As an undergrad student, sitting in a lecture hall with hundreds of other bright sparks, all diligently diving into the page with a competitive fervour that perhaps isn’t discussed openly enough in Aotearoa – I had one burning question that I hoped the literary giants teaching the paper would answer for me: how do I become a great writer?
Replies from tutors and lecturers proved to be especially mercurial, it wasn’t a question to even be asking at my lowly station of ’21 year old undergrad.’ My job was to listen and read and to complete exercises on time. I accepted the natural order of things and decided to learn the stream by rote, that is to say – the flow of what was expected and the patterns others followed, to assuredly set out in the opposite direction. It wasn’t that I aspired to be some kind of activist, I was simply more interested in the raw world around me that I knew to be devoid of the kind of literature I wanted most. It struck me that one of the reasons for the void that I felt whenever I reached for myself at bookstores and libraries – came down to, in part, people following established routes that produced results like those already in existence.
Looking back now, I can better understand what kept the few established writers I knew from giving me straight forward answers. First of all there weren’t any, and to openly discuss what you think makes a ‘great’ writer is dangerous within a country allergic to tall poppies. Arts education has become one of my greatest passions and I now work in the industry, I’m just one of many pairs of hands trying to untangle what is being taught and what the market demands. Somewhere in the middle of encouraging young people to ‘be themselves’ there is a reality moat of unemployment, institutional racism and who you know versus what you do. There are not enough master classes on campaigning, self promotion, and understanding what makes your voice distinguishable and crucial to the times, when you think back to the same lecture room I initially described.
So far, my travels, festivals and tours have taught me that great writers come from all sorts of belief systems and economic backgrounds, some of them have been exiled for writing against oppressive regimes, others have become marketing gurus of sorts and it’s the brand of their name that sells their books regardless of content. There’s no one formula and everyone’s idea of greatness has its own limitless magic, but I have noted a few similarities over the years. Successful writers on a global scale are interested in how we view and read the world around us, they have a network of patrons who give them time and money and advice, they know who they are and what they value. They boost the cultural capital of people around them, they energise their readers and breathe new life into the public sphere. Great writers understand the currency of their brilliance, immeasurable as it may be, and its the mystery in pinpointing all of these unicorn-like gifts within one flesh and bone mere mortal that gives writers their gloss, or their grit, or their unflinching hope in the face of great odds.
Several years ago during my first residency in Berlin, I asked the journalist interviewing me for a news segment that would be broadcast to something like 120 million people worldwide, what she believed great writing to be? Her answer: great writing is world literature, it is a contribution to humanity. During that same festival, I didn’t go to all of the dinner parties on offer and I wasn’t always in the artist tent speaking with my hands, smoking like a chimney and reciting verse when the sun went down. I was often in a corner nearby, writing down what I saw and having as much one-on-one time as I could with people who had captured my imagination with their ideas. That one choice led to many blossoming professional relationships that continue to stimulate me and provide new opportunities to this day – some five years later. I knew from having grown up around the burgeoning Pasifika arts scene of 90s Auckland that I was coming from a place of immense talent – but that our limitations were significant in terms of access to networks and resources. I’d watched many talented people work in hospitality, call centres, factories and cleaning, I understood that being an artist in this country was hard slog but that the payoff was well worth it. I defined my payoff before I was ever published and it’s kept me reasonably grounded, despite a few twirling off the face of the earth moments that all writers experience when you’re racing the clock and wrestling with self doubt to deliver the goods. Thinking of the people in my life who I loved and cared about challenged me to imagine a world where they were celebrated on the page. I knew I had found my ‘point of anchorage’ as Janet Frame so beautifully put it.
When I toured Indonesia, I was holding a writing workshop at a school in Malang – some of the students asked me how to become good writers and also how to become wise? That last question really caught me off guard, especially because I was 26 and felt as though I had little wisdom to share. We had a discussion around what we thought wisdom was and how we associate those ideas with writers and artists. It’s something that’s stayed with me especially in classrooms here at home where young people don’t ask me how to be wise, they ask me how to get published, and yes – ‘how to become a great writer?’
That’s the irony – I’m now on the receiving end of questions that used to consume me. My answers are often mosaics, a patchwork, a loose grouping of thoughts that together make a hotchpotch kind of sense to me:
- Live a great life so that you have something great to write about. Get out and jump as many fences and drink as much shitty wine and fall in love with weirdos who share your taste in 90s rap – as much as you possibly can.
- Be kind to everyone. The person cleaning the toilets at the venue where you’re a guest speaker is just as important as the person paying for you to be there.
- Follow leads, follow through and follow up.
- Read across all kinds of platforms and interests, read the news, read obituaries, read poetry, read non fiction, read memoirs, read new recipes – just keep reading.
- Keep writing after you have your degree, after you’re published, after you’ve become ‘that person’ in your family who fills in cards on behalf of everyone, keep writing.
I have no idea if it will be flash fiction or prose posters or holographic sonnets that will rock 2016. What I do know is that the past and the future cannot hold back the passionate and the willing, we have the present and that’s the loophole where great writers will always bloom.