Dreaming Big …

Introductory note: I was very excited this week to discover I now have 31 followers on this blog journey, including seven people who are not family or friends! Welcome to you all – I hope my ramblings here continue to merit your interest 🙂

This week, I’m going to continue the story of my eclectic career, dwelling on what happened after my first writing sabbatical put a twist in my tale. You may recall that my aspiration to pen a young adult novel was truncated at 20,000 words when I decided instead to go in pursuit of knowledge. At that time, my freedom from the daily grind and the pause for reflection it offered had led me to believe I had finally come across the answer to THE QUESTION. I wouldn’t write, I decided. I was going to change the world! A nice modest little ambition, no?

I had thoroughly enjoyed my years in media and politics but I had come to realise that the noble art of journalism was no longer particularly noble. It was not so much about opening and stimulating a space for public dialogue on the issues of the day, but more and more about fear mongering, pandering to vested interests and feeding the growing cult of celebrity. And my experience in the political sphere had sadly revealed that re-election rather than betterment of the people was the motivating factor for most political operatives. No, I decided, much of the real work of bettering the world happened quietly behind the scenes in the realm of policy. The levers of change were held inside government and I wanted to get my hands on them.

I began my Masters in Public Policy with a general interest in social justice. I come from a long line of battlers for the underdog, and as cheesy as it sounds I aspired to do my bit for those less fortunate. When I discovered international development policy the heavens opened before me, and I saw a gargantuan vista of need and the most noble of all possible aims – ending global poverty. The world was just starting to focus on the Millennium Development Goals and I was on a mission.

My long term goal wasn’t to become a bureaucratic fat cat. I wanted to combine my expertise in policy, politics and communications and become an advocate speaking on behalf of those unable to sit at the tables of power and influence. But I didn’t know enough about how the system worked – I needed inside information. I needed to go undercover.

I set my sights on AusAID, then the Australian Government’s aid agency. Inside the bureaucracy I could learn about how it all worked and discover the best means to present persuasive and compelling cases for change. I packed my car and drove to Canberra to take up a role in AusAID’s Policy and Multilateral Engagement Unit.

I was tasked with developing the agency’s policy for engagement with the World Bank, a mega-global institution which at the time was in the business of lending large sums of money to impoverished countries provided they obeyed a set of quite draconian economic measures approved by the rich countries. In particular, I was to support the process for negotiating Australia’s next ‘replenishment’ of our contribution to the World Bank, a three yearly cycle of haggling where the rich countries try to force as many favourable conditions for themselves as possible into the provisos attached to their funding.

Picture my incredulity when about six months later I was clutching my newly issued diplomatic passport on my way to Athens as a small but functional cog in the Australian negotiating delegation. My mission was to make copious notes of the replenishment deliberations and then take a report known as a ‘cable’ to the Australian Embassy and transfer it through secure systems back to base in Canberra. I literally had a briefcase handcuffed to my wrist as I made the perilous dash across town to file each critical missive. I had become Catherine Boomer, international woman of mystery!

The negotiating table

I confess, though, that I found it a little difficult to understand how several hundred well-fleshed rich people gathering at the Athens Hilton (complete with Parthenon view) were really contributing to ending global poverty while noshing on four course meals washed down with fine French wines. It was an eye-opener and no mistake. Still, I was proud of Australia’s contribution and gained fascinating insights into the art of diplomacy.

Australian public service careers are predicated on exposing new recruits to a range of experiences early on to test their mettle and expand their views, and before long I was tapped for a new posting. My journalistic credentials had come to the attention of management and I became AusAID’s Media Manager. Once more I was immersed in writing media releases and speeches for the Minister but occasionally I got to have some real adventures.

For several years AusAID had been delivering a programme to remove Persistent Organic Pollutants from Pacific Island Countries – an initiative which when translated into the bureaucracy-speak of acronyms created the charmingly quirky title of POPs in PICs. It involved locating, identifying and safely disposing of toxic chemicals like DDT which had been dumped in Vanuatu, Figi and the Solomon Islands by previous bureaucracies and left to cause dreadful harm to local water supplies and islanders’ health. I made a documentary about it.

On location – POPs in PICs

Now this was more like it! I was out in the field, literally hacking through the jungle with men with machetes slashing a path through vines and creepers. I was hurtling through palm oil plantations in the back of an old Rover jeep and clutching my hat against the wind on boat journeys across sapphire seas. Most important of all, we were really making a difference – a tangible, quantifiable difference – to these communities, and especially to the children. And it was the children of the Solomon Islands that stole my heart and brought my vision of the future into sharper focus.

