Renée is a writer who lives up the Kapiti Coast about an hour and a half from me. She's in her eighties and has been a professional writer for the past 30 years after a lifetime of working in various jobs since leaving school aged 12, the daughter of a solo mother, and always trying to fit in her writing.
Yesterday she walked into a seminar I was attending as a writing mentor. The air changed, there is no doubt. It was something about her bearing, the way she took us all in: fearless, compassionate. She came to speak to us to encourage the writers there: all Māori writers, part of the Te Papa Tupu incubation programme (we writing mentors are there in support but get as much out the sessions). She came to speak to these writers who are trying to live their busy lives while fitting in time to write their novels and poetry and short stories – she was there to tell them it could be done – that there is always a way.
Even as the mother of young children, even as someone holding down a full-time job, even when life becomes overwhelming and pulls you in every direction except towards your desk, there is always a way. And discipline helps (she has it in spades), and humour and compassion and self-belief (those too).
"It's stories that make ideas live. And we're the ones who have to tell the stories."
"Take responsibility for your writing, for telling these stories." She talked about looking writers looking after themselves: their health, their lives, their families so they could write.
Writers are readers first and foremost: "I was a huge reader, I vacuumed up the books in the library. When I stop reading it'll be because I've died … my hands have dropped from the keyboard ..."
How to write: "You've got to find your own way in – writing puts up a bit of a battle at first, but in time it finds you."
Be disciplined. Yes, Renée writes every day to the clock. "I've always used a timer to write. If I hadn't had it I'd have forgotten to do things like check on the children ... when the timer went off I'd go and see what they were up to ... I had to catch the 8 o'clock train today, so I put the timer on. I still have it. "
Finally, she told us that she wrote her famous Depression era play Wednesday to Come in honour of her mother who died aged 42 from a broken heart – she had battled to bring up three children after their father committed suicide. What's more the play was written for a competition, and Renée wrote right up to the deadline. To occupy her children, still young then, she threw coins in the garden and told them to go looking for them and pull out the weeds while they were at it. The garden was weeded (and so were the flowers). The play was writ and continues to be a favourite. It was pivotal for me in the writing of The Blue set in 1938.
Renée finished speaking and then listened with interest to a young upcoming poet and fiction writer Anahera Gildea. Anahera hadn't so much walked into the room as exploded inside it: smiling and hugging everyone like they were old friends. Like Renée, she was a funny and charming speaker, and her insights echoed hers nicely, except that Anahera confessed she'd lacked the older writer's discipline. She said she'd struggled to write a novel until she found her own discipline by discovering how her creativity worked.
Anahera describes her process as working through from the place of te Po and te Ao Marama – a place of stillness and darkness to light. She sits for two hours every morning thinking about her novel, if she writes, fine, if not, that's fine too. This way she progresses by working with herself not against herself, and in three months wrote an astonishing 30,000 words towards the draft of her novel.
Anahera's other tips gleaned from her life so far as a writer, including being part of the MA in creative writing at Victoria University's Institute of Modern Letters:
DRAFT TO CRAFT
DONE IS BETTER THAN GOOD
WORDS WILL COME
In other words (excuse the pun): better to write than not write, to get it down and then craft the thing into something, and yes – make the time and the words will come.
Finally, Anahera echoed Renée: "Being a writer is more than just writing to a word count every day – it involves looking after your health, it involves balance, it involves battling addictions ...' Taking responsibility, in other words, for being a writer and telling the stories that need to be told. Something both these inspirational women do. Thank you for reminding the rest of us.