Category Archives: Art

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A Little Distance

Category : Art

Well, it happened again. Insert sensationalist news headline here. Earthquakes are a-quaking. But not right under me. Not here. Not this time. We felt the biggie, sat up in bed, said ‘Is that a… oh shiiiit,” and zig-zagged to the doorway, but all the hundreds of after shocks, all hours, night and day, we don’t feel them. Not this time.

And it makes all the difference. Like when your baby starts sleeping for more than 2 hours at a time—blows  you away how much better you feel, how your brain and body remember how to function the next day. World of difference, and it comes as a surprise.

We get to feel capable. I get to feel like some kind of super hero. Like I’m something special because I can get on with life despite it all.

juggle and drop

I can handle the jandal. Helps that the jandal only gave me a gentle caress upside the head, no skin-tearing ear ringer.

Don’t get me wrong, we are weary again. Packing go-bags and filling the water drum from last time, wondering where we put the little battery-powered radio. The day after the biggie that lifted seabed up out of the water and shook the hills off their perches, and stretched the railway tracks around the coast like tinsel draped around a tree—the next day I went to do the groceries. Did a big shop too. Our supply lines are cut, right? Time to pack the cupboards with dried noodles and tinned beans, and other things we may never eat, if all goes well. But just in case there’s a shortage coming… so I’m rolling around Pak’nSave, trolley laden, and I find myself back in my old habit of stopping at the start of an aisle and casing the place, pinpointing where along the ailse I’ll find the four things I want so that I can dash and grab, bee-line and get out quick. Just in case. Spend as little time as possible caged in by towering shelves lined with glass bottles and jars and tins that’d likely brain me if they flew out, if the fault faltered again.

And we’re assured it will. So it’s not unreasonable to think this way.

Tiring, though. And old. Gets old fast now. Only a week later I did the whole shop and the thought only popped into my head once, and not until after I’d done the olive oil aisle.

amymeh

Yep, I’m getting blasé already. Getting good nights’ sleeps, and nothing fell out of the cupboard when it was a seven point fiver, so…

We’re just that little bit further away. Not even 200kms but still… a little distance makes an enormous difference. The kids slept through. They don’t seem stressed. They talk about making themselves into turtles and crawling under tables like its a game.

I’ve been supervising exams these past few weeks and I’m in there for three hours with almost nothing to do, walking up and down rows of these kids. And thinking. And for some of that time I’m thinking about how they were ten or eleven when Christchurch was hit hard. Anxiety in this age group is meant to be way out of whack. Across Canterbury, mental health issues are significantly increased, post quakes. How many parents are watching their teenagers and wondering if some awful moment is a normal teenage grappling with impending adulthood or something else?

But I might get to skip that, as a parent. My kids are just young enough, just far enough out of reach. Lucky for us. But I feel for those near the action now. I remember—not perfectly, no one does maybe, but enough. In the thick of constant preparing and wondering and what-ifs, you can only really react. Even the plans you make are reactions in disguise.

disguise

It looks and feels like a plan, proactive and careful, but nope. Just a reaction. A ruse!

Time and geographical distance is what I have now, and both give me the space to think in a very different way. Not a reaction but a considered, self-aware processing.

I can choose not to check geonet constantly, not to tune in to every news broadcast and fill my head with the cycle of stories—stories of tragedy, near-misses, even the wonderful stories, the happy ones, contribute to a kind of obsession.

I can choose to get my head out of earthquakes, this time.

It didn’t seem like an option last time. Obsession was required—or seemed to be. Of course it’s easy now. Easy not to be obsessed. Easy to tell others not to become obsessed, to warn them it won’t help.

Much harder for those there.

I can step out of myself, almost, and watch my response. I can separate the visceral reactions for the ones I can control. I’ve figured out: I can’t help looking up to see if the lampshades are swinging but I can choose not to get on Facebook and feed off everyone else’s responses.

I’m far enough removed to notice how this whole thing translates so readily to art—this distance, with it’s pros and cons.

When you first create something, you are so close to it, moved by it, reactive, obsessed. Necessarily so. Attempts to be self-aware and moderate, and any pretense of getting on with normal life, is seldom successful and if it doesn’t feel just plain ridiculous it probably, at the very least, is bad for the art itself.

Distance, though, does several things. Time teaches you to see the work objectively. You can measure its impact, see its strengths, weaknesses, self-indulgence and spark of genius. Quakes can bring out the genius, the generosity, the community potential we all kept so well under wraps when life was ticking along and we didn’t need to rely on each  other. In the throes of making art, the art and the artist can be completely unpredictable, can do things no one can explain. At the time, it may seem madness. Later, though, the madness shakes out and it becomes clear which bits were brilliant and which were, perhaps a necessary part of the process but not something to hold on to and retain and revisit and celebrate.

goldpanning

Shake it out. Find the gold. Toss the grit.

Distance has its pitfalls too. Feeling less can suck all the heart out of art, and that’s a problem because,

“the most important element of art or architecture is human emotion.”

– Barak Obama in a speech just this week, awarding Medals of Freedom to a whole raft of people including designer and artist Maya Lin.

He’s so right. Art is important because it has an impact on people. The way it influences or moves people might vary wildly, but it is those responses that lend art enormous value.

Distance can also make you blase about the value of your creation. The rush of passion and sense of importance, the urgency and vitality that pushed you through, you can’t feel that way all day every day. It’s exhausting.

tiredrory

So. Very. Exhausting.

But the absence or presence or intensity of that feeling isn’t a reliable measure of the value of your work.

Distance can be a wonderful thing and I am so very aware of this—every time I see a quake tweet and didn’t feel a thing, every time I watch a light shade swing and then look over to see my kids continuing their colouring-in, blissfully unaware… hurrah for distance! But it comes with dangers too. Feeling less. Forgetting what matters. Being faithless, even: to yourself, your experience, your creation, your community.

