Memory bright as a star and equally mysterious: Freefall Writing

I tried to open the blind in our bedroom this morning and the toggle snapped off. Just like that, after only thirty-five years, who’d have thought the thread holding the toggle in place would eventually wear out and snap.


This blind pulling ritual is one I have come to hate. I usually leave it to my husband who’s mastered the art. I can’t quite work out why it is with this particular blind I can never get it right.

Either I pull down too hard and the whole things comes out of it’s moorings and loses touch with the mechanism up top that allows it to spring back or I pull too hard and the whole thing snaps back, furls up too far and flips over itself at the top.

Then you need a chair or ladder in order to reach up high enough to get back to the toggle- that has now come off – and to unwind the whole thing manually so that it can continue to operate as these blinds do.

It has long been a mystery to me as many things are.

Last week my husband and I spent a week away in Yarck, in North-Eastern Victoria on the way to Mansfield and near to Alexandra on a writing retreat of sorts. We joined a group of ten others, including our mentor and teacher, Barbara Turner Vesselago, to enjoy the experience of writing Freefall.

This is my preferred style of writing, to write without looking back over what I have written; to write in an effort to bring forth all the sensuous details, the sight, the taste, the touch and smell, including dialogue; to write what comes up for me and makes me sweat; to go fear ward; and to avoid writing about material that is less than ten years old when writing autobiographically; unless something screams at me, you must go into this now.

We stayed in cabin number one at the Mittagong Homestead in Fawcett, close by Yarck. Two small bedrooms, a kitchen and living area with separate and large bathroom and spa.

We had only one table on which to write, so I dragged it out of the kitchen area and into bedroom number two, while my husband, who had hoped to write outside in the morning sunshine, found there were no outlets for his computer there. So he dragged the outside table from the veranda and into the living area, thus creating two separate writing spaces for the two of us.

‘A room of our own’, a writing space of our own, a prerequisite for any such event.

And there was structure. We wrote every morning from whenever we woke up and felt like making a start. We wrote till midday or thereabouts, as we then needed to drive to the main house Andana, ten minutes away, where the other participants stayed, all except one who holed up in the nearby Yarck bed and breakfast, attached to the Giddy Goat cafe.

Every day at 12.45 pm we brought our writing, printed, double spaced, numbered and dated with our names on each page, to Barbara and she took our offerings away to read.

We were free them to walk or shop or drive around the district for a few hours until 4.30 pm at which stage we re-joined the group and Barbara who had read as much as three thousand words per person and had ordered our writing into some seemingly mysterious, but meaningful order.  Then she read to the group from our writing and we all discussed each piece in turn till 7 pm when we shared dinner together.

We took responsibility for the preparation and presentation of evening meals in pairs.  Wonderful food.

Barbara is one of the best readers I have ever known, both in her ability to take in work through her own silent reading and as a performer who reads other people’s writing out loud. She brings words to life.

And so we sat in a circle in the Andana house on large comfortable chairs and couches listening to the lull of Barbara’s voice as she read excerpts from our writing. She did not identify the writer of the piece but over the course of a week it became easier to put writing and writer together.  But that was not the point of the exercise, though some of us could not help but wonder.

Sure it was easy for me to recognise my own stuff and my husband’s and to hope that our writing would be read, as everyone hopes their writing will be read.

It is as if in reading your writing out loud, Barbara affirms some sense that this piece, however long or short and whatever its shortfalls, has merit.

It’s amazing how tortured the process can feel, at least for me in those first few days when I pitched myself up against myself, determined to write into a more fictional state of mind, the way one or two of the writers at the retreat spoke, of going into a trance, and of letting the writing flow.

Not for me. Never for me. No trance like states just the hard slog of trying to follow the contours of my thoughts, lulled back into memory and then using my imagination to fill in gaps where my memory failed, which it does all the time.

Memory is like that. It’s there for a moment, bright as a star and then becomes indistinct and so I draw on other memories, the colours, the smells, the images, to bring together something meaningful. To tell a story which might not be the absolute and actual truth of what happened but carries the emotional essence of it.

Out of this mystery come stories, some of which I’ll share.

