Traces of stories linger in the most unexpected places
Stories are everywhere. I re-discovered this when I became a weaver of baskets. I say ‘re-discover’ because as a child I already knew this. Living in an old stone house, surrounded by farm lands and dilapidated sheds, my imagination was given plenty of space to run free. If I stopped for just a moment, I could hear whispers of story in the rustling of grasses, and smell tales as they floated towards the hills, on autumn winds. For hours on end I would sit and listen to furred, feathered and scaled friends, to the secrets they were willing to share. I could sense the yarns of long-ago people, their voices trapped within the stones of those old buildings that I called home. And when not outside exploring, I would sit with my Great-grandfather – listening to his wild tales of a life well-lived.
And then I forgot how to listen – I grew up.
Thankfully, life has both cycles and circles. When an Aboriginal elder showed me how to weave, I started remembering. First I remembered that I had tried weaving before, as a child. For a brief time my mother made cane baskets, and I gave it a try. Weaving stiff cane never really appealed to me, so that phase didn’t last long. Decades later, when I was shown how to make baskets out of sedge grass, the way that Aboriginal people in southern coastal and riverine regions had been doing it for tens of thousands of years, I discovered a new talent. I was a natural at weaving fibres. Later I was shown other styles of fibre work, by Aboriginal weavers from around Australia, and even some methods used by nearby Island nations. One that really appealed to me is the method used in Australia’s central deserts, using short tufts of sun-hardened grasses called tjanpi; an aromatic grass found growing on the side of rock formations.
Each one I made had a story to tell
I soon discovered that baskets have excellent memory recall. They remember where their fibre comes from, the country where the sedges were harvested. Tjanpi remembers the big trip to the city, when they left behind the desert winds that once made them dance. Baskets remember the laughter and conversations that snaked around the weaving circle, or the thoughts of the lone weaver as she/he sat in quiet contemplation. I know my baskets remember because when I hold them they whisper to me: what they have seen, where they have been, what they have heard.
Like stories, each person’s baskets are unique. Everyone has their own style and preferences for patterns and materials. The way someone holds the basket as it’s being made, and the tension of their stitches, are unique to that person. Amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander weavers, there are also distinct regional variations of styles, materials and methods. It’s possible to see a basket and know where it has been made, and sometimes even by whom.
The making of baskets is not that much different from writing. For both baskets and books have a way of asserting their own direction, subtly leading the creator. And they have much to teach; if you let go and allow the true story to emerge, the finished product is often better than what you had originally envisioned.
A basket starts with choosing the material; and there are plenty of natural and synthetic fibres to choose from, in all shades and textures. During the weaving process there may be call to change the pattern, use different stitches or add new materials and colour. A novel is the same, the storyteller makes some initial decisions – genre, point-of-view, protagonist – and perhaps an outline of plot. However, any or all of these may change at any time in the construction of the story. And that is okay.
Having spent years exhibiting and selling my weaving, over the past year I had no time for new baskets. The few I have kept sit in odd places around my home. Some have a functional use, others sit and gather dust. Occasionally my eye will catch one, or I will pick one up, and instantly I remember where I collected the fibres from, where I was when I wove it and even how I was feeling. My baskets let me recall fond memories and good company. However, as much as I like to weave, time had to be found so I could pursue stories of a different kind.
Weaving my Dream
I know it’s a cliché, but as I child I knew that I would eventually become a writer. Learning to read and write wasn’t easy, though. First I had to learn how to harness dyslexia. When those chicken-talon scratchings on the blackboard finally transformed into letters, then words and sentences, my need for books became insatiable. Before too long I had outgrown children’s’ books and was devouring literature from all around the globe; my favourites being long-dead authors from Russia and England, and newer works from India and South America. With an ingrained love of story, of course I had a dream of becoming a storyteller myself.
It took me decades to realise that dream. I sort of got off-track, wandering out into the harsh Desert of Reality. Somehow I found my way back. On the eve of my half-century, I published my first novel, When Rosa Came Home, and I had realised a dream.
The formula to achieving this dream was fairly simple but needed a few drops of blood sweat and tears for the magic to happen. The secret of dreams is that they need to be backed with reality to come true. Like weaving, to write you need to have learnt some basic skills. And be willing to work for long hours to perfect those skills; to do the same thing over and over until your fingers hurt, then finally form callouses. You need to learn how it has always been done, before stepping outside the square and creating something new. Finding your own voice is important, but only after you have developed a deep respect for traditions.
