Shirley Simmonds

January: Turning the page

In this journal entry, I am going to write about many things, including; wairua, hinengaro, tinana, whakapapa, trust, faith, fear, control, courage and freedom. It may be a long read.

In the last month or so, I feel I’ve turned a corner in the writing hīkoi.

The last couple of stories I’ve written have been different. And it’s hard to describe how.

Before, I had often started with the outline of the story in my head: the beginning, the middle and the end perhaps; or the overall feeling or lesson that I wanted to impart; or the experience I wanted to share with the reader. These stories were planned or at least semi-planned. Some of them had been in the back of my mind for years. They came from a space that is led by my hinengaro.

Then recently, I started a story with two lines that literally came out of my peripheral vision when I was writing something else. I threw these lines down on a Word document and came back to them later. What followed was a gradual unfolding of a narrative. I had no idea where the story was going at each step, but that was okay. It meant that each step surprised me and opened up an array of possibilities after it that hadn’t existed before. Characters entered the story that I hadn’t knowingly intended; they had their own voices and contributions; they decided whether they played a major part or not. The story took on a shape that was very atypical. It didn’t have a beginning, middle and end but meandered here then there, then somehow culminated in a very satisfying place. I would leave my computer open during the day and found I could multitask with writing rather than having to wait for a chunk of (child-free) time. I could be cooking dinner, then pop out to tap a few lines on the keyboard. I could be out in the garden and duck in, whisk off my gloves and write a few sentences. If my inspiration flow stopped at that time, well, I’d just stop too – no pressure – and come back to it later. Now and then, I got to sit down and do several paragraphs at a time, but the story, unlike others, was very organic and natural. The next section grew out of the previous section, so the direction and the storyline was decided overall by a collection of tiny micro-decisions along the way. In the same way that whakapapa is a process of layering, the story grew layer by layer. It developed its own whakapapa.

It played out like life does really – it unfolds piece by surprising piece, and the story in life is only revealed with retrospect and reflection. In writing this way, I had to let some things go, one of them being control, and this took courage. Another thing being fear – fear that my story would waffle or be insubstantial or lead nowhere. And letting this go took faith.  Faith that my story would have substance and be interesting.

It is liberating writing this way. When I look back now, I think my earlier stories were somewhat stilted, restrained, confined. Contrived. It was no wonder some of them fizzled out and got nowhere and some of them were a struggle to write. Some of them will require lots of edits and versions before they are anywhere near ready to release to the world. I read recently that the amazing thing about writing is that it often reveals to you what you didn’t know you wanted to say. Recently, I’ve found that I have started out writing a story I think I know what it’s going to be about, based on the first couple of lines, to then discover it is about something entirely different by the time I get to the end.

So now?

… It’s like packing a tent in the car, throwing the map book out the window and just driving to see where you’ll get.

… It’s like taking a dog for a walk on a very long, very loose lead and following where your canine companion goes – up and over the hill, through the park, through someone’s back yard, chasing a cat, sniffing a child, chomping on something unidentified found beneath a bush, running onto the beach and into the waves – rather than walking sedately on the concreted footpath around the block as you had planned.

… It’s like leaving Auckland airport with a one-way ticket to anywhere, a visa card and a backpack.

… It’s like those magic-eye pictures, which never reveal themselves to you when you are trying so hard to see the hidden image, but, instead, if you relax your eyes, relax your mind, the image amazingly appears.

… It’s like entering motherhood and thinking you know what to expect and then finding out on a daily basis, in many different ways, how right you were and also how very wrong.

… It’s like weaving – randomly picking a new whenu each time from a colourful collection of gloriously dyed harakeke strands, weaving it into your work till you get to the end and the colours are all arranged in a different way from when you started, and what you need to do is tie each strand off, fold it over and tuck it back into your final masterpiece.

Oh, and I have found tension too. And voice. The stories are more credible.

With this new way of writing, I have tapped into a wairua space. The story brings itself into existence. And my role?  Tūhia, kia whakatinana mai.

So, sometimes it has worked, and sometimes it hasn’t quite, but to me the important thing is that I’ve found the process for getting there.

There’s an exhilarating sense of freedom that accompanies this kind of writing. I find now a different kind of eagerness to get back to the keyboard; I am constantly looking forward to turning the page in the latest short story in order to read the next page that I have yet to write.

