little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: the words we need

A very bookish sort of Mothers’ Day

I don’t know why I do a Mothers’ Day post every year, but I do. Although this one is so late, it’s sort of morphing into the birthday post and really, it’s just about books.

The Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival was on in mid-May. It was exhausting and wonderful. I went to a creative writing workshop with Glenn Colquhoun and if you ever get the chance to go to any sort of anything with him, do not even blink, just go. It was scary as all get out and then it was affirming and then it gave me what I needed. Dirty up your writing, he said. I ask you, how could you not love a man like that? I heard the lovely Emma Neale and Barbara Brookes read from their new books, discovered Ian Rankin, Victor Rodger, John Lanchester and Stella Duffy, rediscovered Bill Manhire and remembered The Magic Faraway Tree, took Rabbit to hear Selina Tusitala Marsh deliver the keynote address and then learn about making books about bees and monsters, lost it at the circle of laureates when Rob Tuwhare sang his Dad’s poetry, cried again with my sister listening to the marvellous and compassionate Emily Writes, thought about family and memory with Ashleigh Young and Adam Dudding and then crawled home and tried, not very successfully, to reintegrate myself into family and work. I was so happy, thinking and listening, angling towards the light, towards words laid together just so, towards ideas and wairua and the song of it all. I couldn’t be there all the time, attuned like that, but for a few days it fed me.



I love my job

I’m pretty proud to have helped create this little baby.

I work on a whole range of stuff, from departmental plans to self-published novels to theses to handbooks for trustees. I almost always enjoy my projects, the people I work with, and the challenges of shaping words as aptly and carefully as possible for a person or an organisation.

But every now and then a project comes along that really makes my heart sing. This was one of them.


I’m just going to start right out by saying that Word is driving me up the wall today. I’ll explain (or rant) soon, but first have to sort out problems with Spotify and my memory. Between Word and this sex abuse case that’s national news at the moment and that blatantly and excruciatingly exposes the rampant rape culture in this country, I’m in a vile mood and need music, so I thought a bit of cowboy folk might help, specifically a band I’ve been listening to since uni days, which I damn well know the name of and you will too — two women, guitar, rocking, been around forever and hopefully always will, you know the one — and I’m sure it will come to me by the end of this post, but if it doesn’t, I’m going to have to start eating more salmon and doing crosswords, because that sort of forgetfulness isn’t really acceptable. Anyway, I tried Cowboy Junkies and that wasn’t right, so then I tried the name of one of their albums, and that led me to 10,000 Maniacs, which is also good, but still not right, and now I’m going to talk more about Word and hope that some other part of my brain keeps trawling through its musical archive for me.

So, I am working on a large document that has been hacked about to the point where it may well be in terminal decline: it started off neat and lovely with a full set of nicely organised Word styles, but things have been pasted in from other documents, other authors have added material with different formatting, I’ve broken it into about 20 chunks, all of which have been substantially edited, then I’ve shoved it all back together, and now it’s just sitting there looking pathetic and refusing to do anything I ask.

Somewhere in this (admittedly appalling) process, the bulleting went astray, so I cleared out the bullet styles and have spent the last hour or two trying to reset them. I know exactly how I want them to look and I’m not a complete Word idiot, but it keeps defaulting to List Paragraph, and if it’s not doing that, it’s doing this other irritating thing where every time I try to base one bullet style on another one, it REMOVES the bullets from the original style, perhaps as a tax on excessive style mongering, I DON’T KNOW. I may be complicating things by having separate styles for

  • bullet lists
  • final items in bullet lists
  • numbered lists
  • final items in bullet lists
  • checkboxes, and
  • dashed lists

but I really feel that this isn’t too much to ask. WHAT AM I DOING WRONG? If anyone can help me before my empha-capsing gets out of control, that’d be awesome.

Sweet Jesus, it’s girls. Something girls.

