When you were a little girl, books were your refuge. You learned to read before you went to school. You would read the newspaper every day, on the floor with the sheets spread out. You read everything in the house: a set of Childcraft books, The Thorn Birds, Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (the illustrated second edition). You read in the car even though it made you ill. Your library card was always maxed. Mum would scold you for reading at the dinner table.
‘You read too much.’
At primary school you wrote ‘When I grow up, I want to be an author.’ You forget about this. At twenty-five, you leave New Zealand for money and love, and you don’t come back for sixteen years.
One summer, you return. You are an outsider. You need something to do. You write.
You are sick of your stories. You don’t know if they are any good any more. You lock them away in a drawer next to your bed where they languish for weeks. Someone sends you a link to an intriguing opportunity: Te Papa Tupu. You check it out. Hmm. Looks legit. You mentally blow the cobwebs off your manuscript. You follow George Saunders’s advice while doing a line edit: imagine there is a barometer in your brain, and wherever the energy drops in your writing and the needle dips, change it. It’s all about the micro choices. You do this with vigour and vim. You flex your writing muscles. You write a new story for your short story cycle. You fill out the required forms. Name: Colleen Maria Lenihan. Iwi: Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi. You print out your manuscript in triplicate and put it in the post. Bam. You tell your mentor that if you don’t get selected, you will quit writing. You tell yourself that you believe in your work. You tell yourself, ‘You got this’. On the day the recipients are due to be notified, you watch the clock, pounce on every email that dings in your inbox, wait for the phone to ring. By 4 p.m. you start to have doubts. By 4.30 you think surely you would have heard by now. By 4.45 you are lying on your bed in the fetal position. Yet another crushing rejection to get over. At 4.55 you are railing at God, if she even exists, and hating your pathetic life when there is a ding. You check your new message immediately. It is from Huia Publishers: What is your contact number? You leap up from the bed. You punch the air and shout YATTA!
Later that night, you remember what your child-self wanted to be and think, Jack Kerouac was right. First Thought Best Thought. It’s just taking you a really long time to grow up.