little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: writing

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.



Ten thoughts in ten minutes

Eek, I’ve been away from this blog for far too long, and I have to be out the door in ten minutes, but what the hey, here goes. A mini-update before I get back into regular writing, sort of like that first time in ages that you pull on your sneakers and it all feels a bit strange and rusty, but it’s nice to be moving and you don’t want to die quite as much as you thought you might and you’re pretty sure that if you keep going, the next time will be easier.

  1. Speaking of, I’ve started going to the gym, and not only that but regularly and with a trainer. I know. The world is a very strange place. It’s making me happy though and I’ll write a post about it soon.
  2. The weather is starting to warm up (okay, it’s raining today and I’m getting a cold), so I’m on a vegetable appreciation drive. Purple sprouting broccoli was this week’s winner.
  3. I think we might be able to keep the garden under control this year if we work consistently and methodically. Mostly I just want to plant big flowering things and baby edible things, so we shall see how that goes.
  4. We went on holiday last week and I didn’t take any work. It was the most awesomeness ever.
  5. I finished up my job as subeditor for Critic, which I have been meaning to write about all year. It was wonderful and exhausting and interesting and happy and occasionally drove me into full grumpy old woman mode. I guess the best jobs do that.
  6. I’m going to write about tomato and feta salad soon.
  7. I have a book plan.
  8. The Cat taught me how to do headers. More fun than I anticipated.
  9. If you’re going to play tennis, I recommend in a paddock with no markings and a nine-year-old.
  10. It turns out I can no longer party like it’s 1999.

Marmalade days, Part II

I picked up Shonagh Koea’s book, The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs} at breakfast this morning, and I’ve been rolling her words like marbles under my tongue all day. I could start quoting anywhere, really, and my stopping point will be likewise borderline arbitrary, but I thought, y’know, marmalade.

The first time I made marmalade was when I was working as a very junior reporter in New Plymouth. The Daily News was a morning newspaper so we all worked until eleven at night, or even later, and no one wanted boarders going in and out of their houses at that hour so I had a tiny flat of my own. There was a tiny kitchen with a kauri bench and a very old-fashioned gas stove on cabriole legs. It had a mottled blue and while enamel surface and I always thought it was rather pretty. I made my first batch of marmalade on that stove and when I had poured it into the jars and left it to set on the bench I thought it looked truly beautiful, so golden and glittering and clear.

This tiny flat was the first home I ever had of my own and I liked it very much. It was very quiet and looked out on to large trees. When I stepped into the place it was always quiet and exactly as I had left it. In Hastings, my father had a habit of suddenly arriving home in his big car, loading it up to the roof with anything nice like crystal glasses or the better blankets or anything he thought was worth having and, with much shouting, driving away. He would not return for several months. That is why when I had that first little flat it pleased me very much that whatever I had, and it was not much, remained where it was. If I had a coat hanging in my wardrobe when I left for work the same coat was hanging in the same wardrobe when I got home. I found the idea of that absolutely charming. Possibly it was the first time I had any reliable sense of security.

The marmalade I made then is essentially the same recipe I still use but I have altered it slightly over the years. I now take no notice of the recipe’s instructions about when the mixture is ready to be put into jars to set because, for marmalade, the timing often varies with the ripeness of the fruit.

To Make Marmalade

six large grapefruit
four lemons
12 cups of water
12 cups of sugar

Slice the grapefruit and lemons as finely as you can, after washing the fruit carefully. Cover the sliced fruit with the water and leave overnight. The following day bring this mixture to the boil and boil for twenty minutes. Remove the jam pan from the heat and stir in the sugar, bring the mixture quickly to the boil after that and boil it for thirty minutes. At this stage you can start testing it to see if it will set. I used to put a spoonful in a saucer and leave it for a minute or two to see if a skin would form on it but after several years of my using this not overly reliable method, an elderly lady I knew told me a very handy trick. It had been passed on to her by her mother. She said to dip an ordinary silver or stainless steel tablespoon into the mixture and then hold it horizontally over the marmalade so you are looking at the wide inner face of the spoon. When the marmalade drips off the lower edge in two separate places simultaneously the marmalade is ready to be put into the jars. It sometimes takes much longer than thirty minutes’ boiling to accomplish this but it is a very reliable method, I have found. When I first started to make marmalade I used to put the clean empty jars in a slow oven to sterilise, about the time I put the sugar in the mixture. Then I would have to get them out one at a time — and they would be hot — with an oven cloth, in a sudden untidy kind of scramble. But these days I put them neatly in rows in a roasting dish and then I just have to get the whole lot out at once and any drips of marmalade, when I fill the jars, are caught in the dish.

