Mark Sweet’s Online Journal

Mark Sweet wakes the sleeping Zhu Mao

 • July 5, 2010 •

Brian Bargh of Huia left a message. He asked I return his call. ‘It’s good news,’ he said. I went all goose pimply, and great gulps of excitement came tinged with fear.

I began writing Zhu Mao three years ago at the start of the Diploma of Creative Writing course at Whitireia Polytechnic. When I applied I submitted a short story, one of many, inter-connected, which I wanted to shape into a novel. But the opportunity to write a new novel was too much, and Adrienne Jansen encouraged my fresh idea.

It was based around two experiences of traveling in China in the 1980s. One involved infanticide of baby girls, the other, execution of criminals. The story grew and at times took on a life of its own. I spent a month in Wudangshan, the birthplace of tai chi, and found a setting for the story. I loved the process. In the end I rushed to finish and was awarded a C+. I was gutted and let Zhu Mao sleep for two years.

During that time I came to see my final assessment as fair. And learned a big lesson. Anna Rogers was my mentor, and assessor, but I took scant heed of her opinion. Now I see that all she told me was sound advice.

Late last year I met the author Elspeth Sandys, and asked her if she would critique my manuscript. She was encouraging but highlighted major problems with structure and genre; much the same as Anna.

I’d been dabbling at rewriting Zhu Mao for a few months, growing increasingly frustrated at my lack of editorial crafting skills, when my sister emailed about Te Papa Tupu incubator programme.

Being chosen for the programme is a gift for which I am deeply grateful. The opportunity to work with a mentor, and the means to concentrate on writing for six months, makes the completion of Zhu Mao an achievable goal.

My thanks to those in the Māori Literature Trust, Huia Publishers, Creative New Zealand, and Te Puni Kokiri, who have developed and promoted Te Papa Tupu.

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4 Responses to “Mark Sweet wakes the sleeping Zhu Mao”
  1. Mark, just talking about you and found you on the wonders of the internet.
    Do get in touch and we will update you on Bennett family sagas and life in general.
    Two Fats is still sorely missed in Glasgow.
    love Annaxx
anna and bob bennett said this on February 13, 2011 at 12:59 am |
  1. Likewise mark. Internet a wonderful thing. Glad u finally got rou d to writing. Taken you long enough. Be good to catch up. Prompted by fact my 18yr old son just won rugby scholarship to nz for 4 months from april2011.
Jennifer turner said this on March 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  1. This is most interesting. Is this you? Or another Mark Sweet New Zealander? Best wishes Andrew
Andrew Kincaid said this on April 9, 2011 at 1:04 am |
  1. Hi Mark – I think we knew one another in Glasgow in the early 90′s. I was hard work, you were inspirational. You will make supremely a gifted writer because you have a beautiful spirit and an inquiring mind. I wish you love and peace. Ramsay (as you knew me) x
Red Flint said this on May 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm |

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Planning a story to relish

 • August 2, 2010 •

Years ago I had a career change from commerce to cooking.

My first job was in a restaurant called The Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow. Quite quickly I determined their menu was too big, too many choices, and too many ingredients piled onto the plate, smothering and confusing the flavour of the primary fare, be it salmon, duck, or venison. I thought, too often they killed the golden goose, so to speak.

So I opened my own restaurant, and with the help of a fine chef, constructed menus that were short and fresh, and we pared down the ingredients so they enhanced, and never overwhelmed the primary flavour.

Now I’ve discovered that writing is a bit like cooking. Too many ingredients can spoil the plot.

With the help of my mentor, Alia Bloom, I’m now identifying the essential ingredients of Zhu Mao for the process of enhancing those that taste good, and discarding what detracts from the essential flavour of the book.

One of the most difficult aspects of running a restaurant is consistency. If you set a high standard at the outset your customers expect it to be maintained. If not, they may go elsewhere, and never return. So too with writing.

