Mary McCallum has rounded up a bunch of poets for a regular Tuesday poem spot. I was flattered to be invited but protested that my poems are really just a bit of doggerel I whipped up for Next Magazine back in the day. She is an insistent woman that Mary and I will give up that my verse is ‘not worthy’ and join in. You can read Tuesday poems from Mary, Harvey Molloy, Tim Jones, The Paradoxical Cat and the serial poem from Poet Laureate Cilla McQueen too… a Tuesday fest of words!
Here is one I wrote when feeling all at sea and scared of meeting new people. Yes, me, the garrulous one at every social function with wine glass in hand. I too get terrified…
I have had three lovely parcels arrive on my doorstep this week. I knew what was in them before I cut my way through the packing tape; my art, come home to me from Nelson. Three Wearable Art bizarre bras that I have made over the years and purchased by WOW for display in the museum and use in mini shows. Two of them won second and third places in the year 2000 show, so I guess you can say, these garments have earned their living. WOW is needing to quit some artworks to make room for newer ones in their warehouse and I had the choice of having them back or letting WOW recycle them. Seeing as I teach Wearable Art workshops, I was thrilled to have them back so students can pour over the detail and see what standard of finish needs to be reached to pass muster. Luckily I have a large studio that they can reside in; I plan to hang them on the wall when they are not accompanying me elsewhere. You can see all my entries over the years here.
One of the pieces to return home particularly makes me smile. I made it in 2003 when I was full time at the Institute of Modern Letters doing an MA in Scriptwriting at Victoria University. After wrestling with my thesis proposal and wading through my reading list, I desperately needed a light-hearted diversion. I heeded WOW’s call as I have every year since 1995 and got to work. I decided it had to be on a literary theme but whilst studying, couldn’t stomach the thought of anything in a higher form than the most basic of popular fiction. ‘Bodice Ripper’ was born.
The idea was to have a Mill & Boon style book flying open from a woman’s chest. To be authentic I typed a few pages. ‘Artistic Passion’ started like this:
As the lift doors opened, Fifi smoothed her paint ridden palms down the side-seams of her spattered art shirt and took a deep breath, beating back the niggle of doubt that had invaded her rebellious confidence during the trip downtown. She had come this far, she couldn’t go back now! She stepped out of the lift and padded into the stark luxury of a marbled foyer. Fifi felt so out of place here in the business sector of Lambton Quay. Her pounding heart beat an unsteady rhythm as she contemplated her options. It was no use, the only way she would get funding for this project was to front up to the man himself; Jake Montana…
And on it went… Blah blah blah, sexy stuff and gorgeous but dangerous blokes. Blah blah blah black lace and beating hearts with undercurrents of tension and subterfuge. Blah blah blah standard romance fiction with racy bits and firm thighs…
I printed it all out, enlarging pages as I went that would form the basis of a torn paper mache bodice, then left them on my desk and went out to buy fruit flavoured condoms to hang out of the pages.
My then, 12 year old son, looked on quietly with a frown, and finally came out with two burning questions:
‘Fi, is that story for your scriptwriting course?’ and then, even more horrified, ‘Did you like, go and buy those condoms? From a chemist? At your age?!’ I doubled up laughing. Imagine the University dons being presented with that as my years work!
It was a productive one, that year at the IIML. I not only got my thesis done and my MA achieved with merit, but a piece of Wearable Art and my second kids novel Janie Olive- a Recipe for Disaster. Amazing what you can achieve when avoiding the task at hand.
The model in the photo here is Renata Hopkins, my fellow classmate and a talented writer.
Footnote: ‘Bodice Ripper’ is up for sale but not, fortunately , the novel. I am working on a better piece of chick lit...
I’ve just finished reading Jane Clifton’s cover story in the Listener ‘Down with Positivity’. The article is about Barbara Ehrenreich’s research on the American experience detailed in her book ‘Smile or Die: how positive thinking fooled America and the world.
Can you extend your life by being happy? Is a cheerful outlook what is required to live a
long life? Interesting stuff, and don’t we all know some cranky old curmudgeon who led their family a not so merry dance, died at 93 and everyone said ‘good riddance’, whilst the person we adored snuffed it all too soon and left the their community shaking their heads and wondering about the existence of a just God.
Will sheer optimism and doing generous deeds attract great rewards and financial success? We’ve all watched as integrity free bankers rob their clients and institutions, spending up large on themselves whilst those who work tirelessly in the community have a 1000 to one chance of being the recipient of ‘Mucking In.’
