Tag: Writing (page 1 of 2)

So you think you have writer’s block? Think again.

Writing through it

We’re continuing our series looking at writing through creative challenges. We recently featured ‘Drawing Blood From Stone’ by Kate Joy Tobin.

This round we have some thoughts from Jenna Heller, author of ‘For The Love of Andrew Mehrtens’ in Issue 10: Jenna, originally from the US, now lives within walking distance of a swimming beach in Christchurch, New Zealand, with her partner and their two teens. Her writing has been published in various journals including Popshot, Takahe, Poetry NZ,*82 Review and Flash Frontier.

So you think you have writer’s block? Think again.

No matter how real it feels or how debilitating it appears to be, I fully believe writer’s block is a complete illusion. A myth that has been handed down through the writing generations and perpetuated time and time again by people using that phrase to explain their lack of creative progress or output. As though writer’s block was a condition or illness like chicken pox or the flu, something you catch in a reasonably mysterious way and something that will eventually pass once it has run its course.

I don’t buy into that.

Author, Jenna Heller

Writer’s block is a trick that your mind plays to distract you from writing. It’s like a funhouse mirror that draws you in and makes you question what you know to be true, makes you think there’s a problem, gives you an excuse to not write when actually it’s just YOU getting in your own way. And the longer you look into that funhouse mirror, the less you’re able to see the truth.

Let me explain.

If you believe that your creativity is something that requires you to be in the mood, and that this mood is as fickle and unpredictable as the weather, that it comes and goes on a whim, then more than likely, you’ve experienced some form of creative wasteland and called it writer’s block.

The only time I ever experienced anything remotely like writers’ block is when I was in my early-twenties and full of unrealistic expectations. I sat down to write when I could afford the time away from my studies and other commitments and because I had no idea when the next block of time would materialise, I put all sorts of pressure on myself to perform: Write a story! Make that poem blush on the first draft! Pull beautiful phrases out of thin air and send characters spinning into snowstorms of events that require virtually no editing!

This type of thinking was so debilitating and my belief that my creativity would be unexpected and fleeting meant my writing was sporadic at best.

There’s a slightly different version of this experience that stems from being overly concerned with a grand outcome. It goes like this: You sit down to write and you think you’ve got something really good, something that might make you the next J K Rowling or Witi Ihimaera. You imagine life as a Writer with a capital ‘W’. A writer like Cormac McCarthy or Marie Howe. But you just don’t seem to be able to make any obvious progress.

You fiddle with a few words here and there and with each day the anxiety builds around your ability to actually write the story or the novel or the poem. Your mind begins to search for an explanation and suddenly it’s staring into the funhouse mirror: You tell yourself that you can’t do it, that you’re ideas appear to have dried up, that you aren’t sure what to write next, that you’ve got writer’s block.

You see how that works?

If, however, you approach your writing as a practice, a discipline, a craft to be worked at and developed. If you approach your writing as an end in itself, then writer’s block ceases to exist.

You simply show up day after day at roughly the same time in roughly the same place and you write. You don’t expect virtuosity. Instead, you write for your own pleasure and you keep showing up, trusting that the good ideas will come.

How long do you write for? Until.

So for me, writer’s block is a mindset and a mindset is something you can change. Here are a few ideas to help you shift a writer’s block mindset:

  • Think of your writing as something you do for you and only you. Remove any attachment to the potential outcome (that what you’re working on will be accepted by a publisher or that maybe this piece will make you the next J. K. Rowling or Stephen King).
  • Change the genre that you’re working in. If you typically write poetry, write a short story or vice versa. If you typically write romance, try your hand at science fiction. Working in another genre or even another medium like paint or clay can really reignite your creativity.
  • Write down your dreams – Maria Konnikova wrote about writer’s block for the New Yorker last year (2016) and in her essay, she writes about two researchers who both recommend dream-writing as an excellent way to help people breakthrough their experience of writer’s block. 
  • Experience something new. This could be as simple as going for a walk in a place you’ve never been before or it might require a bit more planning like taking a 6-week archery course. Putting yourself in a position where you’re forced to have a wholly new experience can rapidly trigger new ideas and renewed focus in your writing.  
  • And finally, if you find yourself sitting in front of a blank page, get up and do something that involves movement. This type of response is like hitting the hard reset button when your computer freezes. Go shoot some hoops. Get into the garden. Change the oil in your car. Do something that doesn’t involve sitting in front of a screen or a blank page. And do it for at least half-an-hour and return to the page to write. It’s impressive how well something simple like this works.

Read Jenna’s story and more in Issue 10: buy here.

 

People Not Characters

Characterisation Part III

Ray Bradbury wrote in Zen in the Art of Writing: “plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” We believe that the destination need not be incredible, but that the characters are indeed the lifeblood of a short story.

We’re wrapping up our Issue 9 characterisation series with some thoughts from Matt Billington on creating “people, not characters”. In Part I, Craig Burnett shared his insights into creating his character Kirk in ‘Seeds’. Next, Alie Benge discussed “borrowing a rib and breathing life” into hers.

Matt’s story, ‘A Use For Everything’ appears in Issue 9. Matt grew up in Rotorua and has spent the last eighteen years playing in DIY punk bands, his current one being The Prophet Motive.  He enjoys reading Donald Ray Pollock, listening to Propagandhi, and lives in West Auckland with his artist wife Kerry and son, Jordan.

