A colleague attended a breast cancer support meeting recently. She said they had been asked to bring along an object that they treasured, something that had a story attached, an item of personal significance. They would then tell the group the story behind that special object.
I'm sure those stories would have run the gamut of emotion from hilarious to tearful, poignant to pleasing, and frightening to calming.
As I sat here at my desk, I can see plenty of things roundabout. I confess I am a bit of a collector and tend to hang onto stuff - and most will have a story hanging about them like an aura. Sometimes that aura is bright pink for breast cancer, other times red, an aura colour that can both attract and repel. If you think hard enough, you'll find a story in any object.
The picture here is of Susie. She might look a bit like the scary doll-babe from the movie Annabelle but Susie is far from malevolent. She is a family heirloom and belonged to Mom when she was a kid. This is kinda what dolls looked like back in the early 1930s. Mom kept Susie her whole life. When Mom was in the hospital, towards the end of her life, she asked for her childhood companion, and Susie was with Mom when she passed away.
So for me, Susie conjures up plenty of things I could write about. Not only can I remember Susie always being around my whole life - and to be honest, she used to give me the creeps when I was little, with her torn little face and funny, thready hair (she was a poor cousin to my flash and dashing Barbie and Ken dolls) - but she makes me remember Mom, not just the last days she was with us, but as she was - funny, playful, entertaining, and joyous.
Have a look around at the things that surround you at your desk: I am currently looking at the following:
- a glass kitty-cat with an arched back and yellow eyes given to me by a dear friend with whom I have regular and fabulous writerly lunches at the Buddhist temple cafe;
- one of those M & Ms characters you see in the ads for the candy; he's blue, holding up one hand in a crazy salute, given to me by a friend who always brings a packet of M & Ms when she visits;
- a glass paperweight with a gold shamrock on the top given to me years ago by a southern gentleman from the state of Georgia who restored vintage American cars, as a farewell gift when I left the USA to return to NZ for good;
- a handwritten note that I've kept for years, jotted down by my writing mentor, Mrs. M, that says: 'Have faith in yourself. You're doing what you want to do and that's an accomplishment in itself. Viva Zapata! (Whatever that means).' I look at it often to boost my spirits when this old writing gig gets too hard;
- a red and orange coffee cup now full of pencils and pens that used to belong to a set called 'Sleepy Sheepy' .
I'm not sure about the story behind that one, but give me time and I'll think of it.
Wow, it's hot.
Dry too. We haven't had a good rain in ages here. I don't have to do much weeding because the intense heat is shriveling them up and it's too hot anyway to do more than pull up a few pieces of ginger and sweep the steps.
So my day is pretty much like this right now.
I work in the morning. I've been getting up earlier and earlier to enjoy the cool and to prevent the computer from blowing up. Its little fan or whatever is in there to keep it from overheating is working like a son of a gun and the heat shimmers out of the top like a mirage. It manages to keep its cool until about noon and then it starts panting and whining like a hot dog.
So it's up at 5.30am and Betsy cat loves it. It means she can eat earlier and wander to her cool place down the stairs where the bricks stay shaded all day. The sun comes up with a soft red glow, the neighbourhood is quiet and the birds are already gathering breakfast and singing with their usual optimism that the day will be a super one.
On goes the coffee and into the work I go. A break for morning tea, then lunch, some reading to let that settle, then it's off to the beach.
Every single day I am grateful for where I live because I slink off down the stairs in my flip flop jandals with my old towel, Atlanta Braves baseball cap, and baggy shorts with the little green turtles on them, walk for about three minutes to the beach, slide over the bank onto the sand, throw everything down and head for the water.
How does one describe that feeling of water ... silky soft some days, and when the wind is up it can give you a bit of a slap upside the head. It's been warm, the water, almost too warm. I don't see any of the little schools of fish I used to see in the shallows.
My jandals make quite loud squeaks as I walk back. One afternoon a guy walking along on the opposite side of the street said, 'You'd never make a burglar in those so don't try to rob a house after you've been swimming. Too much good rubber in them.' OK got it.
A friend's Mum used to say that a swim really cooled you down and set you up for the rest of the day. That may be true, but it's the cold beer that I often have after I've come back from the swim that does the trick.
