A course in uncommonplaces

I signed up for Catherine Ann Jones’ Way of Story online course. Partly as a pick-me-up because the writing for the last few months has been absent except for posts here, and seemingly endless job applications. If you haven’t heard of Catherine Ann Jones’, don’t worry,  I hadn’t either. Turns out she is an actor/playwright/writing lecturer/film and was script writer for Touched by an Angel.

As a writer

The course comprises 16 lessons, including details of Jones’ professional experience in New York and LA, and short film she helped write and her insights. If you’re not into touchy feely and terms like ‘soul work’ and ‘blessings’ this course won’t appeal. What was beneficial were the exercises. Some were new to me, and others familiar, but I won’t detail them at length, as that seems like giving her work to you for free.

Jones’ explanation about blocks to writing were insightful and every lesson brims with anecdotes about meeting the likes of Joseph Campbell, Finnish film directors, philosophers, and prima ballerinas, from India to LA. Basically, the course was Jones’ biography, but the highlights were her selection of quotes and references from others. It’s always interesting seeing where and from whom our teachers take their lessons. Jones’ quotes Kafka to Krishnamurti, Einstein to Eudora Welty.

As a commonplace compiler

Aaannnnd this is where I diverge from a straight review and chat about commonplace books, also known as zibaldone (Italian for ‘a heap of things’). I had kept such books since I was gifted two gilt-edged snowy white page memo books as a teen. Not knowing what to do with them, I proceeded to paste in everything. Water colours, doodles, and then poems, song lyrics and quotes from novels, TV programs and films. Some arranged over my paintings.

Poetry on watercolour

Then I found pictures, and collected postcards, then kept tickets to events or places I visited, like museums and galleries and events. Turns out I was doing what people had done for centuries, without knowing anybody else had done this at all.

Commonplaces full of souvenirs

When my Nan died 10 years ago, my dad found her initialed Tupperware, her initialed handkerchiefs and other initialed ephemera, as well as commonplace books of newspaper clippings and quotes. I never knew Nan did this. Turns out it this practice is genetic too.

Aannyway, my point is this course feels a bit like Jones’ personal commonplace book, with its anecdotes, myriad quotes, exercises, and advice. It’s just at the end I get a certificate.

As an Australian

This feels so very American with its homey, take home wisdom, combined with name dropping. It’s clearly targeted towards an American audience, which is why I hesitated about offering criticism. But this is my review and my perspective.

For me, what took away from the course was the language. Perhaps this is an artifact of age, her American-ness, or exposure to Campbell, but all the mentions of ‘men’ and ‘he’ grated. This is especially since rereading Ursula Le Guin, and being immersed in the work the Suppressed Histories Archives. Women are and were shamans. There are Heroine’s Journeys, and who says women weren’t involved in hunting? Grrrr. Hunter gather stereotypes always 100% annoy me. Stop with the 19th century essentialism.

It’s not enough to argue ‘he’ indicates both men and women, when for too long powerful men made the standards impossible to meet for women in a range of industries, including, clearly, Hollywood.

Thus, after being slightly less engaged because of this, I was aghast at the example of a film script she adapted from a novel entitled The Sai Prophecy.

The year is 1899. A dying aborigine in Tasmania gives anthropologist Philo Hoffman a ring engraved with the words, Shirdi, Sathya, Prema. This ring takes Philo to a small town near Bombay where he encounters a remarkable Indian holy man…

Um. “Dying aborigine”? How about a dying Elder named …… from the …….Nation? Because Aboriginal (capital) people have names. Then there is the premise. A dying First Nation Person who has endured decades of Frontier Wars, diseases, and probable exile from mainland Tasmania, will just entrust some colonising stranger with a sacred object (from an entirely different spiritual tradition)? To make matters worse, this nameless character isn’t the point. The death is merely the inciting incident to a larger adventure for (of course) an American family in (exoticised) India. This is textbook cultural erasure in one blurb. Tasmania is code for Other. It could’ve been anywhere. Instead it’s somewhere where the legacy of genocide was fresh, but unexamined in this narrative. Even if the novel/script is OK overall, this blurb is problematic. I say this even as I make no claim to being a member of a First Nation. I just recognise my privilege as a beneficiary of the legacy of colonisation. And I was reading this in January, which highlights how Australia Day valorises invasion as settlement, and even ‘discovery’. Thus, instead the lesson, I was thinking about how some stories erase some voices or use them as a backdrop for white people escapades. Maybe you will argue this is snow flake hand-wringing about words. But the type who mock such concerns also howl for blood when poets call for the institutions that have oppressed women and FNPs to be ‘burned down’ and rebuilt to enshrine equity.


These concerns are a pity, as they undermine the beneficial guiding premise of the course. It was meant to be about honouring the impetus to tell stories and making space to understand our inner voices. But despite its good intentions and valuable exercises, it can’t fully live up to them, not until its language stops diminishing the experiences of women, and excluding and overshadowing the stories of First Nations Peoples.

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