People Not Characters

A Use For Everything is my first publication. The protagonist is Jamie, and the story is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator. Both are kids.

Before this story came thousands upon thousands of hours of failed attempts at writing characters – tattooed gangsters, overbearing parents, and Double Brown-swilling punk rockers – all crashing and burning under cliché and frustration. Caricatures that sounded how I thought they should sound, and all ended up sounding the same.

A ‘character’ is a portrayal of a person. The stories I love do not have ‘characters’. They have living, breathing people who, fictitious though they may be, are people I feel I know.

Irvine Welsh’s Renton.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant Casey.

Craig Marriner’s Lefty.

Anything by Amy Hempel (her book Collected Stories is writing mastered. None of us will ever be that good).

So my goal is to turn characters into People. People you haven’t met, but People you know.

There are three things I did to develop the People in A Use For Everything. The first thing was to understand who was telling the story, and where and why they were telling it. I imagined the narrator leaning over the handlebars of his bike, eyes fixed on bare toes pushing gravel in wave patterns as he told this story to someone new. He has to tell it because it is something he can’t understand and he can’t digest it.

A Use For Everything is someone talking about something they don’t want to talk about. People talking about uncomfortable events will often avoid them, something us readers do not like. I got around this by using repetitive phrases:

Jamie and the time he did that thing with his penis

It is Jamie I’m going to tell you about though, really

Not long before he did that thing I’m going to tell you about.

This gives the reader a sense of the narrator’s discomfort, while assuring them that we are going to talk about it.

The second thing was language. People telling stories aloud seldom use correct English; kids such as John, Andrew, Jamie, and the narrator would not use it at all. He says, ‘That’s me, John, and Andrew’ not ‘John, Andrew and I.’

How many times have you heard one of your mates tell a great yarn, and you have repeated it and it has fallen flat? Did that mate of yours get his language technically correct, or was his timing and imagery bang on?

The narrator speeds up with longer sentences when he is talking about all the awesome stuff they get up to. He doesn’t need to say ‘this was awesome’ or ‘this really sucked’ because the reader can already tell how the narrator feels by the pace of the narration.

Also, for the first time, I disregarded speech quotations. I originally did this as an exercise to really really really nail down actions to indicate who was speaking – the gulps, the fidgets, the toes-in-gravel, etc. I kept it, because on the page it looks like the speech and actions are one thing, a much stronger visual for the reader who isn’t distracted by pesky “”””” marks and new lines for each part of dialogue. More importantly, it allows the narrator to describe the people around him through his own eyes but using their language, the way kids repeat their parents’ points of view.

And last of all, interior lives. Readers love to know where a person comes from, it explains why they act the way they do. A massive trap for writers is the dead wood of ‘backstory’ that will clutter up your writing like shoes, toys, and school bags left in a hallway. Explaining an action by describing a past experience is tempting, but it risks taking the reader away from the actual events of the story they are reading, and dulling the impact of the ‘present’.

It is more effective to show the reader a side of the Person with something physical. Here is an example, using Jamie: He lived with an uncle he spoke of in words as quiet as breath and as quick as you take a plaster off a scab.

The reader can visualise how Jamie feels about his uncle from this one sentence. It also keeps with the theme of the story (talking about something we don’t want to talk about) and uses a metaphor that relates to childhood (scabs and plasters).

So that’s what I was going for. It worked for these people in this story, it might not work for the next people in the next story. I’ll just have to keep bashing the keyboard and find out. We’re all different.

 

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You can read Matt’s story and more in Issue 9.

 

 

 

 

 

Borrowing a rib and breathing life

Characterisation Part II

Following on from Craig Burnett’s post Kirk , and continuing our characterisation series, we hear from Alie Benge on crafting a believable character.

Alie’s story ‘No Church in the Wild’ appears in Issue 9. Alie has lived in Tauranga, Ethiopia, Tauranga again, and Australia, before finally ending up in Wellington. She is an editor for Open Polytechnic, and divides the rest of her time between writing her novel and trying to end modern slavery. Both feel equally difficult.

 

Borrowing a rib and breathing life

You know who a character is when you know what you need them to do. When you know what they’ll do, you’ll need to know why. Create the psychology that leads them to their action, then add some contradictions in their personality, and you’ve done it. You’ve borrowed a rib and breathed life into character.

Strangely, the first glimpse you get of a character is so often their hair colour. I don’t remember too much about the books I read as an 11-year-old, but I can tell you all about their hair; Jessica and Elizabeth’s blonde hair (read: pretty, popular, girly), Kristy’s brown hair that was always in a ponytail (read: laidback, a tomboy). The idea, I’m assuming, is to get straight to the point and efficiently reveal character through appearance, rather than showing over time through action. It’s efficient, sure. But it’s untrue. Real life villains don’t have long black hair and dark features. They’re more orange, if anything.

If you impose a ban on writing about hair, height or crooked smiles to reveal character; if you can’t use words like fiery or stubborn – what is left? Character is not appearance. It’s action. Instead of showing your reader what a character looks like, show them what they do. Trust your reader to make their own judgements.

That being said. There is one author who can reveal character through appearance. She wrote a little series called Harry Potter. Snape has a dark look, greasy hair, hooked nose. This casts him as the bad guy, and as the reader, we have enough information to make assumptions about him. We know his kind. But, the reason Rowling uses appearance as character successfully is because she uses it to wrong-foot us. She leads us to characterise Snape ourselves, based on his look. But in the end, we see that we were wrong. Who he is cannot be contained within his appearance. It’s what he does, who he loves.

