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.'
The Greek philosopher Epictetus said,
'If you wish to be a writer, write.'
Simple as that!
I'll add to this by saying, 'If you have a story to tell about your life and times, then I'll bet people will want to read it.'
Tell it well and compellingly, and you may just have a book that will not only sell but will touch the hearts and minds of the people who read it.
You may ask: 'How does she know this?'
Because we all have a built-in curiosity about others, a hard-wiring that goes right back to our earliest ancestors sitting around fires at night. Before language there was visual communication. Take the charcoal drawings in the cave of Altamira, renderings of local fauna and the prints of hands. Perhaps this was a visual sharing of the story, 'Look what we hunted and killed today and now we're eating it for dinner.'
Michelle Obama's memoir Becoming has now sold over 10 million copies worldwide and her story could become the best selling autobiography ever. Sure, she received a real incentive to write her story - a reported $60 million US advance for the memoir - and this was a real measure of how eagerly anticipated her story was, now widely praised for it's raw and truthful telling of life before, during and after the White House years.
The corridors of power attract us, the lives of the rich and famous do too but we also want to know about the everyday, the lives of people like ourselves, those who have experienced something wonderful, traumatic, hopeful, joyous, or unbearably sad, and have been able to translate their thoughts, feelings, decisions and actions into the written word.
These are stories we can relate to, learn from, and enrich our own lives through the reading.
I'm so proud of Josh Komen and his book The Wind at My Back which reached number two in the Neilsen Weekly Bestsellers list for NZ adult fiction for the week ending 2 March 2019. Josh is a young man who had a special story to tell, one that has resonated with so many - not only because it describes the harrowing journey of a young man diagnosed with an aggressive blood cancer but also because it is a story of hope, of overcoming a stack of incredible adversities to beat the odds and find joy, friendship, and love.
You can do this too. You absolutely can. If you want to be a writer, just write, tell your story.
If you need help getting started, call me!! We can chat.
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.')