The children of Malaita

On the remote island of Malaita the kids had never seen a white lady before and I caused quite a sensation. I was mob hugged on arrival and spent the day of our filming there surrounded by a gaggle of grinning, gorgeous youngsters chattering away to me in voluble pidgin. A picture I took of this little gang has had pride of place on my desk for 15 years and never fails to give me inspiration.

Yes, I would become an advocate, and the focus of my advocacy would be children – children who shouldn’t die from simple preventable diseases like diarrhoea, children who should not have to become indentured labourers or child brides, children who deserved the opportunity to go to school, children who should not suffer the injustice of extreme poverty.

I’d learnt enough about international development architecture and the workings of government. There was only one possible next step for me – a job with the world’s largest child-focused aid organisation, World Vision. In next week’s episode …

The Making of a Writer

What makes someone a writer? My university creative writing lecturer (and successful author), Susan Mitchell, says a writer writes always. I guess I have written always, though only creatively in spurts and dashes. Most of my output has been generated in the many and varied jobs that I’ve put my hand to, so I thought today I’d reminisce a little about how these have all contributed to make me the aspiring novelist I am today.

My first job straight out of school was as a cadet journalist at the Adelaide Advertiser. I think cadetships of this kind are almost extinct now, but back in the day it was a three year apprenticeship where you were trained to type, take shorthand and learn the ropes of old-school journalism on the job. I was one of three school-leavers selected in my intake from a field of over 500 and was beside myself with excitement.

The Advertiser Cadet Training Room circa 1985

At 17, I was under the happy delusion that being a journalist was about writing. I was quickly undeceived. I spend my first three months in a night-shift job depressingly called ‘Chores’. This involved preparing a whole lot of useless information for setting by the compositors (compositors are definitely extinct now). For example, I had to add punctuation to mind-numbingly turgid figures on things like hogget sale prices and weather conditions in remote regions of the state. I would have a huge broadsheet of paper in front of me and have to go through it by hand – dot, dot, comma, dot, comma, comma, colon, comma, comma, colon, full stop. About 100 times. Riveting!

Then I spent a scintillating three months on the TV pages. This time I had to re-type each day’s television programming from the material sent in by the four stations (yes kids, there used to be only four TV stations!). Then I had to ring the stations and read it all back to them line by line. This was a full time job, and one of the most harrowing on the editorial floor. A mistake in the TV programme page could trigger a tsunami of enraged complaints from readers who wished to voice their displeasure that a scheduled screening of Dynasty had not been listed with the requisite R (for repeat) and people had thought they were getting a new episode. All hell could break lose.

So, by the time I was finally unleashed into the reporting team I was bursting at the seams with frustrated creative flair. It didn’t get much relief. I was dispatched to cover such earth-shattering events as the Red Cross Flower Show and the first couple ever to get engaged from Perfect Match. One career highlight was interviewing the first Mormon Miss America (who had been brought in to replace a disgraced Miss America who had sold pictures of her boobs to an unsavoury publication). And on another occasion I spent an afternoon attempting to look sprightly while riding a wind-surfer’s shoulders across the River Torrens to get a picture for a desperate photographer who assured me there was no chance my story about the wind-surfing competition would see the light of day without some ‘colour’. Anyone who has been to Adelaide will understand that this was not one of my better moments – the murky, silted Torrens is not an enticing swimming spot. And clambering up the body of a dripping wind-surfer in full flight was not quite how I’d pictured myself pursuing my career in the Fourth Estate.

Reporter Boomer in action

As a reward for my promising stint in reporting, I was posted to the Sports department where I covered junior netball and the results of lesser-known golf competitions before being sent back to Chores and TV for another six months. By the end of my second year at The Advertiser, I had decided that I was not suited to journalism. Never, in the history of the paper had a cadet bailed before the end of their three-year term. Boomer walked out the door.

I went to uni and did an Honours Degree in Communications and loved every minute of it – the writing courses with Susan Mitchell being a red-hot highlight. At the end of my third year I was gob-smacked to be awarded the Cecil Teasdale-Smith Award for Excellence in Creative Writing for a narrative version of my grandfather’s Charlemagne story. I mention this mostly because I just love writing the words Cecil Teasdale-Smith (they have such a fruity ring) but also because this award led me to believe I wasn’t totally delusional in my writing aspirations.

