Joy of writing #1: aerogrammes from Daddy


Most nostalgic and illuminating Christmas gift of 2016: copies of our Dad’s letters in 1954 when he was in the USA as NZ’s first (?) Fulbright Scholar. He went to study the training of theological students (that being his own role in New Zealand) and had his mind blown, I think. His aerogrammes to the entire family were scanned and collated by my wise sister Lesley.

  • Look at the handwriting — so individual, a bit wonky but fully legible except for a few with faded ink.
  • Think of the quantity — 9 letters to me in 6 months, and about that many to each of my 5 sisters. To Celia (our mother): 52, that’s two per week.
  • Such joy imparted—in both directions. DMT would sometimes quote from our letters to young Americans, with obvious glee.
  • Such mind-widening information from abroad! None of us had travelled outside of New Zealand, not even Celia. All sorts of details were remarkable to DMT and to us:

For lunch we had: a glass of water, a glass of milk, a plate of salad (on left) — (at same time) a plate of donuts, golden syrup and stewed apple! Followed by chocolate ice-cream & the usual horrible weak tea.

Form dictated function and style

The letters served multiple functions. Dad was too busy to keep a diary. As artefacts of the pre-digital world, the physical items were saved as a precious record of DMT’s time away:

I would be glad if someone would kindly assure me that my letters are being kept. […] I have things that I want to write down so that I don’t forget them, but instead of keeping a diary I’m relying on these letters as a record.

The form influenced style. Aerogrammes — two sides of a flimsy sheet of paper —invited writers to be concise, so we could say a lot in limited space, and perhaps entertaining. DMT included various small cute illustrations too.

Every letter was a love letter

The love in these letters is obvious in so many ways. I haven’t yet read his letters to Celia, because of a slight technical obstacle, but they’ll tell a whole different side of the story. All I know so far is that he had a substantial repertoire of endearments. These are just his salutations!

Dearest darling, Dear One, My dear one, My darling Celia, My darling Ce, Celia darling dear, My beloved, My dear mate, My sweetest, Celia my dear one, My sweetest dear, My dearest one, My dear beloved one, My dearest beloved, My dear sweetheart, My dear darling sweetheart, My dear birthday girl, My dear wifey, My darling wife

What treasures

Writing is not just a bite-sized digital communication or a business tool or a source of income. Writing can also promote healing, happiness and hope. Good to remember that…


A writer’s take on eating alone

Breakfast for one in a cafe—time and place long forgotten

Many people feel dispirited when they eat alone. At least half the fun of good food is sharing with friends or family or — anyone!

Eating alone seems to be particularly difficult for those who are widowed or divorced, at least initially. For years your meals were sociable occasions, and it seems hard to adapt to cooking a single serve, and hard to understand that you still deserve a proper meal. Hard to honour and respect your own needs. Hard to see yourself as good company at mealtimes.

Reading is feeding the brain

Reading was top on the list of restful activities in a recent international survey of 184,000 people. And, for the most part, we read alone: that is a major part of the attraction. Reading is restful because we retreat into our own private world. It’s not a sociable thing, reading.

Kurt Vonnegut says, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

So best to write for a single person who is savouring our book all alone. That solitary reader needs to feel satisfied at the end of the reading meal that we’ve cooked in a single serve.

Being alone may be the key to rest (BBC)

Photo: Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0

When writers read: surreptitious analysis


Writing a book? Then read. Writing is an impeccable excuse for reading. And reading is a time-honoured strategy for improving your writing.

Stephen King says:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

You’d better believe it. He isn’t just talking about books for writers, either. Whatever you read can help you to raise your sights and raise your game. 

A writer reads for pleasure, like anyone else, but every now and then the critical factor clicks into action.

The process of surreptitious analysis is personal, eccentric, subconscious. You notice things that are just what you need at the time.

For example, you might think, “I skipped that paragraph—why?” Or “I see, they put an asterisk when the point of view changes…”  or “So every chapter has a title, not just a number. What effect does that have?”

Joy of reading: joy of writing

I’ve found that surreptitious analysis happens mainly when I am actually in the process of writing something. I guess it happens because you are writing and are therefore super-receptive. Some of these accidental insights are truly exciting, shifting your vision or boosting your skills in one stroke. Reading becomes even more rewarding.