[Interlude for a marmalade loaf recipe and time to marvel at the genius spoon and roasting dish methods which, collectively, would eliminate about 80% of my previous marmalade trauma, then…]

Another very nice loaf I sometimes make has no marmalade actually in it, but I put marmalade on it and sometimes make it instead of having ordinary bread. It is a bran teabread and is very pleasant to have sliced and buttered and spread with marmalade for breakfast at a weekend when I go out to my little garden house to read the paper and have a look at my wilderness (which is really only about as big as a tennis court, if that). I have cultivated quite wild and spreading plants so there is an atmosphere of largesse and tropical wilderness in my garden and through this I walk carefully with a cup of coffee in one hand and a doorstep of homemade bran loaf spread with marmalade in the other. Once I tripped on a low-lying leaf of my big flax plant and fell flat on my face, so I have walked through my garden with greater care since then. I had thought, as it was my very own garden, that I would be able to do anything there and be unharmed but this was just a fanciful thought — I am apt to have such fancies and think that because it is me everything will be all right. It mostly is but sometimes not, like the time I tripped over the flax leaf.

Shonagh Koea, The Kindness of Strangers {Kitchen Memoirs}, Auckland, NZ: Random House, 2007 (pp. 32–35).

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.

Writing in the rain, part II

I’ve been here before, rain on the roof, a muddle of thoughts in my head. I should put the fire on, the lamps, the music too. Soon I will, but I’ll write a bit first, stir the muddle, sift for one clear thought or two.

Yesterday was such a good day. We all gave the best of ourselves, me, my partner, the children. It was Mothers’ Day*, and it was a happy one. Last Mothers’ Day we were in Paris (yelp!) and it started well, but deteriorated when we took the kids to the Musée d’Orsay: one of them was grumpy, bored, and got lost; the other one wanted to spend an hour looking at a (very attractive) stone owl and nothing else. But, still, we were in Paris, which is so mind-blowing in itself that a bit of kid-drama is just fine. Particularly in retrospect.

Anyway, this Mothers’ Day was at home. Ian and the Cat got up to make me breakfast, and the little Rabbit burrowed his way under the covers for a cuddle. He’s a very good cuddler; he wraps his whole body around you, squeezes, then sort of holds you in an emphatically relaxed way that says “I love you and I want you to feel that and let’s just hang out here and breathe together.” And then he pats the back of your neck. Adorable, so I let go of sleeping in.

Breakfast in bed often worries me — the crumbs, the wriggles — but I think we nailed it on this one. If you need to know, I think the vital ingredients are: trays and small tables, settled children, one adult being willing to sit on rather than in the bed and handle the pouring, spreading and passing, croissants, coffee and hot milk in jugs, orange juice, and a willingness to get up before it all turns to the bad.

IMAG3233And in the afternoon we went to Purakaunui, which must be one of the loveliest places in the world. It’s an inlet over the hill from Port Chalmers, all dinghies, boat sheds and cribs, mud flats and cockles, hills and bush, birds and warm afternoon sun. It has that simple little combination of sounds, too, that makes me so happy: the splash of an oar dipping into water, a child’s voice, bellbirds and oyster catchers, footsteps on a leaf floor.

We walked along the track to the playground, kicked the Cat’s soccer ball, played in the swings, sat on the rocks, took off our shoes to feel the mud and the water. I took some time to myself, thought about my mum, missed her. I thought about other griefs that sharpen on Mothers’ Day, about those for whom the day ramps up feelings of loss or fear or exhaustion. I held my children and my partner, let myself be warm and loved and grateful.

IMAG3240When I got back to the car carrying the Rabbit, Ian said that the Cat was being a Yellow-Eyed Penguin. Sure enough, he was nesting in a flax bush. The Rabbit wanted in too, of course, and there they were, my boys, wedged in together, squawking, protecting their patch.


