Empowering Communities through Creativity: A Reflection on the Stay Connected Workshops

The plane descended through the clouds, below it a patchwork landscape of green and golden hues. The fertile fields and grazing pastures revealed the agricultural heart of St George, interspersed with the meandering waterway of the Balonne River, a rich lifeline for the region. As the wheels made contact with the airstrip, passengers peered out of the window with a sense of awe at the raw beauty of the landscape. 

As I stepped from the plane, memories of previous travels gave way to the present, while a breeze carried the scent of dust and diesel from a nearby generator. Fellow travellers said their goodbyes and located their lifts to navigate their separate ways into town. An arbour of overhanging trees swayed in the afternoon breeze as my thoughts moved to the challenges and delights of living in such a pretty country town.

It wasn’t hard to locate the CWA at Thallon the next day for the first of the many Queensland Writers Centre’s, Stay Connected Workshops in North-West Queensland. This small town not far from St George, with its big heart and embracing spirit, welcomed me as each woman attending the workshop brought with them an air of excitement, unchecked curiosity, and freshly baked treats from their ovens. 

First things first, and after some home-made scones, generously slathered with jam and cream, and a cup of strong tea, the group made their way into the CWA meeting room to begin. Each of the women, ranging in age from their 50s into their 80s, found their place at a big square table, and with much goodwill and delight we commenced our journey of learning together. 

Introductions began with each person finding out something new about the person beside them, and in this small community of a little over 200 people, some of the participants had to try hard to uncover new information. But they did and shared their stories generously, interspersed with bursts of surprised laughter from the others in the room. One woman confessed to her friend sitting beside her that it was she who stole her scissors in grade 3. Which proved that it’s never too late to share a buried secret.

These discussions were revealing and created a structured space for introspection, allowing everyone to delve into meaningful conversations with fellow creatives. They discovered that sharing their experiences and perspectives has the power to enrich the communal fabric well beyond this one-off experience.

The ice-breaker completed, we talked about how, when carefully chosen, words have the capacity to articulate unspoken pain, and unbound joy, and once woven into the fabric of storytelling, can become a balm for unseen wounds. Words can change a life, free a soul, bring happiness, educate, uplift, inspire, instil hope, creating a healing tapestry that helps make sense of the human experience. 

I then took the participants through a brainstorming exercise, where they decided to focus on four significant events in their lives and jotted down everything they could remember of that time. At first, they were tentative, then enthusiasm took hold, with each writing dot points of these event. They extended this exercise by writing a paragraph about each of these incidents. I asked them to include any characters they meet along the way, to show how that person may have shaped or impacted their lives. The only provision was to write whatever came to mind, not to edit or alter their first thought. So began their first step towards writing their story.

Once these stories were unlocked, the next step was to delve into the character and backstory of their protagonist, by answering rapid-fire questions about their character at the age and time of the story. Things like: What do they think they want? What do they think they look like? What do they remember about their childhood? When did they feel most unlike themselves? What are they afraid of? What do they need? What do they love? What do they hate? What makes them laugh or cry?

This revealed unmapped information and encouraged childlike playfulness, prompting the writers to view their world with fresh eyes, and rejuvenating their perspective. They became an attentive observer, not just about the character of the protagonist, but by appreciating the colours and shapes around their central character.

Each person held their own story, yet were united by a shared longing for expression and connection. Not just outward connection, with friends and community, but to their inner creativity, through stories of hardship, loss, joy, goodness and generosity.

In each of the workshops, the revelation of affording ourselves self-care in the writing process struck a chord. Nurturing ourselves is integral to producing meaningful and creative writing. One striking aspect echoed by many participants was the importance of self-compassion in their writing practice. It’s too easy to be harsh and critical of our work. Many people give up writing altogether because the call of their self-critic overpowers them. Writing, often viewed as a solitary pursuit, can be reframed as an act of self-care which includes kindness to oneself, humanity, mindfulness, and compassionate listening. 

Listening seems like it should be a simple act, yet many people find it difficult. Perhaps because it requires the listener to be focused on what the other person is saying, as well as being present within themselves. It also requires vulnerability as the other person may expose, or trigger the listeners’ feelings of insecurity or anxiety. Compassionate listening has the potential to make us great writers. It is also a gift which freely given, can start a healing process and help others to find their own solutions.

