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

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

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!

Goodbye 2016 – year of busy, hello 2017 – year of making time

A quiet Christmas has provided a good opportunity to sit back and think about the year that was and plan for 2017.

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In the days since Christmas, we’ve watched the news covering the deaths of icons like George Michael, Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds, prompting further discussion of how truly awful 2016 has been (and that’s without venturing into politics). But there have been some positive posts about the good things that have happened – including this one from Emma Grey who was able to draw positives from this year, despite the sudden death of her husband. Her posts have been a constant reminder of the need to “turn up the light” when things look grim.

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For me, 2016 has been topsy-turvy. Some very low moments – particularly Simon’s tumour diagnosis in late February and surgery the following month – and the highs of returning to Vietnam and buying our home in the Barossa. For me there has been a new job – learning the new skills that come with working for a winemaker and doing pretty much everything but making the wine. It has been fun and has reinforced my interest in the wine industry (not to mention wine). The boys have thrived at school, reconfirming the wisdom of our decision to move here. Our 9-year old cat Polly died suddenly in November but the addition of kittens Gertrude and Daisy has again filled the house with crazy kitten antics.

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I started – although somewhat sporadically – Crossfit – and while I may need to make 2017 the year of the box jump, I’ve enjoyed meeting new people and testing myself with a new and ever changing fitness program. I even won an award for biggest improvement in a fitness test!

Simon’s surgery and recovery was probably the catalyst for putting my trade consulting to one side (or at least not pursuing it actively). Working on a program focused on Creating Consumer Value with experts in design-led thinking, luxury and innovation was just the inspiration I needed and I hope some exciting opportunities will come from it 2017.

But on the last day of the year, I can’t help but feel that 2016 was just busy. I feel like we lurched from week to week, term to term, just keeping our heads above water. I felt like I was always running late, always leaving a to-do list unfinished, the house in a mess. Menu planning fell by the wayside and I found us eating the same old stuff (and not always that healthy).

Three things have come together this month that have made sit down and think more about how I want 2017 to look and how I want to feel.

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Firstly, actually making the time for my “Make Time to Write” course. I signed up when we were still in Vietnam after I felt the pull of writing a book about our time there. I started to write during NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month in November) and while I didn’t win (ie: write 50,000 words in the month), the 7,000 or so I wrote were still more than I started with. It finally started in December and while I hadn’t been blogged, I’ve realised I was missing a creative outlet.

So often I go to bed with all these ideas and things I wished I had written down but I feel like I don’t ever have any time to write. The 30-day boot camp as part of the course starts on Monday and the aim is to write 10,000 words during that time. The introductory modules have made me realise that for most writers the key is to use the small snatches of time throughout the day and just write.

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My Write Your Own Adventure Planner

Secondly, I have a beautiful planner for 2017 from Emma Kate Co called the Write Your Own Adventure planner and I think it’s the first thing I’ve funded on Kickstarter. After years of trying various diary options, I’ve realised I need a paper diary for jotting down ideas and plans – not necessarily to do lists (which I really do need to function) but more to create some space to think up new things. I’ve realised I waste a lot of time mindlessly watching TV or looking at my phone when I could be doing something like reading or writing.

Finally, I’ve been lucky enough to have a pre-launch copy of I Do Have Time, which was written by Emma Grey and Audrey Thomas from the My 15 Minutes program. I joined their first program in 2013 and was fortunate to finally meet them both in Adelaide in October during a workshop. While I’ll review the book in detail in the new year, my takeaway from my first read, was that we all do have time. We all have the same amount of time and we just need to decide how we are going to use that time. Yes, we all have commitments and responsibilities – but it is about saying yes to the things that lift us up, and ditching some of those things that don’t.

Meeting Audrey and Emma in Adelaide, october 2016
Meeting Audrey and Emma in Adelaide, October 2016

Words like mindfulness and intention are over used these days, but spending time planning out 2017, making time to write and making time for other things in my life has made me realise that sometimes we all need to stop and take the time to think about why we are so busy and whether we’re really doing the things that make us – and our families, friends and community – really and truly happy.

I gave up on resolutions many years ago, and while I haven’t gotten as far as coming up with a word or a sentence for 2017, at least for now, its about stopping, letting go of busy, working out what makes me happy and making the most of my time.

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Making time to write

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A month ago, I got up before 6, made a cup of tea and began writing a book. I’d decided that after thinking about a book on my visits to Vietnam between 2003 and this year, including the 3.5 years we lived there, that the National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo was a good time to start. A workshop with Emma and Audrey from My 15 Minutes – and finally meeting them in person was further encouragement and motivation.

I joined the rebels forum as I would be writing a non-fiction work, I signed up online and started mapping out what I would write.

Despite having only moved into the house 6 days before, I cleared away some boxes and made sure I could write without distraction.

That first morning I knocked over 700 or 800 words before going for a walk with a friend. I came back later in the day and got to 2000 – surpassing the daily goal of 1700. The next day was busy and I thought I’d failed – but after dinner, I forced myself to sit down and write, and got to about 3600 words. I don’t remember what happened then but I know I only wrote a couple more times, and made it past 5000. So much for the 50,000 word goal.

The annoying thing was that once I actually sat down to write, the words flowed. The memories of my first visit in 2003, living there with Simon and the boys and then reliving our last visit in July when I decided I wanted to both record my feelings about Vietnam and my observations about the things that had changed (or stayed the same) over the years.

So what stopped me writing? Too many things.

I certainly underestimated how much work moving into a new home would take. And while we’d had some of the main work done like painting and floors, there was some work we did ourselves like painting the kitchen cupboards and wardrobes for the bedrooms.

The overgrown garden is a never ending battle and while I can’t help but feel that gardening makes me feel very grown-up, my body wonders how older people keep up with it. But now, I’ve decided that apart from the obvious weeds,  we should take the advice many have given to see what is out there before we start pulling too much out.

Add to all that work, a possible new consulting project, and the day to day house and family stuff – and Christmas and it’s easy to see how distractions took over.

Yesterday was my first blog in a long time and came after starting my Australian Writers Centre course on making time to write. This course popped up in my Facebook feed towards the end of our trip to Vietnam in July and it was a sign that I should do something with the ideas floating around in my head (and the diary full of notes from my first visit in 2003).

The key takeaway so far is that many writers (especially starting out) make the most of small amounts of time during the day to write – the idea of a full day of writing sounds nice but most of us have other things to do – and even if we did have the time, chances of being distracted by everything else are high.

So, while I probably should be at the gym, I’m not, so I may as well make the most of some quiet time and get into the habit of writing – because apparently its a habit that might take  254 days of doing it to stick!