Of course no more work gets done after that. Betsy and I sit out on the deck with our beverages (she quite likes some cubes of ice in her water on these hot days), heads hanging low but comfortably. We read the local paper, or a book, and catch up on the events of the day.
She tells me about the cool bricks and I tell her about the wonderful sea.
When you're thinking about your life, think about your car.
We often take our cars for granted. They get us from A to B, sure enough, and we spend inestimable hours in them over a lifetime: strapped into car seats as youngsters, learning to drive in our teens with a white-knuckled parent or pale-faced driving instructor beside us, and then when we're old, the moment we're told 'you can't drive any more' - how does that loss of independence feel?
Our cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles - any form of daily transportation we use - play important roles in our life stories.
Think about the first car you ever owned - so proud were you! Maybe your parents helped you buy it, or they gave it to you, or you saved every penny until you could afford to make this four-wheeled fantasy a reality. Did that first car have a peculiar characteristic? Did it always have a pull to the left, in spite of multiple visits for alignment?
Driving gave you independence. Having a car enabled you to get out into the world, go places, see things, meet people, get to work, hold down a job, take your girlfriend out - maybe the one who eventually became your wife?
While that car gave you freedom and joy, it also came with cost, trials and tribulations: you had to buy petrol to make it go; when it broke down, as they inevitably do and often at the worst possible moment, did you have the money to foot the bill?
'The adventure begins when something goes wrong' and nothing could be truer when a car breaks down: were you on a deserted country back road after midnight when the tyre went flat and you had no spare, or perhaps on a hot desert road and the radiator blew and you had no water to fill it? Maybe you had an accident in your car - a minor fender-bender or one that changed your life - and maybe someone else's - irrevocably.
I've always been fond of my cars. They've all had different personalities and quirks, particularly the used ones that came with a ready-made personality shaped by someone else - sometimes you get along with that persona, sometimes not. The first car I owned was a used Datsun 510 called Chickadee that I bought in Seattle and drove all the way to Fernandina Beach, Florida - I've written about that brave little adventurer in a previous blog. I've had only two new cars in my life that came to me with that new-car smell and shine. One was a little pickup truck that I never formed much of an attachment for (we were living in the country at the time and bought it because it was handy to have), and the other is my red Toyota Corolla that I still own, one that's been with me since about 1995 or so.
I cannot bear to part with it. I love it so. We've had plenty of adventures, Car and I, have traveled many of New Zealand's most hair-raising roads together, kicking up dust and flying over potholes and flood-water-gouged ditches. I've lifted that hatchback to load in firewood, boxes, building materials, people, my drums and heaven knows what-all else. It has about 280,000km on the clock now, is treated to an annual service each year, has a blow-your-ears-out sound system and doesn't give me a lick of trouble.
It gets me home late at night in a way that is gallant and noble: 'I will get you home safely Miss Jane, don't you worry.' It is never petulant - it starts up every time. Like a genteel older person, it keeps on going despite the aches and pains its 280,000 kms no doubt cause. It never kicks up rough and complains.
I could write a book about my experiences with cars - the ones I grew up with in our family, the ones I have owned, the places these vehicles have taken me.
What can you say about your wheeled pride and joy?
'Once upon a time ...'
Stories read to us in childhood often began this way and when I heard those words, I was filled with a delightful anticipation of what was to come, snuggling down even closer to Mom as she read from the picture book before my bedtime. Even now, I find myself going, 'Yes? OK? What is going to happen?'
Beginnings are everything in our stories. They hook the reader in, entice us to read on, we want to find out what happens. Even that classic clanger, 'It was a dark and stormy night' does the trick - what happened on that dark and horrid night?
I'll often pick up a book in the shop and read the first line. If it doesn't grab me, I'll put it down - is that fair to the writer? Probably not - but for me, as a reader, I know what I want and if I don't see it on the first page, I'll probably move on because there are so many other books out there ...
I've written about 'famous first lines' before and if you Google search, you can find lists of them. Here's one from Iain M. Banks (The Crow Road 1992): 'It was the day my grandmother exploded.'
Wow - I'd like to know whether she literally combusted out on the front porch in her rocking chair or did she blow up with anger and rage, red-faced with clenched fists.
