Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Writing Class - An essay

I’ve met so many amazing writers on my quest to becoming a writer. I started to care less of the end results. It was the people, the community, this other world I belonged to that none of my friends and family were party to, which mostly spurred me on.

The NZ literature community I discovered from the get go is full of smart, funny, humble, generous souls. The fact that I showed a hint of talent may have buoyed their encouragements of the characters I put on the page.
That first character was Lily Max. For me to take time away from young children and attend a week long writing course in Wanaka, even with the hours drive each way was my equivalent of a Polynesian day spa with the full monty hot rock treatment. I’d return home exhausted. Mute. But my brain was a steam engine - all pistons pumping.
I sort of became an annual course-a-holic. Just once a year I’d take my mental-health-week. First up, I attended a picture book making course with the handsome softly spoken author/illustrator Gavin Bishop. I couldn’t draw to save myself so I made pretty collages with triangle shaped people.  It was Gavin’s writing I was interested in. Some of his work retells fairy tales. His version of I was a Crooked Man is the perfect board book for infants. I pasted up a hokey book that week while Gavin read from his own collection. I sent the text to Huia Publishers. My first ever submission. They said they couldn’t look at it because I was white which was confusing because it was about my children who are part Maori. On the second to last afternoon I sheepishly gave Gavin my Lily Max manuscript, asked if he’d mind reading it and scarpered.
‘It’s fun,’ he announced the next day. ‘She’s a bit of a smart Alec. I’ll put you onto someone who writes Junior fiction.’
I spoke to Tessa Duder on the terrace of my brother in law’s house on a sunny Saturday morning looking over a glistening Hauraki Gulf towards the flat triangle of Rangitoto. I’d readNight Race to Kawau. We had oceans in common. This was the start of the generosity of wordsmith strangers. Tessa had already sent me a lengthy email but wanted to discuss it on the telephone. I hung on to her compliments, “You have a great ear for dialogue and the rhythm of language generally, an uncommon lightness of touch…” And was mindful of the massive amount of work to be done. Plotting. Structure. Minor characters. She didn’t like the adult-knowing-in-jokes that were creeping into children’s literature. I secretly disagreed. I liked the subtle nuances that gave something for the child and something for the adult reader.
I was actually on my way north to a weekend writing retreat with Kate De Goldi, author of the sophisticated Clubs picture books, Lolly Leopold and Billy.
Before the course we had to write detailed bios of our characters. Kate said, ‘my firm belief is that good story (in whatever form) grows out of well-realised character’. I found that bit easy. Lily Max was already alive and well. I loved decorating her bedroom and filling her treasure box. It was describing her enemies I found difficult. But a character needs problems. The beginnings of Violet Hughes began.
Arriving at these courses is one bit anticipation/will-I-write-something-okay combined with a huge amount of what-the-hell-am-I-doing I cannot write to save myself and I’ve never met these people before. However, it’s pretty easy to make friends when you spend three days in a remote bushy retreat with likeminded strangers trying to perfect their craft. And the moment I met Kate I wanted her to be my new best friend. Her infectious smile, her bubbly personality and her genuine interest in people are all endearing qualities in a tutor. We all habited minute wooden cabins with walls so thin, at night you could hear the person next door reading. We woke to birdsong and breakfasted in a wood panelled A-frame dining room overlooking kauri and karakas, chickens and an orderly Dutch garden. Next we’d adjourn to a semi-circular conference room.
Kate took centre stage.
She worked us hard. Each set exercise referenced an authorial voice from her childhood. Her favourite novel back then, Father’s Arcane Daughter, E L Konigsburg, 1976, was used as an example of voice. I still have two folders of photocopied book pages with handwritten titles. Along with an impressive alphabetical list of must-read children’s authors from Joan Aitken to Jane Yolen.
While we wrote feverishly trying to conjure sentences that would impress, Kate wrote the 10 pm Question on a fat white Apple Mac. Tapping away with two fingers (if my memory serves me correctly). She explained the story was based on her son coming into her bedroom each night at precisely 10pm to ask a question that was troubling him. Kate read out fresh paragraphs. We felt privileged. Knowing. Once you’ve heard Kate read you never forget the sound of her voice. When I read her touching junior fiction novel, The ABC of Honora Lee, in a firm single bed in my sister’s draughty flat in Island Bay, it was Kate’s voice reading it to me. She says voice (within story) is a ‘revelation of class and culture’. Kate’s voice is theatre.
Kate went for a run each day around four, said it kept her on top of things. I was impressed. I walked. At one lively dinner she told a story of throwing her sister’s handbag out of a moving car during an argument. She also pointed out that my father’s three wives’ names all ended in ‘ee’. Felicity. Marjorie. Hilary. A Freudian fact perhaps but one that I’d never noticed. I learned writers must ask questions. Kate gave so much, but when she’d given enough she’d quietly slip back to her cabin.
We all returned the following year for an editing course. Kate laughed at a couple of my sentences. I underlined them and made sure they stayed. She never gave much else away.
The weekend had been set up by a group I’d joined called Kiwiwrite4kids, the brainchild of Matakana non-fiction writer, Maria Gill and fiction writer, Melinda Szymanik. The group has now disbanded, but it created a great support network of children’s writer friends for me. Along with courses, I’ve attended conferences here and in Sydney. Honestly, if there was a WINZ subsidy for lowly-writer-pursuant-of-the-literary-good-of-our-young-nationals (or bloody-trier) I’d qualify. Nevertheless, the kiwi writing community is a fun, multifaceted tribe to belong to. And it's the grafters - the cool writers and illustrators - who hold the whole thing together. They are the ones who read manuscripts, offered encouragement and kinship, and pretty much kept me going when the glacial pace of the submission process made me want to taxidermy myself. You know who you are! Respect.
Back at the Wanaka Art school I spent a great week with veteran children’s writer, Listener columnist, wit and all round nice guy David Hill. I sold my first short story after his course. And sent off many others after seeking his guidance. Once again I was on the receiving end of the generosity of a professional writer. One morning we did an exercise on description, David described the contents of his fridge and his hostess at the Kanuka Motel. His cheese had crust. I was fascinated how the mundane could sound so … exciting when coaxed into simple detailed layers. I also have to confess I’ve stolen his line - the moon was a pearl button - on more than one occasion. Apologies, David.
I envisioned his motelier in a mauve nylon housecoat with her hair pinned in a French bun, set once a week and wrapped in toilet paper each night (like Aunt Enid use to – true story). I named her Maude. She became a character of mine and reappeared when Dame Fiona Kidman stayed at that same motel and tutored at the school. A class member I’d met before said she felt like a cliché – a middle-aged woman at a writing class. I didn’t consider myself middle-aged in my early forties, so I wrote ‘The Writing Class’ a short story about exactly that. Fiona tried to coax me into reading it at the mid-week show and tell. I feigned children duties but felt flattered. I asked Dame Fiona if she’d written for children. She said she’d tried but she couldn’t. She wrote me a note when I bought her second memoir, I hope you keep writing. I still have it somewhere and often re-read Kate’s early short story collection Unsuitable Friends. It’s an ex Queenstown library copy I bought for two bucks (their loss), she wears a white shirt on the back cover and an impressive shaggy dog haircut. We examined poetry and felt confident to write our own. I wrote about my dad, I should thank Kate for that. One day three of us were discussing how to handle - sex in fiction – Kate who is small of stature, with a kind and earnest demeanour and cropped grey hair came out with something really quite profound. So profound I cannot pass it on. Sometimes what goes on in class, stays in class.
One of my all-time favourite children’s authors Roald Dahl says, when you’re old enough to write a book for children, by then you’ll have become a grown up and have lost all your jokeyness. Unless you’re an underdeveloped adult and still have an enormous about of childishness in you.
We that could be me. Having your own children, or nieces and nephews is also a great trigger to rekindle long ago memories. How you reacted aged seven at the Christmas you got one up on your big sister for the first time. She wanted the Indian squaw outfit in the photo and the wig. But it was mine. All mine. It looks a bit like she might have chopped my arm off as penance. 
A lot of children writers say quite smugly - I always wrote stories as a child. I didn’t. I was silent. Watching. And too busy writing aerograms to the parent I was not with. That expanse of pre-folded pale blue paper is an image that taunts.  Just when you thought you’d got through the weather and school and could lick the bastard down you had another DLE equivalent to fill. Haunting.  I also wrote diaries. Insanely boring diaries with scarcely a hint of emotion just endless lists of what I’d eaten. Where I’d been and with whom but not what I felt and smelt and touched when I got there. No spousal spats. Nothing. Only food. My boarding school diaries are more like confessions of a trapped sporty person bordering on a food disorder. Sadly, because when you decide to write for children you need to find the child you once were.
One October I attended a picture book course on a pre-quake Christchurch weekend with Joy Cowley. She is small with a round face and a wide smile. Her peak creative time is 4am. She gets up and writes in the dark. I get up and let the barking dog out at 4am. My peak creative time is mid-morning. And mid- afternoon. I’ve forgotten to collect the kids from the school bus on more than one occasion. Joy had just written a book on how to write a children’s book. She instructed from its pre-published pages. Over the weekend, she told stories about Roald Dahl. Dahl purchased the film rights on her first novel, Nest in a Falling Tree. She and her husband were invited to spend the weekend at his English country home. Cowley did the most inglorious thing you could imagine … On a warm summers afternoon, after drinking martinis, she vomited in his solar heated swimming pool.
