Gathering Lived Experience Narratives

Len runs a small coffee house and offers a range of eclectic collectables in a historic building in a small Central Victorian town. When I called in for coffee we talked about the writing courses that I offer and he invited me to bring my coffee to the kitchen and observe some ‘performance art’. As he prepared a batch of his very popular scones we chatted and he told me that if I hadn’t seen the work of Agnes Varda then I really needed to check out her award-winning documentaries that focus on the lives of ordinary people.

Personally, I am not particularly interested in the lives of celebrities. Rather I am interested in building a small library that documents the lives of more humble folk, like Len, who lead lives away from the bright lights of flashing cameras.

Sarah Krasnostein is a writer and a legal researcher with a doctorate in criminal law. She clearly thinks similarly. Her book, The Trauma Cleaner documents one woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster. Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife. This book is a love letter to an extraordinary ordinary life. In Sandra Pankhurst, Krasnostein discovered, purely by chance, a woman capable of taking a lifetime of hostility and transphobic abuse and using it to care for some of society’s most in-need people.

Who will you interview?

Establish a Memory Palace

It has become popular for people wanting to enhance their memory to learn how to create memory palaces. Sites like Insanity Mind Upgrade Your Brain explain that basically, a memory palace is a mental structure that can help you memorize anything in an easy and sticky way. By applying this technique, you can quickly memorize what you need and remember it at the time you need. offer step by step instructions.

My mind, functioning as it does, immediately turns over this idea and I begin thinking about how a writer, seeking to improve their memory and fill their pages with richer details, might apply this technique.

Did you know, for example, that the technique was employed by the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the novel series Hannibal written by an American author Thomas Harris? In several passages of the novel, Lecter was described as mentally walking through an elaborate Memory Palace to remember facts. That’s the basics of the Memory Palace technique.

I can come up with some more ideas of my own about how I might use this technique. In a recent class where we worked with Memoir Maps, we found we were literally pulling out extracts from our memory palace books. Postcard Memory Palace is an interesting application.

Check out history and science! What do you think? How will you stock your memory palace? How could you apply this method to art or writing? I am interested to hear how others might adapt this!

Remembering Beloved Toys

On the wings of the black crow come the spirits of old, treasured, discarded, lost, forgotten, dearly beloved toys who have made a significant contribution to our lives. 



I was twelve as I recall, old enough to leave him far behind,
but he’d spent every day with me for as long as I remember.
His fur was worn, his ear torn, but his love was true and pure.
He was my ally, my closest friend.
When I was whipped and that was often,
not saying I didn’t deserve it,
he was there to comfort me.
He romped with me in meadow and in woodland,
snugly riding in my knapsack.
He slept with me and listened to my chatter.
When I was sick with measles and with mumps
he sat patiently and waited till I was well again.
His name was Teddy,
just plain Teddy.

When my father passed beyond and my world turned upside down,
Teddy was ready to console.
When we were forced to move from the country into town,
“Toys must go,” my mother said, “you’ll play no more.”
She snatched Teddy from my arms and put him on the trash.
All I remember clearly is the fire
and Teddy on the trash heap with flames licking all around.
His beady eyes turned black and blistered as he stared in pain at me.
Through tears I watched as Teddy turned to ash.
I have other Teddies now, collector bears with moving limbs all dressed in finery.
I never have forgotten though and often think of him and the joy he brought the child in me.
If there is a Teddy Heaven and he is looking down,
he knows I love him very much, did, and always will.

Vi (c)February 2002

Life is Adventuring – Colour Outside the Lines


If you own this story, you get to write the ending.
~Brené Brown

After reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande Miss Norma’s family decided to take her on the road with them and spend an extended period of time travelling all over the United States.

When my husband was first diagnosed with cancer and had recovered from the operation to remove the mass in his bowel we spontaneously booked flights to Europe and spent six months travelling around the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and Western Europe. We hired a car and, at a time when there were no GPS or Google Maps on our mobiles, navigated our way, through countless countries. We never had a specific destination, only finding accommodation when our day was done. Sometimes we stayed in one place for a few days but generally, we kept moving.

Ours was an amazing trip of a lifetime where my husband got to visit all those places friends had talked about. Needless to say, I can totally relate to the families decision to hit the road.

In our case cancer returned with an aggressive vengeance. Having borne witness to my husband’s long, futile battle which involved coping with the devastating effect of chemotherapy and radiation treatment on his wellbeing, I applaud Miss Norma’s decision to give surgery and treatment a miss.

