Like many authors across Australia, I am recovering from Book Week. A few years ago, we crammed as many school visits as possible into the amazing whirlwind of a week in August after the CBCA Book Awards were announced. Now, we cram in as many as we can into the month of August. As schools become busier with schedules and events, and as author visits are becoming a popular event with many schools, we need more time to cater for everyone in this wide and wonderful land of Australia.
Over my Book Week month, I have presented at a writers’ camp working with keen writing students developing skills in writing and story-telling, spoken to librarians and educators at the North West CBCA Book Week launch dinner, dashed to Hobart for school visits, read to and wiggled a lot at an early childhood centre with parents, carers and pre-schoolers, walked a small town with an entire school as we paraded for Book Week, visiting local businesses for story time then finishing at a community gathering for a whole town story event where I read Welcome Home. Ran up and down the aisles at a whole school assembly author talk, chatting with students and teachers about the passion of storytelling. Then home to pack to visit schools in regional NSW.
I packed my books, my art supplies, my roadie husband and because I felt bad I couldn’t bring them any of our rain, I packed them bottles of Tasmanian rainwater and we set sail for the long drive to Young, Cootamundra, Boorowa and Nowra. Finishing the official tour with a meet up at the National Library of Australia with SCBWI book creators, a signing session at the library bookshop and an afternoon tour of the Lu Rees Archives at Canberra University saw me crumple into my hotel bed, happy but exhausted.
Inspired and motivated, we made our way back to the small island, ready to hit the studio once more. Book Week is busier and crazier than Christmas.
I could share so much of my journey with you, especially Beaconsfield School’s celebration of Book Week as a whole town (that deserves much recognition and congratulations!) but I really couldn’t choose what I should share, and so, with permission of the very friendly and welcoming audience at the CBCA Book Week launch dinner, I will share with you what I shared in Devonport and have shared with students during August.
I was asked to share some of the stories of my journey as a creator of children’s books, and so, coinciding with the theme for 2018, Find your Treasure, I started with some stories of my stolen beginnings.
You see, I am a pirate...
I revel in treasure, the joy of stories, yarns and tales, many that lie in wait to be plundered and rescued from the desolate wastelands of ‘never to be told again’. We live on an island, rich in traditional stories, and those of newer arrivals covering the last 215 years, and those that will come in our future. I collect them, as I see fit, in the hope they never die. For stories are the treasure of humanity. They are what bind us together. The written, the oral, the old and the new. The reimagining of things past, present and the imagining of things to come.
How did I steal my beginnings? It is a part of my beginnings as an author and illustrator and I come to you now in confession and, seeking my pirate right of parley, to let you know that I plundered and stole from the CBCA.
I hope that you are shocked and bemused at this idea. What would the point be in being a pirate if one does not shock?
I had already illustrated for the educational market. Several poetry books that, because of the prestigious authors, looked brilliant on my CV. The likes of (and I name drop because as a pirate, it is the only way to go) Colin Thiele, Max Fatchen and Christobel Mattingley. They were early mentors in my desire to work in the children’s book industry. I managed to squeeze my way into a weekend retreat for children’s book creators at the Tye Estate and under the guidance of many other well-known creators, I was encouraged to knock on doors to show my pirate wares to publishers, to try to make an entry into the fleet of Australian illustrators. At this weekend I was also strongly encouraged to write. So, I did.
By the time I stole from the CBCA, I had a contract for my first picture book, Purinina, A Devil’s Tale. It was due for release the following year, but, in the year of our Lord, two thousand and six, CBCA was to hold a gathering in Sydney and the masters of the fleets would gather in a trade fair display of enormous proportions, the last of its kind, I believe.
Being a youngish and relatively inexperienced pirate with little reputation, I saw the opportunity as a chance to prove myself and perhaps, make my name known. Being in Tasmania and the mother of small cabin-fevered children, the ability to set sail to the big island was difficult and limited.
I couldn’t afford to attend the conference, held at beautiful Darling Harbour. I needed to fly there and find accommodation on top of the conference fees. So, I cleverly applied for one of the grants to attend. I was unsuccessful. I still would have paid to travel and for accommodation, so I considered all those publishers, helplessly tied to their trade displays with nowhere to hide and I decided that it would be a clever pirate plan to head to Sydney anyway.
I flew over with a friend, booked into the nearby youth hostel and carted my precious and bulging portfolios across the seas. I brazenly walked into the conference on day one, my friend assisting me in the carting of my portfolios (I had two!) and enquired from a frazzled looking volunteer if we were able to visit the trade display downstairs. She ran off to ask someone. Couldn’t find anyone, took us downstairs and handed us over to two burly looking official security guards standing outside the doors of the ‘fleet’. I knew that it was not going to happen. The volunteer quickly waved her hands towards the door and disappeared.
