Writing true stories

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Me and my Dad – late 1974

Last week, I decided that for Father’s Day, I would write a blog post about my Dad, who died almost 8 years ago. I sent a group message to my immediate family – my Mum, my two sisters and brother, brother-in-law and my husband because he isn’t just MY Dad. He is a husband and a father and a father-in-law. I wanted to make sure that whatever I wrote would not upset anyone. At first I put off writing because my Dad crammed a lot into his 83 years and his story is really interesting. There was so much I wanted to say but as I try and keep my blog posts under 1000 words, I wasn’t sure how to fit it all in.

Once I started writing, I was on a roll, and I actually mentioned to Mum that we should write a book. Mum had written a lot about Dad when he died,  stemming from the eulogy she gave at his funeral and I’m sure my siblings would have a lot to add. But that was a project for another time and for now, I just wanted to write a short piece to celebrate his life on Father’s Day.

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Our Wedding Day – and our family altogether. My Dad and Grandma at the front, then my niece, brother in law, sister, me, Simon, Mum, my Poppy, my sister in law, brother and sister. Canberra, October 2006

Born in 1926, Dad arrived in Australia as a two year old during the Great Depression. He left school young, built a career in Wollongong, first in BHP in employment, then in public relations, and then subsequent careers working for the Illawarra Hawks basketball team and at the Novotel before retiring at 73. He was involved in football (the round ball kind – soccer), was a patron of over 130 ethnic groups, was instrumental in establishing a business networking organisation, was involved in local and state politics (including as an alderman on local council and a campaign manager), had an Italian Knighthood and an Order of Australia. He was married twice and had two sets of kids – who are all to this day, close. Dad loved music, sport, the occasional round of golf, food, red wine and good whiskey.

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Front page of the Illawarra Mercury – my sister and I with Dad when he received his Italian knighthood

I’d almost succeeded in drafting a concise history of my Dad, when Simon suggested we go and visit the new gin bar down the road. Despite the fact that it was cold, wet and windy and going out would require a change from tracksuit pants and ugg boots and some make-up, it was Father’s Day, so I agreed. I was also glad to have a break from writing because I was finding it harder than usual to write the last paragraph. How could I wrap up this short history of Dad’s life and do it justice? I’d also made the mistake of reading the eulogy I wrote for Dad’s funeral and looking at the photos we’d put together for a slide show and I was a bit teary.

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Dad and Angus (about 1 month old), January 2009

So off to The Stillery we went for a G&T (from a list of about 20 which includes the Barossa Distilling Company’s own gin), half a dozen oysters and a cheese platter. A nice escape on a chilly day and I even found myself wondering whether it was acceptable to schedule an afternoon G&T writing session every couple of weeks! While the Barossa might be known for it’s wine, there are a number of craft beer, cider and spirits producers doing some really interesting things.

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But I digress – this post is about writing, not drinking! When I got home, I continued to work on the blog about Dad, but I was still finding it hard and I think for the first time I realised that perhaps I had been wrong in thinking that non-fiction was easier than fiction.  Apart from a few thousand words on a fiction novel for my first attempt at Nanowrimo (the national novel writing month where participants aim to complete a 50,000 word manuscript  in November)  in 2014, my recent writing efforts have focused on a memoir of my time in Vietnam and blog posts. I assumed that writing non-fiction would be easier because I didn’t have to be creative. It was just writing about my experiences and opinions. But nothing could be further from the truth. What I am now realising is that writing non-fiction involves so much research, fact-checking and the risk  that the way you portray a person or experience might offend someone, which is even worse if you are writing about someone who isn’t around to give their take on the story.

I am still keen to write a story about my Dad, and I would also like to explore the possibility of writing something longer than a blog post. But I have realised that I need to learn some skills to give me the confidence to accurately and authentically tell true stories. Next week, I’m starting my first formal writing course – Magazine and Newspaper Writing Stage 1 through the Australian Writers’ Centre. I’m hoping that writing more, and having my work critiqued will give me the confidence to write my true stories – and in the meantime, I might just dip my toe into the world of creative writing and see what I come up with.