The essence of character is contradiction. Contradiction is what makes them three-dimensional and lifts them off the page. When I was studying short fiction at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), some of the most helpful feedback from my portfolio was that I’d made my characters only one thing. All bad or all good. In real life, people aren’t like this. The most compelling characters I’ve seen in fiction are those that are both good and bad. A character who’s neither could be too passive, a character who’s only one is okay but not so believable. A character who is both is captivating. A prime example is Spike from Buffy and, once again, Snape. What I loved about learning this aspect of characterisation was that it helped me to understand people better, and to see that we’re capable of many conflicting things. Kind and unkind, true and false, good and bad. I saw how people can be at war with themselves, in inner conflict. We wrestle against aspects of our own character, trying to be good and sometimes failing.

The leopard in my story from Issue 9, ‘No Church in the Wild’, is what started the story. When I was a kid and living in southern Ethiopia, we really did have a leopard prowling around our property, making off with our chickens. I dreamt about the leopard every night for a long time. In the dream, my sisters and I would throw rocks at it and run away when it chased us. At the end of the dream I would trip, my sisters would run ahead, I would roll over to see the leopard poised above in the air. In my imagination, she took on a sort of mystical quality, so when it came to designing the character for this story, she brought the weird magic of dreams and memory with her. She became a kind of familiar that went between the Qalichas and the family. So, from the narrator’s perspective, she’s a threat – something she has to scare away. But to add a level of contradiction, she also has a relationship with the leopard. They watch each other, and they understand when the other has ceased to be a danger. If you believe the shadow in the bedroom was the leopard (and it’s up to you to decide) she leaves. The narrator is spared, but it’s a failed mercy because the mother falls sick that night. In her characterisation, I wanted this balance between good and evil, and even the balance of real and imagined, to be ambiguous and in conflict with itself. The balance should shift, as it does in life. And so, life informs art, and art doubles back to hold a mirror to life.

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Read ‘No church in the wild’ and more in Issue 9, available now.

Kirk

Characterisation Part I

We’re into weird here at Headland. We like the oddball characters, the ones that you wouldn’t want to meet in real life, but that you’re grateful to have run into fictionally, so to speak. We like the characters that you’d want to be on a long car ride from Wellington to Auckland with, as well. Nice ones, that have interesting conversation. We like old ones, little ones, mean ones, and all of them in between.  We like them when they ring true, and get in your head. Short stories offer a challenge to writers to flesh out memorable characters with a limited word count. We’re really interested in the process that writers go through to create the people/things that drive their stories. We asked three Issue 9 authors to share their characterisation process with us.

We kick off with Craig Burnett,  author of ‘Seeds’, sharing his thoughts on his main character, real estate agent Kirk. Craig’s story is very topical, reflecting some of the themes currently playing out in New Zealand’s rental market.

Craig is a former journalist, who now works for a global politics think tank. He was born in Dundee and lives in south London, where he writes about awkward conversations, nasty surprises and the weight of the past. He has stories forthcoming in Noble Gas Quarterly, Flexible Persona, Fictive Dream and the Glasgow Review of Books. He tweets as @cburnettwriter.

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Kirk

My story is about a young and desperate flat-hunter, who meets an estate agent with a unique, efficient but very morbid business model. Kirk, the estate agent, is a grotesque figure, but hopefully not cartoonish. The whole story springs from the frustrations of trying to rent in a big city, and Kirk has a lot of the traits you might recognise from estate agents you meet in that situation – a sort of bouncy, vacant enthusiasm, and an unsettling tendency to babble well-rehearsed phrases (or even whole speeches). There’s some frustration beneath his patter though, which comes out later in the story.

There is one specific estate agent that came to mind when I was creating Kirk, who I met five or so years ago. He wasn’t terrible, but there was some low-level deception/obfuscation/pressuring. Standard London flat-hunting stuff. He was showing me and my girlfriend round a flat, and said he used to work in finance – but that he quit because he “didn’t want to do a job where people hated him”. If it was a joke it was delivered absolutely deadpan, so hats off to him, but I actually think it was a bit of a defiance thing – daring us to say how much we hate estate agents. I’ve met a few people who work in less popular jobs who do that – “I know what you’re thinking,” kind of thing. We rented the flat, for a year, and just before we moved out he came back with another couple to try to get them to move in. It was weird, watching him show them around. He didn’t say anything awful, but I still felt a bit like I was witnessing a mugging.

 

 

I like characters who’ve been shaped by their past and their environment, had it seep into them. With Kirk, you see it in his grandiosity – he spends so much time exaggerating things to his customers, making wild claims and stressing the positives, that he’s lost touch with reality a little. When he says he’s like a counsellor, or a social worker, he genuinely believes that. There’s not much self-awareness, but that doesn’t really hold him back, he just barrels along. He’s Trumpian, in a way – an odd combination of sharp and oblivious that turns out to be very successful, for him at least. Like Trump, he’s always got an excuse in his back pocket, and a way of abandoning responsibility when it benefits him. And of course he’s got the power in the relationship with the flat-hunter too. That’s one of the creepy thing about the story – she knows Kirk’s a bit of a dirtbag, but she also knows that he’s holding all the cards, so she just has to let him say what he wants, however obnoxious or crazy. If you picture a person enjoying that unchallenged position day after day, year after year, you can see how they might get warped a little bit. 