Mauriora ki a koutou

December: Ngā piki me ngā heke

photo Shirl,Tamihana,RaukawaOne of the things that has happened as a part of this writing journey on the incubator is that I have found myself become part of a community I never even knew existed. There are online writing groups, Facebook groups, conferences and events around the country, competitions, publication launches, Te Hā Māori writers’ group and Ngā Pou Kaituhi Māori for writers in te reo.  The more you participate in this community, the more it expands. I feel like I’ve found a secret society.

It’s interesting (and sometimes a bit intimidating) to hear or read of other writers’ trials and errors, successes and knock-backs. One Facebook group asked members to post a picture of their desk to share. Up popped a stream of neat, orderly desks (did they tidy them before the picture?). Mine is more like a nest.


Somewhere beneath a pile of random books and bills to pay, photos of whānau and artwork by my boys, surrounded by chocolate wrappers and coffee cups is my laptop where everything happens. Or, admittedly, sometimes doesn’t happen. Last year I painted my office Khaleesi Blue. Resene had another name for this colour, but Game of Thrones fans will understand. The idea was that the room would ‘bring out one’s inner Khaleesi’, i.e., mine. What I really like about the room is the view out the window: fruit trees, lots of green and yes, that’s right – piglets! (How do I concentrate on writing when there are piglets to tickle?)


That’s my youngest son, Raukawa. I also painted a wall in this room with whiteboard paint, which has become my space for creative brainstorming or to do lists in an attempt at organising my life. A place to jot key learnings from my mentor that I need to keep in mind while I write, like these:


I need more tension. I wrote a story this past week, and I think it had tension. It focussed on the dynamics of relationships, hints at conflicts, a bit of mystery. The ending was designed to keep the reader thinking did this happen or did that happen? I asked someone to read it over for me, and she said, yep, she definitely wanted to keep reading, so that’s a good sign. I’ve only just submitted it to Tina, so we’ll see what she thinks.

Meanwhile this month has been eventful for me and my boys. We lost one of the rangatira in our whānau, and this has impacted us all quite significantly. For this, we have had trips back home to Pikitu, our marae, which is valuable whānau time and a step in the process of healing the mamae of loss. Raukawa got sick, and got sick fast, which required a trip to A & E. He’s okay now. Then I got sick with a bug that meant I was good for nothing for a while and grateful that my boys’ big sister was here to take over parental duties while I was unable to move with the alternating chills and hot flushes of a freaky virus. I’m okay now. In the midst of all this, Rūaumoko rumbled, Tāwhiri-mātea blew and Ranginui shed prolific tears. Oh, and there was a supermoon.

Life is full of tension.

But there are joys too. Tamihana and Raukawa had their first stage kapa haka performance a couple of weeks ago; they have started waka ama recently, which they love; and last week, the kura came to visit our place for a farm experience – for which the weather didn’t oblige – but we managed to feed animals in between torrential rain showers and eat copious amounts of wood-fired pizza. Flowers are turning to fruit on the trees outside, piglets are growing and compost is composting. In my spare time (such that it is), I’m bottling elderflower cordial, planting kamokamo seedlings and harvesting garlic, blue peas and strawberries. Life is full, and I am evermore finding places where writing fits into this full life.

Mauriora ki a tātou.

November: Time, Space, Place

I’m starting to gain a new appreciation of Time. Of course I never had enough of it already, but the other day I lost three hours and gained a paragraph. I thought it was quite a nice paragraph, but still. Ultimately it may yet be cut out during an edit of this particular story, and then pooff! there goes those three hours. Even if it stays in the story, it would only take the reader a matter of seconds to read it, and that is my next realisation: the time it takes to write a piece of writing is not the same as the time it takes to read a piece of writing (lightbulb moment). There’s probably a mathematical equation for it that uses terminology like ‘inversely proportional to’ or ‘exponential’. I used to like maths.

In my attempt to let go of adjectives, I’m making my verbs work harder, such as replacing walked with other alternatives like ambled, strolled, marched, meandered, and so on. It removes the temptation to use a nasty adverb after walked. I’ve also discovered that there are ‘telling’ adjectives and ‘showing’ adjectives. For example:

(a) perfect eyebrows (telling)

(b) vs sculpted eyebrows (showing)

In example (b) you can picture these eyebrows; they are carefully plucked, perhaps waxed by a beautician. They are arched and the edges of each eyebrow are clear and distinct and not blurred by forgotten stubble and regrowth. The hair of the eyebrow has been brushed with one of those tiny brushes, perhaps they are also tinted or outlined with an expensive eyebrow pencil to further define them.

So much image from one word. Which makes me realise the importance of the Space between the words. Or the words written in white font between the words in black font – the ones that the writer didn’t actually write but the reader will read because the reader will fill in the space.

