The quality and publishing potential of Helena’s work have so impressed the writing community that she has won, in recent years, several highly-sought-after accolades: an Australian Society of Authors (ASA) Mentorship, and three periods of residence at the Varuna Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains.
Her major project at the moment is a doctoral thesis in Creative Research Practice at the University of New England that includes a book-length piece of “creative non-fiction” writing, as well as a critical analysis (in 25,000-30,000 words) of the creative writing project and issues arising from it. She is in the fourth year of this project, and hopes to complete it by the end of 2010.
The subject of her thesis is a community-based program – Iron Man Welders – that is successfully redirecting the lives of teenage boys in Armidale who, for a variety of reasons, have difficulty staying at school. The project, led by the inspirational community worker Bernie Shakeshaft, provides the boys with an environment (the “shed”) in which they can develop both technical and entrepreneurial skills – and self-esteem – in making and marketing metalwork products.
Helena (pictured here) spent time at the shed every Sunday for more than a year. “I was continually surprised at how accepting they were of me,” she said. “They just carried on as if I wasn’t there.” Maintaining a “background presence”, she was able to observe the boys’ interactions and individual development as well as the progress of the Iron Man program itself. “It opened up a whole new world to me,” she said, “giving me an insider’s view of the lives of 16-20-year-olds.”
Then came the writing. “Developing my notes into a workable structure has been hard,” she said. “How much of myself to include in the narrative is still an issue. Then there are the ethical concerns – making sure the boys are comfortable with what I’m writing. So far they have been.”
A major aim of PhD projects such as Helena’s is publication of the creative writing section of the thesis in book form. Reflecting on her ambition to “make a difference”, she said: “I’d like people to have more understanding of what life is like for those who don’t fit in to the mainstream. I want to celebrate these boys’ successes, and to encourage people in other communities to think about starting similar programs.”
The strength of this project, and the quality of her essays and short stories published in literary magazines including Griffith REVIEW, Island, and Westerly, have enabled Helena to be accepted for three periods of residence at “Varuna” – the “writers’ retreat” in the Blue Mountains – to work on her Iron Man manuscript. (The third of these periods of residence – a “Varuna Publisher Fellowship” – is scheduled for August this year.) She describes the environment at “Varuna” as “heaven”: uninterrupted time to write, and opportunities to talk to other writers. “Peter Bishop, the Director of ‘Varuna’, has been very supportive of my project,” she said.
In May 2009 Helena heard that she had been awarded an ASA Mentorship. These mentorships, 20 of which are awarded each year, enable emerging writers to work with professionals in preparing a manuscript for publication. Helena was pleased to learn that her mentor was to be the leading editor Judith Lukin-Amundsen.
The manuscript they have been working on together is a story – with a theme of women’s choices in relation to childbirth – that Helena wrote for the Master of Philosophy (Creative Writing) degree she was awarded by the University of Queensland in 2006. “It was encouraging to know there were people out there who believed in the potential of my manuscript, and were prepared to offer me such a wonderful opportunity,” she said on hearing of her award.
With the support and advice of her mentor, progress on the manuscript has been good, and she’s hoping that – in the event of its publication – it, too, will “make a difference to people’s lives”.