Kirk is almost constantly active – saying banal things, turning the hob on and off, opening and closing the fridge. That’s how he dominates the exchange with the flat-hunter. Neither of them have been in the flat before, so it’s sort of neutral ground, but he quickly fills it with his noise, so she’s on the defensive and a bit bewildered. A writer once told me about the importance of establishing status in your work, and I think that can be really useful.

I work most of my stories from a key moment in the narrative, which could be at the beginning of the action, at the end, or somewhere in the middle. So I picture a moment, then ask myself who would be there, why, how they might have got there, where they’d be going next etc. And hopefully the elements of the story – characters, plot, tone – sprawl out from that one moment, in steps that feels logical or even inevitable. So when I’m writing, I try to let different element story push the process forward at different times, latching onto the most promising aspects – in any given moment that could be some nice dialogue, an image, whatever. My background is in writing and editing nonfiction, and I think that’s given me a flexibility and pragmatism that can be incredibly useful. If you’ll forgive a little preachiness, I get annoyed when writers make the writing process seem overly mystical or inexplicable. I think a lot of people would love to try writing, but don’t see themselves as innately creative. Or they worry it’s a club you need to be invited into.

 

 

Kirk came together quite quickly, and immediately felt very solid – picturing him at different points in the story, I knew exactly what he would be doing or saying. Lots of my characters aren’t like that at all. But it’s a relief when they are. Kirk definitely felt like the right man for the moment I’d imagined. He fitted.

I realise I’ve made Kirk sound a bit of a monster. And he probably is. But the flat-hunter’s underlying desperation comes from the fact that there’s a housing shortage – something she, as a middle-class person moving to the city, is partly responsible for, just like I am in London. When pressed, Kirk presents himself as an unavoidable side-effect of these huge socio-economic forces. Of course that’s convenient for him, but just because something’s convenient doesn’t mean it’s not true.

I write about a lot of slightly macabre stuff, but I think bad people – inherently bad – are very rare indeed. But I also think the world we live in and the choices we make come with a cost, whoever we are. I like uncomfortable connections in fiction, and I think we’re all closer to Kirk than we’d like to admit. 

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Submissions close on 16 June for our Issue 10 deadline. Send us your short fiction and creative nonfiction. As you can see, we like interesting characters, so don’t hold back. See our submission guidelines for details.

So, um, what is creative nonfiction exactly?

So, um, what is creative nonfiction exactly?

 

Headland Co-Founding Editor Liesl Nunns

We love getting creative nonfiction submissions at Headland. We’d love to get more. We’d love to publish more. It’s not a well-known form in New Zealand, with ‘creative’ and ‘nonfiction’ perhaps seeming contradictory. It’s a many-headed beast to characterise, as the genre can encompass so many hybrid forms of journalism, opinion, memoir, travel writing, and review.

Too often at Headland we read a creative nonfiction submission and think, “I would have assumed this was a short story.” Presumably these pieces stem from memoir, but ‘fact’ is not the sole marker of creative nonfiction. That’s just a starting point.

Cliché though this may be as an observation, I shall dare to say that creative nonfiction should speak to ‘the human experience’. It is a fantastic vehicle for taking “here is what I think” or “here is what happened to me” and making connections to those larger ideas, thoughts, and concerns that make up the soup we’re all swimming in. A short story does this well by conjuring up scenarios or characters that leave us as readers with ‘homework’, drawing our own questions and conclusions and making our own cognitive leaps as the story ticks on in our minds. Creative nonfiction is like reading someone else’s homework. It is sitting down for coffee with that brainy, witty, or insightful friend you’ve got, and hearing them talk about something they’ve been thinking a lot about. They’ve actually done a bit of reading on it, done some real research, so they know what they’re talking about; but they’re telling you all about it with that special voice that is uniquely theirs. Yes, interesting isn’t it?

When I think of creative nonfiction I have loved, I think of Eva Saulitis’ ‘Wild Darkness’, as published in 2014 in the American environmentalism journal Orion. A marine biologist and essayist, Saulitis places her own experience of terminal cancer against her observations of death in the natural world. It is a thoughtful and understated piece, with a scope beyond Saulitis’ personal experience: she references and quotes writers and scholars, draws on religious and cultural practices, and includes personal anecdotes from others. She widens the context. She questions herself, “So what?” The heart talks to the brain, as creative nonfiction should.

For the student of creative nonfiction, I would further point to two particular accomplishments of Saulitis’ piece. Firstly, there is a specific timeline, a sense of ‘now’ and ‘the next day’, but it doesn’t march forward relentlessly without deviation or relief. She moves the piece along thematically rather than strictly chronologically, unrolling specific incidents with her wider thoughts then circling back. Most importantly, this temporal structure takes the reader with it effortlessly. Secondly, her use of language leaves you in no doubt as to what kind of writing you are reading. She marries the ‘creative’ and the ‘nonfiction’ seamlessly. Sentences and paragraphs rise and fall on a spectrum from academic to poetic, guiding you between memoir and research. She links the personal and the theoretical, eyes each in the light of the other, to reach conclusions that have the unmistakably earthy growl of our common human experience. You’re there having coffee with Eva Saulitis, and she breaks your heart:

Perhaps (I tell myself), though we deny and abhor and battle death in our society, though we hide it away, it is something so natural, so innate, that when the time comes, our bodies—our whole selves—know exactly how it’s done. All I know right now is that something has stepped toward me, some invisible presence in the woods, one I’ve always sensed and feared and backed away from, called out to in a tentative voice (hello?), trying to scare it off, but which I now must approach. I stumble toward it in dusky conifer light: my own predatory, furred, toothed, clawed angel.

