Back to Base …

With less than four weeks until I fly I have had the pleasure of returning to the nest, spending the past two weeks in my home town of Adelaide with my wonderful Ma.

The fabulous Jean

It’s been lovely to have quiet time with her watching PG Wodehouse DVDs, joining her Tai Chi class, nattering over meals and discussing books. As noted in an earlier post, Ma is an inveterate reader whose literary acumen I hold in highest esteem, so we’ve also had a chance for several fruitful sessions pondering various aspects of my plot.

It has also been nourishing to return to the womb of my childhood bedroom which is still adorned with a picture (somewhat faded) of me in the role of Joseph in our Grade 7 production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat, and three longstitch needleworks of gum trees that I perpetrated in my early 20s.

Joseph – career highlight aged 12

The family home is little changed since I penned my first nascent stories there and I still know how to dodge the creaky floorboard in the hallway when creeping into my room late at night, though teen subterfuge is no longer a necessity.

The Whyte House

Being home has also recalled my father to the forefront of my mind. It’s hard to believe but he has now been dead for longer than I knew him in life. Garth Boomer was a bit of a legend in education circles, a brilliant thinker and writer, a raconteur par excellence, enthusiastic sportsman and the life and soul of any party. He died tragically early at the age of 53 when I was 25.

Dad and I in our Christmas shorts

While taking my morning constitutional along the Glenelg foreshore it occurred to me that maybe this writing escapade of mine has a bit of a Freudian element to it. Just after I return from Carcassonne I will be turning 52, and perhaps there is some part of me that wants to guarantee I get this book thing sorted out before the ominous and perilous age of 53. I do know that if I complete my mission and my book is published there will be an extra twinkly star in the sky and an echo of his voice saying “Well done BG!” (his nickname for me – Beautiful Girl).

Apart from childhood naval gazing, my fortnight has also afforded some wonderful opportunities to take in the delights of the Adelaide Festival of Arts. I’ve crammed in four events and enjoyed every one. An especially huge thank you is due to my mate Fontella who is a mad artsista (OK, I just made up a word) who has shared with me the ticketing bounty she has reaped in her role as social media maven for Writer’s Week.

Full Fonty!

As a co-aspirational author, Fonty and I have delved into such all-consuming topics as whether or not to fictionalise locations in our novels, the inspiration v. application principle in writing discipline, and the merits and appropriate timing of when to seek beta-readers for our works-in-progress. Sharing the authorial journey with her is a joy.

And of course I couldn’t come to Adelaide without spending quality time with the irrepressible Rachel, my oldest friend and feared green pen-wielding editor (I previously and erroneously referred to her using a red pen – apologies). We had a great night watching one of her former drama students in her first Fringe production and supping on Greek delights in Unley.

But the best night of my Adelaide sojourn was the one I spent with Rachel, her husband Jamie and daughter Maddy, wrestling with the all-important, life-changing question of what to name my lead character.

Over the past 12 months I’ve tried on various names for her but none of them have ‘clicked’. I’ve gotta love this gal if I’m going to spend three months in her head, and none of the monikers I’ve tested have really rung true. Rachel, Jamie, Maddy and I scoured the nameiverse (yep, another new word) and I believe we have hit the jackpot (huge thanks guys!). I am pleased to announce that my protagonist shall be called Tess (or sometimes Tessa) Falkner. I hope you’ll like her …

Counting Down …

OK, enough with the backstory. This week we begin looking forward because … it’s now only four and a half weeks to go until Departure Day and I’m starting to get very excited!

I’ve been plotting this adventure seriously for two years now, and dreaming about it for (literally) decades. And now it’s all really going to happen. In a very short time indeed I shall be seated at this table with my fingers poised over the keyboard and my heart in my mouth.

The desk…

Of course I’m being consumed by self doubt. Who am I to think I can write a book? In an endeavour to avoid thinking too much about my own novel I’ve been feverishly devouring those of others. Each seems more luminous, insightful and stunningly crafted than the last and throws my own precious idea into eclipse.

I turned the final page on yet another tale of soaring brilliance this afternoon and felt about two inches tall. I knew myself to be a presumptuous, deluded idiot. Then I picked myself up, gave myself a good shaking and squared my shoulders. Sure, I may not achieve soaring brilliance, but I do have a story to tell and I have the hearty enthusiasm of my cheer squad to encourage me to have a go.

