My writing mentor, Mrs. M, took no prisoners when it came to my excuses for not writing.
This was a challenge for me as I was in high school at the time and had plenty of other things I wanted to do, like going out with friends, swimming at the beach, shopping ... having fun. So there were many times when I resented her being pushy, telling me that in order to write, you actually had to write (surprise surprise) and writing was a discipline.
And of course in those early years I quite fancied myself as someone famous, dashing off a few devastatingly fabulous erudite and awe-inspiring lines here and there, making heaps of money and receiving endless adulation for my creative works that were admired by millions. I once told Mrs. M that I could only write when I felt moved to do so. And she laughed her head off and that was that.
Mrs. M came at writing from the perspective of a newspaper journalist and indeed she was often writing articles and letters to the editor in her later years. To her, it was all about completing the work and to do that you actually had to sit down and do it, and then you had to be prepared to accept feedback, good and bad criticism, and rewrite and rewrite until that piece of writing shone brilliantly like a newly minted silver coin.
Back then we didn't have computers and laptops so I typed up my work on my Mom's portable Remington typewriter. I would then submit my pieces of writing for her critique and they would come back to me scrawled over in red pen. I would go away and re-work it, bring it back, plenty of red pen but maybe less than the first time, and so it went on until that piece of writing was as good as it could possibly be, and then it went off to a newspaper or a magazine where it sometimes hit the mark, but most often, not.
Mrs. M was trying to instill in me the discipline to write in order to actually produce something, and then the stoicism to weather the storms and challenges that inevitably come: the rewriting, the polishing, the sending off with such hope, the dashing of those hopes against the rocks, and then riding the crest of a wave when you have a success that feels like the best thing in the world.
So writing is the right thing to do. Keep at it and don't give up. Those teenage years spent in the company of my mentor Mrs. M are almost a lifetime away from where I am now but I can still see her in my mind's eye with that red pen, hear her voice as she discussed the writing and the changes she was suggesting, encouraging me to go back and try again.
When I last saw Mrs. M she was in a private hospital and very unwell. I spent just a few moments with her. It was hard because i knew I would not see her again.
The last thing she said to me was, 'Write lots of books.'
A writer I knew once said, "Workshop smurkshop. Who needs them. Workshops are a waste of time and money."
I use the past tense 'knew' meaning that I don't know him any more.
OK, pretty definite opinion there and when he told me this, I'd been to a few workshops myself. Some had been great, others not so flash, but I always got something of value from them. We had quite a heated argument and in the end, he grudgingly admitted that he'd only ever been to one writing workshop, one about poetry, taken by someone who was actually a visual artist, and there were only three other people there sitting in a cold, dingy space in a pottery studio surrounded by drying clay pots and figures that watched them critically from their corners for the entire workshop.
One of the absolute best workshops I have ever attended was facilitated by the delightful and simply wonderful Margaret Mahy. She didn't come dressed like in the photo here but floated in wearing one or her capes, I think.
The workshop was about writing for children, and I have never been talented in that area, but I wanted to be in her presence. So I was somewhat of an interloper, surrounded by other writers who were really good at children's fiction .. and here was I, totally lost but just thrilled to be in the same room with this incredibly talented woman that was our national treasure, Margaret Mahy.
I took along a copy of The Three Legged Cat - not only one of my favourite picture books of hers, but indeed one of my fave kids' books ever (right up there with The Velveteen Rabbit) - which she very graciously signed for me and although I didn't write anything that made any amount of sense to anyone in the workshop (although I did make Margaret laugh at one of my descriptions of a little boy's pyjamas) I came away enriched.
Of course with Margaret the workshop was full of flights of fancy, imaginative colour, flair, plenty of fun and laughter and you knew you were in the presence of someone who truly knew her stuff, loved children and knew what made them tick.
Even though I was not a writer for children, I came away inspired, motivated, keen to carry on with my own projects, and I made connections with two other writers that I enjoy to this day.
So while workshops are for learning, writing and experimenting, they are also about inspiration, ideas, connections, fun, humour, sharing, finding out that you can actually write about things you never thought you could, discovering talents you didn't know you had, and above all, coming away refreshed, invigorated, and ready to take on your writing with fresh energy and creativity.