I have no easy answer here. No cure. No fix. It’s a tension we’ll have to sit with, struggle with. Along with the survivor’s guilt and some variety of impostor’s syndrome, the best thing is first to become aware. Be patient. Be kind—to yourself and others. Be present. In fact, that’s always good advice for artists. Being present makes for excellent material. And it’ll slow you down a bit, which makes for healthier artists. Working artists. Truer art.

This post was going to end here. Feel free to stop reading, by the way, but I just thought of another application for this distance pro/con conundrum.

Politics.

Honestly, feel free to stop reading.

Geography puts me, if not out of reach of a particular narcissistic megalomaniac (yes, the one who is making even the Dutch reconsider the colour orange), then at least in the far reaches of the danger zone. Socio-economic factors put me out of touch with numerous aspects of NZ’s politics. Ability, education, race, sexuality, age, body type and gender can give you proximity or distance from any given movement or issue or piece of legislation. Having diverse friends will lend you proximity to issues you would otherwise easily, unwittingly, be untouched by.

I am a white, cis, hetero, able, young, employable, educated home-owner. I could choose to feel less about so many things. I have the luxury of that choice. I could forget the importance of issues that don’t touch me, and be faithless. It’s easier for me than for most.

Distance can be nice. Easy. I get to feel capable, independent, in control. When distance is dropped in your lap, accepting it is instinctive.

gift

Oooh, goodies. For me? Yes please.

But can I implore? Is that allowed? Please, bridge the distance. Seek to feel more—for yourself, and your humanity, and for others. Choose not to forget how important these things are to the daily lives of other people and their families. Choose to be faithful, first in thought, and then follow where that leads.

A little distance can be a good thing, a much-needed breather, but too much and we all lose out. In politics—which is far reaching. In art. In civil defense.


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love books

Top 5 Stupid Reasons to look down your nose at Romance

I spent the weekend at the Romance Writers of New Zealand annual conference. And I’ve said so, head held high, to every school parent and friend who has asked how my weekend was.

IT WAS AMAZING.

This is an incredible group of writers, from beginners struggling to put the final chapters of their first novel on paper, to the multi-million-copies-sold bona fide royalty of the genre. Everyone was so welcoming and encouraging, hard-working and genuine and generous. I had a blast! And I learned so much. I’ve come away inspired and rip-roaring ready to rework a couple of old manuscripts that aren’t yet gleaming and resplendent.

So, I had a wonderful weekend. And people ask, ‘what did you get up to?’ so I tell them.

I’m sorry to say their responses have been a little hit-and-miss.

It won’t be news to anyone that Romance is a genre often disparaged, and people will give a couple of ‘good reasons’ for that. For instance…

1. Well it’s not Dickens, is it.

Alternatives include mentions of ‘trash’ and vague allusions to the quality of the writing and the depth of the story.

Here’s the thing, Dickens was the popular fiction of his day. Shakespeare was enjoyed by the illiterate as well as the intellectuals. Hundreds of years later we dub them classics but in their day they were accessible to everyone. They were cheap and common—and brilliant.

challinorYou can’t argue with the figures: romance is certainly POPULAR fiction. As to its quality, well, it varies. As in any genre, there is trash out there, sure, but there is treasure too. Rich, rewarding, well-written treasure. I’m reading The Silk Thief by Deborah Challinor and she’s a genius (and a New Zealand author).

gabaldonPerhaps you’ve come across Outlander? Diana Gabaldon has answered the elitists numerous times and done it better than I can (what with the multi-million dollar book and TV behemoth to back her up) but the quality of the story-telling in these books, and in NUMEROUS others, is right up there. It’s not just romance, I hear you say. No, it’s a melange of many genres—but romance is one of them.

2. It’s chick-porn.

The word ‘chick’. Ick. We are not baby birds.

But that’s not the worst of it. One of the main reasons that Romance is so derided throughout the literary world (and the non-literary world) is the dominance of women in the industry. Women read romance, they write it, they edit it and sell it. Women are making the big bucks and have huge influence through their stories. Of course there are men writing and reading romance but look at the marketing of Romance novels. It’s shockingly pink. It’s not subtle. That’s how marketing works.

Genres that primarily target men NEVER suffer from this belittling. There are rubbish books in all genres, but only in Romance do people assume the writing is rubbish, the story predictable. What is it that makes it perfectly acceptable, rarely even questioned, when you’re looking down your nose at a Romance novel. Is it because the main character is a woman, the writer is a woman, and probably the editor too? Because it is about women’s experience?

history

Not good enough.

Now, about the porn. The porn industry uses, abuses, and destroys women, in their fictions and too often in real life. Meanwhile, the Romance industry gives top priority to a woman’s needs, her pleasure, and her very self. Women are shown to be whole and complex human beings, not THINGS to be used. Once upon a time, sure, romance novels featured weak heroines in need of saving, but not any more. The heroines in your average Romance novel these days are the masters of their own fates. They save the day, and more often than not, save the hero.

Of course, many Romance novels include sex scenes. Not all, but often they do. Yeah. So do many thrillers. And literary fiction’s never shied from the subject. Erotica is a genre of it’s own if you want to get down to technicalities. If you take issue with any book featuring sex then hey, that’s up to you, but it’s hardly limited to Romance.

3. It’s formulaic.

I once agreed with this. I thought, ‘oh it’d be so easy to write a romance novel,’ and I was so very wrong. I’m not going to to get down and dirty with semantics; there is a formula, but it’s one you’ll find across the board. It’s a pattern almost universal in fiction, whether in novels, film, television, comics, or plays.

