Tag Archives: creative non-fiction

New Paths, Unsilenced Streams

Every Friday, for the last few months, I have walked a path that hardly ever changed, joining the waves of black-clad commuters ejaculated from the railway station every morning into the narrow pathways of Wellington. It’s quite an experience. Especially as I usually commute to work amongst the impatient, and erratic, cars that bustle their way up the choked motorway of State Highway 1.


I’ve enjoyed taking the train. It seems so relaxed compared to driving. I would take it to work, given a choice. I took the train on Friday’s because, as described in My Word, I have been attending a workshop in Creative Non-fiction at Victoria University. It has been quite a ride. I loved the readings; loved/struggled with the course (as seems my wont with academia and writing).

The bits I have no mixed feelings about are:

  1. My classmates. Who were of a higher standard than other writing courses I have done (all can write and have something to say.)
  2. The weekly walk up the hill to Vic.

The second of these points has contained a hidden gem for me. At the start of the year, full of nervousness (about the course and the process), I mapped-out logistics. What time to drop my daughter to care so I could catch the train to get the bus to get to Vic in time for class? What bus to catch three hours later to get to the train so I could get to my daughter in time for the end of school?


But on that first day, with my backpack full of sandwiches, snacks, water, tablet, notebooks and jacket (it was summer back then… but with Wellington you learn to count on treachery) I arrived in town with enough time to check Google, noticing that it only takes 25 minutes to walk up to the campus above the city. Which is an indicator of how little I know Wellington, despite having lived here for nearly 8 years. I guess the old cliché of Welli not being a city so much as a collection of little villages has an air of truth. Of course, I can also give myself a pass as I have been raising a child 20 mins up the line during that time, and your horizons always shrink in that particular boat.

I was so early not only could I walk to Vic, but I could also have a coffee at my favourite café by the station where the friendly barista wears marvellous dresses and cowboy boots, and spreads a deck of cards on the counter so you can attempt to win a free coffee. Unfortunately, the café was gone. Replaced by development and/or reconstruction.

So I walked on, joining the next stream of hustling commuters, looking for a place to replace my favourite spot, rejecting any ‘chain-store’ franchises (why would you?) or ones which had too many people (popular, but the wait may be too long), or too few (a sign of something amiss).


Cafe Breton


A menu to devour

After several blocks Café Breton caught my eye. I looked in the window. Not, too busy, not too empty. Unique and authentic. The staff were so French they struggled to understand my attempts to order pain au chocolate in French. I took a seat in the corner, listening to the staff chat in a language I do not understand while I devoured le décor de Brittany (‘scuse my franglais). I have been fascinated with Brittany since I learned it was one of the five Celtic ‘homelands’, settled 1, 500 years ago by Britons fleeing the Anglo-Saxon invaders. And that their ancient native language is still suppressed by the French state.


Mmm, croque-monsieur

Needless-to-say, I came back week after week, abandoning my attempts at French after hearing how authentico (so to speak) other locals could order en francais, instead heading to my corner to re-read my course readings while awaiting my macchiato, croque-monsieur, croissant or pain perdu.


Under The Terrace

It is a habit that with the end of the course (and the handing in of my 7,000 word portfolio) has been hard to break. But breaking habits is good, so we are told. I learned that halfway through the trimester when, while following my usual path up the hill from Lambton Quay, I decided to take the non-descript pedestrian tunnel under The Terrace. While it made little difference to the time taken, it did put me on the right side of The Terrace for the climb up to Vic.

It wasn’t until my second time taking this now-favoured path/tunnel/route that I noticed the sound of water in the tunnel. At first, I thought it was an over-flowing pipe. But the next time I spotted something peculiar about the sound; there were birds. Birds of the bush which do not live underground.Kumutoto

It’s a beautiful Kedron Parker sound-scape played from speakers along the tunnel. Made prettier, and more poignant, by the lack of a bush-scape mural in the tunnel. The installation is a tribute to Kumutoto Stream which flows below the tunnel, under the city, and down to the harbour.


The hidden river speaks

Today, I miss my walk up the hill. I miss the routine as I miss making new discoveries.