So I hope you'll join me for my workshop on Saturday 19 October, The Building Blocks of Story. I can't guarantee I'll be dressed like Margaret Mahy in her colourful finery, but I can assure you that you'll have fun, you won't be surrounded by old pots, and you will do some great writing!
I've attended enough breast cancer support groups to know that there will be people there you don't know, have never seen before, they are strangers to you and yet by the end of the meeting, you feel like old mates.
It's the kinship of common experience.
It doesn't really matter if it's a cancer group, or a writers' group because the intent is the same: the support given by and shared with your peers.
It's the sharing of stories, the narrative of challenges faced and overcome, the brightness of hope that glimmers on the horizon, the open and honest exchange of tips, ideas, information, things that worked and didn't, roadblocks overcome and slips and slides weathered with aplomb.
You just can't beat sitting down with someone who knows how it is, has 'been there' with their nose stuck up against the rock face, trying to figure out how to get round or climb over.
If I've had that experience, and have found a way past it, I can share it with you, and chances are you may have had that same issue and can tell me how it was, or perhaps you'll encounter it in the future and when it happens, you'll think back and remember, 'Aha! That worked for her, I'll give it a go.'
I'd like to invite you to come to my writing place on 5 October and join other writers for a good chat, do some writing, raise some issues, sort some common problems, and generally support this writing craft that has us hooked. It's a love/hate thing, this writing, it can drive you to despair and distraction, but then it can uplift, invigorate, and delight.
Let's sit down and have a chat about it because the writer's life doesn't have to be a lonely one. There are lots of us out here. We just need to get together, have a cup of coffee, couple of biscuits, talk things through and keep each other jogging along.
My Mom loved books and we had plenty at home, all of the time.
Those we owned snuggled up in their bookshelves and guests from the library perched here and there during their visit, on table tops, chair arms, kitchen counters, and other places where they were safe from water, dirt, the fireplace, and the cat who liked to sit on them.
Mom taught us not to read with sticky fingers, nor were we to 'break the spine' by folding back the covers and under no circumstances was it acceptable to fold down page corners to mark your place. Books were treasured items.
'Somebody wrote that book, you know,' she would say. 'That is someone's creation. Treat it with respect.'
I had books from a very early age, picture books that Mom read to me at night, like Dr Seuss' Cat in the Hat, books about whales and stars, and I loved the smell of them, the smoothness of the pages, the black type of the fonts and the brilliant colours of the illustrations.
I remember the pictures of Captain Hook and the alligator that swallowed the ticking clock, and he knew the creature was coming because he would hear the ticking. I can still hear Mom reading to me from Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, she did the southern accents perfectly. The ticking alligator and the thought of getting stuck to the tar baby were deliciously nightmare inducing.
Growing older, my sister and I found our groove with books, seeking out those we enjoyed in the old second-hand shops that Mom routinely scoured, searching for antiques and treasures. We coveted Agatha Christie, racing each other to examine the sagging shelves in these dusty old shops for the slim treasures to add to our collection.
As Mom's Parkinson's disease advanced, books still provided her with companionship, as they always had, until one day I came into the house to visit and she said she couldn't read any more.
'I can't get past a sentence,' she said. 'I get stuck on the first few words.'
We read to Mom after that but it wasn't the same for her. The joy of reading the written word for herself, holding the book, being immersed in the story, and having that joyous relationship with the book, was gone for her and I think that may have been one of the greatest losses that Parkinson's visited upon her.
These days, we can download books, read them on our phones, listen to them on audio, and it's all wonderful because it means as writers we can really get our stuff out there ... but you know, I still think there's nothing like 'the real thing'.
Call me old school and old fashioned, but I reckon Mom brought us up right when it came to books (and most other things too, by golly) - I love to read, I love the feel of a book in my hands, and I still cannot read a book with dirty fingers, crack the spine, or bend down the corners of pages to mark my place.
You know how you can whip a tea towel at someone, especially if it's wet from drying the dishes, a quick flick of the wrist and that towel snaps against a vulnerable part of the body - usually exposed skin is best for maximum effect but that snap of pain can be felt even under clothing.
When we were growing up, my sister and I used to do the dishes every night after dinner. I always dried and so I perfected the art of the tea towel snap. Of course the tables often turned and I was on the receiving end of defensive action: one of those ghastly 'burns' where you grab someone's arm with both hands and twist the skin. My sister was quite adept at this.
