,” You see, it was actually the Crown which was pursuing the case. In the end, “Alexander John” was found guilty and fined. He got off lightly on a technicality.

However, it wasn’t just the bigamy, or his denial which shot him down in flames. He was also a perpetrator of domestic violence. In 1863, he attacked Jane Ellen with a knife:

Threatening to Stab—Jane Ellen Johnston I charged her husband, Alexander John Johnston with threatening to stab her with a knife on the 13th inst. The defendant was required to give bond to keep the peace towards her for six months, fined in the amount of £lO, and to find two sureties tor £2O each.”

Otago Daily Times, Issue 464, 16 June 1863

I knew nothing about this a week ago, and as you could imagine, it changes everything. I was shocked right to the very core. After all, you don’t really need much of a sense of ethics or values to know this man was a bastard, or at least capable of acts of pure bastardry.

However, as if all of this wasn’t already bad enough, it gets worse. Much, much worse.

On the 8th February, 1866 Jane Ellen and Alexander John’s nine year old son found a pistol, which his mother thought was safely out of reach. Jane Ellen was out in the garden weeding with two of the other children, when she heard a firearm exploding. Nine year old, Thomas James Johnston had shot his 15 month old sister, Ellen Overton Johnston, in the chest and she died. He didn’t know it was loaded.

Clearly, real life has now moved into the pits of hell, and to compound his first family’s agony, Alexander John was off living with my 4th Great Grandmother, Maria Bridget. Indeed, their son Angus had been born on the 6th January, 1865 and Margaret was born roughly a year later.

This wasn’t the story I was planning to write, even for my own consumption.

Of course, not all non-fiction takes such a turn for the worst. However, the story of John Johnston certainly illustrates that you need to be prepared for surprises, and somehow make the necessary adjustments.

The Challenge of Writing My Own Motivational Memoir.

I’ve faced different, but related challenges, working on a motivational memoir, known as: “The Book Project”. Just as I thought the plot was reaching it’s climax and about to trail off to its “living happily ever-after” conclusion, fate stepped in and the book was dead.

You see, I was working on a motivational book about overcoming my severely debilitating auto-immune disease, dermatomyositis and for 12 months, I was soaring. Flying high. I’d managed to all but turn my mountain around. I’d lost 10 kilos despite being on the fat drug, prednisone. I’d taken up the violin despite my disabilities and had played at a happening local music venue at our end of year concert. I’d started my blog and had built up an online blogging community. I’d also gone on an adventure camp where I’d gone parasailing, driven a quad bike and gone down the water slide on the boat without my glasses on, and had ridden a camel. I’d also managed to return to work one day a week as Marketing Manager of a local IT company and was also helping out in my son’s classroom as a volunteer teacher’s aide, and sometimes took the class. These were all things not only I had deemed impossible. It was all there in black and white, or at least shades of grey. The grand finale for the book, was going to be skiing down the Front Valley at Perisher, which would represent turning my mountain. Unable to climb a mountain and ever the individual, I’d decided to ski down the mountain instead.

Indeed, I did it. More as a terrified, quivering wreck of my former self, but I’d pulled it off.

However, even while I was still  down at the snow, I developed the beginnings of a severe chest infection, which blew up into pneumonia. One night while coughing uncontrollably, I briefly even stopped breathing. Meanwhile, a CT scan on my lungs showed that I’d developed fibrosis as a complication of the dermatomyositis, and suddenly the thrill of soaring steadily upwards, came crashing down and didn’t stop at ground level. It kept falling. Seriously, at this point I thought I was looking at a death sentence. Twelve months to live. I’d smacked into the wall, and I was all but a dead duck.

This wasn’t how the Book Project was meant to end. You can’t write a motivational book, which finishes off with you drowning in your own lungs. Come on. That’s not even a story you could give away, let alone become that guaranteed best seller I’d written in my head right down to the second last page.

Fortunately, my doctors put me on a series of chemo infusions of a drug called cyclophosphamide and five and a half years later, I’m still here, and I’ve been in remission ever since. Amen!

