Iris Curteis: The Power of Storytelling

Iris Curteis, I Love Bello Shire, Dorrigo Writers Group

Iris Curteis is a local storyteller, who was initially inspired by her grandmother who, “spun story-threads, knitted their gossamer into jumpers and crocheted them into lace-shawls”. A member of the Dorrigo Writers Group, Iris lectures at Southern Cross University, conducts storytelling workshops and has been integral in establishing the ‘Grassroots Writers Weekend and the ‘Abundance – A Celebration of Generosity Festival’ in Dorrigo. Iris has formal qualifications in Visual Art, Storytelling, Speechformation and Dramatic Art (Europe), a B.A. and B.A. Hon in Creative Writing and Ph.D. on Storytelling, Community Building and Social Responsibility (Australia).  We interviewed Iris to gain an understanding of the power of stories and story telling.

Has living in the Bellingen Shire influenced your work?
I’ve lived in both hemispheres and in different spaces in Europe and Australia, all of which influence my work. But there is something about the way the rivers meet in Urunga and flow out to sea together, the eclectic mix of people in Bellingen Shire who never cease to surprise me, or walking through the awe-inspiring trees in a World Heritage listed Rainforest, the waterfalls, the pristine clarity of the air – and, most of all, the way that the clouds roll in and swadle Dorrigo and everything heavy and solid just seems to dissolve … that has a special kind of creative magic.

Can you describe your relationship with your grandmother and her influence on your life path?
Wow, that would take a novel, but in a nutshell – and they’re known to hold magical dresses and great secrets, her ability to just tell a story, folktales and life stories, and always pick the one I really needed to hear in any given moment was, and is, one of the most enduring influences in my life. My relationship to storytelling through my grandmother just recently made it possibe for me to connect to an indigenous knowledge holder and storyteller who was initiated by his grandmother. It was this ‘link’ in common that allowed me to approach him and start learning from him. So, I feel she’s still there spinning stories for me.

Your monthly ‘wise women story circle’ sounds fascinating – tell more.
I host a group of women, tell a traditional folktale and follow it with conversation. We unpick the story, pullout the disney-fied, ‘Grimm’ stuffing, trim off constricting buttons and inhibiting frills, and change oppressive patterns. It’s like the thrill of finding a dowdy garment in an op-shop and recognising it’s made out of exquisite material – just the pattern, styling and add-ons are corrupting or distorting. Through our conversations, we salvage this beautiful material; we free it from preconceived and compromising forms and reveal something deeply relevant to ourselves.

You also have a background in visual arts and dramatic arts. How has this influenced your writing?
I’m really drawn to creating strong images through writing – a bit like painting with words. I think my drama background helps me to bring characters to life. But, a bit like actors in real-life, my characters have creative ideas of their own. They do things I don’t anticipate, they improvise and they storm off in a huff if I get my directing wrong. When writers get stuck, people call it ‘writers block’; I think its more a case of characters slamming the door in my face.

How would you describe your style/ approach to your subject matter in creative writing?
My style is magical realism. Plot and characters are firmly grounded in reality, allowing me to write a social critical text and to intrude with the magical naturally (so without explanation and without questioning the reality of the magical elements). I suppose this style relates to folktales as, there too, people are going about their harsh lives, struggling with social, economic and other circumstances and then magic intrudes.

Apart from your grandmother, has anyone or anything really influenced your writing style? Life and all the experiences she has offered me; people – I find us fascinating, terrifying and an endless sourse of contradictions, inspirations and stories; every book I’ve read has influenced me – even the ones I hated. Doing a PhD and really grappling with theory and translating that into writing techniques has had a lasting impact.

Can you tell us a bit about the Dorrigo Writers Group.
We meet in a local café once a fortnight, workshop our writings, offer feedback and challenge each other. Critique is always constructive; we cultivate strong, honest opinions; our debates can get loud – mostly its laughter. We don’t impose word limits, which means, longer pieces can be read to create a ‘big picture’ impression and reveal what the writer is aiming for. Not everyone reads everytime; we carry each other through word-droughts, but everyone there is present as a writer, so our expectation is: everyone writes. Our styles: travel writing, memoir, crime, ghost stories, magical realism, historical fiction, experimental writing, children’s stories and nature observations – and blends of all of the above.