Yesterday I was reading Anne Lamott's Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. I had some music playing in the background, I was just kinda hanging out. One of the chapters in Anne's book made me think about how we are hardwired to survive and to keep going. Even when we are old, or sick, and failing, we hold on to life, even if it's just for one more bite of ice cream.
It made me think of my Mom in the weeks before she died. She spent most of her time in bed but did still enjoy being taken out for some sunshine and flower-time in her wheelchair. She couldn't really say much but made it very clear when she wanted her 'sweet treats' - a can of Coke with a straw was a particular favourite, or a small tub of vanilla ice cream that we'd bring in for her.
So I was remembering this and then the iPod shuffling through its playlist kicked into See you later alligator by Bill Haley. It was like a snap of that tea towel. That's how grief can be sometimes. It snaps at you, out of nowhere, it stings, it catches you so off guard all you can do is cry. And that's what I did.
It was the song that did it. For several months before she died, Mom was still able to converse with us and every time I visited, we said good bye the same way.
'See you later alligator!' I'd say.
'After 'while crocodile,' she'd reply.
And we'd give each other the 'secret signal' of our love for each other (to this day, only me and Mom know what this is and if anyone ever says they can communicate with her on the 'other side', I would get them to tell me what the 'secret signal' is, then I'd know for sure it was Mom parting the veil) and I'd end my visit.
That's how grief can be. It lashes out and stings you so hard you cry with the pain of it. The startling speed of it is so surprising it makes you catch your breath. Other times it's like that slow burn your sister used to give you when she'd had enough of you flicking her with the tea towel. It grabs hold and slowly burns.
Mom has been gone now for almost nine years and I suppose I can say that grief's tea towel snaps are less frequent than they were. But the sting and the pain is as acute, singular, and painful as ever. The slow burn is an ember that flares up now and then. Both can be triggered by songs, pictures, the smell of Chanel No. 5 that was Mom's favourite, things she loved that I now have and so grief is woven into the fabric of my life now, into the everyday. It's part of me.
I often start my journal entries with a description of the weather. It acts as a kind of trigger for me, a way in to the writing of the day's activities and thoughts. And let's face it, we all have stories about experiences - good and bad - with weather, so climate can be a rich source of writing material.
Looking out at the Hauraki Gulf over the last few days I've seen a patchwork of white-capped waves, winds gusty and ruffling up the water just off the beach. We've had intermittent squalls of heavy rain with a driving cold westerly wind that has brought snow down south. The weather has real, raw, scary energy to it.
My Mom was raised in Florida and very early on developed a healthy respect for what she called 'weather', meaning 'bad storms and such.' She held such weather in equal measures of respect and a kind of meteorological fascination mixed with sheer terror. If 'weather' was approaching our place, she'd say, 'Weather on the way! Ominous nimbus!' and she was always tuned in to the hurricanes that routinely came ashore in her neck of the woods, the American south.
'Looks like that one is heading up into the Carolinas,' she'd say with the authority of one who knew about such things.
I can relate to the storms of Florida too, having spent a lot of time there. The raw power of those thunderstorms is something to behold: grey black clouds boiling up into the heavens, bringing fist-pummeling thunder, hurling rain and sky-cracking lightning along with winds that would sweep away everything including the cat.
When Mom was growing up, her Mom would gather everyone together into the basement area of the old hotel they used to run (the famous Keystone Hotel in Fernandina Beach) when a storm was coming. They would sit there around the table until the crisis had passed. Sensible.
My brother recalls one time he was out in the open on a Florida golf course and a 'thunder-boomer' rolled in. He felt the hairs rising on his arm right before a lightning bolt hit a tree close by with a percussive force that knocked him down.
Our house in Murray's Bay on Auckland's North Shore sat up on a cliff on Churchill Rd with a great view down the Gulf towards Auckland city. A good sou'wester would roar up and the house would 'cop it' as Mom used to say. Across the front of the house, facing the teeth of any gale from the south or west, were three very large windows, 'quarter inch plate glass' as Mom would tell you. When there was a good blow, these glass panels would literally bend and move with the gusts.
When this happened, Mom would retreat. If it was dark, she'd go to bed. 'Those windows are breathing,' she would say. 'I'm out of here.'
