Academic journal article Antipodes

How Do I Know What I Think until I See What I Say?: An Australian Creative Writing Confessional

Academic journal article Antipodes

How Do I Know What I Think until I See What I Say?: An Australian Creative Writing Confessional

Article excerpt

To the business of the day. In late 1968,1 find myself appointed to the first Lectureship in Creative Writing in Australia. In the early months of 1969, following the tragic bushfires that take several lives on the Melbourne-Geelong Road, I'm employed in establishing a tertiary-level creative writing stream in a General Studies Diploma and later Degree in Vocational Writing of the Gordon Institute of Technology, Geelong, under the aegis of the Victoria Institute of Colleges.

How does this come to pass? I'm interested in conjuring up the cultural context that in part explains me and my establish- ment of the stream. What follows is a much abbreviated and self-indulgent account-and littered with names springing from Australian writing.

I grow up in Melbourne, supported by a mother who reads stories and the rhythms of poetry to us a great deal, who trains me to see with a country person's eye, and a bank-teller father who reads little other than newspapers, but who travels us into new experience primarily in Victoria and New South Wales and who introduces me to the magic black box that takes images photographically. I start shooting in my early teens with a Box Brownie, marveling at messages provided by the light.

I complete my degree at the University of Melbourne, about to embark on a secondary teaching career. But I know with untutored vagueness that I want to write, to tell stories. I have a farewell discussion with my tutor in English and tell her this. Ah, essays and reviews and critical stuff, she says. No, I say-stories in fiction and even in poetry. Oh, she says. Long pause. Do you know any writers? No, I say. Well-Good Luck! she concludes , ushering me to the door.

My first teaching of English is with classes of 40 or more Technical School boys in Wangaratta, most of whom have never completed reading a book and some of whom even have difficulties with the alphabet. I'm beginning to write and publish-freelance journalism, feature articles, commissioned journalism, essays, and short stories, including my first at national level in Overland.

I transfer to High Schools in 1961-and it's at Ringwood High School on promotion and teaching Matriculation Eng- lish Expression as it is then called, together with English, his- tories and geography at levels Year 10 and 11, that I encounter the narrowness of the English-teaching rationale. It clearly fails students who have much more to say than can be said in the required essay, the précis and pieces of so-called Clear Thinking. No time to address it in the pressurized environ- ment of matriculation, but I find I can broaden experience, awareness, interest and technique for students in my classes at years 10 and 11. In addition to our normal work, I invite them to write poetry and stories, advising and steering them, editing their productions and publishing them in a modest magazine of roneo'd sheets. We study Yevgeni Yevtushenko's poetry for a term. We go to a huge public reading at the West Melbourne Stadium to hear him read the unforgettable "Babi Yar" and other poems in his impassioned Russian, followed by Frank Hardy's readings in translation, to the accompani- ment of a myriad of cigarettes pulsing in the dark across the audience. But how dare I presume to expose my students to these new experiences that have to do with writing. Hear the senior English hierarchy: "Do you teach so-and-so in 4B? Thought so-can't spell, can't punctuate!"

I suppose it's with the Ringwood students that I conduct my first writing workshops: workshops that have continued down the decades to those I conduct present day, one of the more recent being with all the students present-kindergarten to senior secondary-at the Lord Howe Island Central School.

By now-mid 1960s-and publishing more and more, I want to try the experience of living by writing. I secure a transfer to an editorial job in the Publications Branch of the Victorian Education Department and find myself editing The School Pa- per for Grades 5 and 6 and Grades 7 and 8, and on occasion, The Educational Magazine, for which I have written several stories during the Ringwood years. …

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