Many of the groups I worked with decided to continue meeting with monthly catch-ups and asked for some writing prompts. I offered sentences for them to use at each of these meetings to serve as a stimulation for their writing. Their favourites were: One day this will all make sense … Walking through the graveyard, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched … It had been the happiest day of my life when … She was here, standing in front of my house again … Using these prompts to ignite their imaginations was a fast-track way to jumpstart the creative mind. 

They extended their experience together by reading each other’s stories and offering kind and sensitive feedback, providing a space for them to share and celebrate their progress. The stories revealed by these women will be carried in the hearts and imaginations of the group revealing insights into the land and people of this remarkable country.

In the fast-paced world of doing, we have programmed ourselves to think our worth is in how much we can achieve in any given day, by ticking off the daily to-do lists methodically. Finding moments of self-discovery and community connection is rare. 

Several people confessed to joining the workshop without knowing anything about it. As the day unfolded, they said how much they enjoyed the insights into writing, the opportunity to learn about their creativity and the prospect of making new friends. 

We ended the day with each person creating a collage from old magazines, stickers, and colourful paper. Without any rhyme or reason, scissors and glue were used to cut and paste the pictures and words that they were drawn to. Even though most did not consider themselves artists, this task allowed everyone to communicate thoughts, feelings, and experiences by visually expressing themselves creatively. Everyone said the process was meditative, calming, and served as a tool for self-reflection, helping them to connect with their inner selves, and build on their personal narratives. 

It’s always a privilege to guide new writers on an expedition of learning and the Stay Connected gatherings proved to be a transformative experience for attendees, offering not only creative ideas about writing but also valuable day-to-day skills to share with others. It underscored the importance of regular connection, whilst providing a space for individuals to share and celebrate their stories. 

In the tranquil outback, these women wove a tapestry of stories, experiences, and dreams. This was more than a writing course; it was a celebration of shared understandings, and a testament to the power of words to connect, inspire, and transform. Each person found their collective voice and a sense of belonging in the enduring strength of their combined narratives.

I would like to thank the communities of St George, Thallon, and Goondiwindi for their generous hospitality, open hearts, and particularly their willingness to listen, learn, and grow.  I acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands I travelled through – the Gamilaroi, and Bigambul people and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. 

www.vicki@vickibennett.com.au

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The Promise

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Recently I was asked by Queensland RSL News to write an overview about a children’s book I’ve written, The Promise, and they have kindly published this in Edition 4 of their magazine.

During World War II, Papua New Guinea nurse Maiogaru Taulebona hid a wounded Australian airman in a cave, deep in the jungle near Milne Bay. With two words, “I promise”, she was bound to the task of saving his life.

WORLD War II was in its third year, and the Battle of Milne Bay was raging in Papua New Guinea. On the night of 25 August 1942, Japanese soldiers landed between Waga Waga and Wandula, on the northern coast of Milne Bay. The intention was to seize Milne Bay in preparation for landing in Port Moresby, their final destination.

It was during this time of carnage and confusion that an Australian airman, John Donegan, was fished out of Milne Bay by local fisherman Kidilon Luka. He pulled him into his canoe and took him to a mission nurse, Maiogaru Taulebona, who hid him deep in a shadowy cave so that enemy soldiers could not find him. It was then that she made a promise to protect him and take him to safety.

Maiogaru treated his wounds, wrapping them in banana leaves, and stayed with him until he was well enough to move. Determined to fulfil her promise, Maiogaru placed him in a canoe, concealed under a pile of vegetables, and paddled him through the night to a hospital on the other side of the Island.

Maiogaru one of the brave locals who took an enormous risk by helping injured soldiers in WWII. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) thanked Maiogaru for saving the life of an airman, and she was awarded the Loyal Service Medal.

This is my second book written about a nurse in Papua New Guinea during WWII. The Flying Angels, published in 2021, was my first. The Flying Angels revealed the story of a group of RAAF nurses who were handpicked to rescue injured soldiers from the frontline of Papua New Guinea.

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At the launch of The Flying Angel, a friend placed a Kina in my hand as a gentle reminder of the local Papua New Guinea people who also assisted and helped Australian soldiers in WWII. It was my friend’s passion for PNG’s unsung heroes that encouraged me to start my journey to find this amazing story about Maiogaru Taulebona.

The Promise is a story of courage, resilience, kindness and hope, which celebrates the bond between the people of Australia and Papua New Guinea. It is also a personal story for me as my father, Henry George McGregor, was stationed in PNG during WWII in the Signals Corp. He told me that he would not have survived without the help of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, as they were fondly called at the time. With care and love, these PNG natives became the Australian soldiers’ unsung heroes, rescuing injured Australian soldiers and taking them to safety.

