Coin Toss #6

I’m not a nautical person but that never stopped me taking to the sea. When I was a kid my stepfather had one of those tin boats that sat so low in the water the waves used to slosh over the side and mix together with the guts and blood of the catch, turning the salt water pink around my ankles. I’d spew and spew over the side and vow never to go out again but for some reason I couldn’t help myself. I’d hear Dad getting ready outside the tent in the dark and I’d drag myself shivering with cold and climb up onto the wooden plank in the boat. Sitting there under my lifejacket, teeth clenched, we’d bump our way down the road as the light began to unfurl, diesel fumes and blood and vinyl choking my nostrils. I could already taste the vomit rising. It wasn’t Tangaroa that called me but the promise of time alone with my Dad. I wanted him to be proud of me, his fishergirl, the Chunderguts.

I’m not a nautical person but I married a guy who loved being on the water. In the years we were together we owned kayaks and boats and all manner of things that float. I wanted to love the ocean like he did, because he did, and I thought it was that simple. I thought love was simple. The year before we separated, a fishing boat capsized trying to cross the bar in the Kaipara. Eight of the ten men on board drowned and the skipper was blamed. Boaties shook their heads in disgust and called him a cowboy. ‘You don’t mess with the Kaipara,’ locals said on the news. When the force of the outgoing tide meets the muscle of tāwhirimātea, near vertical swells rise up against the massive underwater hills. There’s a channel through the bar, a safe place to cross, but it changes shape and location all the time and you have to study the waters to know how to pick it. The coast guard on the T.V. that night looked grim in front of the debris. ‘They should have stayed out at sea and ridden the storm out,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘They would have been cold and hungry the next day, but they would have been alive. It’s a coin-toss.’

I’m not a nautical person but I stayed another year after that boat crash in the Kaipara because I’m not the gambling sort. The following summer we crossed the Cook Straight on the Bluebridge Ferry to the Queen Charlotte Sounds. Te Moana o Raukawa ki Taronui. We booked a lodge accessible only by boat and stayed for six days. I wanted to love it because he loved it, and I thought it was that simple, but I was already studying the bar. I was up early every morning watching the shifting shape of the underwater hills, lightly discernible if you pay attention. On the second day, a yacht sailed into the little bay and hitched up to a mooring. We instantly connected with the family on board, spending several days together, laughing, eating, swimming. It was easy. The kids were happy. For a moment I thought about changing my mind. I remember thinking: I could stay out at sea, couldn’t I? Everyone is happy. Couldn’t I be happy? But I was seasick and lonely and tired of drifting. I wanted to feel the earth solid beneath my feet. I missed the smell of soil and rain and wet leaves. I longed to go home.

I’m not a nautical person but I suspect that writing a book is a lot like sailing solo. Setting off in the sunshine with all the hope and anticipation in the world, tanks full of fresh water, a map laid out in the cockpit, what can possibly go wrong?

Everything.

I was bailing water before I even hit the open ocean. It wasn’t just that I doubted my ability, it’s that I was uncertain where I was going. Was I writing memoir or essays? Was there a difference? Did it matter?

Luckily, I wasn’t the only one out there. Once or twice I let off a flare and always, without fail, the other Te Papa Tupu interns would hold up a torch in the darkness. I have this image of us setting sail together nearly eight months ago. We sat in the conference room in front of the flash pens and little booklets Huia provided feeling like minor celebrities. We had our photos taken standing in front of the hedge by the pool looking all authorish and they told us all the places we were going: from a stuffy conference room in Kilbirnie to book festivals and writer’s forums in Auckland, Sydney and then who knew where? We gawped and stuffed our faces with free food. All we had to do was finish writing our books, how hard could it be? We didn’t put our hands in the middle and do a team-chant but we left our egos on the carpet of the Brentwood Hotel and promised to help each other out. Writing is hard. It’s better not to be in competition with each other; there’s wind enough for all of us.

I’m not a nautical person but I don’t know if there’s a better metaphor for a mentor than the image of a lighthouse. They’re the ones who let you know where the rocks are so you don’t smash yourself up on them. A mentor is steadfast in the ocean, lighting the way in the dark. Intermittent but constant. He toka tū moana.

