Instead of my usual list of blogs I have decided to post the first chapter of my new book for adults. This memoir is the longest and most difficult book I have written. I have tried to make it read more like a novel than a true story. This was a huge challenge and more work than I anticipated. In addition, I’ve thrown in a few tips about writing books for children and a bit of an insight into the world of publishing.
I hope you like this little taste.
the story of my life
Painting by Robert Ullman
IN SIGHT OF THE LIGHTHOUSE
My marriage had come to an end. And there I was, suddenly a single father with four young children living in a dilapidated house perched on the edge of a wild cliff – a terrifying drop to the swelling Southern Ocean. Besides renovating our home, I was lecturing full-time and studying for my Masters degree. ‘I just can’t finish my research project,’ I said to Bruce Jeans, dean of the education faculty. He already knew of my family situation and was aware that I was an emotional wreck, close to a breakdown. He looked at me
‘Things are changing, Paul,’ he said. ‘The writing is on the wall. Deakin University is planning to take this place over and you’ll have no future here if you don’t get your Masters and then a PhD.’ He started to walk away but then he turned and gave me a sympathetic smile. ‘Is there anything else you could do?’
Bruce was a man of great integrity who always called things the way they were. I could tell that he saw the disappointment on my face as I told him that I had to discontinue my studies. I loved lecturing and working with the other staff and students at the Warrnambool Institute of Advanced Education, and I was also passionate about my two lecturing subjects – Reading Education and Children with Special Needs.
The loss of my marriage had left me barely able to function. The thought of losing my job as well filled me with despair. The future seemed bleak and hopeless. My research project involved travelling around the state testing children with reading problems. Now I was faced with either making a contribution in a different way or losing my job. I needed something I could do at home in the evenings while I was looking after the kids.
Bruce was waiting patiently for my answer. He was never one to rush things. I had an answer but I knew that it was one that wouldn’t really fit into an academic gown. ‘I’d like to write fiction,’ I blurted out. He looked at me with a raised eyebrow. I elaborated, too quickly.
‘I’ve already published a couple of little educational books for reluctant readers. What if I wrote something for the wider trade market?’
He thought about it. I could see that he sensed my desperation.
‘Are there any writing courses you know of that you could take?’
My pulse quickened. I felt my face redden as I gabbled out my reply.
‘There’s a series of classes in short-story writing run by the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne. It’s once a week for a full term.’
The city was a three-and-a-half-hour drive away. That would mean a whole day away from work. He pursed his lips and lowered his voice.
‘Keep it quiet, but I’ll let you have a day off and an Institute car to drive there and back.’
I was euphoric. Even his next comment didn’t bring me down.
‘But if you don’t get published you will be finished here.’
I looked around at the other students in the room where the CAE class was held. We were a mixed, perhaps odd bunch,
comprised (I later learned) of university students, single parents like me, pensioners and even a successful businessman. We all sat a little nervously waiting for the teacher.
She swept in, dressed in a flowing black robe and hood like a character from a fairytale. Mysterious and charismatic. It was Carmel Bird, well-known Australian novelist and literary figure. Her session turned out to be informative and fun. I recall her asking us to read the story ‘The Gift of the Magi’ by the American writer O Henry. I already knew that the double twist at the end of this little tale was poignant and deeply moving. She had set us a high standard. At the end of the session Carmel told us all to write a
short piece and bring it to class the following week.
I had done plenty of academic writing, but this was something different. When you give a story to someone else to read, it is like sending out your love. If it is rejected it is a horrible experience. It takes courage to reveal your own soul to just one person, let alone put it into print. You make yourself incredibly vulnerable.
I admit it: the writing class was making me anxious. I went home and wrote an adult short story called ‘Unhappily Ever After’. It was fiction but based around my experience as a child when a cruel teacher regularly victimised me.
One thing I remembered Carmel saying was, ‘A short story should always end in a way that makes the reader gasp. If you can’t manage that then at least try for an “Ah ha”.’ The story ‘Unhappily Ever After’ had a twist that I hoped might meet this criterion.
At this point I would like to make a confession. I don’t know how to write a memoir. I’m already finding it quite difficult compared to writing fiction where authors can do whatever they like with the plot to make sure that it does
indeed end with an ‘Ah ha’.
In a memoir the writer has most of the material in their lap. But there is no freedom to twist the plot because the past is already written. In order to cope with this restriction I’m going to try to weave the narrative around, connecting ideas and themes so that there are some unresolved issues
for the reader to look forward to – difficult, because true stories are told, not plotted.
At the beginning of lesson three, Carmel Bird plonked all of our efforts down on her desk and addressed the class. ‘Everyone has done well,’ she said. ‘But I’m going to read one of the stories out because it has some interesting features.’
