Chandu Bickford2019 Faber True Stories Scholarship winner Chandu Bickford on a lifetime of stories and the impact of Patti Miller's True Stories course.



I was in the West Australian outback when the call came through. Ancient eucalypts and the stubbly remains of last seasons’ wheat blurred in the mid-summer heat. I could barely hear his voice above the roar of our diesel engine, but his congratulations silenced everything, “You’ve been awarded the scholarship for the True Stories Writing Course with Patti Miller.”

I had never applied for a scholarship before. Never filled in an application to undertake a ‘proper writing course’, nor had to outline a proposal to pitch my work.

I did it like I did everything else. Instinctively.

I have been writing since before I could hold a pen. Escaping the confines of my 11 square red brick home and its 5 other occupants, my earliest memories are of sitting beneath the gums in the expansive bush of my Blue Mountains backyard. The rustle of a hot summer breeze through the trees, magpies, galahs, resting above and me on a swing, making up poems, stories and songs. Singing them, over and over, so I wouldn’t forget them.

Once I began writing, I didn’t stop. My words became my constant, a companion as I roamed wild across India, Tibet, China and Nepal. My words, who used to be my ticket out of a small life, became the tiny, tentative thread that held both my hand and sense of identity as I set up a life without the familiarity of language, culture, comfort and friends during my decade in a small village in rural Tanzania.

I scratched my words onto the yellow paper of cheap African schoolbooks. Without light, I wrote by feel in the night, curled beneath a mosquito net suspended from a grass thatched roof. I wrote in the shade of mango trees, beside clay pots that collected rain dripping through holes in our roof, at grimy tables in bus shelter ‘cafes’.

A couple of small parenting magazines published a couple of my small articles. “Chandu, we love your writing style, but what we really want are ‘How to…’ or ‘Five simple steps to…’.”

I lived without water and electricity, transport and friends, their guidelines didn’t connect with my life. I kept writing for myself. Writing became like bathing, like brushing my teeth, like breathing. It became synonymous with who I was.

More than a decade has passed since I returned from Africa. It’s been more than four decades since I sat on that backyard swing. The light filled ‘Terrace’ atop Allen and Unwin Publishing House is as exotic to me as any African savannah or ancient Indian temple. At our first class we sit in circle and are invited to share our writing experience and accolades. The eleven other participants speak of careers in journalism or their Masters’ in creative writing. Others have PhD’s and careers in major industry.

I sweat, my heart races. I have a lifetime of stories and writing practice, but I feel small and under-educated - unqualified to be here.

But I am welcomed. We all are. We are welcomed to write.

And so, we do. Under Patti’s expert tutelage and with the support of the Faber Writing Academy, I use all my years of practice upon the page and begin to tell my tales.

Chandu Bickford