The security men looked us up and down, and even though I was shaking in my boots, they saw the portfolios and joyfully smiled, said ‘Ahh, the illustrators’, presented us with lanyard passes, opened the doors and took us inside. I was certain we would be walking the plank.
And so, I stole from the CBCA. My friend was amazed. She couldn’t believe how easy it was. I spent the day, while conference sessions were underway upstairs, browsing and chatting to publishers and others in the industry. It turns out they were a bit bored in the quiet times and as it was quiet they enjoyed having people to chat to. They told me that they were surprised others had not thought to do what I was doing as it was the perfect opportunity to meet publishers from all over Australia at a one-stop shop. We were gifted with free books, appointment times were made to look in greater depth at my portfolio and invites to a book launch that night on board a boat on the harbour where I was told I would be introduced to the publisher of a book series ‘I needed to be a part of.’
Then, as lunch was served upstairs, the food was brought down to the trade fair and we were wined and dined. I even got to meet Morris Gleitzman for the first time over a yummy salad roll and cake as we chatted away before the crowds arrived.
During the delegates’ time to visit, there were illustrators demonstrating their craft (we realised that is how we were let in so easily, mistakenly) and I met the man who enabled my non-reading child to read, her hero. She still to this day has the charcoal fingerprinted bookmark with a Stephen Michael King drawing, procured when I assured him I wasn’t a stalker or a nutter, but that I needed to inform him he was my daughter’s first true love.
I was invited back the following day for appointments and meetings with publishers and I had a wonderful time. Thank you, CBCA. From there, I sailed back to Tasmania filled with hope and dreams. I had secured a contract because of that book launch on the boat with the National Museum of Australia, to illustrate for Jackie French.
The following year, I had my first four illustrated trade books released, one being my first own authored story. Publishers had heard of me, even though many were not quite sure from where, but I had made a small mark and headway into the industry. From there, it was full sail ahead, and no gangplanks in view. I was blindly sailing where this girl had never sailed before, my pockets and brain filled with treasure.
My journey into this industry has been filled with treasure. This is an industry of people who support each other. There is a generosity that means that we encourage and help each other.
CBCA is a big part of that, linking readers and educators and those passionate about books and reading to the creators and to the journeys we travel. Thank you.
Obviously, my journey didn’t only begin in Darling Harbour that weekend but had journeyed slowly to that point which was the place I knew I was meant to be.
I have a wonderful book that I lend to my creative and potentially creative (though I believe we are all creative) friends called Steal Like an Artist, by the poet Austin Kleon - funnily enough, the copy from the Hobart Library collection has been stolen!! It wasn’t me…). It is falling apart as it has been read so often. It confirms that as artists we must take opportunities opened to us and use them to bolster us in our creative output. As I first read it, I knew the author would be proud of my pirate plunder from 2006. I recommend it to all of you, artist or not, it has such wisdom that applies to all aspects of life, for we are all creative in some way. Let me share with you some of the treasure and wisdom it contains and compare it to my journey.
‘Artists get asked the question,
‘Where do you get your ideas?’
The honest artist answers,
‘I steal them.’’
When I present at schools or workshops I talk about my ‘Ahha’ Book. It’s a notebook that I write my ideas in, or a snippet that I can grow an idea from, so I don’t forget them. We all know what it feels like to remember we had a great idea but not remember what the idea was. I tell students and teachers to carry them everywhere, so when, during maths, an obscure idea pops into your head, you can quickly note it down and get back to what is expected of you.
These ideas come from somewhere. We steal them. We copy them down in our notebooks and we carry them away undetected. It’s like a garden grown from seeds and cuttings you pick up as you walk by other people’s gardens or through the park, except that the seed you sow from your notebook will grow into a completely different plant, but one that has its roots in the same source.
My story, Welcome Home, grew from stolen treasure in a Canberra Newspaper. I was there on my last day of Book Week visits doing a library artist in residence. During my break I read a small article on about page four about a whale that had swum into Hobart’s Derwent River and had the first calf known to be born there in over 190 years. I had wanted to write about whaling, but it is a gruesome topic for a picture book, and it could easily become political and preachy. Not my style. This gem of treasure opened a door for me, which caused me to look back into our past, something we cannot change, and use that as my platform for the story.
A treasure was left at the Glover Exhibition in Evandale. I went with the same friend who had accompanied me, so long ago to that CBCA Conference in Sydney, to see the paintings at the exhibition and we came across a painting of a tree on a hill. I like paintings of trees, I tend to paint a lot of them myself. We stood and looked at the work until a small group came by with a guide, who was explaining the backstory to the paintings on show. The tree painting, called Pinners’ Pine, by Diana Cameron, depicted an old pine high on a hill. The story was that there had once been two trees, planted by brothers before they left to fight in the Great War. The tree that still stood was planted by the surviving brother, the other tree had died, as had the brother who had planted it. I stole the seed and it grew into The Anzac Tree.