The formula is this:

  1. Create a character: someone interesting, who readers will empathise with, and who wants something.
  2. Depict a world in which that character operates—and has good reason for not going after the thing they want, until…
  3. Incite an event which kicks them into action—now they’re going after the thing they want. And unknowingly, they’re going after the thing they really need. But this is all seamlessly woven in.
  4. Concoct a whole lot of problems and obstacles: be careful here, make sure these are believable and logical in the world, and for the character(s), or else the whole thing will feel contrived.
  5. Show how the character responds to those problems, gets stronger and wiser… to the point when they lose everything and must face their darkest hour, their true need, their true self. Make the reader think there’s no hope, no way out. All is lost.
  6. And finally, surprise us when the character achieves what they want and what they need (happy ending) or getting what they need but not what they want (bittersweet ending) or neither (tragedy).

In many ways, a good romance is more difficult to write than many other genres because you have to intertwine the journeys of two characters. To do it well and convincingly is HARD.

What makes romance different: some kind of happy ending is guaranteed.

Oh, wait, that’s true of the vast majority of mysteries, legal dramas, thrillers, comics… hm.

As an aside, Romance writers often cross genres. Over the weekend I met people writing paranormal romance, romantic thrillers, horror, sci-fi, urban fantasy, historical, and every combination of the above. The genre is in fact incredibly diverse.

4. It’s so commercial.

They’re in it for the money. They’re sell-outs. Pen-monkey whores.

Heaven forbid an artist should have food on the table and a non-leaky roof overhead.

But it’s true, Romance does pay. Between Romance Novels and Adult colouring books, the publishing industry is keeping its head above water.

screen-shot-2015-01-19-at-13-51-33

You don’t have to like them or read them, just as I don’t have to pick up a supernatural thriller or a paranormal horror. There’s no harm in liking different types of books. That’s not the issue here.

Read what you like. But don’t hate on Romance.

In fact, the revenue the Romance genre pulls in is keeping the publishers above water. And these are the same publishers putting out the books you do read.

So, shut up and be grateful.

5. They’re easy reads.

Romance is easy to read. It’s true. These books are great fun and no doubt about it.

HOW and WHY is this an insult? Seriously! And yet, by the tone, the look, the something, I KNOW it’s meant as an insult. And I can only assume this is said by someone who doesn’t actually ENJOY reading.

booksmell

I like reading. I read because it’s fun. You don’t have to read. You’re not obliged. But many do like it.

I also like watching TV. Some days I feel like Gilmore Girls,  other days Breaking Bad. Some days I want The West Wing, others I’m all about Will and Grace.

lollipops

I loved The Goldfinch and The Luminaries, but why should that limit my enjoyment of this GENIUS Deborah Challinor book. The next title on my to-be-read-list is Letters to Love by Soraya Lane (another New Zealand writer) and the last thing I read was Sheltering Rain by Jojo Moyes.

You may call them ‘easy reads’ or ‘beach books’, but I’m confused… is reading meant to be hard? Unpleasant? A chore? Am I supposed to get to the end of the book and feel relieved that it’s over and I can put the book proudly on living room shelf and impress the neighbours. I can say I’ve read it, yes, cover to cover, and it was fascinating, really challenging and so artfully complex…

Bring on the fascinating. The challenging. The artfully complex. But a book can be all those things and enjoyable. If that sounds silly, you’re doing it wrong. A book can be deep, psychologically fraught, and still a page-turner. In fact, it probably has to be.

I don’t want to tick off books like I do errands. I want to get to the end and be gutted there isn’t more.

I want a book to make me anti-social.

Make me want to neglect my kids.

Make me think.

Make me laugh.

Make me wallow and then make me WOW.

mirren

I know, I expect a lot. But there are A LOT of good books out there. And a lot of them have love stories in them. And many of those are Romances.

So the next time someone puts on that tone, or makes that face, or says that stupid thing… I’ll probably be polite and laugh it off and pretend they’re not belittling what I’ve been working toward for five years now, because I’m a nice person.

But don’t be one of those people.


This article is also featured on the NZ Society of Authors Canterbury website.


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On being a great loser

For starters, never begin a game of Risk. No good can come of it. Fun, fun, fun, rising blood pressure, glee, despair, fury, philosophical levels of doubt about your value and place in the universe because if you were worth anything you’d surely roll something above a two!

I’ve never been great at losing. Some people are cool, calm, untouchable. Not me. When it’s board games, I’m getting better. Sometimes I still want to cry. I remember, one time, my husband and I once spent two days straight playing chess and late on the second day I won a game. I might have won two, total. It was long ago, before we had kids, and there was this great vibe about it: I’d decided I was allowed to lose, to begin with, at least, because I’d never really played before. This was learning to play chess and we kept playing until I had a fighting chance.

Losing without a fighting chance is the losing that sucks. So Risk is out because it’s a little tact and a lot of luck. Games that are a lot of luck drive me crazy. It doesn’t help that my husband is insanely lucky. No lottery winnings as yet but seriously, if a game is luck-reliant, he’s in. Lucky Luuk, we call him.

Okay, it’s just me who calls him that.

I’m much better than I used to be at losing at board games, anyway. The trick is playing lots and losing lots, I suppose. And winning often enough to not feel totally useless helps.

But boardgames are the baby pool, aren’t they. Stakes are low. Hours of your life (more or less) wasted unless you CONQUER, but no real stakes. No money, career, livelihood, DREAM on the line.

On the other hand, when I’m talking about my writing… ouch.

I have been sending out a heap of writing submissions: query letters to lit agents, to publishers, manuscripts, partials, short stories and flash fiction, poetry too, for competitions and journals. I’ve been doing this for years now, actually, and most of that time it was silence or rejection. Polite, impersonal form rejection.

But every now and then I’d get feedback. Notes on my work, not general niceties, but constructive criticism. It was a good sign. My work was worth the time and energy of saying something about it: that something being the reason it wasn’t right for whatever I’d submitted it for.

A step in the right direction, however painful.