And what about the current economic climate? We’ve all done our own version of trying to be hopeful whilst the electricity bill eats up the last of the tiny redundancy payout. ‘It’ll all work out, it’s fine’ we say as we thumb through the recipe books looking for a new way to feed a family of four on ten dollars, ‘I love trying out new recipes.’ Meatless and fatless, it’s a whole new diet plan. Just like in the war!
This has given me pause to think about honesty. A friend said yesterday that she admires the way I ‘put it all out there on my blog and say what I’m feeling.’ I don’t you know, if I did you’d all be shocked. You’d think I’d lost the plot or had a turn. You wouldn’t be happy. Or would you?
I follow a blog ‘Flux Capacitor’ by Maggie May Ethridge; her strap line is: "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open " M.H. She’s a novelist, poet and mother living in the States and she tells it like it is. There’s no marketing ploy or adverts. She has 470 followers. I’m not sure I could put it all out there like Maggie May.
My husband knows the truth of me, my children think they know more than they do. My sisters know all and tell me when I’m being a pain in the arse Pollyanna and my closest girlfriends drink wine with me and keep my secrets (well at least I hope they do!). The closest I got to really telling it how it is was when we were living in Bristol in 2001 and I was still writing for Next. I sent poems and pictures back to New Zealand and a long time fan said ‘I think they should be more uplifting.’ But when you are hiding from the world under a table in the garden crying so hard your head is buzzing, with your children urging you to come out and your husband at a complete loss, well, to conjure up chirpy verse is a little difficult. I couldn’t make New Zealand readers feel better about things when my own small world was emotional rubble.
I started this blog as a way to re-show my old Next Magazine poems and illustrations, which were a fair summation of my life at the time I wrote them; the nearest I’ve got to being completely honest about my thoughts and feelings in print. Perhaps that’s why people liked them so much and the column ran for 8 years. In a poem you can say what you are feeling and no-one will pull you up on it in the same way they might for an opinionated blog post. I’m not sure why, because both of them are honest; is it because one is a form of art?
Here’s the last poem I wrote from Bristol late in 2002. It probably won’t make you chuckle, but then, I was just being truthful.
This picture is from last Saturday's Dr Sketchy class. My lovely model is 'Shanghai Rose', a new graduate from the Glitterbomb Burlesque School. I did this chalk drawing in 20 minutes. I was there for three hours and produced 3 or 4 drawings I liked out of about 20. Thats pretty good odds. This is the way it goes with life drawing; you start with 1 or 2 minute gestural drawings to warm up and work your way up to longer studies, some of which go well and some of which are destined for the bottom of the cat litter tray. I'm not at all attached to those and only semi attached to the good ones. They are after all just practice. I've been life drawing for 33 years (if you don't count the attempts before art school) and am absolutely comfortable with the process of making marks and discarding them until the work is more suitable for public scrutiny.
I am a seasoned artist. I can throw my work away.
But with writing... I horde every damned word. This is because I am still an apprentice (as much as I'd like to think that 3 published novels in, I am not).
I am currently in the depths of rewriting a bit of chick lit that I once put up on this blog. I took it down last year because, well, actually...I quite like it and want to get it looking a whole lot better before it goes public again. It's been interesting working on it. I've had to chop bits out and get rid of adverbs, backstory and connect with my main character again. She and I were apart for a long time and it takes a while to get comfortable with each other again, much like when you go on holiday without your partner. I was cross with her when I came back to find she hadn't done anything- not even emptied the dishwasher; instead she'd got even more miserable and unlikeable. Then I realised it was just me! So I've shaken myself up (with the help of Fleur Beale and Maureen Crisp) and I'm beginning to see the good marks on the page and gain some confidence with the ones that will make it better.
It doesn't pay to stay away from your writing in the same way that letting your drawing lapse is not useful. Both need a workout on a regular basis if you want to get any mastery.
Now if I could only apply that to my physical fitness program...perhaps a course in burlesque?
I wrote this article for Next magazine a couple of years ago and they paid me for it but never published it. Odd, because its usually the other way around! So given that I had done a bit of research it seems daft to have it sitting on my hard drive gathering pixelated dust. So here it is- its quite long so you may want to sit down with a cuppa, or a glass of wine and soak it up. I'm all in favour of relaxing!