Maybe if I try to create styles in a blank document, then import them? I did get the page numbering to work, so that’s nice. I can’t even charge for the hours I spend being stupid, which is a little-acknowledged downside of the self-employed, freelancing lifestyle.

I refuse to scan my CD rack or do Google Deduction. MY BRAIN WILL WORK.

What do you know, the name was sitting on Spotify next to the 10,000 Maniacs playlist.

INDIGO GIRLS. I wonder how long it would have taken me to get there?


Update: Word just crashed and I haven’t yet dared to look and see what I lost. Vindictive bastard.

Arming myself

So, a midlife crisis feels horizon-ish, not alarmingly or urgently so, but just there, hovering on the edge of my vision. At the moment, it’s manifesting itself as three white hairs, a vague restlessness, a niggling frustration at the non-fabulousness of my career, and a big twitching ache when I see anything about Paris, Mediterranean islands, good food or extraordinary writers.

I can cope with all of this, NO PROBLEMS, but in the library today I decided some extra bolstering might be in order. I came out with Peta Mathias, Primo Levi, Gertrude Stein and Anna Wintour. I CANNOT imagine what sort of a time I might construct in my 40s from this lot, but it’s got to be fun trying.

Taking a moment

P1010027I hope normal transmission will resume soon, but first you get a poem and a eulogy.

We had Aunty Nan’s service yesterday — a long, strange day of figuring out how to come together as a family and pay tribute to one of our matriarchs. I think we did okay, for young people and men.

P1010038My uncles gave Granny oysters at the end of the day. Pepped her right up — my sister and I had a fuller conversation with her than we have had for many, many months. Better get oysters on the menu.

All afternoon the sea was a muddle of birds
black and spiky,
long-necked, slippery.
Down they went
into the waters for the poor
blunt-headed silver
they live on, for a little while.
God, how did it ever come to you to
invent Time?
I dream at night
of the birds, of the beautiful, dark seas
they push through.
(Mary Oliver, Thirst)

P1010034One of the lovely things about Aunty Nan was the way she sought affinities in others. She herself had a wide range of interests — politics, sport, lace-making and embroidery, fishing, golf, croquet, birds and nature, history and family — so she kept her eyes open for people who might share those interests. She created bonds with people, looked for and found the best in them, gave them the best of herself.

Aunty Nan was a good talker, quick to get past the niceties and into the meat of a conversation, and many of us will miss chatting with her. She liked a joke; she had a twinkle in her eye, a bit of spark. She was shrewd and observant, thoughtful and to-the-point.P1010029

In January, I told Aunty Nan about Nelson Mandela’s death. They were of a similar age, and although they had vastly different lives, they had similarly young hearts. We segued into politics, which was always a satisfying and robust conversation topic with Aunty Nan. She described herself as a socialist, and was firm and principled in her beliefs.

I know a few socialists, and I must say that she is the tidiest, most orderly, and most well-mannered of them. I think the values of hospitality and openness to others run deep in the socialist tradition, as they do in the farming communities that Aunty Nan grew up and lived in. She had the grace to marry those traditions — of radicalism and conservatism — to dissolve their boundaries by holding on to honesty, generosity, history, and care for the world and others.

P1010060Aunty Nan also sought affinities in the past, and she often talked of family members with deep understanding and delight. They still lived for her in many ways, those old ones, and she brought them to life for us. I hope that we can do the same for her — I would like my boys to know and remember her, this gracious, interesting, gently stroppy great-aunt of mine.

But the longest relationship Aunty Nan had, and probably the closest, was with her sisters. They didn’t always see eye to eye, as sisters often don’t, but they forged companionship, love, and respect out of blood ties and shared experience. They saw each other through childhood, study and training, through war, marriage and family life, through Sunday afternoons and scrabble games, through ill health and into death. When they were past talking, they held hands, and that was enough and it was good.

So, let us take a moment to remember our sisters, those we are born to and those we find.

Let us take a moment to think of Granny as she faces life without her sisters. Let us surround her with love and strength as she and Nan and May surrounded us for all those years.