What to do? Well, I am writing a post on my much-neglected blog. I have also applied to do the companion paper in fiction which, if I pass the selection, will start in a couple of weeks.

I’m a bit nervous. I started blogging to find a pathway back to fiction, my neglected first love. But I have discovered that non-fiction and fiction are not separate streams, or even tributaries of the same river. They are a contiguous element, mingled like a river of fresh water in an ocean, or a sea-tide pushing far inland, each on the way to becoming the other.


My Word

I recently started back at university for the first time in, er, 22 years (which means that some of my new classmates were not born when I last studied as a ‘mature student’ at Canterbury in 1993).

There’s a lot I could say about University, it’s a place I both love and hate. I love the seeking of knowledge and discovery, I hate(d) the teeth-grinding torture of being a young male around so many clever and fascinating woman.

MV5BMTMzMTczMzQ3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjQ4MzcwMg@@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_Of course, now that I’m in my ‘wise old grey-beard’ years the latter offers little distraction, it’s all about the knowledge and I’m excited as a young buck.

I’m doing a workshop in creative non-fiction, something that has developed out of this blog, started as a pathway back to my first (and eternal) love, fiction. I applied for the course on a whim, needing to be amongst the fertile minds of other writers, seeking challenges and deadlines beyond the eternally flaky self-imposed ones writers give themselves.


Real writers, writering in Iowa

I had little idea quite what creative non-fiction is/was… but hoped it was like what I have been writing here (memoir, opinion, essays etc) over the last 18 months.

I must have got it part-way right as I am now in the third week of a limited intake course at the IIML at Victoria University with 11 colleagues, inching our way through a field of writing described as ‘non-fiction which is not necessarily true but not consciously untrue’.

They’re a great bunch and like all writing courses I have ever attended, they tend to be older and overwhelmingly female. We sit in a circle in a room with a wonderfully distracting view of Wellington city and the harbour below. Trees surround us and tuis flit back and forth throwing shadows on blinds half-pulled to stop us roasting in the autumn sun.


Not my class(mates) but the actual classroom (and view)

Given my age (and chequered run at University) I was pretty nervous the first couple of weeks. I sweated constantly and found my voice was too quiet and fractured whenever I forced myself to add comment to the discussion. Also, given the fact that I have deliberately avoided studying English since leaving school in the mid-‘80s I struggle to follow the terms being used in analysis. That said, I am no novice, having read and written forever.

Reading out my first two exercises was torture, I was so unsure I waited to the end getting more and more worked-up in anticipation, resolving to read earlier next time to get the bloody thing over with.

I needn’t have worried; my efforts have gone down well. The tutor and my colleagues laugh at the right bits and say nice things afterwards.

Of course, it is early days, we still have our folio pieces to present (up to 10, 000 words…eek!) Once we are comfortable with each other the workshop feedback may start to resemble the torturous mix of evisceration and defensiveness portrayed so well in Girls when Hannah went to the Iowa Fiction Workshop earlier this season.

HannahWhere this will lead, I am unsure.

I will continue to write non-fiction (I have a big family story to explore for my folio which is full of mystery, and I do not know if it will work). At the same time I am reading fiction with greater gusto (which contains the greater truth, fiction or non-fiction?? There lies an external and irresolvable discussion I am keen to explore).

What I do know is that three weeks into this course I am already a much better (and faster) writer than when I started.

At least, that’s what I think today.


Second Thoughts

Today is a special day. I feel caught at the edge of something; marooned in the calm swell between past and approaching waves.

Why? Because I am exhausted and lost.

I have just come back from taking my daughter to the airport to fly off to visit family. She will have a great time, but as she had been with her mother for a week, the brief minutes together have mixed with my bone-wary exhaustion leaving me adrift in a cold, grey sea.

I know why my body is wary and trembling, giving rise to some loneliness and despair. It’s most probably because I have been working non-stop day and night in jobs which require levels of physical exertion I am probably not yet fit for (something I hate to admit).

