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.

Writing magic: an elixir to happiness

We have only a few weeks left on the Te Papa Tupu programme. I am still grateful to have been picked for this programme and know that these six months have given me the tools and insight I need to be a writer for life.

I spent quite a bit of time over the past ten years reading about writers, attending writers’ festivals and writing a little bit. As much as that was fun, I know I was hoping to stumble on some magic potion that was going to turn me into a real writer.

In a roundabout way, I have found several of the ingredients that may help to make up the potion but I now know that it has to be mixed fresh every day and that some days, I’m just right out of what’s needed.

So what have I learnt?

Being totally committed to the project was invaluable. I wanted this book to be finished by December 3rd and at the beginning even though I had no clue how I was going to get to that point- that was my challenge.

Having a mentor has been like having a secret weapon. At the start I was all over the place, like when you ride your bike for the first time without the trainer wheels. But when I looked behind, I had Renee shouting at me to keep pedalling, just keep pedalling you’ll get there. I wish I was rich enough to have one for every writing project.

To be a writer: You have to write. Regularly. For some reason this constant writing changes how you write. Sometimes I don’t know what it is that is wrong with my writing, but because of the consistency, I know it is.

I have a friend that exercises most days. She said that when she doesn’t, she feels grumpy and pissed off. I am beginning to think that writing might be the same for me, but it does feel like it’s time for this project to be finished.

An invasion of teenagers has started to arrive for the summer holidays. Apparently something called Christmas is looming, and a house that hasn’t been cleaned properly for six months needs my attention.

My dream is to spend most of my days writing and hopefully make a living from it. This last six months has made me feel that much closer to my dream.

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 10 out of the 15 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 onboard 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 the 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 half way 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 the Te Papa Tupu programme and 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.