Did you ever have to move countries to find the freedom to write? It’s a bit more aggressive than leaving home because you have a case of the suffocating creativity clap that you just can’t shake.
Needing separate space to create is a real thing. Yeah, I know, it’s all in our minds—wherever you go, there you are—but it’s true. And sometimes, a seismic geography shift is what it takes to snap the cords and bring you closer to self, truth, and bravery.
I grew up in small town New Zealand. You didn’t get clapped on the back for being creative. On top of that, my idea of art was to move like a Solid Gold dancer to Richard Clayderman (don’t hold it against me), write like Virginia Andrews, and paint like Monet (one of the only painters I knew by name).
Think low social economics, too; we had no classics except Treasure Island on the shelf (next to the wad of NZ Women’s Weekly and Reader’s Digests), and the closest to maestro was Dad strumming Ghost Riders in the Sky on an ill-tuned guitar. We had family art on the wall, but Mum shot it down for not looking real.
It felt like only a couple of people understood the depth of my need. I’ll take this as my chance to say thank you to Diane Wana (I’m sorry it’s too late—I hope you always knew. To Patrick, her son, instead—your Mum changed my world) for her encouragement and for trusting a 12-year-old girl with The Bone People.
I was shy, but my potential to know fear and run towards it was strong. So I said yes to travel with my grandparents for a month at 11. I heard about exchange programs at 14. Bingo. I told Mum and Dad, “That’s what I’m doing… And I’ll be going to a country where English isn’t the first language, thank you very much.” I was a pretty uppity 14-year-old, with all my ass-pir-A-shuns.
At 16, I walked away from academic surety and took a year to fuck and get high in Brazil. Whoops. I mean to promote peace and study hard. On my return, Lord knows how I got into the courses I wanted, but one psych/English lit degree later, plus a year of waiting tables and bartending, I had a thousand bucks in the bank, so I moved to Europe for two and a half years.
The whole time I was searching, listening, looking at myself and the world around, thinking, “I could write that. I really think I could.”
But there was the fear. So there I went, making do; waitress, chauffeur, translator, pot seller, fudge delivery van driver, waitress, unreliable English teacher and picker of fruit.
You see, my fear of competing against white privilege meant I continuously went for the low brow wins that relied on map skills, grit, flirting, and common sense.
I penned words on serviettes while waitressing in Chelsea, on bartender order pads, on my driver’s record book that tallied which rich or famous person I delivered as though they were chicken carcasses, and I wrote in my Škoda waiting in Brixton’s high-density housing estates. Waiting for women to ‘turn up’ (I knew they were there—felt their bodies hiding behind scratched up doors). I was determined to sell them my gilt-edged cookware. And these Nigerian and Ghanaian women were determined to feed me, laugh, and make me a second wife to their brothers.
“You are good for my brother—I’ll call him!” To her friend she’d grin, turning me with warm hands, “Look! She just needs more here,” pointing to my arse, “You need to eat more fufu.” Phone calls were made, my velour rug got stood on by kids, the pans glanced at, and yes—desired—but nine times out of ten, I‘d be turned out with a full belly and empty pockets.
But I’d write—about the houses, the lack of furniture, the marriage offers, and the laughing that always unsettled me, the doubter, the five-, six-, and ten-year-old in me that was the youngest butt of too many cousin jokes, she recoiled. I sat in my little Škoda, stalking clients, and writing.
My New Zealand home was, well, tougher. When I arrived at Mum and Dad’s, my pen slowed. I sat on the terrace, senses on fire. I was on a cliff gazing absently at sunlit green seas and a freaking steaming live volcano.
“Thanks, Mum,” I’d say as she proudly served me a latte (“We have a machine now”). The bush smell that I missed so much was blowing in from across the road.
The ink dried after four sentences. That was it. Shut down happened. I couldn’t write a Mills & Boon if my life depended on it.
What’s your deal? Do you get the urge to write in your childhood home? Eyeball your Dad over the roast chicken then write furiously in your childhood bed? Do words just flow when you’re sitting at the kitchen table you threw cheerios off?
I’m hoping there’s a shift, cos I’m about to head home. Maybe the veil is down. Maybe I’ll take my advice and write through the feeling. I figure it’s all about noticing when you’re in avoidance mode—when you feel possessed by a sloth spirit.
I’ll walk into my composition book, pen like a dart, and write just one word.