Tuesday, June 18, 2013


When I was eighteen I was working in childcare. I was in a rocky relationship with the best friend of my ex-boyfriend and I shared a flat with both of them for a while until it was obvious that this was crazy. Being with the new boyfriend masked the fact that I was grieving the old boyfriend, who I had been with for two years, which represented a fairly significant proportion of my life to date.

I moved into a little cottage with an attic bedroom on my own, where I struggled to pay the rent and keep the house clean and ate very little, squatting over a two bar radiator watching a portable black and white TV. One day I came home from work to find that the owners had slashed all the jasmine and fuchsias that grew thick and verdant as a fairytale in the backyard.

I was lonely. I didn't like working, nor did I feel very good at the job, though I loved the kids. Hating work made me feel like a failure, and so did the loneliness of living on my own, and my badly managed finances, trying to get my head around concepts like electricity bills and hire-purchase. I felt bookish and weird compared to the other mostly young women working at the centre; I was reprimanded for using too many big words. I missed friends from school, but I didn't know how to keep in touch with them. I was tired all the time.

I had this idea I wanted to Be A Writer. I sort of thought it meant feeling all the feels and writing it down on scraps of paper and going to the bookshop on Sundays and listening to In Liverpool on repeat and owning more than one cat. No, actually, to be honest, I had no idea how to be a writer. I mean I did scribble things on paper and I did go to the bookshop and own cats and listen to that one song over and over but I had no idea those things had anything to do with being a writer, nor did I realise that hating my job, stuffing up my relationships, loneliness, money worries, cat ownership and the burdensome, instinctive and sometimes joyful love I felt for the kids were all part of growing me into a writer.

Anyway, in the midst of all this the Tasmanian Writer's Union advertised a short course with Jan Owen over two weekends. In a rare moment of self-determination, I somehow registered for the course, paid, and managed to turn up on time to the first session. Somehow I knew that to be a writer, I needed to get out of my house, talk to other people about writing, and show my work to people who could give me feedback. The class was most middle aged people (middle aged meaning anything over 28, though in my memory most of them had grey hair), and I remember very little about them except one of them said she was allergic to bananas and I didn't quite believe her. I know I was a novelty to them, the youngest by far. I felt just as socially awkward there as I did at the childcare centre, I did not find my people. But I remember Jan Owen was very kind and sort of pleasantly surprised at my writing. I loved being in a serious learning environment, talking about poetry as if it was as tangible and important as electricity bills or my immutable work hours.

Tragically, I turned up at the wrong time or on the wrong day for the second weekend and missed the follow up session.

But still, some element of the learning experience stayed with me. I did not suddenly start to write more or submit poems to magazines. I was not Discovered and Nurtured by Jan Owen. It was a step in a lifelong journey towards writing, and seeking the company of writers, and always being on the lookout for teachers. I continue to meet teachers in all sorts of places, occasionally in a classroom. Some of my best teachers have been my students. My children teach me a lot, just as the children at the childcare centre. I learned all those years ago that if a boy steals sandwiches out of someone else's bag he is hungry, but he is not just hungry for sandwiches. That if a girl is smarter and funnier and kinder and smaller than her parents, you cannot steal her, but you can keep her forever and she can make you a better writer. That a fox can't eat a big brown bear.

My lifelong love of learning, the feeling of security and "at homeness" I have in a classroom environment fairly naturally led me to teaching. When I was doing my Masters, my supervisor said, 'hey, you know stuff, wanna teach?' And teaching is something I love to do. To me teaching is a collaboration between teacher and student, much like the editor-author relationship. I love the dialogue, the refining of thought and experience. I love questions, the ones I ask them, the ones they ask me, but especially the ones we ask of ourselves.

In July I will be teaching for a month of Saturdays at the Victorian Writer's Centre. The course is called Voice is Character is Plot and it's an introduction to writing YA for anyone really, at any stage. I'd love it if you'd like to come along. Information is here.


  1. I would love to be there not in a platitudinous way, bur very much with chest pain.

  2. i wish you weren’t so far away. :)

  3. Hi Penni, I'm attending your course next week. It's perfect timing, as I am struggling with my YA novel - I have spent months working on plot, setting and themes, ect...but it recently occurred to me that I had been completely neglecting my main character, which I feel terribly guilty about, as well as being unable to progress with my book!

    Looking forward to meeting you!



  5. Anonymous8:11 PM

    Love your blog, Penni! I'm sorry to miss your writing class... I haven't written anything in ages, I have been pouring my energies into other creations, but reading your work makes me want to write again. Thank you. xx Simone Alesich