I remember placing my hands on the windows once, and they were indeed breathing in and out with the winds of the storm.
I have inherited my Mum's respect for wild weather but rather than retreat to my bed, I prefer to hang out with it, listen and watch - except for one particular time a few months ago when a thunderbolt hit close to the house. Betsy cat was sleeping in her chair and the noise made her leap up and we both ran into the toilet which seemed like the safest place to be.
What weather stories do you have?
You've heard that old adage, 'write what you know', and there are differing opinions on whether that is good advice or not.
Some writers say 'yes indeed!' and others toss it right out the window, saying it restricts you as a writer and you'll never venture past it into the unknown, because writing is a voyage into those unfamiliar waters. They say, 'take the leap!'
My sister and I grew up in Seattle, Washington, until I was 7 and she was 10, then we moved to New Zealand. We were often thrown together with only each other for company, sometimes due to the Seattle winter weather which was rainy and cold and encouraged indoor activities, and when we came to a foreign country where we didn't know anyone for quite some time.
We both had vivid imaginations and often amused ourselves on those cold, wet Pacific Northwest days by making up stories, or acting out scenes from our favourite adventure and action TV shows. Sea Hunt was often the 'go to'. We adored the hunky devil-may-care Lloyd Bridges. Our bunk beds became the ship, the carpet on the floor the ominous depths of the sea, and shoe boxes tied onto our backs with string were our 'aqualungs.'
When we came to New Zealand, the first thing my parents did was drive all around the country in a small car, looking at potential places to settle. We spent hours in the car each day, and every evening, my sister and I would hop into the beds of yet another strange motel and tell each other stories or make up a song. Every day had a different topic. Sometimes it was wild west, other times it was sea adventure, or my sister's favourite, ghosts and horror. The object was to make up a story or song and tell or sing it.
The stories and songs were based on what we knew ... and then some. Our knowledge of the sea came from Lloyd Bridges and real life white-knuckle sailing adventures on Dad's boat (in Seattle), and our experience of the wild west from shows like Rawhide.
I knew how to tell a story about a family straggling along in a covered wagon on the dusty prairie, I knew about gunslingers and showdowns at high noon and how cowboys brewed up coffee in dented old pots on the fire, ate beans and drank whiskey in the saloons. My sister knew all of this too so I had to come up with a twist, a flight of imagination, that would engage her interest. I had to venture into the realm of uncertainty, into exploration, into creativity, sail into the unknown waters, to find that special something.
So what I think about 'write what you know' is yep, you can start there but let the writing take you where it will, into the world you don't know.
If you need to find out something, look it up.
If you feel nervous about venturing into a foreign landscape, grit your teeth and take the plunge.
Because writing is about going to the places you don't know, and finding out. It's about exploration and daring, using what you know as a springboard into those deliciously exciting places that await your discovery.
'We have to cultivate the habits of curiosity and paying attention, which are essential to living rich lives and writing.'
So says Anne Lamott in her book Almost Everything: Notes on hope.
And how right she is. How can you write if you're not curious about something? And how you can write if you don't pay attention to what's going on around you?
Curiosity leads as to introspection. What makes us tick? Why do we do the things we do and think that way? Why did one of your friends say, in the middle of a good fun knees-up, drinks flowing and laughter echoing around the room, that she was going to climb Mt Everest when you've only known her to tackle a mini sand dune at a west coast beach and she hates the cold?
Was she serious or just joking - and why would she be either of those things?
One of the best ways of paying attention for me is to stop what I'm doing, clean my glasses so I can see properly, and sit down to look out of the window. The weather was stormy today with intermittent lightning flashes and growls of thunder and bursts of full on rain.
When I sat down, the sky was brighter, the worst of the storm was over, and the sea out my window was flat and dull green like unpolished greenstone, the sunlight catching the bright white wings of birds floating on the waves while the skyline was dull and flat grey like a stage backdrop. The birdbath on the lawn was overflowing and a blackbird was enjoying a good old time, flapping about and spraying diamond-glistening droplets of water everywhere.
I probably won't write about what I saw today, apart from here. It was more about my stopping to look to see what was going on, to wonder why the weather was behaving that way and to feel the joy of the bird having his extravagant and indulgent bath.
