Changing in Unexpected Ways

I’ve never been a very confident person. Even when I was very young, I was timid. My little brother seemed to get all the courage, and he approached the world like it owed him – the world responded as if he was right.

I envied him that, wished I could feel like I was worthy too.

It took me a ridiculously long time to see how wrong the belief that I wasn’t enough was. It took me even longer to begin trying to kill it with fire. But I’ve been working on it.

Some of this irrational belief stemmed from my crippling anxiety. For the majority of my life it’s tarnished everything I’ve done. The voices in my head constantly told me how stupid I was, how unimportant I was, how bad I was at just about everything, how the world would just be better off if I wasn’t around. I used perfection as a crutch, because if I couldn’t get it perfect then I couldn’t move forward and take the next step. The risks were minimal. Life was safer that way.

Of course, you can’t stay hidden when you’re a writer. At some point you actually have to send your stories out and let other people read them. At some point some of those stories are going to get published, and then people will occasionally leave reviews, and they aren’t necessarily going to enjoy what you wrote.

It is literally impossible to please everyone. Not even chocolate can do that, so I know I shouldn’t try either. But it was always there in the back of my head. And every single time I submitted a short story or published something I felt sick to my stomach, felt the bile in the back of my throat, felt tears welling in deep pools inside me as I waited to be told how crap I was. I wanted to hide under a rock or sit on the review sites until someone said something awful about me and I could have my certainty that I was a terrible writer confirmed.

But that never happened.

No one said awful things about my writing. (Aside from one guy who likened me to a terrorist or something, which stunned me and then made me laugh because I know without doubt that I’m a lovely person. I just sometimes write not so lovely things. Anyway, he didn’t say the writing was bad, and obviously, it evoked a response from him and that’s goal achieved!)

You might have picked up that I’ve said ‘was’ a few times so far, and that’s because that feeling has faded substantially. I think it’s a combination of things.

First up, I’m medicated now. I started taking this antidepressant to try and dull some of the awful pain I have from my Fibromyalgia, but the upshot is that my moods have balanced out and my anxiety has diminished. My confidence is—wait, let’s start that again. I actually have some confidence. I keep doing things and then being amazed at those things, and that’s a really nice feeling. I can finally hear my family, friends and fellow writers when they tell me I’m amazing or that they like something I did – for the longest time all those kind words were drowned out by the voice in my head negating all the things they said.

October was a big month for testing out this new way of being as I had a few writing related events on. First up, we were invited to the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement event in Wellington. Hone and I road tripped down for it, hung out with our mentor and fellow mentees, chatted to a whole range of amazing people working within the literary industry, and I didn’t feel scared at all. I was excited and inspired, and a little out of my depth, but I wasn’t anxious.

Premier House, Wellington

The next big thing was an appearance at Armageddon in Auckland – I was on a panel talking about an anthology that recently came out, in which I have a short story. Quite a different vibe to the awards but similar in that it’s another place full of people who are out celebrating the things they love.

I’ve never done a panel at such a big event, and on the few occasions I’ve participated in one, I was unable to think of anything else for the entire day before, or eat, or function. And yet, I was there signing books at the table, chatting to people, so busy and having fun that I almost forgot to feel nervous about the panel. When I did, it was a faint echo of past feelings. Enough that I could ignore it.

And it went well. I ENJOYED it. Like, really enjoyed it. I left wanting to do more, and then caught myself out, reminded that just a year or so ago this would have been impossible for me.

So, medication is wonderful. At least, for me, for right now.

Secondly, I’ve been noticing how supported we are. How well supported I am.

At Armageddon, the editor of the anthology made sure we were all comfortable and okay before the panel started and assured us that if we ran out of things to say, he could carry on talking until we found our feet. I don’t think we ran out of things to say, but when someone in the audience was getting a little difficult, the editor made sure to be clear about his feelings on the matter and show his full support of our work.

When we were at the awards, Brian Morris and Robyn Bargh were both there, introducing us to people and making sure we were all good. Our mentor, Whiti Hereaka, kept an eye out for us too, and I never once felt isolated despite being out of my comfort zone.

My mentor is amazing. I know I’ve said that before, but she’s everything I could hope for in a mentor. When I told her about my Fibromyalgia diagnosis, which is pretty recent, she came up with ideas for tweaking the schedule to make sure I could get to events that were important to attend (at the National Writers Forum), and knowing she was taking my needs into consideration meant that I could push through and do what I needed to.

Sometimes, it’s just that knowledge that someone has your back that makes all the difference. Knowing you’re supported and looked after, that someone is cheering you on and will be there to throw you a rope when you’re sinking. Without that, this writing gig is a whole lot harder, and for those dealing with extra struggles like mental/physical health, they really are essential.

I feel really blessed, really grateful for all the support I have, because I know not everyone is so lucky. And I’m so pleased that I actually have some confidence now, because I tell you what, it makes the revision process a whole lot easier when you’re not constantly second, third and fourth guessing yourself.


Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction and lover of pizza, coffee and zombies (in no particular order). She’s had short stories published in several anthologies and been a finalist for both the Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadow awards.

