We clatter on the keyboards quietly to ourselves or scribble silently in notebooks. Writing is a private affair, a solitary craft except for the few who are published and attract readership. I have found that that last bit—attracting readership, is crucial. A dialogue, by definition, requires someone to project and someone to receive. A writer without readers is like a tree falling in a forest; their words make no sound what so ever.
I would be exaggerating if I said that was the case with my book of fiction “All Windows Open and Other Stories”. It was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and was reviewed quite favourably in The Australian. My friends, and a handful of strangers seemed to enjoy it. But like a tree in an empty forest, the sound waves soon petered out to silence.
I began a new project—a novel. The truth is, I started four longer works, but was plagued by doubt, insecurity and confusion. Was I on the right track? Which one of the four should I pursue? Were the characters working? I am not in a writing group and my husband does not read fiction. So when I saw that Writers Victoria were offering mentorship workshops with an established writer, I put together an application. I was particularly excited because it was a group of CALD (Culturally And Linguistically Diverse) writers. Although born right here in Melbourne, I am the child of immigrants and grew up speaking only Greek. I am mindful that these days as a middle class and middle aged woman I may appear to be part of the mainstream, but I spent my formative years as an outsider—and that is still how I see myself.
I was thrilled to be selected, and at our first group session, in a small and oddly shaped meeting room at The Wheeler centre, I was doubly thrilled to be part of such an interesting group. As each of the six women (five mentored writers and one mentor) spoke about herself and her writing, I felt like I truly belonged. We were each of us very different from one another, but we all understood how it was to exist within a cultural group outside of a dominant culture. Each one of us brought something of our cultural backgrounds, of our families, food and spirituality, to the stories we wanted to tell. Our wonderful mentor Maria Tumarkin, encouraged us to value this extra dimension that we brought to our work.
Several one on one sessions with Maria followed. With her help and guidance, I was able to explore my characters and the point of view that best suited my writing style and the story I wanted to tell. I looked forward to this time with her and always left feeling excited and encouraged.
A couple of weeks before our final group session Maria asked us to email a few pages of our individual projects to her and to one another. Remember what I said about having a dialogue? At this last meeting, amid an atmosphere of trust and support, each one of us was able to receive constructive criticism—and praise, for our work. I discovered that a character I wasn’t too fond of, resonated quite strongly with the others; while another (who I liked) appeared bland. I liked her so much I made her boring!
The mentorship may have ended, the tree may have fallen, but I can still hear—I can still feel, the reverberations.
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Here is an extract of Hariklia’s work-in-progress:
For my 40th birthday I got a baby. How many women can say that? Apparently fertility declines dramatically after 35. Someone should have told my ovaries.
Let me set the record straight – I am not a caring person. I am not a natural mother, if there is such a thing. Although I do support a charity or two it is on my terms, at a distance, by giving money. I’d never dream of actually meeting the people I help with my meagre wage, and I would sooner enter a furnace than enter one of their smoke filled homes. I imagine their houses as our old neighbour Mrs Seymour’s. With a shudder I recall the wall to wall dark flowery carpet, the hideous mushroom coloured vinyl concertina doors, the scratched kitchen lino and the yellowing ceilings. Throughout it all lurked the smell of her cigarettes mixed in with the odour of her precious dog: a scruffy brown terrier named Milo.
I always held my breath when visiting to drop off a piece of cake or a plate of kourambiethes that my mother had baked. “Tell her it’s shortbread,” my father advised.
“Do I have to go?” I remember whining. It was worse than being sent to the milk bar for heavy tins of calamari, or across the road to Signiora Pavone’s place to borrow lemons.
“How would you feel living all alone and being too frail to make treats for yourself?” My mother asked. She employed not bribery but guilt, to persuade me to perform these malodorous deliveries.
“It’s shortbread, dusted with icing sugar,” I told Mrs Smell-more.
“Scrumptious,” the old lady said.