Monday, December 22, 2008

Grindstone Day 20

Automated External Defibrillator combined with drinks vending machine at Jurobe residence, Tokushima

Time: 5.40 pm
Chapter: 10
Pots of tea: 0
Lunch: rice, egg and soup combo - winter comfort food
Snack: sweet potato

Feeling guilty, guilty, guilty. Went well on Friday, but over the weekend and today? Phtttt. Haven't managed to really even open my word file, let alone make good progress. On the good side though got an email from my mentor today to say she's enjoying Part 1 of the manuscript. Hurray! maybe at last I'm on the right track.

Also feeling bad because the end of the "writing solitude" has crept up on me and on Wednesday we'll be heading north to Kyoto for Xmas - we're going to have a Mexican Xmas with lots of socialising. And after that we'll be heading north to Naruto and then Tokyo, staying with friends all the way, so again maybe not too much writing opportunity there, and from there I leave for home.

Then again I might be much more efficient on this next "stage" of the trip - very easy to fritter away time and not do so much when I know I've got the whole day, so I may manage to do the same amount of writing or even more if I snatch an hour here and there and FOCUS. Ah, grrr. Silly, silly me.

On the upside, the weekend was nicely lazy with lots of sleeping in, eating (pancakes, mostly) and wandering around Tokushima. Went to the local puppet theatre which is a
living traditional art" around here, the puppets are superbly crafted and I even got to handle one,fantastic!!

Now I have to cook dinner, some hungry Mexicans are on their way and the fridge needs to be emptied before Wednesday :)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Grindstone Day 19

Time: 6.47 pm
Chapter: 10
Pots of tea: 2.0
Flavour: Blueberry and raspberry
Lunch: sweet potato, rice and egg
Snack: mandarins

As you can see by my postings, today I have been inspired by 'Japanese-style' theatre. I use the speech marks because it's hard to define the "style" of any geographic place without first referencing time period and social group, but nonetheless, Japan has evolved several art forms which could be said to be unique to this country (although often themselves adapted from imported forms).

I'm feeling quite vulnerable here, as I could possibly now be accused of orientalism - something which I have looked down on others for in the past. You see, I don't know very much about Japanese theatre, only what I can access in English on the internet, or have read a little of in books. And sadly Wikipedia is one of my primary sources of info.

But I admit to being seduced by the unearthly, metaphoric nature of these works. I really wish I could create an atmosphere like these create; that I had at my fingertips not only thousands of years of folklore and historic works of literature, but the language ability and scholarship to understand its many connotations, instead of ending up like those poor snobs at Max Planck Institute.

But, sadly, I am just another gaijin entranced by the allure of the unknown, albeit a well camouflaged one. It seems to be that way with most of the things I try. How can one possibly catch up with all the years of learning and understanding that it takes to write about something well? It's a hopeless hope. And yet, I keep trying, consoling myself that people might mistake ignorance for "freshness", or that in making mistakes I might learn better for next time. *Sigh*.

My blood sugars must be low. Hope Mark gets home soon so we can eat.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Saw the touring production last night in Tokushima, done by the Shiki Theatre Company. WOW. Here's the review on Lumiere.

The House of Flame

An amazing short animation with elements of Japanese Bunraku, Noh and Kabuki, by master Kihachiro Kawamoto.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Grindstone Day 18

Time: 10.40 pm
Chapter: 9
Pots of tea: 1.5
Flavour: Green
Lunch: sweet potato
Snack: mochi

Well, made a little more progress today on the manuscript. Even though it's still only chapter 9!! I've been learning to write spaces recently. By this I mean the novelistic equivalent to white space in paintings, the gaps that are left unpainted and serve just as important a function in prose, or for that matter, drama.

I think it is drama that first taught me that leaving something unwritten isn't such a bad thing. For example, my first short play, "Mask", initially had detailed stage directions indicating nearly every move the actors made. It was only after I saw it workshopped and the actors and director told me (and thank god they did) that I didn't need to be so detailed, that I realised that leaving others some space in which to use their creativity is a good thing. After I started trimming stage directions I also started trying to cut down on dialogue - after all in real life we leave a lot of the important things unsaid.

