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My seventeen-year-old self returns for a visit

Last year I had the enormous pleasure of meeting up with my favourite high school teacher ever – my English teacher from Year 12. It had been nearly 30 years since I sat, entranced, in her classroom at a suburban state high school in Perth.

I was running creative writing workshops at another WA high school last year and learned that the wonderful Ms M worked there. I was overjoyed! This was the woman who, as a very young teacher in the late 1980s, closely supported my early attempts at writing. In her own time, Ms M helped me to pull together and edit a collection of my poems, which she then printed and bound for me. It was my first experience of ‘being published’. And the title of this seminal collection? ‘Frozen Tears’. Oh, dear. Thank goodness the collection didn’t get far beyond the school boundary!

Ms M heard I’d be visiting her school and met me at reception on the day with a gorgeous posy of hand-picked flowers, and a document, rolled up into a scroll and secured with a ribbon. ‘Read this when you get home,’ she said. ‘I’ve kept the original; this is a photocopy, I just couldn’t let it go!’

I read the essay in my car in the carpark before I left that day. I wrote it in my final year at high school; I was seventeen. Terrifyingly, it’s titled, ‘Who am I?’ Some bits I had to read via a half-squint, it’s so earnest, so serious! Other sections show that I’m still the same person at heart; my concerns and ambitions back then are the same ones driving me now.

Something, though, I had forgotten. Or perhaps pushed down. For years I’ve been telling students that, as a young person, I never thought I could be a writer, so I never sought to be one. It wasn’t until my late twenties that being a writer became a distant hope. But once glimpsed, it burned so bright.

In my Year 12 essay, however (penned twenty years before my book, 90 packets of instant noodles, was published by Fremantle Press), I wrote:

One of my favourite pleasures in life is to write. I want to be a famous author or poet one day. I love writing how I feel, how I think other people feel, about people. I love writing and reading poetry. I adore thinking.

(The adult editor in me wants to replace the word adore with pretty well anything else, but for the sake of preserving my seventeen-year-old voice, I won’t. Just please now erase that pretension from your minds.)

I was genuinely shocked when I read this in my car that day. I’d had no idea that I’d held this hope, to be a writer, from my adolescence.

So, if you’re reading this, Ms M, thank you – for being there then, and for being there recently, and probably for being there subconsciously for a lot of the time in between.

As kids head back to school in the next few days, I hope all teachers truly hold close how much positive influence they have on some of their students. Thank you!

The power of family

Families really fascinate me. So much of my writing, looking back on it, has been about family.

Family teaches, controls, contains, cushions, protects, lures and repels us — all at the same time. It nurtures and carves us, in all the best, and sometimes the worst, ways.

As a parent, I am very aware of the everyday — and every-year! — challenges we face in raising our kids. Regularly, the task seems bigger than I have the skills for. Sometimes, it flows and feels good for everyone. But often it doesn’t, and I second-guess myself and become anxious about whether or not I’m doing a decent job of preparing these young things for their own time in the world. I suspect quite a few of us experience these sorts of feelings. I’m really grateful for the wonderful dad my husband is, and for the supportive — and often hilarious — conversations I have with other parents in the schoolyard on this topic. I’m so grateful to my kids’ teachers, who help to guide them in far more than what’s listed in the curriculum.

Yesterday after class, our school principal was having a chat with me and Master 11 about his day. She picked him up on how many times he was using the word ‘like’ in his conversation. I’d been observing this habit (through gritted teeth) but hadn’t wanted to correct him on it, since I’m onto him about so many other things … putting his dirty clothes in the wash, saying thank you to people who have done him a good turn, blowing his nose …! I now feel able to follow up on this small but important thing. Just another of the many things all parents are juggling every day.

I’m going to keep exploring families in my writing — their relationships and dynamics, struggles and joys. And as I do, I’ll take a moment to reflect on the fact that, when I’m writing, I can control everything that happens to my characters, even the hard stuff. I can make sure they have insight when they need to, or back off when that would be advisable. I can also write about their lack of insight, or their lack of grace. And while sometimes this is painful, always they are characters. Not my children. So much harder.

Being a writer is wonderful.

A last word

2016 has been a very big year. I haven’t posted here as often as I’d have liked to, and I’m sorry for that. Big 2016 = crazy-busy + beautiful-wonderful + tumultuous-difficult, and I know I’m not the only one to come careering down the hill towards a new year feeling a combination of exhausted, relieved and hopeful.

I’ve had so many excellent and nourishing experiences this year, from helping to celebrate Fremantle Press’s 40th anniversary to being a guest at The Literature Centre’s national Celebrate Reading conference; being writer-in-residence over two terms at John Curtin College of the Arts and touring the Pilbara with The Literature Centre. I also had the pleasure of reconnecting with an old teacher from high school – ‘Miss Jones’ – who had a big, positive influence on me as a teenager. It was brilliant to see her again and to swap stories and memories.

On the challenging side, I’ve had a painful wrestle with the black dog this year. It’s not the first time and perhaps it won’t be the last, but I’m happy to be able to put it in the past tense. Again, I know I’m not alone in this struggle.

So I’d like to share something that happened this year with a student.

I met this particular young woman several times over a series of creative writing workshops at her school and on first meeting she couldn’t look at me or share her name. She returned for the following session, though, and the next and the next. A few weeks in she started to make eye contact with me and with her classmates and engage in the writing activities, in her own way. I sensed she was attending the sessions for something more vital than the writing discussions I was ostensibly offering. So, when she missed a session, I asked her friend to pass on a book I’d pulled off my shelves for her. Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen. At our last session, she gave the friend the book to return to me, with a note inside. This is it.