I figured out that I wanted to get those notes before sending it out to be rejected. I needed criticism during the writing process, or rather, during the rewriting process (but that is part of the writing process, really.)

I had this AMAZING writer’s group in Paris. They gave brilliant notes. They didn’t hold back and yet none of it was cruel. It wasn’t me and my work versus the critique group; it was me and the critique group versus my work. It wasn’t personal, though my writing often was and is.

I lap up criticism. But once upon a time, it was personal, even if it came from a lovely, warm, collaborative place. I didn’t know how to separate myself and my worth, from the work and its worth.

I don’t lap up rejection, of course not, but I’m pretty good at taking the hit and getting up and getting on with more submissions or more rewrites or something else entirely.

But once upon a time it was THE END OF THE WORLD. My one almost-novel wasn’t good enough (and, in truth, it was not, and thank you lucky stars it didn’t go anywhere because embarrassing) and therefore I was not good enough. Rejecting that one manuscript was rejecting my entire body of work.

No one gets to do that anymore. No one sees my entire body of work. It’s more than a million words now and oy vey, right? That’s a lot of words.

When I get a rejection now, it’s one of MANY, rejecting one of MANY stories, poems, novels… Compared to that baby writer, a decade ago, a rejection now is a blip on the radar. It hurts, but it doesn’t take me out. I still write that day. I don’t chuck the lot. I don’t even chuck that story.

 

I’m sure different people have different processes and experiences, but for me it’s like learning patience: the only way to do it is to wait. For ages. It sucks. But you can’t learn to be patient without being impatient for, oh, hours.

Learning how to take rejection is the same: take lots of it, one way or the other, and you’ll get better. Which, I know, and I’m sorry, is NOT what anyone wants to hear, unless they’re well into years of getting rejection, and there’s the hope that it’ll start to pay off.

And one day, it won’t be rejection. It’ll be constructive criticism.

And then it might well be a few more rejections. Or years.

And one day it will be a yes.


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I’m a big girl now

Pull-ups, wow!

Just me? There was an ad, back in the day. Catchy tune. I’m singing it in my head.

Fine, out loud.

Oh look, there it is:

so that’s a tangent for a start. Gosh.

What was I going to say?

Right – I had a birthday. I’m now THIRTY-ONE.

To my ears, thirty is such a nice round number and when kids ask my age (they do… regularly. High schoolers try to wheedle it out, doing the math… so I just tell them) I say thirty without hesitation. Thirty-one, though, sounds like too much information. An over-share. Like, seriously, I didn’t need your whole life story.

Just me?

Maybe I should title this post ‘Just me?’

So, I’m another year older. Blah blah. My birthday present was going to see Dawn French a month ago. She was brilliant (of course) but that meant not much $$ left for celebrating on my actual birthday.

Two days before my actual birthday, Luuk and I went to a thing put on by the theatre program at Hagley – where I take an evening class. The school of cuisine fed us four courses between scenes. It was a whole do, and great fun, but not strictly birthday fun.

Mum and Dad, the legends they are, were determined to have a meal on my actual birthday, so we had teppanyaki. Delicious and a dinner with a show too because FIRE! Veritable pyrotechnics.

And… exciting news! I got a video camera. So… vlogs coming your way soon. And movies. And we’ll see about that web series I’ve been writing.

Now that I’m THIRTY-ONE, I suppose I am a grown-up. I’m writing this in PJs, naturally. But something very grown-up happened a week ago: I was elected CHAIR of the Canterbury branch of The New Zealand Society of Authors.

I’m a chair.

chair

Yep. I came home and said to Luuk, “You’re married to a chair.”

Not very grown up, after all, perhaps.

In fact, so long as I use the words ‘grown up’, I’m giving myself away, aren’t I?

What does being CHAIR mean? Well, not just running the meetings but that is a big part of it, and I’ve no qualms about running a room, putting on my teacher voice so everything sits down and gets on with it. Back to the agenda folks. Lovely tangent but save it…

So I’m all set for that bit of it. I am aware I don’t know the ins-and-outs of NZ publishing and I don’t know all the names. But I have the gumption to ask. Cold call or cold email (more likely) the top dogs and queen writer-bees of this fine land, asking for favours, tips, tricks…

Unfortunately, I had to take the kids along to the first meeting I chaired; it being school hols. And my lovely Mum being sequestered to do actual paid work… so no sitter. But the kids were pretty good with their lunch boxes and colouring books.

And after the meeting,  we got to see Ray‘s Harley!

harley baby

The kids were so scared by the NOISE that they didn’t want to sit on the back for a photo. So I gave Louis the camera and he took this.

One day, I want an actual ride. This’d be some step up from the farm bikes I’ve been on in the past.

So, ’tis school holidays. Which means no breather for me. Not much writing. Low expectations of productivity. The bare minimum I need to do in the next ten days is…

  • three submissions – a short story competition, a poetry thing, and two flash fiction pieces…
  • write a poem a day because NaPoWriMo is on and so far I’ve managed, and it’s too late to give up now.

How??? In short: we are doing a kind of Playground Tour of Christchurch, basically.

margaret mahy playground

The Margaret Mahy one in the city is brilliant, of course, but ends in soaked kids (and one day I’ll learn to pack a change of clothes…).

playground writing

This one at West Spreydon School is freakin’ awesome. Enormous ropes and screeds of massive tyres, a proper wooden fort and lots of slides. The kids love it so we’ll go back there.

The Cashmere Playground is, as always, excellent. We go there regularly so it’s not so special-occasion-y but close. And close to a decent coffee shop.

Win and win.

While the weather is good, we’re good.

I don’t get much done, just a few poems, a few minutes of nothing but my own thoughts for company, and when I run out of words, I can read.

