December: Journal Six
This past month is one which, I suspect, will be remembered for all of the wrong reasons. It has also been a month that has made me reflect on personal resilience, and the toll that unexpected events can take.
At the beginning of the month we had our second Te Papa Tupu hui, an interesting and informative day that left me enthusiastic and excited about the next two months. That dissipated two days later when, like most of the country, I experienced the Kaikoura quake. In relative terms I have nothing to complain about: no one in my family was hurt and nothing was damaged. The following day we were shaken (often literally) and tired after an evening spent obsessively following social media as tsunami updates rolled in, but we were fine. We counted our blessings, in particular that we were all together at home during the quake, rather than on the 17th floor of my office in the Wellington CBD. Work was closed but we didn’t mind: we were tired anyway, and the Council’s instructions to avoid the CBD made perfect sense. We had enough food at home. We knew that we were lucky.
It’s the next phase, though, where personal resilience gets tested the most, an experience that I saw all around me the following week. Work remained closed for another day, and in the case of my husband he still has to work remotely. The children remained scared of the quakes, and the initial euphoria at having experienced something frightening unscathed disappeared; what remained was common garden crankiness. The rains fell and the roads were closed, and work compounded with less time in the office to complete it. People got sick of talking about where they were during the earthquake, but were still tired – both emotionally and physically. That second phase is the one where you still know, on an objective level, that you are lucky, but the weather and aftershocks still grind you down and it becomes easier to forget. The adrenaline is gone; all that is left is rain and an inability to relax in brick buildings.
Now we move into the third phase and normalcy is back. Well, as much as is possible with my husband still out of his building and the school drop-off being a little more complicated due to his longer commute. November is over; it’s December now. It’s officially summer and we can eat chocolate every day from an advent calendar covered in cartoon dogs that says ‘howl for the holidays’. The quakes are now ‘last month’. Best of all, I’ve picked my writing back up. With this programme almost over, I don’t have any more time to waste, regardless of whatever shaking the earth may have in store for me.
November: Journal Five
My son started school this month. It went as expected: giant school bag, shiny red lunchbox, me getting dust in my eyes after leaving on the first day. As we walked home on the first day, he asked: “Will I always learn new things, Mummy?”
I thought of this question the next day; I was working on my manuscript and realised I didn’t know whether or not flat feet were hereditary, a detail required for my story. In fact, the sheer randomness of my accumulated knowledge over the past few months while writing my novel has been remarkable. Here are the highlights:
- A prisoner in New Zealand during the 1990’s would have called prison “the Boob”. Who knew? During my research I also found an entire academic article about prison slang, and how it differs between New Zealand men’s and women’s prisons. I only managed to slip a few phrases into my book, but have being wanting to find a prison slang expert to talk to ever since.
- Ever since I first learned to write, I have been misspelling rapeti. I learnt incorrectly, and while I’ve seen it written down a number of times since, it hadn’t quite sunk in that I was spelling it wrong. I am just glad I actually checked, or else I would have continued down that erroneous ill-informed path for years.
- That exercise and writing are unlikely, but very well matched, bedfellows. Some of my best thinking over the winter has been done while swimming, biking or running. I had planned to do a triathlon this weekend gone – it didn’t work out due to an injury, but the training process was so complementary to my writing I hope to continue my newfound enjoyment of exercise into the future.
- That the insane attraction you might feel for someone that is often thought of as love at first sight or unrequited love has a psychological term that describes the chemical reaction, limerence. I didn’t end up using this in the end, but in the middle of all my reading about it I think I might have sown the seeds for a future project.
What, then, of the flat feet? I had to look it up, and learned that, as suspected, they are. Yes, I was able to tell my son. Hopefully you will always continue to learn new things. When he’s older I’ll be also adding an extra sentence to that statement: that taking the opportunity to do such things as Te Papa Tupu programme will help with the continuation of that lifelong learning.
October: Journal Four
I am often asked what I am writing.
I have developed three answers to this question: one easy, one medium, and one long. What one gets used depends on a number of factors, the most important of which being: is the person asking to be polite or are they deeply engaged? Would my long answer send them to sleep? Am I sick of hearing the sound of my own voice?