What an amazing young woman. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to work with her.

See you next year, everyone.

 

Spencer Gray lands (safely) in the US!

I’m so excited to share this! Star Bright Books, based in Massachusetts in the US, will be releasing The Amazing Spencer Gray this ‘fall’, and here’s the cover …

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The blurb reads like this:

Spencer Gray is 12—finally old enough to join his father in his glider, the Drifter. Going up and soaring is amazing! Spencer can’t believe that they’re actually there; can’t believe he and his dad are flying in an aircraft with no engine high above the earth, vast uninhabited areas below them.

It’s incredible! Then disaster strikes the glider in mid-air, leaving his father badly injured. Now Spencer must be nothing short of amazing if he is to save them both. Set in Australia, Deb Fitzpatrick’s tale of a boy surviving in the rugged outback is filled with adventure—a perfect choice for readers seeking a new hero to cheer.

Compellingly written, The Amazing Spencer Gray is a story of resilience and courage that is sure to become a classic.

168pp. •5 1⁄4” x 6 5⁄8” • Ages: 10-12 yrs  BD: 978-1-59572-769-5 • $6.99

Rock on, Spence!!

Following the Dream with Pilbara kids

I’ve just returned from an inspiring week in the Pilbara – and, frankly, it was the kids inspiring me most of the time.

The Literature Centre and I ran creative writing workshops at high schools in Port Hedland and Newman, and after school we met the amazing Follow the Dream students.

The honesty and effort these kids showed in their writing was phenomenal. I had goosebumps on more than one occasion. I reminded the young writers that I was looking for quality not quantity (because some kids immediately piped up: ‘How much do we have to write, Deb?’), and that I wanted to hear their version of things, their perceptions, no-one else’s – because that is what makes good writing.

And to top it off, check out Newman SHS’s bike racks!

Thanks to everyone involved; hope to see you again some day!

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A Tale of Two Residencies

I had a lovely week this week thanks to two schools, their staff and awesome students.

On Wednesday I spent the day at Carmel School, working with Year 7, 9 and 11 students. I was so warmly greeted by staff, and then had the pleasure of talking with inquisitive, engaged students – as a writer-in-residence, you really can’t ask for more than that.

So I was really thrilled to receive an email from the school principal saying: ‘Thank you so much for coming to Carmel school. I loved the session I was in with Year 11. I have seen many writers in residence present to students and never have I seen students as engaged and interested as they were in your session.’

Here’s a photo of Carmel’s brilliant Year 11s, some of the staff, and me.

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Later in the week I began a much longer residency – 14 weeks at John Curtin College of the Arts. I met with amazing English teacher, Ms McBride, and 20 students from years 7 to 10, who have chosen to attend the W-i-R program, even though it’s not during school time. It’s hard not to be impressed by students who have already done a full day of school but are keen enough to then spend another 90 minutes of their own time, working hard, starting some excellent conversations about writing (and reading) and firing up about their writing. I can’t wait to see ‘my’ JCCA creative writing students again next Thursday.

How a forest shaped a book

The other day I came across this old photo of me walking the Bibbulmun Track in the mid-1990s.

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It’s in this part of the world, along this beautiful walking trail, that I set 90 packets of instant noodles.

This is where 15-year-old Joel goes to live, alone, for three months, in a run-down wooden shack. It’s Joel’s time to think about what he’s been up to with his mates back home and what he wants to get up to with his life. Thoughts of his girlfriend torment him, as do weird sounds at night. And there’s an old hermit living not far from him, he discovers, and this old guy has a rifle on his verandah.

The bush is a great place to think. I feel space flooding into my head when I go walking in the bush. This is precious time and I’m always grateful for it.

As for Joel, I guess you’ll need to read the book to see whether he makes the most of his time in the bush …

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At My Door podcast

Am thrilled to be able to share here a 3-minute podcast of me reading from At my door, my latest book. It’s for readers aged from 7 to 11. Hope you like it!

https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/c/classroom-express/4642-deb-fitzpatrick-read-a-long

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Perth Writers Festival 2016

Look at these faces. These are the faces of the inspired, hard-working writers and illustrators I’ll have the pleasure of chatting with on stage at this year’s Perth Writers Festival.

It’s a tough gig, it really is.

I hope to see you there! It’s this weekend (18–21 February 2016) at UWA’s Crawley campus. The events I’ll be MCing will be mainly on Sunday. Come and say hello!

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A new year, a new leaf

Welcome to the new year, everyone! I must say that I’m always glad to find myself on the ‘other side’ of the silly season.

I’ve had a lovely break in the karri and marri forest in southern WA with my family and am really excited to get into a couple of big writing projects in 2016 – one novel for kids and one for adults.

But before the hard work gets underway I’d like to say a huge thank you to all the schoolteachers, librarians and readers, and the festival and writing-centre peeps who invited me into their spaces in 2015. Without your support I’d struggle to remember why I write. If I seem enthusiastic when I meet you, it’s because your enthusiasm makes me that way! THANK YOU!

In between some serious writing in 2016, I have school, library and festival bookings in Perth, Mandurah, Karratha, Katanning, Balingup and Busselton in WA, and Mackay and Melbourne. And I can’t wait! Please use the contact page if you would like me to come to your school or library – I will do what I can to make it possible.