* We had some discussion on Facebook about the position of that apostrophe, and my preferred style lost the day, but I’ll make a place for it here. I like Mothering Day better anyway; could we switch to that?

The rain clock

I’ve posted a couple of fragments of this story already, but it’s growing.

After three days of rain, during which the mantle clock had stuck firm at twelve minutes past five, Henry took the clock down to the basement, laid it on its front, and removed the back panel. Inside the casing, metal lay in intricate order — coils, springs, a tiny hammer, round-headed pins. Henry hesitated, gently removed one coil, and then another.

The basement was cool and still, the brickwork buffering the noise from the house and the insistent drumming of the rain. Henry’s workbench ran along one wall, beneath a window blurred with dust. He kept the workbench tidy, his tools neatly packed away, and odds and ends — nails, screws, tacks, bolts — sorted into small jars, which he kept in a gridded shelf to the left of the window. He had a CD player down there, and sometimes played music as he worked, but today he was content with the quiet of empty space, its outer edges softly frayed with children’s voices, the distant hum of the dryer, rain.

There was a tap at the door, and Rachel poked her head around. “Lunch is almost ready, love,” she said. “What are you doing?” Henry started, took a step back. Rachel edged into the basement and joined him at the workbench. Together, they looked at the clock, its body empty and its parts scattered on the bench, mute and indecipherable as fossil bones. “Huh,” said Rachel. “Do you know how that all fits back together?” Henry contemplated the wreckage of the clock, felt a ball of panic and shame rise in his chest. Upstairs something thudded to the floor, followed by a moment of silence. Henry looked at Rachel, noted the soft creases starting to form around her mouth and eyes. A child’s voice rose, a loud, shocked cry filled more with outrage than with pain. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” said Rachel, and hurried outside. Henry bundled the clock pieces inside the casing and screwed the back on. As he walked towards the kitchen door, he could hear Rachel with the children, comforting them, negotiating the terms of peace, smoothing out their spiky discontent. Henry took a deep breath, pushed the clock to the back of his mind, and joined his family.

On Tuesday, the rain stopped, and Henry took the clock to the repairer, a compact, rumpled man with fine-boned hands. “I thought I’d have a go at fixing it,” he said, “but it didn’t really work. I’m sorry.” The repairer looked at him, measured him with a gaze sharpened from years of coaxing delicate mechanical objects into working order. Henry felt himself grow large and clumsy under the repairer’s gaze, an incompetent fool who knew no better than to blunder into the back of a clock as though it were nothing more complicated than a toaster or a child’s toy.

“These old clocks,” said the repairer, “they are so beautiful, no?” Henry nodded. He left his name and number, making his writing neat and taping the scrap of paper square on the top of the clock. The repairer said he would call in a day or two and Henry ducked out, found himself standing on the footpath, his hands empty, his shoulders easing in the sunshine.

It was a bright summer day in a quiet city, light falling on the hills and on people in the streets with equal and unstinting generosity. The air was sweet and warm, with that new smell that wears off as the sun lifts into the sky and the routine of the day takes over. But at that hour, it was as if the very leaves were rinsed in light, the leaves, and the asphalt too. He should get back to work, he knew, while the weather held. Mrs Lamberty’s garden was ready for planting, the beds shaped and filled with good rich soil. The plants were stacked against the back wall, his tools were in the car.

He turned the other way, set his face towards the distant sea, and started walking. It was a straight line to the beach. Block by block, the shops fell away, gave way to houses, square and worn, their window frames roughened by the salt wind, the gardens a straggle of weeds and toys. Henry’s stride lengthened. He could hear the waves now, their dull boom and crash on the sea wall. He lifted his head, smiled as a gull wheeled above him. He crossed the last road, climbed up the dunes, and stood on the crest. The light hit him, bright and uncompromising. The beach stretched long to either side, city at one end, rocks at the other. Henry bent down and tugged off his shoes and socks, wedged them behind a bush, rolled up his trousers, and walked down the sand dune, throwing his arms out as the momentum took him into a half-run.



