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The Short Story – Julie Davis

Published 8th April, 2016 in Writing
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‘Baby Talk’, published in Lost Boy and other stories is imbued with unspoken emotion from the first sentence through to its gentle but deeply moving conclusion. What are your thoughts on connection and community? Is it sometimes just enough to be there in spirit, as opposed to explicitly sharing one’s experiences, do you think?

Connection and community are at the very core of my humanistic approach to life. I see myself as connected to everything in the universe, connected chemically, biologically and atomically. This connectedness is what gives my life meaning, what propels me in my interactions with my fellow humans. My purpose in life is to do all I can to ensure that our connectedness remains healthy and workable – not easy these days if one considers the global scene! My working life as a professional social worker was spent within this context but it is only in the past two or three years that I have had time to contemplate this whole ‘meaning of life’ question. It was specifically prompted by my involvement in a local project where a group of budding writers was invited to express ideas on the meaning of life, whether based on faith or lack of it. The hope was to draw 42 contributors. This number was not achieved but the project was certainly an opportunity to give us all a focus over the following twelve months. For me it was also an opportunity to do some serious research, to gather lifetime memories and focus on how to put all this into a story that others might want to read – the aim of any piece of writing.

Addressing your second question on connection, I think that it is sometimes just enough to be there in spirit, particularly in a professional counselling situation. To share one’s own experience when listening to another person’s often emotionally charged story may give the impression that you are devaluing that person’s experience. It is all in the timing as Angela in ‘Baby Talk’ well realised and this was in the context of a friendship. So, as friends too and caring listeners, I think that we need to be careful how much of our own experience we share when someone else has the floor. It might work around the dinner table but not so well in a one-on-one. There are many ways to convey a caring connection, a ‘being there in spirit’ by using eye contact, body language, tone of voice, asking gentle leading questions, moving into the other person’s orbit.

It’s often difficult to find intelligent discourse on parenting in the mainstream media, and particularly its effect on the human brain, as it readjusts to different multiple priorities. Is this something you’ve experienced firsthand? If so, how did it feel for you?

Oh, I’ve never considered this question or looked at the effect of parenting on the human brain, so it has been quite a mind-bending journey to contemplate. I am of the generation of mothers who gave up work to focus on the parent role. As an adoptive parent in the 1960s it was a requirement that I give up work! On reflection I think that the sudden demands of a tiny (two-week-old) infant certainly did cause my brain to rework expectations of parenthood. All new mothers I know complain of extreme weariness in those first few months but it comes as an astonishing revelation in those first days. I know also that I used to think how it must be for mothers who have spent nine months in pregnancy, then giving birth with changes in hormones and emotions that that process entails. How tired must they be? We adopted three children over four years and I also during those early weeks of each child’s arrival gave much thought to the parents who had surrendered their new-borns for adoption. Over the past twenty years each child has made contact with their original families, all positive and enduring connections for them and for us, as parents.  Parts of their stories are woven into ‘Baby Talk’, as well as stories from friends and the media.

You’ve mentioned your love of the Illawarra community in which you reside. Tell me a bit about the town, and your relation to it.

We moved to the Illawarra – specifically Austinmer, a northern suburb of Wollongong- in the late 60s after spending the first 6 years of marriage living in Canada and travelling. We stayed for the next 38 years with an occasional few months or year living in towns where my husband’s work happened to be – Mt Isa, Yallourn, Canberra. But Austinmer, a small community with a popular beach was always home until we downsized to Woonona, two suburbs south, ten years ago. For the last twelve years of my working life I was employed as a community liaison officer in public schools as part of the disadvantaged schools program. I have also voluntarily involved myself in school and community projects, advocating for change when necessary. One of the big attractions of the area is its proximity to Sydney, a 90 minute train journey up the coast. This means that it has been easy to participate in aspects of city life that I enjoy – theatre, writing courses and festivals, galleries, long lunches. The train trip is also a great source of inspiration. If I’m not quietly reading or chatting to friends, I’m filing a notebook with snippets of overheard conversations, observations on people, incidents or whatever flashes into mind. If I sit in a designated ‘quiet carriage’ I can do chunks of writing without interruption.

