The Good Oil Writers’ Workshop encourages and inspires

A room full of readers, writers and word-lovers came together in Sydney recently for The Good Oil Writers’ Workshop, where they explored the theme, Words Matter, hearing from published writers and media professionals, and sharing some of their own creations along the way.

Fifty people participated in the workshop in Glebe on 29 May, which was hosted by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in partnership with Garratt Publishing. The facilitator was Michael McGirr, a well-known author, editor, story-teller and reader, and current Manager of Community Engagement at Caritas Australia.

He was joined in conversation by Ann Rennie and Noel Debien. Ann is a writer, educator and book author, while Noel is an ABC producer in the Religion and Ethics Unit.

In welcoming the participants, Sister Michelle Reid, a member of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan Council and the Delegate for Communication, said the theme of the workshop offered an important framework for the day.

“The theme of today’s workshop is Words Matter. And words do matter,” she said.

“Words matter because they nourish our minds, our spirits, and our souls. Words challenge our view of God, forgiveness, compassion, hospitality and influence our relationship with God. Words can build and challenge, nurture and heal communities.

“Words matter. Therefore you matter. For you are writers of words. This day is for you, to develop your skills in writing, to mix with and learn from professionals and to engender a sense of connection and collaboration amongst yourselves and with one of the ministries of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, The Good Oil.”

The first editor of The Good Oil, Penny Edman, was present at the workshop, along with writers who have contributed to the publication over the years, winners of The Good Oil Writers’ Award, Sisters of the Good Samaritan, readers of The Good Oil, and others interested in writing.

Workshop facilitator Michael McGirr. Image: Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

Michael said he was delighted to facilitate the workshop because writing was central to his life.

“Writing is terribly important to me and it’s something I’m always trying to get better at and trying to learn,” he said. “And since I was quite young, whenever I have read a good sentence, I have written it out in a book, trying to see how it works and trying to see how the energy moves in a good sentence or a good paragraph.”

During the course of the day, he explored two central ideas: that good writing has to be “inhabited” and “hospitable”.

“One thing I have realised is that good writing is inhabited. The writer lives in it. It’s a home for a person,” he said.

“And I think what annoys me about a lot of things I read these days is that they are uninhabited … they’re just repeating words and phrases on a kind of rote … especially in the corporate world.

“And the second thing I’d say is that writing needs to be hospitable.

“Hospitality is one of the great Benedictine virtues. And what does it mean for writing to be hospitable? It means that we as writers are always asking ourselves what relationship do we want with the reader. That is actually more important than really asking ourselves ‘What do I want to say?’ Because what I want to say can be a self-contained bubble. But what relationship do you want with the reader, that is a much more open question.”

Presenter Ann Rennie. Image: Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

Ann Rennie told the gathering that she, too, was a strong believer that words matter.

“I cannot but endorse how important words are in the world and how we use them … and how sometimes we just don’t know the impact they have,” she said.

Like Michael, Ann is a great reader, and she writes down beautiful sentences she comes across because “they might work on me somehow. It’s all learning”.

Ann said that for any writer, persistence and humility were key. The great hope of the writer is to maintain your own voice and make a connection with the reader.

“When I’m putting something together, I do think of that reader-writer connection. Will they get this, how might they respond? I don’t want to overthink it either.  We also need to challenge our readers … and leave some room for them to do some work as well,” she said.

Ann gifted the workshop participants with a booklet of ‘Tips and Tricks’ she has acquired over her writing life, including her ‘Three Ps’ of Punctuate, Polish and Proofread.

Among the tips were reminders to “have faith in what you do” and that “rejection is not personal”.

Michael and Ann’s conversation was recorded, see below.

In his presentation, Noel Debien spoke about the challenges and satisfactions of working in the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Unit in the increasingly secular Australian culture.

He said his writing mainly consisted of script writing.

“I don’t write often in sentences that would be written. I write in sentences that would be spoken,” he said. “So, I’m trying to write in such a way that the person I’ve written for will actually do what I just wrote. Which means I have to understand their vocal pattern. I need to understand how they would use prepositions, adjectives, and how words fit together,” he said.

Noel Debien and Ann Rennie,

If a television or radio presenter reads his scripts smoothly, then he knows he has done a good job.

“And then if you hear them stumble you know you didn’t quite get it right because you haven’t written in such a way that is natural for them.”

Noel said he also made a point of reading broadly across the Catholic media “because they tend to start with real life and they’re trying to engage with real life in real conflicts that we are experiencing and that is, for me, stuff which is accessible”.

Throughout the day, participants were invited to take part in short writing exercises and small group discussion. Michael also asked them to consider the structure of a selection of great spiritual works, including the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and excerpts from Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.

The CEO of Garratt Publishing, David Hughan, was in attendance at the workshop. David said the publishing house was pleased to be able to partner with the Good Samaritan Sisters.

David Hughan chats to Sr Michelle Reid SGS (left) and Karen Wong. Image: Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

“I am reminded of theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel who noted ‘Words Create Worlds’. I am so grateful to all writers who have the dedication and courage to use their voice to better our society and Church communities,” David said.

“This workshop was a terrific initiative by the Sisters to aid existing and emerging writers. I thank them, and both Michael and Ann, for sharing their insights and passion for the written word.”

One participant said that her attendance at the workshop had been “an experience of hospitality that has deeply impacted me in a lasting way”.

She said the workshop had offered her “overflowing warmth, welcoming and kindness, coupled with the humble, humorous and generous self-giving of presenters which affirmed and encouraged our perhaps latent gifts”.

Another participant said they felt was “a privilege to be invited to this dynamic workshop for writers”.

“I found all the speakers to be inspirational and was particularly impressed that they did not try to convince the attendees that there was any one format required to be a successful writer.”

Workshop participants included (from left): Jill Forrester,Tracey Edstein and Carmel Lillis. Image: Sisters of the Good Samaritan.

Others said they wished the day could go on longer and provide even more opportunities for practical development of writing skills.

“Thank you so much for offering a wonderful day – inspiration and community, certainly, but also some good advice for writing,” said one.

“To be given the opportunity to share fellowship with other writers, to be inspired with a spirit of reflection and discovery by the presenters who had prepared so well, and to enjoy all this in a day whose smooth and effortless unfolding paid tribute to a magnificent effort behind-the-scenes – the Good Oil Workshop was a joy,” said another.

Books by Michael McGirr and Ann Rennie are available from Garratt Publishing.

To purchase Michael’s books, click here.

To purchase Ann’s books click here.

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Photography: Lissa Brown/Jane Favotto/Sisters of the Good Samaritan.