Breaking the silence

Breaking the silence


I walk about with ideas in my head, a vague imperative to Leave My Mark On The World, and little to show for it. Until the Ghost of Authorship Past gives me a glimpse of what being a dead famous author might be like.

It’s a shock to me how long this blog has gone without an update. So long, in fact, that the WordPress dashboard has changed, and I can’t even remember what the two drafts sitting here were ever supposed to turn into.

I’ve spent the past few months settling into a new job, which takes a lot of energy even if it’s a good one (which it is).  The past year involved a lot of change – a pay rise followed rapidly by redundancy,  a short stint of teaching, literal bones-of-the-arse panicking, and an employment reprieve – and some new habits.  Kick-starting myself back into a schedule of writing practice has not been one of them.  I walk about, as always, with ideas in my head, a vague imperative to Leave My Mark On The World, and little to show for it.

Late last year the poet David Howard contacted me with an idea for a retrospective look at some of the poetry I used to write 20-odd years ago. It was a intriguing exercise, and also a bit like being dead. You never know what kind of old rubbish might end up being your legacy.  You can read the poems, my commentary, some scene-setting from James Norcliffe and the analysis by Orchid Tierney and David here.

It was enormously humbling, and heartening, to be included in this series.  It’s an odd experience, seeing yourself through strangers’ eyes.

An aspect of the analysis that startled me was the emphasis on sound; I never thought of myself as a spoken-word poet. Like everyone else, I just read the pieces aloud. To be considered a spoken-word artist is particularly weird, because throughout much of my childhood I struggled with speech. I could talk, all right, but far too fast. If I had a dollar for every time a teacher “wittily” told me to slow down, “it’s not a race, you’re not a train”, I’d have – well, nothing, because I’d have spent the kernel of a house deposit on Sante bars and vintage fashion magazines, but you get the idea. I wrote all the time, but I never read aloud. I didn’t think about sound. At least, I didn’t THINK I did.

Somewhere along the line I must have started thinking about cadence. I’ve recommended reading essays and articles aloud for a long time. It’s a great way to pick up awkward transitions and wordy chunks. In retrospect I realise that, up till about 10 years ago, I spent most of my life in jobs where I had to talk to strangers. Something I once hated and feared became pretty easy. Especially when I was writing radio ad copy – the fastest route to client approval is an enthusiastic, rapid read-through over the phone while approximating a radio voice. It sounds like a real ad so they think it must be all right.

It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. I don’t have much desire to revisit poetry in any serious way, but I do want to start producing words. Time to get back into the daily practice, I think.




Sense and sensibility: or, the importance of being edited

Sense and sensibility: or, the importance of being edited

Language is a beautiful, shifting thing, but every tongue on the planet comes with rules you simply can’t break, and when you use  words the wrong way you can end up looking like a dummy. That dilutes your argument and undermines your message. After all, isn’t communicating something the whole point?


It can be a singular act of bravery to hand your precious written work to another person and ask them to tell you what’s wrong with it. The more you love it, the harder it feels – but unless you never want it read, it’s got to be done. One of the great lessons I learned from journalism is that editing is a good thing. Writing is work, and like all workers, writers get tired, and make mistakes, and have off days. Sometimes that additional pair of eyes can tweak your laborious metaphor and make it sing. Sometimes just a quick scan will save you from legal action. Sometimes a grumpy old subeditor will frown at you so grumpily that you will never misspell “manoeuvre” again.

Even when you don’t have an extra pair of eyes on hand, it’s worth taking a break – a day is good if you can stretch to it – and looking at your work again before you send it off. Here are a few places where it’s easy to trip up

But it’s art

Recently I was contacted by an old connection, asking me to consider digging out some writing from about 20 years ago, when I fancied myself a poet. It was a fairly excruciating experience, but since I have been tentatively stretching my creative muscles again, I found myself doodling the odd new verse. I started writing poetry about the time I stopped being a newspaper reporter and found I had to add things like adjectives. This time, with seven years’ newspaper editing under my belt, it was even worse.

Poet me: “The wind sets shifting borders.”

Editor me: “No it doesn’t. If they’re shifting they’re not set. If they’re set, they’re not shifting.”

Poet me: “But I like the alliteration!”

Editor me: “Well, it’s your poem. I mean, don’t let me stop you. It’s not like I pointed out that wind is made of air and therefore can’t create a border anyway. If you want to say “sets shifting” because you think it’s all poetical, then do carry on.”

Poet me: *side-eyes, grumbles, rewrites*

But it’s in the dictionary

I once hung out with a man who read dictionaries for fun. This led to  heated discussions about correct usage from time to time, followed by look-ups. But most people do not stash dictionaries all around their houses. Quite a few don’t even use the one that comes with their word processing packages. If they did, fewer embarrassments would arise. However, there can be drawbacks to uncritical use of that big book.

I did French at high school. Whenever I found out there was more than one French word for something, I’d pick whichever one I liked the look of best and use that. I was later to realise how dumb that approach was when I met people new to English who spoke of making their ablutions in the morning, or swooned over the beautiful stench of a perfume. When you speak a language really well, you understand subtleties of meaning, context and tone that are often lost on people who don’t. Which leads me to…

I thought I read it somewhere

I’ve been marking a lot of undergraduate university essays lately, and I’ve found that for all their grammatical errors, if there’s one set of students who seldom get basic meaning wrong, it’s the second language speakers. It was the same when I was editing newspapers – the second-language writers were frequently better than the local ones. Kiwis, bizarrely, are shockingly bad for using words they think mean one thing that actually mean something else – “portray” for exemplify, “enforce” for reinforce or support – just throwing any old preposition where one is needed, and for tripping up over homonyms (“chicken coup*”, “poured over journals”). We speak our own languages with great sophistication, but when we try to get sophisticated, we frequently fail.