Every first draft has a first line, and sometimes that first line will make it through to the final version. I began my book The Pink Party with, 'The invitations to Colleen's Pink Party said, 'Wear your best pink' so even the men have dressed up.' That sentence stayed as the first one right through to the published book.
Sometimes the beginning may occur to us when we're working on the middle, or the end, of our story. While writing my book about Mom, I was typing away on the middle and thought, 'This sentence would make a great beginning' - that's the fabulous thing about cut and paste.
It's important to be 'organic' with beginnings and first lines - often they will find their own way, present themselves without you having to structure them or force them into being.
That first line may surprise you. It could be an overheard snippet of dialogue, a newspaper headline, and it can inspire a whole story or book. I was sitting with a friend some years ago; she was ill in Hospice care, full of pain medications, drifting in and out of sleep.
Suddenly, she opened her eyes and said with clarity and surprising strength, 'I can't hear the waves tonite.' That became the first line in a short story I wrote.
So when you're starting out with a story, don't let coming up with a ripper first line trip you up - don't think you can't start writing without one because you can and of course as we've said, that first line might even be the inspiration for your story in the first place.
(My editor would say, 'You've used 'first' too many times here.')
My cat Betsy has water bowls positioned all around the house so she doesn't have to go far, or exert herself too much, to get a drink on these hot summer days. She's going on 19 now so I try to make things easy for her.
In spite of the convenience, Betsy likes drinking from the bird bath on the front lawn.
It's a real stretch for her. She has to stand on her tip-toes, battling her arthritis, to get a drink.
Writing is a bit like that.
It's easy to go round and take from the usual sources, harder to make a stretch and go for something new, different, delicious, exciting - something that will make your arthritic creative joints hurt but the results will be worth it.
What are your writing plans for 2019? Do you think you would stretch your writing legs and try something new and different?
This year will you write in a new genre that challenges you? Travel writing? Crime? Romance?
Perhaps you will commit to writing that memoir for the children, or think about putting together a collection of poems, insights into the delights of summer at the beach or a small cabin by the lake...
Whatever it may be, think about stretching your legs a bit. Challenge yourself. Don't go for the water bowls within easy reach.
Stand on your tiptoes, put your hands up on that birdbath and see what the view is like from up there.
... and a Tonka car carrier truck.
Let's face it. Christmas is for kids and wow, if you were anything like me, as a youngster you'd be beside yourself right about now with The Big Day less than a week away.
The tree is up, some of the presents are already under it and you can tell there are more to come because the extra special ones you had on your list (that you delivered to your parents ages ago and have badgered them over ever since) aren't there yet, and you know that because the shapes of the ones under the tree at the moment don't match the things you've asked for. And it's almost too terrible to imagine a Christmas morning without those extra special presents waiting for you.
In this picture - yes that is me, aged about five or six - I am sitting under the tree with a truck. This would probably have been one of our last Seattle, Washington Christmases before we jumped on the ship and immigrated to New Zealand.
I am missing some front teeth but they were hardly a Christmas priority.
Apparently I absolutely coveted this car carrying vehicle. I wanted it more than anything. It came with one white car and two pick up trucks, red and blue, that you could drive up a yellow ramp and into the truck. And this truck was built, man ... that's when Tonka toys were made of real metal, not plastic. This thing went the distance. It came to New Zealand with us when we moved here, and my best friend Milton who lived up the road from us in Murray's Bay called it the 'Big Bad Harley Truck'.
In future years I was desperate to receive various things in accordance with my age at the time: new outfits for my Barbie and Ken dolls (sent to us from America - even more fabulous!), my first guitar (which for obvious reasons was hidden carefully until Christmas morning), an Osmiroid fountain pen, and a copy of Carole King's album Tapestry.
When I was young I thought I would always want presents at Christmas. I simply could not imagine the day without ripping into wrappings and pulling out something stunning and wonderful that I could play with immediately, eat straight away, or put on a shelf and stare at in wonder.
These days though it's heart warming and such fun to see other children carrying on the wonderful festive traditions we enjoyed as kids.
In the few years prior to Mom's death, she and I had a special tradition, our 'Christmas nip' and I looked forward to that more than anything.