The easy answer is this: My book, Fifty Dollars for Optimus Prime, is a set of inter-related short stories about two boys and their families, tracking their lives from childhood to adulthood. There you go; a nice wee sentence that sums it up, a sentence that is perfect for small talk. Boom.
The medium answer takes a little more explaining: It’s a book about how complicated human interactions are, especially in families when simple words and phrases are laden with issues and history. It’s about how people are rarely all good or all bad; they just have different contexts, drivers and perspectives. It’s about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and how, to quote from Frozen of all places, ‘people make bad choices when they’re sad or mad or stressed’.
What, then, of the long answer?
When I was a kid, we often had foster kids coming to stay. They ranged in age from wee babies to teenagers, and stayed for varying lengths of time. When I was ten, a girl came to stay for what felt like months. She talked often about all of the money she would get when her mum came back; she was going to buy all of the toys I had ever wanted. My jealously was intense. It wasn’t fair; my mum and dad didn’t give me any money. It was only as an adult I thought to ask Mum about what had brought the girl to stay with us in the first place. The answer shocked me, and I was ashamed of my childhood jealousy. My book is about people like that girl, and how while we all run the same 100-metre sprint, some people are doing it in concrete boots and others in a Lamborghini. It’s about how success comes in many forms, and that a slow run in concrete boots might lead to better outcomes than a Lamborghini race if better character is developed along the way. It’s about how, while tragedy is often triggered by big events, it can just as easily spring from everyday moments.
At least, that’s what I hope it’s about, and I am pleased I have three more months to continue to turn my book into what I want it to be.
September: Journal Three
I don’t think anyone captures the importance of editing any better than Dr Seuss, who said: ‘the writer who breeds more words than he needs is making a chore for the reader who reads.’
This month I took Renee’s advice, printed out every word of my finished manuscript, and read it out loud. With Dr Seuss’s words of wisdom in my head, my carefully crafted manuscript was then reduced to dog-eared paper covered in arrows, black lines, question marks and the odd smear of chocolate. Perhaps Dr Seuss should have also said: ‘the writer who eats chocolate while editing writing, makes manuscripts gross and uninviting.’
At first, I struggled with editing. Editing can feel like the clean up after a really good party; the lame bloopers scene after a good movie. At first it feels anticlimactic. A finished manuscript is such a tangible achievement. When people ask how it’s going, you can say ‘I’ve finished my first draft’, and the people you’re talking to know exactly what you’re talking about. Editing doesn’t have such clear markers. When writing, seeing my word count increasing day on day was motivating and exciting. When editing, an entire hour might be spent on one paragraph, trying to decide whether to use commas, semi-colons or full stops. During editing, it’s not unusual to spend an entire weekend hacking away at my draft and ending up with fewer words than when I started. It turns out that Googling Dr Seuss quotes is a good form of procrastination. Maybe in the future it won’t be Dr Seuss that people will be quoting, but me, when I say: ‘the writer who faffs online breeds too much waste, as most time spent surfing is greatly misplaced.’
It was an email from Renee about how editing finds its own rhythm that got me back on track. She was right. It wasn’t a regular beat, but I finally sent her my updated manuscript last week. To my surprise, the process of editing my first draft was quite different than expected. In the end, it wasn’t the word-smith aspects of editing like thinking about whether I was breeding more words than I need that was difficult. Rather, it was thinking about the big questions. What’s the theme of my book, and how does each of the fourteen stories that make up the overall narrative fit within this? Have I given my characters the right names? Is it too depressing? Does it even work? Are the emotional scenes too cheesy?
While I’ve addressed these questions as best I can, I imagine I’ll be revisiting them and more over the next three months as my manuscript continues to be contorted and reworked in time for the 20 January deadline. Surprisingly, I don’t mind. Like Sam I Am in Green Eggs and Ham, I am reformed. I will edit on a boat, I will edit with a goat. I will edit on a train, I will edit in the rain.
Okay, maybe not. I’ll do it, boringly, at my computer, without any animals to distract me. But I will keep editing, happily, and that’s what really matters.
August: Journal Two
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track down a cloning machine.
If I had a cloning machine, I could have one clone that cooks healthy and nutritious meals, one that works my day job, one that spends time with my children, and one that writes. One would also sit in the corner all day and deal with laundry AKA Mount Washington; which, if successfully navigated, would earn the gold star for being the Most Valued Clone. Ignoring all of the sci-fi I’ve read about how cloning inevitably ends in drama of epic, and usually very creepy proportions, I still like the idea.