When I first started out on this hīkoi, I remember Tina saying something like: ‘… trust the reader, let the reader bring their imagination to the table, let them engage with the story …’ and it makes sense. I’m still working at showing, not telling. I think it’s a whakamana process; you are acknowledging what the reader is bringing to the story, and allowing it to happen.  When you tell something, you remove the mana of the words gone before.

At Te Hā Māori Writers’ hui last month, presenters talked about writing from the white-hot Place inside you. Writing with passion and feeling. I’ve come to realise that everything I’ve ever written has been inspired by a truth and based in reality. That writing was also a kind of cathartic process, so it definitely came onto the page with passion and feeling. That’s perhaps also why it had never been shared before because it has been intensely personal. Now I’m writing fiction, and I need to get past this feeling that I’m telling lies because that, by definition, is what fiction is. It’s made up. I need to let go of that feeling and still tap into the white-hot place. However, sometimes I feel like I still –



Let go.

October: Journal Four

I have two photos of my koro that I just love. At the beginning of Te Papa Tupu, I put them in frames on the wall next to my desk.

The photos are taken at the front of the kāuta at our marae, Pikitu. It’s about 1965. Koro is telling a story while they all wait for the hāngi stones to heat. Seated in a circle around him are his avid listeners – sons, nephews, nieces, brothers. My dad is in this group. When I look at their faces, the words ‘enraptured’ and ‘captivated’ come to my mind. Koro is in the throes of his tale, and he’s telling it with his entirety.

When I look at the pictures, I wish I was there. I wish I’d heard the story, wish I’d heard the punchline, wish I’d been there for the outburst of laughter at the end.

My koro passed away when I was seven, and the first story I ever remember writing was when I was in fourth form and it was about his death.

Tina says the pattern of a story is imprinted in our DNA. I hope so. This month I’ve got to a stage where everything feels very messy – stories have gone back and forth to Tina for feedback and revisions, exercises sent through for comments and suggestions. I’ve learnt a lot of new strategies and techniques and am working at putting them into practice – they’re not automatic; I have to think at each step of the way. Nothing yet is polished or completed. I’m having bouts of self-doubt, and in order to stop the slightly panicky feeling of time slipping by, I find I need to remind myself often that there are still some months to go. I’m meeting with Tina this week, so I know this will help to recalibrate.

One thing I do know is that Te Papa Tupu is helping me in other areas of my mahi. I feel my writing is more focussed. I whipped out three abstracts for a conference in record time a few weeks ago, typed up a research proposal in little more than one evening recently and also submitted for a storytelling category in a public health conference that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered doing. Somehow, I’ve written a couple of poems – something that hasn’t really happened since high school.

Oh, and I’m going to the National Māori Writers’ Hui this weekend. I’m looking forward to being inspired and re-energised.

Mauriora ki a koutou

September: A list of lists

List Number One: What I have learned this month

1.   I tend more towards writing anecdotes rather than stories.

2.   There’s a difference between an anecdote and a story.

3.   I need to be writing stories.

4.   It can take longer to do a review of a story than it took to write the story in the first place.

5.   My idea of reviewing a story was different from Tina’s.

6.   Sometimes reviewing a story means taking an entirely new, fresh page.

7.   Composting and pruning don’t happen only in the garden!

List Number Two: Mantras

I am developing a collection of brief mottos that help encompass some of my learnings from Tina and keep me focused on what I need to focus on.

1.   Be specific

2.   Don’t tell it, show it

3.   Build tension

4.   Go deeper

Tina gave me some writing tasks to do. Just like one might go to the gym for body exercises, I sit at the keyboard for writing exercises. They are a challenge and push me out of my natural way of thinking about writing, which means that sometimes a writing gym workout might go like this:





[selectall] delete


As you can imagine, it’s hard to reach a 1000-word average daily goal when this is happening. I’ve heard it said several times that:

1.   No-one cares about your first draft

2.   Just get it down on paper

3.   You can always change it afterwards.

(That was List Number Three by the way.) I’ve realised that I do actually care about my first draft. I spend 90 percent of my time thinking and planning and mentally drafting for every 10 percent of time actual writing. One of my strategies for getting around this is to think about writing all of the time that I’m not actually writing in order to increase that proportion of my day. It means that now I’m noticing life’s fine details, everything is profound and, suddenly, there’s another commentary going on. I no longer simply ‘walk into the kitchen’, instead; ‘I pause, hand on the kitchen door, heart pounding and every nerve jangling. I take a deep breath and enter to face … the dishes’ mountain!’, for example. And a conversation with a friend entails noticing every gesture, every nuance of expression, every tone and inflection, and I barely control saying ‘she said’ or ‘I said’ after everything that, er, she said or I said.  Do writers do this all the time?