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Dad wasn’t known for his cooking – apart from his bacon wrapped scallops!

So many books, so little time (to write)!

At the beginning of the year, I did a great “Make Time to Write” course through the Australian Writer’s Centre. I very quickly realised that I was making too many excuses about why I wasn’t writing. I also quickly realised that if I set the clock for 30 – or even 15 minutes – I could write a few hundred words. But it’s generally stream of consciousness stuff and it’s the sort of writing I do well at the end of the day when thoughts have been spinning around my head while I’ve been working or driving or hanging out with my family during the day. The challenge is then sitting down the next day to polish those words, find the photos and links and publish a blog post. Of late, that’s where I have fallen down.

But the other reason I haven’t been writing much is that I’m spending alot of my limited spare time reading and watching TV. Having a (long) list of books I’d like to read and movies and TV I’d like to watch is nothing new. I’ve often had lists scribbled on paper, notes or photos in my phone and in the last year, have had a list on the Goodreads app – which is really handy when browsing the shelves of a library or book shop.

When I started listening to Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales Chats 10 Looks 3 podcast, my book list started to grow exponentially, as did my list of TV shows, movies, podcasts and must-cook recipes but the podcast was on every couple of weeks at best as so I could almost keep up.

Then came the Facebook group – and things are officially out of control. In a few weeks, the group has grown to nearly 13,000 members and probably fills 85 per cent of my Facebook feed. Not that I am complaining, because it is one of the most enjoyable Facebook groups I’ve been a part of. Annabel, Leigh and the amazing Brenda have made sure that the focus is firmly on books, TV shows, movies and cooking. When it comes to cooking, I’d say the posts a a fair split between “Chatter’s crack” – a moreish recipe from Smitten Kitchen made from salada biscuits, caramel and chocolate topped with nuts (which I eventually made – and demolished), Ottolenghi dishes and everything else.  There’s no nastiness and very little whinging and complaining. It is one of the most positive and uplifting online spaces I have been a part of.

Chatter’s Crack – Thanks Smitten Kitchen

But then the books! My Goodreads list is growing faster than ever, there is a tower of books on my beside table that threatens to squish me in the night and I’ve found myself jumping between hardcover books (two at a time), an audio book and a couple of books on my iPad – and still ordering books and borrowing from the library.  And TV shows. In the last few weeks, we have binge watched three seasons of The Americans (and would have moved on to the next two seasons if they were available), series 2 of Cleverman, Utopia (so I can have flashbacks to my public service life), the Handmaid’s Tale (incredible and confronting but I can’t wait for Season Two) and I’ve started on Season One of Top of the Lake.  And it goes without saying that I’m watching the 7.30 Report and The House!

My current “To Be Read” pile – and this doesn’t include the books on my iPad and the other pile on the floor

I feel like I am on some sort of reading and watching bootcamp, anxiously trying to keep up and plough through the required reading and viewing. Being part of this club sharing photos of your TBR (to be read) pile, and obsessing over what to read, watch and cook next. I’m missing the days of having sick leave and no children (although I probably shouldn’t have said that in earshot of my six year old) but I am loving the excuse to read more. I feel like I’m part of a big online book club.

Spending more of my time reading has probably cut into to my writing time, but as I learned earlier in the year, it is just about carving out small parts of my day. At the same time, I know that part of becoming a better writing is reading more. And the more I read, the more books I hear about and see, the more I believe that I have got a story to share that is unique and will find an audience.

As always, I get to the end of a post, and I’m never quite sure how to wrap things up, so I am just going to leave this Oliver Sachs quote from the beautiful Insomniac City by Bill Hayes (one of my favourite books this year) – which has inspired me to keep writing.

