Giving a voice to Auckland's migrant women
Our November 2014 workshops have kicked off! Two groups of keen writers met on Sat afternoon and Sunday morning for the first time, with tutors Renee Liang, Vivienne Plumb and Jo Emeney. We were lucky to be joined for the first part of the workshop on Saturday by Ella Kumar, representative from the Puketapapa Local Board who is sponsoring this current set of workshops. Ella spoke of being the child of migrant parents herself. She reiterated the importance of hearing new voices and stories, both for the connections they bring within the community and also as a way for small migrant communities to reach out to other groups and be heard as part of the wider Aotearoa voice. Ella framed this with some personal stories of her own struggles as a Indian-Kiwi woman, finding her way in what were seen as non-traditional vocations, and having to work hard to earn acceptance.
We did a round of introductions and once again, it is evident that our group is made up of remarkable women who have had extraordinary experiences and come from many backgrounds and vocations. The thing that binds us is a desire to write, often longstanding. Some of us have now got to a time in our lives where we have the time and energy to contemplate this at last; others are doing this despite very busy lives as mothers, business owners or professionals. But writing is a driving urge that bubbles up, and these workshops will hopefully be the catalyst for many short stories, poems, entries to writing competitions, novels, prizewinning pieces, memoirs… who knows. The main thing is we all write, and have fun doing so.
Three simple ground rules. Firstly, confidentiality: writing can be intensely personal and we want to make this workshop a safe space to share. So, what is shared stays between us, and there is to be no reporting/recording etc without express permission. For the same reason, no visitors or observers unless invited and agreed to by the group. (There will be a Council arranged photographer visiting the Sunday group in a few weeks, but no obligation to be photographed.) Secondly, the right to pass – although some people will be happy to share their writing with the group, not everyone does and there is no obligation to share. Lastly, and the first two rules are to help with this, taking risks with your writing. The most powerful writing occurs when personal, emotional and creative risks are taken – think back to the last book, poem or play you enjoyed and you’ll notice this. This is the point at which you have the reader and audience along for the journey, identifying with your characters, finding the truths in your writing. Take a risk and your readers won’t be able to stop reading. Take a risk and you’ll discover more about yourself. As a writer, and beyond.
Our first three workshops will follow the same basic structure: discussion on the topic, exercises and sharing, a break then a round table (ie participatory and driven by your questions) discussion on an aspect of writerly craft. Then we’ll do more exercises, sharing and close, and you may be given some optional homework. The final workshop, which is on editing work, will be focussed on giving you one on one time with a tutor to discuss individual pieces and get them ready for publication. But more on that later.
Our course is focussed not only on getting you to write (and there will be plenty of exercises), but on welcoming you to the writing community. We are lucky in NZ- the writing community is relatively small, and once you get to know a few people, it’s easy to find your way around. We’ll be mentioning plenty of places, events and websites to make those contacts and encouraging you to come to some of the many (often free or koha) events featuring writers. As a start, check out the links on the sidebar.
A note on language. You are welcome to write in any language – often it’s easier to’flow’ in your first language. We’d encourage you to then attempt a translation since (unfortunately) we are not polyglots and can only help in English (and translations done by the author tend to be both beautiful and accurate). For the anthology, I am happy to help with proofreading and grammar.
Also a note on topic. The exercises will push you to write on a wide range of topics. There are no expectations for you to write only ‘migrant’ stories – feel free to explore whatever you wish! The point is the writing. The stories will emerge on their own.
So to start. How do you become a writer? The easy, and somewhat flippant answer is: to write. As everyone knows, this is easy to say, but harder to put into action. Even seasoned writers encounter roadblocks or periods in their lives where events and other commitments seem to make this impossible. So here’s a list of possible issues and potential solutions.
