Jacquie McRae’s Online Journal

Jacquie McRae puts a dream into action

• July 12, 2010 •

For me, the whole process of writing has been a long journey. I thought about writing this book eighteen years ago. Somehow I got waylaid by life but on the way I kept adding to my dream: a writing correspondence course in 1994 (I only managed 10 out of the 15 assignments), one paper at varsity in 2000, a continuing education writers’ week in 2006 and a contemporary Māori writers’ paper in 2008.  

 I had a birthday that made me realise that if I didn’t commit to writing now and give it my all, it may always remain a dream. I read somewhere that a dream is just a dream but if you add action, it can become reality. I quit my job at the school library, enrolled in an e-learning course for a year at Wairiki. My point in telling all this stuff is that when you focus on something amazing things can happen.   

My entry for the Pikihuia Awards in the middle of last year was chosen as a finalist. This was incredible feedback to get. Up until this point, I think most people presumed I was just dicking around, as my husband said: “Being a writer is the perfect job; No one can tell if you’re working or not”.   

This past week I have been working on my project. It’s called Behind the Varnish but that may be up for review. Having a mentor onboard is invaluable. I am incredibly lucky to have Renée. I get the sense that she will get the best out of me, even if she has to wring it out! Getting feedback on your writing from someone who has knowledge and doesn’t know you keeps it real. A mentor will question all sorts of things, and if I can justify why it is there, I get to keep it.   

I have spent the week with all the characters I have in the book. I am amazed that I wrote several drafts of this book but failed to really know why the characters did what they did. If I didn’t know, then a reader is never going to work it out. I have to know what they eat, what they like to do, what their childhood was like – even if it never comes to light.   

By knowing the characters more it made the story change. I’m still not a hundred percent sure that I have the best possible storyline but will go with it for now. At the Papa Tupu hui in Wellington someone suggested reading The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. This is an amazing book about archetypes. I am only half way through but can see that most writers would benefit from reading this.   

Lastly, I would also like to say how grateful I am to be on the Te Papa Tupu programme and the sponsors, Māori Literature Trust, Huia Publishers, Creative New Zealand and Te Puni Kōkiri.  A lot of thought has gone into making this programme, as supportive, nurturing and inspiring as possible. A day spent in like-minded company, meeting my mentor and having Huia Publishers (in the shape of Brian Bargh) cheering us on makes the daunting task ahead seem possible.

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Learning new tricks (and old ones)

• August 11, 2010 •

This last month has been such a rollercoaster ride but I’m loving it. I’ve had to learn to be self-disciplined (I’m 46 and have never felt the need for it until now). I’ve learnt to say no to people when they want me to do something (something I should have mastered years ago) and that self-doubt is a thing to embrace.

Each week I send my pages to Renée (my mentor) for critiquing and each week she sends me back some positive feedback, and then writing that has red marks all over it. The red marks are not expressions about how wonderful my writing is but points to address. Every week she’s been right.

She is urging me to go deeper, more detail, show me don’t tell me. The ‘show don’t tell’ is a writing technique that has been around for a while, and one that I thought I had mastered a few years ago. On closer inspection of my writing I see that this is not the case. Learning something and remembering to use it all the time are two separate things.

I also thought that the story was not about me. The characters are different, the things they do are so removed from me but it actually comes down to universal truths. If I had to sum up my story, I would say it’s about authenticity and loss. The main protagonist loses herself in grief and isolates herself in an obsessive compulsive disorder. Even though the characters are different from the ones in my life, I share with them: grief, shame, and hope.

For me to write well, I really have to take myself to those places. It’s not nice but necessary. The lovely gift is that it’s also quite cathartic.

The tapestry of life still unravels around me. If I’m honest, I would rather be writing than doing all the other things that are expected of me, but that is not how it works. I am learning balance. I know this week I will struggle to find any time to write but this course means I will.

I am in awe of people that have written books without a mentor because after only one month I am so grateful to Renée who is my mentor and don’t want to ever let her go.

If you can, run out and find one!

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When the writing flow starts to congeal

• September 13, 2010 •

Robert Louis Stevenson was quoted as saying: Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.

