Writing Magic: an Elixir to Happiness

We have only a few weeks left on 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 3 December, 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 Renée 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.

Eru Shares Snippets of Past and Present

I’ve recently had broadband connected at my house. The digital revolution finally revolved its way to my place, flashing its light-speed optics in my direction. It was a bit of a mission. First of all, Telecom refused to set up an account in my name. I have a credit history as peppery as the spice trade, so I had to call Mum. From my cellphone.

From her bed – where she receives all phone calls – she considered my request. I lowered my bait in slowly. She agreed that it was nice to hear from me. It had been a while. She agreed that it’s great news I’m being paid to write a manuscript. She agreed that there would be a lot of emailing back and forth between me and my mentor. She slowly agreed that it was a bit of a hassle to have to email from work. She supposed that it would be much easier to have a phone line and internet connection at home.

Then we shared a pause.

‘So would you mind if I got my landline connected? ‘Cause of my … past, it would have to be under your name,  Mum?’

I’d asked her before, but she had been very reluctant. This time, however, I felt like I had some leverage.

‘This is my best shot to finally get a novel published.’

I heard the bed springs creak. The air grew rich with anticipation.

‘Okay then.’

It seems Archimedes may have been right: ‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.’

*

Mum’s gesture of support meant a lot to me. I do not come from a family of readers. Sure, we had lots of books in our home, but they fell into two categories: scriptures and commentaries on the scriptures. Reading wasn’t really a hobby or a pleasure; it was a duty – one to be carried out on the Sabbath and during weekly gospel study sessions.  We escaped the ordinariness of everyday life through television or sport or food. Reading for pleasure was seen as a bit suspicious, a bit indulgent. I got the impression that the proper function of reading was to prepare oneself for The Great and Final Day of Judgement.

The only reading exception seemed to be Dad’s Herald Tribune – Hawke’s Bay’s daily paper. And it was definitely Dad’s paper. No one was allowed to even unfold the paper before Dad had carefully thumbed through it. He had a pair of scissors as long as his forearm and as sharp as his temper. He used those glimmering scissors to carefully snip out the articles of interest to him, mostly stock market reports on how well his tiny portfolio of Brierley stocks were doing and anything to do with the Meat Workers Union, of which he was a representative. When Dad was done, anyone was welcome to read the paper so long as they could hold it together with its dozen or so rectangular-shaped gaps. No one else read the paper. It was too much hard work.

I’m not sure, then, how I ended up as the family’s reader, the one child of seventeen who preferred to be indoors flicking through non-church-approved books. The one child of seventeen who seemed allergic to the outdoors but drawn to the inches-thick illusions between covers.

Fiction and secular non-fiction became the lever and fulcrum on which I shifted my world view.

*

So now that I have all the necessary shiny cables and light-speed currents pointed at my house, I wish I could tell you that I’ve been very noble with my broadband. I wish I could tell you that I’ve spent the last two months downloading pirated e-books on the art of writing. I wish I could tell you that I’ve set up RSS feeds to past Nobel literature winners. I wish I could brag at how many Booker prize winners I’ve friended on Facebook.

In truth, I’ve watched hours, probably days’ worth, of reality TV: Celebrity Rehab, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Flava of Love, Sober House with Dr. Drew and even Keeping Up With the Kardashians. I’ve devoured hours and hours of celebrities and ordinary folks lose weight and sober up. I’ve watched the famous and the forgettable falling in and out of love – with themselves and with each other. I’ve watched people climb on the dry wagon and fall off again only to be run over and crushed under wheels of hubris. And most of all, I’ve watched them fight: Jill vs. Bethenney, Danielle vs. Teresa or Sergeant Harvey vs. Fat Celebrity has-beens. I’ve streamed hours of quiet tension explode in moments of the loudest vile. I am ashamed to admit it, but I’ve loved seeing ex-lovers collapse into one-on-one war.

*

During the writing of this manuscript, I have often killed my own momentum with the question, What right do you have to tell this story? It has stopped me dead on several occasions.