Miss Norma has passed now but, as reviews such as this reveal, her legacy lives on, inspiring others to make the choice to live.

You can purchase a copy of Driving Miss Norma at Book Depository or other bookstores. Driving Miss Norma’s Facebook, which recorded much of the families journey can still be found online and there is also a Miss Norma web site.

The Magic Gate,
Elizabeth Layton

Depression is an affliction Elizabeth Layton overcame. Art enabled her to say ‘yes’ to living. Mrs Layton, a native of Wellsville, Kansas…a few miles north of Ottawa, took her first art class at the age of 67. She had heard from a sister in California that art might help depression, which she had suffered from most of her life, so she enrolled in a drawing class at Ottawa University. The instructor, Pal Wright, just happened to be teaching contour drawing. He encouraged her to draw, and draw she did. For up to eighteen hours a day, she hovered over her makeshift drawing table set up in a corner of her bedroom, pouring out the fears, guilt and anger of her troubled life. Six months later, she announced to her family that she was no longer depressed. She felt free at last.

It is said that what distinguishes Elizabeth Layton’s drawings from others is their breadth, their freshness, and their expression of hope. Few artists have depicted such far-reaching social concerns such as capital punishment, homelessness, hunger, racial prejudice, AIDS, ageing and the right to die.

How will you, how have you said yes to living? What steps are you taking to own your ending?

Rendezvous in The Departure Lounge

When we think of Departure Lounges the image of chaotic, sterile, Airport Departure lounges, filled with crowds of people, sometimes lying sprawled out on furniture that has not been designed for resting, springs to mind. Certainly, Google immediately thinks of airports when you punch in the words ‘Departure Lounge’.

Because my mind has an inexplicable way of manipulating ideas and refashioning them to suit wild creative schemes, I have I found myself contemplating what a more private  Departure Lounge, space where I could arrange a rendezvous to farewell someone making their exit from this planet, would look like.

I also contemplated what spaces would be the most appropriate for me to be reunited with loved ones who are out there somewhere. For example, I am pretty sure my father would enjoy wandering and chatting in the mother of all vegetable gardens. Up until his death, he maintained a wonderful garden that supplied vegetables to various members of the family.

I think my mother would enjoy meeting in a space like this, especially if I had gathered together the writing group she loved coming to at my place when I was still living in North Fitzroy

The more I think about it I understand that our meeting places would magically transform and reshape themselves depending on who I was meeting. Older ancestors, who have not kept up with the dramatic changes that have taken place here on planet earth, would need to be considered.

As I write I am filled with a sense of anticipation. I find myself excited by the prospect of spending some time, not only with my husband, parents, my eldest brother, dear old friends and precious companion animals but also with grandparents and great grandparents I never knew. It is becoming a rather big list of people and companions to make contact with.

Of course, a challenge is to decide where each of these people would feel most comfortable. However, I do think that this plan beats meeting at a gravesite in an unmanicured cemetery. But, don’t get me wrong! For some time I have loved taking a picnic to historic cemeteries where I find some wonderful backstories on headstones.

Just think of the information that you will have after meeting like this. It may add a whole new chapter to your memoir.

Have a think about it! What will your Departure Lounge look like? Where would you prefer to rendezvous? Do you have a favourite haunt that is familiar to both of you? Who do you want to meet? What would you like to say to them? Is there any unfinished business to deal with? Perhaps you might prepare by formally writing to invite them to meet you in this particular place.

To help Sarah Wiseman does offer courses at Daily Om that involve guided imageries designed to help you meet and communicate with ancestors who have ‘passed over’. I loved the courses I signed up for. I found that Wiseman gave me more ideas about how to communicate with those on ‘the other side’.

Believe me! This can prove very therapeutic.

Parting Gifts

Dear Heather
I would like to be remembered for looking after my grandma. These are some of the things that I do for her. I get my grandma tea. I massage her back, I put cream on her legs and I help put her duck away.

I would also like to be remembered for looking after my animals. Here are some of the things I do. I take my birds outside, I give them water and I fill up their food containers

from Laura K

Susan Varley’s ‘Badger’s Parting Gift’ is the book I turn to when I want to give a small gift to someone who is bereaved. It is also the book I pull out in a Lived Experience Narrative or Writing for Wellness Workshop when I want to touch on the sensitive subject of death

I encourage you to watch this video and spend some time remembering not only the parting gifts of those you have loved but your own legacy. What are some of the footprints you will leave in the sand?

