This will be my sixth year of attending the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival. And yes, I do realise how fortunate I am to be saying that. Each year a clutch of us from the Nambucca Valley Writers’ Group make the not quite-but almost- pilgrimage. We book our accommodation early, wait impatiently for the program to come out and generally look forward to the annual fix of ideas and camaraderie that the festival provides.
Last year, as I was anticipating the pleasures to come, the PEN chair and its presence at the festival came sharply to mind, making me re-examine my feelings about it. I recalled how the marquee falls silent while the chair of the session gives an account of an individual writer’s plight, having been imprisoned for his words. I would struggle to imagine the conditions under which the writer was being held and how ironic it is that words, which liberate us, cause them so much suffering. And then, inevitably, the festival would flow on taking us all with it. For words and the ideas that they create, however they are received in some cultures, cannot be contained. I admired such courage and determination but have always been left feeling that, as writers, we could do something more.
PEN is doing a fantastic job in raising our consciousness and providing a voice for imprisoned writers. To support their efforts our writers’ group has begun to raise funds by having a PEN money box at our meetings. Next to it is our own empty chair which gives a visual reminder of those we are seeking to help. At the end of the year we will send a cheque to PEN. We would encourage all writers’ groups to do the same.
And now comes the challenge…can we go a step further?
If I were a writer locked away from family and friends, living in unthinkable deprivation and not knowing when it would end, what would I fear most? I have thought about this with difficulty, being incredibly privileged to live in a free society. This privilege insulates me from imagining such a scenario; however, isolation must be a terrifying companion. That voice in his head day and night “does anyone still know I’m here, or even care?” How comforting it would be to know that there is.
Writers’ groups abound in Australia and could make a difference by doing what they do best. I challenge every member, each month, to write a letter to an individual writer or otherwise to their government. As writers we all understand the power of words and how they can be used to comfort or implore. So let’s earn our right to read, write and communicate at will. Organisations like PEN and Amnesty do mighty work but let’s use our pens to let these writers know they are not alone or forgotten.
More information available at Sydney PEN - http://pen.org.au/
- Gill Chapman, Vice President
I have been teaching ‘Life Stories’ at Camp Creative for several years now, and it is always an uplifting and exhilarating experience. This year I launched a DIY manual for those who want to write biography, a family history or a researched local history and I am very proud of the result. Its title is ‘LIFE STORIES AT CAMP CREATIVE’
and it contains some of my students’ stories.
Beverley Crossley, who participated in the course in 2009, wrote this poem about her experience and I included it in the book’s opening pages.
I’m like the fig tree
in my orchard,
covered with small fruit,
waiting for rain.
The rain I crave
is safety; acceptance.
You helped my fruit
swell and mature
offering rich sweetness.
Beverley Crossley ©
This is the book’s foreword:
Life Stories at Camp Creative’ is unlike any other writing course and for many it becomes a spiritual journey, a profound discovery of self.
Until I began to teach auto/biography at Camp Creative, ‘Life Stories’ was a fairly conventional series of five workshops. Students came along to a community college or writers group for a few hours each week, and while homework may at times have been painful, by the time students came to the next workshop, the masks all of us wear when in the company of strangers were firmly in place.
Learning at Camp Creative is a five-day commitment nine-to-four, and writing is on the fly, with no chance to put in place the avoidance strategies we tend to use when challenged.
As the tutor I was gobsmacked by the intensity that was generated in the first life stories’ classroom and by what was shared between people who had only just met. By the end of day five I realised we had all been given something none of us could have dreamed into existence.
By sharing stories without masks people’s trust expanded beyond anything any of us would have believed possible. The stories being shared didn’t simply resonate, they validated every person in the room.
As students listened to someone else’s struggles and triumphs, they realised that everyone’s emotions are the same. More than that, they saw in everyone else the heroism they failed to see in themselves and they were awestruck.
Awe is ultimately what has come to all of us who have been part of the ‘Life Stories at Camp Creative’ experience. It is a privilege for me to facilitate the group and I am humbled by the trust of the students who have shared the journey with me. The inspiration for this book came from them.
Those who undertake the ‘Life Stories at Camp Creative’ journey through this book will discover it is intense and challenging. The student is expected to put his innermost being on the page - to hazard himself - and be proudly human, for the text celebrates our common humanity, with all of the frailties that being human implies.
