Monday, January 30, 2012

Steamy Affairs

So, I’ve joined a writers group. It was by accident really; I just thought I was going to lunch with a new literary friend, but now find I am signed up for monthly critiques and in depth analysis of my work. Apparently it’s not all about drinking copious quantities of wine and gossiping- that’s a bookclub. Darn.

I have my reservations about all of this- and it’s nothing to do with the people. They are wonderful and talented and generous with ideas. It’s me. I haven’t written anything approaching a body of work since...oh... my last novel, Glory, which was published in 2009; I wrote it in 2007. That’s basically, well you do the math, subtraction was never my strong point- I only add stuff to my life. Which I have done cheerfully for the last few years; Wearable Art, working on TV and in the film industry, illustrating, running workshops...but add another word to my novel(s). Well that’s a bit of a problem. 

I had a long discussion about this with Brian Falkner and Kyle Mewburn at the recent Bloom Family Festival where we were contracted to tell stories and run workshops. It was a very happy weekend with fellow writers, artists and of course our audiences. I shared accommodation with the boys and was most impressed to see Brian tapping away at his Macbook each morning before we forayed out to the festival. He was finishing his next work; I was just trying to wake up and smell the coffee.

‘Why?’ I said, ‘can’t I just finish my sodding novel?’
‘Do you like what you are writing?’ they said.
‘Yes- I think it has legs and backbones to boot.’
‘So how did you write the other ones?’ they asked.
‘I just sat down and wrote them.’

And I did- Verity’s Truth was for a competition with a deadline. Janie Olive was as a distraction from the thesis script I was writing whilst doing my MA at the IIML, and Glory just because I could and had something to say out loud about not winning prizes. None of them took me that long and I had so much fun bashing away with two fingers at my keyboard, delighting myself with words and fitting all the parts of the plot puzzle together.

‘So what’s different with this one?’ they said.
‘I’ve shown it to people before it’s done.’

‘Ah,’ said Brian, ‘in the words of Stephen King, in his book On Writing, you’ve let the steam out.’
And that is exactly what I’ve done. I’ve committed the cardinal sin of showing too many people the WIP and asking for their opinions. And they, being wonderful and generous and knowledgeable, have given them. Shit- what an idiot! I now have not one, but two unfinished first drafts with lots of conflicting sticky notes and pencilled comments. And I know better than that. Really.

In all my other work practice- making wearable art, illustrating a book, designing a workshop, making crafts for TV...I NEVER show my rough ideas to others for comment. There are two reasons for this:

The first is that they might not understand what I’m trying to do before the problem solving is done and give unwanted advice from their perspective on how it should go. For instance, if I’m trying to make a piece of wearable art that says something about, oh let’s say... Arthritis (I’m not by the way), then I may have a real life experience of it that is different from another person’s. The thing I want to impart about it and the expression of that view (down to the materials and method used to make the artwork) will be different in my cerebral cortex than any other artist’s. If  I ask for advice on an unfinished plan, I’ll get helpful suggestions on what to show, what to say and what technique to employ- from SOMEONE ELSE’s experience. That’s no good to me at all- it will confuse me and make me doubt my conviction. This is very different from asking someone how to do resin casting so I can make the bone centrepiece that I’ve designed (and I haven’t ...once again, this is not a real piece I am making. This year I’m doing a Bizarre Bra which has nothing to do with aching limbs- aching fingers whilst I make it perhaps...). I only need structural help when I’ve made the creative plan. This is what an editor will do for a manuscript ... are you reading this Penny? (my beloved Scholastic editor). 

The second reason for not showing your undies before you’ve got dressed so to speak, is that you lose the excitement of knowing you have something that is only known to you. It’s your sly secret; your guilty pleasure, an affair with a whole world and bunch of characters that only YOU know about. It’s your illicit lover, to which you’ll go back late at night when everyone is asleep and you’ll play with each other and dream impossible things that ordinary life doesn’t allow. You won’t leave it alone until the passion has run its course; the first draft at least will be finished. 