My next post was a stint as the Public Relations Officer for Bedford Industries, a career development charity for people with disabilities. I wrote newsletters, speeches for the CEO, the Annual Report and scripts for the Awards Night and attempted to get media coverage of the organisation’s work. When I pulled some strings with a former colleague (thanks Pen!) and got a picture story in the The Advertiser promoting the annual pantomime performed by the employees, one of them gave me a miniature Superman figure to mark the occasion. He still sits on my desk for inspiration.

Then I hit the career accelerator, landing a job as Press Secretary for the Minister for Education.

Press Secretary with my home phone/fax

This was the big time! A lot of the role involved writing media releases and speeches for the Minister, but mostly my job was to wrangle my former journalistic colleagues and try to get them to write slightly less horrible stories than they had been planning to write about my boss. This required round-the-clock communications so I became the proud owner of a home fax machine and a very early model mobile phone. The Brick weighed several kilos and had a battery life of about two minutes, but it really was cool at that time to slap it on the table in a restaurant and watch the other diners goggle (this was the mid-90s OK?).

Following a short-lived stint as Executive Officer of the Public Relations Institute of Australia I became Government and Media Relations Manager at SA Water, the state government’s water corporation. More speeches, media releases, annual reports and reporter wrangling. This time, however, I also became a media spokesperson and appeared regularly on Adelaide TV and radio explaining things like cryptosporidium (a nasty vomit-inducing bug that can result from the failure of water filtration) and the finer points of sewage treatment. As befitted my corporate status, I also had an impressively big office with a super view.

Corner office

After 10 high intensity years I decided I’d had enough of being on call 24/7. When I was jolted from sleep at 3 a.m. one night to explain to the media why the Barossa Valley was without water due to a massive burst in the Swan Reach to Stockwell pipeline I knew it was time to move on. So I became a talk-back radio producer.

In the studio

This was a really fun job. Each day was a fresh adventure – selecting stories to cover, hunting down talent to talk about them, briefing my presenters, fielding on-air callers and being always ready to chuck everything and leap on a breaking story. Of course the 5 a.m. starts put a bit of a damper on things, but at the end of the day I could walk away and forget all about it. Tomorrow would be a new day.

Then a strange thing happened. Because I didn’t have to be on trigger-alert around the clock I had a bit of time to think about life, the universe and everything. And THE QUESTION started plaguing me again. I had been pestered by THE QUESTION since I was about seven years old. What was my purpose in life? Over the years it had been answered something like this: teacher, writer, prime minister, writer, ballerina, writer, Egyptologist, writer, psychologist, writer, lawyer, writer, journalist, writer … you get the picture. On reflection, it seemed that this writer thing kept on popping up and it was probably time I did something about it. Hence my first sabbatical (see my inaugural blog post for more).

I didn’t write my book at that time, but I did change the direction of my life – a topic I plan to explore in my next post.

So what has all this got to do with my adventure in Carcassone? I know I can write – I’ve been paid for it lots of times! I know I can write under pressure – newspaper deadlines wait for no journo. I can write in multiple styles and formats – I’m versatile. I’m persistent and resilient – I’m thinking here of mounting the shoulders of that wind-surfer for the 10th pass across the river… I’ve had a rich and varied life (with more to be revealed next week) so I’ve got some stories to tell (Spoiler Alert: the first scene in my novel may take place in a talk-back radio studio). I’m ripe and ready to do this thing. I know the answer to THE QUESTION. I am a writer.

PS: HWB has insisted that I publish a retraction. Apparently, I made a gross error in my last post in referring to our new boat as a tinny. HWB informs me that our boat is in fact a skiff, and should not in any way be confused with the totally inferior characteristics of a tinny. My apologies.

Drawing Inspiration …

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Our Sapphire Coast

Apart from having wanted to write since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and being surrounded by a magnificent cheer squad of family and friends, what is it that inspires me to put fingers to keyboard? What gets my creative juices flowing? What fills my cup and makes it runneth over? Quite simply, where I live.

My home is in the beautiful seaside town of Narooma on the New South Wales South Coast. We are fortunately situated just far enough from Sydney and Canberra to put us outside the reach of sun and surf-seeking weekenders, but close enough to be able to access bright lights and busy streets if we want to. Narooma boasts a population of 8500 and we have one traffic light. It’s not even a proper traffic light – just a crossing so that grannies can get across the road at the shops.