A piece of writing is a bit like a do-up house: to get the strongest emotional response from a buyer, you have to show them what they could potentially make for themselves. Leaving a bit of space for their imagination to wander around in is not only savvy, it's a necessity for good writing.

Of course, my little bit of wisdom imparted (and it's not an original thought at all), the hard thing is to strike the balance between providing too much detail and not providing enough. And that is where I'm at right now. When I first presented my work to my Masters class (in 2007), one of the comments was the exhaustive detail which I had included - which helped to establish a feeling of verisimilitude, but also slowed down the action. So currently I'm compressing two chapters into one, editing around 5000 words into (hopefully) 2,000 or less. This is work that has already gone through a number of edits, so every cut is painful (but necessary, I know, I know....). Wish me luck.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Grindstone Day 17

No,that's not me at the fish markets, though the expression of glee is similar. I'm at Ritsurin Park, tickling the carp, in the weekend.

Time: 9.52 pm
Chapter: 9
Pots of tea: 4.5
Flavour: Citrus and peach
Lunch: oden
Snack: macadamia nut chocolate

OK, so another blog entry missed yesterday - didn't do so much writing, because I was preparing for the first dinner party we've had here - I love cooking for guests! And today, I hate to admit, wasn't much better on the writing front, as I caught up with outstanding bits and pieces including work emails and my Big Idea blog....and all the attendant "necessary internet research". (hummmm.)

Ok. So, replete with full tummy and about to watch Blackadder's Xmas special with Mark, all that is left to me is to promise faithfully that I will do much better, tomorrow.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Grindstone Day 15

Time: 1.12 pm
Chapter: 8
Pots of tea: 1
Flavour: lemon
Lunch: spaghetti bolognaise leftovers
Snack: rice crackers and chocolate

Hurray! I have met my deadline today and submitted 'Part 1' of my draft to my lovely mentor, Siobhan Harvey. Now for a quick break and then on with Chapter 9 and Part 2 (you see, if I write it here on my blog then I have to do it! Clever eh?)

It's actually rather nice writing to a deadline. There's something extra pushing my mind towards the story, keeping me on track and less likely to stray to interesting Youtube videos or the paper.

Anyway, over the weekend we did two daytrips to nearby cities, one to Takamatsu where we enjoyed exploring in Ritsurin Park, one of a legion of beautiful public gardens in Japan. This one is an Edo period artificially-landscaped garden, originally built for a powerful lord and his descendants and later claimed for the public when feudal lands were confiscated during the Meiji restoration.

Walking around here, it's possible to get a feel for how these lords spent their time and how bored they must have been through the long hot summers when they and their entourage were required by the Emperor to stay in one place (so they could be controlled). There are numerous small mounds or rocks, each apparently sculpted to a period 'style' (they just look like random piles to me, but the fact that there was a particular school of rock-styling, in addition to competing schools for other things like tea ceremony, proves my point.) There is also a small waterfall on the grounds, but it seems the landscaper designer was no engineer - the only way the water could be made to fall was by servants carting it up to the top of the cliff in buckets, then hiding and pouring the water down whenever a lord walked by. Another example of a completely pointless garden construction is a 'duck-hunting hide' : a wall with peepholes looks down into a moat where ducks are attracted by scattered crumbs. The brave and skilled lord looks through the peephole, finely judges his moment then at his signal servants jump into the moat and capture the ducks with nets.

Not that the Japanese have a monopoly on historic folly in gardens or pointless jobs for the less fortunate, by any means, but there seem to be a lot of people doing them here.

Example one: Petrol station attendants. From early morning to late at night, most petrol station forecourts have two or three people in bright overalls, who spring to attention when a car slides in, then bustle around, polishing windows, putting in petrol, helping the car get out again into the traffic, etc. I guess it could be seen as a charming return to the old days when a service station did mean a 'service' station, but would you want your granny or grandpa to spend all day on their feet breathing in petrol fumes?

Example two: Shop wrappers. Presentation and "hygiene" is all-important here, therefore even the smallest home bakery will have people sitting around a table or a plastic wrap machine, obsessively sealing individual buns or biscuits in layers of plastic. It's a self-renewing practice, as shoppers won't buy anything they don't perceive to be "clean", thus everyone has to do it.

