Objects and items from our lives that have meaning for us can provide inspiration for some great life writing and we'll be looking at the power of 'life souvenirs' in my series of life writing workshops in February.
I wrote in an earlier blog about Susie, a doll my Mom had when she was a child. Susie accompanied Mom through her entire life and kept Mom company in private hospital care during the last months that she was with us. When I look at Susie, who now resides with me, a flood of memories come back about Mom.
I recently watched a series of documentaries entitled 'Titanic: Stories from the Deep' which featured various artifacts recovered from Titanic and the stories behind them.
Thousands of items have been salvaged from this luxury ocean vessel and pride of the White Star Line that struck an ice berg in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic and sank in the early hours of 15 April 1912.
One of the most impressive was the recovery, conservation, and restoration of a set of the ship's massive whistles. The two forward funnels were each fitted with a set. The whistles were like organ pipes and steam operated, giving off a sound that was somewhat melodic and very loud. Apparently when at sea, the whistles were tested every day at noon and were used in port when tugboats were maneuvering the ship.
Of course everyone wondered if the whistles would actually work again and after some serious restoration by professionals, by golly, they did.
At a public event in St. Paul Minnesota in 1999, in front of a crowd of thousands, the whistles blew again, twice, for the first time since - most likely - that fateful night in 1912 when Titanic sank to the bottom of the sea. They will never sound again as the stress on them could cause irreparable damage.
With all of the poignant and tragic history surrounding the demise of this great ship and the deaths of over 1500 people aboard, listening to the sounding of the whistles was an emotional experience even for me, sitting in front of my TV.
It was a mournful cry from a once magnificent ship, a voice of pain and anguish from the bottom of the sea, the sound of the ship now long gone but never forgotten in the annals of storytelling. It may have been one of the last sounds people heard that terrible night, so many of whom lost their lives in one of the world's greatest seafaring tragedies.
My Mom's Susie does not carry the weight of a tragedy like the Titanic story, but nonetheless it holds many memories for me and has been the inspiration behind much of the writing I've done about my Mom.
And you don't need a life souvenir the size of those gigantic whistles either to inspire your writing.
Something as small as a gold ring or a silver hat pin may do.
“Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win,
by fearing to attempt.” - William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
You see? Even William Shakespeare had something to say about self-doubt and the threat it poses to our creativity. American writer Suzy Kassem goes a step further saying, 'Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.'
Are you getting the message? Don't you want to look in the mirror and see the King of the Jungle looking back at you?
Doubting our ability to write is a real downer and it can plague and hound us relentlessly, making us wonder why in the heck we ever chose to write a single word and spent more than even a millisecond of our precious time bothering.
Doubt is that wicked little critter that hangs out on your shoulder while you're writing, whispering its evil notions into your ear: 'Hmm, are you sure that's good enough?' or 'People are going to think that writing is stink. Why are you bothering? You'll make a fool of yourself.' And before you know it, all of this mindless wittering has undermined your confidence, courage, inspiration and motivation and you slouch away from your writing desk in a blue funk, beaten and demoralised.
Our doubts are generated by many things and I'll deal with three of them here and suggest what you can do to combat them.
1. Lack of confidence: keep writing and don't stop
Even the most experienced writers get the wobbles every now and then. It comes with the territory. As with most things, the more you do it, the greater your confidence will be. Remember when you were learning to ride a bike? You kept falling off and crashing into things but you persevered and voila! One day you took off into the sunrise of a new day on wheels. So keep writing, don't stop. The more you write the greater your confidence.
2. The wicked little self-doubt critter: kick it out the door
That's the one sitting on your shoulder. You can almost see it when you look at yourself in the mirror. Sweep it off like a piece of lint, onto the floor and then kick it out the door. We don't have time or space in our writing lives for the nasty little naysayer. Shut it down. Don't listen.
3. No one will want to read my stuff: yes they will
I say, 'who cares?' Write what you want to write because in the first instance, it's always about you: write what interests you, what attracts you, what piques your curiosity. Explore a topic or your own emotions, research an historical time and place or your own family closet of rattling skeletons. The world is overflowing with beauty, richness, glory, sadness, violence, love, hate, joy ... and I would almost bet money on it that people will want to read what you have to say.
Another great way to dispel those feelings of doubt is to hang out with other writers who have probably experienced the same thing. My Write-Ins provide a relaxed and reassuring space to talk to things through, share and support each other and of course, do some writing.
Maybe you're sitting around with friends and family and you're telling then how you sailed around Cape Horn in a 32 foot sailboat and the waves were towering over the mast and the rails were under water and you thought to yourself, 'This is it - I am not going to survive.'
Your audience is riveted, hanging off every word as you describe the wildness of the seas and the shrieking banshee-wind, the heaving and pitching of the boat, the drenching sea-spray and rain, and all the while the sun was trying to break through the roiling black clouds above.
Inevitably, someone will ask, 'Why don't you write a book about that sea voyage?' You shrug your shoulders, and say, 'Who would want to read about that?'
A story about survival against the odds? Are you kidding? Of course they would!
Now we don't all have such stories to tell, but we all have one: the story of our life, how we came into the world, what we did, and sometimes, how we're about to leave it.
We're all curious about other people's lives. We like to read about the rich and famous and how they came to be that way; we like to know how people survived ordeals like being lost in a barren desert for a year or stranded on a blizzardy mountain top for a week. We want to know how people overcame traumas and challenges, like a diagnosis of cancer, the loss of a beloved parent, recovery from a serious life changing accident.
And sometimes a life story isn't about such things. There is interest in the every day, how a life is lived, the joys, sorrows, happiness and sadness that walks alongside us each day. American writer May Sarton wrote about her life in her Journal of a Solitude, reflecting on the day to day over the course of one year (her 60th), and it is one of the most compelling and poignant insights into a woman who was intensely private, craved solitude and the beauty of nature, and yet was tormented by loneliness.
So why write about your life? Think about publication if you have a story of personal challenge, success, failure, or adventure - why not aim high?
If you don't want to publish your story, then write it just for family as a legacy for future generations - this is a valuable gift.
Writing about your life can be 'good therapy', it can help you make sense of things you did or said or thought, why you chose the path you did, and in this way it's a private thing, writing you don't share with anyone. It's just for you.
And remember: you don't have to try and tackle your entire life all at once. Take it in bits. Begin with one part of your life that springs to mind. It might be the year you spent in Africa on extended safari, experiencing the wild animals, or it could be just one day, the one where you went to the circus as a ten year old with Auntie Margie and Uncle Peter and the clowns terrified you and Uncle Peter snapped at you and said, 'Harden up kid!'
Writing about your life is always worth it. It's never wasted effort.
... and if you need help getting started, contact me for a $25/45, guaranteed to kick-start that life writing idea.
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.