Alia has shown me that Zhu Mao starts out well, but doesn’t deliver on the promise. The reader may put the book down by page 50 and never return. I’ve done it myself with many a book. The challenge before us is to carry the momentum from start to finish. Over-cooked descriptions, under-done characters, or cold dialogue, and readers may never return.

Matching wine with food is a requisite of fine dining. It’s the waiter’s job to advise the customer which variety suits what dish. Merlot and fish don’t match, and Riesling doesn’t compliment the taste of venison. A writer being matched with a mentor is as important, and I’m confident Alia and I are complimentary, like Bluff oysters and Fino Sherry, I think.

Seasoned publishing professional Alia Bloom is currently mentoring Mark Sweet in Te Papa Tupu.

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Characters: hanging on to what matters

 • September 5, 2010 •

When I last met my mentor, Alia Bloom, we shared coffee in the sun on the terrace of her home, and I hesitantly agreed with her suggestion to dispatch Buddy Winter.

I created Buddy so it was only right that I be the one to destroy him. He was an awful man, but like a nasty old uncle who nobody likes, he was part of the family, and allowed everyone else to feel better about themselves.

Driving back to Hawke’s Bay I lamented that the loss of the man whose, ‘complexion was the colour of wet slate with hands so swollen his knuckles were mere creases beneath angry skin.’  By the time I reached Woodville I was having second thoughts. Without Buddy there would be no ranting about the Vietnam War, ‘Westmoreland was totally incompetent. He couldn’t understand guerilla warfare. None of the brass did. Carpet bombing. What a mess. I flew over Cambodia and Laos in seventy one. Where they’d bombed looked like a landscape from the moon.’

On the long stretch of the Takapau Plains Buddy fought for his life. ‘Who else will help Sam Yuan with an entry visa?,’ he taunted me. And, ‘If you dump me you’ll have to get rid of Danny too, and Mr Lau. What about Lau? You gonna kill him too?’  Buddy was ex CIA so knew all the tricks to seed doubt in my mind.

Fortunately I had Leonard Cohen on my side, ‘Everybody knows that it’s now or never, everybody knows that it’s me or you.’ So I cranked up the volume and Buddy shut up for awhile. But he was back again by the final verse, ‘And everybody knows that you’re in trouble, Everybody knows what you’ve been through.’

I stopped in Flaxmere to visit a friend. He’s got a ‘green’ reputation, if you know what I mean, and Buddy, being a raging opium abuser saw that as a way to play the moral high ground. He’s as cunning as a front bench politician, and by the time I reached Waimarama I’d conceded to his persuasion, that rather than kill him off, he played a diminished role.

About an hour into reshaping Buddy’s influence in my book, I heard my Mother cry out. The tone of her voice had me on my feet and up the stairs real fast. My Dad was slumped in his chair. ‘I think he’s dead,’ she said. I cupped his head in my hands. He was cold and blue. Did I think, ‘It’s Buddy that has to die, not you?’ I don’t know. But I pulled my Dad out of his chair and when he hit the floor I thumped his chest. He caught a breath. I rolled him into recovery position and we waited for St John.

After that it was easy to let Buddy die.

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How coincidences mean more than you think

 • October 5, 2010 •

Often this month I’ve questioned, ‘Why am I doing this?’

Not so long ago, a New Age shaped world view would have me think, ‘Oh, but writing seems to have chosen me.’ Now I can’t be so sure.

Back then, I might cite the time I went looking for guidance on what I thought was an original idea, a novel comprised of short stories. I’d written a bunch after an eventful summer and saw they could link together. First bookshop I visit and my eye catches my surname. I share it with Robert Burdette Sweet. Above his name, imposed on a broody youth was the title, ‘White Sambo,’ and, ‘a novel in stories’. The structure of the book was what I was looking for, and the themes in our stories uncannily similar.

‘That’s synchronicity giving a sign,’ I told myself. ‘Keep on writing.’

Now I have the opportunity to finish a book, with a publisher who’s taken an interest, and I’m near paralysed at times by doubt, the nemesis of synchronicity.