We'd get up Christmas morning, open up the gifts, then Mom and I would repair to the kitchen, take out the bottle of fine single malt whiskey (Glenmorangie was usually on hand, Mom's favourite) and pour ourselves a short nip. We'd clink glasses, toast each other, the holiday, and the year that had been, down our shot, and begin preparing our Christmas Bissell breakfast of sausages, toast, and eggs.
Mom is no longer here but I keep up the tradition of the Christmas nip.
I'm often alone on Christmas morning, heading out later to join in festivities, and I take that quiet moment when the day is still and young to pour myself a shot, go outside on the deck, enjoy the view and raise my glass to the heavens in a toast to my Mom.
Isabel Allende is one of my favourite writers. In November she was given yet another award, honoured by America's National Book Foundation for her distinguished contribution to American letters, the first such award given to a Spanish-language writer.
Allende gave an acceptance speech for her award and mentioned how being 'chronically uprooted' has inspired her creativity. Themes of 'nostalgia, loss and separation' can be found in all of her books and also define her writing process: 'As a stranger ... I observe and listen carefully. I ask questions and I question everything. For my writing, I don't need to invent much; I look around and take notes. I'm a collector of experiences.'
I kept a 'writer's notebook' for years. It went with me everywhere and I scratched down things that I saw or heard. I didn't use most of the stuff I wrote down but some I did.
When I was working as a courier in Atlanta, Georgia, I sometimes had to run out of town and up into the northern part of the state to places like Calhoun and Rome. I passed lots of billboards along the side of the country roads. One in particular stayed with me and went into my notebook: God recycles junk souls. I used it as the title of a short story.
Even though I was very young when we left the USA to move to New Zealand, I do remember some of of our life in the 60s over there: watching American Bandstand with Dick Clark on TV, rock n'roll music, going to the drive-in movies. And those memories generate some of that nostalgia Allende refers to. I wasn't 'chronically uprooted' as she was, but I was uprooted at a young age from everything I knew and all that was normal to me, put on a ship for a voyage across the Pacific, and then placed in an alien environment where even the flushing of the frightening 'thunderbox' toilet scared me to death.
This uprooting made me an observer at the age of 8. I'd always had a tendency to be shy and quiet, and when we came to New Zealand, things were so different, the children I met so unusual with their funny accents and marmite-white-bread sandwiches, I retreated. I sat, watched, said little, asked some questions, and learned how to fit in through careful observation. Of course they thought I was totally weird too with my funny accent and peanut butter and jam sandwiches.
When I return to the USA for visits, I'm hit with that sweet/sad feeling when I see something I remember from years ago: it might well be that old billboard, or the sight of our family home in Seahurst (Seattle) where we lived (the house looks different now but there's enough left to inspire memory) and walk down the street of that old neighbourhood.
The sense of nostalgia that often comes with childhood memories, of loss and separation, made more profound if that childhood had a dislocation or major change, a move from one country to another for whatever reason, can be a powerful source of emotion for our stories. Childhood memories are often fragmentary, wispy sensations lingering in the background, snippets of things said or done.
So keep a notebook. Jot them down as they come to you. Use them as the basis for your life stories.
And I don't mean gun triggers.
I mean those everyday things that can trigger a memory, a sensation, an emotion. These triggers can be the true stuff of life writing.
Take this morning. I brew up the coffee and put some bread in the toaster. The toast pops out and as I am buttering it, I remember my secondary school English teacher.
I didn't like English when I was at school. Even though this teacher was one of the best I've ever had the good fortune to know, I didn't really like going to her classroom. It wasn't her, it was the subject.
However I've always considered her to be one of my mentors, someone who had a keen interest in my writing and took the time to actively support and encourage me. Indeed her interest in my writing continued after I left school, and goes on to this day along with a firm friendship we have enjoyed for so many years.
So what does all this have to do with a piece of toast?
Many years ago now, my teacher and her husband were packing up their house to move away. In a case of bad timing, she broke her arm or wrist, I can't remember which, was in a cast and so couldn't do a whole lot of packing. I came over one day to help. When it was time for lunch, we downed tools and prepared some soup and toast.
As I was buttering her pieces of toast, she said, watching me closely, 'Butter it right to the very edges.'