Interestingly, the writing advisers all seem to point out one very cogent and compelling fact. The authors that get published all do one thing – they actually finish their books! I myself know at least a dozen gunners (as in “I’m gunna write the great Australian novel”) who talk the talk but keep finding ingenious ways to avoid actually sitting down and writing. I myself have some form in this regard.

This is going to be the secret of my success – I will finish my book! Good, bad or indifferent, at the end of July I will have somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words of prose on my hard drive and a foundation on which to build something potentially publishable.

Stephen King says that it should take no writer more than three months to pen a novel. Anthony Burgess churned out A Clockwork Orange in just three weeks. On the other hand Margaret Mitchell took 10 years to bring Gone With the Wind to fruition and J.R.R. Tolkein toiled over The Lord of the Rings for 17 long years. I’m going with the Stephen King approach.

I have been doing feverish calculations to work out how I’m can make it happen. I will be in Carcassonne for 78 days. Assuming my novel is 80,000 words long I would have to write just 1000 words per day (about 4 pages – a doddle!). If I stretch out to the maximum length of 100,000 it rises to 1200. However, I also want to live this sabbatical adventure, explore the Languedoc region with HWB, put my school-girl French into action and generally have some fun.

So, what if I give myself weekends? This would reduce me to just 56 writing days and my daily word target would rise to between 1400 and 1750 words. Let’s call it an average of about 1500 words per day. Six pages a day seems somehow rather more challenging than four, but I know I can do it because I’ve done it before. I nailed 50,000 words in one month back in 2011 when I took on the National Novel Writers Month challenge. I’ve got this covered.

I also know that I am a creature of habit and I’m very much a morning person. There will be no burning of the midnight oil for me. I will rise and shine and be sitting at my table with a view at 9 a.m. sharp every morning and I won’t allow myself to step away from the computer until those 1500 words are done. Here I’m going with William Faulkner who said: “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at 9 a.m. every morning.”

Still, I know there are going to be days when I don’t want to do it, when inspiration will have fled and when I curse the day I came up with this crazy plan. I will sit at my window and look out and see the castle and think “what the hell am I doing in here when I could be out there?”

Inspiration or distraction?

I’m planning to walk a lot. I find when I walk I can step into my plot and often start envisioning scenes and dialogue. And I’m going to have plenty of beautiful places to explore on my peregrinations.

Canal du Midi – just round the corner

There is method to my madness and despite my periodic attacks of self-doubt and occasional feelings of unworthiness I know deep in my heart that I can do this. I will write that book. And I’m going to have an absolutely wonderful time on the journey.

It’s a Big Wide World …

I’m in Adelaide today, and it’s hot. Really hot! I’ve acclimatised to Narooma’s year-round temperate clime, and Radelaide’s summer swelter has come as a bit of a shock. I’m visiting my Mum for a couple of weeks (lovely) and may incidentally avail myself of the literary and cultural delights of Writer’s Week and the Adelaide Festival (excellent!).

It’s now just under six weeks ’till my departure and I’m starting to get very excited. This whole writing in the south of France thing is becoming imminent and I confess I’m occasionally experiencing qualms of trepidation. I’ll leave the cold feet for now, but will perhaps explore this increasing phenomenon in a future post …

Today I’m going to take you on a quick tour of the highlights of my past 13 years and how they have shaped my present passion for authorship. You may recall in my last post that a visit to the Solomon Islands with AusAID inspired me to save the world’s children from injustice and poverty. When I dream, I dream big! Going solo clearly wasn’t an option, so I looked around for a workplace that would enable me to add my mite to the cause.

In terms of organisations that dream big they don’t get much bigger than World Vision. WV is a global advocacy, relief and development NGO with an annual budget of $2.5 billion and more than 50,000 staff working in almost 100 countries. It is Christian, child-focused and community based, and strives to ensure that children are healthy, educated, protected and given the opportunities to live full lives, free from injustice. I decided WV was the place for me.

I joined the organisation in 2006 as their head of public policy, based in Canberra. My job was basically to convince the Australian government to give more and better aid to address global poverty and to represent WV to them as a desirable partner for achieving this aim. Initially I engaged with John Howard’s conservative government that wasn’t really into development at all, but shortly afterwards Kevin Rudd swept to power and declared that Australia was getting back in the aid game. It was a heady time.