I’m not the kind of author that could write the story of a seventeenth-century Dutch lesbian widow. As fun as it is to imagine myself outside myself, I doubt I could convince a reader. God bless the authors who don’t write from experience. I can’t. I am a doubting and easily wounded thirty-year-old single Māori. Experience has worn away my capacity to trust. I act with kindness not out of any higher moral calling but because it seems to disarm and pacify most other adults. I’d prefer to be arrogant and straightforward, but I’ve found I’m not pretty enough to pull that off.

I am pulling this manuscript out like a series of splinters. It is not easy, but some internal pressure is telling me that it is significant and necessary. Sometimes I even chance across an unexpected and lovely paragraph. What I am making is part autobiography, part fiction and part fantasy. It is a crossover of scripture, Dad’s paper and what was left of the newspaper. You, the reader, will be expected to hold it all together, to keep the pages upright enough to make sense of it. The rectangular-shaped gaps will be both your challenge and your chance to hide away with me. The value of the Brierley stocks will be up to you.

December the 3rd, the Great and Terrible Day of Judgement, approaches.

Larree Makes a Stand on Unsteady Ground

A few Sundays back, we went to the Art Show in Wellington, and I bought a picture. A small black and white print by Joe Wright of a figure standing on this very precarious base of branches like a kererū nest, holding a megaphone up to the sky, and out of the megaphone comes all these birds. I love it.

I love it because it says where I am with my writing, and coming to terms with being a Māori writer, standing on this very shaky base and trying to make a stance.

Wake up print ©Joe Wright
An artist’s print signifies Larree’s own awakening ©Joe Wright

Later that day, we were lucky enough to catch Donna Dean at Lembas Café in Raumati South. She is such an open and honest person, a very genuine singer songwriter musician. Her songs are straightforward, and she just tells it like it is. It was an inspiring day.

I was very much reminded of my mentor’s – Reina Whaitiri’s – words. ‘The language should disappear for the reader … we forget we are reading. If you use language that insists on being noticed the story gets lost.’ My recent experience with art and song writing are very apt examples, ie. KISS.

So, my own writing. I think how I am affected by art, songs, music, stories, and it’s the openness of the writer, artist that fades behind the work that captures me. Reina has given me a list of books and authors to read as points of reference. She has also suggested changing tense, using the present. Try it, she says, see what you think. So I have, and in some cases it works; other times, I get confused. It’s hard to give up the preciousness of your work, but it’s a good lesson. Reina said she can be tough; she is, but she is also absolutely right.

The last few weeks have been about learning to let go – trying to rid the author from the writing and let the narrator get on with the story.

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!

How Jekyll and Hyde Help Refine Writing

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde I am experiencing the dual identities of writing – which I affectionately think of as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – two different personalities sharing the one body. I refer to writing for pleasure – a sudden rush of great ideas in a story that lives and breathes as it passes from your imagination to the page, and the editing stage – the realisation your text is riddled with cliché and characters are short on personality – that some ideas will die horribly, to be removed from the document forever.

I was always aware of the schism but never fully understood the eternal struggle of keeping both egos on a tight leash. Both characters are essential to completing my project, but they compete for attention, and however hard I try, I always favour one over the other – no matter that both personalities have something beneficial to offer.

I prefer Dr Jekyll – he may appear to be civilised and mannered, spending many years and large amounts of money training to become a doctor so that he can provide a service to the community. However, there must be an underlying madness in one who allows their mind to be subject to experimentation – and such is the way when you start out writing. You have the best intentions to craft an enjoyable book – ideas and words flow forth and your fingers furiously tap the keys, and days pass and pages mount. Yet in your heart, you know your ideas are out there – that deep down you have created a story you can no longer contain – so you develop a formula to help.

You call this formula editing.

It’s at this point we release Mr Hyde – the beast in its truest form. He is free from restraint and cares little for the world you develop – casually destroying ideas going nowhere and removing characters who add nothing to the storyline. Yes, he appears uncontrolled, but he is the only side of your personality that speaks true. Very few people care for Mr Hyde, but it’s only his hideous appearance that creates the fear – how he reacts essentially distils bold ideas back to their purest form.

In essence, we should really fear Dr Jekyll, knowing that what appears on the outside is merely a shell that houses a disturbingly twisted and unrefined story.

