‘The Write Tools’: a blog series featuring authors, artists and their favourite tools.
Today's guest is children's author Wendy Orr. Wendy is the multi-award-winning author of twenty-one books, including Nim's Island, released in 2008 as a film starring Jodie Foster and Gerard Butler. The film based on the sequel Nim at Sea is now in preproduction and will star Bindi Irwin as Nim. Wendy's latest books in Australia are Raven's Mountain and Rainbow Street Pets, and in North America, Facing the Mountain, and WANTED! A Guinea Pig Called Henry (the third in the Rainbow Street Shelter Series).
I’d like to say that my secret writing tool is meditation. Once in a while it’s true. (Today, still slightly jetlagged from a trip to Canada and LA, I lay down and listened to a fifteen minute piece of meditation music. When I got up I saw exactly how a chapter in my new work needed to be reorganised. So it was barely meditation, it worked – and you’d think that would be incentive to be more disciplined about meditating properly and regularly. It’s just that life gets in the way: too often it seems like one more thing to fit in.)
The tool I do use religiously, twice a day, is walking the dog. Sometimes we drive down to the beach, but I’m lucky enough to live on a few acres of bush, so there’s plenty of scope for lovely walks. Depending on the route, we can go past rural views, down almost deserted dirt roads, or past the local primary school and coffee shop. ‘How about short walk and long coffee?’ my daughter would say when she was living here last summer. This could be partly why I didn’t get an awful lot of writing done in those few months.
But in general, these walks seem an integral part of my writing routine as well as my life. (I say that as if I know how to separate the two, which is not at all true.) Sometimes I deliberately choose a plot problem to work on as I walk; sometimes I just try to plan out the day’s chunk of story. Sometimes we meet friends with four legs or two, and occasionally some of their stories or characteristics wiggle their way into a work. The character of the shelter’s welcoming dog Nelly, in my new Rainbow Street Pets, is based on a neighbour’s poodle-cross who comforted my dog after her ‘brother’ had bitten him.
Most often, especially if I’m walking another dog as well – a friend’s dog, or the dog’s friend, depending on how anthropomorphic you are – it’s actually time out from focussing on the story.
Even on rainy winter days when I’d really rather skip it, or the days when I spend an extra unplanned hour crashing through bush on the trail of the dog, who’s on the trail of a rabbit, or when we get caught talking to people when I’m dying to get back to my story, I know there are lots of physical benefits from breaking a day of writing in this way. It’s all pretty obvious: stretching cramped shoulders, breathing fresh air, focussing eyes on something a little further away than a computer screen… all that.
But as I’ve been writing this, I’ve become less and less convinced that the walks are my secret tool at all. They certainly haven’t always been.
I wrote my first five books when I had two small children, a nearly full-time job, a farm and a long drive between the farm and the job. Walking the dog was not even on my list of possibilities, let alone priorities. I probably would have said then that my secret tool was the weekly staff meeting, in which I wrote story notes and even one whole picture story book, in my diary. (And I swear I paid attention to the 1% of the meeting that occasionally concerned me and my clinic.)
The next six books were written during years that I either couldn’t walk at all, or was limited to short distances on smooth surfaces, with a walking stick. The dog who was adopted into that life didn’t know there was a world beyond his garden, and I sometimes felt I’d forgotten it too. My secret tool then was the need to escape pain by entering an alternate reality.
So, at the risk of sounding extremely precious or obvious or otherwise obnoxious, I’m starting to think that the only consistent tool through my writing life has been simply the need to write: that strange and inexplicable drive to create a coherent story from a cloud of chaotic ideas and find the words to set it free.