Carl Jung explained something profound and universal when he coined the word synchronistic to describe those events which seem like providence. My first conscious experience was on my thirty third birthday. I was in the middle of making a life changing decision; whether to stay in Aotearoa or take up an offer overseas. If I stayed I wanted to make a veggie garden and it was already spring, so hedging my bets, I went to the garden shop and bought lime, and blood and bone, and probably some seaweed magic. The cost was thirty three dollars and thirty three cents on my thirty third birthday. I didn’t listen. Instead I spent a miserable year in Taiwan.

A few years later I read The Roots of Coincidence by Arthur Koestler where he explained Jung’s theory of synchronically. I was sceptical, because although God wasn’t in the theorem, it still assumed an Invisible Hand. I talked to an uncle about it. He didn’t have an opinion. Then I told him I had a friend coming to visit me from Scotland. He asked where from, and I told him Loch Fyne. He said Jeez I had a girlfriend from there when I lived in the UK. What’s your mate’s name?. Turned out my uncle’s old girlfriend was my friend’s aunty. I gave him the book to read.

… a day has passed …

Driving home from town this afternoon I heard an interview on the radio about China celebrating the birth of Confucius for the first time since the Revolution, and how the new leaders are allowing a high degree of freedom in religious practice after 50 years of suppression.

Could this be synchronicity?  My book is set in China and a major theme is the preservation of the Daoist arts during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution. The interviewee talked about the tens of millions of Chinese openly declaring their faiths, unheard of even ten years ago.

So I gave praise to Carl Jung for quelling my doubts long enough to get on with the writing.

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Reaching back to find political purpose

• November 9, 2010 •

With the deadline looming a nagging sense of panic wakes up with me every morning. If I feed it not much writing happens that day. It got so bad a few weeks ago I went searching for what my motives were in wanting to write this novel, and casting about I found an essay I wrote ten years ago. There I found the politics which underlie my purpose. The essay is long, 10,000 words, but here’s the gist.

‘At the end of the second millennium we live in a shrinking world colonised by our technological achievements in communication and transportation. The changes are so rapid, none of us can be expected to keep up and many of us are utterly bewildered as the familiar structures which support our lives are stripped away. Our policy makers seem obsessed with rationalisation and organisation; their doctrines attempting to reduce what is human, diverse and multiple, to comprehensive unity.’

A long discourse follows outlining the rise of corporate power and ends by saying.

‘We have allowed our world to be controlled by a handful of men in a handful of cities who are interested only in profit. And while money has become more and more important the quality of goods it buys steadily gets worse and worse. Small businesses which took a pride in what they were making and selling, and spent their profits in the community, are rapidly being taken over by these 21st century highwaymen, who take pride only in their dividends, which often leave the country. Their masks of capitalism conceal the face of its greatest enemy, monopoly, and we are witnessing the pillage of our planet by a form of totalitarianism at which all sincere supporters of capitalist democracy should be appalled.’

I try to pin down the essence.

‘One of the cornerstones of corporatist ideology, and perhaps its greatest weapon in ‘dividing to rule,’ is the doctrine of ‘individualism.’ Ironically, the essence of this concept could be a catalyst for change. Basically ‘individualism’ sees us all being personally responsible for our own lives, and has been recognised for millennia as a path to freedom. Corporate individualism is only interested in personal responsibility for our finances, because money is the core of its existence, and in this context has encouraged greed and selfishness. Most destructive of all it has eroded our capacity for cooperation and solidarity. Taken sincerely, however, personal responsibility can mean awareness of our actions at every level of engagement, including the thought patterns which precede all action. This is clearly a near human impossibility but it does recognise that the greatest gift of being human is our infinite capacity for growth in consciousness.’

And I offer some amateur psychology.

