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.