Monday, December 14, 2009

From Then to Now - a Writing Journey

There was a theory when I was very young that it was a bad thing to teach children to read before they went to school. I’m not sure why unless it was to make the teacher’s task easier. This was probably was a valid concern but it meant nothing to me so, with no encouragement from home, I proceeded to teach myself. When I went to school and was given my bright, new reading book – “Old Lob and His Friends” (all about an English farm and yes, you’d have to wonder about its relevance to an Australian child even then) I brought it home and read it in a few minutes – and I can still remember the shock when I found out that it was intended to be learned from for the rest of the year.

Fortunately, once I was at school, my parents felt free to let me read and when the next year a public lending library opened locally I was allowed to range through the children’s section and borrow books. They also bought a set of Richards encyclopaedia, an atlas with a large section on natural history and geography in it and a huge Webster’s dictionary that was so heavy I had to put it on the floor so I could look up words. When I had finished my permitted library borrowing of two books a fortnight (even a child I was a fast reader so this library imposed rule really irked me) I turned to these books, especially the encyclopaedia, and began to read them from start to finish.

In them I discovered archaeology, science, history (ancient and modern) and geography among other things but best of all was Volume Fourteen of the encyclopaedia. Packed with fairy and folk tales (mostly European but with a smattering of African and Asian), stories of water nixies, selkies, boggarts, pixies, fairies and much more, the whole of the Arthurian cycle and the myths and legends of the gods, goddesses and heroes of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, it also held more nursery rhymes than I have ever seen anywhere since. I was in heaven.

My fascination with fantasy, which eventually grew into writing speculative fiction, began there, but when I think about it, I’ve been making up stories all my life. I started telling my brother stories when we were quite little and continued with the bedtime stories I told my own children. Then the children got older and, while the stories still buzzed in my head, there was no-one to listen.

I was fortunate in 1994 to find the late Pam Steenburgen was running a creative writing class at the local community centre. She was a gifted teacher and through her I broke away from the straight jacket of academic and report writing I'd become enmeshed in and rediscovered the delights of story telling. Pam introduced me to the Karrinyup Writers Club and I owe a great debt to her and all the writers there who shared their knowledge and time to help a newbie develop.

In 1996 I entered my first major short story competition with Pam’s encouragement and was stunned when I won. For the next few years I honed my skills and entered literary and poetry competitions with some success until a flying pig landed on the page one day and I had my first adult fantasy story. I had so much fun writing it that others followed. I’d always loved science fiction and fantasy and read widely in the genre even when I was a child and, although I still write literary stories and poetry, my greatest love is speculative fiction.

Strangely,I’d never even thought about writing a novel until one day a few years ago during a writing marathon a unicorn-like creature walked into a forest clearing and bonded telepathically with a girl - and after that visit he kept coming back. Before long I had a succession of stories about the same characters and realised that they were part of something much bigger. The first novel about them is currently having what I hope is its final edit thanks to the Egoboos WA critiquers, and the sequel is over the half way mark. The time I spent as an Emerging Writer in Residence at Tom Collins House Writers Centre last May and the writing race with Carol Ryles and Glenda Larke a few months ago added immensely to the number of words on the page. If you’re interested you can read about both on my blog.

I’m still writing short stories too, of course. They are a very different skill set and it’s a good change of pace and style from novel writing. Besides I learned so much about short story writing by going to Clarion South in 2007 I’d hate to waste it. I have a whole file of story ideas to work my way through yet but when something really stirs my passion nothing works better than a poem to express my feelings.

This writing journey I’m on has taken me to places I would have never expected, both physically and mentally, and along the way I have met some amazing writers and editors who have shared their knowledge and enthusiasm generously. The Egoboo WA group is the latest in a long line of supportive people without whom I would not be writing as I am today.

What next? Well, it's to keep on writing, aiming at making my novels and stories the very best they can be, and then sending them out into the world in the hope those who read them will enjoy them as much as I enjoyed writing them.


  1. Good post, Helen. I was also one to ransack local libraries when I was a kid, and making up silly stories to tell myself (an only child)? Oh yes. :) And encyclopedias, and those huge dictionaries? How could there *be* so many words? How was that even possible?

    I'm glad you met Pam Steenburgen. Not that I knew her myself, but I'm glad you met someone who helped you find your way in the world of scribbling.

  2. The more I read of writers' backgrounds the more similarities I see! Early reading, obsession with books, writing stories and if not stories, non-fiction or poetry from an early age and catholic taste in reading that often lead us into strange byways. I think there's a thirst for life experience, too, which often means a writer has had many jobs over the course of his or her working life.

    Early reading isn't necessarily a good thing on all fronts. I was reading reading upper primary material in my first year of school and when the headmaster heard me read in early in year two he bumped me up to year three. Never mind that I hadn't grasped times tables or that I was a sickly child who was away from school as often as in attendance. And did I learn times tables at home while I was sick? Of course not. I read more books!

    Still have a spot of bother with 12x:-)

  3. Interesting, Helen. I am struck by the fact that you read so deeply of encyclopaedias and natural histories (as well as mythic histories) as a relation to your invented storyworld which is so wonderfully rich in invented creatures! Some correlation there, perhaps? :-)

  4. Thanks everyone.
    Adrian: Pam was a true mentor and I am forever grateful to her.

    Satima: I was reading way beyond my years too. My father negotiated with the librarian to allow me to borrow from the adult section when I was eleven - you were supposed to be fourteen. I know my mother was uneasy about it but as we've discussed before with regard to Margo Lanagan's "Tender Morsels" my experience was that what I didn't understand went straight over my head.

    Jo: I'm sure all those things had an impact. I'm still fascinated by natural history and it inevitably flavours my writing.