At the moment I am planting lots of seeds but when I look at my fields the crops seem like poor specimens. Under nourished and not able to stand tall against strong winds.

I am in the middle of my novel and this is the bit that I find hard. When something is hard, I don’t want to do it.

Last week Renée kindly gave me the week off. I had a funeral as well as other things that needed my attention. I thought the break would do me good. Not so.

This week is even harder. I have had to glue my bum to the seat. I have had to wrestle every word, sentence and page and am still not finished. Even writing this journal entry. I suspect myself of procrastinating, again.

Half of me wants to find the easy way out. But, another part of me yearns for original and unique. I suppose it serves me right too. Up until this point the pages were just flowing. Easy even….People have been asking how is the writing. Fantastic. Loving it. No one has asked this week.

Writing, I now see as a relationship. I was happy when everything was running smoothly but now we’re being tested. For better or for worse.

So, I have to go back to the drawing board. Put in the effort and trust that I’m not just a fair weather girl.

Must go. I have writing to do!

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Detours create richer detail

• October 21, 2010 •

I went to a Rongoa Māori course on Saturday. I learnt a lot, but one of the most valuable things I got was a reminder of things we intuitively know. We just need to be still, watch, listen and all will be revealed. We often find things that we weren’t even looking for.

We are so often conditioned, to set off in pursuit of something and be so focused on that end that we forget to look for signs along the way. The wrong turns that we take are all part of the bigger picture. Instead of a delay in reaching our destination, they may well have something to offer us. We may arrive a little late but hopefully richer from the detour.

My writing the last fortnight has been flowing, maybe because I have let go of the outcome. I need to turn up and write and someone else can judge or do whatever they will with the words. I would never have been this confident in my first week on the programme.

Last week signalled the beginning of school holidays. A holiday that has two of my children having birthdays and an influx of extra kids. Eleven to feed one night and we live in the country! I was wondering how I would get my allotted words when Renee (my mentor) suggested we double my quota for the next three weeks. This was actually clever on her behalf because what I first thought was a daunting task seemed easy now she had doubled it.

The end part of my novel (which is now nameless but I have a few ideas incubating) has plants woven through it. A reoccurring theme with the traditional Māori medicine is: the more you get to know the forest and all the trees and plants within, they’ll tell you everything you need to know.

I am trusting this to be true with the characters in my book. At the moment Libby my main protagonist is sitting on the limb of a tree. I need to go and watch, sit with her a while, so I can see where she needs to go.

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Writing magic: an elixir to happiness

• November 30, 2010 •

We have only a few weeks left on the Te Papa Tupu programme. I am still grateful to have been picked for this programme and know that these six months have given me the tools and insight I need to be a writer for life.

I spent quite a bit of time over the past ten years reading about writers, attending writers’ festivals and writing a little bit. As much as that was fun, I know I was hoping to stumble on some magic potion that was going to turn me into a real writer.

In a roundabout way, I have found several of the ingredients that may help to make up the potion but I now know that it has to be mixed fresh every day and that some days, I’m just right out of what’s needed.

So what have I learnt?

Being totally committed to the project was invaluable. I wanted this book to be finished by December 3rd and at the beginning even though I had no clue how I was going to get to that point- that was my challenge.

Having a mentor has been like having a secret weapon. At the start I was all over the place, like when you ride your bike for the first time without the trainer wheels. But when I looked behind, I had Renee shouting at me to keep pedalling, just keep pedalling you’ll get there. I wish I was rich enough to have one for every writing project.

To be a writer: You have to write. Regularly. For some reason this constant writing changes how you write. Sometimes I don’t know what it is that is wrong with my writing, but because of the consistency, I know it is.

I have a friend that exercises most days. She said that when she doesn’t, she feels grumpy and pissed off. I am beginning to think that writing might be the same for me, but it does feel like it’s time for this project to be finished.

An invasion of teenagers has started to arrive for the summer holidays. Apparently something called Christmas is looming, and a house that hasn’t been cleaned properly for six months needs my attention.

My dream is to spend most of my days writing and hopefully make a living from it. This last six months has made me feel that much closer to my dream.

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