To be an author is to be a thief. A good one, a great one, a pirate that doesn’t hurt anyone in their plundering. Nonviolent procuring. We listen to conversations, collect words and language, we are lexiconophilists*. We are voyeurs, observers, sticky beaks. We collect or steal stories that we can remould and grow into new stories. We add time, magic and frustration, some sweat, and blood and we create something that is seemingly new.
- Mark Twain said, ‘It is better to take something that does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.’
- Austin Kleon says: ‘Fake it ‘till you make it.’
And that is what I did: I faked it until I made it. Well, until I was on the road to making it. Because I’m still on my journey, and always will be.
After my Tye weekend I packed my bags and headed to Melbourne. I dyed my hair hot pink, not the trend at the time and not a colour I personally liked, but a memorable colour was needed. I had emailed and rung publishers asking when they would see me, not could they, and I put on airs of confidence I certainly did not have. I acted. I faked it.
I was memorable. I could contact them later and remind them that I was the Tasmanian with pink hair. It worked. They remembered me.
And from there I have faked and stolen and enjoyed the journey, most of it, and now, I’m not faking it most of the time, no more than anyone else. I continue to steal, with great stealth and purpose, because plundering is now what I do best. And if you are good at something, stick to it!
But what do we do about this revelation? To steal and to fake it? What about children and young adults who want to know about the journey of being an illustrator or an author? Do we reveal our secrets and tell them the truth? Do we alter the truth and pretend that we are unique and original (in a way not telling the truth is stealing as well, isn’t it?) Or is it time to reveal that, just like everyone else on this planet, including young readers and writers and creators, we struggle to be unique and need the support of the treasures we find?
As I embarked on a month of school visits across the country, I decided to be an honest pirate. I guarantee that 99% of the time, I am asked by students where I get my ideas from, and when I told them that I steal them, there were gasps, giggles, disbelief and an intently engaged crowd (and the occasional panicked teacher wondering where I was leading them). They wanted to know more. I could have told them that my ideas come from life and interesting things I see or hear, but, the truth is, I steal them from life and interesting things I see or hear, and that is much more interesting than any other way of saying it.
I show them that they, too, can do this. They shouldn’t have to hide their creativity behind the angst of pretention and lies. They need a raunchy parrot friend, or, like me a rooster or two if no parrots are available, a feather and some ink and a scruffy roll of parchment and then they can create to their heart’s content.
We need to assess how we teach our children to be themselves in the creative process. We have built up walls around ourselves with so many rules about how things should be done. We have time schedules and the need to impress others and to look busy and we are teaching that to our children. We now impose our own creative restrictions on our youth as if it is the only way.
At the recent writers’ camp, I spent a day working with young writers. Two of the students wouldn’t write at school, they weren’t interested. They recently had an author visit their school and they were told that they had imaginations that they could use. They decided they would go to writer’s camp and see how they could make their imaginations work. In the free writing session, they wrote and wrote more than any other student, and when it was time to come back together and finish the session, one young man refused, lying on his stomach outside and pouring his story out onto the page. We let him. He realised he had a voice and that there were ideas that could help him, but the rules had nothing to do with the story. He had an imagination that could take him anywhere. Look what a couple of pirates can do when they corrupt our students.
I believe it’s time to let students be creative without so many walls.
If I had a dollar for every person that told me they had an idea I should write a book about I wouldn’t need to do much else. We need books about…. I think you should write about….. why don’t you write this story?
It can’t work. You see, they have an idea and instead of letting someone steal it, they offer it as a gift. I tell them that they are the ones who should write it. I doubt many do. The best stealing is quiet, secretive, discreet. Sharing it after the fact allows others to develop the art of stealing like an artist as well. We need to share the love.
So, I encourage you all, to find your treasure, to steal, enjoy the knowledge that what you read has been stolen and that that is the joy of it.
- Actor, filmmaker & composer, Jim Jarmusch says:
‘Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.’
Let us go out and plunder authentically. Let us allow others to do the same. Let us lead by example to our students and youth. In all we create, in all we do, let us be honest about it and set each other free from the unrealistic burden that we are not as good as another, turning I can’t into I will give it a shot!
So, from Darling Harbour plunderings, stealth and thievery, to Captaining my creative ship and converting others to the pirate life on the high seas, would you like to join me?
Be creative in all you do. This Book Week we celebrated the treasure and we need to continue to do so. The magic of words, the wonder of visual narratives, the adrenaline rush of stealing a beginning and letting it grow and taking us into the unknown.
Happy creating, happy reading.