The other strategy brings me to my final list, which has just one item in it. (Does that still make it a list?) It’s not original, it’s been said before. However, here it is, List Number Four:

1.   Just write.


August: Journal Two

I am officially one week into the writing incubator (having had a delayed start), and this week, I am learning to ‘cut the fat’. I’ve come to realise that I have a love of adjectives. They are just so … descriptive. But many of these will have to go.

I thought I might not like this process – to cut and trim and pare away the words, but actually, my overall feeling is that I’m both interested and curious to see what is revealed. I liken it, I guess, to a sculptor or a kaiwhakairo … perhaps they start with a block of tōtara or Ōamaru stone and do a rough cut first to get an overall impression of the final carving, step back, take a good long look, think, then reach for a different tool to finely carve the detail, to hone and shape to a point of satisfaction and completion.

Tina’s guidance has equipped me with this tool; now I just need to practise using it. I look forward to the day when I can sit back with the printouts of two stories:  the one I started off with in one hand and the finished product in the other.

I have also been recommended to read, read, read … what luxury! My relationship with reading has fluctuated over the course of my life. A voracious reader as a child, this changed somewhat throughout university years as reading was no longer for pleasure but for an academic purpose. Then I got busy with ‘life’ and travelled and studied and had dramas and relationships and work and children, etcetera, and reading became an intermittent indulgence or something that happened on a train, a long-haul flight or in the last exhausted moments of the day only to result in sleeping with a book on my face or embedded in my cheek.

Now I am reading for both pleasure and a purpose. I have a new lens for perusing short stories. I am absorbing the rhythm and shape of the tale, exploring techniques and observing strategies used. And what an absolute treat it is to be doing this – to be devouring these books without any sense of guilt or ‘I should be doing somethiSteph booksng else’ because actually this is exactly what I should be doing, and Te Papa Tupu has provided that space.

Patricia Grace – she’s legend. I’m revisiting stories I haven’t read since school and have discovered several I’ve never read. My bedside table looks like this, really it does.
Hei tērā mārama koutou katoa.

July: Journal One

I am many things … I am a mother, a gardener, a teacher, a researcher, a facilitator, an evaluator …

But am I a writer?

I am a Māori. I am Ngāti Huri. I am a friend, a lover, a colleague, a workmate …

But am I a writer?

I am a sister, an aunty, a daughter, a stepmother, a woman, a scientist …

I wrote some short stories. Does that make me a writer?

I’m sometimes inspired to put down my thoughts, my ideas, my experiences onto paper, to offload, to express, to purge. In May 2016, I gathered these strewn thoughts, drew them together and shaped them into four short stories, and with trepidation, apprehension, exhilaration and daring, I pressed the entry button on the HUIA website, Te Papa Tupu Writing Incubator.

And so here I am, July 2016, on the verge of a journey. An egg for the incubator.

And it’s not without apprehension that I enter into this journey. I wonder what will come of it. I wonder if I can do it. I fear that there will be times that inspiration doesn’t flow, that I might sit at my laptop, fingers poised and then freeze, that I might open my notebook, pencil poised and nothing springs forth, that I might start a story and not know how it finishes. I wonder how I’ll manage critique of my work, having to change or delete words and paragraphs that I so painstakingly crafted.

Most of all, I wonder how I will cope with baring elements of my soul for all to read.


I’m putting these apprehensions to the side. They are there sure enough, but I’m going to refocus that energy into creative energy and put my everything into these next six months because I really am interested to see what will come of it and because I know that this is an amazing opportunity, a golden opportunity – or better still, a pounamu opportunity.

I am looking forward to the creative vent.

I have a wonderful mentor whose writing I admire, who is inspiring, whom I can relate to. We have a delay to the start of our journey as mentor and mentee with a start date in early August. That’s fine by me as it gives me an extra month to draw in a deep breath. Hā ki roto.

Writing – will this become one of the things that defines who I am?

Am I a writer?

Mā te wā ka kite.

Ask me again in February 2017.

3 thoughts on “Shirley Simmonds

  1. Rawiri Neil Mckinney says:

    You are a writer a story teller and a weaver of words both orally and on paper. Words are a gift and are easier to take back if spoken but why would you just settle for that. Dream on and dream until your dreams come true (Steven Tyler)


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