Still, I know which friend I will be calling when a good story pops in my head … Am I wrong?

Until I write again …

Planning a Story to Relish

Years ago, I had a career change from commerce to cooking.

Fresh colorful fruits in a melon
Mark Sweet keeps the story fresh and simple.

My first job was in a restaurant called The Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow. Quite quickly, I determined their menu was too big, too many choices and too many ingredients piled onto the plate, smothering and confusing the flavour of the primary fare, be it salmon, duck or venison. I thought too often they killed the golden goose, so to speak.

So I opened my own restaurant, and with the help of a fine chef, constructed menus that were short and fresh, and we pared down the ingredients so they enhanced, and never overwhelmed, the primary flavour.

Now, I’ve discovered that writing is a bit like cooking. Too many ingredients can spoil the plot.

With the help of my mentor, Alia Bloom, I’m now identifying the essential ingredients of Zhu Mao for the process of enhancing those that taste good and discarding what detracts from the essential flavour of the book.

One of the most difficult aspects of running a restaurant is consistency. If you set a high standard at the outset, your customers expect it to be maintained. If not, they may go elsewhere and never return. So too with writing.

Alia has shown me that Zhu Mao starts out well but doesn’t deliver on the promise. The reader may put the book down by page fifty and never return. I’ve done it myself with many a book. The challenge before us is to carry the momentum from start to finish. Overcooked descriptions, underdone characters or cold dialogue and readers may never return.

Matching wine with food is a requisite of fine dining. It’s the waiter’s job to advise the customer which variety suits what dish. Merlot and fish don’t match, and Riesling doesn’t complement the taste of venison. A writer being matched with a mentor is as important, and I’m confident Alia and I are complementary, like Bluff oysters and Fino Sherry, I think.

Seasoned publishing professional Alia Bloom is currently mentoring Mark Sweet in Te Papa Tupu.

Years ago, I had a career change from commerce to cooking.

Fresh colorful fruits in a melon
Mark Sweet keeps the story fresh and simple.

My first job was in a restaurant called The Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow. Quite quickly, I determined their menu was too big, too many choices and too many ingredients piled onto the plate, smothering and confusing the flavour of the primary fare, be it salmon, duck or venison. I thought too often they killed the golden goose, so to speak.

So I opened my own restaurant, and with the help of a fine chef, constructed menus that were short and fresh, and we pared down the ingredients so they enhanced, and never overwhelmed, the primary flavour.

Now, I’ve discovered that writing is a bit like cooking. Too many ingredients can spoil the plot.

With the help of my mentor, Alia Bloom, I’m now identifying the essential ingredients of Zhu Mao for the process of enhancing those that taste good and discarding what detracts from the essential flavour of the book.

One of the most difficult aspects of running a restaurant is consistency. If you set a high standard at the outset, your customers expect it to be maintained. If not, they may go elsewhere and never return. So too with writing.

Alia has shown me that Zhu Mao starts out well but doesn’t deliver on the promise. The reader may put the book down by page fifty and never return. I’ve done it myself with many a book. The challenge before us is to carry the momentum from start to finish. Overcooked descriptions, underdone characters or cold dialogue and readers may never return.

Matching wine with food is a requisite of fine dining. It’s the waiter’s job to advise the customer which variety suits what dish. Merlot and fish don’t match, and Riesling doesn’t complement the taste of venison. A writer being matched with a mentor is as important, and I’m confident Alia and I are complementary, like Bluff oysters and Fino Sherry, I think.

Seasoned publishing professional Alia Bloom is currently mentoring Mark Sweet in Te Papa Tupu.

Tania Butcher Builds on Memories of Maketū

Tania Butcher
Tania uses her studies in tactical warfare to explore the history of Maketū warriors.

Being selected to write from a large field of writers is a humbling experience and an honour. My manuscript is a journal reaching back in time to gather forward the triumphs and tribulations of Maketū warriors who fought in wars with honour and a belief that a better world can be made for their families and generations of descendants ahead in time.

The beginnings of writing the Maketū warriors’ story cropped up five years ago in a conversation with my cousin Huia Tapsell who wanted something concrete to remember all those men who lived in Maketū during the warring years.