P1010061And let us remember Nan, an exemplary woman, sister, aunt, and friend.

That’s “unique”

An interesting conversation came up on Facebook the other day about whether it’s possible to talk about a film being “more unique”. I’ve wound myself into knots trying to think my way through this, and I need your brains, dear readers.

As I read it, the conversation was about the definition of “unique”, but perhaps also about how it can be meaningfully or usefully used. And my first bit of wondering was about whether the trick to using the word in a meaningful way when talking about films (or people) is to attach the adjective to a more specific noun or characteristic.

I can see that describing a particular film as unique is meaningless if we argue that films have so many variables and characteristics that each film is unique — it’s not like the one yellow pebble in a box of blues and browns, where there are few characteristics and most of them are uniform or shared. And following that line, to say that every film is unique is true, but a platitude, so we don’t want to go there.

But I think it could be useful to say something like, “The director’s vision of New York is unique” or “The filming of bridges is unique” — narrow the field of reference and it starts to make more sense to talk of something being one of a kind, rather than similar to or the same as others.

Maybe a litmus test is to think of the non-unique examples: the director’s vision of New York that’s pretty much like someone (or everyone) else’s, the way of filming of bridges that you’ve seen before. If it’s easy enough to come up with other, non-unique (or standard or shared) ways of doing the same thing and you can’t think of another film that does it the same way as the one you’re referring to, then I think you’ve got a good case for meaningful or useful uniqueness.

But definitely no “more” or “less” in the picture.

And then I started wondering if there’s a problem with saying that “unique” or “one of a kind” means that nothing else is exactly the same as it (which is why films and people are all unique). Maybe “unique” means something more like “there’s nothing else like it” or “there’s nothing else similar to it”. So then what we’re talking about is a film that sits in a category all its own, a film that doesn’t have peers or siblings or imitators or close antecedents. And then it’s clear that a film can’t be more or less unique — it’s either out of the box altogether, or in it and playing with its mates. I think that looking at it this way, some films could be unique where others are not, but still no film could be more or less unique than another.

Or, we could scrap all that and say that every film (and person and bus-stop) is unique, and the only meaningful conversation we can have is about what makes a particular film/person/bus-stop unique.

What do you think, writerly, travelling, thinky, wordy, arty,  crafty, wandery friends? Please tell me where I’m wrong, where I’m right, and what I’ve missed. But gently, hey.

Get thee to a library

Another piece for my sporadic but fervent library fandom, geek-happy, book-philic, dance-crazy series.

But who gets to do the reshelving?

Reading lists

P1050661The bedside table
The pile of books by my bed is getting out of hand — I’m partway through eight of these and have worthy intentions towards the rest. From bottom to top, they are: excellent, but hard work; strange; charming, but my French was better eight years ago when I started reading it; essential, but daunting; thought-provoking, but irritatingly blokey; so well written I can’t bring myself to read past the first chapter until I can pay proper attention; fun, then boring; terrific, according to my partner; a classic; very dated, but I’m much calmer this week; also dated, but I’m having a good time.

Coming up
Two of my friends have books coming out at the moment, and they both look to be winners. Check out Maria McMillan’s The Rope Walk and Pip Adam’s I’m Working on a Building.

And I’ve got three books on hold at the library: John Le Carré’s A Delicate Truth (because I can’t hold out any longer) and James Salter’s Light Years and All That Is (because I read a review of one and then wanted to read both).

How to write
If you want to know how to avoid writing rubbish prose, Orwell summed it up pretty well almost 70 years ago. For example:

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

The next project
By now, it will be obvious that I have a weakness for the spy thriller, so I might just have to work my way through this list too.

What else?
So, there’s all that, but I feel like I’ve spent the last few years reading in snatches, collecting books at random and inhaling them in any tiny quiet space I can find in a day.