Time: let’s start with the biggie! Many writers treat their writing like a job – they have ‘desk hours’. Even if you don’t have the luxury of being able to write 9-5, scheduling time in to write is important. Diarise it if that works. Wake up early or stay up late… take advantage of weekends and holidays where you don’t have to factor in a job, to snatch an extra block. You don’t need big blocks of time either: for mums or busy career women, try snatching 15 minutes while waiting for a pickup or (ahem) during a boring meeting (see exercise on character for a fun suggestion how to get through boring meetings and write something (win-win).) 15 minutes here and there add up, as long as you make those minutes count. Having deadlines work too. Use a deadline for a writing competition as a way to force yourself to complete that story that’s been loitering in your head. Tell someone important you plan to complete something you’ve been working on; that will make it super embarrassing if you don’t complete, and thus you will do it. Join schemes like the 100 Days Project or NanoWriMo or start your own.
Space: “a room of one’s own” is what some people need, while others thrive on busy environments. Learn what works for you, and set it up so you can use it for the time you have set aside. It doesn’t need to be big – some people use their bed for writing, and more than one great work has been completed in what is politely called ‘the little room’. Some people find they are too distracted if they stay home, so leave – go to the library, to a cafe, your favourite tree…some writers even rent an office or use one of the many shared creative spaces available.
Inspiration: get yourself a notebook. Any notebook – the $5 jobby from the Warehouse is just as good as that $30 Moleskine. So long as you carry it around and jot down any ideas, thoughts, images, phrases that come to you through the day. (Phone /tablet apps are good too, though sometimes work less well than traditional pen and paper.) Label and date all your jottings. Is it a poem or play idea? For how many characters? For what audience? Write on consecutive pages, but don’t be afraid to go back and forth and reread – you never know when two ideas might join up. Add to your initial jotting, add in clips and images. It’s the wardrobe of your brain. When you’ve finished a notebook, label it with the year and month it’s from, file it in your bookcase, and buy another. That way you’ll never be short when that awesome writing competition comes up and you’re looking for the seed of an idea.
Roadblocks: this happens to all of us from time to time. Exercises are really good for unblocking, and several of the ones we’ll be doing on this course are perfect for getting you on track to hit your project again. Often, if you hit a block in your big project, it’s good to start and finish a smaller project. It will give you a sense of achievement and get you in the right frame of mind to start again. (But then again, the small project might take on a life of its own.. this is not necessarily a bad thing.)
Exercise: both physical and mental. Physical exercise is beneficial to the writing brain, and often engages the mind during the actual exercise (have a notebook on hand to write it all down after.) And writing is like exercise. When you first start it’s hard to get moving, but the more you do, the easier it becomes. Develop a writing habit, and do it regularly. Don’t forget to challenge yourself from time to time… change genres, try a new style of writing, try on a different voice.
Voice: Read, find passages of writing that touch you, imitate, play with words. Your voice will emerge as you write, informed by the unique experiences that make you you. You don’t have to try to ‘make’ a voice, but after a while you’ll start recognising there are certain ways you use language. Maybe get someone to read your writing and tell you what they see. People who have lived in many different cultures and use more than one language often have an advantage in terms of already having an intriguing way with language – a unique mix.
Reading: Reading begets writing, and it’s important to read, both for inspiration and to find out what others have already tried. You can see what works and what doesn’t. It’s good for roadblocks too – if you can’t seem to start writing, read. Find out who your literary heroes are and stalk them (on the shelf, online, and in person if they are local.) Which brings us to…
Mentors: Writers, as a rule, like to be approached by enthusiastic readers who are also fellow writers. They were probably taken under the wing of someone when they were starting out, so they are more than happy to pay it forward. A polite approach at a writer’s event, a request for email contact or coffee, is likely to result in a ‘yes’ or a ‘maybe later after my big project’ – be positive, informed and non pushy. They will be more than happy to talk about their craft and share a few tips – they will NOT be interested in looking at your poem, manuscript etc, at least not on the first meeting. In time this may grow into more of a friendship and exchange. If you are wanting a more formal mentorship, many writers will be happy to meet for a fee, and the same goes for manuscript appraisals. Lists of willing writers can be contacted through the NZ Society of Authors, and if you join the NZSA, you can apply for one of their valuable Mentorships (competitive; free.)