I’m trying to get on top of one cleaning/tidying job each day. We did the kids’ art one afternoon. Another, I traded out my (design flawed) bedside table for a small bookshelf and tidied my side of the bed. Another day we cleared the lounge and – wait for it – vacuumed! I know. Miracle. Call me Domestic Goddess and be done with it.

Elena is, this moment, drawing me with a crown on.

We are going to make a movie today, so they’re drawing up plans. Yay for happy, busy kids.

 


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Launched

Category : Art , Education

The gorgeous book was gorgeously launched! The Laboratory, Lincoln’s very own brew bar, was packed to the rafters with writerly types. Good beer, good poetry, and lots of “I can’t believe how many people are here! I thought no one liked poetry!”

The place was buzzing. A real party. With TWO mayors. (A week later, I can only remember the name one of them.)

christchurch mayor at the launch

There she is, the lovely Lianne Dalziel. She said poets can say things mayors aren’t allowed to. I like her.

So the book is ‘Leaving the Red Zone’. The editors are Jo Preston and Jim Norcliffe, veritable pillars of the writing community in these parts. I’d met Jim before but Jo was new, and a total dream of an M.C. – tearing up with all the feels one moment, making dirty jokes the next. I think we might one day be best friends, basically.

There are 148 poems in this baby, from 87 different poets, and I knew that before I got to the bar. I’d had a pretty lousy day, to be honest. It started horribly early – but on theme, if nothing else – with a couple of earthquakes. And then, from dawn to dusk, I was plagued with all those awful things our brains tell us on pivotal days.

Examples:

  • I bet they took every poem. I’m not special.
  • I’m in it, therefore the standard can’t be very high.
  • I’m not a poet. I’m a novelist.
  • It’ll be a rubbish self-pub-looking pamphlet

And then I got to The Laboratory, bought a pint, found a friend, and man alive! The place was packed out. The book is gorgeous. Seriously, it’s just a nice-looking, nice-feeling book. And enormous – no pamplet. And it turns out, the editors received 10 times as many submissions as they put in the book.

me and the book

One highlight: the honorary mention of the one poem that they wanted to, but didn’t dare, publish: something about Gerry Brownlee that might have been actionable. I still wonder why that poem wasn’t read at the launch. That’d be covered by freedom of speech. Sure. Come on. Inquiring minds want to know. (Inquiring minds are never fond of Brownlee, after all.)

Sometimes

There it is, the first two stanzas of my baby. It’s official: I’m published.

What’s weirder is that I’m a poet.

So here’s the ugly truth: I’m kind of disappointed that for all the hours and hours, all the dollars and euros and pounds, all the tears and sleepless nights and long blocked-but-writing-anyway days, I’ve spent on my novels, it’s a poem I wrote on a train, en route to a writer’s group, and then reworked eighteen months later and submitted because why-the-hell-not? that finds an audience.

But it’s a start. A step in the right direction. And it’s a cool poem. Something to be proud of, regardless of its size.

I’ve been writing more poetry. Next stop, submissions. I’m not giving up on the novels, no way, they’ll get there. But there’s more than one way to do this thang. I guess this is the way I’m doing it.

And while I’m at it, I’m taking two online film courses: one on screenwriting and one on the whole film making process and all the dirty dirty logistics. Money. Time. Heaps of equipment I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO USE. OR WHAT IT’S FOR.

Meanwhile, at my theatre studies class, we’re acting. Yikes. Trying new things. Scary. Actually, the hard thing is doing this stuff without getting scared about looking like a fool. Embrace the looking-like-a-fool. And never rehearse in front of a mirror. Advice straight from Kate Winslett, right there. (Via bafta guru, a website which will make you feel so tiny and insignificant, or perhaps inspire you. Maybe.)

I feel like this post has wandered, so I’m going to grab a coffee and then do-over another poem.

leaving the red zone

‘Leaving the Red Zone’ is available at Scorpio Books or by order from Clerestory Press – clerestory@xtra.co.nz


  • 3

an ordinary week (with a few sprinkles)

I am such a routine fiend. I love having a plan and (mostly) sticking to it. Just love it. Lap it up. I get SO MUCH DONE when my days basically go the same, one after another, for four or five days in a row.

Which supposedly looks something like this:

Monday

Morning pages, breakfast, make kids’ lunches, bribe them to dress and eat and put on shoes. Walk Louis to school, Elena to kindy, and then walk home (via The Sign of the Takahe, for a bit of a sweaty but healthy start… if I’m feeling up to it.)

walking home from kindy drop-off

Walking home from kindy drop-off, in the lovely morning sun, with the shiny ocean view.

Next: writing-prompt writing and maybe a poem draft… then emails and social media. And then REAL writing, which at the moment is editing an old manuscript.

editing a manuscript

Lunch, and more writing/rewriting/editing. If I’m on a roll, I’ll run off to kindy pick-up at the last moment. If I didn’t walk after drop-off then this is my other opportunity to leg-it up to Sign of the Takahe and trek down for a work-out-ish-thing before picking up Elena. Then we grab loopy Lou from school and… and then do whatever. If it’s sunny, we often go to the school pool.

Monday night I have my practical theatre studies course so early tea for me and the kids. Luuk has to come home a bit earlier than usual so I can handover the kids. After theatre studies I do the groceries, then head home. The kids are in bed and the newest episode of Madame Secretary is waiting for us.

 

Tuesday

The morning runs the same: writing, food, kids, walk, writing, web stuff, writing, food, writing, walk, kids…

Once a month there’s the Committee meeting for the NZSA Canterbury branch. I often go early to the library where the meeting is held. I almost always forget to return the library books. gr.

 

Wednesday

Ditto the morning.

Ditto the avo.

walking to school

Walking home from school and kindy.

Basketball in the evening, at 6:30 or 7:15 or 8pm… and after yesterday’s game I’m NEVER AGAIN eating dinner beforehand. So Wednesday afternoons will from now on include a mammoth afternoon tea. And preparation of reheatable dinner.