I was trembling in anticipation.
Please let it be mine, I said to myself. It was, and Carmel read it out with feeling. After the class was finished and the students began to leave, she leaned over and whispered, ‘You are good.’ She left. I sat there stunned. It was as if that small sentence had never been uttered to me before. I floated blissfully out of the room and all the way down Collins Street to the carpark. I felt like a little man adrift in a dinghy at sea who has just caught sight of the lighthouse. Not safe, but in sight of salvation.
Carmel’s comment was one of the turning points in my life. I felt that I might just be able to publish in the general market like children’s authors Ivan Southall and Colin Thiele, whom I greatly admired. This might also mean that I could keep my job at the Institute and possibly even earn a few dollars at the same time. The future for me and my ids had brightened.
It was all I needed. Just someone to tell me that I could do it. I don’t know whether I would have gone on to submit stories to publishers if it wasn’t for those few words. When I returned home with the story, I noticed that Carmel had scribbled a few pleasant comments in the margins. But there was also a negative one: You can’t say this.
I read the offending paragraph. I couldn’t see anything wrong with it. I looked for split infinitives, or changes in tense, or ambiguous prose. Nothing. I was too embarrassed to ask Carmel – I didn’t want to reveal that a supposed expert in reading education couldn’t even find a simple mistake.
Many years later I learned that I was to be on a panel with Carmel at the Brisbane Writers Festival. By this time, I had more confidence and was perhaps a little more worldly-wise. I thought, I’m going to ask her what was wrong with that paragraph. I dug it out of my archives and to my great embarrassment immediately saw the problematic sentence:
The car jerked off.
I didn’t mention it when I met her at the conference. It was in 1961, when I first entered teachers’ college, that I learned about the importance of encouraging children to follow their interests and dreams by telling them that they are ‘good’ in particular areas. There is nothing like a bit of positive reinforcement.
Since that first writing class I have looked back many times to see what other events might have led me to start believing that I had some ability in writing. I hadn’t received much encouragement in my primary school years. I loved reading and I always had my nose in a book. But at school, Composition, as it was called, was not enjoyable. The kids were given topics such as A Day at The Beach and told to write a page or so. These would be taken up and returned covered in red marks indicating spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors.
My first positive bit of feedback came in Form One (Year Seven) when I was aged thirteen. The teacher wrote a sentence on the board:
A red light flashed through a chink in the wall.
We all had to write a composition around that sentence for homework. I made up a story where the red light was a signal for a car race to begin. I was the hero driving the winning vehicle.
The next day, our teacher, who clearly did not want to read thirty-two compositions, asked us to swap stories with our neighbour and look for faults in their story. I handed my work to the boy sitting next to me and he read it in silence. When he had finished, he said, ‘You copied that out of a book, Jennings.’
I was thrilled with his accusation. I had made the story up out of my own head. His words encouraged me to try to find a publisher for a piece of writing. I submitted my first story for publication at the age of thirteen. It was based on a real-life anecdote.
When my friend Robert Fox and I were twelve years old we made a small trailer out of a pram we had rescued from the local tip and affixed it to my bike. We packed it with a little tent and then, with our parents’ permission, set off for a few days’ camping next to the Goulburn River about eighty miles away.
It was a long, hard ride up the Black Spur and over the Great Dividing Range. On the first night we erected the tent on the lonely bank of the river and climbed inside. It began to rain. I stepped out into the darkness to take a leak and saw something that terrified me: a large tiger snake curled up nearby. I screamed and scrambled back into the tent, which did not have a sewn-in floor.
Shaking with fear, Foxy and I folded up our sleeping bags and sat on them back to back. It was dark and the only light we had was a small torch. We passed it to each other, trying to illuminate the edge of the tent where it met the ground. Time passed. The torch began to fade and then died altogether. We shivered in the darkness, supporting ourselves with our palms flat on the ground and our heads touching the damp canvas above. Suddenly my worst fear seemed to have manifested itself.
‘Foxy,’ I said. ‘Something wet and cold is crawling across my hand.’
‘Sheeba,’ he whispered.
I couldn’t see a thing in the total blackness of the night. I whispered to him, trying not to move.
‘Get a match and light it.’
Foxy fumbled for the matchbox and struck it. In the flickering flame we saw, sitting on the back of my hand, an enormous bullfrog. We both screamed, not in fear of the frog but in terror of what might have been. We raced outside into the drizzling rain and furiously rode our bikes for several miles, until around midnight we came upon a closed general store. We sat there under the verandah, cold and wet, for the rest of the night.