OK. Time to start writing! A list of the exercises we covered this week is below. They vary by day because of tutors, but I’ll list them all so that you can use them if you wish. We deliberately give very little time for each exercise, to overcome blocks and get you responding to your instincts and going with the first thought (often the best). If you like something you’ve done as an exercise, you can develop it into a fuller piece of writing and consider submitting it.
Naming: 6 minutes. Write a story about a name – yours, or one you gave someone else. Names are very important – they’re carefully chosen, and there are often deep reasons why they are chosen. They can reveal a personal story and also influence one’s path in life.
Character: 10 minutes. Choose a picture from a newspaper or magazine. What is their earliest memory? what do they dream about? What is their greatest fear? what is their deepest wish or greatest ambition? Now shape the answers to these questions. Have you got the start of an interesting character? a poem or a short story?
(Homework variation: instead of a picture, go to a public space like a cafe or library and pick someone who looks interesting. It’s great fun to stalk someone imaginatively.)
(Meeting variation: pick someone randomly, and imagine them as a character. Forget what you know about them and let your imagination do the work.)
Riddles: 12 minutes. Pick an everyday object. Write a riddle, casting yourself as the object (‘I am…). Play with image, sound, ambivalence and double meanings. For example, an egg could be ‘yoked shells’. Google riddle poems for inspiration.
A note: 6 minutes. Write a poem which starts with the lines…
This is just a note to let you know….
and it smelled…
I tell you this….
In the moment: 15 minutes. Find a time when you won’t be interrupted. Find a place you enjoy – your garden, a room in your house, or go for a walk. Pay attention intensely. Concentrate on the ‘now’ – what are you hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, smelling? focus on each of these in turn. Then follow your internal thoughts – where are they taking you?Finally, bring yourself back to your body – what are your physical responses? can you feel yourself breathing? Can you notice the small sensations within yourself? Now, pick up a pen and write whatever’s in your head. Bring this as homework to class next week.
Our discussion this week focussed on the writing community in NZ. As mentioned, there are many good ways to meet people, and if you’re serious you should consider joining a society or writer’s guild as they give you access to extra resources, scholarships and competitions. There is a list under Writing Resources on the sidebar.
Writing groups are a good way to keep writing and improve – find a group of like minded people or join an established group. Make sure that you have similar aims – are you there to have your work admired and to gain confidence, or are you ready for constructive critique?
Look for competitions to join to give yourself deadlines, or submit to journals. A win or publication might help in getting a publisher to pay more attention. It also helps you reach out to readers.
Study nor not? You don’t need a degree to be a writer. But formal courses of study give deadlines, discipline, a grounding in background and theory, and contact with experienced writers as tutors. It’s also a ready made community of fellow writers. It’s sometimes the best thing to have to commit to a year of writing. As well as universities, look for short courses, MOOCS (massive open online courses – run for free by prestigious universities – google coursera, open learn), continuing education, community classes, and workshops in libraries or during festivals (often free or low cost.)
Find other writers by going to book launches, readings etc – these are free or koha. Anita Arlov runs Inside Out at One 2 One cafe in Ponsonby – google her and get on her mailing list to find out about other poetry events. Poetry live has been running for 31 years and has nurtured many well known and less well known poets. It can be found every Tuesday night at the Thirsty Dog in Ponsonby from 8 o’clock. ATC runs readings – join their mailing list. Many of the independent bookstores have book launches and can host book clubs, writing groups etc. Join their mailing list. There’s the Book Show on Face TV. Subscribe to Beatties Blog for all the book news nationally and internationally. Facebook is a good tool for finding out about events and linking with other writers. Consider keeping your Facebook profile only for your arts activities.
Great, see you for Poetry this weekend!!