On other occasions, the analysis is deliberate, not subconscious. I’ll suddenly stall when I’m puzzled by a technical detail—reach out for another novel and flick through it. To solve my current problem almost any novel will do, from the simplest little romance to War and Peace, and preferably both.

I think the reading fix is common among writers. As a research method it is quick and easy and intuitive. Another novel usually solves your problem much more quickly than a book about writing: it shows you what to do instead of telling you…

My first video course: Write Over Divorce

Write Over Divorce: banish the pain with a pen

For months and months I have been working on my very first video course for Write Into Life. Topic: Write Over Divorce — how to get over the lingering pain of a broken relationship in three weeks simply by working through a series of writing exercises.

Now the course is ready! It’s public! It’s available! This is an advertisement for something I’m offering free to 20 followers of this blog. You are the first to know, because the course is close to my heart and yet I feel pretty darned nervous about showing it to anyone at all, let alone the world. I’m hoping you might view it with some understanding of my aims.

I’m also favouring you, my blog friends, because I’m a beginner. That is, I’m a very experienced online instructor, having taught writing online in a different way to over 5,000 people in the last ten years. However, I’m not at all sure how the scenario evolves from now — what I’ll have to do as an instructor at Udemy, the online learning site that I have joined, or how these coupons work.

Why write over divorce?

For my first course in this new-to-me format, I deliberately chose a topic that I imagine nobody would ever want to do, a unique (crazy) topic which would allow me to quietly learn all the things I have to learn about creating a video course.

So far, so good. The course is not technically perfect: I know that. But I have learned heaps about lighting, recording, sound quality, and video editing. And I’m proud of my unique content, which walks you quietly through three stages of healing and growth, from heartache of divorce to a more optimistic and realistic frame of mind — happiness.

Check out the curriculum and sample 3 free lectures. If you feel this brand new online course is what you need, be among the first to do it. I’m offering it free to 20 people who read this blog post in December 2016.

Free coupon: click this link to Write Over Divorce

Because you have clicked this particular link, the price will show as $0, in other words, FREE. (People finding the course from any other source would see the regular price of $40.) When 20 people have enrolled, the price reverts to $40 (still a bargain).

And please, if anything puzzles you, let me know!

Yours in some trepidation


A history of publishing through one author’s books


It’s 2016, in case you didn’t notice. That means I’ve been a so-called published author for 42 years: I’m a walking talking piece of history. My publishing record is a black-and-white snapshot of the industry over the last 40 years. You could draw a graph of international publishing patterns and it would look like a portrait of me. The history of publishing, c’est moi.

Publishing poetry collections: fun or none

From 1975–1988 five poetry books were published by small-press poetry specialists, and my Selected Poems by a mainstream publisher. However, in 1980 I self-published House Poems for the sheer pleasure. Peter Ridder, a marvellous book designer, educated me in the publishing process from editing to marketing. I loved having control of all decisions — page and cover design, layout, binding, paper. I even drew the illustrations, and it’s still one of my favourite books. House Poems became my benchmark for self-publishing: I could make a gorgeous book, I loved the creativity and control, and I could make a profit.

A turning point came in 1993, with Tourist in Kyoto. A mainstream publisher messed me around and I thought, “Why should I wait another 6 months? Why suffer this process all over again?” So I self-published that book too and was thoroughly satisfied.

Publishing fiction: turbulence and change

My first three novels were published by Penguin (NZ) in 1986, 1987, 1990, and Humming by another publisher in 2005. Then in 2010 I self-published a book of short stories, Scarlet Heels. With a professional designer the process was easy and fun and the book looked good. And although my publicity machine was pathetic, Scarlet Heels still made money.

Slowly I’m now republishing the best of my work as ebooks, and have made about $3 (stet: three dollars) so far. I enjoy extending the life of my backlist this way.

My latest novel is Fixing Mrs Philpott (2016). A handsome paperback, it was published by a small Indie press and I will make a small profit.

Non-fiction: the plot thickens

Between 1980 and 1999 I had ten non-fiction books published by mainstream publishers. Since then I’ve personally published four books for the corporate market and one or two for writers. It’s my self-published non-fiction books that brought me a satisfying income over many years.