Your topic of choice need not have the weightiness of cancer, and you need not be a highly respected marine biologist to talk salmon in the wild. Perhaps you’ve been ruminating on public transport etiquette or reflecting on the formative role that Jim Hickey’s weather reports played in your later romantic relationships. I’d like to read those pieces. I’d love to read those pieces if, in the process, I might learn something or feel something bigger. I’d love to see the “So what?”

That predatory, furred, toothed, clawed angel came for Eva Saulitis in January 2016. In ‘Wild Darkness’ she says of her coming death, The salmon dying in their stream tell me I am not alone…For this you were born, writes Stanley Kunitz. For this you were born, say the salmon.

Good short fiction makes us wonder about, or realise, those things for which we were born, both big and trivial. Creative nonfiction does that too, but it arms our imagination as well as spurring it. It gives you the salmon and the Stanley Kunitz as well as the woman standing on the shore.

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Inspired? Our submission deadline for Issue 10 is open until 16 June. Send us your creative nonfiction (and short fiction too!) up to 5000 words. Every submission is eligible for our annual Headland prizes, and we love getting work from New Zealand authors. See our submission guidelines for details.

What’s in a Name?

Talking about Titles

In our Issue 6 blog series, we’re talking about titles. Do they affect they way you read a story? Are they important to you? Previously, D.A. Hosek shared his thoughts on naming his stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Titles

Now we’re handing over to Emma Sloley, author of ‘The Things They Left Behind’: Emma is a New York-based travel journalist who has written for many US and international publications, including Travel + Leisure, New York, W, Conde Nast Traveler and Harper’s Bazaar Australia, where she was an editor for six years. She is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire and is currently at work on her first novel.

You can read Emma’s story and 11 other works by New Zealand and international authors in Issue 6, available now.

What’s in a Name?

 

When it comes to fiction, everything and nothing. Like most writers, I agonise over titles, because what you name a story is the first interaction readers have with it. A title is a writer’s calling card, a way to get invited in or shut out in the cold by someone pretending not to be home. A great title pulls you in, seduces you, promises you the world. There were surely many complicated and laudable reasons why Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love became a global phenomenon, but that killer title surely had something to do with its curb appeal. (It’s hard to imagine it being as popular had it been called, I don’t know, My Year of Swanning Around Europe and Asia.)

 

Macdowell1

 

On the other hand, some of my favourite books of all time have strange or not particularly catchy titles. Peter Høeg’s best-selling Danish thriller Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and yet it remains one of my greatest literary influences. The pared-back language; the razor-sharp insights into the human condition; its grappling with themes of cultural isolation, loneliness and the weight of familial baggage—I reread it at least once a year just to try and work out how he does it. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours reveals very little about its subject matter to a casual book browser: there’s no intimation in that simple title of its exquisite intertwined stories of thwarted dreams and the gulf between our inner lives and the outside world, but it’s a book so transcendently wonderful that even if it were called Don’t Bother Reading This I’d still treasure it.

 

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As a young reader I went through an intense John Irving phase, and while his epic, Dickensian tales of family and relationship dysfunction contain multitudes, their titles were always what made them irresistible. Irving famously considers titles crucial: “I have them before I have books that belong to them,” he said in an interview with The Paris Review. It’s not hard to believe. A Prayer for Owen Meany; The Water-Method Man; The Cider House Rules: Irving’s modus operandi is heavily evocative titles that generate curiosity and tease a question—Who is this Owen Meany and why does he need to be prayed for? How does the water method work? What’s a cider house and why does it need rules?—that you simply must have answered.

On a more subtle level, the great Edith Wharton was fond of naming her novels in discreetly ironic ways. The House of Mirth; The Age of Innocence; Summer: such sunny, upbeat titles for stories about decidedly unhappy people constrained by the conventions of society. Jonathan Franzen employs a similar subtlety in naming his doorstopper novels: both The Corrections and Freedom riff on the many variations and definitions of their titular nouns, and it becomes an Easter-egg hunt to find their different meanings throughout the book.

 

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When it comes to my own work there are no hard-and-fast rules. Sometimes a title will come to me as if by osmosis, before I’ve even begun writing. Other times I’ll wait until the themes of the story fully reveal themselves before I put a name to it. I’m drawn to titles with dual meanings, literal and metaphorical. The title of my story The Things They Left Behind was suggested both by the childhood of my protagonist’s lover—who grew up above a pawn shop playing with borrowed objects—and his desire as a grown man to live a life free of emotional commitments. (Nothing, least of all naming things, occurs in a vacuum: subconsciously, I was probably inspired by The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam War novel, although I had never read it!) The title of the novel I’m currently working on, The Green Zone, refers both to the heavily fortified section of Baghdad used by American military forces during the Iraq War (where the novel’s antagonist, a war reporter, spends a lot of time) and a less tangible notion of safety that the novel’s protagonist seeks.

But in the end titles are just window dressing. Like our grandmothers always assured us when we were going through our awkward teenage years, it’s what’s inside that counts.

 

 

 

 

Two Tūrangawaewae

Exploring Sense of Place – Do We Write What We Know?