It’s 5 and a half months since the operation to fix the Haglund’s Deformity on my heel and though I try to be patient and not think about it, there hasn’t been a moment when I could honesty say that I feel less pain and exhaustion than before the operation. No, I lie. I have many times marvelled at the improved movement and lack of pain, but each time that has happened I have had to remind myself that I’m on painkillers so have no real idea.


Do I regret the procedure? No. I won’t allow that thought. Do I hate my jobs? No, they are enjoyable and rewarding on so many levels. Do I yearn for a relationship? No, not yet. I need time to heel on all levels.

With my girl gone to have fun I decided to do something I haven’t done in ages; wander around town, looking in second-hand bookshops. It’s not like I wanted to buy any books (I have so many still in boxes), but I just wanted to be free of my thoughts and look for the author I am presently obsessed with, Penelope Fitzgerald. She’s a wonderful, but unfashionable, writer and her books are never on the shelves. That, of course, could be read as a sign of the strength of her work; people hold on to books they like.

First, I tried Pegasus Books in the Left Bank of Wellington’s Cuba Mall.


It is where I walked on crutches in January, finding a copy of The Gate of Angels, which I am reading at the moment. It’s a choice wee book and I am reading it as slowly as possible, savouring each word and image. It has the thing I require of every book I read, a great opening line (“How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril?”).


But she was not on the shelf, so I went to look for Nicholson Baker, who was also absent, however I did spot a copy of John Banville’s, The Sea, something I read when it won the Booker in 2005. I loved it at the time and something about it has stayed with me. I checked the opening line (“They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”) I wanted it.


I checked the price, $15, which seemed steep for a second-hand book I had already read. I put it back and kept looking, but returned three times to re-read the opening paragraph. The beauty of the craft was as compelling as Fitzgerald. After turning to glare at the unthinking woman who twice pushed past me while talking to her companion, both times rubbing her backside against mine (if I did it to her, would it not be sexual assault? Never mind, never mind…), I decided that in my fractured state I was being impulsive, so I left the deliciously book-filled shelves and headed for Arty Bees on Manners Street.


Yet again, no Baker or Fitzgerald. But there was The Sea, in a different (and cheaper) edition. I read the first page again.

I so wanted it. Not just because it sparked my mind, making me want to write, but because I was intent on buying myself something to mark the day; the last day before I became a year older.

As I walked back towards Pegasus Books, reminiscing about how hard it was to cover this distance 3 months ago when I was still on crutches (noting that for all my moments of despair, I was making progress), I spotted a second-hand book shop I had never seen before; The Ferret Bookshop.


It’s much smaller than the other two but amongst the fiction I found The Sea, in the same edition I read back when I lived overlooking the sea, on a city island north of my present home. While it wasn’t in as good a nick, it was only $10. Score!

As I went to buy it and head home to rest I noticed another book I had read at the same place by the sea, 10 years ago; Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin. Like Banville’s novel, this biography had slipped inside me in unexpected ways; partly because of the subject but also, as I have come to realise, because Tomalin is a great biographer who I adore (Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Mansfield, Austen… not to mention a biography of Dickens’ secret lover, now the film The Invisible Woman).


Pepys is like no other writer. Yes, he was writing (secretly) close to great people and events, but it is his startling emotional honesty that compels interest and keeps him relevant. A man of his times, he wrote in code fearing discovery, joyfully recording his sexual ‘conquests’ which we now read as sexual assaults.

And through this, he wrote and lived with the greatest of pain, enduring a horrific and dangerous operation to remove crippling bladder stones. I think of this often, especially when my relatively minor pain chips away at my resolve.

Through the Great Fire and plagues, Restoration surgery, and the distractions of the court of Charles II, he was compelled to examine himself in a way which is stunningly modern.


Um, I’ve changed my mind

At $15 I had to have this book, too.

As I have mentioned many times, I am awash in the competing currents of fiction and creative non-fiction, pulled one way, then the other, unsure where I am heading, certain they are part of the same body.

Some writers write for money, and the physical sustenance it gives. But most, I believe, write because it is like breathing, and they don’t want to drown.

$25 has purchased me the greatest of birthday presents, and I couldn’t be happier.

I am no clearer which way I am heading, if I’m caught in a rip or heading for paradise. But sometimes, being at sea is the only place to be.