I think I’ve worked out the reason. It’s because we don’t read all that much. Sure, we’re constantly online now, but we’re mostly skimming chatty blog posts, giggling at gifs or listening to audio. Most of us spend a lot less time with our noses in a book, and the breadth and depth of the things we read is vastly reduced on a day to day basis. When we come to write something, it seems that we try to emulate what we think we’ve read – but without that ongoing practice, our skills are unformed or rusty. Add to that the regular appearance in print of these errors, and it’s a vicious circle.

But Spellcheck, tho

One of these days I’m going to have to accept “loosing” weight to fit into some new “flaired” pants as legitimate usage, so common have these misspellings become. I’m hoping I am in my grave before that happens. Spellcheck does not speak English. Spellcheck does nothing more than pass over words it recognises, and highlight words that it doesn’t. This is why chickens stage coups, academics pour themselves onto pages and you never know which two/too/to is going to turn up. You should always, always run a spellcheck. But don’t expect it to catch those errors.

Of course, there’s another thing you can do after you’ve done all of this, and that’s find a beta reader, or hire an editor. Don’t fear that second set of eyes. It’s the difference between writing that’s loose, and writing that loses.



*Yes, I know coop and coup are not homonyms, but I’m guessing these error-makers didn’t prance about making fools of themselves using ill-chosen words in sixth form French, either.

Seven tips to tackle* writer’s block

When your words are getting stuck somewhere behind your frontal lobe, and your fingers just won’t produce prose, there are options. Grab them.
1) Research is important. Dive into Google and look up stuff related to your novel. For instance, your 19th century dining room scene may need fleshing out with, well, flesh (on the plates) and napkin ring details. What WAS happening on January 25, 1874? What might your characters have been wearing? Before you know it you’ll have spent hours collating valuable information in your head, and probably taken in some fantastic cat videos to boot.
2) Listen to your muse(s). Some writers insist that their characters talk to them. So perhaps your inability to write is simply the voice of your muse telling you what you need to know. Your character doesn’t want to sit at a desk. Your character wants to go to Burgerfuel and eat a Hamburgini with cheese and a milkshake and maybe grab some doughnuts to eat on the way home. Yes, even if your character IS a vampire and normally unable to dine on anything but human blood. Listen to it. Listen to its voice! Feed the muse!
3) Get some fresh air: It’s not healthy to sit at your desk all the time, and a brisk walk in the outdoors is bound to kick-start ideas anew. Get out there into the nature. Marvel at the subtle beauty of a grey day. Splash in puddles. Get your socks soaked through with icy winter water. Go to the shop to buy new, dry socks to stave off any possible pneumonia or frostbite complications.
4) Read. The only way anybody learns to write well is to read a lot. If the words are getting stuck somewhere behind your frontal lobe then clearly you haven’t read enough. Read a book. Read twenty. Read a best seller AND a critically lauded new release. Compare. What features led to these books’ success? Read some old rubbish just so you know what really bad writing looks like. Read the Daily Mail. Feel superior to anybody who writes for the Daily Mail. Wish you could get a gig writing for the Daily Mail, which you know you could do better while drunk and asleep. Cleanse your Mail-tainted mind with a graphic novel or seven. Now watch the telly because you’re too tired to do any writing today.
5) Feed your mind. Those muses above (see 2) might be your characters talking to you, or they could just be manifestations of your body’s need for fuel. A hungry brain is not a creative brain. Your brain needs toast. No, wait. Your brain  needs ice cream. Don’t stint. Give it the finest gourmet ice cream. Give it several kinds. Use the flavours to inspire you. Jot down descriptions of your ice cream for later. Who know when you might need a character to eat ice cream?
6) Artificial stimulants. Look, loads of famous authors took tons of drugs and/or drank like fish. Burroughs. Coleridge. Bukowski. Behan. They lived hard and they wrote hard. If it worked for them it will surely work for you, right? Take your laptop to a bar or opium den right now and get stuck in. (CAVEAT: none of these writers had access to the internet. It’s conceivable that if they had not been confined to pens and typewriters, they might just have been really good trolls.)
7) Exercise. Nothing makes the ideas flow like a structured movement class. I’ve been writing a blog post about my yoga class for MONTHS. It’s still in my draft folder and so far comprises the phrase “I should go to yoga more often”, but I’ll totally get round to finishing it one day soon.
 For some genuinely useful tips on how to beat procrastination and other writerly woes, check out Susie Lindau’s Wild Rider Magazine.
* I said tackle. I didn’t say CURE.


A little cafe reading


Longing to see the latest cafe reader  but too far from any cool participating cafe to be able to grab a copy? Now you can buy online!

One of the delights of May was receiving my copy of the Phantom Billstickers Cafe Reader vol 10, which features, among other things, a short story by me. This absorbing little quarterly zine can be found in select venues around New Zealand and periodically in random places around the world, where  Jim Wilson, like a  Johnny Appleseed of Kiwi writing, has scattered them. Jim’s work putting New Zealand writing, and particularly poetry, on the street (sometimes quite literally) is to be applauded.

As a sometime professional editor, I was delighted at the careful and collaborative process by which my short story made its way to print. I received two print proofs by email and even a check on a word choice from a fellow contributor who was proof-reading the issue. And the contributors are paid. Seriously old-school and so appreciated. Would contribute again.

Vol 10 is now available in a Kindle edition at Amazon. The small cover price goes to covering the costs of producing the readers and supporting New Zealand artists. Check out some past editions too!

It’s been far too long since this blog was updated.  Many things going on in Flaneuse-world that have conspired against me. But I hope to be able to blog a lot more frequently soon.