For some years now, I have listened with disguised envy masquerading as bored indifference to women friends talk about their girl’s weekends away. Some have chosen to traverse mountains, some cycle for miles, some lounge about on beaches or venture to decadently expensive health spas and in the case of one friend, go skinny dipping and take turns bathing in a claw foot bath outside, heated by manuka fueled flames. Deliciously toasted sirens under the stars. How I longed to be one or any of them. I loathe tramping and pedaling but quite like the idea of total immersion in hot water. In any case, all groups seemed to have one thing in common. Gossiping, eating and drinking copious amounts of wine. I could do that…if only I was invited. And there lay my problem; whilst all shared the fabulous highlights of their togetherness; no-one seemed to notice that I’d be quite a good sport on the next outing. I’d even muffle my whingeing whilst hauling my ass up a saddle, or even onto a saddle. Thrown right back to my schooldays where the best and most popular girls dissected the latest weekend party; who fell through which ranch slider door and then into bed with the hottest and wealthiest boy on the block, I miserably resigned myself to the league of ladies who luck out. In the girly weekend away stakes that is. Until this weekend; you see, I have just joined the ranks of the women who can flaunt their social superiority and say…’I had a great few days away with some girlfriends.’
Girls might be stretching the age boundaries a little. We were all in the demographic for an evening out at Menopause the Musical. And this was no hair and makeup fest. The laciest thing I threw on was my knickers. Over that went board shorts, vest and a thermal fleece, all topped off with sensible walking shoes. Because walk I did, down a cliff, through bush and ferns to wade across a swamp and along a steep shore to the bach which ran on 12 volt batteries. My hairdryer was immediately redundant, but I didn’t moan once. Instead I enjoyed a few days in the company of two fine women, walking, talking, rowing and reading in the heart of New Zealand. The scenery was spectacular, the old bach very comfortable, the lake surprisingly warm, but what made the holiday was the way we kept company. We were three very different people. A freelance creative, married with teenaged children, a widowed alternative health practitioner with a passion for horses and an engineer with highly technical skills, especially when it came to outboard motors, thank God. Given that our ordinary lives differed so much in content and priority, what was it that had the ‘girly’ weekend work out?
I put aside my former feelings of exclusion from other women’s groups and decided to ask a few women about their own holidays with the gals.
From my extensive research (five flat whites in a café whilst gossiping), I found that we all had the same thing in common. The preparing and the making of food and the consumption of it, with or without alcohol was a binding factor. Men may fire up the barbie and knock the tops off stubbies as they fry up a feast (fishing works up an appetite) but women discuss the menu possibilities of beef on the turn, pitted prunes and wilted celery. They chop, dice and swap methods for dealing with the aubergine, the ex partner and hot flushes. They pour in the left over Pinot and administer acupuncture to the wrist that was bruised in landing the boat. They stir the pot and complement the chefs, all of them. And when the day is done, the food is shared with generosity and good spirit. “Sharing food, eating together; breaking bread; it’s a kind of communion.”
The abundance of food and vino is common and, says Rose, vital. “Massively over cater, thinking that you’ll have more time to consume it than you’ve ever had before. In reality, you often end up going to bed at , but it’s important to know it’s all on tap. It’s about plenty and availability.” For Mary and her friends, cuisine is a focus; “Collecting lovely local food, like fresh farm eggs, farm-grown mushrooms and wine. We’re real foodies and one of us is a chef.” A handy person indeed to have along, but not always the case.
“Patience is a good trait to bring to a GWA (girls weekend away), as seven mothers often have fixed ways of doing things- even peeling carrots” says Sally, who is a veteran GWA devotee. She and her group organise walks through National parks, some of which have been catered but others not. “We also do our own catering to accommodate those less flush amongst us.” This goes for accommodation too; “On our recent trip, several of us slept outside. No tent, and absolutely amazing stars!” A GWA doesn’t necessarily mean an outrageously expensive retreat. These women and their friends have stayed in tents, caravans, old farm houses, communal bunk rooms in DOC huts, a barn in an olive grove and even a renovated church. They move in packs of three or more, with eight generally being the upper limit and composed of a variety of women, mostly of long association. Old flatmates, student buddies, book club members, playcentre and kindy mums (though the kids are all teens now). But it’s not mandatory to have a history. Claire organized a group of 11 for the Tora walk. “We didn’t all know each other at the start but since the walk we have had 5 reunion dinners!!!”
I asked them what was top of their lists to pack, and expecting an itemized list of books, undies and wine varietals, I was surprised by the result. Respect was the universal answer. “Be yourself and respect everyone else and who they are. Humanity is a binding factor- or is that the wrong word? We need a new one!” How about ‘hu-woman-ty’ then? Because these weekends seem to be about more than just eating, drinking and reading books.
