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True stories from a regional writers’ group

September 22, 2015

Sonya and the Cootamundra writing groupFor the last four years, I’ve been helping people living in regional Australia to publish their short true stories online, as part of ABC Open’s 500 Words writing project.

Today, I’d love to give you a glimpse into a writing group that I’ve been working with since May this year, which is based in Cootamundra.

I run a free monthly workshop that is open to anyone who is interested in publishing a story online as part of the 500 Words writing project.

ABC Open is a regional initiative that helps audience members publish their stories, photos and videos with the ABC and learn digital storytelling skills from producers like myself.

I helped to create the 500 Words project with a colleague in 2012. While the Internet, and especially social media, has made it really easy to share our photos and short videos with each other – almost in real time – one of my favourite things about the net is reading blogs or online journals in my spare time.

While social media platforms like Instagram or Facebook are often criticised for highlighting only the prettier sides of life, with blogs I feel like there’s a lot more room for honesty, and space to write about the times that are tough in life, along with the times that are exciting or great.

But not everyone wants to commit to having their own blog or want to set one up. 500 Words was designed to be a place where writers in regional Australia could write, publish and read short online stories and respond to a new theme each month.

As prompts, we’ve had themes like ‘Someone who shaped me’, ‘For better for worse’, ‘Bully’A test of courage’ and ‘Lost and found.’

The project is fairly straightforward – write a true story on the set theme within the month, and keep it to 500 words or under. To publish, if writers are already able to email, the online publishing process is not much different.

Penny Howse, the manager of Cootamundra library, very generously allowed me to run writing workshops for the project in her library and helped me to reach out to local writers, many of whom I would not have discovered without her assistance.

Most months, the writers’ group gets together on a Monday morning for a couple of hours at the library. The group has grown and fluctuated over the months, with two writers always in attendance, some dropping in and out and others joining midway through the workshop series.

Over five months and five writing topics, I’ve learnt so much about the lives of those who have attended through the stories they’ve shared and published.

There have been stories about unlikely marriages, relationships that have changed dramatically, stories of unreliable but much-loved first cars and heartbreaking losses experienced in childhood, and as newlyweds.

Often, you’re able to build a better understanding of each writer and their life, with every new story they add. This is particularly the case with Sue, Rita, Debra, Viv and Jessica, who have all contributed a number of stories to different themes.

It has been a privilege and a real pleasure to meet up with the group each month, to hear their life stories and help them connect with each other as writers’ in a local and supportive environment.

We chat and joke but spend most of our time doing short writing exercises, and doing close reads of each other’s story drafts, always questioning each other about where the heart of each story lies, and why the writer has chosen to share it.

As the months have gone by, I found that I am sitting back in the workshops as the group members support and question each other about their work, problem-solve together and bring in work in to share beyond the 500 Words project – novels in progress and young adult fiction to share.

In my role, I cover the Riverina region, and tend to spend six-month periods focusing on a small number of towns. While my time visiting Cootamundra and running a writers’ group has come to an end, I am confident the writers will continue to meet as a group without my presence, and at the very least, know that there is an audience both locally and nationally for the stories they have challenged themselves to write.

Sonya Gee is the ABC Open producer for the Riverina region of New South Wales.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 11, 2016 6:28 am

    This was great to read as I have been writing life stories with adults for quite a few years but, most important to me are the stories told me by terminal cancer patients who wanted to get their story out before dying. I am amazed at their courage , humour and delight at being important enough to record( on tape and write up. Thanks for your story. It is another way to help people.
    Jane in Harrow Ontario

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