My publishing history is every author’s publishing history

To summarise: from 1975 to 2005 most of my books were published on paper by conventional publishers, and I also self-published two little books for fun. But since 2005, all my books have been self-published or indie-published.

I see the same pattern the world over: don’t you?

  1. Publishing has never been an easy industry and e-books ate the profits.
  2. Mainstream publishing companies shrivelled or merged until only two medium-sized fiction publishers remain in New Zealand.
  3. New technology increased the cost-effectiveness of small print runs.
  4. Small companies sprang up to enable anyone to self-publish.
  5. E-books came to dominate the market; real book sales reduced and then began to recover.

It’s not the books, it’s the industry

Now you may be thinking, “Apparently Rachel’s writing deteriorated at the turn of the century and she became unpublishable.” Indeed, that’s what publishers often imply. After waiting for months for a response, you will probably be told, “Sorry, your book doesn’t fit with our marketing plan.”

What this really means: “We can only afford to publish a handful of books each year. As for fiction, we only publish guaranteed best-sellers. Anyway, our list is filled for the next 18 months.”

My attitude? Never say never, but I’m happy to carry on self publishing. It’s fun, it’s empowering and it’s profitable. I can live with the occasional sneer from people who don’t realize that these days, almost every New Zealand novel is self published.

Why am I sharing these gory details?

To encourage you, if you’re a writer struggling to find a mainstream publisher. To provide a reality check: times have changed! To reassure you that a rejection slip is not necessarily a reflection on your book. To inspire you, if you are looking for an alternative route to publication. And to remind you that writing is a reward in itself, and you can share it in many other ways.

Day 2 of the new earthquake era

Wet roof over a wet city and one bare foot raised in a tai chi kick.
Doing tai chi as rain sets in. Good morning world!

Well, it’s about 60 hours since the big earthquake and my short exercise in expressive writing has already done its magic. In my last blog post I vented my secret thoughts and feelings, no matter how embarrassing.

3 meditation apps

Last night I slept brilliantly for nearly six hours and dozed nicely for two more, aided by a passive meditation with the little blue man (Andrew Johnson’s meditation phone app).

Then the morning routine begins. Meditate, ah, breathe slowly—nice. Then tai chi on the deck as rain set in—nice. I finish like this, hoping the neighbours don’t hear me:

“Good morning, world! What can I do for you today?”

Quick as a flash, the world replies: “Stop whinging.”

“OK. Got it!”

Yet again,  writing has done one of its magic tricks. Ruled a line under self pity—because I did my whinging well and truly, out loud, on this blog. And because the world (meaning you, dear readers) heard me with compassion, and validated me in my weakness.

So now I can stop whinging. I like to think I have turned my angst into energy.

Right. Time to get back to work. I love that…

What to do in an earthquake: write

Geonet earthquake app

You freeze until you register what’s happening: a long, strong earthquake shaking the bed east-west-east. And shaking. During that everlasting two minutes, you stop, drop and cover under a table or doorway.

The shaking stops and you put on random clothes and locate the bug-off bag in case you have to leave.

Immediately a series of aftershocks begins.

Earthquake routine: texting

Ever since the first Christchurch earthquake in October 2010 you keep your cellphone by the bed, fully charged. (To hell with the screen-free bedroom.) You text your children. You text your sisters. You text other apartment owners. You text friends. You answer text after text. Nearly everyone is OK.

You don’t call because you know that the cellphone system will be overloaded—you just send a short curt signal of love: xxx.

But some family have hurried to high ground, and others are stranded in Kaikoura with its broken roads and rivers and communications. Where are they? What are they doing?

Sucking up news

You consult

NZ Daylight Time, Mon, Nov 14 2016, 12:02:56 am. Depth, 15 km. Magnitude, 7.5 . Location, 15 km north-east of Culverden.

You download the Geonet app. Now it pops out information about every aftershock. Poppity-popp! Poppity-popp! They are almost continuous.

Recent earthquakes in New Zealand: every minute

You turn on Radio New Zealand. Two calm, competent, familiar women reporters are giving updates, humanising experiences, urging commonsense, calming fears, and giving a tsunami warning. (Oh Radio New Zealand, we need you! And the government wants to cut your funding!)