The washing line was empty, and she liked it like that. She liked the unfilled space, the trees behind, the feeling that there was nothing there she needed to worry about. And the liberation was shared; she wasn’t parsimonious with her joy — the pigeon could shit right overhead if it liked, because no-one had their sheets out or their best shirt, and the rain could go right ahead and fall, fall as heavy as damn, fill the gutters and soak the plants, or settle about the house in a fine, drenching mist for all she cared, because there was nothing, not one thing, on the line.

But if not the washing, what was a girl to do? Rachel looked at her novel, contemplated the dishes in the sink, made a cup of tea. She felt adrift, cut loose in these suburban hills where the days drifted slow and peaceful like big old clouds.

She could run, she thought, start slow and build up speed until she crested the hill and launched herself into the sky with all the determined abandon of a hawk. She could circle there, held up by an air current, and look for answers in the green curved land beneath her, the thin little houses and the colour-splashed gardens, look for answers in the big blue luxury of the sky and the washing lines below—some of them empty, some carefully freighted with clean white sheets, scraps of underwear, socks in pairs, blue jeans, and a jersey, poppy red against the green.

Rachel took her tea and stepped into the garden, her feet leaving soft prints in the still-wet grass. The flowers were heavy with light-filled rain, the leaves bright, clean-edged. She leant against the old stone wall, pulled weeds from the pliant earth. She threw the weeds on the path, the pile scattering as she worked.

It was no good.

Rachel fetched a wheelbarrow, gathered the weeds and put them in. She moved on, filling and emptying the wheelbarrow, leaving the beds clean and fresh behind her. Dirt filled her nails, settled in the ridges and lines of her hands. She rubbed her nose and got some dirt in her mouth. It was bitter, mineral. Her back started to ache, that tender spot where her babies had pressed against her spine and where she wedged a pillow when she breastfed, or read. But she worked on, never looking too far ahead, narrowing her gaze on the little patch of ground in front of her until she was sure she had out every errant scrap of weed, then looking up, moving to the next patch, and the next.

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.

Modes of writing

Those who teach writing often break the writing process into three stages, recommending that you spend one-third of your time on each. The stages are:

  • Planning and research
  • Writing
  • Editing and revision

In general, I agree with this (a writing project will have more planning and research time at the start and more editing time at the end), but the stages of the process usually aren’t completely discrete. One of the best writing teachers I know, Sharon Stevens, talked about the difference between seeing the process as an arrow —  focused, moving in one direction, passing swiftly and confidently through these stages, never to return —  and seeing it as a spiral — a swoop forward, a curve back, another turn forward, gradually getting to the end of the line, but passing back and forth between the stages within that overall forward momentum. And this spiral seems closer, certainly, to the way I write: I might start with some big ideas, then write a bit, crunch my sentences into a tighter shape as I go, pause to reconsider the overall shape of my piece, write some more, tidy up a paragraph, write, re-structure, write, edit, notice that the centre section makes no sense, rewrite, edit again, and finally, a long way down the track, proof and polish.

So lately I’ve been thinking that instead of conceptualising the writing process as a series of stages, it might work better for me to think of being in different modes as a writer at different times, to consciously notice and shape my mindset, my frame, my point of focus. And here are the modes I’m working in, along with a table summarising their characteristics (because tables, yum):

  • Contemplative, generative mode
  • Active writing mode
  • Reflective, tidying up mode
Contemplative, generative mode Active writing mode Reflective, tidying up mode
WHAT: Think about content, purpose, audience, structure. Do research. Generate ideas. Gather the information you need. Draft headings. Jot down bullet points to cover. Delegate sections to colleagues. WHAT: Get ideas down. Write your way through a bit of analysis. Hammer out paragraphs. Turn jotted points into paragraphs. WHAT: Check structure. Make sure you’ve covered everything you need to. Review formatting. Edit and proofread.
HOW: Use a whiteboard or a notebook. Talk things over with a colleague. Go for a walk. Have a meeting. Use the internet. Go to the library. Search databases. Review previous work. HOW: At your computer. HOW: On screen or on paper. Get other people involved in this process, but be clear about what sort of reviewing you need.

And what I’ve found most useful about this shift from stages to modes is that when I get stuck, it’s easier, somehow, to get over the hump. Maybe because I’m not wedded to being at a particular stage of the project, maybe because I feel more confident recognising that I’m not in the mood to write or edit, or that I need to bang out a few paragraphs before I can stop and think about the structure of the whole piece.