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On the 80th anniversary of the battle of Milne Bay, Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Robert Chipman AM CSC presented copies of The Promise during his official visit to Milne Bay. Nurse Maiogaru’s family and local primary schools were very proud to receive these books. The Chief of Air Force recognises the significance of this story in connecting children in both Australia and PNG, and the significance of their shared history.

This book is a valuable resource for children to learn about their ancestors and how this conflict significantly shaped our history. The Promise also speaks of the bravery of women in the community. I believe there is a great need for authentic stories of local PNG heroes to be heard, and these ancestors will reach out to young PNG and Australian children to show them the way forward with clarity, courage, and hope.

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I enjoy telling little-told Australian stories of WWI and WWII and am available to talk at schools and events about these and other ANZAC stories. vicki@vickibennnett.com.au

Published by Boolarong Press, The Promise is available in bookstores and at www.boolarongpress.com.au or www.vickibennett.com.au

New Beginnings

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People often ask me how I manage so many creative projects at one time. My answer is that I always do a little bit on each project every day. This entails having a spreadsheet on each project, so that I know exactly where I am and keeping that up to date. Even if I just pick up a project for 15 minutes a day, at least it keeps it moving in a forward direction. 

The other thing I do is turn up every day for whatever comes my way. Understanding that every day is going to be different, and it will bring some small or large challenges. The thing about challenges, is that they are the bearers of creativity. Without them, we would not have the capacity to stretch ourselves to grow, or develop our skills. 

I also like to reflect in my journal every day, starting each day by writing about my emotional journey. This allows me the privilege of problem-solving. My friend and fellow writer, Kerstin Pilz has shared some end of year prompts below that I have been using as general journal questions to begin 2024. My answers have revealed some key points for me moving into the New Year. I hope they reveal some valuable insights for you as well. Happy New Year.

Make a list of all the good things that happened this year. You might like to write down 12 things, one for each month, which will allow you to see just how much you have achieved and how much joy you have felt this year, even if it was a difficult year.

Write down three things you would like to let go.

What is an important lesson you learned in 2023?


Write down two habits you would like to cultivate or renew 

What are three things you are looking forward to in 2024?

Now think about your writing practice and your writing goals. Write about what you would like to achieve in the new year and what it will take to make your writing goals come true


What is your biggest block (or fear) and what will it take to liberate yourself in 2024 from what is holding you back? How can you be your best self in 2024?

If you would like to receive Kerstin Pilz’s newsletter, please contact kerstin@writeyourjourney.com

LAUNCH OF CHARLIE’S WAR

I was thrilled to launch my latest book, Charlie’s War at the Queensland State Library last night, here is what I had to say:

I’d like to talk about breadcrumbs … All of us have been handed little breadcrumbs as stories from our families, or ancestors, at some point in our lives. Small fragments of information, or sometimes large pieces of a puzzle.

And you may not have picked up those potential diamonds as yet, or done anything with them, but they are waiting to be discovered, so you can to leave them as a trail for others who come after you. My granddaughter Ruby recently reminded me of the importance of storytelling in families. I was recounting a story to her, about my childhood dog, and as I was leaving, she said, ‘Could you tell me more stories when I come over on Sunday?’

Your children or your grandchildren may not be interested right now, but someday your great-grandchildren, and their children’s children, will come looking to find out where they’ve come from, so they might understand themselves better.

I began my extensive journey to Charlie Bird’s story through a breadcrumb my father, George told me many times throughout my life. George’s story is about how as a little boy, between World War I and WW II, he and his friends at the Middle Park State School in Melbourne, used their pocket money to help rebuild the Victoria School, in Villers Bretonneux in France.

 This narrative ignited a fascination within me, leading to the creation of five ANZAC children’s picture books,

  • Following Two Pennies I found the story of The Little Stowaway, where a little French orphan was saved from the battlefields of France in WW1, then hidden in an oat sack, and brought him to his new home to Jandowae, Queensland.
  • Next came The Flying Angel – where agroup of handpicked nurses rescued injured soldiers from the frontline of Papua New Guinea WW2, and brought them safely back home to Australia.
  • The Promise, another children’s picture book, is also set in Milne Bay Papua New Guinea in WW2, where a local mission nurse cared for a wounded Australian airman and brought him to safety.
  • And now this book, Charlie’s War.

All of these books tell stories of determination, love, courage, kindness, compassion, and showcase how one persons’ action can make a profound difference.

