Australian author Tim Winton said he had three writing desks so he could move from one project to another, depending on how each was going, be it a novel, short story or children’s book. I found myself doing something similar when working on my memoir (The Boatman) and my biography of Gerald Glaskin (Dare Me!) simultaneously. When one had a fallow period, I would leave it and concentrate on the other.
At one point I decided to add a third project, not to up the ante but because I felt compelled to do it. A fellow high school student from Perth, Australia found me on the Internet and initiated an exchange of emails in which we shared stories of our post-school lives. After more than a year I said: “Les, we’ve had fun doing this, but what if we included more former classmates? We could post our stories on a website and maybe even publish them. Since most of us will be turning 60 next year, it would be like a 60th birthday present to ourselves.” Les liked the idea and ran it by a few high school friends, who all responded positively. I offered to edit and publish the collection, drew up some writers’ guidelines, and waited to see what would happen.
Initially only a handful of people responded. Some had trouble accessing the website I set up and others were wary about sharing their stories in public. Meanwhile, the group in Perth decided they wanted to hold a class gathering to coincide with the publication of the stories. While class reunions are commonplace in the US and other countries, in Australia they were relatively rare, at least in public schools. Since we didn’t have yearbooks and school records were piecemeal at best, it took a lot of work locating and contacting people, but the reunion idea took off and added impetus to the story project.
However, after sending repeat messages and extending the deadline three times, I still only had a modest number of contributions. When I arrived in Perth a couple of weeks prior to the reunion, things didn’t look much better. Then, as the final deadline approached stories came tumbling in and I couldn’t turn them down. Clearly, the book wouldn’t be published in time for the gathering, so I printed several draft copies for people to peruse and order at the event.
Throughout the editing process, two things kept me believing in the project. One was when classmate Kim Buddee, who lives in Sydney, agreed to design the front and back covers of the book from photographs people had sent. A former architect, film set designer, and author, Kim made time in his own busy schedule to work on this, while I focused on the text. Having him to dialogue with about issues, as well as produce two fine photo collages, was a great boon. We also worked on a title for the book and came up with: WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT? Stories of life after high school and what we have learned from it.
The other thing was the emotional impact the stories had on me. As teenagers who had gone to high school in the early sixties, we had ventured out into the world and taken such diverse pathways to bring us to where we were at age 60. From trekking overland from Australia to Europe with young children, to becoming chairman of Australia’s peak body of toxic chemical laboratories, the stories of our journeys moved me to tears. Some of us had gone through divorces, a couple had lost children, and two had tragically died from drowning (family members contributed memorials on their behalf).
I’m so glad I seized the opportunity when it arose, not knowing where it might lead and never imagining the rewards it would bring.
Although asked to write about milestones in their lives and what they had learned from them, not everyone fulfilled their assignment. But each of the 41 contributions was a unique and moving story, which I tried to honor by giving it its own title. Around 70 people, including a few former teachers, attended the reunion, some coming from interstate and overseas. Connections were made, relationships rekindled, and new friendships emerged. I resumed working on my other book projects and eventually found publishers for them. They didn’t seem to suffer from the addition of this project; if anything they were the better for it.
I’m so glad I seized this opportunity when it arose, not knowing where it might lead and never imagining the rewards it would bring. Sometimes you just have trust your intuitions and run with them.