Life Writing at Wombat Hollow

This year, Writer in Residence at Moss Vale High was Lucy Palmer, author of A Bird on My Shoulder and Playing the Game: Life and Politics in Papua New Guinea – Sir Julius Chan. I was fortunate to be part of Lucy’s workshop ‘The Art of Memoir’ the following weekend in the beautiful Wombat Hollow.

Lucy’s provocative introductory tagline – Why write? Because we cannot simply live – was followed by an affirming statement:

Memoir writing is an expression of unending curiosity – a desire to explore what it is to be here, to you

The takeaway handout contains many useful, and familiar, writing prompts, such as

  • start with a question
  • tell the truth – your truth
  • show us, don’t tell us
  • use all the senses
  • read it aloud
  • use prompts

It was this final prompt that drove our writing. We know that objects represent many things – a memorial to a person, a set of circumstances, an event – and provide rich inspiration for storytelling and writing. It is always a revelation that the same object can provoke such disparate responses. And no matter how many times you participate in creative writing with similar activities, the product is of its context: different people, different setting, different emotions.

Wombat Hollow, in the southern highlands region of New South Wales, is an isolated and sprawling bushland retreat with multiple rustic buildings and writing spaces. Inspired by the quiet surroundings, we began by exploring a fresh leaf from the grapevine that straddled a pergola.

Feeling the fresh softness, we companionably wrote, with the only instruction being to sit quietly when we had finished. I began with a gathering of words as I held the leaf in my left hand, allowing myself to drift to a childhood yard and recalled

the warm scent of homeysuckle that cascaded across and over the fence, trawling among the trellis. an abundance of joy. Heady sweetness – a wave of scent each time I stepped outside. I would lay on the grass and follow one tendril with my eyes – looping, twisting, turning through a maze of green and white, yellow buds. Distracted by bees, my eyes would often drift toward individual blades of grass – noticing their blunt edges, mown down and brown, or fresh young shoots entering the world with verve and energy. Bees would hover over clover and fly in a mesmerising pattern, their loudness drowning my heartbeat.

This first draft was an unexpected moment, and I chose to share this glimpse as a small part of the thoughts that filled my pages.There are words and phrases that exactly capture a moment and could be part of a larger piece. I also found myself drifting toward other writing projects, and took notes on solutions that presented themselves for problems I had been pondering.

Our next exercise was to close out eyes and visualise our bedroom. Staying within my childhood, I thought of

My first Bedroom

Wooden floorboards, always cool to the touch. Twin beds with chenille spreads, dips and tufts of a swirling pattern. Out pillows on the outer wall, heads under a shared window. One or two wall mounted shelves with books and bobs, and one framed print.

It seemed to encompass the room. Always watching. The faded colour print of a mountainside path, two small children running and laughing. A huge angel hovering, hand extended to protect them should they step too close to the edge, or fall.

The storm blew up just after bedtime, electrically charged after a hot summer’s day. Lightning flickered and x-rayed the curtain. Each thunder crack shook our world – heads tucked beneath pillows, ears smothered with elbows.

In the quiet raining lull, we reminded each other to flatten ourselves: against the wall! Against the wall! We knew lightning couldn’t bend around corners, could not stretch its fingers through our window and strike our lives.

After sharing and discussing our writing, we enjoyed a delicious lunch before being given a piece of bark. This time, I wrote of a much more recent moment:

I was drawn to the hotel online from a familiar image: three storey brick building with rounded wraparound balconies. Reminiscent of King George, of KGV at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, it was obviously part of the public health system.

With one click, I booked a room at Hotel Linaker, once the nurse’s quarters of Beechworth Asylum.

Acres of lawn and garden still surrounded the complex on a quiet hill on the edge of town. I wandered alone, stopping to breathe deeply and marvel at each different space and outlook. Leaves had begun to turn, a scattering of colour on lawns – most stayed firmly on branches waiting for winds.

One tree among many, a majestic gum called me, and I approached, my neck craned backwards as my eyes swept upwards from trunk to highest limbs. too broad to embrace, I placed my left hand on her bark, eyes closed, breathing.

Mother Tree. It just came to me, a burst of life exploding in my mind’s eye. Feet firmly rooted and still where I stood. time loosened. I remained there until two dog-tethered people strode past on a nearby laneway, chatting back and forth.

Stepping away, I walked from the trees and stood near an open lawn. But as I looked back, Mother Tree had disappeared, lost in another embrace.

Despite the shifting weather and afternoon cool, we finished our day by spending time outside. Each of us chose a space and listened. I sniffed the breeze, and slowly turned in a circle, taking in everything. I tried desperately to capture birdsong in a jumble of onomatopoeic words, jotting down ideas that resisted forming themselves into sentences. I was uplifted at the glimpse of a jenny wren, alone and exposed, gliding past my horizon focused eyes.

Spent, yet energised, we enjoyed a final cuppa and writerly chat before departing.

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