A Place to Grow

I took this photo during my time in Tokyo. It is of a lotus about to bloom. I’ve always loved the Buddhist view of a lotus – as a lotus can grow out of mud and blossom above the muddy water, we too can rise above the mire and messiness of our lives. We can transform.

Last week we had our final Te Papa Tupu Workshop in Wellington. We kicked off with Huia Executive Director Eboni Waitare inviting us to reflect on our  journey with the program, before meeting with our mentors: James George, Jacquie McRae, Simon Minto, Whiti Hereaka. That session was followed by informative and stimulating workshops: Point of View with Paula Morris, Story Arc with Simon Minto, Marketing and Personal Branding with Waimatua Morris, and Publishing with Robyn Bargh. We finished up by sharing thoughts on where we see ourselves going with our work, before heading off to drinks and nibbles with Creative NZ, Te Puni Kōkiri and Huia Publishers staff, and finally dinner and cocktails at The Library – an aptly named and decorated watering hole for book nerds like us. It was a full day, and I believe we all left with full hearts… yes, I am a giant cornball. I admit it.

At the mentor meeting, James George asked me what was going on, as I’d said I was in a bit of a slump. I explained that I was having difficulty with creating more of a narrative spine in some of my stories. I was feeling blocked, and I wasn’t sure why. As always, he cut to the heart of things very quickly:

find some other place where there is some energy in your work and work on that / a piece of description, a piece of dialogue / something poetic and wistful / what are your strengths in this collection? / what are you good at? / don’t look at what’s not there / maybe it isn’t there / have confidence that you have fascinating subject matter that you can invoke truthfully / you may have to confront a truth about yourself that you are terrified of / let your characters speak their truths to you / make the undercurrents noisier / more disruptive / pile these themes / not to fix them / embrace who you are and what you do.

Once again, I am reminded how fortunate I am to be here, now.

During the workshop discussions, James George made a great point that Huia invests in writers, unlike other publishing houses, who harvest. This makes Huia very unique. I feel incredibly supported and nurtured by Huia, and by each and every person who is a part of the Huia whānau. I am so grateful that I was able to thank Robyn Bargh personally for what she has built for us. What she has created is phenomenal, and a success story. This opportunity came at a time in my life when I deeply needed someone to believe in me. Take a chance on me (lol Nadine). I was so ready for it. It’s been life changing. It’s been emotional. It’s now my dream that we will take this beautiful taonga that Huia has given us and share our stories on the world stage, to inspire and uplift our people, and make them proud.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. Upon returning to NZ 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.

Birth Pangs

I’ve been struggling with my writing lately. I’m working on a story set in the Hokianga in the 1950’s, based on true events that I am reshaping. Reimagining. I wasn’t there, obviously.

James George (mentor): This is the strongest opening to any of the stories so far. Has real punch, and the economy, almost flatness of style really allows the implications to burn.

My mentor’s comments are encouraging, yet I’m still having a hard time working on it. I sent the opening to Nadine (Hura) who said: ‘I got chills reading it. I got the feeling I wanted to look away but I couldn’t stop reading.’ I replied that my writing often makes people uncomfortable, and she said ‘Do you feel resistance writing these subjects?’ Which is something I hadn’t even considered… that the countless ways I distract myself from sitting my ass down in the chair and writing aren’t always down to simple laziness and lack of motivation. That perhaps the themes in this particular story are difficult for me to face.

I’m surprised I didn’t consider this question of internal resistance myself, earlier. I’ve written before about subjects that are personally painful, like teen suicide. It never occurred to me that this could be challenging. It’s a curious blind spot.

I’m reminded of a printmaking class years ago, with the incredible artist and teacher Marty Vreede who talked about how there is a pain threshold when making art, that you have to push through. And that one often isn’t aware of what the art is really about until the fullness of time reveals it later.

There was a quote that resonated with me during my art school days, written about the artist and my whanaunga, Ralph Hotere, and I’m paraphrasing here because Google isn’t helping. Something like ‘The meaning of suffering was the genesis.’ This holds resonance again for me now, especially as JG pointed out a biblical undercurrent in my current story.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. I do know that I have to fight through my internal resistance, and shut down any and all negative self-talk. Be kind to myself. This is brave work. Fuck Imposter Syndrome. I’ve cut the booze back which helps. I’m present and clear-headed, mostly. Now I’m gonna sit my ass down in the chair and push the words out, one by one. And hope that it will all mean something, in the end.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. Upon returning to NZ 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.

Highway to Heal

When you were a little girl, books were your refuge. You learned to read before you went to school. You would read the newspaper everyday, 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 NZ 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 anymore. 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 Saunder’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 4pm 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.

 


DSC_0421Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. Upon returning to NZ 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.