‘Life Stories at Camp Creative’ challenges common assumptions and makes provocative statements. It denies that we must transcend our bodies if we are to obtain a state of grace: it asserts that being human is a magnificent privilege.
For centuries mystics have withdrawn from life, lived in caves and fasted. They have subjugated their bodies in an attempt to rise above the every day, to connect with the infinite, but if we have to transcend being human in order to know the unknowable, why are we human at all?
If I had spent my whole life alone on the moon and was then suddenly transported to earth I would be gobsmacked by the oceans, by forests, storms, autumn leaves, snowfall, the iron-filings smell of earth after rain.
The sight of a butterfly would be so beautiful I almost wouldn’t be able to bear it. The smell of gum leaves on a camp fire, the sharp taste of yoghurt, the sensuous slip of satin, the heart-tugging cry of a child, the softness of a lover’s lips, would be so exquisite I would ache from their wonder.
This earthly experience would be influenced by my life on the moon and while I am present in the moment that I first see a butterfly, or slip my naked body into satin, my past experiences are also there – they are a crucial aspect of the wonder - and if you are to find your essential self, you must first realise that nothing can be known by and of itself, not even wonder, for the past always informs the present.
Some New Age gurus would say that the past has nothing to do with the moment and that by being wholly present we always see as if for the first time. That simplistic ideology is flawed: in believing those statements we become the crowd watching the naked emperor walking past and exclaiming together on the cut of his cape, the colour of his clothes.
By discarding our real historical selves as unworthy are we not denying the magnificent people we have become as a result our experiences? As a mystic denying my real self and withdrawing to a cave am I not saying you are unworthy because you remain utterly human?
If there is an omniscient being - God by whatever name you choose - wouldn’t that Being be devastated that we think so little of ourselves and our world that we must sit in caves and reject the awesome wonder before us?
Some years ago I thought I was going to die before too many more years had passed and I couldn’t see the wonder for the why-me lament I exhaled with every breath.
One morning, sleepless yet again, I began to walk along the river near my home. It was freezing, one of those dawns when grass crackles and snaps beneath your feet. The song of a lone butcher bird was so clear and sharp its pitch cut icicles into slivers that pierced my heart and I became nauseous as my heart bled into my gut, pooling with grief and anger, the fear and regret I had carried there since my diagnosis.
All the usual early morning walkers must have rolled over and gone back to sleep that day for there was only me, the lone butcher bird, and a few seagulls beside the mist-covered water and as we shared the razor-sharp air I was suddenly more alive than I had ever been before. A willow was budding, its green tips had the most heart-stopping shine I had ever seen, and I realised that during a winter of dawn-walking I had seen nothing because I had been blinded by why-me instead of gloriously aware of what existed then and there.
It may be argued that I was present in that moment as I had not been before, but what I realised as I strode home was that the grief and anger, the fear and regret, had made the willow’s budding more poignant, more immediate than it could have been before, and I understood for the first time that the past informs the present and that everything – everything - is relative to everything else.
‘Life Stories at Camp Creative’ is a noble quest that takes courage and commitment. At the end there are untold riches, the greatest of all being recognition of how heroic and awesome every journeyman is.
Photograph by Richard Layt - www.richardlaytphotography.com
Life Stories Workshops & Tutoring
IF YOU ARE A MEMBER of a writing group or historical society and would like me to facilitate a workshop for your group using ‘Life Stories at Camp Creative’ as the workshop’s base, I can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
PO Box 586, Macksville, NSW, 2447
Workshops can be conducted as one or two full days or a series of shorter sessions. I also offer one-on-one life story tutoring in person, by email or traditional mail. It is an invaluable resource if you are not an accomplished writer but are dedicated to producing a work of merit. Please contact me to discuss your needs and aspirations.
Copies of ‘Life Stories at Camp Creative’ can be purchased from me at $20 each, or $25 packaged and posted anywhere in Australia.
It is a great gift for that person who is always saying that he/she is going to write a life story ‘one day’. ‘Life Stories at Camp Creative’ brings inspiration along with the practical instruction that can turn one day into this day.
- Carrolline Rhodes