Writing to Catch the Imperfection

Ataria reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This journal entry for Te Papa Tupu is a week late. Late, late, late, late. As one of the selected writers for Te Papa Tupu, we have only a few jobs. To work on our manuscript and write one blog post per month. ONE. You might think this is not a lot. That would be a true statement. If I’m perfectly honest with myself, I haven’t been able to write this because I don’t have anything to write about. I haven’t been feeling inspired; lately, no juicy revelation has spurred me on to journal blog writing paradise. Maybe I’ve lost all my enthusiasm. Perhaps I’m just overwhelmed by it all.

I suppose I should write about how amazing it is to be part of Te Papa Tupu. How amazing it would be to be a published writer, or even better, a professional paid writer. Making a career out of something I love. Except sometimes I wonder, would life be any better if I was paid to write every single day? What if I didn’t feel inspired … like I don’t right now? Would being paid to put pen to page provide any more impetus than being a part of the Te Papa Tupu does now? Would sitting in an office or shed every day with my computer provide me with the writing life that I think I want?

Nothing is perfect; that much I’ve learnt on this journey. My flight from Wellington to Auckland for the second Te Papa Tupu workshop was cancelled. Cancelled. Eagerly, I was dropped at Wellington airport at 7 a.m. for an 8 a.m. flight. Sadly, I didn’t arrive into Auckland until 5 p.m., missing the entire workshop. A workshop that just happened to be with indigenous Australian author Dr Anita Heiss and Māori author Dr Paula Morris. This totally sucked. But it happened. No, I didn’t get to meet Anita Heiss. I didn’t get to catch up with my mentor. There was no second Te Papa Tupu workshop (at least for me).

See things aren’t perfect. Life isn’t perfect. The challenge is, how do we keep writing amongst the imperfection? Or is that the point. Are we meant to capture the flaws of life in our writing? Are our lives imperfect and even the perfect writing life incomplete because without imperfection we wouldn’t have anything to write about, nothing to inspire, nothing to piss off or annoy, get the blood boiling, the heart-pumping?

Why do I write? To escape. To create the worlds that I want to live in. Create the worlds that other authors haven’t yet created for me. Do I care if people read my worlds? Not so much as I care that I got to experience it. Maybe that’s what writing is about. Escaping. Escaping the imperfection, the mistakes, the missed workshops, the cancelled flights, the letdowns, the lack of inspiration. Escaping it all into a good book, or even better, into my own writing.


Ataria Rangipikitia Sharman (Tapuika, Ngāpuhi) loves writing. Sometimes what she writes is good and sometimes it isn’t. But she persists nevertheless, in the form of essays, poetry and articles. Ataria’s writing has been published on E-Tangata and you can follow her poetry on Instagram @atariarangipikitia.

Te Maunga Teitei (The Pinnacle)

The National Writer’s Forum, Auckland.
L-R: Nadine Anne Hura, Brannavan Gnanlingam, Anahera Gildea and Vana Manasiadas (Photo supplied)

For the briefest moment last month, I felt like I belonged to an exclusive club of writers. All six writers on Te Papa Tupu programme were flown to Auckland for the National Writers Forum. They put us up in a lovely hotel at the top of Queen Street, across town from the University of Auckland where the two-day conference was held. I arrived, exhausted after missing flights and transfers, and lay back on the bed trying to take it all in. It felt a bit surreal: the sound of laughter from the street below, my carry-on suitcase lying open in the half-light and a tumble of books strewn across the carpet.

The sensation was still there the next morning when Whiti Hereaka knocked on my door to take me downstairs for breakfast. Surreal, because Whiti used to be just another author whose work I admired from afar, not someone I ever expected to pick me up to take me for breakfast like an old mate. And yet here she was, sitting in my hotel room practicing Mandarin in preparation for her upcoming residency in China, occasionally looking up to provide an opinion on the selection of my outfit. 

Later that night, after all the workshops and panel discussions were finished, I found myself at a table surrounded by a group of authors I’ve followed for years. People whose books were sitting on my bedside table at home. When a plan was made to go out for dinner I almost declined. I felt like an imposter. How to feign belonging? There was only one other unpublished person at the table, another Te Papa Tupu intern, otherwise, everyone else was working on their second, third, fourth or even thirteenth title. I felt like someone had opened the door to the club, and we’d snuck in while the bouncer was looking the other way. 

Coming home was a relief. Writers’ forums and book festivals can go either way for an aspiring writer. Some sessions leave you motivated and inspired. Others can make you doubt your capacity to fill out forms let alone finish an entire manuscript. I withdrew to gather myself. I wanted to spend less time thinking about the work and more time doing it. 

As the weeks have passed and I’ve settled into a rhythm, I’ve found myself returning to ask why I want to belong to this club of published authors so much. Part of it is to do with ego, I suppose. I have identified the pinnacle, and I want to know if I can reach it.

But lately, I have started to wonder if, in pursuing legitimacy in the Pākehā world of literature, I am turning my back on the inheritance offered by Māori literary traditions. How much better could my writing become, what potential could I discover if I didn’t reject the qualities of excellence embedded in oral traditions in favour of those of the written word but instead held both in my hands at the same time? It’s something our ancestors have been doing for a long time. Perhaps this is the true pinnacle I should be aiming for. 