You’re also naturally besotted with the words of others. What books shaped or resonated with you as you developed as a writer?

First, I should qualify ‘developed as a writer’ as I am not sure when this process began. I was not a child who kept a diary or felt a compulsion to write but I was an enthusiastic reader, curled up with a book instead of playing outside. I grew up in a small country town then went to a city boarding school at age 12. There I felt intimidated by sophisticated city girls and especially those who seemed more ‘literary’ than I was. I felt that I was better at maths and sciences but teachers encouraged me to enter for a Literature Prize that I won, much to my surprise and that of a couple of other students who felt that the prize was rightfully theirs. This gave me courage to read more widely and I had a close friend who had the ability to entertain with her accounts of books read, holidays and exotic overseas experiences. From then on a book became more than just a story. There was a language to explore, words to experiment with. It was only when our children became independent that I pursued writing more seriously, took a few courses, especially in travel writing since I was recording our extensive travel experiences in journals shared with friends. Bill Bryson, Jan Morris and Norman Lewis are some of the writers whose enviable ability to convert experience into entertaining stories has been an inspiration. I have notebooks full of memorable quotes, clever use of words by such favourite authors as Ian McEwan for his ability to quietly distil menace and tension with mere descriptions of emotions: Gail Jones who doesn’t seem to use the same word twice in her novels nor in any of the talks I have heard her give; Andrew O’Hagan who is able to generate sympathy for his characters no matter how disturbed or unlikable they might be; Alex Miller whose prose and wide range of characters keep one turning pages until the very last page; Margaret Atwood for her unique take on life and brave approach to putting words on the page; and Maxine Beneba Clarke for her brilliant short stories from a side of life that many of us will never be exposed to and her ability to unflinchingly portray often troubled, always feisty characters. Of course there are many more but these writers are always an inspiration and I delve into their works whenever I need motivation to put my own words on screen or paper.

How do writing and life intersect for you? Do you have a second ‘life’ outside of writing, so to speak? Do you think it’s healthy for one to exist only as a writer?

I’d say that writing is my second life as I have come to it much later in life than many other authors in ‘Lost Boy.’ My other life revolves around friends and family, especially grandchildren all seven of whom live within five minutes of us, nobody willing enough to leave their beloved coast. I have become braver over the past few years to say ‘can’t do that, sorry. I need the time to write.’ I have no discipline other than that dictated by involvement in U3A Creative Writing sessions and a weekly Writers’ Haven where we have two silent hours to work on whatever piece we have going.  Writing and life intersect quite definitely for me. I realise that since boarding school and the obligatory weekly letter home, I have been converting life experience into words – always first in my head, then onto paper either in letters or travel journals. Now I enjoy the task of shaping short stories based on experiences, and observations layered with imagination. The challenge has been to shape the account into a readable story. This means finding avenues to put the stories out there – a supply of reliable readers willing to give honest comment; entering competitions where feedback is often given and this has led to enough success to encourage me to continue. One life experience that does inspire my writing is a visit to an art gallery where I can be moved by a particular work. In fact, ‘Baby Talk’ grew out of my response to an abstract work titled ‘The Secret’ by Dick Watkins. I have no idea how that process developed into the story it did.  At 76, I don’t feel that I have a novel in me and have never aspired to that goal. I love reading short stories and am enjoying the challenge of crafting an idea into a meaningful short story. I can’t imagine a writer who exists only for that purpose, to write.  I don’t know any. It wouldn’t necessarily be unhealthy to live only to write. It could even be possible that a hermit, say, or person lacking in social skills is kept healthy by being able to write, to exercise their imagination to produce words to share with an unknown world.

Julie Davis, a retired social worker living on the Illawarra Coast just south of Sydney, has enrolled in several creative and travel writing courses over the years, mainly through Sydney University’s Continuing Education Program. Short stories are her preferred genre. She seeks inspiration in the community, in cafes, art galleries, at bus stops, on trains, in parks. ‘Baby Talk’ is her first professional publication but there have been others in community based anthologies: a poem in Central Coast Poets Inc 2014 publication ‘The Way to The Well’ and short stories and poems in the Geelong Writers Anthology 2013, ‘Flights of Fancy.’

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