At the time, I was studying Defence and Strategic Studies at Massey University, and my head was filled with battles and principles of warfare. I was very enthusiastic and promised my cousin I would return to Maketū when I completed my studies and discuss the prospect of writing a book about our warriors both Māori and Pākehā.

Here I am, my dream a reality and a whole lot of work ahead of me. I am elated, exhilarated and energised to be working on an important project about my ancestors and their comrades-in-arms. I am very honoured.

Background on Maketū soldiers

Maketū is a historical township that nestles in the elbow of the Bay of Plenty coastline between Tauranga and the East Cape. The Maketū landscape is an archival trove of past fighting chiefs and militarily enlisted warriors immortalised in headstones, memorials and war sites. (From working manuscript)

Tania’s manuscript about Maketū soldiers focuses on their involvement in the wars of the twentieth century.

Jeremy Latimer and the Joys of Writing

Well – here is my first journal entry, and for the first time, I have no idea of what I want to write.

Oh, the joys of writing!

Jeremy Latimer
‘The joy of writing never truly fades, it just changes direction from time to time.’

The whole experience has been a bit of a whirlwind affair, and the prospect of having a ‘completion date’ is daunting. It’s funny to think that I have dreamed of this experience all my life – and now that the opportunity is a reality … I am terrified.

I have had good feedback from my mentor, and I know her ideas and direction will strengthen my story, but I am still in awe of the whole idea, and my fellow writers – where will we be come late December?

What will the reading public think?

Here is a taster of the revised version of my draft:

‘The wind-swept sands of the lonely desert caked the bloodied sword – its notched steely blade shimmered in the blistering midday sun, clutched in the grip of a masked warrior. Dressed in splendid silk-robes, the boy was barely in his teens, yet destiny had brought him to the edge of the oasis, where he faced his greatest rival. Standing opposite the boy was a dark assassin of immense size – covered from head to toe in black fabric that clung to his brawny frame to reveal a hardened physique – the enemy was none other than the “Scorpion Monk”.’

Yes – my mentor approved of the opening lines, and my ego came alive – but it is still early days, and the workload continues to mount, but the joy of writing never truly fades, it just changes direction from time to time.

Well – there truly is no rest for the wicked, and new ideas and possibilities are swirling madly about my head, waiting to be written and revised.

Until I write again …

Mark Sweet Wakes the Sleeping Zhu Mao

Brian Bargh of HUIA left a message. He asked I return his call. ‘It’s good news,’ he said. I went all goose pimply, and great gulps of excitement came tinged with fear.

Mark Sweet
Mark Sweet starts his writing journey in China with the draft novel Zhu Mao.

I began writing Zhu Mao three years ago at the start of the Diploma of Creative Writing course at Whitireia Polytechnic. When I applied, I submitted a short story, one of many, interconnected, which I wanted to shape into a novel. But the opportunity to write a new novel was too much, and Adrienne Jansen encouraged my fresh idea.

It was based around two experiences of traveling in China in the 1980s. One involved infanticide of baby girls, the other execution of criminals. The story grew and, at times, took on a life of its own. I spent a month in Wudangshan, the birthplace of t’ai chi, and found a setting for the story. I loved the process. In the end, I rushed to finish and was awarded a C+. I was gutted and let Zhu Mao sleep for two years.

During that time, I came to see my final assessment as fair. And I learned a big lesson. Anna Rogers was my mentor, and assessor, but I took scant heed of her opinion. Now, I see that all she told me was sound advice.

Late last year, I met the author Elspeth Sandys and asked her if she would critique my manuscript. She was encouraging but highlighted major problems with structure and genre; much the same as Anna.

I’d been dabbling at rewriting Zhu Mao for a few months, growing increasingly frustrated at my lack of editorial crafting skills, when my sister emailed about Te Papa Tupu incubator programme.

Being chosen for the programme is a gift for which I am deeply grateful. The opportunity to work with a mentor, and the means to concentrate on writing for six months, makes the completion of Zhu Mao an achievable goal.

My thanks to those in the Māori Literature Trust, Huia Publishers, Creative New Zealand, and Te Puni Kōkiri who have developed and promoted Te Papa Tupu.