Like many New Zealanders, Nadine Anne Hura (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) has grown up with a foot in two worlds: Te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. She joins Te Papa Tupu eager to work on her manuscript of essays about identity, language and belonging. She has three children and lives in Porirua.

Being the Change

Te Papa Tupu attend the National Writers Forum in Auckland.
L-R: Shilo Kino, Jacquie McRae (Shilo’s mentor), Cassie Hart, Hone Rata, Ataria Rangipikitia Sharman
Photo supplied by Shilo.

I was fifteen when I first met Maya Angelou. Imagine my surprise. I was so used to reading books from authors who were white, and here I was reading a book with an African American voice sharing experiences of the worst racism I’ve ever heard of.

‘If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens her throat.’

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

Now, I could never compare my racial experiences to Maya Angelou’s, not even remotely. But I do know how it feels to be looked down on, stereotyped and racially profiled because of the colour of your skin.

For me, growing up as a teenager was hard, but growing up aware of your misplacement as a Māori or indigenous person to New Zealand was a ‘rust on the razor that threatened my throat’.

But I remember thinking, I want to be like her. I want to be a voice for my people.,

In my community, I’m confronted with homeless and poverty every day. Petrol prices, food prices, house prices, it’s all rising to the point where it has become unaffordable. And who bears the brunt of it all? Of course it is my people.

In my job as a journalist, I am fighting with an already established media landscape, trying to challenge the way my people are portrayed in mainstream media. I constantly see Māori misrepresented or their voice silenced.  But once again it’s like a ‘rust on the razor that threatened my throat’. Māori journalists in mainstream media are few and far between.

And here I am writing my manuscript with a strong Māori voice and Māori presence. Sometimes I forget my purpose. Sometimes all I see is words.

But attending something like the Auckland Writers Forum was a reminder. The only other Māori writers I saw there were those in this programme. The workshops that I attended did not all have a Māori world view. It was a reminder of my responsibility.

I was inspired by Anita Heiss who has done wonders in the Australian writing community. Having to face severe backlash and racism as an indigenous writer is extremely wrong. Yet here she is, triumphant and with (dozens?) of successful books under her belt. And Lani Wendt Young is also a catalyst for change. Writing a successful Pacific YSA novel series even though publishing companies told her there was no audience. She proved them wrong.

Maya Angelou in all her pearls of wisdom also said this: if you don’t like something, change it.

Both of these women became the change.

But sometimes it feels like I am constantly trying to change everything.

And that I bear so much responsibility to be the change.

I guess, in all cheesiness, the change begins with ourselves. I’m learning fast that I can’t change everything. We need to make the changes that need to be made in our own sphere of influence. I hope I can be the change. Not just as a writer and journalist, but as a human being. That is why I chose to be a writer. And why I am doing Te Papa Tupu programme. Because change is necessary.


Shilo Kino (Ngā Puhi, Tainui) is a journalist who previously worked for Fairfax Media and has had stories published in Huia Short Stories. She speaks fluent Mandarin from serving a volunteer mission in Hong Kong. Shilo is delighted to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

It’s Moments Like These You Need Mentees

Te Papa Tupu Mentees 2018
L-R: Nadine Anne Hura, Colleen Maria Lenihan, Cassie Hart, Hone Rata, Ataria Rangipikitia Sharman, Shilo Kino

A couple of weeks ago, Te Papa Tupu programme held its second workshop. This time it was in conjunction with the National Writers Forum in Auckland. The lead-up to it was pretty exciting, we were given a list of sessions and had to choose the ones we wanted to attend. As a new writer, I’ve never attended anything like this, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect, or what to attend. In a way, this is freeing because without knowledge or experience, you can’t really go wrong. Everything is going to be new and have something to learn. So I just chose the sessions I thought would give me some insight into the book I’m writing and the business side of being a writer today.

Before the forum itself we had the opportunity to catch up with our mentors (though this was cruelly interrupted by the vagaries of aircraft mechanical resilience) and to  experience a masterclass with Dr Anita Heiss. Dr Heiss took us through her journey to becoming an author. I was impressed by her tenacity and boldness. Her willingness to put herself out there and write the books that she wanted to write, to tell the stories she wanted to tell and, most importantly, impart the messages she wanted to impart. She asked us, ‘What are you trying to say?’ And in all honesty, I have no idea. I wrote a story, but it was just a story, and I suppose it has themes of a kind. It speaks of family and friendship and corporate greed and the dangers of a society run by and for commercial aims. But not deliberately and not in a considered way. Just accidentally.

I was left with so much to think about.

I travelled with my fellow mentee and friend Cassie (Hart). In this, I am super lucky, because I always have someone with me I know. A comfort in challenging and nervous times. Someone I can turn too and who will make sure I get to the airport on time. So, after the workshop, we went to the registration night, and it was amazing. We were early (because of Cassie), so we got to see most of the other attendees arrive. Just seeing this community of authors come together was amazing. Watching the room, I could see the camaraderie in the group. Old friends coming together, hugs and smiles, handshakes and kisses on the cheek. It was encouraging to just be a spectator in this group of authors and aspiring authors. To see this fabulously eclectic group congregate. Before too long, our fellow mentees and mentors arrived, and it was my turn to smile and hug and shake hands and kiss cheeks.

