Living Out Loud: Juggling Life and Writing

Earlier this week, I sent my five-year-old grandson in Invercargill his winter jacket. It’s a little further south than here, so the seasons arrive a little later. Well, that is my excuse I wrote on the attached card.

He sent me an email back: ‘Thanks Grandma, but I’m a size seven now.’

In between everyday life, I have been reading the Paris Review online and the writer interviews, and I copy a quote every so often and paste and highlight in bold for inspiration. James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Richard Wright – they all spent time in Paris, even Faulkner, and Joyce and Beckett. Proust is a native; that doesn’t count. I am going to Paris because Nina Simone was there, and her music inspires me.

‘It takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language.’  Maya Angelou on writing.

‘I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth.’ Maya Angelou.

Email catch-up to Reina. I have been a bit slack so need to get this thing moving. But not to worry about the outcome, just let it be, it is this … stay in the moment, this is the present and that is all that matters in the big picture.

Reina replies. Read it out loud to your husband, be a storyteller, it might help to find those areas where you have concerns, think about your characters, do you like them?

I had to get my husband’s attention, a place where he was sitting and still with no choice but to listen. Well, with men, there is only that one place, and somehow it just did not seem appropriate. So I read to my dog, Washburn. As a thirteen-year-old Labrador with a puppy brain and recently diagnosed with severe arthritis, it is not easy for him to get up and walk away. I moved his trampoline bed with its bio-mag mattress beside the fire and woke him each time he snored with Bomazeal treats. Some issues jumped out at me. Washburn cruised and slept and nudged my leg when he wanted his ear scratched.

Bruce Springsteen’s birthday coincided with Washburn’s big day out.

I played ‘The Boss’ on vinyl in kind regards and memories.

Washburn came home with a doggy bag.

Bomazeal, Rymadil and opiates (for severe pain) along with an appointment card for the next three Saturdays regarding follow up injections, and he may not improve until the final one, and after that an appointment every six months to monitor progress. Tonight, he is stiff and sore from the limb manipulation necessary for the X-ray poses, but I don’t think he minded that, anything for attention, that’s our Wash. He is hurting now, so we give him a Bomazeal treat with his Tux. ‘Mmmm,’ he grunts, ‘mmmm, I need to use the bushes, now.’ He doesn’t quite make it, but that’s what shovels are for. He limps back into his kennel, and we say goodnight. He is too tired to reply. It has been a big day.

I don’t suppose Bruce had quite the same experience, but the man that still sings ‘Born to Run’ is only sixty-one years old; in doggy years, Wash is ninety-one.

Life is a present occupation, a juggling act, between writing and everyday stuff.

Sometimes I spend my time writing stuff that is just that, stuff … it’s a break, that’s all.

……..

‘I want to read you something,’ he says.

He begins, ‘Once there was a small boy …’ his voice has a gentle smoothness, it lulls her, she is not listening for the story but is beguiled by the sound of his voice, every now and then he asks her a question, she nods her head, sometimes she nods at inappropriate times, because that was not the answer to the question, and there is a flicker of exasperation on his face, but it doesn’t last and he resumes. She becomes sleepy, drifting on the ocean of his words, he asks again if she is listening and she shakes her head, still he continues, she wafts in the swell, he reads, she is floating face up, the sun is warm, like his voice, they become one, his voice her body, her breath is his, they breathe together, the ocean is everywhere all around, they are the ocean.

‘Well,’ he says, finally, ‘What do you think?’

Once there lived a small dog …

Their neighbours ask, does your husband write, is he a writer, what does he write, does it pay, where can we see his books, are they in the library, is he famous?

Once there lived a small dog …

‘I want to read you something,’ she says.

She begins, ‘Once there lived a small dog. His name was Maz, his tail was neither the full length tail that might have curled up over his back, nor was it a wiggly stump, but in between, like a half smoked cigarette …’

Her husband snores and wakes himself. She is gazing out the window, the ash from his cigarette drops on to the duvet; he hears a dog bark, a boy laughing, the neighbour’s car in the driveway. He hears her scream.

Tracing a Writer’s Whakapapa

What I think about when I think about writing?

I think too much.

This came after reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Think about When I Think about Running. He took the title of his book from Raymond Carver’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.

Which led me to thinking about what influences writers.

When reading a particular writer whose works I enjoy, I like to know who they read, who has influenced them, who they admire, who inspires them. These paths broaden my own reading and influences. Often these paths lead back to the same  names. For example, two of my favourite authors are Toni Morrison and Mario Vargas Llosa, who both cite William Faulkner’s writing as an influence, and Faulkner has cited James Joyce.

I love Faulkner’s work, but I struggle with Joyce.

It is sort of like a writer’s whakapapa, tracing the roots of their writing.

My own writing seems so out of touch. There is no harmony; the words don’t match; the sentences are ambiguous; the plot is confusing; the characters are shallow. Why do I bother? I am feeling a bit of a fraud. It’s not easy. And I have to write a journal and expose my phoniness. It’s scary.

My son calls. ‘It’s just a story, Mum. Come for lunch.’

Back home, I sit at the computer and open my story. I am almost through another draft, changing from past to present tense. It seems to read better. It is time-consuming. I am also trying to find the answers to questions Reina has raised regarding the storyline and characters.

Question: What do my characters think about when they think about whānau?

Answer: …?

On Monday, I get an email from my five-year-old grandson in Invercargill: ‘Did you feel the earthquake, it was scary. Can you send my new fleece jacket before the summer weather.’

Novel excerpt: interaction between main character, Beth, and her father, Mikey, after period of estrangement.

‘I don’t suppose you’d be able to put in a word for him.’ They had the same eyes, father and son. Her eyes. ‘He’s had a bit of trouble, before he came down here. But you know him; he’s not a bad boy.’ Then added, ‘He’s whānau, Beth, talk to him.’

That was strange coming from him now.

‘He won’t be going home tonight. Court in the morning, and he may not get bail then either.’

‘Let him know I was here, that’s all.’

Despite the trouble MJ caused, Mikey loves him, wants to help, wants to be seen as a father. But she needs him too, she is the firstborn, she is the good guy, isn’t she?

‘You all right, Beth?’ He leans forward and his voice drops. ‘I mean, this Kevin. He been giving you a rough time?’

This time he is looking at her hard. What does he mean? Screwing around, giving her the bash? like MJ. And what was he going to do about it if she wasn’t all right. ‘I’m fine,’ she says.

‘Ria will want to see you. How long you down for?’ He leans back from the table.

‘I’ll call. Hard to plan anything at present with all the different shifts.’

Outside the café they stand with their hands in their pockets. She yields first, moves forward to kiss his cheek, misses and her lips met the collar of his fleece lined jacket. He settles a hand on her shoulder.

‘Whānau, Beth, remember. He’d like to see you.’

***

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.