When I returned home, I decided that I would write about this incident and try to get it published. I wrote the little adventure up in pencil in a school exercise book but wasn’t sure where to send it. I settled on a magazine my mother subscribed to – The Australian Women’s Weekly. I put the exercise book into the post and waited. I haunted the letterbox every day. I was so excited. About two weeks later I received it back with a polite rejection letter. My confidence was shattered. This was the end of my emerging hopes of becoming an author.
Why did I give up so easily?
While both my parents considered actors to be rule-breaking, bohemian rebels, my mother loved books and poetry and respected authors as geniuses who lived in a world far above our middle-class place in society. The rejection letter confirmed this to me. Writers were few in number, unseen and unknown, possessing talents that seemed beyond my meagre abilities. I didn’t submit another piece of storytelling to a trade publisher until I was almost forty years old.
It’s true that in later years I had a passion for teaching children how to read. But my early burst of enthusiasm for writing vanished. At the end of secondary school, I was trying to make up my mind whether to be a clergyman or a soldier. The clergy appealed because I was a very pious boy. The army also attracted me because I was a sergeant in the school cadet corps. I loved all the saluting and shouting of orders and marching along with a band following.
‘Left, left, left right left. Jones, you are out of step.’
I never stopped to think that the ‘arms’ were .303 rifles powerful enough to kill an elephant. Looking back, I am amazed that fourteen-year-old boys could go home in the train with these weapons between their knees. I can remember a couple of other incidents at school that a more confident child might have seen as signs of talent. The first of these I recall well, because in 1956 the Australian economy was in free-fall. People were going broke everywhere and the banks weren’t lending money. It was known as the credit squeeze.
An English teacher asked the class to break into small groups to write and perform a small play. My task was to write the script. I penned a fruity melodrama about a group of pirates who stole a Spanish doubloon, which, in return, was stolen from them. They suspected a pretty young woman who was hiding behind an aspidistra. The play was written in rhyming couplets. The title was The Doubloon of Death. Unfortunately, I no longer have the exercise book that I wrote it in but I can still remember four of the lines. It was my first attempt at writing a script. Referring to the doubloon, one of the pirates says:
That fair maiden she doth scoff,
Could it be she’s whacked it off?
We’ll never lead a life of ease,
But suffer from the credit squeeze.
The kids thought the play was hilarious and the teacher was so impressed that he sent us to other classes to perform it again. It made me feel good, but a life as an author seemed an impossible goal. Little did I know that one day I would write the scripts for twenty-six episodes of the TV show Round the Twist, all of which would be based on my short stories.
Another incident occurred the following year when I was studying American History. Mr Fisher, the teacher concerned, was greatly liked despite one oddity. On our first day in his class he reached into his pocket, took out a piece of paper and blew his nose with it. We were all astounded at this unusual behaviour, which we guessed he must have brought with him from the USA. We had never seen a packet of tissues before; all we ever used to blow our noses were handkerchiefs, neatly ironed by our mothers. But I remember Mr Fisher for something else that had a bigger impact on me. He held up my essay to the class and smiled.
He said, ‘Jennings has answered the question as well as anyone else but he has done it in half the number of words.’ This was news to me, but I was pleased at the compliment. I later recognised it as a skill that came easily to me. I always scored well in precis, where the task is to reduce a piece of prose to a specified smaller number of words. I didn’t know why I was good at this task, but it has been a feature of my writing for children ever since.
When it came to penning my first children’s book, I deliberately cut down the number of words that it took to tell the story. A children’s author has fewer words to choose from than one who writes for adults, and these words need to be relatively simple. In addition, the concepts involved should be appropriate to the experiences of the kids at whom the book is aimed.
There are a large number of factors involved in making the text easy to read; I’ll say more about these in a later chapter.
It’s just occurred to me that in writing about something to come I have instinctively put in a tease. I am baiting the reader’s interest. This is not a trick; it is a legitimate strategy for a storyteller to adopt. But I learned early on that it has to be done with care, subtlety and in a seemingly natural context.
I originally began this book by relating the events of my life in strict chronological order. But then I felt that these details weren’t interesting enough for the first page of my story so I decided to mix things up a bit and start with one of the defining moments in my life. These techniques don’t just apply to adult fiction. Just as much, if not more care is required for younger readers. I learned early on that writing fiction for children is not easy. A small incident illustrates this point nicely.
Just after my first book, Unreal, was published in 1985, I was stopped in the street by an acquaintance who slapped his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I just read your book, mate. Not bad, not bad. It made me think, if Paul Jennings can write a kids’ book I can too. So, I’m having a go myself.’ I wished him well and he took his leave. A few months later I again met him in the street. And again, he slapped his hand on my shoulder. This time he had only one thing to say before he continued on:
‘Jeez, it’s hard, mate. Jeez, it’s hard.’