It starts with just one piece
Like a basket, for me a story starts with one thread. With When Rosa Came Home it was a single image: a flash of an aged hand reaching into a drawer and pulling out a flat wooden box. I took that one thread and slowly added others, stitching word on word, adding more and more, until over time I had a complete story.
This process, from image to published, took almost two years. At the same time I was working on two other manuscripts and a number of short stories. In the last year, I had also set up this blog and started delving into social media (forming my ‘writer’s platform’). Most importantly, I was also dealing with the fickle whims of life.
Life gave me so much lemons in 2012 that I was able to make a jug full of lemonade. The first lemon was suddenly finding myself under-employed and desperately trying to make ends met – the biggest focus was to keep the roof over my family’s heads. While taking any work I could, I cut back on expenses. This meant simplifying my life: baking bread, not going out, reducing car usage, recycling and recalling the cost-cutting domestic arts from my childhood on the farm. Being forced to become a recluse opened up a window of opportunity, allowing me to follow a long-held dream: writing. I had time. And what better way to have a holiday from reality then creating characters and stories?
So I wrote. And reality hit back. There was even darker months: I lost all of my cherished, aged pets; had white-goods and computers call it quits; and said final farewells to people I admired. Some of these people were my age, others younger. I wrote harder – seeing that black bird of mortality sitting on a tree nearby.
Come, let’s escape together
During this time I was mostly working on a ‘serious’ story, which uses magic realism to explore some of Australia’s darker post-colonisation history. For light relief, from life and that story (Where the Fruit Falls), I would work on When Rosa Came Home. I never envisioned publishing what was originally a novella; it was meant to be just for me. Mid-2013 I realised that it was a pretty good bad story, and that other people might find enjoyment in it. So I started preparing it for release, so that others may escape to the world I had created.
Life took some more positive turns, as well. I had a full-time job, and was getting back on track financially. Maintaining a writing schedule became a challenge, not only because I had less time but because my new job involved frequent interstate travel. Writing in motel rooms soon became a necessity, and was sometimes easier than writing at home; especially with some of those amazing motel-balcony views.
With When Rosa Came Home I wanted to create a setting and story that was reminiscent of simplier times. And I wanted to push back the ‘experts’ that advise new writers to be scarce with words, recommending instead that we rush from action scene to action scene. I detest this dumbing down of literature, this scarcity of words and lack of rhythm. So I revisited the books that I had cherished in younger years. Instead I took the advice of authors from another era; those respected storytellers who weren’t afraid to show emotion and inner turmoil, or explore the complexities of human relationships; who bravely used strings of adverbs and adjectives. These books were complicated yet simple, poetic and rich in description of place. They were the anti-thesis of the new wave of ‘Hollywood blockbuster’ writing styles. They were storytelling at its best.
I know not everyone will be attracted to the style of writing I have used, nor the story I have told. That is okay, its good for us all to have diverse tastes. I enjoyed writing with rhythm, exploring the beauty of language and images.
And within those pages I have also explored some topical themes. There are faint traces of exploring gender roles, the changing composition of family, land rights, marriage equality and striving for your dreams. However, I have done this in such a normalised, simplistic manner that most readers will not even notice. Even though I have created a whimsical story, in an almost magical setting, there is always room for reality: for story must reflect life.
Weaving a story
Those years of weaving have come in handy, as it helped me to understand the flow of a story. having developed an artist’s eye, always on the look out for new materials and fibres to weave with, I am now able to see potential in what is around me; collect pieces that can be added to my stories. Collecting fibre in unexpected places, often walking in new environments, has honed my ability to feel place. While working with the fibre, allowing the basket to guide what shape it will become, has allowed me time to reflect: to ponder life, the universe and everything. Reflection is a writer’s best friend. As is patience.
One must be very patient to be a weaver of both fibres and words. Over the past few years I have steadily and painstakingly added layer upon layer, word to word, slowly creating a story – my first novel. Sometimes it felt as if it had a life of its own, and led me down unexpected sub-plot paths. That’s okay – I really like where it has taken me. And I hope you do too. For, unlike my unsold baskets, this story will not be left to gather dust. When Rosa Came Home has been sent out into the world, to be shared (and hopefully enjoyed) by many more people than just its creator.
Now, a weaver of stories cannot sit in contemplation for too long – not when there are more characters begging to be woven into a story. Its back to the keyboard for me, back to a story that is both dark and hopeful: Where the Fruit Falls. I will untangle this story, add some new threads, and have it ready later this year.
May 2014 be your year for chasing and catching dreams!
Where to buy When Rosa Came Home: