Wednesday, March 25, 2015


I remember the bow of the fizz-boat lifting as we set off across the lake from Moana, on the wet side of the Southern Alps. The biscuit, like a large, sturdy inner tube with a rubber floor, skimmed behind us, bounced across the wake of the boat as the tow rope snapped taut. All I could see of the children in the biscuit were arms and legs, and all I could hear above the singing of the outboard were their screams. The signal to slow down, their father said, was an up and down movement of a hand. "And" he added casually, "you'd better tell me if one of them falls out."

The chillibin nestled under tote-bags bulging with wet-suits, towels, spare clothes. Water skis and kneeboard were wedged behind our feet. The glove box held sunnies, hats, chapstick, bottles of SPF30, ready for a day on, in and beside Lake Brunner. We were headed for the family's favourite secluded beach.

The lake is what makes Moana special. It's huge. Magnificent. Tempting. The bush tumbles down the slopes of the embracing hills to the water's edge and many of its beaches are accessible only by boat. Choose one and stake your claim by unloading the gear. No one will trouble you – there are plenty of other beaches. There will almost certainly be driftwood – enough to build a small fire to char the sausages by anyway. Even in wet weather Lake Brunner can be magical in the mist. And although a beach isn't much fun when it's cold, a night-time barbecue beside a driftwood fire with freshly caught trout smoking nearby is an experience which, even in winter time, is unforgettably precious. 

Wekas, wise in the ways of picnickers, gather in the nearby bushes, ready to help themselves to anything edible. We watched once as a determined bird pounced on half a loaf of bread and hauled it backwards inch by inch into the bush. Wekas have learned to lift towels, rummage in plastic bags and knock off any lids not screwed down tight. 

In a good mood the surface of the lake is silky. Floating in a metre or so of clear water you can peer at the pebbly bottom and, if you're lucky, see the sinuous shadow of a trout. Turn over onto your back and the ringing calls of bellbird and tui will fill your heart. Gazing at the dense, billowing green of the bush you can drift into a trance-like state – like staring into one of those magic eye pictures.

Magic indeed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Most of the time, trying to teach creative writing to a disparate group of adults was rewarding, challenging, frustrating and sometimes eye-poppingly weird.

Their reasons for enrolling in a writing class were varied, but they were all there because they chose to be, and wanted to find out how to write. Whether writing can be taught at all is a subject often debated; I am firmly in the “sometimes” and the “it all depends” camps. But there is a basic level at which someone who wants to write can be given a gentle shove in the right direction. There are so many ways to show people how to start, and then to keep going, and the rest is confidence. We all have to start somewhere, and we all need help sometimes, at whatever stage we find ourselves.

Light No Fires
The first session of any course was illuminating. During the let’s-get-acquainted stage now almost universally expected at meetings, there would be several “I’ve always wanted to write but never had the time” people. There might be a couple of new grandmas who had developed a sudden desire to write stories for children. I remember an earnest young woman who wanted to earn her living as a writer – I managed not to blurt that she should take her place in the line. She took copious notes but did none of the assignments, and bustled up to me at the end of the course to ask “now, where do I go for a job as a writer?” And once there was a young woman who seemed determined to write porn, although she never actually said so.

It dawned on me slowly, as the weeks passed. There were hints of salaciousness in the most unlikely assignments. A word or phrase that I first thought was simply ill-chosen was carefully dropped into a sentence. There were hints of nudge-nudge, wink-wink developments to come. A description seemed over-blown and unnecessarily suggestive. Alarm bells began pealing in my head and I stopped inviting people in the class to read aloud what they had written. I wanted to be sure that the budding porn queen didn’t take the chance and suddenly burst full-blown into lurid prose in front of the unprepared and possibly shockable audience.

I’m all for doing one’s own thing, but not in my class. Once that cat had flown the perch there would be no picking up the pieces. However the porn queen did unwittingly give me the opportunity to mould a session around an important message without once mentioning porn: write what you know and like, but then aim it squarely at the appropriate readership.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Rummaging through a cupboard looking for reading matter while cat- and house-sitting recently, I came across a book by Dawn French called “Dear Fatty”.  It was in the form of a series of letters to friends and family, and was ideal for dipping into while I was working, trying to work, or sometimes only “working” (there is a difference).

Summer Garden
In one piece French describes how her being famous spoilt a children’s athletics event she was attending.  Her daughter was competing, and French was there as a mother, but when she was spotted, the loud-speaker system burst into life and blared with the tinny, excited voice of someone announcing that the celebrity DAWN FRENCH! was present, “sitting over there on the grass … with all the normal mums and dads.”  She was furious for herself, and distressed for her daughter whose achievements on the field were lost in the resulting glare.

French accepted that she has benefitted from the fame she has acquired through her professional activities and didn’t apologise for that. But, she asked (and I paraphrase here) how have we found ourselves in a world in which footballers and singers and comedians are celebrated when teachers and doctors and carers languish in the shadows? Why should someone who fronts a television game show attract more attention than those who slog away day after day, unnoticed and unsung? How, she asked, have we come to the point where we mistake lustre for importance?

On reflection, I don’t think that we do. We cheer the fellow who can kick a ball because he does it well, and preferably for the team we support. We admire the actors who bring stories to life on stage and screen. We enjoy the comedians and dancers and musicians because what they do is done in public, to entertain us. We acknowledge these achievements by cheering and clapping in return. They need it to survive, and we are willing to provide it. I think that we also admire and appreciate those who teach our children, tend our wounds, build our cities and fight our fires.

What is naff is to gawp at people when they aren’t on show. What is despicable is to prey on people in their private lives. What is demeaning to all concerned is to inflate the significance of people whose only claim to fame is having a public face by, for example, being on television, and treat them as important. We have pushed the idea that “any publicity is good publicity” to absurd lengths. It has taken celebrity appreciation to the point where both the gawped at and the gawpee look tacky.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015


Henry Ford said that you can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do. Unfortunately, many writers haven’t heard the news or refuse to believe it. We are always declaring that we are going to write a book and, like St Augustine before he became saintly, neglecting to add “… but not yet.” 1  

What we do is talk about it – writing, that is. We join groups and discuss the problems we are having about characters and plots, settings, themes and ideas. Our poems are all in our heads. Our novels (three or four in various early stages of construction) are stuck at around chapter seven. Sometimes we begin another novel with fresh characters and hope that this time it will work (breaking news: it doesn’t). Our short stories have lost their way, or their point, or their ooomph. Our articles waffle. But – we can talk for Africa when we get together with other would-be writers who have all got their fists clamped (metaphorically) to their foreheads and whingeing, just like us.

What’s so hard about writing? Nothing really. Not about writing as such, assuming that we have paid attention in school and learned how to make marks on paper that become words and sentences and paragraphs. A little more difficult is making those words mean something. Words that, put together with other words, are interesting enough for other people to read. Words that, in the order that we put them, have never been put together in quite that way before by anyone else. Words that tell a story, convey a feeling, reflect a mood, describe an event, explore a character, clarify a thought, or tackle a problem.

So far, not too difficult. In fact we can all do this. It’s what we do when we phone a friend or meet someone over coffee, and babble on about this and that without a thought for the words we use and the way we use them. Words tumble out, we hum and ha, we stop in mid-sentence and change tack, we muddle up our tenses and drift off course –and we don’t care.  And that, I think, is the point.

Very few of us speak in measured phrases and carefully considered sentences and paragraphs when we are talking informally. We don’t generally think ahead and work out what we want to say and how to say it, unless exceptional circumstances demand it. And we don’t care. It isn’t important. We are at ease, relaxed. We are just doing what people do when they meet: we talk.  In the end, that’s what writing is: talking on paper. How hard is that? 

1 St Augustine of Hippo: “Lord, grant me chastity and continence – but not yet.”