Author: Joan Tehan
Joan Tehan is a journalist and former owner and publisher of a Victorian country newspaper. She joined Hazel Edwards' writing course at the Victorian Archives Centre in January 2020 to write the story of her career in the media.
The year of 2020 got off to a promising start for a group of writers under the tutelage of author and mentor, Hazel Edwards, based at the Victorian Archives Centre in North Melbourne.
We had a year to write our book, be it memoir, family history, biography, handbook or novel. Hazel’s formula and guidance guaranteed it would be completed by December when we would officially graduate as “Hazelnuts”. She had an excellent track record with budding authors and ensured we were embedded at PROV with all the resources we could hope for. And we had a copy of her book, Complete Your Book in A Year, as a constant companion. Most of us had chosen our subject matter.
“Be prepared to change,” Hazel warned.
From experience, she knew well that her strategy for taking us on the journey would lead us down unexpected pathways, triggering new insights and different formats.
Our group responded quickly to the collegiate style of reading each other’s writing pieces with constructive comments, suggesting book titles and chapter headings and recognising that we all had a lot to learn. My husband was writing his family memoir so we looked forward to our monthly trips to Melbourne from country Victoria.
As a journalist and former rural newspaper publisher, I committed to writing about my career in the media, starting as a cadet journalist in a metropolitan daily, then buying a rural newspaper with friends not long after I married a farmer from north-east Victoria. Becoming a part-owner and publisher of the local paper at 25 was a dream come true, even though we had a young family and farm to run as well. Youthful enthusiasm overcame any thoughts of the challenges we would face in owning one of Victoria’s oldest newspapers.
My plan for my book was to write about the characters I had met, the revolution in printing processes from hot metal to digital and the editorial demands of keeping the community informed. At the time, we were experiencing a horrific, extreme summer of bushfires across Australia with our coastline of renowned beaches burning across all states. Over that black summer we became immersed in the tragic stories and high-level anxiety as wildfire invaded our lives in what was once described as ‘the lucky country’. I decided that the bushfires would be the final chapter. It was the biggest story I had seen in my 50-year career and was still unfolding. We live in a bushfire-prone area and I felt compelled to write about it.
By early March, our monthly gatherings at PROV were progressing well, with a sense of camaraderie and mutual interest. Our enthusiasm was fired by Hazel’s direct and motivating counsel, underpinned by her wicked sense of humour.
But there was another enemy lurking; it had crossed our shores from the Northern Hemisphere. By March 11, the World Health Organisation belatedly declared the new coronavirus, COVID-19, was a pandemic. The first case in Australia was detected in January and, by March 22, Victorians were in early stages of lockdown as the virus spread, just like wildfire, causing deaths, especially in the aged care sector. My final chapter on the bushfires was now superseded. The pandemic was an even bigger story and dramatically de-stabilised the world order as we knew it. There were also links between these two threats that would need exploring.
Gatherings with Hazel were now impossible. Circumstances changed in dramatic ways for many group members who were no longer able to continue.
The word pivot took on a new meaning. We had to be prepared to adapt if we wanted to continue. Hazel offered online Zoom meetings and feedback, a new experience for us all.
By December, when our book launch was scheduled, our numbers had halved, despite Hazel’s creative measures to meet our deadline. She offered extra mentoring with a book launch for July 2021, the aim being to bring about a sense of achievement. Our small group kept writing to varying degrees. Being in lockdown suited some, but not everyone. Coviditis had set in.
I was distracted by the pandemic story itself, using a lot of my energy to research and accumulate a mountain of resources on this deadly and indiscriminate beast. My earlier book chapters were in suspense as I followed the devastating path of a world enemy that no one could control.
Gradually, a collective sense of purpose and possibility was reclaimed and the words flowed. On Hazel’s suggestion, we worked towards a mini-book of fewer chapters that would stand alone.
Despite the frequent and sudden lockdowns, it was in August 2021, 19 months after we first met at PROV, that we launched our books. We did it on Zoom on a Friday morning and toasted each other with cups of tea and coffee. We celebrated as Hazelnut survivors. Some books were mini-versions and others were completed, ready for publication. My final chapter is still a work in progress, with more than half of Australia’s population in lockdown due to the invasive spread of the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19. It’s an ongoing saga that could be titled The Neverending Story if the title did not already exist.
And bushfire season looms yet again.