The Great Leap Forward with Penny Gibson
I’ve written on and off for most of my life, while pursuing a career, raising children and establishing a small vineyard. In 1999, I was asked to run a creative writing course at Sandybeach Community Centre. “But…” I said. “No matter,” said the co-ordinator, “it’ll be just like teaching Year 12 English.”
It wasn’t, of course. It was a good deal more fun, more stimulating and more challenging. The course was designed by Mary Manning from the CAE to help students prepare a folio to apply for the Graduate Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. I was the best student in the course. I read all the references, did all the exercises and revelled in teaching adults who really wanted to learn.
I subsequently applied myself for the Graduate Diploma and spent a number of happy years studying both online and in the classroom, taking care to never complete all the compulsory subjects so that I could range from poetry to novel to short fiction.
In 2007, my son died at the age of 41. Suicide. I wrote drafts of a prose poem, a short story, but I couldn’t go on with my novel. I’d killed off the protagonist’s son some months earlier.
l stopped writing. I didn’t have any words. I bought some paints and canvases and began to splash paint around after a friend invited me to her house to paint. I could only express myself nonverbally. My writing friends kept me going, indulged me in repetitive attempts that were always inward looking.
In 2012 I joined a writing group run by Rebecca Lister under the auspices of Jesuit Social Services Support After Suicide. This truly was a turning point. Fifteen of us met weekly in Richmond to talk, very gently at first, about our experiences of losing someone dear to us to suicide – children, parents, sibling, partners. Gradually, we began to write about our experiences, learnt to trust each other and to share the bond that our writing created. At the end of that year, we published a book, Nothing Prepared me for This, and with Rebecca’s amazing ability to prepare and reassure us, we performed our pieces at The Courthouse in Carlton. The following year we completed another project, Thank You for Listening, with the additional help of mentors Cate Kennedy, Terence Jaensch, Mari Lourey and Andrew McSweeney.
Just before this second project began, my husband died of prostate cancer. The writing community gave me the impetus and confidence to continue writing, to craft my experiences into stories I could share with others.
I will always be grateful to Rebecca, to Martin Ryan and Louise Flynn of Jesuit Social Services, to the mentors and other visiting writers, and to my fellow participants. Without them, I doubt if I would be writing now.
Penny Gibson lives in the Dandenong Ranges where she writes short fiction and poetry. Her stories have been published in Forty South 2017, Shibboleth 2016, Sala 2015, The Big Issue 2014, and have been highly commended in the Ballarat Writers and the Bundoora Literary awards.