But, alas, cloning machines don’t exist. So, my overarching focus of the last month has been to have a really good think about how to maximise my free time so that I am able to write as much as possible. I can’t magic time out of nothing or clone myself, nor will I cut into any of my other duties and neglect my children or job. The challenge, then, is using the free time I’ve got as effectively as possible.
The first step was been being completely honest with myself about how I spend my free time. Loitering around Facebook and giggling at photos of cats is not a good use of time, nor is watching the sort of TV that makes my brain seep out of my ears. While this prioritisation freed up some time, however, this was not as much as I would like.
This brought me to an important realisation: if I’m unable to sit at the computer as much as I’d like, I need to make more use of the little slivers of space in my day to simply think, especially as Renee’s excellent feedback has given me much to think about. Turns out, this extra time to think is often as simple as putting away my phone. For example, instead of surfing the internet on the bus, I try and use this time for thinking, which is 40 minutes a day of extra thinking right there. I read once that mental boredom is like a door: once you push through that door, creativity lies on the other side. I think that’s true. I often start a bus journey twitching for my phone and feeling bored. I am hyper-aware of the person talking behind me, or the sound of someone chewing nearby. Just one peek at the news, I think. Just one quick look at my emails. Has the bus really only gone one stop? Boooooring. Are we there yet? I have to remind myself that the cat photos will still be online when I have submitted my draft manuscript next January, and that the news will have moved on whether I’d read all about it now or not.
Eventually, my thoughts meander off. Before I know it, it’s my stop and I have unpicked an editorial knot or named a character. In the case of one bus trip, I had plotted an entire story which I was then able to draft over a weekend. Using these little slivers of time have been fundamental to making progress, as now, when I sit at my computer, I know exactly what I want to write. The staring at a white screen to typing ratio is better, and I am producing more in the time that I have. This is especially important as I work toward the goal Renee and I have set: a complete manuscript to her by the middle of September.
Maybe not having a cloning machine is a good thing; it’s teaching me mental discipline. Besides, I wouldn’t want to accidentally end up being the clone that spent all day dealing with Mt Washington. No amount of Most Valued Clone gold stars would make that particular fate bearable.
July: Journal One
Since having kids I’ve been a bit like an over-eager puppy when it comes to writing; the hyperactive sort with a short attention span that chases anything that moves.
Since having kids the problem has always been having plenty of ideas, but not enough time or bandwidth to execute them all. I’ve now written two complete novels, but not edited either to my satisfaction. At last count I had started to write four more, one of which is half done and really excites me as a concept, but still remains incomplete. My computer is filled with word documents with titles of short stories but no content, sketches of other novels, half written stories, and the novella that my friends think is funny but probably doesn’t have any appeal to anyone who’s not a Jane Austen junkie. Then there’s the blog, which was fun while building up a readership, but soon turned into a great black whole into which time is thrown, never to return. Writing for me is often sitting down and opening a number of screens, only to flick between them all trying to decide: what should I work on now? What should I focus on next? What is the best thing to spend my time on? Or, like the hyperactive puppy: look, a bird! Must run to bird! Look, another bird! Must chase other bird! Look, another dog! Woof!
Te Papa Tupu has given me what I most need: focus. Not only is it in itself a fantastic opportunity, but in being selected, I have also committed to working on one project for six months. As part of this, I have also mentally committed to opening only one word document at a time, and to only think about my short story collection that I am working on, “Fifty Dollars for Optimus Prime”. Te Papa Tupu means that I’ll have the focus to only chase one bird at a time.
It has also given me something that I’d previously lacked: in my mentor, Reneé, I now have someone to talk to about my writing, someone who is able to offer her priceless insights into my draft and the writing process. I left our first session excited and fired up, motivated to meet the goals we set together to expand, work, and rework (and rework and rework …) my draft to make it the best it can be. We’ve made a plan that allows for at least three months of editing, which I hope will deal with my dog-chasing-a-bird instincts and keep me focused during the second half of the incubator period.
Thanks, Māori Literature Trust for this opportunity; I may feel like I am at the bottom of a mountain, but it’s going to be an interesting climb. Or, an interesting chase of the one bird that is now in my sights.