“The most we can do is to write – intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively – about what it is like living in the world at this time”. Oliver Sachs, April 2015

Insomniac City – a beautful book by Bill Hayes about his life his relationship with Oliver Sachs and New York. Beautiful writing and photos – so glad I was reading a hard copy version

 

 

Long live the blog

When I first left work 3 years ago and moved to the Barossa, I was excited about starting a blog. It would be about my career change, and our new life and after 15 years working for government, I could say whatever I wanted. Over time it has included career change interviews, cooking, travel (both local trips and some of my favourite places in Vietnam) as well as my experiences with starting-up (and winding-down) my own business.  More My blogging has been erratic at best and I have often struggled to come up a proper blog post with photos – not to mention having any sort of theme. But I’ll happily write a Facebook post.

One of the reasons I wanted to blog was to have a conversation and engage with other people. But despite sharing my posts across social media, I wasn’t really seeing that many people (apart from family and friends) visiting or reading. While this probably has alot to do with the inconsistent subject matter and posts, I did wonder whether people were actually reading blogs anymore. Is our online time now taken up with Facebook groups, podcasts and other social media?

After deciding to try and write a book last year, I have looked at blogging as a way to improve my writing. Then a couple of months ago, a post about my son’s photo shopped teethpost about my son’s photo shopped teeth went viral and was republished in a number of places. It made me think that perhaps rather than spending my time blogging for free, I should start focusing on writing paid pieces and use Facebook to build a community and engage with people on a more regular basis.

I put this question to the Chats 10 Looks 3 Facebook group. This group of fans (aka “chatters”) of the podcast by Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales started about 2 weeks ago and already has over 7000 members. Given that they are a very well-read bunch, I figured it was a good place to start – do you blog? Do you still read blogs?

I was quite excited and a bit surprised by the answers. While there is no doubt that people are using Facebook more to interact and engage with their online communities, a blog is still seen as a more personal space to write longer pieces – even if there isn’t the engagement from readers. It is a space you can personalise and it is yours. As someone pointed out, you don’t have control over your Facebook post and what happens if Facebook blocks you?

For many people, they are just happy to have the space to write for their own enjoyment and that of their readers – even when the group might be small. For writers and authors (and those starting out) a blog seems to be a great platform. For many people it is a more personal way of sharing their story – whether it be fighting an illness, parenting, building a career or travelling. In some cases, blog posts have led to paid writing gigs and other job opportunities.

When I posted the question, I was really trying to decide whether to keep blogging but after so many lovely comments (and a long list of new blogs to add to my reading list), not only have a decided to keep blogging, but I’ve written a post!

Do you blog? Do you still read blogs?

And if you don’t feel like commenting below, please visit my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/wordsbyange/ and we can have a chat there.

So many things to read means not nearly enough time to write

5 things the viral teeth post taught me

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Just a selection of the news articles about the photo-shopped teeth – US, Finland, Belgium, US and France

Last Monday, I really thought the story of the photo shopped teeth was done. I  declined interviews from a couple of local radio stations and a national evening show because I was concerned that perhaps I’d already said enough and I figured I didn’t need to spotlight my son or his school further.

Then I had an offer to republish the post with my byline on Mamamia, a popular Australian online platform.  I’d just read its founder Mia Freedman’s book, Work Strife Balance and given that I’m trying to build my profile as a writer, I thought this was a good opportunity to have my post republished.

As the week went on, the sites that were directing traffic to my blog continued to grow. I found myself asking if anyone could translate the Belgian, French or Finnish articles that had linked to the blog. Articles are now actually referring to the post going viral.

The story was picked up by a couple of sites in the United States, including the Today Show who wrote to me with more questions. So I wasn’t that surprised when a friend on a work trip in the US tagged me on Facebook with screenshots of the story on their breakfast program on Monday. Requests from various US blogs have followed and this morning I’ve had an email from Canada. A couple of photography websites have asked to republish my blog in full – which is great if the industry are thinking about the ethics of photo shopping.

I can’t get over how much interest this story has generated but it has definitely given me a few insights:

  1. You can’t pick what will go viral and once it’s out there, anyone can write about what you have written and share photos.

