Tiny Owl Workshop is a small press in Brisbane, run by Sue Wright. Championed by Queensland Writers Centre and the great Margaret Atwood, the press produces books as well as projects that add contemporary writing to places i’s not usually found. From stories on napkins, to flash fiction on pillows, Tiny Owl works with authors from school age to seniors.
Sue set up her publishing house in her early fifties seeking a creative venture while still working full time. Age hasn’t hindered her success, although it has made her more aware of her need to succeed. Many people assume she has working in publishing for many years, applying her wealth of experience to her new project. In fact, she refers to herself as a ‘publisher-in-training,’ is not afraid of rejection and is constantly adapting her approach. When we met for coffee (I’m addicted!), we talked about how certain phrasing in a short story can reflect the generation of the writer, whether a picture of an older author would deter readers and how older editors might attract older writers.
While I wouldn’t want to define Tiny Owl by the fact it is run by someone over fifty, however its very existence does something positive for age diversity in the publishing industry. Also, the projects they run are lovely. Look!
Life and adventures continue to open up, even when you’re ninety. Along with the quote above, here’s what The Australian has to say about ageing creatively, passionately, and with great purpose. This article has been in my mind throughout my week in Brisbane, where I met all kinds of people, and visited all kinds of projects.
I joined ACT’s (Ageing Creatively Through Dance) two-hour contemporary dance class for seniors and was utterly inspired by the lithe and graceful bodies that shone and spun around me. I may quit writing and become a dancer.
By Brisbane River, I chatted about clowning in aged care facilities, and training programmes to encourage nurses to don red noses and roll on the floor, led by the formidable Clark Crystal of The Lamingtons.
With Neal Price, who runs the Creative Ageing Centre, I had an amazing cup of coffee (do Australians ever serve it badly?!) and an amazing conversation. Neal makes stories with and from communities, including those in aged care facilities. He talked beautifully about how chronic illness and dementia don’t diminish the person. How artists and care staff have a role in ensuring older people are treated as individuals. Because, regardless of how it seems, the person is still present.
Feros Care is one mighty organisation. They run beautiful residential care centres, filled with life and activities, and animals and picnics, they celebrate ageing in all its glory, and have been recognised in Australia for innovation using sustainable practices, smart technologies and positive ageing.
I had a great conversation with Kate Swanton from Feros. In 2014, they organised the live and interactive broadcast of the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival at Feros aged care facilities on the Gold Coast over the event’s three days. The centres were decorated to create a festival atmosphere, and residents were able to ask questions to the authors at each session’s Q&A, too. Isn’t that amazing?
The idea was to keep seniors connected to their communities, offering a tremendous literary opportunity to those who may otherwise feel isolated or who don’t have the ability to physically participate in events like festivals and performances. There are plans to develop a virtual seniors centre, with virtual yoga and the like, I basically LOVE this idea. It shows the power of digital to open up the world – creatively and socially – and also the way the care settings can be venues in themselves if technology allows.
We also talked about how important it is for literary projects with older people to be purposeful. I really responded to the word ‘purposeful.’ That’s what everything in life should be, including the arts. The artist’s role is to find a shared purpose if they’re working with seniors, valuing the skills and ideas of everyone involved and the culture of the host organisation, too.
I am in the swing of things now, lining up people and cafes and offices and events and ideas and negotiating my way through. I’m dashing from place to place I say that, but this morning in Brisbane the heavens have opened and it feels like a good moment to pause and share some thoughts.
My first weekend in Queensland was spent swimming in the sea at Fingal Head, and trekking through a rainforest, in the heat of the day. Gorgeous to see so many new landscapes and hear all the birds. I think it’s the Butcher Bird that has the squeaking whistling song, and Rainbow Loirkeets with a high-pitched tweet. There are plenty of Brush-turkeys and White Ibis wandering about too.
Brisbane has a more relaxed atmosphere than Sydney, and the city centre seems more compact. I started my week with the State Library of Queensland, if:book Australia (think-tank to foster engagement by Australian writers, readers and publishers with digital futures), black&write! (an indigenous writing and editing project), and Queensland Writers Centre. We shared thoughts on the kinds of literary projects that might work well with seniors.