It was, and it still is. Even though I’ve written more than a hundred short stories I always think that I will never come up with another decent one. It’s agony. But it’s ecstasy too. I jump around with excited whoops if I think I have written something good. I hope that I’ll be doing it at the end of this book. It’s going to be a lot of work.
Enid Blyton claimed that she found writing for children easy. She could knock out a story in no time at all. She definitely had something special to offer. Her total sales figures exceed six hundred million books. But for me writing is a struggle. It’s really tough work and most of my colleagues think the same. Many an author of adult books has made the mistake of thinking that a quick dollar can be made by whipping up a short story for kids. Writing for children presents many problems in addition to those faced by authors of books for mature readers.
My feeling is that children’s authors need to be able to put themselves into the world of kids and know what fears, hopes and experiences they face. The plot has to be just as strong as or even stronger than one found in a book for adults. When I read a new novel myself, I will usually stay with it for about twenty pages before I give up. Children will often last only a few paragraphs or even just a few words before they put the book down, complaining that it is boring or too hard to read.
Having said all of the above, I would never discourage someone from having a try at writing for children. Are authors born with the ability to write and tell tales, or can these skills be learned? I don’t know the answer; I don’t think anyone does. Probably it’s a bit of both. However, in writing this memoir I am becoming more aware of many of the influences on my own life that led me to this path.
As I talk about my life, I intend to relate a lot of true stories. I am going to admit to many personal and literary mistakes. And as much as is possible I’m going to try to shine some light onto the unconscious fears, fumbles and foolish repressions that lie between the lines of my own books.
I’ve heard it said that a memoir should not contain reported speech because it seems unlikely that one can accurately remember dialogue from forty years ago. This is true, but it is also the case that certain words, sentences and brief exchanges can be burned into one’s brain as if they had been made permanent by a branding iron. Here are a few sentences I remember my father, Arthur Jennings, speaking to me. The first two were uttered when I was six years old :
‘You will never be fit for anything but the workshop.’
‘Shut up. It’s all your fault.’
‘That was to teach you about electricity.’
‘You will never pass.’
‘You didn’t get honours.’
‘Have you got a match?’
‘The silly son always gets put into the clergy or the army.’ The above are all short sentences that have had a long life. I was deeply wounded by every one of my father’s comments. Here’s one I remember from my mother when I was about fifteen:
‘I think that girl in the library is sweet on you, Paul. She has good taste.’
My mother’s comment contained two little rewards. Firstly, the fact that she liked me and secondly, that the girl did too. Every child needs to get more ticks than crosses. I’m starting to feel that another reason for using dialogue in my memoir relates to its function in storytelling. It simply makes the tale more alive when you can sometimes report a conversation with all its implications laid bare without comment.
It’s well known that the first page in a book is extremely important. Especially if we are going to write for kids. Here are a few first lines I have used in some of my children’s stories to try and attract their attention.
Lehman’s father sat still on his cane chair. Too still.
I, Adam Hill, agree to stand on the Wollaston Bridge at four o’clock and pull down my pants.
The three travellers stared around nervously. They were alone. And lonely.
(From A Different LAnD)
The man next door buried his wife in the backyard.
(From ‘Ringing Wet’)
The old box lay half buried in the sand. I wish that I had never seen it. I wish the storm hadn’t uncovered it. I wish we hadn’t dug it up. But it’s no good wishing. We did dig it up.
(From ‘Know All’)
Another strategy that I like to use with beginnings is to plant something that will have a pay-off later. But unlike a tease, it can be placed in such a way that it appears to be self-contained or relevant to the present happenings. Then when it pops up again with a different function it gives the reader a pleasant surprise. I find this particularly useful when I am trying for a trick ending.
I’ve become so aware of these plants in other people’s work that I can’t help noticing them in movies. It’s not wise to tell your wife something like, ‘That mouse is going to come back into the story again.’ I learned the hard way to keep such information to myself – no one will watch a movie with me these days unless I agree to keep my mouth shut. If I use a first-person child’s voice and my readership is made up of children, I am aware that no child could have written like me. When I use it, the young readers unconsciously suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in a tale supposedly told by another child. I can get away with some sophisticated storytelling as long as the dialogue sounds authentic.
It seems to me that adults don’t usually want to read something that appears to have been written by a young person. I have done it elsewhere in this book but in the following chapter I will talk about my memories as a child with my adult voice and not take the risk of losing my sense of authority by adopting a childlike one.
But what’s really important to me at this moment is making the narrative engaging. Will I be able to pull it off when I tell my own story?
I hope so. All I can do is give it a try.