My next step with these stories began when I wrote and co-produced a documentary, Never Forget Australia. This film sheds light on seven lesser known, yet poignant stories which emerged from World War 1, and reminds us of how Australian soldiers stayed to help rebuild villages in France after WW1 and as a result, the love and affection which grew between these two countries, Australian and France.

One of the significant chapters in this documentary unveils the stories of Australian Aboriginal soldiers who enlisted in this war, and through my research, I had the privilege of meeting Des Crump, and interviewed him for this documentary.

It was then that Des told me about a welcome home ceremony that was given to Charlie Bird, and George Bennett, and held at the Euraba Aboriginal settlement on the Queensland-NSW Border. He said it was one of the few welcome home ceremonies for aboriginal soldiers after The Great War. Charlie’s experience stuck with me, and together with Des, we crafted Charlie’s War, this amazing story of hope, resilience and community.

My personal connection with WWI began when I was a little girl sitting in my grandfather’s vegetable garden. Grandpa William McCauley, told me about a friendship forged in the trenches between him, and an aboriginal solider who fought alongside him in the Somme.

So when Des first told me about his Uncle Charlie, I wanted to think that Charlie Bird and William McCauley may have met somewhere on those battlefields of France, and we were connected somehow through our ancestors, unfortunately that was not to be. This story is a tribute to the 1,250 aboriginal soldiers who fought in The Great War.

Gratitude

Gratitude 

I walk in gratitude every day. By that I mean I am thankful for everything I have, do, create and experience. I don’t wait for greatness to happen before I’m grateful, I’m happy for the smallest things: sunshine, my morning chai, the way my legs move when I get out of bed, my family, hot water. You can see where I’m going with this. 

Making the effort to frequently experience gratitude balances out negativity and cultivates awareness of what we want in our lives, not focusing on what we don’t want. I’m not saying that we should ignore problems or be superficial about the challenges of life, but our spirit is enriched by feelings of gratitude, and good memories are formed by focusing on what’s working and what we are grateful for. 

Gratitude is an instant mood booster. When we consciously shift our attention to what’s thriving in our lives, our need for safety, satisfaction and connection is met. Activating gratitude tones down the alarm system of the brain (the amygdala) and reduces the stress response. Practising gratitude reduces levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the body and releases dopamine, the natural feel-good chemical in the brain, which supports more focused attention. 

  • Slow everything down by walking in gratitude; appreciate your surroundings. 
  • Soften towards your family, friends and colleagues. 
  • Thank others for the smallest kindness. 
  • Forgive yourself, be gentle on yourself.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt; don’t take things personally. 
  • Actively notice new things to feel grateful about. 
  • Show compassion to self and others. 

The Promise

The story of The Promise begins at a launch of my previous children’s book, The Flying Angel in 2021.  It is my second book written about a nurse in WW2. 

The Flying Angels tells the story of a group of RAAF nurses who were handpicked to rescue injured soldiers from the frontline of Papua New Guinea in WW2, and transport them safely back home to Australia. These nurses where known for their courage and compassion, and this story was inspired by the life of one of these remarkable nurse’s, Sister Marie Craig.

At the launch of The Flying Angels, I was seated next to Terry O’Neill, who during his 50 years of living and working in Papua New Guinea and the Asia Pacific, had the desire to support vulnerable communities which have been impacted by war and social disruption. He placed a silver Kina in my hand as a gentle reminder of the local Papua New Guinea people who also assisted, and helped our Australian soldiers in WW2. They were called the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.

Immediately I thought of my father Henry George McGregor, who was stationed in PNG during WW2 in the Signals Corp. He told me that without the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels that he, and indeed I, would not be alive. With care and love, these PNG natives became the Australian soldiers’ unsung heroes, rescuing injured Australian soldiers and bringing them to safety.

Terry’s passion about these PNG’s unsung heroes, encouraged me to start my journey to find this amazing story about Maiogaru Taulebona. A Papua New Guinea Mission Nurse, who was one of those brave locals who took enormous risks to help injured Leading Aircraftsman, John Donegan, and with the risk of grave personal danger to herself, cared for his wounds and secured him away from the enemy. 

Maiogaru Taulebona was awarded the loyalty medal by the Royal Australian Air Force. The Promise, is a celebration of the bond between Australia and Papua New Guinea. 

This is the story of courage, resilience, kindness and hope. It is the first of a series of books I have been asked to write about Papua New Guinea heroes.