Over the next few days, I attended workshops on Writing Short (Pip Adam, straight up the most fun and engaging presenter of a workshop I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing), writing for Young Children (Kyle Mewburn, an artist of fart jokes and how to properly apply them for different ages). I attended lectures on the business of writing and getting published and promoted. I also attended a keynote by John Marsden that I never wanted to end. I could happily have spent the whole day listening to this wonderful storyteller talk. I attended a panel on writing YA that was full of sage advice and such inspiration. I was equally inspired by Lani Wendt Young’s journey and her experiences with self-publishing.

But equal to the content provided in the workshops were the times between them, where I’d meet back up with this amazing collection of authors that are my fellow mentees. We’d share stories and inspiration and crispy duck. I also met new people, other authors on the same journey I was on. I shared the love of story and character and verse and lyrics. I found a tribe I never knew I was a part of. And even after long days,I was energised, returning to my room to write and try to integrate some of what I’d learned during the day into my own work.

I left this weekend energised and invigorated. Awash with ideas and inspiration. And almost immediately slumped.The writing was hard. The challenges seemingly insurmountable. Life was full of other demands on my time and distractions. It was really hard, but I wasn’t alone. Because there is a Facebook group I can turn to. Set up by Cassie (who else?) at the start, it’s a place all the mentees can get together and share the trials and triumphs being a part of Te Papa Tupu presents. And here I found that a couple of the others were feeling the same way. I was not alone. I was quiet thought this time, I didn’t post much, but it was reassuring to read their conversations.

So here I am, finally back on the horse and finally applying the inspiration and learning I picked up to the words that are, for today at least, flowing out onto the page. I know I would have gotten back to this eventually. I’ve had slumps before and muddled through. But I also know that I wouldn’t be here yet if it wasn’t for the support of the tremendous wāhine I’m lucky enough to share this journey with. It is their passion, their energy and their wisdom that is on these pages as much as it is mine.


Hone Rata (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Ruanui, Taranaki) is an aspiring author currently embroiled in the fraught journey that is preparing his first novel for publishing. Hone is pleased to have been selected for the 2018 Te Papa Tupu writing programme. He is excited to learn new skills and apply them to his novel.

The Three Ed’s and a Bit of CD

Editing, editing, editing. The three ed’s and a bit of character development. You see a month or so ago, I had finally finished the manuscript of my YA fiction novel. The elation that I felt at that time, it was real. There I was, staring at that beautiful final sentence couched in clouds of a splendent white page.  It was fantastical. It was fabulous. For a week or so.

Then it wore off.

Like most writers who are just starting out, I mistakenly believed that finishing a novel is the hardest thing in life. Bashing out those thousands of words day after day. Surely there’s nothing harder than that. All I knew was that I had finally joined the league of ‘extraordinary writers’ who’ve finished a BOOK. My ego swelling to hot-air balloon proportions. The Māori J K Rowling of Aotearoa here I come. After a week or so floating around in ‘I’m-a-famous-writer-already land’, I decided to start editing my ‘amazing’ novel.

‘Editing is hard work! It literally takes longer than writing the words in the first place.’

So, I began by rereading each sentence line by line and fixing grammatical errors. I also did some more character development and finessed the storyline. It was at this point that I realised how much more work this novel needed. It had seemed so good when I was bashing out words on a keyboard, but now I knew I was staring at just the beginning – the trainer-wheels stage – of a truly imaginative and enjoyable book for young adults. During this time, I also learnt something else. Editing is hard work! It literally takes longer than writing the words in the first place. To top things off, editing can sometimes make the writing even worse than it was in the first place.

In my opinion, there’s a fine line between editing and DESTROYING the work.

In the space of a couple of weeks, I edited the first two chapters and emailed them to my Te Papa Tupu mentor. Simon is a freelance editor and an excellent one at that. He knows how to take an average manuscript (unlike mine obvs) and somehow magically turn it into an enjoyable book with interesting characters and a storyline readers will love. Even so, it was a hard pill to swallow receiving his feedback with the central theme being – shock horror – that the characters in the story are too perfect.Too perfect? Too perfect! But they are perfect! ‘But why?’ I ask. ‘Why can’t the characters be perfect?’ Of course, Simon had a ready-made answer.

‘Perfect characters are boring. Imagine a perfect character.’

I screw my face up in disgust. You know the ones, the beautiful princess in the castle or the stunning model with the to-die-for wardrobe and wealthy parents. A photo of Kate Middleton taken just after she had given birth where she looked like she had played a gentle round of golf, done some yoga and then meditated instead of had a baby. Too perfect. Okay, point taken Simon the Wise. I don’t want my characters to be like that. But then, what do I want them to be like?

In search of devious ideas, I turn to those people around me (my whānau) who due to whakapapa have to pretend (sometimes unconvincingly) to care about my book and my questions. I start with my sister and the Studio Ghibli movie My Neighbour Totoro. ‘What do you think about perfect characters? Do you think Totoro (a furry, cute, giant forest spirit) has flaws?’ She suggests that Totoro doesn’t feature enough in the movie to really have flaws. I tell her about my predicament, the perfectness of the Patupaiarehe people in my novel. She reiterates Simon’s conviction about the annoyingness of perfect characters and begins to conjure up her own ideas of how the Patupaiarehe could become more three dimensional. ‘What if they are shy? What if they hide in the forest and don’t want to come out? They could be scared, terrified of the main evil guy.’ I love her ideas, and I gleefully realise something. Corrupting characters is actually quite fun.

The whānau that corrupts imaginary thought forms together stays together.

Next, I ask my mum (Mumma J). Mumma J loves Star Trek so I suggest that the Patupaiarehe might be a more ‘spiritually advanced’ race than humanity and therefore imperfection may not be as necessary. Now one thing about my mum, she doesn’t need any excuses to talk Trek. She launches into a detailed commentary of various characters on the Starship Enterprise and how they too possess their own imperfections. We return back to the task at hand. Corrupting the Patupaiarehe.

‘What if they are arrogant because they think they are better than humans?’ suggests Mumma J. I take this idea and run with it. ‘The Patupaiarehe could believe they are superior over humans and therefore always choose to put the forest and the animals first … which could lead to them risking the life of Pakū (a human boy) to protect themselves.’

I am mulling over these suggestions in my head when I receive an email from Simon. It reads, ‘Ngaro is a bit too healthy. Maybe he was tortured or is held by cruel bonds that are magically tied to be as painful as possible. This means Pakū will have to rescue him as well.’ To which I respond, ‘He should be broken both physically and mentally so Pakū has to help piece him back together … ooooooohhhhhh. This is good!’ This is so juicy. Together Simon and I have just mentally and physically harmed the imaginary thought-form named Ngaro in this book, allowing Pakū to further develop as a character.

My eyes glimmer lightly as I imagine having this much power in the real world. Mwahahaha.

But what this blog really highlights is the unexpected tedium of editing, challenges of character development and power of collective brainstorming to solve all problems. Which leads me into the single-handed best thing about being part of Te Papa Tupu: your mentor. Someone who gives a fuck about your book other than the ones that literally birthed you or are forced to care due to whānau/societal expectations.

Because to be honest, no one really gives a fuck about my book or your book or anyone else’s book as much as I do/the writer does.

Unless perhaps, you are Māori J K Rowling of Aotearoa. So, to have someone – an editor no less – who is giving their time to me and the book I wrote? Straight privilege.

Thanks, Te Papa Tupu.


Ataria Rangipikitia Sharman (Tapuika, Ngāpuhi) loves writing. Sometimes what she writes is good and sometimes it isn’t. But she persists nevertheless, in the form of essays, poetry and articles. Ataria’s writing has been published on E-Tangata and you can follow her poetry on Instagram @atariarangipikitia.

A Void

It feels like I’m sending these journals into a void. Like an actual journal, for my eyes only, which is kinda freeing.

I had writer’s block until recently. Prior to that, I wrote a short story about a Japanese piano teacher who goes on a surfing trip to deal with a broken heart. This melancholy tale poured out of me in two or three days. Working in the second person for the first time gave me a sense of urgency that propelled the story forward, and I found that almost breathless quality made the writing experience deeply enjoyable.  I’ve learned that Voice Is Key. I’ve realized that once I have the voice right, the story flows. The words come from somewhere else. Every creative person knows this feeling. You become a channel for the universe to express itself through. We’re all jonesing to get back in the zone. Where do ideas spring from within this state? The nothingness of a blank page. The collective unconsciousness. The void.

My mentor, the novelist James George, has a startling intellect. The kind of person who makes you feel like you’ve somehow gained a couple more IQ points after listening to them. Or more accurately, desire to be smarter so you can fully comprehend all the gems they keep dropping. I told him I was struggling with my short stories. Unlike writing a novel, which you can potentially plot out and continue moving forward towards an ending, whenever I finish a story I have to start again. Almost from scratch. New protagonist, new POV, new plot, new voice. This is a complication with writing short stories for a cycle. How many ways can you write about a thing? And I wasn’t totally sure what that thing was. There were many things!

James spoke to me about the notion of a controlling idea. He talked about Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises about a damaged soldier coming back from war, a familiar Hemingway trope, and how this controlling idea gave Hemingway licence to roam through a landscape; to write about bullfighting and real drinking expeditions, changing the names only. JG explained that once the controlling idea is set in the reader’s mind, you can do that. I really liked the sound of this … how a controlling idea could give me some freedom to roam around too, in this psychological hinterland I’m conjuring that floats between Tokyo and New Zealand.

JG said, and I’m paraphrasing here, what truths are coming out? Is there a presence you can use as a controlling idea? The thematic presence is like a vessel where everything is being held like a bowl of soup; a series of reflections and responses to this central theme. It can be very subtle; a thematic resonance rather than a direct through-line. Every single thing doesn’t have to point to the master plot. Also, what are you leading up to here? Someone, after reading your short stories, will ask, well what do I make of all that? How close do I feel to the conflicts and ideas I’ve read about?

Plenty to ponder. I looked at the fifteen or so stories I’ve written and methodically listed their themes, which include loss, intimacy, the male gaze, mothers and daughters, the expat experience, dislocation and where is home anyway? A theme of running away emerged, which, although should have been obvious, took me by surprise. However, that was not my controlling idea. I realized that what’s really behind it all, although yet to be dealt with directly in any of my stories, is transgenerational trauma. Kinda heavy and something I’ve been trying to, well … avoid.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. On returning to New Zealand in 2016, after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018

Specificity

I’ve known for a while now that my biggest weakness when it comes to writing is in the detail. I mumble through stories using broad strokes rather than a fine-haired brush, and in doing so, I lose something.

Part of me thought none of these details mattered because they have no relevance to readers outside our country, and when most of those in the book biz will tell you that there is no market for adult genre fiction in New Zealand (written by New Zealanders) anyway, one must try and think about the global market.

But I was also scared of pinning things down too much in part due to my overwhelming fear of doing my culture wrong (I push through those fears, but that doesn’t mean I have less anxiety about them) or doing anything wrong, really. That risk of stuffing something up, offending someone, getting the facts wrong held me back and meant I skimmed over the top of things rather than going deeper. Which is where research comes into play in a big way, and I’ve gotten so much better at that in the last few months.

What I’ve come to see is that the importance of the specifics lies in their relevancy to me and to my characters. I’ve learned that when I imbue my work with these details it helps every part of my story come alive.

‘What I’ve come to see is that the importance of the specifics lies in their relevancy to me and to my characters.’

Because it’s the little things that matter.

When I was reading Bugs, by my mentor, Whiti Hereaka, I was struck by how well she does this. There was a moment when reading that it finally hit me how I could colour my world without overdoing it. And it was something so simple but utterly beautiful to me: when Bugs is learning how to clean a hotel room there is a mention that they clean the taps then wipe them down with a dry cloth so there are no water marks.

See, simple right? But it made it real. I knew that hotels always look perfect, but it had never crossed my mind to think how they did that. This was a touch of insight that made this scene real to me. Like I was on the inside. Like the characters were real people with real knowledge.

I want my stories to feel real too, even when I’m writing about ghosts, possession, aliens or gods. And it’s particularly important for me that I do this with Butcherbird, but at the same time, that feeling of importance might be what makes it hard to do.

‘I want my stories to feel real too, even when I’m writing about ghosts, possession, aliens or gods.’

You see, I set this book on a fictional version of my grandparent’s farm. It was a farm I spent a lot of time on, nestled at the foot of my maunga, Taranaki. And so, it should be easy to make things real – I’m not writing about my family (Rose is definitely not my grandmother; I am not Jena), but I know what growing up in the country is like. I know the curves and folds of the land, the feel of the air, how cold the rivers coming off the mountain can be, the taste of water that comes from a spring and not town supply.

And yet almost none of those things are present in this book. Not even my mountain.

The view of the farm

When I was halfway through writing Butcherbird, my Nana had a massive stroke. We rushed home from Paraparaumu to be with her, but she never regained consciousness. I wrote bits of Butcherbird while holding her hand during her last days.

Writing this book gave me something to focus on that wasn’t the fact Nana was dying. She is so much a part of this book because of time spent by her side, both on her death bed and throughout my life, and because I was writing it as a love letter to that place we called home.

But it’s not home any more, and she’s not with us. Hasn’t been for almost a year now.

It took me another twenty-four days to finish the book, but I did, even though it was so freaking hard and I had to face death again within the pages. She was a pragmatic woman, and I could hear her telling me to just get on with it. And I did. I got on with it. I finished the book. And now, here I am, revising the book. And while sometimes it hurts to dig deep, I know that I have to reconnect to my initial desire for this work, and that’s going to require me to get specific, to get detailed.

And, yeah, I have some resistance to that. Because it still hurts. I miss her. And sometimes digging deep makes that ache a little harder to bear.

But specificity is important.

It’s vital.

When we were at the National Writers Forum in September this was one of the key things I took away from it – it turns out that the books from New Zealand authors best received both here and around the world were those deeply grounded in New Zealand’s culture, land and experiences. People want those details; they want our flavour.

‘… the books from New Zealand authors best received both here and around the world were those deeply grounded in New Zealand’s culture, land and experiences.’

I listened carefully to the keynote speakers over that weekend: Lani Wendt Young, Dr Anita Heiss and John Marsden. All spoke eloquently; their experiences and passion for writing blooming in our imaginations as they spoke due to the details they used to richly colour their lives.

It’s very clear to me now that the broad strokes I mentioned earlier aren’t doing me any favours. More importantly, it’s not doing my story any favours either. I’ve been bashing my head against this lesson for what feels like years now, but I think I’m almost there. I think I’m finally brave enough to dig deep and do the things that need to be done.