A general observation is that many of these high-labour, low-stimulus jobs are filled by people who look like they should be retired. Japan has the world's most top-heavy population pyramid, and I guess that social welfare doesn't fully provide for them here. Is this the way the rest of the world will go?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Grindstone Day 14

Tokushima, from Mt Bizan

Time: 9.16 pm
Chapter: 7
Pots of tea: 2.0
Flavour: apple, with honey
Lunch: baked sweet potato
Snack: Whittaker's dark mocha chocolate

The warmest room in the house is the bedroom, which gets the sun until early afternoon. So to store up on the warmth before temps went down in the afternoon, I snuggled up under the two duvets with the computer perched on an ironing board on my lap. Very comfy... only interrupted when I needed to unravel myself to get up for another cup or tea or coffee. Why didn't I think of this before?

Ok... I'm on Chapter 7....close to my goal of 8 chapters by Monday. But we have some daytripping planned for the weekend... tomorrow to Tokomatsu, famous for its gardens and its super-smooth udon, and on Sunday to neighbouring Naruto. 6.30 am wakeup, urgh.

Two poems for Mereana


a fairy
with red food colouring in her hair
squashes the side of her foot
flat against my cheek.

are you a fairy?

I ask

no, I’m a tiger
she says
breathing her
candy pink stripes
against my ear
a little, little tiger.

You’re almost
as tall as me

I say

and she says
but I’m already four.


Do you know why
this doll has no head?

she asks me

and I ponder
the metaphoric significance
of her question
construct an answer
sufficiently cerebral

but she’s already
answered for me
because she wanted
to have it cut off.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Grindstone Day 13

A Vida Japoneza, written by 19thC Portuguese diplomat and Tokushimaphile Wenceslau de Moreas

Time: 8.30 pm
Chapter: 6
Pots of tea: 2.5
Flavour: Yuzu/honey/sencha again (yum!)
Lunch: oden with rice
Snack: rice crackers and mandarins

Despite a fair amount of what Mark would term "arsing around" (on the internet, mostly), I made reasonable progress on the manuscript today. I'm at the stage where I'm exploring a lot of my own childhood memories, including some fairly sticky questions like what makes me Chinese, to what extent I am influenced by my guilt over not being Chinese enough, etc.

These are also the questions that are bugging my main character, so while maintaining that the novel is NOT autobiographical, a certain degree of introspection happens, as it must do with any writer. This is where one of the hardest parts of writing happens. Easy as it is to just write history, I have to make sure it is "her" history and not mine. In other words, she has to react to the fictional world I have made for her instead of being my mouthpiece, and she also has to react according to "her" character flaws and not mine.

Much as I would like readers to 'like' her, I also have to accept that she may have parts that are not likeable, and be prepared for other characters or readers to find fault - or the novel won't really happen at all. At the same time, there's no point making her so disagreeable that people won't be interested in what happens to her.

I also have to make her life difficult, or at least to throw lots of problems in her path - or again there is no novel. So part of my task is to both identify with her (so I can write from her point of view without mine intruding) and at the same time, be an objective author, happy to push my characters entirely to the limit.

Tatami and Wood

slide soft
sniff and swallow
sounds of things past
of soups and spells and words
flung lengthways
keep their judgement
to themselves.
Wooden floors
are less discerning. Hardened
to dirt and the stuff of spilt dreams,
nonetheless they cry out
as a woman runs
to her lover.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Grindstone Day 12

Time: 3.30 pm
Chapter: 4
Pots of tea: 3
Flavour: Yuzu, with honey and sencha green tea
Lunch: oden (fishcake stew) with udon noodles
Snack: hmm, good point. better go find some

My teapot, as you have probably guessed, is my loyal companion during my writing sessions. I have been sampling my way through the box of "flavoury tea" bought from the 100-yen shop, but got near the end of the packet today and decided to make my own tea.

I'd bought a small bag of unidentified yellow citrus from the weekend markets, and have now identified it as yuzu (yay once again for Google!). Inspired by superlative descriptions of its aromatic properties, I decided to make a tea blend from a little of its zest, a green tea teabag and some local honey. Let's just say I'm thoroughly addicted after my first attempt. Yuzu, well the fresh version at least, isn't available in NZ so I'll have to concentrate on enjoying it here. I'm hoping that the aroma will drive me to ever-greater heights of mental stimulation in my attempts to pen the Great Kiwi Novel.