Every morning, I butter the toast to the very edges so even the crusts are included.
I could write a whole lot more about this very special teacher who invested so much of her kindness, patience, and energy into my writing at a time when it was so needed - and all it takes is a piece of toast and a spread of butter to get me thinking about those memories.
Have a look around you right now. Are there some objects that trigger a memory for you? Perhaps it's the scent from a vase of flowers on the dining table that takes you back to a soft, shimmering summer day, or an expensive writing pen that your Dad gave you when you were 21 (remember how special that was because he so rarely gave you anything?), or something as simple as the way sunlight glints off a wave in the bay, reminding you of a sailing adventure on a small boat with someone you really didn't like too much.
Be open to triggers, be watchful, be observant, jot the thoughts down in your notebook for later when you're looking for something to write about.
Writing can be joyous, momentous, creatively satisfying when it's going well ... but when it isn't, finding words can be impossible and the blank computer screen can be a vision from hell and the stuff of nightmares.
There is of course the old 'writer's block' where you just can't get to first base with anything; it's like a creative constipation. Nothing is moving and you need some kind of 'laxative for creative people' - hey, there's an idea! I can see that on the retail shelves already.
Then there are the times when I'm doing OK with my creative work but then 'life gets in the way' and something major happens. Maybe old Miss Betsy-cat gets worryingly sick, the plumbing goes bung or I'm unwell, then I develop a one-track focus. I give all of my attention to the problem and I cannot do any writing. I've always been like that. I don't multi-task too well.
When this happens, I have to take time out. I take my lead from Betsy. She just lies down in the sun.
With a 'writer's block situation' I have some tools I use to get started again but when there's a life issue, I have learned to ease up on the laxatives and just stop.
It took me a long time to convince myself that this was OK because I always believed I should be able to write, no matter what else was going on in my life. That is still mostly true because if we let life overtake us we would never write a word. But when there is a life event that requires my focus to really be there, right with it, then I stop and that is OK.
When the going gets tough, the tough sack out.
It's OK to to take time out. If you can't write because your emotions and concern are elsewhere, do whatever you need to do to take it easy ... and give yourself permission.
I am jolly lucky because I can sit out on the deck and look at the sea or the trees and the birds and I feel surrounded by friends and comfort. And always remember that tomorrow is another day.
You can try again.
Do you remember the first time you rode a bike?
I was about ten. Mom had a bike that she'd brought over from the USA when we immigrated to New Zealand. It was black with two large wire baskets hooked onto the back of the frame, deep enough for all your shopping.
Dad was building a sailboat in the garage at the time. He'd done that before in the garage of our house in Seattle. That sailboat was about 23 feet long and it was called Nameless. Unfortunately the New Zealand version was never completed but I used it's skeleton to help me learn to ride.
The wooden ribs of the boat were laid out in the garage. I'd get on the bike and propel myself from rib to rib, trying to balance in between. Eventually I could ride past two ribs, then three, and finally I could truck along without having to prop myself up.
I had my fair share of tragedies on that bicycle, including a very notable occasion when I was showing off, as one does, had to brake suddenly, and the bike came right out from under me and I ended up on my bottom holding the bike up in front of me.
Mom always said, 'Once you learn to ride, you never forget' and that's true. I still have a bike and can hop on and off and ride around quite happily. It's a lifetime skill.
Writing is a bit like learning to ride. You start off small, trying to get your balance, learn the nuts and bolts of staying on and staying upright, using props and whatever else you need to make headway. You acquire the skill and of course, practice is the key - keep going until you find your momentum.
Sometimes it's tough, like riding up a steep hill when the going is slow (even with gears), the exertion intense, until you get to the top and you can take a deep breath and appreciate your accomplishment. And then there are the times when you fall off, have a 'crash up' as we used to say when we were 10-year olds wheeling around; the wheels well and truly come off the writing caravan.
But writing can be a delight, an enjoyment right up there with cycling along on a balmy spring day with the scent of new flowers and the warmth of sunshine on your arms. Writing is a journey, an excursion, a time of discovery.
And of course, as my Mom used to say about so many things, 'It's just like riding a bike - you never forget how' - writing is like that. It can be a lifelong companion, a solace, a joy, a way to communicate your vision and what life is like in your world.