Elaine Forrestal

The Plotless Nature of Life

Creating their own stories in Balingup

During an interview about her recently published trilogy of novels, Rachel Cusk said that she tried to replicate the ‘plotless nature of life’ in her work. She makes no attempt to interpret what her fictional main character observes and, in so doing, forces her readers into making something out of her protagonist’s observations. By doing this she taps into the storyteller in every reader, the ability of readers to join the dots and make the story. Though events in our lives may be random, we attribute a plot-like meaning to them. We try to make order out of the mystery and chaos of our lives.

My own sense of order turned to chaos recently when the weather forecast was so bad that all the ferries to Rottnest Island were cancelled. This is a very rare occurrence, but it happened on the day when sixty one members of the International Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators needed to cross the channel for their annual four-day Retreat. There was, understandably, shock, disbelief, even panic among the delegates. Suddenly all the months of preparation, the money spent on accommodation, the booking of various venues, not to mention the excitement and anticipation that accompanies this event was in jeopardy. Hundreds of phone calls, text messages and social media posts were created the evening before we were due to leave. Then one of the three ferry companies decided that, if they made just one return crossing, early in the day, they could probably get back before the storm hit. That morning, after a scramble to rearrange travel plans, the SCBWI group was deposited on the Island and by the evening all was calm again. How random is that? How much chaos did it create. We were all unsettled. We carefully examined every possible circumstance, every way of making sense of this drama. Then we proceeded to turn our thoughts into stories. Some will, no doubt, form a significant part of our writing life and effect our future in various ways.

Perhaps some would say that Rachel Cusk has abdicated her responsibility. Isn’t it her job to tell the story? No, not necessarily. I think that, by giving her readers less, she actually gives them more. By trusting them to joint the dots she allows them to personalise the story and make it their own.

Whatever happens, the Rottnest Retreat of 2018 is certainly one we will all remember.


Always something new at Balingup

Balingup is a tiny dot on the map of Western Australia, but it is home to the most creative and hard-working community of any country town I know. Each year they put on not one, but three huge festivals! Their versatile scarecrows, which are also the district emblem, leave their farms and transform into medieval knights, maidens, jesters and dragons, singing, jousting and parading in the streets during the Medieval Festival. Then, after a short rest and a lot more hard work, they become larger-than-life storybook characters for the annual Balingup Telling Tales Festival. And it’s not just the scarecrows who get into the spirit of things. The King and Queen of Hearts, Alice in Wonderland, a larger than life mouse and many other characters can be found frequenting the craft shop, the antique shop, the wool-shed and the cafes that line the main street of the town.

Originally created out of a need to give country kids a taste of the school holiday activities that their city cousins enjoy, the Telling Tales Festival has grown into a unique experience for everyone involved. Among other things, it has become an excuse for authors, illustrators, storytellers, and anyone interested in kids and books to get together. I, for one, would not want to miss this opportunity to interact with these talented people, network with my colleagues and sample all the delights of the town, which include amazing craft work, delicious food and the fascinating reminders of earlier times in the antique shop and the Historical Museum. The Festival also prompts me to develop new and different workshop sessions for its diverse audience.

So pack your bags for Balingup in the middle of the July school holidays and join the fun at the Telling Tales Festival on Saturday 7th and Sunday 8th July.

See you there.


10th Anniversary of SCBWI Rottnest Retreat

Cows? In the Salt Store? Only on a SCBWI Retreat weekend!

SCBWI West has just celebrated its 10th Rottnest Retreat and what a bumper crop of writers and illustrators it has produced in that time. From very small beginnings in 2009, when there were 25 participants housed in 8 cottages, to 61 people in 16 cottages this year, SCBWI has nurtured, encouraged and supported countless members through the trials and tribulations of writing and illustrating children’s books. Today we count winners of all the recognised Awards in Australia, and some of the overseas ones as well, among our members. But SCBWI has never just been about winning Awards. It has always encouraged a wide range of writers and illustrators, from those who are at the very beginning of their careers to those with multiple publications to their names. From those who are just dipping their toes in the see how it feels, to those who are absolutely dedicated and determined to succeed.