But what am I missing? What’s out there that I don’t know about? What would you recommend? If I browsed your bookshelf, what would you pull out for me? Should I be keeping more lists: “What I Want to Read”, “What I Have Read”? Would that mean I could go stationery shopping, buy a notebook?

Fourteen things

One: Going home
Vincent O’Sullivan has written a 14-episode account of Ralph Hotere’s journey home. The number recalls Hotere’s use of the number, his referencing of the Stations of the Cross and of his 14 siblings. Frustratingly, the full version is only available to subscribers (when did the Listener change that?).

Two: Favourite birds (my son will be so cross that I haven’t used the proper full names, but the truth is, I can’t remember them)
mandarin duck
black cockatoo
superb lyrebird

Three: Books that got me through my childhood, and my children’s
Corduroy, Don Freeman
Any of the Frances books, Russell Hoban (illustrated by Garth Williams)
Tell Me What It’s Like to Be Big, Joyce Dunbar (illustrated by Debi Gliori)
Mr Gumpy’s Outing, John Burningham
Big Momma Makes the World, Phyllis Root (illustrated by Helen Oxenbury)
The Ramona books, Beverly Cleary
Big Sister and Little Sister, Charlotte Zolotow (illustrated by Martha Alexander)
Virginia Wolf, Kyo Maclear (illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault)
Come On, Daisy!, Jane Simmons
The Raft, Jim LaMarche
The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog books, Judith Kerr
Dogger and everything else, Shirley Hughes
far too much by Noel Streatfeild
Anne of Green Gables and all the rest, LM Montgomery
bonus: Kitten’s First Full Moon, Kevin Henke + about a hundred others

Four: Authors I’ve found myself consuming in bulk
George Perec
Italo Calvino
Primo Levi
Laurence Fearnley
Janette Turner Hospital
Nigel Cox
Sara Maitland
Jeanette Winterson
Maurice Gee
Philip Pullman
Ann Patchett
Jim Crace
Michael Ondaatje
(see the children’s list above)

Five: Foods that make life better
smoked salmon
salad, lots of it
roast chicken, then chicken soup
poisson cru
fennel seed and olive oil biscuits

Six: 14-letter words

Seven: What I want in a house
a chair by a window, just for reading
a kitchen that I can eat, cook, talk, and read in
a space for the kids to play
a front porch
a sheltered space to eat outside
plenty of trees
a glasshouse
vegetable patches
a workspace
bookshelves in every room
a woodburner

Eight: Condiments, loosely interpreted
lemons — fresh, juiced, zested, preserved
fennel seeds
sea salt
tomato sauce
a book
a friend

Nine: Punctuation that makes text prettier
fanciful ampersands
the Oxford comma
double quote marks
full stops
question marks, sparingly
well-placed commas
tidy, well-aligned bullet points
parentheses, occasionally

Ten: Plants I like to have in my garden

Eleven: The elements of a fine day
a small boy’s arms around my neck
that first cup of coffee
a shower
a walk, run, or yoga class
a kiss
seeing something through my children’s eyes

Twelve: A 14-year-old dancer

Thirteen: Colin McCahon’s Stations

Fourteen: A sonnet, of course
Not in a silver casket cool with pearls
Or rich with red corundum or with blue,
Locked, and the key withheld, as other girls
Have given their loves, I give my love to you;
Not in a lovers’-knot, not in a ring
Worked in such fashion, and the legend plain—
Semper fidelis, where a secret spring
Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain:
Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,
I bring you, calling out as children do:
“Look what I have!—And these are all for you.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Ralph Hotere

Ralph Hotere died in Dunedin yesterday.

The world feels emptier.

The news

What it means

From the north


With Hone Tuwhare*

Hotere Garden Oputae**

Documentary, 1974

Documentary, 2001


Tuwhare’s poem

* Janet Hunt. ‘Tuwhare, Hone’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30-Oct-2012. URL:

** Malcolm McKinnon. ‘Otago places – Otago Harbour’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 15-Nov-12. URL:

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