And as Brian said whilst his fingers stroked the keyboard, a naughty smile on his face (yes I was watching Brian!), I’ve let the steam out. The passion and the thrill has gone and I don’t know how to get it back... I’m stuck with the predictability of everyday life whilst my writing muse is off shagging someone else’s brain and making them uber productive and on the way to writerly fame (Kyle Mewburn, that will be you). Apologies for the overly sexual nature of these analogies, but without passion all art is merely inoffensive wallpaper- and I DO have a bodice ripper I’m working on as well as a YA.

So, at our writer’s group meeting, we said what we’d like help with and what we would share and how long critiques would be etc etc. I declared that I would NOT be sharing anything and didn’t want critiques (the ones we had at the IIML nearly scarred me for life). But I DID want the group to hold me to account regarding finishing the YA at least. I gave them full permission to beat me with my own pages if I have not progressed from one meeting to the next. They cheerfully agreed.

Holy moley, I’d better start writing, or the next time you see me I’ll be covered in paper cuts.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Blanket Man, I owe you...

photo from

Yesterday Blanket Man died. Ben Hana was a well known Wellington icon; I’m not going to write about his life. You can read about him here and here. I passed him often on the street and we always shared a mutual nod of gidday, kia ora, how’s it goin? He really enraged some people- those that don’t like the streets littered with anything other than designer brands and successful people. But he never bothered me... because he never begged.

When I first became aware of Blanket Man, we had just returned from nearly 2 years living in Bristol. The streets of English cities are lined with beggars; mostly under the ATMs. They sleep there in blue, purple and red Asda sleeping bags, waiting for you to get your early morning cash and ask you for some. They approach you in train stations, London tubes, street corners and, well anywhere you might have change jangling in your pockets. They are all suffering from the particular poverty caused by drug and alcohol abuse. The money you give them won’t go to pay the rent or buy food for the child some of them drag along with them. It will go straight down their throats, up their noses or into their veins. After the first assault on your social senses you soon become immune and cease to notice them. So coming back to Wellington I was shocked to see beggars on the street, where buskers used to play. I thought ‘This is a joke right? they are pretending to beg and any minute now a candid camera style crew will leap out and say ‘Haha!’ as I try and avoid the entreaties of the man or woman in front of me asking for a dollar. Where the heck did they come from? And what happened to their welfare benefit?

The old days of alcoholics sitting down at Cabbage Patch Corner or in Pigeon Park sharing a happy flagon of sherry and slurring amongst themselves has now gone it seems. Now they feel the need to ask for money. Is this a mark of the recession?  Or did they Google their contemporaries in the U.K and take a few tips? Either way I do not support begging in any form where there is (barely) adequate state assistance. Which brings me back to Blanket Man. He never asked for anything but a smile or a nod. My daughter waitressed at Nicolini’s Italian Restaurant for 4 years on Courtenay Place and said he always paid for his meal, ate it on the street and returned the plate when finished. You might ask why he didn’t cook for himself? I ask you, where would he keep his pantry store? Not in his pants. He never wore any!

At the same time as returning from Bristol, I had been accepted into the IIML to do a MA in Scriptwriting. I was incredibly excited to be accepted into a select group of ten masters’ students and set about figuring out what my thesis script would be about. Suddenly any creative inclinations scarpered from my brain like unruly terriers off after rabbits; they didn’t bring any back though and I was left panicking. Each morning I would catch the bus into town, walk up to Uni bereft of ideas, nodding to Blanket Man on the way and wondering who he was and why he was dressed in a loin cloth, saying nothing, smiling at the sun and the passersby. He seemed so at ease with himself and the world around him. No begging bowl, no sign imploring charity; the only hand outstretched was to wave. I thought in another setting he’d look like a Tohunga. I called him The Chief in my mind and played with the idea that he wasn’t really a homeless person at all, but someone from a different realm keeping an eye on us and influencing outcomes where help was needed.
Then one day I wrote these words:
A figure wrapped in a blanket materialises on a park bench. As Becka passes, the blanket twitches. C/U on a rheumy old eye opening and gazing after Becka.
I had it! I had my thesis idea, Wild Cards, a kid’s TV drama  was on its way. I finished it, got a Merit pass, wore a capping gown and morter board and have since played with turning the whole script into a novel. I think it has legs, and when I think of the Chief in my story, I always see Ben Hana his own legs crossed and hold out my hand in thanks. I didn’t give him anything at all, but he gave me heaps.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Blooming heck- it's 2012!