In this Issue 4 series, we asked a few of our writers to reflect on whether they write what they know, and share their thoughts on how this applies to setting and sense of place in their stories. Google ‘write what you know’ and a plethora of think pieces and advice articles will come up. To paraphrase, they range from from ‘DON’T – your only limit is your imagination’, to ‘stick to your own range of experiences for authenticity’.

In Seeds of a Story, Jane Percival said “To make it real I have to put myself in the picture and draw from my own experiences.”.  David Morgan O’Connor took us on a trip to his places and their meanings in Names of Place and Sense.  For our final post in this series, Antony Millen, author of‘ The Homeless Men of Mahuika’ talks about his new setting through the lens of his country of birth, and how this informs his writing.

Antony is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand, having shifted from his beloved Nova Scotia to the storied town of Taumarunui in 1997. He has published two novels since 2013, both of which feature settings in the North Island of New Zealand: Redeeming Brother Murriihy and Te Kauhanga: A Tale of Space(s). In 2014, he won the Heartland short story competition and was highly commended for his entry in the New Zealand Society of Authors Central Districts competition. His work features realistic, intriguing and even slightly mysterious events in rural, small-town New Zealand. Antony is currently completing his third novel. He also writes reviews and blog posts at antonymillen.wordpress.com

 

Two Tūrangawaewae

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I think a lot about place. I’m an immigrant to New Zealand—an expatriate from Canada although when I think of expats, I think of Ernest Hemingway or Katherine Mansfield in France and it connotes a rejection of homeland which I would never do. However, the concept of homeland is challenged by emigration and immigration. We migrants experience a perpetual duality as we live in two places at once, a sort of bilocation of the mind and spirit. We have two tūrangawaewae—two places to stand—a foot in both camps. Even after eighteen years in New Zealand, I still start sentences with, “A buddy of mine back home…”. I’m aware of how obnoxious it can be, but I am always interpreting my current physical setting through the lens of the former—a life of continual comparisons and contrasts.

 

There is an advantage for a writer in this. You become an astute observer of human behaviour and language. You notice inflections and habits, and others notice them in you. People who live in small towns naturally do this as well, comparing city life with our rural, remote situation. Small towns are my preferred settings, not only because they’re all I’ve ever known, but because these observations are made on a continual basis by their inhabitants, often to convince ourselves of our lifestyle supremacy over that of city-dwellers. “Parking is easier,” we say and, “If you wait for three cars, it’s a traffic jam here.” We note the stars in the sky after returning from a visit under the bigger urban lights and count our blessings we don’t need to listen to traffic as we drift into our provincial slumbers. In Taumarunui, we don’t live in the middle of nowhere, we live in “the middle of everywhere”.

 

So, a writer does write what he knows, but, like the immigrant and the small town observer, he does so by comparing it and contrasting it. I write a story about a mother and daughter fishing the Pungapunga stream in Ngapuke, New Zealand but the river resembles the brook behind my grandparents’ place in Nova Scotia and I draw on memories and feelings from there to communicate familiarity and belonging. If I create a scene around a boy ostracised by his peers, I draw on similar experiences from my youth or from those I’ve witnessed as a teacher, though the circumstances, culture and setting are completely different.

 

In New Zealand, I’ve learned the concept of tangata whenua, a concept our writers here and elsewhere should consider when discussing a sense of place. The famous whakataukī from the Whanganui River area says, Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au—I am the river and the river is me. What does that mean to a Nova Scotian mind? What does it mean to identify with a mountain or a river when you introduce yourself in your whaikōrero? In New Zealand, I have associated myself with Ruapehu or Hikurangi, with the Whanganui and the Pungapunga, for these places have connected with me, surrounding me during my time here. I greet the Whanganui when I arrive alongside it during a bike ride. I acknowledge the presence of imposing trees in Ohinetonga and in other bush walks. In a way, it is not me who has chosen them as significant, but in a form of whāngai it is they who have adopted me, though I am aware of the limited connection and understanding I have compared to those whose ancestors have lived here, inspired and nurtured by them for generations.

 

But, originally, my maunga is Green Hill in Pictou County, Nova Scotia and my awa is that brook behind my grandparents’ house or Middle River whose shores hosted the field upon which I played softball. They bear less exotic names and exist without the grandeur and myth surrounding the Waikato or Taranaki, but it is in coming to this place and learning of tangata whenua that I feel the connection to the maunga and awa of my Canadian childhood. In his song about Taumarunui, my son writes of the Whanganui and Ongarue, “two rivers that melt into one”. That’s me—two homelands melted into one. I believe it’s also symbolic of the multiple iwi who reside here. It is a mystery rivalling the Trinity really and that is a good thing.

 

And that is a good thing for writers who are creating a sense of place. Place, like time, is mysterious. Try and describe the place you are in as you read this and you will find the options for doing so are limitless. Do you list all the objects and colours you see? Do you include elements that will appeal to all five senses? What about the history of the place or the background to how you arrived in it? What about its future? What will it be like when you no longer occupy it or when it is inhabited by another soul? What about the souls who have breathed and loved and raged and created in it before you? What place do they still have in the narrative of your place?

 

In describing place and creating a sense of it for readers, we must be selective and in doing so, I believe we do write what we know, but not always in the obvious sense. It is one thing to set your story in an actual town you’ve lived in, comfortably detailing street names and landmarks, but more often we are selecting aspects of places with which we are familiar for other reasons. Websites and Google Maps are invaluable tools for sourcing details about unfamiliar settings, but that sense of place comes from the author’s familiarity with the atmosphere and significance of another place entirely, from their own experiences or from those they have encountered in books or on screen, comparing and contrasting them. Even the most imaginative world-building must consist of familiarity for the writer and for the reader so they can inhabit the world together—two in one.