I tested my idea of making some kind of co-produced literary project in a care setting, and then demolishing it – perhaps burning it all, or ripping it to shreds. The creation and destruction – or corruption – of a piece of writing can be exciting. Plus it’s directly about the fleeting nature of life, and shows that not all arts projects need a solid, physical, easy-to-evaluate outcome. We had a super conversation about the different tools and methods for writing, and how they might be used to entice people into telling stories. From the clunky keys of a manual typewriter to writing in invisible ink, projects that open up ways to write might open up ways into writing. This could be the beginning of something…
Run by Cathy Craigie, First Nations Australia Writers’ Network supports Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander writers, poets and storytellers, advocating on their behalf and supporting ongoing development opportunities. Set up only a year ago, the organisation has already made great strides in enhancing First Nations Australians writing and storytelling.
Cathy shared details of many older writers and projects, and talked about how valuable it is to seek out stories from Aboriginal individuals to ensure the details of their lives aren’t lost.
Given the hidden history of First Nations in Australia, the balance between using memory and imagination in a community literature project is particularly sensitive. In this case, writing life stories – and encouraging them to be told in the most open way possible – must take the priority. That said, Cathy detailed projects where artists and individuals were encouraged to respond the the real life tales and create new pieces of work. So, there’s a place for both.
An initiative which really captured my imagination was the ‘Home Project,‘ a year-long community writing project , run by the Sydney Story Factory. Residents of Redfern and Waterloo – young and old, Indigenous and non-Indigenous – contributed experiences about the area as it moved through a period of change. These were collected in a book and plotted on an interactive online map. It seems to me a super way to highlight marvellous and unexpected details of strangers and neighbours, bringing together a huge, vibrant range of perspectives.
Clermont Aged Care kindly hosted me for a morning. Two members of staff facilitated a session asking for memories of – and family stories about – wartime. Clermont provides a range of artistic opportunities for its older people, many organised following request from residents. The music therapist is award-winning, and the organisation partners with universities and bodies on research.
The regular writing sessions use reminiscence as a starting point, with the staff then working with the residents to form a series of short verses. This particular piece was to be performed at an ANZAC day event, as a song with musical accompaniment.
For me, these group sessions are also intriguing to see. When I run my own projects, I prefer to work one-to-one initially, then bring everyone together at the end. This reflects my personal style, but I acknowledge that it’s only possible with small groups and when I have ample time and freedom. For the staff at Clermont, who have worked long-term with many of the residents, and play creative, caring, and medical roles simultaneously, the group environment created was lively, engaging and purposeful. A fine achievement!
One of the most interesting aspects of this research is the filtering process after each meeting, or at the end of the day.
Eating lunch with the amazing Gail Kenning, artist and researcher at University of Technology in Sydney, our chat moved from hackers and lace-making, to evaluation of arts projects and the deficit model of ageing. While I made copious notes about arts and health funding and why wellbeing is not the only indicator of a successful project, it was a different idea stayed in my mind.
What struck me, later on, was that the key barrier for writers working with older people might be the rigidity of some of the settings. Who wants to work in a place full of rules, and have to negotiate all the restrictions? As Gail said, how can artists respond to the structure of a residential care environment or a hospital, while continuing the stuff of their own practice? Many artists need quiet, daydreaming time, thinking space. Is there a way of translating this way of working into tight schedules and clinical environments? How would it be if artists didn’t feel they had to provide an experience with strong and measurable outcomes? What other ways could they work?
And in turn, how can we promote quieter ways of producing projects with older people? There are many brilliant arts programmes in care homes and for groups of older people which have strong performative aspects: choirs, theatre shows, songs, dance, group entertainment. It feels to me, even more as I pursue this research, that there is space for an offer to individuals, for those who prefer their art gentler and more subtle, who don’t want to be on show, but might enjoy new ways of reading, making poetry and exploring forms of storytelling.
I’m writing this from my apartment in Sydney, while watching huge storm clouds roll across the sky. I can spot at least six battered and abandoned umbrellas on the street below. We did have one day of bright blissful sunshine at the weekend, but then the rain began… ah, well.
With my anorak and notebook, I’ve still been able to meet some wonderful contacts. I spent the morning at the Australia Council sharing ideas about the nature of co-creating artwork with elders. Community arts has a long and rich history here, defined as professional artists offering a framework and others bringing the content.
I loved visiting the NSW Writers’ Centre, set in parkland, and enjoyed talking about the generous creative writing classes available. Coffee and cake and a long conversation with the brilliant writer Gaele Sobbott – who is pushing at the edges of literature with her style of informed collaborative non-fiction writing with older people (read more about her considered writing process here) – topped off a fine day.