We aim for an Annual Writers Reading and the publication of our journal twice a year. We avoid having a formal structure. Our cashbox lives under someone’s bed. We carry responsibility for our group together and if something needs to be done someone will always volunteer – there is occasional arm-twisting. New members are welcome and we have a clear process we hope is fair to all concerned. If someone new approaches us, they are invited to a Writers Table to share their work, receive feedback and give feedback on anything that is read. If everyone feels comfortable the new writer becomes part of our group. We also welcome guest writers and offer them a place in our Journal. We hold workshops at least once a year, which are open to the public. In 2013, as part of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, we created a fringe event and hosted Café Readings around Bellingen. Our impulse was to bridge the gap between published and unpublished writers and to celebrate the art. We included a Young Writers Reading with writers aged between eight and seventeen; a reading of novel excerpts and poetry, and a reading of short stories, drabbles, travel writing and poems.

The Grassroots Writing Weekend – can you give some background to this event.
Dorrigo Writers inaugurated and hosted this event in 2014 on the ANZAC Day weekend. The way it came about was, we thought Writers Festivals were great with a lot to offer, but, understandably, don’t focus on developing writing skills, which was our desire. So we contacted and invited writers groups and writers from around the Northern Rivers, Central Coast, and hinterland areas to come to Dorrigo for a weekend of energising and skill-building workshops, discussions, skill sharing, resource pooling and networking between writers. Inspired by our experience with our fringe event, we were keen not to focus on publishing, but to provide a time for regional writers, and people aspiring to write, to connect, to nourish their creative skills and ideas through writing – untrammeled by any thought of whether their work would ever appear in print or not. We also decided that, to further develop networking, it needed to be a travelling event. Another aim was affordability; attendance for three days of workshops was $25. The Dorrigo High School Principle, Michael Bleakley, donated the use of the school, and we covered morning and afternoon tea and printing costs out of these funds. The NRWC in Byron Bay supported the award-winning author, Marele Day to attend and give a workshop and her inspiring keynote address. I think 80 writers attended. Since then the event has travel through Coffs Harbour, Nambucca and will be in Port Macquarie this year; in 2018 the Grassroots Writers Weekend will be back in Dorrigo. The event is open to all writers and aspiring writers and we don’t work around a theme.

Were you the instigator of the Abundance- A Celebration of Generosity Festival in Dorrigo? Well, in a way. During 2015 and 2016 my partner, Hamish Mackay, and I hosted a group of local people on a weekly basis and together we studied and debated Theory U, an innovative body of work by Otto Scharmer (Senior Lecturer at MIT, a Thousand Talents Program Professor at Tsinghua University, co-founder of the Presencing Institute, Chairs of MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation in China and Indonesia). Theory U is about creating awareness-based social technologies for change makers around the world. Scharmer claims: the quality of the results that we create in any social system are dependent on the quality of the awareness we have or bring to the system we operate from – which kind of explains why we, collectively, keep getting results that nobody wants or intended. In 2016 some of the people in this group decided to take the theories and practices we’d been working on and create social change. I had this wild idea to start a local currency. I’d still like to try this, but it became clear that the step was too big. Our societies are anchored in monetary economies and our sense of security is connected to having “real” money. Added to that, our justifiable concern for our planet and her resources has led to a ‘scarcity consciousness’ that keeps turning up in the wrong contexts. So I asked what if … What if we could create an event where we could all discover something new about the people we think we know? What if we create an opportunity to see ourselves in a different light? What if we give our own unique gifts and receive the gifts of others and build a stronger sense of community? What if we support each other’s dreams? What if we live in communities where human creativity is our currency? And the idea to celebrate generosity and focus on the abundance we have came naturally.

Have you got any exciting projects on the horizon for 2017? What are you currently writing? I’m working on a novel and I’ve very recently been part of founding Heartwood, Site for Transformative Arts, Culture, Science. Our first major event is a five day conference in Byron Bay, Conversing with Nature. Our guestspeaker is Craig Holdrege, from The Nature Institute, New York. Craig’s passion is to develop what Goethe called ‘delicate empiricism’, which means, learning from nature how to understand nature. Conversation is very important to me; it was such a big part of my grandmother’s storytellings and it is part of my method of working with story and in teaching. The most important part of a conversation is our ability to listen. So conversing with nature, to me, means we need to listen to what she has to say. This may sound like a cliche, but I truely feel this way. We could solve many of the problems we face if we took the time to really listen to what she is telling us. My part in this conference will be a series of storytelling workshops focusing on the mythologies of the sacred tree, and second series of collaborative sessions that work with ‘Nature and Imagination’ and how we can create place conscious stories.

More information about Iris, her stories, workshops and ideas can be found at





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