To the east we have miles and miles of stunning coastline with literally dozens of pristine beaches. The sun rises behind Montague Island, a marine sanctuary which is home to fur seals and massive colonies of sea birds. At night the skies are lit by intermittent beams from the lighthouse. Between Montague Island and the coast, the whales migrate twice a year, heading north in the autumn and south in the spring. Dolphins frolic in the foam.

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No caption needed 🙂

To the west we have the Wagonga Inlet, a fisherman’s paradise where rivers and creeks flow out of the mountains forming into sheltered bays before making their way to the sea. The inlet is a tidal estuary – complete with mangroves – which makes it the perfect habitat for oysters, a fact we celebrate each year at our Oyster Festival, an orgy of gorging on molluscs. And watching over us is Gulaga, the Mother Mountain, a sacred and special place for local Aboriginal women.

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The Mother Mountain, Gulaga overlooking the inlet

Narooma is a magnet for boaties. We have a small marina for yachts and BBQ boats, and a wharf where the big fishing boats and whale-watching vessels tie up. HWB is very excited this weekend because we have just become boaties! We are now the proud owners of a tinny in which we plan to go on picnic and fishing adventures up the inlet. NB: for foreign readers, a tinny is a small open aluminium boat with an outboard motor, but the term may also be used to refer to a can of beer.

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Reflections at the marina

I’ve always been a nature lover and have done a stack of bushwalking over the years. Australia is a stunning place but nowhere have I come across such an abundance of natural wonders as I’ve found on our Sapphire Coast. When I step out onto our back deck in the morning I’m greeted by a chorus of bird song featuring kookaburras, sulphur-crested cockatoos, wattle birds, superb blue fairy wrens, rosellas, rainbow lorikeets, king parrots, wonga pigeons and literally dozens of other species. Of all the birds though, my supreme favourite is the majestic white-bellied sea eagle.

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This beautiful painting, by local artist Nicole Grimm-Hewitt, hangs in my study and never fails to lift me up. I am stilled into awe each time I see one of these imperial birds circling overhead or perched surveying their domain from the top of a spotted gum tree. Our coast has plenty of rocky outcrops and remote fastnesses where the sea eagles like to nest and rear their young. After becoming quite endangered they are now doing well in this part of the world and I am afforded regular opportunities to satisfy my eagle longing.

Not all the wonders fly. Our bush is teeming with kangaroos and wallabies, goannas and echidnas, tiny shy sugar gliders and rambunctious possums. And it wouldn’t be Australia if we didn’t have a suitable sprinkling of the more terrifying and venomous snakes and spiders. I don’t mess with them, and I find that they are quite happy not to mess with me.

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Brush tailed rock wallabies

I love it when visitors come to stay with us from interstate or overseas. I feel a delightful proprietary satisfaction when I see their eyes goggling at the gorgeousness of our seaside paradise. When I casually suggest a stroll along the headland at the bar, where the inlet meets the sea, I know I’m going to have the pleasure of wowing them with a sighting of one of our fur seals basking on the rocks. I can usually summon up a sea eagle fly by too.

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I travel a lot for work, and over the past 10 years I’ve spend about an average of 12 weeks a year in far-flung locations. I’ve been to almost 70 countries, and while I’ve seen many beautiful and fascinating places there is never anything to match the satisfaction of driving over the Narooma bridge and coming home.

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I know just how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful place. It’s safe to say I don’t have any trouble meeting my daily gratitude quota 🙂 And when I’m looking for writing inspiration I need merely to step out of my front door and decide which glorious beach, sun-dappled forest or fern-clad mountain to explore.

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The Inlet at dusk

So, when it came to selecting a location for my novel the answer was obvious. It will be set, primarily, in Narooma. Harking back to those writing advisers again, they all say that you should write about what you know. I know this coast, and my tale will unfold here. In these months before we leave for Carcassonne, I’m going to be soaking it all up and trying to capture something of the flavour of it in my writer’s note book (a gift from my editor/friend Rachel – thanks hon!).

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When I walk in the bush, or along the coast, I never know what I will find around the corner. But I can be pretty sure it will be inspiring. And always through the trees, or around the next headland there will be glimpses promising further adventure. I hear there’s a river in Carcassonne …

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PS: all the photos in today’s post were taken by me or HWB #nofilters