John Huria, whom I met at the first workshop, drew a little compass on a piece of paper and told me that my writing is full of heart and strong on narrative, two things, he said, that seemed to come naturally to me. A writer can go a long way on a little bit of encouragement. When I’m feeling shitty about my work or stuck on something, I still look at that compass. John pushed me to explore the aesthetic, the scope and breadth of metaphors that can straddle two worlds at once. He also introduced me to the phrase ‘pre-loved language,’ a gentle way of pointing out the clichés that had a habit of creeping into my work (John, I hope this whole nautical metaphor doesn’t sink like a stone 😜)

I’m grateful to Paula Morris whose close-reading of my work helped me to sift through my stories to find the ones that were worthwhile polishing. I know that other mentors like to work to strict deadlines but that wouldn’t have gone well for me. I was crossing the bar and my family needed me, my kids needed me. My manuscript couldn’t be the priority all the time and Paula understood this and gave me space to work at my own pace. Her feedback was always precise and articulate, and I know my work needed the kind of detailed critique she offered.

Diane Brown read my manuscript before anyone else more than two years ago. What I remember most from Diane’s mentorship is security. I don’t think I could have handled a lot of harsh critique, back then. I just needed to know that my writing wasn’t terrible and that the stories were worthy of being told. Diane reassured me they were. In her emails she told me that she’d crossed the bar too, years ago, and that writing is the thing that keeps us going. Marriages sink, poetry floats, blue skies return.

Not all our mentors are chosen. Some of them find us. Anahera Gildea was like that. I was out there in the ocean in the dark and I couldn’t see where I was going and then Anahera showed up. She’s chartered these waters before me. She’s pointing out the direction I want to go.

I don’t know if it’s because the stories I write are true or because of my anxiety, but fear has been a constant ever since I started publishing. One of the first stories I ever shared was about my father and though it was meant to be a mihimihi to him, it was my mother who was hurt. Three days before Christmas we spoke on the phone and she said: ‘you write beautifully, Nadine, but you tell lies.’

It cut me up. I never wanted to weaponise my words. Writing isn’t about settling scores or reinventing the past. I just wanted to uncover and make things known. That’s what my name, Hura, means. It’s about telling all the versions of the truth, even if sometimes those truths cancel each other out. The manuscript I sent to Huia 6 weeks ago is around 55,000 words and before I hit submit, I asked myself: Is this beautiful, is this true?

The trouble is, some truths cannot be made beautiful, no matter how many ways we rewrite the story. At some point, we have to let go of how our words will be received. We can’t control how the reader will interpret what we’ve said. This lack of control is awful. It’s more awful when you’re Māori. We write with authority about our lives and with all the authenticity we can muster but people will always pick it apart and mine our words for truth. None more so than those closest to us. These are the waves; this is the sensation of drowning. This is when I heave my guts over the side of the tinny boat, not a yacht at all, who was a kidding thinking I could sail?

On days like this, mentors throw out just enough light to help you stay on course. One mentor isn’t enough. The ocean can be treacherous. It’s not just about where you’re going, it’s about why you want to go there in the first place. If you’re a writer and you’re Māori and you’ve got something to say, I think you need to know why you want to say it – at least before you make landfall.

There are other mentors and champions – too many to name, but especially: Karlo Mila, Leonie Hayden, Stacey Morrison, Annette Morehu, Alex Keeble, Cassandra Barnett, Whiti Hereaka, Tapu Misa, Victor Rodger, Kennedy Warne.

And of course, my kids, who don’t exactly understand all of this but support me to do what I need to do. Bobbie: See her brave. Liam: Have you finished your manuscript yet? Cormac: Writing a book is like having a baby, you can’t stop pushing half way through.

I’m not a nautical person but lately I have begun to feel like I’m arriving some place. I can see the outline of the hills ahead and the water is shallow enough to make out the little ridges in the sand beneath. It’s calm and it’s quiet and I know that other Te Papa Tupu interns are sailing in beside me. In a few days’ time we will find out who among us has done enough to earn a contract for a book deal and then we’re all off to Sydney, dragging our suitcases behind us trying to look authorish. It makes me want to laugh and cry. It’s terrible to want something and not to want it at the same time. It’s terrible to want to go out in the boat with your Dad even though you know it’s going to make you sick, or to want to leave your marriage when you know what you’re gambling with. It’s terrible to want the things you want.

I’m not a nautical person but some days I feel good being out on the water. It’s a coin toss.