Speaking of which, it's going OK. Using my forward and back, forward and back shuffling approach, I'm currently most of the way through chapter 4. I've been thinking about one of the things that my MCW tutor, Jen Crawford, told me last year. She said that writing a long-form piece was like carving a sculpture. You hack in the general shape first, then gradually refine the detail.

I'm working from a chapter synopsis I wrote a few months ago, so the general shape is in place (for now). But because I'm reusing chunks from a previous draft (and also writing new material) it feels more like I'm squashing and slapping chunks of clay onto a frame, seeing how they look, moving them around or molding them according to instinct. It's a strangely tactile process even though all the chunks are only in my brain.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Grindstone Day 11

View of hills behind Mt Bizan

Time: 4.07 pm
Chapter: 3
Pots of tea: 1
Flavour: Peach and citrus
Lunch: egg fried rice
Snack: Coconut sable biscuits

I was writing about food this afternoon and it made me hungry, so I took a few steps sideways until I was in the kitchen and started peeling my prize find at the markets on Sunday, bamboo shoots. Though they had looked like small bamboo shoots when I bought them, they peeled more like potatoes and my suspicions were raised. After some sustained googling I realised that they were, in fact, small Japanese taro, or ebiimo. Bamboo shoots are harvested in spring and taro are ready in autumn. Doh!!

Anyway, cooking with local ingredients has been a fascinating part of my day. Usually I try to cook "Japanese style" (as one would in Japan) working out the various combinations of mirin, miso, honey, shoyu and sesame oil; experimentation is a slightly haphazard affair as it is based on
1. Mark's ability to read the label in katakana (he can't read kanji) and
2. me working out what to do with it, using instinct and recipes written for gianjin in English.
It hasn't turned out too badly. For example since I've worked out it was taro I've concocted a rather nice entree for the main meal tonight, which is Thai chicken green curry.

Did I say I try to cook local style? I do, but the other part of the fun is working out how to do "foreign" dishes with only local ingredients. Thai curry isn't too hard since I carted 2kg of curry paste in my luggage at Mark's request; but the other night I cooked a European-style lamb, or what I called European-style - Mark doesn't think there is such a divide between "eastern" and "western" cuisines, but I beg to differ.

Which brings me back, neatly, to the novel. I'm writing a lot about Cantonese-style cooking in my book. My aim is to make the reader salivate as they read, which means that a side effect of me writing is that I eat lots. Or at least I like to blame the writing. Ah. C'est la vie.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Grindstone Day 10

Time: 8.41 pm
Chapter: 3
Pots of tea: 4.5
Flavour: Blueberry
Lunch: baked sweet potato
Snack: dried local persimmon

The weekend was spent exploring locally on our bikes, and by bus. We discovered the local meat and fish market, with prices often less than 1/3rd of the supermarket, which made me very happy as it's hard to buy meat here purely because it's so damned expensive. We also went to the regular Sunday farmer's market where Mark usually buys his veges, staggering home with a great load after I insisted on trying all sorts of unusual things, only some of which I know how to cook.

Tokushima is in the middle of the "vegetable bowl" of Japan, and as a result the rest of the country (apparently) envies us for the freshness and cheapness of the local produce. The local "speciality" is a kind of fragrant lime called sudachi, and there's been a big bag of it in our fridge which I've been squeezing and grating my way through. I'm getting quite attached to it actually, and I may post some recipes later.

We also took the cable car to the top of Mt Bizan, more a hill than a mountain, but very cold up top. The Mt Bizan complex also contains several museums and a concert hall where you can watch Awa Odori dancers. Awa Odori is the big city-wide dance party that takes place in August, where for three days the entire population takes to the streets in a simple foot-stomping dance which is meant to resemble (for men) a drunken stumble. It's one of the big festivals of Japan, kind of like Carnivale, only Japanese-style of course.

