A conversation with Helen Cerne

Helen Cerne is one co-ordinator of the Community Writer's Group 'Western Union', based in Werribee, Melbourne. In this interview, conducted by correspondence in late 1992, Helen discusses the practicalities of setting up and maintaining a community writing group, and explores her own attitudes to writing.

Helen Cerne: I have belonged to a writer's group for about eight years which really amazes me as I have never been a joiner of anything before. I don't like meetings or formal social arrangements but the strengths of the 'Western Union' group (situated in the western suburbs of Melbourne but mainly Werribee) is that it is supportive, genuinely encouraging and an impetus to get me working regularly. Where I live there is not a lot of cultural/art support so it has been important that the group initiates and facilitates opportunities for local writers to meet regularly and share their work. We have about sixteen regular members, four of whom have been there from the outset. The founding member of the group Kip Chauli, a natural storyteller and poet advertised in the local paper to get it started. All ages and backgrounds attend; about eight men and eight women at the moment. People drift in and out and that's good because we need recharging and new ideas. At the moment we need a few younger members to wake us up a bit. No-one is in charge and that is another positive thing. However, as people can waffle with a bit of wine and cheese under the belt, we now have a Madam Lash (with a little bell!) who makes sure readings stay within a certain limit. Social conversation follows the reading and often goes on until well after midnight.

A few members take roles like distributing regular newsletters, informing members of writing festivals and competitions, but everyone is encouraged to get involved and comment on other people's work. Some in the group are politically committed and write about social equity issues on such themes as aboriginal land rights and domestic violence. One member, Margaret Campbell has prepared a powerful anthology for this the Year of Indigenous People. Some of the group opt for more traditional genres, realistic styles, detective fiction, well plotted stories and structured yarns with no open endings ... but they do keep an open mind. Others are exploring their spirituality in poems and stories. We sometimes swap and discuss influential modern writing and often dispute its merits and influences. Right or wrong, I believe writing is about sharing ideas and experiences, some of which must reflect contemporary concerns and experimental approaches.

As a group, do you get involved with other writers and activities?

As a group we all belong to different organisations such as the Federation of Victorian Writers, community writers' networks, the Western Region Writer's Co-op, The Writers' Centre in Melbourne. All have different uses and outreaches, particularly newsletters about writing events and workshop opportunities. Most of us go on writers' weekend camps run by the writers' networks. Some of us regularly attend book launches and readings around town which are always publicised in the weekly Age EG guide.

What are some of the positive points in favour of writers' groups?

Many members of our group say how important it is to read aloud their work. First, you can hear what is or isn't working. Secondly the feedback you get is valuable. Thirdly, in the group there are people who are genuinely interested and really like sharing this age-old tradition of story telling. Some of the writers are too kind and supportive to go for the jugular but overall the criticism is useful and constructive. Although eleven o'clock on a Friday night is not the best time to have a clear-headed discussion. We are a mixed group of diverse interests and writing styles which is good for the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Some go for experimentation, others for ideas and issues while others for mainstream markets like adolescent fiction, Mills and Boon, the Women's Weekly etc. Amazingly we still get on ... when there is a personality clash, someone tactfully diverts the attention or rearranges the seating or simply leaves the group. That's fine. Everyone has an ego, we all want to make it and we all need someone to support and encourage us. That can be a problem in running a group. You have to be sensitive to the needs of the members. But who nurtures the nurturer? And that is why many female writers refuse to have men in their group. It has not been a problem for us. Rather we have been fortunate in having males who have injected a different viewpoint or perspective without taking over. Some censorship may take place ... it is hard to say. I know I read whatever whether men are present or not. So far, the men in our group have not trivialised the women's literary output. By and large, they have been encouraging and supportive but we often dump on them!

It is interesting that over the past eight years we have had many male members but very few Australian born! At the moment we have an Indian, an Italian, an Irishman, four Englishmen and one Australian. (The women are six Australian, one English and one Scot). I think that says a lot about how little our culture values men who create (especially in the western suburbs) and how often the native born cannot or do not want to express their innermost feelings. But it may be the opposite case, male migrants to our country might have a greater need to communicate. It would be good to conduct a study to find out why.

Has the group had much of its work published?

The Western Union group has published two anthologies to date and is preparing a third for 1993. Many of the members have been broadcast on the A.B.C. and stations like 3CR on their informative 'Writers at Work' show. One of our members, Bronwen Hickman is a regular writer for Radio Helicon. Another, Jim Cleland has sold over 7.000 books for his 'Radical Rider' adolescent novel series. We have camps or workshops. In 1988 we took part in An Open Channel TV presentation about community writers. The director Anthony McMahon had seen us perform at Spoleto and wanted to make a short documentary about the Werribee writers. Some members have had their plays performed, workshopped or read at community centres. In 1991, I produced an hour program for the A.B.C. 'Connexions', about Victorian community writing groups, (there are over eighty) which focused on a weekend conference held at the Footscray Community Arts Centre.