While these plots certainly plunged unexpectedly deep into the dark side, they do illustrate how when you’re writing about real people, the author is not in charge. Indeed, you’re much more of a passenger, than sitting in the driver’s seat. Indeed, you can see that at work even when I was writing my own story, although in that instance, it was fate which stepped in.

Clearly, this has become a very lengthy post, and so I’m going to stop it there and turn it over to you. Have you ever written non-fiction? How did you face and overcome some of the hurdles involved? It was be great to get a bit of discussion going.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Belated Weekend Coffee Share… 25th June, 2018.

Welcome to Another Weekend Coffee Share!

It’s now Monday night here, so I hope you’ve have a great weekend . Although I’m turning up rather late this week, hopefully a few stragglers would still like to join me and keep the coffee and conversation flowing.

How was your week? Do you have any stories you’d like to share?

Well, I had a busy week and much of it was rather annoying because it involved medical appointments. I had one in Sydney, one locally with my GP and was back to the GP for an iron infusion on Friday, which will hopefully turn me into Popeye the Sailor Woman in a few weeks’ time once it’s take effect. These medical appointments weren’t such a big deal, and it was more a case of one appointment generating another and then they seem to breed like rabbits for a bit. However, fortunately they largely retreat back into their hidey holes much of the time these days and only reach this kind of frequency very occasionally.

After my doctor’s appointment on Monday, I headed down to Kirribilli for a coffee and set myself up with my notebook and started randomly writing. I love downloading my soul in pen on paper like this in a rustic old cafe, and it also feels so good for the soul to get all that stuff out as well.

Last week, the kids’ school held their annual Variety Concert over two nights. Our daughter danced on Tuesday night and our son was on lights the first night and backstage the next. What with having to drop him back and forth, my daughter and I also decided to watch the second concert as well. I’m really glad we did, not only because the acts were so good and we enjoyed some incredible entertainment, but also because I hope by being there, we might’ve encouraged some young performers. It’s very rare that you ever hear anything about being a “talented audience”. I’ve personally put in many years learning the piano, ballet and the violin, but no one even sat me down and encouraged me to learn how to be a productive member of the audience and be more than just a bum on a seat. Of course, my mother taught me not to crinkle lolly wrappers and not to cough, go to the toilet or talk during a performance and these days we also need to ensure we switch our omnipresent phones to silent. However, these things are more about the etiquette of being in the audience, rather than really getting into it. You can applaud with gusto and enthusiasm. Smile. Better still, you can compliment the performer afterwards, ideally pointing to something specific so they know you mean it and you payed attention. You see, while the performer’s talent might seem very obvious to you and that you might expect them to be egotistical and full of themselves, quite often I find the reverse is quite true. That many highly talented performers are perfectionists. Perfectionism is a state which can never be reached, and so far too many live with an agonising sense of their weaknesses and mistakes, rather than their incredible abilities to take everyone around them on a magical flight to someplace else, or even deeper within their soul.

Anyway, I digress. I am rather prone to philosophizing, and I guess sharing philosophical ideas over coffee is nothing new.

While I don’t really see getting around my local area as “travelling” per se, the beauty about blogging with people from all around the world, is that my own backyard become exotic. My backyard to travelling to you.

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Our local Beach during Winter.

Anyway, last Saturday Geoff’s sister from Queensland came down for a visit along with her son who has been living in Canada or the US for over 15 years. So, we met up with them at a local cafe and then decided he should see more of his own country before he heads back and took him for a drive to Patonga, which is located on the Hawkesbury River about 15 minutes drive away through the bush and round some fairly twisty bends. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been to Patonga, and I’ve really get to ask myself why I don’t get out and see more of the local environment when I’m surrounded by glorious beaches, stunning coastal views and the great Aussie bush. I guess, like for most of us, life gets in the way. There always seems to be so much to get done and so much of that really isn’t exciting either. It’s little more than crossing stuff off the list, but I know from past experience that ignoring it only makes it worse.

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Fishing Boats at Patonga.

Well, I guess it’s time to wrap things up here. I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit and I look forward to popping round and touching base with you as well.

This has been another contribution to the Weekend Coffee Share, hosted by Eclectic Ali.

Best wishes,

Rowena