Updated: Aug 22, 2019
by Maria Issaris
In late 2018 Jenny Sheldon’s book, ‘I Will’, was published by the Sydney School of Arts & Humanities (SSOA), and almost immediately afterwards recorded for broadcasting on the Sydney community radio station 2RPH, making it accessible to 108,000 listeners a week from 20 February 2019.
Good storytelling involves a little bit of magic. People can give you advice, write articles, build apps, conduct workshops – write huge tomes exploring it and scientifically examining it. But in the end, the magic and trance of good storytelling cannot be boiled down to any formulae at all. Each really good story has its own trek, particularly in the current publishing environment where there are so many platforms and pathways to see your story come to the right audience.
When Jenny Sheldon had a stroke 11 years ago, leaving her with a range of physical limitations (she had to re-learn to speak), her first thought was, ‘How do I get this story down so other people can learn from it?’
Now if you are a writer, you would understand this train of thought immediately. But most writers don’t have to type with one hand and drag their memories and thinking out of the quagmire of aphasia (the type of brain damage and physical disability caused by Jenny’s stroke). Aphasia does not injure intelligence or mental capacity but causes great difficulty in trying to put words to thoughts. But even with these obstacles Jenny Sheldon, who was an English and drama teacher before her stroke, would not give up the idea. ‘Aphasia?’ she reflects to herself in the book. ‘Wow … ’ She was relieved and pleased to actually have a name for it. I think that attitude describes Jenny as a person, and why she was able, eleven years later, to succeed in publishing and podcasting her book.
Jenny is the first to say that she did not accomplish this on her own. She started to write as soon as she was able to put fingers to keyboard (or at least the one set of fingers on her left hand that she was still able to use) – tracking her progress towards recovery of her speech, thinking and walking capabilities. It was a long and difficult way towards recovery of her speech and the use of her legs and hands. Along the way there were also periods of depression and joy, and the construction and dissolution of relationships. But it was when she met Christine Williams four years ago, and then started working with Sharon Dean a couple of years later, that the book project took on momentum.
Christine, Director of the SSOA publishing house at The Rocks in Sydney, was holding writing groups weekly to encourage writers with active projects to read and share their work. Jenny started to attend, reading. The stages of building back her life in a different way was something she wanted to relate to others.
‘There was nothing else out there,’ she says, ‘for people who were going through what I was going through. I wanted to share that experience of being incapacitated, of wanting to get well, but feeling lost.’ Her frustration was about how to structure a book around those experiences. Even though she had been an English teacher before her stroke she was at a loss about how to construct a book.
Christine encouraged Jenny and decided to put her in touch with a writing coach. She suggested Sharon Dean, a former journalist and academic who was spending a few months in Sydney after finalising a digital storytelling project in the Northern Rivers of NSW. Jenny was delighted and surprised. ‘What a coincidence!’ she said, ‘A few years earlier I had lived in the Northern Rivers, where Sharon and I had been in a choir together. I had no idea that Sharon was in Sydney, let alone that she knew Christine.’