Obviously placated by gin and vermouth Roald was unfazed by this young kiwi womans inability to hold her drink. Only a few peas and carrots floated about*. His pool was heated by solar panels placed over the roof of his office; underneath sweated a moist enclosure where orchids and stories grew. When his actress wife, Patricia Lee had a stroke she said she wanted a budgie. Roald bought fifty. He said they were ‘noisy little bastards’.  He also said children were, ‘noisome little bastards.’ Though it seems those stories change.
Joy Cowley said, when you write for grownups you just do your best writing. When you write for children you need to speak another language, especially to get dialogue correct.
I happily read piles of picture books to my children and loved participating in their language development. This reading no doubt fuelled their imagination. Quentin Blake with his lyrical style, hapless adult characters and wacky illustrations were always a hit. Especially Mister Magnolia with only one boot and Mrs Armitage on Wheels. My son, Jasper at three changed his name to John. Each day for a time he attended to a massive hole he was digging in the side of a bank. When it became cavernous and his little body and spade partly disappeared down it as he worked I asked, Where are you going, Jasper?
I’m John. I’m digging to the other side.
John took the wrap for a lot of things.
Why are you eating dog biscuits, Jasper?
John made me do it.
The second to last week long course I’ve taken was with Owen Marshall. Again it was stimulating, if formulaic. And mostly attended by men. We women, have more fun at these courses. Where else would you laugh like banshees while making up masturbation haikus over chunky cheese sandwiches at lunch time. Still for me to go to courses, as my own writing progressed to the stage where I had my second agent, but was still on the trying-to-get-published-treadmill, just provided the freedom to write. To forget about commodification. To explore ideas. Chip into subconscious memory files. And complete new work. I wrote a short story from the perspective on an adolescent male. I'd never tried that before. It was exhilarating. All the while witnessing the other crazies who habitually attend writing classes. There was this one elderly gent with a hate for his brothers so intent, venom seemed to leak from his pores when he discussed them during a group exercise. The same gent who when it came for the class to read a piece of their work has read the same piece in three different classes. Over three different years. The same guy who attacked a woman in Fiona Kidman’s class for bravely penning a story about her stillborn child. A real course crazy …
I haven’t course-d it for a while. Steve Braunias’ Class of 2011 was hard to top. When he asked why I was there? Simple, I loved his writing. The whole class made it, my eyelids included into, into Steve’s book – Civilisation, Chapter 16 – Wanaka, The Story of Others. Like double-sided tape, impressions made were two folded. I finally worked out how to write a decent non-fiction piece in his class, sold a few pieces, placed in a national writing award and started up my blog – truth is stranger than fiction soon after it. I thought that I’d freelance to support my fiction writing desires after that. Ha ha on that one.
Steve showed us how to interview. Ferret about for ideas, find the backstory, then read body language/clothes/jewellery ask a question and shut up. Steve had found an ex-pro English footballer coaching kids on a nearby sports field after reading the college noticeboard. The guy came in. Sat in front of the class and told us his life story. His fall from grace. With damp eyes. Just a foolish decision in a moment of anger, under the influence.
Steve said he thinks in sentences. Starts writing his article in his head while the tape’s running. It’s no wonder then that his sentences ping and resonate with a clarity similar to the first strike of a beater on a copper triangle. He is a hugely generous guy. A mentor of many writers. Quick witted, sharp, funny and sweary. His expertise of the written word and narrative form, his eagle eye for detail along with his praise and encouragement often makes you do your best work. All that, while churning out 70,000 words per annum himself. Legend. Facts, we always needs facts.
With Lily Max finally in all good book stores my days of attending classes is not over. I’d happily make the trip over the crown range each day for a week if another of my favourite authors signed up to offer their wares. One day maybe I can give something back and offer my story to new writers - 12 and under only. Although, I’m probably more suited to running island retreats.
Next year, I’m planning a writing retreat on Stewart Island. If everyone pulls out at the last minute (like this year) I don’t mind. I know Stewart Island. I’ve cooked up kilos of macaroni cheese in the soft green bowling club building in Oban during school camp. I know how to back a ute laden with camp firewood down the jetty to a water taxi while every worker from the fish factory watches. I’ll wear my white gumboots down to the pub. Ask for a Speights tall neck, a deep fried blue cod dinner and observe.
*I made the bit up about the peas and carrots.
**This essay also appears on my publisher's website Luncheon Sausage Books. It took me ages so I've printed it twice! 

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