Let the sabbatical begin!

I was feeling anxious for no apparent reason. I checked in with “my” cognitive therapist.

We decided I was feeling a big fat lack in my life of a big fat writing project, the sort that brings me not mere pleasure but sustained joy, the sort of project that makes me leap out of bed every morning with excitement… My life had a schedule but no hierarchy of activities: it was pretty, but shapeless. Everything I did was interesting, even fun, but no one activity took precedence.

That was true, so I have dropped my new online teaching project with a thud. Making video courses was a rebound project — something interesting to do after selling my business and getting another novel published — not a true-love project. I loved the learning … liked the making … but hated publicising. It was starting to feel like work (the dreary sort) not play.

True-love writing projects brew for some time before forcing themselves to the surface of a writer’s mind and the foreground of a writer’s day.

I decided not to hunt for a true-love project, but to wait patiently. To enjoy the novelty of a creative vacuum. To quote Skip To my Lou, My Dharma, “Let’s just see.”

So I’m starting a self-imposed sabbatical on Thursday with a trip to Brisbane and a long weekend with my sister and brother-in-law.

My cat has got the pip. Don’t you love her sunshine tips? I’m bound for Queensland, but hey, she says, there’s plenty of sun right here, what’s the problem?

The message is not the motive: why we write what we write


It began in high school and continued to puzzle me for a few more years, those non sequitur answers to a stock Eng Lit question: “Why did the author write this book?” These are examples of acceptable answers:

  • “To show a peasant class being destroyed by industrialisation”
  • “To criticise Victorian notions of sexuality”
  • “To show that fate and a character flaw can bring tragic unavoidable consequences.”

In the 1950s this was a standard way to approach a work of literature. In retrospect, we may as well blame Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis, whose influence on the teaching of English literature was global and decades-long and prescriptive and perhaps absurd — his approach was the only show in town. Just saying.

Anyway, to a future novelist, the convention was most alarming. It implied that we must have a noble theme shaped and polished before we dare to lift a pen. A high-minded morally superior world view and an evangelical urge to win hearts minds and souls were prerequisites for every novel. Obviously I was lacking. I’m still lacking.

The second Eng Lit question: what themes?

We were also asked another question that was more transparent but equally odd and tunnel-shaped: “What are the themes in this novel?” Theme-spotting is a nice game to play, but I could never believe that themes were cut and dried, correct exam answer or not. In the authoritarian culture of our high school, gut feelings (like “this is too facile, this doesn’t ring true) had to be squashed down. Or so I believed at the time.

Sloppy thinking from above

Eventually I got it: apparently my teachers assumed that the two questions were interchangeable, perhaps because apparently the only conceivable reason for writing a novel was to express a theme. Most of my English teachers loved literature with an infectious passion, which I suppose was ultimately more important than their theory. But this closed-questioning did confuse and worry me — because I accepted neither the premise or the implications, both of which frightened me as a budding writer.

Naughty thoughts keep a creative spirit steady

Secretly I continued to think my secret thoughts, naughty thoughts, heretical thoughts such as, “You have no idea what the author was really thinking!” and “You’re not a writer, so how would you know?” and “You’re just analysing a text after the event, and that’s not how people write!”

By identifying with the author, not the analyst, somewhere deep inside I stayed true to myself.

On the other hand, I could thoroughly enjoy myself and even be myself in exams and essays. I relished the game of literary analysis, because it was fun, and because I knew the rules and I knew it was only a game.

But I always needed that private world where you can quietly brew something brand new, all yours, using your mind and hands alone.

You know, I think everyone needs that private world. Not just writers. It gets called many things, for example, “me-time” or “space” or “a shed”.


On the final day of #trypod month I sing the praises of the gloriously soporific podcast “Sleep with me”


Yes, I listen to many a podcast. Do you? If not, you’re in for a treat. This month the faithful are invited to share their favourites with the uninitiated.

I listen in bed on my podcast phone app, which will stop automatically at the end of the podcast, if you click the right dot. This is essential if the content is sleepifying, like the confused, meandering, and absolutely bonkers all-time favourite, “Sleep With Me.”

Dozens have have written in admiration and bemusement about Drew Ackerman and his eccentric podcast. His stories are deadly dull and yet seriously weird. He cannot disguise the fact that he is brilliant and literate and cunning and pathologically benign.

Strongly recommended regardless of whether you need help getting to sleep.

For more terrific podcasts, search #trypod and find something that suits. We are spoiled for choice nowadays.

Norah Caplan-Bricker in the New Yorker about Sleep With Me




A dirty old day in terrorized New Zealand


Now let us do our duty: a swift scan
of the headlines for one shameful day
in a land of slime
and terror.

Minister not keen on drive
Freedom campers use beach as toilet
New Zealand, man up like Dan Carter
Melania wants to start clean

Police honesty box charge
A dance with The Boss
Closure for cat lover
Dog saved from kayak

Easter Sunday trading is here
Pineapple on pizza—for or against?
People safe after fire
When your succulent won’t stop growing

Stop there! It’s all too much.
Why fixate on the false and the filthy?
Take it away.
Let’s all emigrate to the USA.

poem & screenshot by rachel mcalpine CC BY 2.0


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…

Writing heals: the story of Mrs D

Mrs D is Going Without. Lotta Dann. A memoir

Writing can heal. Some people discover this through therapy (or perhaps an online writing course like Write Over Divorce), and some people make it happen all by themselves.

Lotta Dann was a wife-and-mother with a perfect life and a drinking problem. One day she decided privately, suddenly, independently, urgently, to stop drinking alcohol. She didn’t seek help or join AA or go to rehab or tell a friend or consult a doctor. This enormous decision was her little secret.

Lotta did just one thing besides decide: she started a daily blog to document her first year of not-drinking, and called it Mrs D is going without. And that one spontaneous act became an extraordinary source of strength.

How blogging about sobriety helped Mrs D

Right from the start:

  • by recording her decision, she made it visible and impossible to deny
  • writing helped her to confront one day at a time without getting overwhelmed
  • she could encourage herself and remind herself of why she had stopped
  • blogging daily imposed a daily discipline
  • writing enabled her to explore and express a torrent of ideas and feelings.

Then something happened that surprised Mrs D: other people found her blog. An online community sprang up around her. Other people seemed to be experiencing her struggle vicariously, began to support her — and in a way, to depend on her. She had started alone, but now she was far from alone in her battle for sobriety.

How Mrs D now helps other recovering alcoholics

I’ve read the book of the blog and it’s a brave, vulnerable and honest story.

I salute Lotta Dann for her courage. I am amazed at the way she has used writing as therapy, meditation, cognitive training and human support.

She now uses her wisdom to help others online and elsewhere.

Poems hiding in the woods and under the bed


Hey, I write poems, you know. (Maybe you write poems too.)

Somewhere a poet
is cleaning a bathroom.
Somewhere a cleaner
is writing a poem.

If you like this blog for any reason at all, you may well enjoy the poems on my other blog, Poems in the wild

I adore having this outlet for poems old and new. I adore taking or selecting a photo that ridiculously contradicts or sweetly complements the poem. I kind of like it being almost a secret, but as it’s the gifting season, I offer you the URL. Take a peek. You might enjoy this other side of Rachel.

Poems in the wild: https://aybrow.wordpress.com/