The writing life is a series of lessons – there are always more things to be learnt – but this particular one has been a mountain I’ve failed to climb many times before. It’s well and truly time I conquer it.


Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction and lover of pizza, coffee and zombies (in no particular order). She’s had short stories published in several anthologies and been a finalist for both the Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadow awards.

Some Guidance Required

You know how I was saying that one day I might be able to introduce myself like this, ‘Hi, I’m Hone Rata. I’m an author’? The last month has shown me that while I might be able to say that, I can’t follow it up with ‘And I’m kinda good at it.’ Because if I have learned anything this past month, it’s that I have a great deal left to learn. A GREAT DEAL TO LEARN. Like the proper use of capitalisation for instance.

‘I’ve never read about how to story. I’ve never studied story.’

My whole life I’ve read story, watched story, listened to story, told story. But I’ve never read about how to story. I’ve never studied story. I’ve picked up a few things. Like it should have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that things should happen to people and that we should care about these people. So, I wrote this story. It’s pretty long: ninety-five thousand nine hundred and four words at the end of my last edit. That is twenty thousand more words than when I first thought I’d finished. And it’s not nearly done! Half of the notes my mentor leaves point out things I haven’t explained properly. Or mentions a character I haven’t fleshed out properly. Or weaknesses in the structure that need to be reinforced or plugged. Or worse, points out where the chapter should end.

Chapters! It’s a perfect example. When I wrote my story, especially at the beginning, I wrote to an audience. A small group of supporters I emailed my story to every night. I would put my kids to bed, watch a bit of TV with my wife and then sit down and write for a couple of hours. I’m not a fast writer, I don’t type quickly, so it’s a drawn out and laborious process. In two hours, I can write maybe a thousand words. So, I would write away into the evening or the early hours of the morning. And my chapters would end when I got too tired to go on. I’d see a break point coming up, I’d try to finish on a hook, to make it exciting for my email audience, then I’d save my document and go to sleep.

‘You need to write down the “beats” of your story, so you know where the tension rises and where it falls.’

Turns out that chapters should have a purpose beyond letting you go to bed. Who knew! They should have a beginning, a middle and an end. They should take a character on a journey, and the choices they make need to be inevitable. Each chapter should be like a little story of its own. They may or may not be made up of separate, thematically linked, scenes each one of which should kinda have a beginning, a middle and an end. These are general rules; some books don’t have chapters at all. But that’s because the authors made a choice, not because they went a really long time without going to sleep. I’m learning how to think about chapters as I write. At the same time, I’m learning how to give my characters distinctive voices. I’m trying to remember not to use too many tropes or clichés; trying to remember to show stuff happening, not just have it reported (action is more exciting). I’m struggling with expressing my characters’ emotions. And making sure things are happening while they are talking so they are not just disembodied heads chattering away (ironically, I have disembodied heads chattering away in my story, but you never hear what they have to say).

But before you can do that, you need to actually write down who your characters are and what they are like, what they think and why they are trying to achieve. You need to plan and document your world. How does it work? What’s it’s history like? It’s government, it’s economy? How does it view non-binary genders? What about gender politics? Matriarchy? Patriarchy? You need to write down the ‘beats’ of your story so you know where the tension rises and where it falls. I’m not sure my writing style suits this kind of preparation, but that doesn’t mean I can ignore it; it means I have to do it after I’ve written the story. I call it postparation. And this is important because I need to know this stuff so I can use that information while I am editing – to improve my consistency, and make sure the characters are acting in a way that makes sense and in a believable way (even if they are not supposed to be sensible and the things they do are unbelievable)

‘I struggled this last week to rewrite two chapters. I couldn’t figure out a good way to tell the pieces of story I needed to tell with the characters I needed to tell it with.’

There are so many balls to juggle that I didn’t even know I was holding. So many. And some chainsaws and knives and probably a bowling ball. But there are also butterflies and doughnuts and puppies. Not every note is an error to be corrected; some are notes of congratulations, inspirational suggestion or slight adjustments that I just know will make my words sing. And there is nothing like looking back on my writing and seeing how I have improved, how my story is better. And sometimes I think that maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to write a paragraph without using an adverb.

It’s hard, hard work. I struggled this last week to rewrite two chapters. I couldn’t figure out a good way to tell the pieces of story I needed to tell with the characters I needed to tell it with. I had three birds and only one stone. I just couldn’t get traction, and my deadline approached. In the end, I just decided to do it badly, make a ham-fisted job of it. Not because that’s what I want to do, but because once it’s on the page, I can go over it and refine it until the turd is nicely polished. And if I can’t polish the turd, if I can’t see the shine under the muck, my mentor can tell me where to start.

That’s the magic of this whole thing. Someone who is good at this, someone who can see the diamond in the rough, takes the time to give me advice. Tells me how chapters work. That adverbs are the devil’s work and that doing is better than telling. Leaves notes I can weave into the sheet to make music from laboured beats.

It’s invaluable; these pieces of advice, so hard to juggle today, will become second nature. When they are, then I’ll be okay at this. I’ll still need an editor; it’s really very hard to see your own errors. I’ll never stop learning. But maybe, I’ll be able to poop something closer to a diamond.