Read Antony’s story and more in Issue 4, available on Amazon.

Seeds of a Story

Exploring Sense of Place – Do We Write What We Know?

We are curious. Do you write what you know? When you choose a setting, do you sink your story’s roots down in familiar territory, or do you head to places unknown?

Kazuo Ishiguro said: “Write about what you know” is the most stupid thing I’ve heard. It encourages people to write a dull autobiography. It’s the reverse of firing the imagination and potential of writers.

We know it’s a very individual thing. Issue 4 features a diverse array of settings. So this series, we proposed this theme to three contributors, specific to setting and a sense of place.

 First up writing about her approach is Jane Percival, whose story ‘The Pouākai’ appears in Issue 4. Jane lives on the Kaipara Harbour, north-west of Auckland, New Zealand. On a typical day she juggles gardening, household tasks and writing; a good day being one where she manages to write for a couple of hours, garden for a couple of hours, cook up something tasty for tea, and walk at least 10,000 steps. Lately she has been focusing on speculative fiction. See a full list of Jane’s previous publications below. Read Jane’s story, and more in Issue 4 here.

Seeds of a Story

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Maize

When I sit down to write a story, I usually only have a very vague idea of what it’s going to be about. It’s as if stories are trapped inside waiting to be set free. That’s what it feels like. And I’m not sure where most of the ideas spring from or what their origins are. In fact, until a story starts to develop, I don’t even know it’s there; that’s the interesting thing.

So, let’s say I do have the seeds of a story starting to sprout in my head … do I write about what I know?

Yes, especially at the beginning. But also throughout the stories. (I had to consider what I’ve written in the past year to work this out, so it’s a good question.)

Writing a story is a very personal process. Actually it’s very similar to a pregnancy. An idea starts to grow, then it gets nurtured and fed and parts of it start to form and mature, until finally it’s finished and you think, “Thank God that’s over!” (until next time). And you’re usually quite proud of the product … you’ve lived with it long enough and gotten to know it pretty well. Of course, there are difficult births and turbulent pregnancies, but at least when the story is born, it’s OVER. (Actually, I think writing a story is much better than a pregnancy, because it really is over with the birth.)

So yes, I can really only write about what I know. Sure, I can imagine scenarios—this is fundamental if I’m to be writing speculative fiction—but they’ll always have my own spin on them. To make it real I have to put myself in the picture and draw from my own experiences. Or from what I know about people and places. And the things I know stem from being a Pākehā woman, born into a Roman Catholic NZ family in the 1950s. It’s natural for my writings to be coloured by my upbringing, the choices I’ve made in life, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve lived. I can’t imagine separating ‘me’ from the complicated process of writing the story.

Jane, March 1960

I think that many of us living in Aotearoa are drawn to the isolated parts of the country, whether it be to the wide open spaces or to untamed bush. We love the cold and the sting of sand and grit on a West Coast beach, or the perfume of mānuka and harakeke rising from a gully of ferns on a hot day, or the way the pōhutukawa looks as it fringes a dazzling white beach, or the way dense mist can box you in amongst luminous green vegetation, or the way the black sky shimmers, stippled with a million stars, far away from any street lights.

I particularly enjoy writing about the sense of loneliness within the environment. How people interact with their surroundings and how they shape their thoughts and actions. With The Pouākai, I started out thinking about a desolate beach. And wondering how it would feel to be literally washed up with no way of escape. I could picture the cove itself. Wild. God-forsaken. Lonely. Beautiful.

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Whanganui

I’ve also always liked to observe people; the way they talk, the way they dress, their odd looks and quirky behaviours. I have a good memory going back to when I was very young and many of the scenes from my early years are fixed in my mind. So, it’s easy to call them up and re-examine them.

And after the process of writing it is over—whether it takes hours, or days or weeks or months—I frequently look at the finished product and think, “Where on earth did that come from?”

Writing about what I know doesn’t mean I’m restricted to only my own experiences. But it does mean that I can’t avoid applying my own experiences to every story that I write.

_____

Moonshine Road (01/11/2015) Crab Fat Magazine

The Bookshop (2015). In SpecFicNZ Shorts. New Zealand, Speculative Fiction NZ. (SpecFicNZ Shorts is a free e-book. Links to where it can be downloaded can be found here.)

The Pouākai (2015). In L. McNeur & L. Nunns (Eds.), Headland Issue 4. The Maisonette Trust. ISSN 2422-9016.
(Headland Issue 4 is available from Amazon. A link to the purchase page can be found here.)

The Mysterious Mr Montague (2015). In A. Pillar (Ed.), Bloodlines (pp. 117-133). Australia, Ticonderoga Press.

Blue (22/06/2015), Micro Madness, National Flash Fiction Day NZ,

Red Blood Cell Deficiency (23/04/2015). In Flash Frontier April 2015: Iron,

Water Baby (16/11/2014) Fiction on the Web UK,

The Tobacco Tin (01/06/2014), 2nd Prize, WWI Centenary Competition, Speculative Fiction NZ,
(also published on Fiction on the Web UK, on 13/01/2015, )

 

 

On Writing

On Writing

Allan Drew’s story ‘Office Cockroach’ features in Issue 2. Here he explores how stories can take root – or not.