Poppity-popp, poppity-popp, poppity-popp. You feel useless and confused.  You escape into sleep for a couple of hours.

Return of Responsible Rachel

After the big earthquake Wellington looks OK to me… but …

You wake up, text some more, do Facebook, shower (we have water! we have sewers!), make breakfast (we have gas! electricity! food!)  Ferries are stopped—wharves and a rail bridge damaged.

You visit a few key people in your street and all is well. You do other Responsible Things.

Hey, we’re OK! For decades Wellington people have feared The Big One, knowing that our city squats on a major earthquake fault. We have just had a big one, and it was OK.

Every earthquake is different, and feels different in different places. 7.5 on the Richter scale is a very big earthquake, bigger than the first one that devastated Christchurch, but it’s different. Our 76-year-old reinforced concrete building stood firm and so far has survived without a scratch.

Not so fast…

You can’t settle. Everything you planned to do today is off. Gym closed, schools closed, city centre forbidden as buildings are inspected. There’s liquefaction near the harbour. Tsunami warnings go off and on. But the rubbish truck arrives on schedule, lovely lovely man making everything seem normal.

Poppity-popp, poppity-popp, poppity-popp.

Damage to road and rail near Kaikoura. Photo: NZTA

Then the extent of the damage starts to emerge. Two people have died. The main highway from Blenheim to Christchurch will take months to rebuild. Friend’s house is trashed. Railways closed. Stories. More stories.

Waiting, waiting, waiting

Text: Dad and Robyn are ok...yay! Kaikoura earthquake news

Thank you God. Our two precious people are still with us.

They have a story. I don’t have a story. I am just a blob in a building.

Wow! We just had 4 entire minutes between aftershocks! Then poppity-popp, here we go again.

I am fine fine fine. My family is fine fine fine.My house is fine fine fine. My city will be fine again — even if this is a beginning of an era, not an episode. This is a mere hiccup compared with the Kobe earthquake (which did traumatise me a bit) or the endlessly recycled torture inflicted on the people of Canterbury for the last six years.

Wellington had been New Zealand’s designated Earthquake City. Everyone knew we were sitting on a major fault line and were due to be shattered any time soon. We felt shocked and guilty when Canterbury was hit by apocalyptic quakes instead. Hey, wrong address!

I’ve completed certain mindless tasks. Erased markings on the score of Donizetti’s Requiem that our choir sang yesterday. Did a load of laundry. Played solitaire.

Feeling another quake as we speak

Oh god that’s the tsunami hooter! I’m OK, I’m on a hill — but what’s happening on the beaches, in the harbour? Poppity-popp, poppity-popp, poppity-popp. And again. My heart speeds up in time with the shakes.

When in doubt, write

There’s nothing I can do for anyone else right now. Even talking on the phone is self-indulgent today. I want to stay close to home. I want to visit my daughters but I don’t trust the city to sit still long enough for me to walk to them. Anyway it’s pouring and gales are forecast. So I’m doing what comes naturally: writing.

In the process I have discovered various feelings and thoughts.

  • I feel like a fraud, an imposter
  • I’ve got survivor guilt because my city, Earthquake City, is sort of probably OK
  • I feel selfish and narcissistic and petty and unimportant because I’m writing my own boring story (which is not a story) for no good reason
  • I feel useless and unworthy and again guilty because I’m not out there helping
  • I feel a tiny shudder of PTSD, remembering Kobe
  • I feel stupid because I can’t think of anything better to do than write
  • I feel lonely, even though I could go and have a cup of tea with my friends next door.

Do not feel sorry for me—that was not my point!

As a writing teacher I know that this is a good thing to do: to write about your troubles. Not venting over and over again. Just purging those queer irrational thoughts and feelings once or twice. It is OK, it is normal to have abnormal thoughts and feelings in difficult times. And writing about them makes it easier to move on.

Except in this case, the earth will do the moving.

There! See! I made a joke! Told you writing was a good thing!

I would delete this blog post, except that it is an example about what you might write (for yourself alone) in a time of earthquakes. Write anything, however boring, however strange. It’s for you, not for other people. Writing helps.