‘I’ll never stop learning. But maybe, I’ll be able to poop something closer to a diamond.’


I’ve attached a picture of the two chapters I edited this week, zoomed right out in Word. All the colours in the image are changes I’ve made. All the red dots are suggestions my mentor made on the first draft.


Hone Rata (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Ruanui, Taranaki) is an aspiring author currently embroiled in the fraught journey that is preparing his first novel for publishing. Hone is pleased to have been selected for the 2018 Te Papa Tupu writing programme. He is excited to learn new skills and apply them to his novel.

What Is Creative Non-fiction?

What’s creative non-fiction? What’s an essay? What’s the point of all this writing? These are the questions swimming around in my head right now. I began last month with a burst of energy and inspiration. I got out a bunch of books from the library and immersed myself in the genre of creative non-fiction. At first, I enjoyed all this reading and reflection. I could almost see the possibilities opening up in front of me. Unlike the academic essay, which intentionally fabricates emotional distance between the writer and their subject, a creative non-fiction essay is all about the spaces in between. The subjective experience is the motivation. You’re rewarded for admitting what you don’t know and examining your own ignorance on the page.

Cheryl Strayed (whose book Wild was turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon) says that a good essay should end with the unwritten line ‘and nothing was ever the same again’. She’s talking about the way an essay should stay with you, change you. A good essay should pick you up in one place and drop you off somewhere else entirely. Of all the things I read and reread, her quote is the one I printed out and stuck on my noticeboard:

‘Behind every good essay there’s an author with a savage desire to know more about what is already known. A good essay isn’t a report of what happened. It’s a reach for the stuff beyond and beneath. Essayists begin with an objective truth and attempt to find a greater, grander truth by testing facts against subjective interpretations of experiences and ideas, memories and theories. They try to make meaning of actual life, even if an awful lot has yet to be figured out. They grapple and reflect with seriousness and humour. They philosophise and confess with intellect and emotion. They recollect and reimagine private and public history with a combination of clarity and conjecture. They venture into what happened and why with a complicated collision of documented proof and impossible-to-pin-down remembrances. And they follow the answers to the questions that arise in the course of writing about what happens wherever they go. The essay’s engine is curiosity; its territory is the open road. This is what makes them so damn fun to read. The vibrancy and intimacy, the mystery and nerve, the relentlessly searching quality is simultaneously like a punch in the nose and a kiss on the lips. A pow and wow. And ouch and a yes. A stop in a go.’

‘A savage desire to know more about what is already known’ is the sentence that sticks out. And also ‘impossible-to-pin-down remembrances’. I feel like this is entirely the territory of my manuscript. I’m going through the stuff of my past, holding it up to the light and turning it this way and that, unsure what is true at the same time as I know how things turn out.

What I’m doing feels like a form of therapy. This gives me occasional attacks of self-consciousness. Who wants to read about all these unspectacular people and unspectacular events in my unspectacular life? It’s a question I try and avoid because doubt is debilitating, and I really want to submit this manuscript so that I can go to Aussie next year to the Sydney Writers’ Festival with the Māori Literature Trust and Huia Publishers.

In a moment of reaching, I sent my mentor, Paula Morris, an email, and asked her if it was normal to feel ‘icky’ about my writing.

She replied like an editor, not a therapist. ‘Avoid vague words like ‘eventually’. You need to give details. Specifically, when did these things happen? Where did you go? Not ‘across town’ but from which suburb to which suburb?

She’s right, of course. I could see what she meant as soon as she pointed it out. She also wants more characterisation, which is something I don’t think I’m very good at. Characterisation has to do with the little details that help the reader to picture the people that only you, as a writer, can see. It’s the kind of stuff Ashleigh Young nails. In her award-winning book of essays Can You Tolerate This?, she describes the vet as ‘a cheerful man with a loud guffaw who’s as tall as it is possible to be’. She likens her mother’s delicate mouth to the edge of an upturned saucer.

I’m not very good at this. I find it hard to describe people. My father, unoriginally, has brown skin and deep frown lines like gashes on his forehead. I don’t know how to liken him to anything else. He is the thing I compare other things to. I would describe the couch, for example, as something that holds the shape of my father.

Ashleigh makes all this seem deceptively easy. It’s not as though her words are fancy or complicated. It’s that she sees the world in a very peculiar and interesting way. I’m not quite sure if I do. I think it’s one of the reasons I struggle so much to ‘think’ in Māori. In Māori, you wouldn’t say that someone is forgetful; you’d say he tangata māhunga wai – that guy’s got a mind like water. You wouldn’t say someone is old; you’d say they have hairy ears – taringa huruhuru.

Perhaps that’s another reason I should prioritise my reo studies. Seeing the world with a Māori lens might give my characterisation in te reo Pākehā the boost it’s missing.


Like many New Zealanders, Nadine Anne Hura (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) has grown up with a foot in two worlds: te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. She joins Te Papa Tupu eager to work on her manuscript of essays about identity, language and belonging. She has three children and lives in Porirua.