Antarctic vortex

I bought the dog a coat this year to help him with the cold.  Other years it hasn’t felt necessary, at least
not in terms of my identification with him. 
And here, I think about how, on a cold day when I was a child
who refused to wear her jumper, my mother said to me; ‘It makes me cold to look
at you’. 
The roots of empathy perhaps? 
My mother sympathising, only, I did not feel cold at the time.  She felt cold looking at me.
These last several weeks I felt cold looking at the dog. And
so I bought him the best coat I could find at a reasonable price, one that fitted
well and one that was easy enough to put on him. 
Now every morning before his first visit to the garden, I
struggle to get him to cooperate in the wearing of this coat.  He needs to lift one leg at a time to fit
into the separate holes in the front, then I bring up the two sides to join the
fabric across his back and slide in the zip joins. 
This is tricky. 
If I accidentally drop one side and the dog drags a foot out
of its hole, I need to start all over again.
Who’d have thought it would be so hard to dress a dog?  I had wanted something I could slip over his
head, jumper style, something that did not need as much cooperation from
him.  But this was the only one that fitted. 
Although the dog has adjusted to the wearing of this coat by
day when he’s outside in the cold, I suspect he’d rather do with out, though he
seems now to appreciate the warmth it generates.

Or is that me again, me being like my mother, me responding
to my sense of the cold, not his?
My husband says, ‘He’s a dog. 
Dogs can manage all weathers.’ 
Maybe on the farm when my husband was a boy they could.
My daughter says, ‘Small dogs can die when it gets too cold.  They need protection.’ 
In several months time, I will be going off on a short freefall
writing retreat with the wonderful Barbara Turner Vesselago.  I’m looking forward to this time but also
fearful that I will not write to her specifications.  Not as I write for this blog, with its mix of
the ‘show, don’t tell’ variety and a heavy dose of telling, as in authorial
I’m forever telling you what I think.  It’s a no-no in most writing circles. 
The rule is: keep yourself out of the writing, unless in
disguise.  It’s boring for readers, the
saying goes, ‘Show, don’t tell’.  Let
readers make up their own minds. 
I agree, up to a point. 
But I reckon there’s merit in the other style of writing too, the so-called
Don’t be put of by the word. 
It’s a writing style in which the writer speaks to you about what goes
on. WG Sebald for instance, and many others write this way.
Even wonderful writers of the show-don’t-tell variety have
sections wherein the writer paraphrases the action to move the story
along.  It helps with pace.  It’s also necessary because every single
detail cannot be shown.  There are some
things readers need to know if they are to enjoy the action.
Anyhow, I’m fearful of the freefall because it will require I
concentrate hard on the show-don’t-tell stuff, otherwise known as the ‘mimetic’.
Again, don’t be put off by the word. 
These are things I’ve learned about writing over the years.  That they fascinate me is no guarantee
they’ll fascinate you, rather like my mother’s view: Just because she was cold
without a jumper, there’s no guarantee I was.
I had a higher metabolic rate at the time.  I’d have been bouncing around in the garden
not noticing.  But my mother, looking out
on me from the windows of the kitchen where she’d have had the fire on high, would
have been more aware of the contrast between the warmth inside and the temperature
When my mother entered her last year of life, she kept her
heater at full bore all day long in winter. To enter her room was to enter a
sauna. She found it pleasant and every time I came in with only a cardigan and
no coat she would tell me off for not dressing warmly enough. 
But I came prepared for her room.
These days, and this winter particularly, I feel the cold in
my own right. 
I’m not alone here. Everyone throughout certain parts of
Australia is complaining of and rejoicing in the fact that we have snow in
Not for something like fifty years has there been snow in
They call it the Antarctic vortex.  Which puts me in mind of a comment that JeniMawter made when she handed the fiction prize in the Lane Cove competition last
year to Marjorie Lewis-Jones, ‘Don’t start your story with the weather.’  

I hadn’t realised that. To me, the weather in my story was
simply that, weather at the opposite extreme of what we have now, a hot
stinking summer. 
There you have it.  When
writers talk about the rules of writing they can develop any number of rules to
justify what to do and what not to do. 
I say, ‘do it anyhow’ and see how it works.  If it sounds lumpy and clunky and does not invite
your reader in, then think again.  Maybe
some of these rules – better named guidelines – might help. Bearing in mind, what works for you might not work for the
Still your ‘feel’ for things is
probably a good place to start.