Back to work this week.... for my SO this has been a very physical thing. He had to get up when the alarm rang at 7am, drag himself to the shower and put on suitable clothing for going to an office. He left the house at 8.15am when I was still slapping myself around the face to try and wake up. I contemplated going back to bed the minute he had left the building but that seemed like too much of an act of no solidarity. I drank coffee in my lounging pyjamas until 10am instead- at least I was semi conscious. The cat might disagree; I noticed he’d knocked his bag of biscuits to the floor and helped himself. Breakfast was obviously not fast enough for him.

Freelancing is a very different way of working and I have been used to years of frantic deadlines up until Christmas Eve and then nothing until mid February- when the salaried workers have finally shuffled enough paper to prepare briefs and deadlines for the following year. I’m under no illusions about the productivity of an office in the weeks before Waitangi Day. Everyone is thinking about the summer break they had (or didn’t have because of flooding at their camping spot), the BBQ’s still to be had (with good weather finally kicking in) and the ever present needs of children still on holiday (unless you are the CEO of a City Council that is...sorry to cast aspersions Tony). They are there in body but minds have yet to catch up and throw themselves into unwilling craniums. It's the Stepford time of summer, and everyone's a robot in the workplace.

For years I’ve been grateful for the lack of commissions over the latter part of January. It's allowed endless holiday time (unpaid of course) in which to potter about, read, go to movies with the kids, dig about in the garden and foray to the beach, weather permitting. Jan 9th to Feb 7th was the caregiver’s dream instead of the working mother’s nightmare. It has also created a Pavlovian reaction in me to the extent that I find myself on January 11th unable to drag myself back to my workstation for anything other than Facebooking, Googling why my Android phone won’t download apps anymore (oh the hours I can waste with this one!) and looking up recipes for great salads (we have a lot of courgettes and spinach coming on...)

This wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t have things to do- namely finish illustrations for an educational reader, start pencil roughs for a picture book and create finished collages for an iPad app. This is apart from two entries for Wearable Art I have planned and the ever present novel I owe it to my conscience to finish writing. I feel terribly guilty at not doing anything more productive than helping my daughter sort through her stuff to sell before moving to another city and giving my son a lift to Bunnings to buy wood for a project he’s building at his flat. I SHOULD be into it, raring to go and leaping into action. I SHOULD be planning my year and how I’m going to take over the world Fifi style. I SHOULD be reading worthy books to feed the literary part of my mind. I SHOULD be pounding away at the keyboard, writing something other than this post and creating enormous success for my future. I WAS supposed to do a hot air balloon ride this year as research for that bit of writing...

But actually, when I read the last line of Harriet’s blog, “Life can change in an instant so appreciate every one, who knows what is around the corner?” the wise words of my friend’s beautiful 18 year old daughter dealing with cancer, I realised that what I’m doing right now is fine; spending time with my family and nibbling around the edges of work. I’ll get it done- I’m good at reaching deadlines; I pride myself on it.
I’ll finish writing the novel, if I finish writing the novel. It won’t change anyone’s life except my own if I do or if I don’t. And even then not by much. I might even biff it off the hard drive and free up some bytes for more blogs! 

This year I’m not going to try so hard. It’s exhausting and I much prefer to let things percolate and have serendipity take its course. If I had a clear plan with goals and milestones and knew what I was going to be doing by September, I’ll be bored by March. Besides, as Harriet says...

In the meantime, come and laze with me at the Bloom Festival in Matakana Jan 20-22nd. I’ll be telling stories and running workshops along with a huge bunch of wonderful performers in art, writing and music. The perfect filler upper before work really starts for the year- enjoying the summer and the fact you don’t really have to do anything much with your brain right now except soak up some creative nourishment so you too can sprout this year. Bloom and grow, bloom and grow...