Allan is a PhD student at Victoria University Wellington, where he studies creative writing and English literature. His short stories and poems have been published in a number of journals and magazines, and he has won or been short-listed in several writing competitions. You can find him online at www.allan-drew.com. 

 

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I caught the bus into the city today to have coffee with a friend. She has a kid, a rampant non-sleeper, and another one silently (but apparently frantically) gestating. We talked about the trouble in Baltimore and then about ponytails, and then a bit about writing. She writes and reads, too, in between things. Suddenly, she had to go somewhere, so she said goodbye and took off.

I went to the central library to read my book and wait for something exciting to happen on my phone, like a text from someone I hate which would allow me to ignore them, or an email from a publisher providing an opportunity to play it cool. The library was full of people all doing very quiet things that had nothing to do with books but everything to do with WiFi. It’s a great service, public WiFi. I walked to the bus stop.

Behind the bus stop on the corner of Wellesley and Queen Streets was a guy in floppy shorts and an acrylic-wool jumper expertly cleaning the windows of Topshop with one of those telescopic-arm squeegees. Topshop was a big deal when it opened; it was covered in the Herald. And behind the window-washer was a man and a woman, holding hands, watching with their mouths open in fascination. And then I said to myself: story.

At first I thought, these tourists are great material. I had immediately assumed they were tourists, of course, on holiday from some country that either lacked windows or considered window-cleaning to be embarrassingly bourgeois, or ignominious—something that is to be done strictly in private. I don’t mind if they do it in their own home, but must they make such a display of it?

I mean, who else but tourists would stare in fascination at some idiot washing windows? Maybe the story was about these tourists? Or perhaps the story was about the weirdo window cleaner, with those shorts—maybe he was the thing.

But, probably not. I wrote the story in my head on the bus home, and it became all about the guy watching the scene. Or, to put it another way, all about me. This risks being grotesquely narcissistic, and in fact is, but also isn’t—which is a bit how writing goes. As the story formed I was no longer me and, instead, the ‘me’ had become the story’s lovable but flawed protagonist—someone (or anyone) else—who goes around looking for material where none exists and then misjudging it when it presents itself. Suddenly there is a guy who thinks that exciting things happen on phones, who wonders whether libraries are being misused, and whose seemingly objective observations reveal hidden biases, prejudices, and a superior, judgmental nature. Some guy who goes around making up stories about going into the city to have coffee with his pregnant friend and seeing maybe-tourists being mesmerized by unlikely window-washers.

Some guy who thinks the story would be excellent, if it were ever written, but who intentionally leaves it on the bus when it’s nothing but unfinished sentences, ideas and mind-vapour, and then forgets to tag off.

 

Read more about Issue 2 here

I Write Because I Know How

Daniel Davis shares his thoughts on writing in our latest guest author blog post. Daniel’s story ‘Buy One, Get One’ appears in Issue 1 of Headland.  Daniel is the Nonfiction Editor of the Prompt Literary Magazine. His own work has appeared in various online and print journals, and his novella Black Blizzard was published by Twenty Or Less Press. You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com, or facebook.com/DanielDavis05 and follow @dan_davis86 on Twitter.

 


Daniel Davis (1)

 

I write because I know how. It’s not all I know: I can cook, play guitar, and other things that would look nice on a dating profile. But I’ve been writing longer than I’ve done those things. And I’m really only a halfway decent rhythm player.

To me, writing isn’t anything special. That’s probably borderline sacrilege, but it’s true. It’s not a way to examine the world, or God, or humanity, or popular culture, though I suppose I’ve used it to look at all those things. My writing isn’t even a reflection of myself; even when it’s based on something that happened to me, I don’t see much of myself in my own words.

I do the bulk of my writing in my apartment’s second bedroom. I’ve got a desk and a window facing a rather dismal backyard, replete with trees and a bunch of dead branches that never seem to go away. I keep my books in there, my guitars, and some knickknacks. Also a Ouija board, because I’m cool like that. I keep the door closed; this has nothing to do with writing being a sacred act that should remain unsoiled by the rest of the world, and everything to do with my mischievous In truth, though, I can write pretty much anywhere. During the summer, I’ll do some writing with a baseball game on in the background. A couple years ago, I wrote the bulk of a novel while working as a bank teller—literally, while working. One constant: I do some of my best writing of an evening. Even this, though, is purely practical: it’s fit my schedule for almost two decades now.

As you may have gathered, I’ve never felt that an artist has a special place in society, or has a particular insight into humanity. I don’t even like referring to myself as an “artist,” though I suppose I have to suck it up and admit that’s what I am. You see, writing is just what I do. Some people have origami, or whittling, or Sudoku, or yoga. I write. I see nothing spiritual in it; I see nothing special in it. Some do, I know; I can’t argue, since to each his own, but I generally avoid the conversation with those folk, just because I know they’ll give me a funny, sympathetic look, as though I’ve just argued that dogs are more intelligent than people. (They are. Cats are not. I know of what I speak.)

All of that said, let me break out my soapbox. Writing is important. To me, yes, of course; what the hell would I do without it? But I honestly feel that storytelling is the most important form of communication available to humanity; it’s how we pass down beliefs, legends, mores, etc. etc. etc. But does that make me, as a storyteller, any more important than a carpenter, electrician, or evening news anchor? I don’t think so. But it gives me my own little purpose in this world of ours.

I’m willing to settle for that.

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