To make a footprint take off your shoes and socks and put your foot on your journal page. Trace your foot and then carefully draw in the toenails.

Meditate upon your footprint and consider some of the footprints that you have left behind, the things that people will remember you for, your parting gift. On each toe, write an impression that you have made, a footprint that you have left behind.

Choose one toe and circle it. On the sole of your foot write more information about this particular event and why it stands out.

Now make a footmark in your visual journal and write a letter explaining why you will be remembered.

Footprints also provide a great way to set goals. On the soles of your feet write about the footprints you want to leave behind. Fill a shoebox, decorate insoles, make shoes, write on the bottoms of old shoes, pull out your baby shoes….. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Unbottling the Heart – Expressing Difficult Emotions

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”
E. B. White.

“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,”
Maurice Sendak

“Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else … may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.”

There is a wonder and magic to childhood. We don’t realize it at the time, of course . . . yet the adults in our lives do. They encourage us to see things in the stars, to find joy in colours and laughter as we play. But what happens when that special someone who encourages such wonder and magic is no longer around? We can hide, we can place our heart in a bottle and grow up . . . or we can find another special someone who understands the magic. Oliver Jeffers delivers a remarkable book, a touching and resonant tale reminiscent of The Giving Tree that will speak to the hearts of children and parents alike.

We do ourselves and our children a disservice if we shield them and ourselves from difficult emotions. Happily many beautiful children’s books are now helping children make sense of loss and grief. One of my favourites is Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. Varley’s book provides concrete ways to deal with the grief associated with the loss of a loved one.

Over at Brain Pickings there is a wonderful article about Oliver Jeffers poignant The Heart in the Bottle which also addresses how to cope with the emotions associated with a significant loss.

Another thread that can also be picked up when talking about unbottling emotions can be found in the work of Elizabeth Skye. Skye. Unbottling the Tragedy of Stolen Relatives, a project she initiated, explores the use of pottery to visualize data and tell stories on missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people.

In this work, Skye is consulting with families of MMIWG2 to create personalized, unique bottles representing individual MMIWG2 cases, with the aim of creating an impactful representation of MMIWG2 data, and fostering critical dialogue on this violence.

Skye is creating hand-casted bottles inspired by the shapes of liquor bottles, as a means of representing the history behind the epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls. Colonization has led to indigenous women and girls being objectified, and like alcohol, consumed and discarded—as empty liquor bottles pollute our homelands, the grief and trauma of the violence against our women and girls pervade our communities.

The bottles created in this work are thus also a representation of the relationship between violation of Unčí Makhá (Mother Earth) and the violation of women and girls. Each bottle will have a label reminiscent of the missing person labels that historically were printed on milk cartons; this is to make the bottles recognizable as calling attention to stolen relatives, and to criticize the irresponsible negligence of federal and local law enforcement in handling MMIWG2 cases, many of which are missing person reports that they fail to adequately document or publicise. The care involved in consulting with families, hand-casting each bottle and creating personalized labels is a reclamation of the sacredness of MMIWG2, and an honouring of the unique spirit of each stolen relative. Bottles will only be made with families’ permission, and the information printed on each label will be determined through consultation with each family. Source: Sovereign Bodies Institute.

Promotional material for a conference about unbottling the vulnerabilities of cities facing the threat of natural disaster included this image of a bottled city, presumably shielded from disaster. Those of us who have read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death know that barricades are rarely impenetrable. Prince Prospero who reigned over the kingdom in this tale deluded himself when he thought you could keep out the dreaded Red Death. Even the youngest children who I read the opening of this story to know that this story is not going to end well and that the Red Death will prevail.

Identifying location of emotions in the bodyOne way to unbottle emotions is to keep a journal and write unsent letters.

Consider how you will you unbottle some of the emotions that Bessel Van Der Kolk maintains are stored in various parts of the body?

Van der Kolk’s book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ conjures, in my mind, the kind of scene we see on television when someone like Anthony Green is standing in front of visuals, keeping score as they come in from all over Australia.

One way that we begin to unbottle emotions in a Lived Experience Narrative Course is to undertake an extensive body scan. We systematically search, with a good torchlight, all the hidden crevices and locate all the hermetically sealed places where things which need to be unbottled are hiding, but emitting all sorts of toxins into the body.

Upon completion, we mark things on a template like the one shown here and then contemplate which hidden emotion we can unmask.