 

Thursday

Ditto the morning.

Ditto the avo.

Plus this is play-date day.

 

Friday

Ditto the morning.

Ditto the avo.

Luuk sometimes comes home earlier on Fridays… but not so much if he has to come home early for me to dash off to my class/basketball.

 

‘Tis the plan. It all goes out the window of course if I get called in to relief teach. But money… so, no complaints. Plus, I love being in the classroom. And I can usually still jam in a bit of writing at lunch time, or while the kids veg in front of a screen, or while dinner’s cooking…

more editing

Editing. And more editing.

Sprinkles

This week is the first week of theatre studies and basketball, so they feel like special glittery things, but on top of that, I’m going to a parenting seminar… which is basically a girls night out because I’m such an old lady. My lovely friend Kirsty got an extra ticket, and I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert in parenting, so sure, I’ll go along.

Also, sprinkles this morning: I took a tour around Ngaio Marsh’s house. We’re planning a writing workshop – make a note in your diaries, for 19th March – and we’re going to have it there. Such a lovely spot!

A portrait of Ngaio Marsh

A portrait of the lady herself, on display in the Long Room.

Ngaio Marsh's writing chair

Ngaio Marsh’s writing chair. She also wrote in green ink, the guide informs me.

ngaio marsh, self portrait

A photograph of her, and a self-portrait. She loved all things theatre.

So much lovely art! The workshop will be INSPIRING and not only because the brilliant Zana Bell is facilitating, sharing her wisdom on ‘World Building’. Seriously, pencil it in. 19 March, from 9-3. Discounted rate for NZSA members.

Tomorrow’s glittery thing is the New Families BBQ up at school, by the pool… so weather, please cooperate.

And on Sunday, for a bit of something else entirely, I’m playing Clarinet at church. I hardly ever play at all so… yay!


  • 2

bit of a break

Category : Art

I haven’t taken a proper break from writing since… I started. I mean, I’ve moved countries and had babies, but actually in both cases kept at it, pretty much, as best I could. This summer I took an actual three week break from my novel manuscripts.

I made mosaics.

mosaic lady

I did a bit of gardening – very unlike me.

I read a stack of books – less unlike me.

Okay, I did write, but I played with a bit of poetry instead of my usual long-form-prose. I got Stephen Fry’s book, ‘The Ode Less Traveled’, for Christmas. I’m learning all about the different rhythms and metres and rhyme schemes, and there are writing exercises, and I’ve been having a ball. I know, I’m such a nerd.

But here’s today’s sampling – a little bit nerd and a little bit democracy in action… an attempt at RHYME ROYAL (that is iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ABABBCC… for those of you who are interested… all three of you.)

 

Let’s see some RIGHT and HONOURABLE

Just days before Waitangi Day they sign
away our sovereignty to join the club
Don’t get me wrong, we make a nice white wine,
but in the scheme of things we’re just a bub
to be proud of and protect, aye there’s the rub.
They’ll homogenise the world to make a buck.
I’m worried my P.M. don’t give a duck.

Now there’s a thought – diversify! Farm ducks,
milk sheep and goats, make cheese unpasteurised.
Stop doing what they want – make your own luck.
Trust teachers, feed original young minds,
make good art, save the world, don’t super-size,
don’t strip mall, strip club, strip away bizarre
till all that’s left is cheap and bulk, banal.

Please check your job description, Mr Key,
the people are your first priority.

 

Okay, so the rhyme got a little less-than perfect in the second verse, but I was on a roll. It’s probably too fresh to publish, but I’m standing by it.

It is OF THE MOMENT, if nothing else.


  • -

that doesn’t seem right

I’ve been aware lately of a few wonderful paradoxes, and I thought I’d share them here because it’s been a while. I’ve been doing nanowrimo (writing. A lot. That is all.) and now that’s done, so I’m back in the world of the living, just in time to put up the Christmas decorations.

Leo says,

What’s a paradox? some might ask. A seeming contradiction. Two things that don’t go together, but SO DO.

For instance: happily listening to an Adele song.

Now, that’s a bit mean. There is a happy song on her new album. The last track. I know this because I went out and bought it (so strange for me) and I’ve been listening to it on loop, obsessively (less strange). And very happily. So there you have it.

adele is awesome
Another example of paradox: you want something done, ask a busy person.

So you get it. Paradoxes everywhere actually. The one I’m most aware of at the moment is less pithy. It’s about being certain of uncertainty, about being happy but not entirely content. I’ve been looking for part time teaching work and, at the same time, looking at my writing – my nine complete manuscripts, a couple of which are pretty close to being finished, so far as I can tell – and where to take it next, how to publish and publish well.

writing and tea

In both cases, there are things I can do to improve my chances and then there’s just a tonne of stuff beyond my control. I’m impatient to be in the classroom again, and I’m impatient to be published, but at the same time, I’m loving writing, and I know what I need to be working on, and I’ve enjoyed relief teaching much more than I expected. In some ways relief is a good fit with writing. And if I do suddenly get a big break and have to do a world book tour, I won’t have to take time off and mess anyone around…

But seriously, that’s only slightly less likely than finding a teaching job in Christchurch.

Maybe. Hard to say for sure.

Louis started school a couple of weeks ago and he’s so happy there. Elena’s still loving kindy and they’re both becoming more independent.

starting school

They’re happy, healthy, adorable, and relatively low-maintenance kids. I’m not dreading the summer holidays the way I was dreading school hols earlier in the year. I’ll still be able to write and find some time by myself.

happy kids boating

What I’m saying is, life is good – it’s great. But I’m still wanting more, wanting things to change.

Here’s another paradox for you: holidays. Is it just me who’s always tired at the end of them? I really am so much better at work, in my routine. I can write in a quiet house, by myself, for hours and at the end feel energised and rested.

nanowrimoing

Maybe I’m weird.