This is a good reminder for all of us – and a good lesson to share with our kids. While this post might be about embracing the embarrassing photos we have as kids, but let’s encourage our older kids to be a bit careful. Once my blog post was reported on and republished, I wasn’t in control. I was also a bit surprised when one UK news site published a photo I’d posted on Instagram the night before (quickly set my Instagram to private for a little while). Once the post started going viral, I was definitely glad I’d kept my son’s name, his school and the company out of the post.

2.  The media cycle isn’t as short as we might think.

I was excited when my post was first shared by a couple of bloggers with big audiences. Watching my readers spike was exciting. This post has been read by about 4700 people – the next most read post on my blog has had about 370 visitors – and that was published in 2014!  Last week I thought the story was done here, but then other countries picked it up. Politicians make announcements to kill off stories they might feel have gone on for too long, but when your story has been picked up out of nowhere, it’s pretty hard to influence what gets covered next. It’s  a bit like a baton relay so I’m now just waiting to see who picks it up next – and hope nothing gets lost in translation

3. Just keep writing – even when you don’t know what to write.

I originally shared the story on a closed forum because I was so baffled. But then I learned it was more common and it was sometimes a paid add-on. I wrote the blog to start a discussion about authentic photos – not just for our kids, but also for ourselves. Now my challenge is keep writing and as I wrote in my last post, to write about things that matter to me. It will probably be a long time before I’ll have 4000 people reading my posts again, but I’ll just keep writing anyway.

4. Blogging and social media has changed traditional media.

Although some articles have just copied parts of my blog, many journalists have contacted me to ask follow up questions and ask for permission to use photos. In what feels like an era of continual cutbacks to journalists and photographers in news organisations, I can appreciate journalists need to use the resources out there – in this case bloggers – because they don’t have the time/money to go out and find content. In that case, I’m happy to play a role, and is it really any different to an organisation sending a media release? On the other hand, I hate to think this justifies the shrinking of an important profession. Social media and blogs can play a role in modern journalism but they shouldn’t replace proper well resourced investigative journalism.

5. The overwhelming response to my post has been that people don’t want their kids school photos photo shopped because those memories are precious.

Can we please all remember this when the expensive photos we have purchased come back less than perfect? This is not to say that we should accept poor quality photos – but if our children’s hair looks bad, their teeth are wonky and there is a pimple on their chin, smile and remind yourself that this just is how they look right now. The same can probably be said for any photos have done. As a Mum, I know there are times I have missed out on photos with my boys because I didn’t have make-up on, my hair done or the right clothes on. But this has made me stop and realise, its up to me to set an example and just accept capturing the moment – even if it isn’t “perfect”.

While Gappy thinks its all a laugh, and our six-year-old is feeling a little left out, this whole experience has been a great lesson in social media and more importantly in accepting ourselves, just as we are.

So if you knew your post would go viral, what would you write about?

What do I write about now?

I’m still blown away by the response to my post about the Photoshopping of my son’s teeth in his school photo.

I was so chuffed to have bloggers that I’ve followed for ages share my post. Then a couple of journalists got in touch, news.com.au ran an article and then this morning on the way to hockey a friend rang to say she’d just seen them talking about it on the Today Show. Another journalist rang me at home – he was wondering if Gappy McGapster and I would like to have our photo taken for the Sunday paper. I declined but said while I was surprised about the response, I hoped it would make all of us think about being more authentic with the photos we share and post. I love the photos Lauren from The Thud shares that remind us that so many of the photos we see on social media are carefully curated (and probably filtered if not photoshopped).

 

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Gappy thinks its all hilarious and as we left a 1st Birthday party yesyerday he said, “I’m surprised more people didn’t recognise me from Mrs Woog’s Page – he’s eight!

But while it is exciting to watch lots of people coming to read my post, I’m not kidding myself that I’m about to turn into some overnight blogging sensation. It has encouraged me to write a bit more but to be honest, I feel a bit how I imagine a debut artist feels when their first song hits number 1 – where to next?