On a personal level ... do you subscribe to magazines? Do you read the review sections of the Saturday newspapers? Do they influence what you buy?

Yes, I do read reviews in newspapers, always the Age, sometimes Australian Book Review and occasionally other magazines and papers. They do influence me to buy books but I borrow frequently from the local library. We are a book buying family. Traditionally, every Christmas eve and birthdays we give books. Ironically in this house of bibliophiles our children are not readers!

I read many of the literary magazines and have subscribed to several over the years. Our writer's group subscribes to Australian Short Stories and annually we decide which ones to support. Not everyone is interested in the same type of literature. I regularly read magazines like Meanjin, Scripsi, Overland, Hecate, Studio. (The library has funding for ten magazine subscriptions a year). I think anyone who is serious about writing in Australia should know what is being published and what are the literary trends/styles/themes current. It's up to the individual whether to be influenced or to discard them. I also follow radio and television programmes about writing such as 'Books and Writing', 'First Edition' and 'The Book Show' on SBS.

Can you name some writers and books you've particularly enjoyed?

I cannot say which is the best book I have ever read but there have been special books for particular times of my life. D.H. Lawrence when I was young until I discovered Joyce. What style can one invent after him? I love a lot of modern literature and yet I go back to the Russians as my favourites; Tolstoy for his humanity and breadth of social vision; Turgenev for his style and restrained emotion; Chekhov for his contemporary insights. Passages of Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf can leave me stunned. A.S. Byatt's Possession was a good read particularly if you have ever researched the life of someone and been taken over by their persona....

An Australian novel I particularly appreciated was David Malouf's An Imaginary Life. I think there are many fine women writers in Australia at the moment. I like most of Helen Garner's work, some of Marion Halligan's and Janet Turner Hospital's stories, and want to read Bev Farmer's book The Seal Woman. I like David Marr's Patrick White as it made me appreciate how much one has to work at succeeding and I also valued sharing the relationship of Patrick and Manoly, surely one of the finest committed partnerships in literature. Confirming that writers need people who believe in them! Another biography I enjoyed was the life of Vanessa Bell and her complicated involvements with the Bloomsbury set. How she balanced her art and loves while maintaining a warm home environment was quite remarkable. At the moment I am reading and enjoying Jeanette Winterson.

Have you been to any writers' festivals? Has the experience been valuable? Have you any memories of them worth recalling?

I do go to writers' festivals, mainly Adelaide and Melbourne and various community ones. When you see the same old faces year after year at these things you begin to feel like a bit of a middle-aged groupie hanging around the authors for signatures! The cult of the writer as all wise celebrity or cultural guru has really taken off. Some sessions in Melbourne are always sold out as thousands turn up! Adelaide is more relaxed and intimate being under the tarpaulins in the Women's Memorial Gardens which are lovely to wander through after a heady reading. At these events the reading public wants answers not only about writing but about life which the frail writers usually cannot give. Of course there are always the rare surprises. The Latin Americans Luisa Valenzuela and Eduardo Galeano left a lasting impression on me. And that is why I go back year after year not to be seen chatting with the cogniscenti (I kid myself) but to savour some insight which expands my limitations. Galeano's trilogy Memory of Fire, the History of the Americas is a gem of insights and compelling vignettes at which to ponder and wonder. The Montsalvat Poetry festival was worthwile in 1992 for the diversity and quality of work shared especially in the open heart readings on the Saturday morning. I would like to get to the Salamanca (Hobart) and Sydney ones in the near future.

What about your own writing?

I write about everything and anything. I have explored the changing roles of women but I mostly write about family dynamics and male/female interaction. Some of my work has a spiritual context but is not overtly Christian. I think at the moment there is a real interest in this domain as evidenced in several writers recently eg Helen Garner's Cosmo Cosmolino. One of my fascinations is with Latin American writers such as Marquez where there is a crossover between the real and fantastic, the living and the spirit. The very term 'magic realism' conveys this sense of it being outside the realm of natural phenomena, 'away with the fairies' but these writers are lucid, rational and well grounded. It is not a weird exception to life, it is life. Most people do retreat from explicit religious writing. As soon as this comes, readers back away. One of my fascinations is with the French writer and philosopher Simone Weil who as a Marxist was valued but once she became spiritual it was as if she had lost all credibility. To her, however, it was a consistent continuation along the path of understanding why people suffer and are exploited. In our society, there is a traditional separation from the secular and the sacred but increasingly there seems to be a need for artists to unify the two. Hence the interest in myth and ritual in literature and drama. I think we have lost something integral to our traditional existence - a sense of communal ceremony. Even in suburbia it's essential to mark the passing of time with moments of significance; celebration or awe.

I know it all sounds half baked or woolly but things like the annual bonfire, the community fete, the local craft market, arts festivals, religious rituals, are things which can give kids and adults a sense of continuity with the past and some meaning to the constant state of flux. In a recent production by the Abbey theatre in Melbourne, Brian Friel's 'Dancing at Lughnasa' these sentiments were expressed so much better. And yet I do not want to retreat back to communal hippiedom. (My sixties' adolescence is showing). I value much of the new; the hard edged minimalists, the post-moderns with their eclectic layers, the technological appropriation of creativity challenging writers to compete with lucid possibilities. I like originality and try to change my style and structure to convey the mood of each piece.