All the random skills I had developed in my eclectic career came together in this role. I was an advocate, communicator, facilitator, spokesperson, negotiator, trouble-shooter and of course, writer, though my writing now focused on developing compelling evidence-based policy recommendations and proposals. I managed to get quite a few runs on the board and caught the eye of those higher up the WV hierarchy. WV is a federated structure, made up of a small Global Centre (the Feds), Support Offices (the ones that make the money, Australia, US, UK, Germany etc) and Field Offices (the ones where the real work of tackling poverty gets done).

I was tapped to go federal as WV’s global Director of External Relations. My job was now to coordinate representation of WV with UN agencies and processes like the G20. I would also become responsible for training our senior leaders and advocacy staff, building their skills for engagement and influence. The only problem was that I had to move to New York.

HWB loved it and I loathed it. The Big Apple might be a fun place to visit, but it wasn’t my cup of tea as a place to live. It is famously the city that never sleeps. I certainly didn’t. I was serenaded by a nightly cacophany of sirens, horns, reversing trucks and jack hammers. I waded through knee-deep snow to rat-infested trains and dodged racing commuters who would rather die than make eye-contact. I came home to Australia after my first 18 months and realised I hadn’t seen a star or a bird that wasn’t a pigeon or sparrow in all that time. Happily, my new role required me to do a lot of travel that enabled me to escape the city, and when I say a lot, I mean a LOT. I spent 25 of the first 52 weeks of my New York posting in far flung parts of the world, and over the past 10 years I’ve visited more than 50 countries in the line of duty. How lucky am I?

I’ve been privileged to visit many of WV’s programmes, meet with local communities and see first hand the difference that our work makes. I’ve trained advocacy staff and leaders around the world on how to influence their governments and hold them accountable. I’ve been shocked and saddened and enraged by injustices of all kinds, and inspired and awed by the resilience and persistent hope with which communities meet calamities beyond imagining.

Community meeting in Agra
Meeting child protection champions in Jakarta
Leading a session at a community consultation in Mali

Most inspiring of all have been the times when I’ve had a chance to meet and talk with children. Just look into the eyes of this little girl and see if it doesn’t make you want to leap forth and make the world a better place for her …

Malawi inspiration

Children aren’t just recipients of our aid. They are agents of their own destinies and one of World Vision’s aims is to empower children to be advocates themselves. I have participated in many children’s groups and heard kids from many backgrounds speak of their dreams and desires. They are so simple. Safety, enough food, a chance to go to school, a hope to be able to contribute to their communities. And always one kid who wants a new football and the construction of a playing field.

Kids in Tanzania

One of the most personally satisfying moments I had was in Nepal, just after the devastating earthquake in 2015. I had been visiting our WV disaster response centre in the north of the country and had asked if there was anything I could do personally. It’s sometimes hard to equate lobbying for an inclusion of a child rights clause in in a Global Compact in Geneva with a tangible difference for real children facing real problems in their communities. Our staff advised that there was a remote community whose little school had been completely destroyed. The children had nothing, but needed books and pens and backpacks. For a trifling (for me) amount of money I was able to have our team purchase enough kit for 50 children. We treked up the inaccessible mountain and delivered the little back packs of goodies to the children. I’ve never felt more alive.

Handing out school packs in Nepal

But is hasn’t all been work. Sometimes, when I had two trainings running back to back I would have a spare weekend in between gigs where I could escape the training room and explore a bit, and these snatched moments have offered me some of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I have white-water rafted the source of the Nile in Uganda,
made bouza (sort of dumplings) in a yurt in Mongolia, hung out with the Maasai in the Mara, been photographed in the Lady Di pose at the Taj Mahal, had close encounters with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, zip-lined in Costa Rica and sailed a dhow at sunset in the waters off Zanzibar.

Hangin’ with the Maasai

Apart from the gratitude I have for living in lovely Narooma, and for my dear family and friends, I am filled to the brim with thankfullness for the chance that I’ve had to get a glimpse into so many cultures and the lives of so many children. We talk about Australia being the lucky country. Well it’s true, and it distresses me that so many Australians don’t always seem to realise just how lucky we are. The world is a rich and wonderful place, despite the ongoing injustices that still need to be challenged by the idealists and believers. There are stories of hope to tell, and I want to tell them.

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.