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 programme, before meeting with our mentors: James George, Jacquie McRae, Simon Minto and 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 New Zealand, 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. On returning to New Zealand 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.
It feels like I’m sending these journals into a void. Like an actual journal, for my eyes only, which is kinda freeing.
I had writer’s block until recently. Prior to that, I wrote a short story about a Japanese piano teacher who goes on a surfing trip to deal with a broken heart. This melancholy tale poured out of me in two or three days. Working in the second person for the first time gave me a sense of urgency that propelled the story forward, and I found that almost breathless quality made the writing experience deeply enjoyable. I’ve learned that Voice Is Key. I’ve realized that once I have the voice right, the story flows. The words come from somewhere else. Every creative person knows this feeling. You become a channel for the universe to express itself through. We’re all jonesing to get back in the zone. Where do ideas spring from within this state? The nothingness of a blank page. The collective unconsciousness. The void.
My mentor, the novelist James George, has a startling intellect. The kind of person who makes you feel like you’ve somehow gained a couple more IQ points after listening to them. Or more accurately, desire to be smarter so you can fully comprehend all the gems they keep dropping. I told him I was struggling with my short stories. Unlike writing a novel, which you can potentially plot out and continue moving forward towards an ending, whenever I finish a story I have to start again. Almost from scratch. New protagonist, new POV, new plot, new voice. This is a complication with writing short stories for a cycle. How many ways can you write about a thing? And I wasn’t totally sure what that thing was. There were many things!
James spoke to me about the notion of a controlling idea. He talked about Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises about a damaged soldier coming back from war, a familiar Hemingway trope, and how this controlling idea gave Hemingway licence to roam through a landscape; to write about bullfighting and real drinking expeditions, changing the names only. JG explained that once the controlling idea is set in the reader’s mind, you can do that. I really liked the sound of this … how a controlling idea could give me some freedom to roam around too, in this psychological hinterland I’m conjuring that floats between Tokyo and New Zealand.
JG said, and I’m paraphrasing here, what truths are coming out? Is there a presence you can use as a controlling idea? The thematic presence is like a vessel where everything is being held like a bowl of soup; a series of reflections and responses to this central theme. It can be very subtle; a thematic resonance rather than a direct through-line. Every single thing doesn’t have to point to the master plot. Also, what are you leading up to here? Someone, after reading your short stories, will ask, well what do I make of all that? How close do I feel to the conflicts and ideas I’ve read about?
Plenty to ponder. I looked at the fifteen or so stories I’ve written and methodically listed their themes, which include loss, intimacy, the male gaze, mothers and daughters, the expat experience, dislocation and where is home anyway? A theme of running away emerged, which, although should have been obvious, took me by surprise. However, that was not my controlling idea. I realized that what’s really behind it all, although yet to be dealt with directly in any of my stories, is transgenerational trauma. Kinda heavy and something I’ve been trying to, well … avoid.
Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. On returning to New Zealand 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
You know how I was saying that one day I might be able to introduce myself like this, ‘Hi, I’m Hone Rata. I’m an author’? The last month has shown me that while I might be able to say that, I can’t follow it up with ‘And I’m kinda good at it.’ Because if I have learned anything this past month, it’s that I have a great deal left to learn. A GREAT DEAL TO LEARN. Like the proper use of capitalisation for instance.
‘I’ve never read about how to story. I’ve never studied story.’
My whole life I’ve read story, watched story, listened to story, told story. But I’ve never read about how to story. I’ve never studied story. I’ve picked up a few things. Like it should have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that things should happen to people and that we should care about these people. So, I wrote this story. It’s pretty long: ninety-five thousand nine hundred and four words at the end of my last edit. That is twenty thousand more words than when I first thought I’d finished. And it’s not nearly done! Half of the notes my mentor leaves point out things I haven’t explained properly. Or mentions a character I haven’t fleshed out properly. Or weaknesses in the structure that need to be reinforced or plugged. Or worse, points out where the chapter should end.
Chapters! It’s a perfect example. When I wrote my story, especially at the beginning, I wrote to an audience. A small group of supporters I emailed my story to every night. I would put my kids to bed, watch a bit of TV with my wife and then sit down and write for a couple of hours. I’m not a fast writer, I don’t type quickly, so it’s a drawn out and laborious process. In two hours, I can write maybe a thousand words. So, I would write away into the evening or the early hours of the morning. And my chapters would end when I got too tired to go on. I’d see a break point coming up, I’d try to finish on a hook, to make it exciting for my email audience, then I’d save my document and go to sleep.
‘You need to write down the “beats” of your story, so you know where the tension rises and where it falls.’
Turns out that chapters should have a purpose beyond letting you go to bed. Who knew! They should have a beginning, a middle and an end. They should take a character on a journey, and the choices they make need to be inevitable. Each chapter should be like a little story of its own. They may or may not be made up of separate, thematically linked, scenes each one of which should kinda have a beginning, a middle and an end. These are general rules; some books don’t have chapters at all. But that’s because the authors made a choice, not because they went a really long time without going to sleep. I’m learning how to think about chapters as I write. At the same time, I’m learning how to give my characters distinctive voices. I’m trying to remember not to use too many tropes or clichés; trying to remember to show stuff happening, not just have it reported (action is more exciting). I’m struggling with expressing my characters’ emotions. And making sure things are happening while they are talking so they are not just disembodied heads chattering away (ironically, I have disembodied heads chattering away in my story, but you never hear what they have to say).