Okay, definitely.

Here’s another one: if you want to do something really well, you have to make it a priority, focus… get going toward those 10k hours we supposedly need to put in if we want to be brilliant at a thing. Any thing. But, that said, if you reduce yourself to one thing, one defining interest, especially in the arts, then you can’t do it in a way that’s relevant to the world around you. I recently started playing basketball. Now, I’m no sportswoman. I mean, I have zero interest in sport-watching, and it’s fun to play, but I’m not very committed to winning. I won’t push myself so hard that I get injured or asthmatic. If I’m stuffed, I sub-off. If someone shoves me, I back-off. But I’ve been LOVING basketball. I did not see that coming. Now, if I’m not open to trying new things, then I’ll quickly run out of things to write about. If I limit my characters to my experiences and interests and point-of-view then my stories will be so narrow.

Plus, life is more fun if you try new things.

such fun

And the next one isn’t so much a paradox, as just an unfortunate truth that I’m grappling with: you can’t do everything. You have to choose what matters and what matters less and what doesn’t matter. But there are too many wonderful things, and too many important things. You can’t even do the majority of them, to be frank. If you try to do all the wonderful and important things then you’ll be miserable: there’s simply too much to do and not enough time. And so there are some hard decisions to be made. Finish writing on deadline or go to the climate march, for instance. Both are important, but doing both would be stressful and unnecessary. I think I might come back to this in a future blog: the saying ‘no’ to things subject. It’s a big one. Tricky and important.

Here’s a tricky paradox: missing a place and being glad to be somewhere else. Ah, Paris, how you mess me around. Paris is EVERYWHERE, can I just say? I mean even when it’s not being shot up by nut-jobs, it is everywhere. I’ve been supervising NCEA exams and we confiscated a pencil case so it was sitting up the front, and it’s got the Eiffel Tower on it – of course! Paris is a hard place to leave behind anyway but seriously enough with papering the world in Eiffel Towers.

And then there’s an awful act of terrorism, so you have my permission again (not that you need it), and these past few weeks people keep saying to me, ‘you must be glad not to be there’, and I am. We were there in January for all the Charlie Hebdo palaver, and I am glad to miss out on all that stress and chaos and merde.

me and invalides

(Elena took this photo on the day that the Charlie Hebdo situation was shut down. We had an appointment in Paris and arrived early. We were waiting and she was playing with my phone. That’s Invalides in the background. I think it captures how tired, stressed, and overwhelmed I was feeling.)

But I also really want to be there. I want to hug my friends so, SO tight. Especially, but not limited to, those who lost friends at the Bataclan. I’m heartsick for them. One friend, a poet, has been posting little details of her day on facebook – about getting her bag checked at every shop, and not minding, but thinking the cursory glance in her purse wouldn’t likely catch anything dangerous if it were hidden in among the flotsam; about saying bonjour and merci to the guards outside the mosque – people she walks past every day and has never spoken to before. This is the stuff that makes me want to be there, and also so glad to be here.

But Christmas is coming, and being here in the sun wins.

summer wins

I am glad to be home and for summer coming, and pohutakawa blossoming up the road.

pohutakawa

Brandy snaps and pavlova and lots of bubbly and long evenings on the deck, with the barbecue and Adele crooning away in the background (probably just in my head because everyone else will be sick of her and her album will be banned in our house… it’s only a matter of time.)

in my head

Oh, I won’t.


  • -

and the winners are…

Earlier this year, a couple of days after we got to Christchurch (after relocating from France and visiting people for a few weeks in the north island before tripping down the country) I applied for a program the NZ Society of Author’s runs each year, called ‘CompleteMS’. Basically, I want some editorial-flavoured feedback from someone in the writing and publishing industry. I’ve had helpful criticism and lovely praise from my writers’ group and assorted reader/writer-friends, and I know this particular story has its strengths but it isn’t getting bites from literary agents. There are many reasons literary agents don’t bite – it’s not all about the quality of the work but that’s a factor. So rather than rush head-long into self-publishing, or continue firing off queries to agents, hoping someone will fall head-over-heels for this manuscript in its current form, I’m hoping to lift my game a bit, take this novel up another notch.

So I applied and I’ve won one of the twelve assessments they award each year! Hurrah!

Thanks to The NZ Society of Authors and CreativeNZ, I’ll have some help from… mystery guest. I have no idea who my assessor is, but I’ve posted off the big, fat envelope. It’ll take a month or two to get the thing back, with notes and all that, and then there’s a work-shopping session, a chance to talk through the issues and next-steps. And then I’ll be ready to rewrite the thing, again. Make it magic. Fine-tune. Or, you know, rip out great hunks and suture the wounds.

It could happen. It’ll hurt but if that’s what it needs…

So, yeah, that’s my news. Yay! It feels like a big smack of a kiss of legitimacy, to have something I wrote recognised as kind of up-and-coming. I even get my bio on the NZSA website.

In the meantime, while I wait, I’m still working: rewriting another many-times edited manuscript, one that has already had some professional editing. It’s not a magic fix-all, and I’ve gone several rounds with this baby, even after those assessments. I suppose, for all that, my expectations of this CompleteMS thing are in-check. It’s an honour to be supported in my work, but I still have to do the work.

We’re in school hols so with 2 kids under-toe I’m scrabbling at time to get at the manuscript. After sunset, I say fair game and let the kids at their screens, and pour myself a glass of wine and try to switch on my brain (and yes, I’m aware that’s counter-intuitive). If I can just get into it a bit them the odd interruption won’t hurt: I can go make hot chocolates or find someone a dummy, or build a mattress “slide bridge” and then return to my page and pick up where I left off. But I have to get my head into what I’m working on to begin with, and some days that takes longer than others. I went and hid in my bedroom this evening and read a whole chapter aloud. Off the back of that I managed several new paragraphs, necessary because of the massive changes I’ve made in the previous three chapters (cut the bulk of two of them – bam. Ow.)