The show we watched had one of those "audience participation" components at the end. Happily Mark and I were awarded banners for best dancers - not surprising in Mark's case since he took part in the real Awa Odori earlier in the year and was also awarded a banner. In my case, perhaps practising my steps at the dance video game beforehand (Japanese have video games for everything) helped me to win. Hurray!

I was also a good girl, putting in a few hours of writing a day, and getting through chapter 2. Needless to say I've been shuffling back and forth since, rewriting and rejigging, and today I've been moving passages around chapters 1, 2 and 3 whenever doubt and fear strike, which is often. This may explain the excessive degree of displacement activity - writing poetry. I believe I am not the only one who sneak-writes poetry when supposed to be writing something else...

Five poems about Auckland


a grey clingfilm
swathes the Sky Tower.
apartments lean in
to cradle daffodils
small yellow eyes sleeping.
a giant D frames the sky.


rain like sudden laughter
splashes chalk
against bus stops
umbrellas walk


stiletto-clattered sidewalks
breathe cappuccino fumes
strum the beating heart
of a man feeding pigeons
in the square.


rub sushi licked salt
into kimchi kebabs smoked
with fish and chip pie
and bubble milk tea. serve with
pizza with everything on top.


they say it’s the sun, the blue sky
the lick of pohutakawa flaming up the beach.
I say it’s drinking too much
of the limpid green harbour, sweet
abalone soup.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Grindstone Day 9

Time: 5.51 pm
Chapter: 1, just checking it over before I move on, yay!
Pots of tea: 1.5
Flavour: Wildberry
Lunch: Udon again
Snack: rice cakes, yummy

I've started working out what the vans that drive around during the day broadcasting music are for. They are kind of like Mr Whippy but serve a far wider purpose than just selling icecream. It's a bit hard to tell by just sticking my head out, but the music appears to announce the arrival of the breadman, the mobile library, and various other services. Each tune is distinctive. It's interesting because I've been writing about the memory of running out to buy icecreams from Mr Whippy when I was a girl.

OK. Hope I can start writing chapter two in the weekend.

Tonight I will light
a candle for you
flame it from a gas stove,
hold it high to sear
the restless sky. The wind
rolls around laughing
rattling rubbish
pulling clouds down
around its ears.
It doesn’t listen to me
singing happy birthday
a song like ivory
cracked in an empty room
a voice shredded
like old autumn leaves.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Grindstone Day 8

Time: 5.08 pm
Chapter: 1, take 1
Pots of tea: 1.5
Flavour: white wine and muscat (yes, a tea)
Lunch: Udon, fish cakes, shoyu and miso soup with mushrooms
Snack: apple

Time is starting to contract on me and I'm going to have to speed up my rate of writing (maybe spend less time on the internet?) if I'm going to make the deadline of 8 chapters by the 15th. I've been thinking today of the nature of memory, how we use it and how we interpret our childhood memories. Medical wisdom has it that we form most of our neuronal connections before the age of 3, yet most of us remember nothing before the age of around 5. What happens to those lost memories? Is it just that we reprocess them into something else? What are we anyway except for a conglomeration of our memories?

Maybe that's why the human urge to tell stories is so compelling. In my professional life, I know the power of stories. The medical history will give you most of the clues to the diagnosis, and is more reliable than the examination and all the high-powered tests put together. Even more than that, the best thing to do with a pissed-off patient who has been waiting in pain for hours is to ask to hear their story. Nothing heals someone so fast as the right to give out their memories, to say who they are.

Maybe that's why I write. Someone asked me yesterday why I bother to try writing a novel, if it's so hard. Maybe that's why. There are so many memories, mine and my characters', to tell, and for me, it's easier to try than to not.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Grindstone Day 7

Japanese girl at temple

Time: 5.18 pm
Chapter: 1, take 1
Pots of tea: 2.0
Flavour: black with honey and sudachi (native lime)
Lunch: Leftover curry, salad with cunningly devised homemade dressing
Snack: I can't read the name. But they are crunchy sweet cereal balls, very nice.

OK, so I realise there wasn't an entry yesterday. I got a bit distracted with preparations for a Xmas party. Yes, the Xmas parties have started and last night's was unusual, but strangely delightful.

