How life writing finally got me

 In The Writing Process

I first did a course with Dawn Garisch and an eclectic group of people in October 2012. It took place down a rustic lane in a semi-rural suburb called Zwaanswyk, every morning for a week. It was a carefully planned occasion, necessitating me to stay with a friend in the Southern Suburbs, because my home is many miles away on the Western Seaboard (I am British, still) and would have meant me rising at 5.30am each day to reach the venue by 9am, or whatever the start time was. I am not a morning person so that was not an option.

I am not sure who had recommended Dawn but I do remember that I had been in contact with her for some months, trying to find a time to come on a course, that I felt would possibly lead me to fiction, but in a gentler way than diving straight in to plot, character and structure, which terrified me.

Even then, the courses filled up quickly and so I missed one or two before I could finally get my act together and commit the time – five mornings in the week is not the easiest to arrange, even for a freelancer. And there was the main challenge. Writing for a living as I do, I thought I knew it all and wondered what I was going to learn. Little did I know.

The courses are – how can I put this? – eclectic (that word again) and organic… both in terms of the people you meet, some of whom have become dear friends, and the people you learn from – not necessarily the same thing. And the exercises are eye-opening.

You are asked – you still are – to bring one object with you that has happy memories for you and one that does not. I have no idea what I brought to that first course – it has left my memory long ago; but I do know what I brought to a later course, and that item captured both bitter and sweet memories.

These objects mattered, as did the crayons that we drew with, to create an image of a critical episode in our early lives. And then write about it, from our perspective and then from another character in the same episode’s perspective. Simple and telling. The good doctor knows how to access the stuff that matters.

And so I wrote a few pieces, mostly about food and family, and places that matter to me – in my case, Spain, France, South Africa and then plums, cheese and Cacolac (not as bad as it sounds!). And I wrote about my mother, who had recently died, shortly after my stepfather – in the first months of that year. As it happened, I was already writing reams of journal-style diarrhoea about their close-coupled passings – there was much to process for a (step)son suddenly orphaned from afar (they lived in England).

And so my journey with life writing began. Watch out for more episodes in the not-too-long road to the creation of the Life Righting Collective (LRC). And let us know what your experiences of Dawn’s courses have been as well.

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