Over the last 3 years, I’ve been a fairly inconsistent blogger and I’ve struggled to find a “theme” and thus an audience. I started the blog as an outlet when I left the public service and we moved from Vietnam to the Barossa. I was excited about the freedom to write about whatever I wanted. I have written posts about recipes, travel advice, career change and starting a business (and failing), as I’ve undergone my own transformation from diplomat to student, trade consultant and business owner and now writer and jack of all trades for a winemaker.

 

I wrote the post about the photoshopped teeth because it mattered to me so maybe I just need write about the things that matter to me, the things that make me smile, the things I like. Maybe they won’t always be popular or headline grabbing, but that’s not what this is about.

Right now, the list of things that matter to me is long – marriage equality, gender equality, climate change, access to health and education,  health and fitness, resilience (especially in kids), opening our homes and hearts to refugees, preserving our heritage and environment.

I love food and I used to love cooking until I had to do it every night. I love wine and I’m loving learning more about the industry from growing grapes to making the wine and then selling it. Admitting my business had failed was hard, but I love not having to juggle so much. I think social media is great but I probably show my age that I really only use Facebook, Instagram and occasionally Twitter (although it’s still my first stop for breaking news).

I love Crossfit when I go to bed early enough to get up, and I will run another half marathon this year – albeit very slowly. I love our old house but I am a crap housekeeper and need some serious motivation to get the garden under control. I love my family and I love seeing the boys embrace new things and make new friends (even if I moan about driving them around and constantly feeding them).

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My “beautiful” backyard

I love the Barossa but I miss my family and I miss living in Asia. I’m reliving our time in Hanoi through the book I’m trying to write – which at the moment is just many pages of  jumbled memories. I wish I had more time to write – and to read. I know I need to budget better, be more frugal and I’m currently obsessed by the war on waste – which means I do need to control my love of shopping and stuff!

So if any of that appeals. Stick around. Follow me on Instagram (especially if you like food, wine and beautiful scenery). Like my Facebook page – where I promise to share more than just blog posts and follow the blog because I can’t promise to be consistent or regular. Comments and debate welcome but play nicely and tell me where I can read your stuff. But mostly be good to each other, and yourself and enjoy life.

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No filter or photo shopping required on a winter day in the Barossa

The Chicken Pox blogging challenge

Hello and welcome to the Chicken Pox Pity Party. If you’re related to me or one of my friends on Facebook, you’ll know that two days into the term, after what seemed like an eternally long holiday, I got the call from school that every parent dreads.

“Hello, it’s the office – we think A has chicken pox”. 

So at least wasn’t the school sores the teacher had suspected and I’d dismissed after a quick search of Dr Google.

“I’ll come and get him”.

I didn’t dispute it – after all it’s 27 years since I had the chicken pox and I hadn’t seen it since. The biggest mystery was where they had picked it up as we’d been away from school for two weeks and we haven’t heard of any cases recently.

The day before, I’d looked at his spotty face and assumed that it was the usual mosquito bites or grass rash – because like his mother, this kids blows up from the slightest mozzie bite.

I picked him up and he was chirpy. He perked up more we he realised that sick kids home from school get to binge on Netflix and the iPad – especially when their mother needs to work. At this point, I should thank my lucky stars that while I have a casual job with no sick leave, I have a very accomodating boss who is happy for me to work from home – and the office (which I’m usually the only one in) is 5 minutes from home.

He was a little itchy so we stocked up on Pinetarsol solution and Clarantyne. I’d already booked a doctors appointment before the school called after the teacher’s suspected diagnosis.

By the time I went to pick the small one up, he already knew his brother had gone home sick. Off we went to the doctor, who agreed it probably was chicken pox but took a swab anyway. Vaccination means the cases are less severe but the odd breaktrhough case happens. X wasn’t likely to get it. The doctor even got the student doctor see if she knew what it was because apparently young doctors have barely seen a case – but in his usually confident manner, A announced he had chicken pox (no need to be so proud about catching that one mister) as soon as she walked in.