‘Consciousness simply means being aware, but in the culture of corporatism that can be a difficult and painful experience. It begs us to examine our own role in the system, and our own connections with all mechanisms of power and control, both public and personal. When we’ve been conditioned to fulfil our desires instantly, and find gratification in possessing things, be it a car, a partner, or an idea, the shift to awareness can be traumatic. Becoming aware that we are manipulated and controlled to live our lives forever acquiring more and more, and better and better things, can mean we deliberately begin to discard some of those things, inviting all the anxiety and grief of bereavement. Our sense of identity can be stripped bare when we begin uncovering the layers of conditioning that motivate our behaviour. To realise that what is being manipulated is our fear can be more scary than the fear itself.  Discovering that the fascists we thought were without are also within can be deeply disturbing.’

But I did try to end on a note of hope.

‘There are no easy solutions or quick fix remedies to the dilemmas which beset us personally and collectively. No one of us can individually save the world but we can be individually responsible for how we impact on our world. Our escape from the psychic prison we have constructed for ourselves starts with awareness, applied moment by moment with diligence, determination and courage, to the myriad of experiences which comprise our daily lives. The path out of our predicament is a journey we take alone and nobody can walk it for another.  Only from individual effort can a new collective emerge, which shares the fortunes of our personal struggles, soundly based in a balance of imagination, intuition, common sense and reason.’

Expressing political opinion in a novel without blatant idealogical ranting is proving difficult but hopefully by 3 December I will have finished a story subtle enough to be a novel and not a manifesto.

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Beyond the ending

 • December 20, 2010 •

When Te Papa Tupu ended on Friday December 3rd at a hui held at the offices of Huia Publishers in Thorndon, it felt more like the closing of one process and the opening of another than an ending.

We were welcomed warmly into the Huia whānau, and Robyn Bargh explained their kaupapa of nurturing writers, which impressed me with her emphasis on writers and their work rather than the market place.

We were told what would happen next with our manuscripts: several readings; meetings; an offer to publish, or not; editorial meetings if accepted; further editing – about a six month process.

The day ended in a bar on the waterfront sharing a jug of lager with Larree and Jacquie. We met once before at the opening hui for Te Papa Tupu, exchanged a few emails over the months, and followed our respective entries on the monthly blog. Looking into the eyes behind the words, knowing there lay a person as mad as me, was a treat. I’m sure we do share a common madness: the madness of restless souls most soothed by playing with words and writing stories.

Later, I stopped on the City to Sea bridge to look at the new urban marae being built near Te Papa. I considered whether the sharp industrial roof design was a reflection from Futuna Chapel, or a statement for the emerging corporate Māori elite.

I was standing beside the brass plaque honouring Lauris Edmond.

It’s true you can’t live here by chance, you have to do and be, not simply watch or even describe. This is the city of action, the world headquarters of the verb.

The Papa Tupu programme gave me the opportunity to live in ‘the world headquarters of the verb’ for a few months so I could concentrate on writing, and with Alia Bloom as my mentor my novel has been developed as near to completion as I can achieve.

In saying goodbye to Zhu Mao and Mr Lau and all the troop, I’d like to thank those involved in Te Papa Tupu programme for their deeply appreciated gifts of time and guidance.

..

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2 Responses to “Beyond the ending”
  1. The day was a truly special day,and so glad to have shared the journey with like minded MAD folk.
    Best wishes mark for the year ahead
jacquie
jacquie mcrae said this on December 20, 2010 at 11:27 am |
  1. Love it!!
Hilary Hamer long lost friend said this on February 24, 2011 at 1:54 pm |

4 comments

  • My brother suggested I might like this website.
    He was entirely right. This post truly made my day. You can not imagine just how much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

  • Mark

    Sorry not connected with literature but many years ago my family were neighbours of your family in Westshore. I am interested to find out more about what happened to your family . My email is lewdagger@xtra.co.nz. Can you send me your email address

  • Caroline – thrilled to hear from you. I’m marksweet@xtra.co.nz – be great to be in touch again.

  • caroline armstrong

    I hope it’s not too late to say ‘good luck with the short story’! I wonder how I can read it, them, more… Your writing, it’s wonderful, and what a process🙂
    I was knitting veggies for a friend’s wee baby this evening, thought of you, and here you are… All the very best, Mark

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