I think that this mix of people is one of the most remarkable and valuable aspects of the group. Everyone gains something from the others. Experienced writers like me learn so much about social media and how to make it work from the younger members of the group. And they, I hope, learn something from me – mostly about perseverance and never giving up. The way we share and support each other is crucial to our success. But we also have a lot of laughs along the way. Each year we remind ourselves just how funny the previous years have been. And we celebrate even the smallest successful step along the way. It is much easier to ride over the inevitable disappointments and dashed hopes experienced by every artist working in this field, when you have successful people you can call your friends. People who have also been there, done that and survived to tell the tale.

So with glass of red wine in hand I say thanks, congratulations, and here’s to at least another ten years of wonderful shared times at the SCBWI Rottnest Retreat.


Working on endings

At a school where I was asked to speak, one of the questions put to me was ‘How do you write endings?’

During the discussion that followed the students and I agreed that we have no trouble with finding story ideas, or writing the plot, but nearly always have a great deal of difficulty writing the end. I had to confess to them that, when I was at school, I was the same. Lots of good ideas, pages and pages of story, but when it came to the ending I was stumped.sometimes I just kept writing more and more. Sometimes I put off ending my stories for so long that I had to write another story instead. I tried to talk to the students about getting to know your characters – really know them that is – like you are walking around in their heads. Getting to know what they are thinking, how they are feeling, and how they react to the scary, the beautiful, the winning, the losing, all the ups and downs you are putting them through in your story. But really, when I reflected on it later, I realised that the hardest thing was just to persevere. I remember Julie Watts, the very talented publisher and editor at Penguin Books, once said to me, ‘You just keep putting one foot after the other, don’t you Elaine? You never give up.’ For some reason that remark of hers has stayed with me. Perhaps because I had never thought of it like that before.

I have plenty to say about the excitement of starting a new story. The ideas tumble onto the page. The characters begin to reveal their names, their settings and eventually they settle into a sort of incomplete jigsaw puzzle. Some pieces are missing, some are upside down and don’t reveal their true shape and colour until later. I find myself going back and back to it, moving the pieces around, slowly seeing a more complete picture emerge. I guess it’s like all puzzles. The satisfaction of eventually getting it to come right keeps me working on it. Perhaps that’s the secret of endings. You just have to work at them for as long as it takes.

Poetry and Sport

Elaine Forrestal finds walking on the beach a good way to free up her thoughts and solve problems with her manuscripts

On the surface organised sport and poetry would seem to have nothing in common. Digging deeper, though, it becomes clear that the the two work together more than is traditionally recognised.

The well known poet, Fay Zwicky, believed that ‘organised sport and poetry both require a balance between freedom of expression and restraint, between movement and constraint … the poet needs muscles, emotional, spiritual, and psychic muscles that transcend the limits of the self.’ As it happens, so did Leo Tolstoy, Charles Darwin, and other famous writers of both poetry and prose. Tolstoy regularly played tennis and was photographed standing on the court, racket in hand, deep in contemplation. HIs opponent on the other side of the net seems totally unfazed by this and waits patiently. It is not clear whether the game has actually finished or whether this is just a pause in proceedings. In any case Tolstoy found the exercise necessary for freeing up his mind to focus on what he was writing.  Darwin played football, and stated that when his body was totally exhausted his mind was able to range freely, to deal with his most complex theories and express them in writing.

Although I don’t regularly play tennis or football, I do walk on the beach every morning during the week. Mostly I walk alone because I find that it sets me up for the day, clears my mind of other things, and lets me concentrate on my current manuscript. I walk early, before most people are up and about. But sometimes I coincide with ‘beach friends’. They are the people I have got to know over many years of walking on the same beach. We stop, talk about our various work, maybe catch up on a bit of beach gossip, then go our separate ways. We almost never meet in any other setting and yet something has drawn us to each other, rather than to any of the other people on the beach. Curiously this superficial contact doesn’t seem to get in the way of the cleansing and refreshing process. Perhaps because, although writers tend to be solitary beings, we are grateful to be recognised as part of the human race – as long as we can get back to work before those great ideas we had while exercising disappear on us.