The worst bit was having to let the school, hockey and basketball know. We were those people. Most friends were relaxed. One friend with older kids suggested I open “pox camp” and get it out of the way for everyone.

Pox-kid and I stayed home. I searched for ear-muffs and decided larangytis would be preferable. He didn’t even seem sick. He still needed to be fed.

We survived another day at home, took the small one to his first Crossfit Kids class at my  gym,  sent him off to basketball with a friend for the first game of the season (with the team his brother had probably infected on Monday).

All good – until bath time.

Six spots – maybe ten at best. ON THE SMALL ONE!!

Next round of apologetic emails and texts to those he’d been around – and dread that quarantine had been extended by another two days. And not only that – two of them – together – one iPad, one TV. The small one can’t be guaranteed to bury his head in a book.

And so I went to bed last night, wallowing in my own little pity party. I also decided I’d probably better chuck myself in quarantine – just in case.

However, as we come to the end of Friday, they haven’t killed each other, I still don’t have spots, I’ve done some work and the doctor called to say the diagnosis is inconclusive but to proceed on the basis of it being chicken pox.

But, I’m focusing on the positive. I got to work from bed, in my PJs until after 10 this morning, and I’ve decided to use this extra time at home to read and write – hence the chicken pox blogging challenge!

Husband is also coming home with wine – and I figure I’ve just doubled my Mother’s Day present!

Stay tuned

Rediscovering the joy of writing

 

img_0058For the last 30 days, I have been doing a writing bootcamp as part of the Australian Writer’s Centre “Make Time to Write” course. I’ve woken up each morning and checked the tasks with a level of excitement. Some days I had to write 250 words, sometimes 500 words in 30 minutes, occasionally 1000 words. There were days where we were encouraged to stop, be creative, plan. We were encouraged to test writing at different times of the day. The key was to realise that we don’t need whole days locked away in silence to write. For most writers, its about finding small pockets of time during the day to just write.

I completed every task although there was a week where being on holidays and spending time with my sister and her family meant I didn’t write, but I didn’t give in and when I sat down to write, the words flowed. On those “catch-up” days, I realised I could actually write a lot – and sometimes, having had a break for a few days, I was filled with ideas and inspiration.

For the 30 days, apart from one blog post, I have focused on writing my memories about my visits to Vietnam – my first 12 days visit in 2003, our three and a half year posting between 2011 and 2014 and then an 8 day holiday last year. Once I started writing the memories flowed and on most days I surpassed the word count. In high school, I was always told quality not quantity, but during this course, I learned that it was better to have bad words to edit than no words at all. During the last 30 days, I haven’t edited or researched. I had a list of topics and quite often, starting to write on one topic, lead me to another.

The main aim of the course was finding time to write. I had barely blogged for the last year because “I never had time”. While I haven’t written apart from the book, I have finally rediscovered a love of writing that I had lost – if I’d even had it. I used to like the idea of writing but actually sitting and typing has seriously got the creative juices flowing and I’ve had several nights where it’s been after midnight when I’ve gone to sleep – either because I have been writing or researching about writing. I’ve found writers to follow on social media, found guides on writing (especially about travel memoirs) and actually started to believe that I could write a book.

The only downside to this new excitement is a few nights where I have struggled to go to sleep because my mind was buzzing with ideas for blog posts, rewriting my website and chapters for my Vietnam memoir. I’ve skipped more gym sessions that I should have because I’ve stayed up late writing and I just hope that now the boys are back at school, I can carve out a bit more time at reasonable hours so I am not leaving it until after 9pm to start writing down everything that has swirled around my head all day.
Rediscovering writing has been just the creative outlet I have needed and realising that I don’t need a whole day to write a blog post will hopefully mean I’ll update this blog a bit more. While I’ll continue to write about travel, career change and my Barossa life, I’ll also start sharing some more thoughts about writing and I expect, some draft chapters from my Vietnam book as it takes shape.

I hope you enjoy reading and I’d love to know what you think!