Perth writer, Susan Dunn, is my guest in the attic this week. Susan’s essay takes us from her early reading through to her adult writing life, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading about the books and people who have influenced her.
‘I curled up in bed reading, living inside worlds and lives as real to me as the one I actually lived in.’
Writing has always been part of Susan’s life. From early primary school to university followed by many years teaching and lecturing all age groups, Susan’s done a little writing of ‘just about everything’. In the past few years she has focussed on writing her mother’s story., and now Susan is writing her first novel and turning her hand to poetry. Susan lives in Perth’s Darling Ranges and enjoys the simple pleasures in life: being involved with her grandchildren, sewing a little, dabbling in a wide a range of arts and crafts, taking family snaps and travel photos, and of course, writing.
My Reading and Writing Life
Growing up on a farm in Western Australia’s central wheat-belt I was quite isolated. Sometimes a school friend stayed over, but it was much easier to stay acquainted with my secret friends. They visited any time and whispered their stories far into the night. I curled up in bed reading, living inside worlds and lives as real to me as the one I actually lived in. I laughed and cried with Anne of Green Gables; felt very glad for my blessings with Pollyanna; went on adventures with Milly Molly Mandy; and escaped behind the walls of The Secret Garden and many more. All are stored in my bookshelf of ‘old books’.
‘It was much easier to stay acquainted with my secret friends. They visited any time and whispered their stories far into the night.’
Alongside my childhood literary companions, my maternal grandmother also influenced me greatly. Deeply Christian, she was a strong presence in my early life with her Biblical quotes and determination to have me learn passages. ‘If you learn the 10 Commandments, I’ll give you 10 pounds.’ The bribe worked! Most likely my long association with the church in my teens and twenties was partly due to her, but also because my parents were very involved in the local Methodist Church. During the years I attended university and college to train as a teacher I was also very engaged in bible studies. This background in the most classic of all books coloured and shaped my thinking and fostered my appreciation and love of cultural and individual ‘difference’. For many years, while seeking to conform to parental and religious expectations, my mind also explored different beliefs and ultimately relationships. The tool that helped me do this was writing. I kept journals in the form of free verse poetry.
‘This background in the most classic of all books coloured and shaped my thinking and fostered my appreciation and love of cultural and individual “difference”.’
When I found myself raising two young daughters on my own, I wrote. Once again, words became my secret friends. When my heart raged with anger, worry, frustration, fear—I wrote. I subsequently destroyed most of these ramblings due to their highly personal, exploratory nature, though not before my pre-teen daughter discovered one and read it! On her admission, she looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I understood you better, mummy’ I felt as though a treasure had been shared. Perhaps it is unfortunate that I’ve long since destroyed those pages; however, I think at times, one needs to burn bridges and move into new vistas.
Going back a step or two, my first memory of creative writing for an audience is from mid-primary, when my teacher read my composition to the class. For many years I thought it was meant as an example of poor writing but much later realised it was exactly the opposite. This sort of self-doubt—which troubles many writers—had a strong seed back then, but it has now been uprooted. I’m finding new seeds in gems of wisdom, great teachers, workshops, conversations, incidental meetings and wonderful circles of fellow writers. Bright green sprouts of fresh new ideas are finding their way onto the page.
‘I’ve always revelled in playing with words.’
I’ve always revelled in playing with words. This was fostered by my grandmother who’d comment on anachronisms like ‘spendthrift’ and have me check meanings, and by a radio program my parents listened to. Each Sunday evening BBC’s My Word blared from the Bakelite radio on the lounge room mantle shelf. This program’s light-hearted exploration of the world of words left an indelible imprint. While a word twist adds levity to conversations, I also like a fairly high degree of accuracy in use and pronunciation though I’m by no means pedantic. As a former English teacher, my now adult children are still occasionally corrected for pronunciation and correct usage of everyday words. ‘Going! – pronounce the ‘g’! It’s not goin’!’ I don’t claim to be an authority and at best it often leads to lighter moments.
Coupled with my love of writing is my love of literature in general. I enjoyed studying classical English literature for my Bachelor of Arts, which I completed at the University of Western Australia. Much later I also completed a Graduate Diploma in Children’s Literature through the University of Southern Queensland. My goal in the latter was to learn more about children’s books so I could write my own. I have several ideas in the pipeline, one of which is based on stories I told my two young daughters when I was a lecturer travelling some distance to and from classes each week. The stories were always fantastical adventures involving their much-loved pets—one brindle and one snow white cat. My daughters continue to beg me to write these stories, so when I do, I’ve asked my artistically talented younger daughter—now a mother of two teenagers—to be the illustrator.
‘Now that (teaching) is behind me, I find I’ve much more ‘brain space’ and creative ideas flow more readily.’
Writing my own stories always took a back seat to the demands of teaching. Now that is behind me, I find I’ve much more ‘brain space’ and creative ideas flow more readily. In the past few years I’ve explored writing anecdotally. One outlet was for my coffee table books of our travels. Ten years ago my husband and I spent a couple of years living in London and travelled to Europe in bursts of typical tourism. The travel books are great reminders of the ground we covered – typical Aussies seeing as much as possible in one day.
For my mother’s 80th birthday I promised her I’d write her life story. This was both a gift for her so her family could know her story and my way of getting to know her better. Many hours of talking, scanning family photos and of photographing and annotating memorabilia followed. An invaluable discovery was suitcases full of old family letters and photos reaching back into the early 1800’s. The letters are a wonderful source of inspiration capturing the social lives, formalities and affections of generations long since gone. This treasure trove fuels my writing today: one photo triggered my pathway into writing historical fiction.
Over the years I’ve stumbled along with my writing. Today I am most fortunate to have carved a writing niche at home and am fully supported by my family. I attend workshops, festivals, retreats and regularly take part in writing groups to meet like-minded people who keep my writing spirit nourished. When I struggle to write prose, succinct poetic expression has a strong appeal, harkening back to my early love of playing with words.
If you have a story you’d like to tell for Writers in the Attic, consider this an invitation. The topic is anything to do with writing—your writing life, what writing means to you, or the influences on your writing.
600-1000 words is a good length, and I acknowledge the time and effort involved in writing these pieces by sending a small gift as a thank you.
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