I like the way this brings the process a little closer to home, more connected to my mood, the music I have playing, the interplay between me and a text, between the words I have, the words still to come, and my thinking, typing, wandering, mulling, pernickiting, singing, dreaming, pruning self.

Finding my people

Being self-employed, working from home, juggling parenting, and running a small business — there’s a lot of fun and satisfaction in there and NO BOSS, plus you get to listen to whatever music you like while you work, and the only office politics are when you have to convince the children to scoot on out of your office and let you concentrate on your work, which may or may not include checking Facebook and reading The Toast (have you found this yet? you should) and watching reruns of The Cosby Show, or you have to negotiate with your partner for an evening or a weekend of work time while he does the Dad-ing. And if you get really into the zone and the proofreading’s flying, you may have to stop to make dinner or pick up the kids, but you’ll rarely have to push the pause button to go to a meeting that’ll get you so wound up you’re good for nothing for the rest of the day, so while you’re mothering and cooking and playing and all the rest of it, your mind can kind of keep trundling along thinking about words and ideas and what your logo should look like. Also, there’s all the stress about money and why there isn’t enough of it and where the next job is going to come from, but best we don’t think about that too much because this post is supposed to be upbeat.

But one thing you don’t have — and that you start to miss after a while — is co-workers, the good sort who instinctively get you and take turns making the coffee and never startle you with casual racism or sexism and who tell good jokes. The sort who make every project you work on together come out somehow much better than either of you could have managed on your own. And in the process of doing which projects, you have lots of those moments where you have a little jump inside because you’ve made sense of something that seemed impossible and found the right words and got the structure just exactly perfect and quite possibly written something that will change the world, or at least a small, tame corner of it. Anyway, forget it, because you don’t have them, those co-workers.

However, you do have a group on a social media website (which will remain nameless) of people who are just a bit like you, with the silly, wordy jokes and the incessant mulling over punctuation and syntax and the secret comma anxiety and all. So when you collapse into bed on a Thursday night after a day stressing about the workshops you’ve got coming up and making soup and reading stories, you roll into your partner’s arms and say, “I had such a great day; we had this thread running for hours about punctuation.” At which he sort of pauses, then says, “You’re really quite geeky, aren’t you?” But luckily, he finds that quite endearing, you think. And on a Friday, while making train sets and doing water play and chopping vegetables and walking the children home and getting everyone into bed FAR TOO LATE, you have this parallel fantasy in your head the whole time of working towards Friday night drinks with that virtual, barely glimpsed, desperately real out there somewhere group of not-quite-co-workers, the ones with whom you’ll pour a G+T and kick back, make increasingly bad puns, sit up in sudden, garrulous enthusiasm when someone mentions a book that no-one else ever seems to know about, but which you will quietly treasure for all time.

And that — and also the lovely, endlessly surprising, ever unfolding blogging world — is why the internet is QUITE A GOOD THING.

Across the table

My son is sitting opposite me in my favourite café, a pencil clenched between his teeth. We caught the bus down the valley, walked in the fresh winter sun to this warm and open space. And now we’re having a mother-son writing date, our papers spread before us, drinks to hand. We’ve got pencils and light and each other, a shared commitment to words too. The Cat is in good form — his eyes are shining, his face has a gentle curve to it, he’s thoughtful and calm. I can’t think of a better companion for this moment.

We went ice-skating with his school last night, and I tried my skates again after about ten years off them. I’ve forgotten a lot, but it still feels right to be on the ice, the sway and flick of it, the leap of speed when I get a little space in front of me. The Cat clung to the wall at first, then I came back to the rink after a break and he was moving freely, not particularly smooth, not stable either, but happy and confident and letting the skates guide him along.

So it’s a weekend of rediscovered and newly shared loves, and of watching my boy grow into himself. We didn’t manage much writing in the end — half a sentence for him, a draft of this post for me — but we didn’t really need much more. It was enough to be writing companions for a time, to batt words gently back and forth across the table. Enough to take us back to the companionship we often had when he was little, a quiet solidarity together in a busy world.

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