THE FRIGHTFULLY SERIOUS JOB OF WRITING BEDTIME STORIES

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By Peter Dewar

Meet Dr Sherryl Clark. She’s a local legend: teacher, acclaimed writer of everything from poetry to picture books and young adult fiction, not to mention passionate advocate for the power of the written word.

After making her way through a dark forest of savage beasts and betrayal, children’s author Sherryl Clark has emerged to take the stage at Williamstown Literary Festival. Her session, Putting on the Frighteners! is not meant to scare us, but serve as a reminder – we can overcome the ogres and witches of our nightmares.

Sherryl chose fairytales for her PhD. Unraveling the mystery of their enduring nature turned into a four year adventure. The secret lay hidden, in part, among otherworldly characters and twisted story lines that reach deep into our unconscious: ‘They answer something inside us,’ she says.

And after delving into child psychology, she’s convinced reading scary fairytales to children helps them increase courage and resilience. Even for us bigger kids: ‘At different times in our lives, fairytales are important to us because of what we find in them that helps us, she says.

Along the way, Sherryl reached out to a companion – her innermost storyteller: ‘I soak in as many [fairytales] … so that I’m in that space, so as soon as I’ve got an idea, I would sit and free write a draft as quickly as possible, ‘she says about the writing process.

Victoria University is Sherryl’s home as head of the Professional Writing and Editing department. We agreed to meet here. This may be a university, but there’s hardly a soul in sight. Kinda creepy. There seems no end to a corridor that leads me to a secluded room. The door is locked. Peering through a small glass window, I’m starting to wonder if I’ll find Rapunzel inside. But there in a lonely corner sits Sherryl answering a phone, swatting at bits of paper burdening her desk.

There’s still the trace of a Kiwi drawl in her voice, a reminder Sherryl came to Australia from New Zealand as a twenty-something. To quench her love of books and letter writing, she took a creative writing class at Footscray Women’s Learning Centre. Tertiary study followed. Sherryl wanted to keep growing as a writer.

For over twenty years, Sherryl has taught a broad range of diploma subjects to aspiring writers. And having circumnavigated an ocean of storytelling, she’s now a trusted guide. ‘… Sherryl comes with a map, a compass and wind foil – but she also has magical abilities and a GPS up her sleeve,’ wrote an author who’d dusted off a manuscript and needed direction.

No surprise then about her advice to aspiring scribes wanting to scratch a writerly itch: even if the journey starts with a writing class at a community centre – sign up for formal study.

‘It found me,’ she says smiling about her once-upon-a-time start to writing for children. A more mundane version has a budding writer at a workshop run by a well-known children’s author back in the nineties. ‘Write something about what happened to you when you were a child,’ she told Sherryl, who at the time was disappointed in her early attempts.

‘I wrote about being a fat child trying to learn ballet,’ Sherryl says. ‘That’s what became The Too-Tight Tutu.’ On this occasion, number one turned out a charm. The book was picked up by no less than auspicious publisher, Penguin, and remains in print. ‘A bit of a miracle,’ Sherryl says, ‘A lot of books come and go these days.’

Sherryl has published more than 70 children, young Adult and poetry titles, several in the US and UK. In 2005, her Farm Kid won the NSW Premier’s Award for Children’s Books. It was not the last time she won or was short-listed for prestigious awards. Including our very own Willi Lit Fest’s Ada Cambridge Biographical Prose competition, which Sherryl now judges from time to time.

‘I get royalty cheques for 20 cents,’ says Sherryl who describes herself as a mid-list author. Where creativity is concerned, no matter how prolific, fame and fortune doesn’t always follow. Happily ever after is a work in progress.

It doesn’t help that Sherryl’s body of work is extensive, making it hard to pin down. In her own words, ‘it covers a bit of everything’: historical fiction, fantasy, contemporary, novels, crime-fiction. And poetry, a topic that sends her on a roll.

‘I’m a great believer in poetry and what it can do for people, particularly children,’ she says with such conviction it sounds like we’ve come to the fountainhead. ‘If you learn to use language through poetry – even reading it – it reaches everything. The rhythm and flow translates into your prose writing,’ she continues.

There’ll will be more pages to fill with stories, more writers needing a guiding light. It’s just a hunch, but as far as her craft goes, I can’t help thinking that for Sherryl – poetry has all the comfort of a fairytale ending.

For more information about Sherryl Clark:

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