Mark has a group of ladies that he tutors in English on Tuesday nights, at the home of one of the group (which also becomes a small cafe during the day). There seem to be many of these "home-cafes" dotted around the neighbourhood, though due to my shyness with speaking Japanese and the fact I have a perfectly good hot water urn at home, I haven't ventured out to try any of them.

Anyway, I digress. Last night, after I had spent some time elaborately wrapping the small gifts I had brought from NZ, we were whisked off and treated to a wonderful nabe (Japanese hotpot) meal. This is pretty much identical to the chinese hotpot - a pot of boiling soup stock is left simmering on a gas stove on the table, and various ingredients (veges, mushrooms, fish, pork, chicken and noodles) are added as people feel hungry, then fished out and eaten. It's one of the best communal meals I know. Burns are a necessary hazard with the risk increasing as things get merrier, and I have small blister on my little finger to prove it.

Meanwhile, the ladies, who had earlier grilled Mark on what I was like, introduced themselves to me and tried to use their English phrases. They expressed much astonishment, despite being prewarned, that I looked so Asian and still spoke no Japanese (I'm getting used to this). They also brought out an embarrassingly generous collection of gifts for me - a hand dyed short silk kimono, special-occasion chopsticks, special silk cloths for wrapping, and so on. They seemed baffled by the pot-pourri sachets I had brought for them as gifts (I suppose it is culture-specific).

A local old 'magic' hobbyist came to entertain us, the food kept coming including some amazing preparations of sashimi, bean paste and bamboo shoots, and we also played bingo, but luckily with the numbers in both Japanese and English. People overindulged in the local rice wine which tastes very close to water but is considerably more potent. It was a great night, excessive on many counts, but that makes it a real Xmas celebration.

Anyway, as well as catching up on the digestion, today has been spent looking at Chapter 1 which used to be Chapter 9. I expect to rewrite around 2/3rds of the novel and rejig the rest, and so far this chapter is following the trend. It's not bravery, it's just necessity.

Monday, December 1, 2008

grindstone day 5

Fountain for cleansing at a small local shrine

Time: 6.01 pm
Page of draft:(reading) yah! finished! now for the real work!
Word count for day: 0
Pots of tea: 2.5
Flavour: apple with added honey
Lunch: Udon with tomato and chinese cabbage
Snack: coconut sable biscuits (ultra yum)

Spent the weekend away in Kyoto,the big, elegant gracious city on Hokkaido, a couple of island hops away. It's 2.5 hours by bus, crossing en route over one of the world's biggest suspension bridges.

Mark was part of the Kyoto Foreign Student's music festival, a rather eccentric event to Westerner's eyes. It consisted of foreign students performing dances and songs in national dress, all in the interests of world peace and greater international understanding of course. I found this event slightly disturbing for a number of reasons, but enjoyed the rest of the visit which was my first on this trip to a major Japanese city.

While Mark practised with his Mexican friends I wandered the temples and old alleyways, easily blending in with my Japanese camera gear and propensity to take lots of photographs. I find I'm well camouflaged so long as no one talks to me. People are always asking me for directions. My Japanese is so bad I can't even understand the question let alone answer. Until now my main defence has been to look clueless and make goldfish noises, but I have now mastered "Wakaari masen" (I don't understand.) In Tokushima the response is still bafflement, but people in Kyoto seem to be more used to the idea that someone of Asian appearance might not understand Japanese. Either that or they are more accepting of idiots wandering the streets nodding and smiling.

Anyway, I'll post photos from my weekend with each blog post this week. But more importantly the writing is about to start. I've finished reading my old manuscript and have been amused, surprised, delighted and appalled in turn. It's strange how much of this I don't even remember writing; similarly I have "discovered" bits that I have subsequently "reused" in my plays without realising. I read an essay once which described the artistic process as raking over the same piece of land over and over, turning over the same themes again and again. Maybe that's true with me?

The other thought I had, as I wrote TMMI (too much medical info) in the margin yet again, is that maybe last year I was unconsciously writing as "doctor becoming writer" rather than just writer. There's a lot of self conscious medical detail, as if I want to convince people that I know what I'm talking about - a weird mix of self exploration, medical documentary and pseudo soapie. Guess the next few weeks will tell me whether I've managed to overcome this.