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The sound of Good

Maggie Rainey-Smith

 

I found writing late in life. Or it found me. I didn’t lose anything at the beginning, it was all about the finding. I’d let go of the teenagers by writing angry doggerel. Greg O’Brien was running one of the first undergraduate poetry courses at Victoria University, before it became the more exclusive and influential International Institute of Modern Letters. On the wall in the room we met in was a photograph of Vincent O’Sullivan looking splendidly handsome and aloof. I was amazed that I was in this room with published poets, and that Vincent was down the hall teaching. Janet Frame’s desk was just part of the furniture. I discovered my doggerel wasn’t poetry as I’d thought and Greg O’Brien discovered I wasn’t actually as angry as my doggerel.
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But how grateful I am to my then tearaway teenagers, for having the courage to live their own lives and thus ensuring I finally had the courage (or was it desperation), to abandon my briefcase and business and pursue a writing life. It was thrilling. I still recall sitting in Ilott Café at Victoria University when Greg (first name basis now for sure), read aloud one of his own poems for us to critique. It seemed impossible that this was true, and yet it was.
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I applied for the prestigious MA in Creative Writing at Vic, after successfully completing Harry Rickett’s short story undergraduate programme (my confidence was growing). Rejection sent me on another important journey and one I’ll always be grateful for. I lost one dream and found another. Instead of the MA at Vic, I went to Timaru. Twenty-one weeks and not a drop of rain (except overnight one night). The autumn leaves on the pavement outside Aoraki Polytechnic grew deep and lush in the windless clime. I left home and hearth to reside solo in a charming flat, once the Shepherd’s quarters for a farming family. I was fifty, and I’d shed all trappings. In the class, I was stripped of my identity as a wife, lover, mother, businesswoman, and I stood and fell on the strength of what I wrote – it was a liberation.
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Having been a recruiter for many years, I was used to superlatives. Selling people requires bold, expansive, (sometimes exaggerated) language. Now I had to listen carefully to Owen Marshall, convenor of the Aoraki Writing Course, to distinguish between the various shades of the word ‘good’. There was the firm and steady, even-sounding good. And there was a lighter, shorter version, definitely not as affirming. And then there was the rare and much desired, longer sounding, upwardly rising ‘good’, first heard when someone else’s work was being praised. My ear became attuned to this nuance and I worked towards hearing this in regard to my own work, the rising inflection, Owen almost as astonished as I was, that yes, this was ‘good’.
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Since those unforgettable early days when I began to dream that I could be a writer, I’ve had short stories, essays, poems, book reviews, and three novels published. But I’ve lost something along the way. I no longer believe that being published is life changing. I recognise my place in the writing world. I know I’m not a Booker prize winner. I know it is a privilege to write and that it is also hard work. The great initial joy of that first published piece has passed and been replaced with a calm, a gratitude and some ambiguity. I used to think that to be a published writer was somehow to become something more than I was already. Now I recognise this isn’t true. It is work like any other work, but with much lower pay than most work, and mostly it is only you who cares about this piece of writing. Yes, readers will like your work. Reviewers might like your work. But the writer has to care the most.
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I’ve found a new career, teaching English as a second language. I didn’t mean to. Somehow it happened and now I have a job working with migrants and refugees, actually making a difference on a day-to-day basis. What I do has a direct impact on their ability to integrate into New Zealand, to find work, to be able to communicate and get along. The work is intense and it draws from the same creative well as my writing. Now I have a competing dream. I’ve found the joy of teaching, and the satisfaction when there is actual evidence that my efforts are making a difference. Readers may write to say they enjoyed my novel and there’s a fleeting satisfaction, my ego stroked, but it also encourages a greed for feedback, wanting more than there is from a novel, or a poem.
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And yet, the satisfaction that comes from teaching is also bound with ego. I feel good, that I’ve made a difference. I get huge energy from my students, so it is a reciprocal relationship. Writing is about isolation and then this great desire, when the project ends, for affirmation – the reciprocity of your readers… and of course, it won’t always come and when it does it might not be exactly as you imagine.
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I long to reinhabit those heady days when a simple ‘good’ with the right inflection was like literary mainlining. When the dream was to become a writer. In finding myself a published author, I’ve lost something along the way. I was once heard to say I would die happy if I was published in Sport and then when it happened I didn’t want to die; I wanted more. I spent seven years wanting my Greek novel to be published. I’m absolutely delighted that it has been, but I’ve lost something too, the story has gone from me out into the world. I’d never been invited to be part of a writers’ festival until this year. I was on a panel at the Auckland Writers Festival. The festival was huge. I met some of my idols. I shared the shuttle with Jane Smiley and chatted to Gloria Steinem. But it was lonely too. I saw myself in relation to the literary world.
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Each new dream, once achieved, becomes a loss, and I find out something more about myself. I try to remember when ‘good’ was good enough.

 

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