Learning New Tricks (and Old Ones)

This last month has been such a roller coaster ride, but I’m loving it. I’ve had to learn to be self-disciplined (I’m forty-six 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.

Rollercoaster
© Jimmy Lopes | Jacquie finds the writing programme is like a roller coaster ride.

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 who 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!

Jacquie McRae Puts a Dream into Action

Jacquie McRae
Jacquie McRae’s success in last year’s Pikihuia Awards motivated her to keep writing.

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 ten out of the fifteen 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 on board 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 Te 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 halfway 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 Te Papa Tupu programme and to 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.