The Best Australian Yarn competition, sponsored by the Minderoo Foundation, is the newest – and richest – writing competition in Australia. Attracting more than 4,700 entries from across the country, the top 50 short stories were recently announced. Two of the longlisted writers are also teachers and spoke with School News about how their writing influences their teaching and vice versa.
Simone Field teaches Year 3 in a Perth Christian school and was longlisted for her short story ‘From the Outside’, about a special little boy called Harrison on his first day of school. The story was influenced by her work with neurodiverse children. “I have done a lot of work over the years alongside differently-abled children and I really wanted to paint a picture of how life might look or feel like from another lens. I was inspired by the class I teach now, I have some of the most empathetic students in my class that I have ever met, and the way they interact with neurodiverse students at our school is an example to me of what love and kindness in action looks like.”
When asked how her creative side hustle influences her teaching, Simone replied: “Being a writer, for me, means that I am always passionate about reading – it underpins all learning and is the key to unlocking the world’s treasury of knowledge! This then feeds into writing – I am excited about expanding my students’ vocabulary – too many words are being lost into obscurity as we move along generationally, especially in this digital age.”
A love of words and an insight into the process also gives NSW teacher Josephine Sarvaas – longlisted for ‘Nest’ – the edge as an English tutor: “I’ve been really fortunate to mentor students through English Extension 2 (where they spend a year developing a creative major work) as well as teaching creative writing modules that are part of our NSW curriculum. Being a writer myself means I’m able to offer a lot of practical advice and also helps me when editing students’ stories or working with them to develop their ideas.”
“What’s helped the most has been working on short stories, flash fiction and micro-fiction rather than long-form projects. Usually for assessments and exams, students don’t have much more than 1,000 words to tell a story in. It’s hard to teach the construction of such a short story or offer advice without having practical experience working in that form yourself.”
One of the most often-asked questions that writers are asked, is how they manage to maintain time and motivation for their creative outlet given the demands of full-time work.
Josephine explains that putting herself out there, and entering competitions such as the Best Australian Yarn, is a big part of it: “Entering competitions has really increased the number of projects I finish and the number of pieces I’ve published. Since there’s a hard deadline, you’re forced to finish the story and you end up with a range of pieces that you can submit to magazines even if they don’t place in the competition!”
“A large part of it is consistency and staying motivated to actually finish projects. My closest friend is also a writer so we have a document where every day we share our word count and one quote from what we wrote that day. Keeping each other accountable and being able to share our work with each other is extremely motivating.”
Simone takes a less structured approach to her writing: “I would say to try and keep your life simple where you can, to allow bursts of time for doing what you love. If it’s writing, then write, if it’s drawing, then draw. I grab time where I can, but not at the expense of my family or church time!”
She continues: “I try to teach that creativity is out there to be shared – I use the ‘Talk for Writing’ approach and I love the concept of ‘magpie-ing’ that is taught in it. It’s the idea that concepts, words and phrases from other writers can be ‘borrowed’ in order to build up how we express ourselves in our work. So we can share our creativity and use that to fuel our writing and to build up others around us too.”
While two decades of working as a teacher have allowed Simone to develop a comprehensive understanding of how children grow and learn – something which is clear from her writing – she believes it is working with neurodiverse children that has given her a deeper insight into creativity.
“I believe all children have their own strengths and weaknesses and that as a teacher it is my job to help them continue to discover who they’ve been created to be. Neurodiversity is such a widely encompassing term that it can be hard to pin down particular strengths, but I often find that a neurodiverse child will tend to think outside the box to find solutions to problems and this then teaches me and other students in the process. I find that my neurodiverse students can also shine in creativity and that may express itself in construction, art, music, public speaking and lots of other ways.”
October is Dyslexia Awareness Month – read our special interview with Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley about growing up with dyslexia and the need for creative and neurodiverse thinkers in the sciences.
This is something Josephine also sees in her work with a broad mix of primary and secondary school students from a diverse range of ages and backgrounds. “Being around young people all day is really inspiring because all of them have such different stories, relationships, and ambitions. It’s a constant stream of ideas.”
Many people are reluctant to commit to a creative side hustle, citing a lack of time or expertise, but in reality, it is often a fear of failure that prevents us from starting.
“Being a teacher and writer are both occupations that require so much resilience and in which we are our own worst critics,” says Josephine. “It’s easy to obsess over the classes that don’t go well or the submitted stories and manuscripts that get rejected. But I genuinely think they’re both the most fulfilling jobs in the world and the wins outweigh all the moments of self-doubt!”
“If you have an idea for something new you want to do – just give it a go,” adds Simone. “The worst that can happen is that it won’t work. We teach kids all the time that to fail is to learn!”