So, yeah, that’s me, word snatching when I’m a bit past it. Today we roller-skated.

That's how we roll

Tomorrow we’re hanging with friends, assuming we don’t get snowed in. Thursday we’re going to try gymnastics on for size. There’s a school holiday thing on with heaps of stuff to do… so we’re doing, rather than bumming around at home, getting annoyed at one another. Or that’s the goal. I’d get more writing/editing done if we stayed in, but I’d be fobbing off the kids and I do try to delay that till later in the day.


  • -

ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Christchurch. It’s an odd place. And I’m in an odd space, straddling the fence (as uncomfy as it sounds) between the arrogance of a newcomer who hasn’t yet seen the diversity and complexity of a place and so can make sweeping judgements based on a narrow view (ie. man, cantabs are a fit bunch, all biking up Hackthorne Road at half-8 every morning…) and the other side of the fence: feeling completely ill-qualified to say or even really think anything with any kind of certainty about this place.

a different perspective

Living here, on the hill, where I’ve never lived and spent very little time before, I am realising that some of my assumptions about Christchurch, in the more-than-decade I lived here before, were always a bit skewed to my neighbourhood, the demographic of the majority of my friends and acquaintances, my similarly-limited experience of the other cities I’d lived in (Auckland and Hong Kong) and the things I liked and didn’t like about those ex-homes…

a different demographic

Kids are a quick introduction to a wider demographic. Though some would say the parent-crowd is a narrow demographic, it’s still new to me.

Socialising without widely-used and widely-available public transport is different. The hours here are generally so much earlier than in France. I went to a writers group that was all over before nine and we didn’t even open all the wine. Catching-up with old friends and making new ones are both different experiences to hanging out with people you bump into every other day. Sight-seeing in a place that you feel you belong to is different from sight-seeing in a foreign land.

New Zealanders seem obsessed with their houses, their diets and which brand of yogurt or detergent is best, but actually those are probably international obsessions and I’m someone who a) doesn’t own a house, b) has had to change brands of everything (and used to teach media studies, so can preach with the best about how marketing is aiming for brand loyalty big time – YOU’RE BEING MANIPULATED), and c) my most successful diet involved generous doses of bread and cheese. I walked a lot. I still walk a lot. I have no intention of cutting bread or cheese. Or cheesy bread.

In some ways, things and people seem same-old, but at second glance not really at all. And, of course, Christchurch has changed. We were here for the earthquakes and a year of aftershocks and demolition and adjusting. But in the three years we’ve been away, the demolition has gone rip-roaring on and driving through the city I keep getting completely disoriented. Rebuilding has now (finally!) begun, in some areas anyway, and in the empty spaces, the waiting, other cool stuff, temporary or not, has sprung up: bars and cafes made of scaffolding and builder’s plastic, art installations framed by cranes and construction. And then there’s the street art. It’s not new, but I suppose I came to appreciate the street art in Paris and coming back, it’s a nice surprise.

official street art, an oxymoron?

So there’s the official kind, which is impressive and some is just plain beautiful…

elephant street art

street art in christchurch

…but street art with permission seems a little oxymoronic, don’t it?

unofficial art installation

And then there’s the unofficial kind, the twisted remains of steel reinforcement, the pillars channeling roman ruins (the poorly upkept type, sure) and the illegible paint-job behind the security fencing.

So walking through christchurch is a vastly different but not unpleasent experience. The cathedral’s a bit of a shock everytime I drive up Colombo Street and I’m suddenly there (so many of the buildings in the lead-up have gone that I don’t realise I’m close until I’m there). I’m not one for fierce attachment to buildings and that might be because I moved internationally when I was twelve, twice, and then again when I was fourteen, inter-island-ally, and so my concept of ‘home’ is indecisive, to say the least. I am very glad, however, that they are saving the Art Centre.

cranes and work

For my non-cantab readers, this was the old university buildings but has long been an arts and culture centre of the city, with weekend markets and every day artist studios, theatres, cinemas, museum space, community classes, galleries, the works. The first time I ever exhibited paintings it was on the street outside this place. I took a creative writing class here while I was working on my first ever novel. Luuk and I went on our first date to see ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ at the Court Theatre and then to Dux-de-Lux for their legendary seafood pizza.

Just over the road from this pile of rocks, is the YMCA, and they’ve been hosting a whole hoard of street art in an exhibition which closes, um, tomorrow…

spectre exhibition, chch ymca

Large and small, super-famous and not-so. Street art of a variety of shapes and flavours.

tilt and banksy

Tilt and Banksy co-built this half-white, half intense tags and full-colour, room. The nearest picture here reads, ‘I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.’

Heh.

canapes, can o' peas - what's the dif?

Having just spent three years wrestling with French, this one resonated.

not louis vuitton

This one just made me laugh because I had a friend in Paris who was a designer for Louis Vuitton and even he said he couldn’t say it right.

Luuk and I walked the streets after seeing the exhibition and found heaps of work on the walls of the city. ‘Tis a right mess in there, but it’s cool to see progress and there’s something therapeutic and metaphoric about finding beauty in a mess.

I’m happy to say it’s not metaphorical for my life as a whole right now. We are settling down and our place is nearly organised. The routines are starting to fall into place and it’s not hard to find beauty. Don’t look at the crumbs on the carpet or the coffee grinds on the kitchen bench, just feast your eyes on the Southern Alps, the bright, dusty plains, the immense sky, the motley autumn trees, and if you listen, you’ll hear the birds in the Kowhai outside the kitchen window.

In my next installment I might show you around the house a bit. By then I’ll finally have all the pictures up on the wall.