But before you can do that, you need to actually write down who your characters are and what they are like, what they think and why they are trying to achieve. You need to plan and document your world. How does it work? What’s it’s history like? It’s government, it’s economy? How does it view non-binary genders? What about gender politics? Matriarchy? Patriarchy? You need to write down the ‘beats’ of your story so you know where the tension rises and where it falls. I’m not sure my writing style suits this kind of preparation, but that doesn’t mean I can ignore it; it means I have to do it after I’ve written the story. I call it postparation. And this is important because I need to know this stuff so I can use that information while I am editing – to improve my consistency, and make sure the characters are acting in a way that makes sense and in a believable way (even if they are not supposed to be sensible and the things they do are unbelievable)
‘I struggled this last week to rewrite two chapters. I couldn’t figure out a good way to tell the pieces of story I needed to tell with the characters I needed to tell it with.’
There are so many balls to juggle that I didn’t even know I was holding. So many. And some chainsaws and knives and probably a bowling ball. But there are also butterflies and doughnuts and puppies. Not every note is an error to be corrected; some are notes of congratulations, inspirational suggestion or slight adjustments that I just know will make my words sing. And there is nothing like looking back on my writing and seeing how I have improved, how my story is better. And sometimes I think that maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to write a paragraph without using an adverb.
It’s hard, hard work. I struggled this last week to rewrite two chapters. I couldn’t figure out a good way to tell the pieces of story I needed to tell with the characters I needed to tell it with. I had three birds and only one stone. I just couldn’t get traction, and my deadline approached. In the end, I just decided to do it badly, make a ham-fisted job of it. Not because that’s what I want to do, but because once it’s on the page, I can go over it and refine it until the turd is nicely polished. And if I can’t polish the turd, if I can’t see the shine under the muck, my mentor can tell me where to start.
That’s the magic of this whole thing. Someone who is good at this, someone who can see the diamond in the rough, takes the time to give me advice. Tells me how chapters work. That adverbs are the devil’s work and that doing is better than telling. Leaves notes I can weave into the sheet to make music from laboured beats.
It’s invaluable; these pieces of advice, so hard to juggle today, will become second nature. When they are, then I’ll be okay at this. I’ll still need an editor; it’s really very hard to see your own errors. I’ll never stop learning. But maybe, I’ll be able to poop something closer to a diamond.
‘I’ll never stop learning. But maybe, I’ll be able to poop something closer to a diamond.’
I’ve attached a picture of the two chapters I edited this week, zoomed right out in Word. All the colours in the image are changes I’ve made. All the red dots are suggestions my mentor made on the first draft.
Hone Rata (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Ruanui, Taranaki) is an aspiring author currently embroiled in the fraught journey that is preparing his first novel for publishing. Hone is pleased to have been selected for the 2018 Te Papa Tupu writing programme. He is excited to learn new skills and apply them to his novel.
I packed my bags, hopped into my orange Nissan and I drove. A picturesque town where locals walk around in jandals holding surfboards all year round was waiting for me. My new home. The opposite from the big city lights of Auckland. Paradise.
And yet it was chaos. Finding a new home. Changing jobs. Adjusting to a new job. Not to mention, the week before I moved, having my wisdom teeth removed. Probably not the best timing. One day out of work is all I need, I told myself. I was, of course, wrong. Drugged up on medication with blood coming out of my mouth meant I couldn’t do much for a week except lie in bed and eat coconut yoghurt while dozing in and out of consciousness.
But all of the above? No one cares. The world doesn’t stop. And unfortunately, my book isn’t going to write itself.
In fact, if the world was on the brink of destruction, I still must put pen to paper (or in my case put my fingers to my keyboard). I still must write.
And that is the hardest thing about being a writer.
Honestly, I’ve always wanted to be an author. It’s cliché and cheesy, but ever since i picked up my first book as a little girl, I was hooked. Back in my day (I feel so old), we had a television with three channels that Mum never let us watch anyway. It was either go outside and play or read a book. I chose the latter.
Twenty years later, and here I am.
And I am close. So close. But the last few months have also been a reality check.
You sit at your computer for hours by yourself. Writing.
And you don’t even know if it’s good.
Actually, you don’t know if your entire book is good or if it’s really just a piece of crap. It’s not until your mentor gives you feedback and some encouragement that you realise you are actually a decent writer.
It’s almost like writing a book has little to do with writing and everything to do with diligence. And consistency.
Forcing myself to write even when I’m not in the mood. Suffering from ‘writers block’.
Forcing myself to write even when I’m hallucinating from very strong medication.
Forcing myself to write when I just worked a full-on day for my new job and all I want to do is come home, kick my feet up and watch the new movie on Netflix everyone is talking about.
And, of course, you have all the other personal challenges and trials handed to you that I don’t need to talk about.
Everyday disappointments. Sickness. Fatigue. Personal relationships. The list goes on.
But I must write.
I am constantly reminded the things in life that are of the most worth are always going to be the hardest to obtain.
That’s what diligence is. Steady, consistent and earnest effort.
And perhaps that is what I am learning.
I know all the work I am doing is worth it.
Shilo Kino (Ngā Puhi, Tainui) is a journalist who previously worked for Fairfax Media and has had stories published in Huia Short Stories. She speaks fluent Mandarin from serving a volunteer mission in Hong Kong. Shilo is delighted to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.