Rose: “In my 20’s it was all about getting ridiculously drunk, finding a local pub and checking out the talent. We talked about sex, sex and sex. Now it’s all about bath bombs, face masks and slippers and spiritual intimacy. It’s the new embarrassment- letting others know what you believe in. We’ve all done sex; none of us has done dying…yet.” The big issues can be raised in a non- judgmental environment, to be pondered upon with differing views celebrated.
Christina: “I think these weekends should be an essential in any girls, women's life. No matter what the weekend involves is irrelevant - it is the cohesiveness, bonding and sharing that happens during it that is important. To go away with and be with a group of women who share your values and ideals (or not), listen to your dreams, care for you, laugh with you - most importantly laugh a lot with you (at you is ok too!). To be with others who understand you and if not understand you, at least accept and respect you and to have fun, laugh with and relax with them is like a health spa for the soul.”
Laughing and relaxing are well known rest cures and GWA’s provide plenty of opportunity for both. Anecdotes abounded, my favourite one being the mental image of a group of hot, tired women, weary after a long hike throwing off all their clothes except for tramping boots and jumping into the nearest body of water. Then someone loses her glasses and they all bend over to search for them. One can just imagine the DOC worker rounding a corner, looking for Old Man’s Beard to eradicate and finding something else entirely! And then the group who went to a lavender farm with a fence to get over. The physio (who had small athletic gazelle-like daughters at Playcentre) leapt over it with ease and was halfway across the field when the journalist (with a son who preferred to sit at the playdough table) declared she was stuck. “It struck us as very amusing that this was a situation of ‘like mother like child’ and that we didn’t always know aspects of each other’s lives or character (who could climb fences or couldn’t).”
Claire:“The loveliest moment was us all in a straight line on towels on the deserted beach at sunset reading 100 year old mags drinking champagne. I think the fact that it was 3 nights was good as it gave you a real separation from the family. There’s no point in going with the kids.”
And what of the children? Given that it can be a military operation to organise a weekend away without them, can you sneak a small child into the packing?
Rose: “Sometimes we’ve taken our offspring, especially if there’s baby in tow. It’s chaos of course, but easier with three or four other women at with a glass of wine. The motto is: it doesn’t half the work but definitely halves the pain!”
Mary, now with teenagers said of her earlier GWA experiences. “Children weren’t encouraged but we accepted that for busy women especially those who worked full-time it wasn’t always possible to leave the children at home. The times children came, they were brought by women who worked full-time and/or travelled as part of their jobs and they needed to make contact with their kids that particular weekend or the children involved were especially young. One time, a woman brought her 12-year-old son who was delighted by the fields around the barn we were staying in and spent the weekend playing cricket by himself! It was like he wasn’t there. For Playcentre GWA’s kids were forbidden! We spent our Playcentre lives in and around children and wanted a weekend completely without them.”
For the women I talked to, the motherhood experience was a common binding factor. But it can also be the one to drive the group apart. “You cannot tell others how to parent,” warns Rose. So what else can’t you do?
Have over the top reactions to revelations; the GWA is a modern confessional- what goes on tour stays on tour. “Revelations are in a safe circle but if you feel the need to criticize, shut up and bury yourself in a book for a bit.”
But it’s defiantly infra dig to immerse yourself in a novel the whole time, paying little heed to others around you, unless they are all doing the same, “Preferably overdosing on women’s magazines until you can’t stand reading about Britney anymore, and long to pick up David Lange’s Biography.” And forget trying to tune into Desperate Housewives or Greys Anatomy. T.V is a definite no-no, but if your accommodation has a DVD player, Cheese and Chick Flick videos are absolutely allowable for a cosy night with Pinot Noir. Especially trashy classics along the lines of Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman. Take good music, a sense of humor and the ability to keep a secret.
Rose: “Don’t take people who hate each other; bad history means bad karma. It’s all about good planning.” And good planning means leaving the men behind. Boyfriends, brothers and husbands are all off the invite list, even for a lunchtime visit. In fact they don’t figure in the conversation too much at all according to Sally.
“We are all middle class family women. So far no-one has turned up with a toyboy or a stash of some class A drug (though the toyboy would be interesting! ) We generally don't talk about our husbands - it's not a conscious thing but the weekend is about us and not the humdrum of domestic life.”