As we get older we seem to lose that 'paying attention' thing and our time is spent on those busy everyday things like looking out for the kids, driving the car, fixing food and trying not to burn yourself or the dinner, getting to work and paying attention to that (or not) ... but as writers, we
need to turn our antennae to the natural world and what's going on around us, really look and see and feel, and take some time to pay attention to those things that nurture and inspire our writing and creativity, to listen to snippets of conversation and to wonder why your friend is so up front about Mt Everest that she's hooked up with a mountaineer who will teach her how to use all of the alpine equipment she is now ordering online.
And if you're sitting there, being kinda quiet and paying attention for long enough, I'll bet some cat will come along and sit in your lap for a bit. Now there's a bonus and a treat.
I love using my water blaster.
This is the time of year when I get it out of the shed and tackle all of the concrete stairs leading up to my house. The high and hot suns of summer have been replaced by the low, mellow winter light without warmth that barely makes it over the tops of the trees. Slimy stuff darkens the outdoor stairs, slippery stuff, a recipe for disaster. Even the cat slips.
I have a special outfit I wear: an old blue raincoat, a pair of my Dad's old sou'wester foul weather gear pants from his sailing days, and a pair of green boots.
I don't mind the water blasting. I've been using it as an excuse not to write.
I confess. Someone else could certainly do the water blasting but I choose to do it, in fact I leap up, put my hand in the air and say 'Pick me! I want to do this job!' even though it is wet, dirty and dangerous, negotiating those outdoor steps that have memorial plaques on them saying 'Harold fell over here on 1 January 2008. Fortunately he didn't feel a thing.' (because it would have been the morning after one of my New Year's Eve parties).
It just goes to prove how far I will go to avoid writing. However, I have always found the process of water blasting beneficial in a creative way: I think it's good to busy yourself with a manual task, and then the mind is free to wander about, ponder, think things through as you see the slime and moss being washed away, lulled by the sound of the machine and the methodical approach one takes to operating the equipment. And there is the end result - nice clean stairs, no slipping, and best of all, no memorial plaques this winter.
So while you may see a job such as water blasting or gardening or painting as a means to escape writing (and I can't help myself, I certainly do), the act of doing something can often help us to think creatively, sort out a writing problem or roadblock, figure out the story ending that has eluded us for days.
Plus you'll have a very clean house, outdoor steps, and garden.
In her book Inheritance , Dani Shapiro writes about the time in her life when she innocently submitted her DNA to a genealogy website and found out that her deceased father was not her biological father.
The book is about secrets - those kept within families, secrets too shameful to reveal, or kept hidden out of love to protect others. Dani writes, '... secrets, particularly the most deeply held ones, have a way of leaching into everything surrounding them.'
We all have them: family secrets like Dani's that are kept hidden, those we keep to ourselves about our own lives and actions, those that are entrusted to us by others where we carry the burden of secrecy.
And as Dani says, sometimes those secrets 'leach' into our lives and the lives of others, rather like toxic landfills seeping into surrounding terrain... and the results can be life-changing, as Dani discovered.
Have you thought about the secrets you hold in your life, those that you cannot reveal because they are too embarrassing or shameful, or, if someone finds out about them, the repercussions would be too terrible to imagine, not only for you but many other people?
Having a 'secret' at the core of a story can generate a powerful narrative: we are intrigued when someone says to us, 'Shall I tell you a secret?'
'Oh yes please!' we say, hungry for something deliciously terrible or tantalising. The person then begins to string us along, dropping hints about 'the secret' which becomes more enticing chapter by chapter until we're almost desperate with anxiety, wanting to know ... and then all is revealed in a powerful and usually unexpected ending.
It's the stuff of bestsellers, let me tell you!
Writing about our own secrets can be done 'in secret', writing we do just for us.
Writing about those things in our lives that we simply cannot share with others for whatever reason, can help us to process, understand, and either ease the burden or put those secrets to rest for good. Keeping a journal can be one way of processing our secrets or sitting down with pen and paper, writing it out, and then destroying the writing afterwards can also be helpful.
Dani writes of a phrase quoted from a psychoanalyst, Christopher Bollas, one that guided her as she delved into the secrets long-held by her parents. You may like to use this as a prompt for your writing:
'There is in each of us a fundamental split between what we think we know and what we know but may never be able to think.'