Tell me about your writing habits. Do you write regularly? Do you use a word processor? Do you keep a journal, collect clippings etc?

For the past few years I have been an erratic writer, as I work part-time. In 1992 however I co-wrote a local history of a Werribee private school and had to set aside one to two days a week to research and write which I maintained for most of the year due to my tight schedule. Housework and domesticity has always had a low profile for me so that was easy to shelve or fit around other priorities. What I spend more time on is relationships and they do suffer when you are writing as the creative process spills over into your thinking time as well. I find you have to discipline yourself to write at a certain time of day otherwise you postpone the starting. (I want to write but I don't want to begin!) It means three to four hours of uninterrupted time which sometimes a family does not let you have. Women have a skill of switching on and off, a necessity for survival but if you are serious about writing you must make the time. Using that limited time productively is the secret.

Using a word processor is a real boon, saves time and makes the process of layering your work much easier. Although I usually write stories in long hand first, I constantly redraft adding quotations, allusions, metaphors later to make the text more resonant. Sometimes I go the other way, have the symbols and themes and then weave a story around them. To be able to cut and paste, change names delete paragraphs is great. Last year with the local history which was based on oral anecdotes, every time someone told me another interesting recollection I easily inserted it into the text without a laborious rewrite.

I have kept a writer's journal for ten years since I studied Drama at Melbourne University. In that course we were encouraged to write down reflections, observations, conversations, ideas and issues to be recycled in performance. I continued the practice for writing. I collect clippings, 'how to write' articles, witty aphorisms, weird news stories etc. Some of my favourite quotes are now cliches ... many have been published in the Paris Review writers' interviews edited by George Plimpton. It's hard to be fresh about writing when it's on calendars but here are some of my favourites:

'Trust your obsessions.'
'A writer is working when he is staring out the window.'
'In literature as in love we are astonished at what is chosen by others' ... Maurois
'There is a voice within that will not be still' ... Sylvia Plath
'The man who writes about himself and his time is the man who writes about all people for all time' .. Bernard Shaw

Have you had many rejection slips? How do you handle rejection of your material?

Rejection slips I collect and save. At first I found rejection difficult and did not take the advice offered. I would shelve the project, or later just send the material somewhere else. One day however I received a letter urging me genuinely to make the changes which I did and the story was accepted.

A rejection slip may not be a negative experience ... one has to be realistic about the nature of publishing. So many unsolicited stories and poems arriving on an editor's desk, something like only one in a hundred to be accepted for some publications. In one editorial workshop I attended they said a rejection should be viewed as a continuing dialogue towards publication particularly if you are given some useful feedback along the way. They sometimes remember your name and if you keep on trying they see you have a real commitment with an increasing body of work.
Standard printed cards with no personal comments are never good to receive. I have appreciated rejections from Meanjin where the comments were astute and considered; and Quadrant where one of our finest poets, Les Murray wrote a short note of rejection but also thanked me for some of my observations. I found this encouraging. Being accepted is better and if a slim envelope arrives with a cheque, very pleasant indeed. However, I prefer a verbal comment from someone after reading some of my work. I am very much a relationship person (E. M. Forster's 'only connect' sort of aim). A personal response means a lot and if someone remembers something months later, it really satisfies me.

How do you feel about suggestions for changes to your work?

It depends on what is said, who says it and how. It's silly how defensive you get over your work. I'm better now. Personally, I find it very hard to criticise my peers. I believe everyone has a right to a voice and to tell something in his or her own way. To me editorial suggestions are useful but when someone else insists on changing the characters or endings or plot, then writing may become too formulaic or prescriptive. I think there is a craft to writing a good story but when it comes down to it, I don't think anyone can tell you how to make it great. It's indefinable ... something extra. When I read the stories of the masters, they don't usually fall into set patterns of structure and style. Making suggestions is a sensitive area in a writer's group; if often depends if the person really wants it. Usually a writer wants affirmation or approval rather than negative comments. If someone has worked on something for months, maybe years, it would be heartless to dismiss the effort in a few seconds. Better to accentuate the positives and then move to what may need to be strengthened. It's easier if someone is specific and asks 'Was the ending too abrupt; in my first draft the wife was indifferent now she is much more angry, does it work ... etc'. Having copies of the work distributed around the group is useful too. Everyone has more time to digest the material and make more pertinent comments ... some can even take it away and report back next time.

Personalities do play a part in a writer's group. Some egos need more massaging than others (mine included). Having adolescent kids is another important prerequisite for writers not to take themselves too seriously! After a meeting I often lie awake for hours thinking over the stories or poems read. I value these once a month encounters and the privilege of sharing in a creative journey with other people in my community. Who knows where we will end up? And does it really matter?