And when you’ve walked, talked, eaten and luxuriated in each others company, it’s time to go home to the partners, children and jobs you’ve left behind. The women had different takes on their return to domestic life. “Lovely, home to what you have made; the home you like. There’s a clearer focus on what you want and what you want to change. Girlfriends help you do that in a positive way,”and “Homecoming is uneventful - sometimes I'm not sure the two teenage boys have noticed I've been away but they're usually keen to know what s for dinner the next night! Unwritten rule -always arrive home after so you don't have to cook!” then “The kids – especially young ones – are delighted to see you and the husbands are usually relieved. It’s odd though – it takes a moment or two to settle back. It’s like tucking yourself in….”
When I came home from my days away, my pleasurable bus-woman’s holiday from cooking for the family, I steeled myself to the disorder that would be my home after leaving a husband and two teenagers in it. I had received texts from the latter complaining about the lack of food in the house. This is unsurprising as the minute I buy any; it is eaten with no thought of conservation for the days to come. The last time I had shopped was the previous week and I could pretty much guarantee that the supermarket had not come high on the list of their father’s priorities. I trudged up the many steps to our house, slightly regretting the large portions I had consumed over the past four days. For someone who had done at least one bush hike, I was surprisingly out of condition.
A shock awaited me; the house was unbelievably tidy. The progeny leapt at me with cheery countenance, desperate to impart their week’s news. For anyone with a university student and a 16 year old son, this is barely credible. The most one can hope for generally is a request for the car keys or yet another un-repayable loan of twenty bucks. Whole actual conversations belong to another time when they were at primary school and thought you were the font of all knowledge, not the black hole of intelligence.
The fridge was full. The lawn was mowed. There was a bottle of Sav Blanc cooling and my son even offered to wash my car (for five dollars) and what’s more, my husband had managed to get them both to do household chores I had given up on nagging them about. I had just planned to ignore the mess until they had left home and then have a really good tidy up, and create that minimalist look I so often admire but am never likely to achieve with a family in residence. They had missed me but they had managed. I was speechless; I have booked the girl’s weekend away again. I’m hoping the bach is free next month.
So the shortlist for the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards has been struck and my junior fiction novel is not on it. I had an inkling as such, because if you are shortlisted, you get a call from your publisher at least a day or three before. I know this because I was a judge for the awards in 2008. I learned a lot from that job; mostly that it’s one thing to write your acceptance speech but another to accept that you aren’t in the running, and yet another to make it not mean anything.
I have had many years of practice at this with awards, grants and residencies, and believe me, it does get easier. This year’s disappointment was eased completely by a large peach and coconut muffin from Floriditas. It took about two hours- one for the gut to turn and another to digest the baking. So this does show that I am indeed growing up, or perhaps just easily soothed with sweet things like a small child. Either way I am less likely to take myself off to bed for a week with disappointment, because I understand what I could interpret the situation as, lying there moaning piteously, I count the extra sales I could have made with the publicity and think of the Trellise Cooper dress I’d have maxed the visa card out for to wear on the awards night. Not to mention the rose petals strewn before me as I walk up the red carpet of Glory. I’m so damned good at speeches too…
But in reality I know the thing we make awards, grants, residencies and accolades mean is that our work is worthy and therefore we are too; because writers are so beset by doubt and we define ourselves by our work. Even the most outspoken masters of the trade plying their wares have quiet moments of despair- more often than you might think. One success just ups the ante… after years of submissions, rejections and rewrites a book gets published and yes!!! But the voice on the shoulder says ‘it’s no good unless it makes the best seller list’, so a big launch is organised and many copies sold for one night and yes!!! But then the voice reminds the author about the awards and maybe just maybe it gets there on the shortlist and yes!!! But then it needs to win at award night does it not? And yes!!! Elation. But what about the sequel/next book?
There is just no satisfying the inner critic is there? Your voice inside your head telling you your work isn’t good enough, or worse, that it is and everyone is blind or against you. The perfect pathway to anger, resignation and revenge. My book Glory deals with all of that. Florence Bright, the lead character is 13, she’s feisty and hell bent on setting the world to rights.
It’s the perfect book to go buy right now if you didn’t get that prize you wanted so desperately. It’s meant for 8-12 year olds but it’s a universally appealing story, written with humour and insight with a twist at the end. It’s had great reviews and is delicious; much like a good cupcake. And whilst you are at the bookshop, buy some other NZ authors work too. None of them need to have a sticker on to give you permission to invest in a good read!
Footnote: did you think you were going to see the list here? Nope- 4th March at Booksellers. Congrats all to my fellow writers and illustrators who made the cut!