Writer's room reflections
by Serena Ngaio Simmons
Foundation, foundation, foundation. When I think of what makes me strong as a Māori, I think of the places and the people I come from. My mountain, river, waka, tribe. Indeed, this is how Māori introduce ourselves to each other and how we learn about what people, places, and mana we are sharing the room with when we gather. All of these are a part of our tūrangawaewae, our foundation. Our standing place. These mea are part of the reason we are here today and they help to make us who we are.
It’s important for all peoples to know where they come from and/or what makes them strong. As someone who sees my tribal histories and backgrounds as a source of strength, I call on those primarily. As someone raised in the diaspora and with very close relationships to other Indigenous, queer, chosen family, I also consider these experiences and these relationships a part of my foundation and call on them as well. When leading young people in writing workshops, a favorite introduction of mine is to have folks think about their own tūrangawaewae. What is it that makes one strong and keeps one going? While it’s a Māori framework that we work with, it’s a useful tool for all folks when it comes to thinking hard about where and what we consider home, sources of strength, and where/who we go to for refuge. Cultural, non-culture related, or a combination. What and who are the places and things that have helped to make us who we are? What experiences have helped shape us into who we are today?
In my experience, this is just one framework we can use to think about that as well as honor it.
When we say we are ‘happy,’ ‘anxious,’ or ‘upbeat,’ what does that mean? These are words we use to describe the things going on inside of our bodies and minds. The reason our chests are rising and falling rapidly, why our face hurts so much from smiling over and over again, or why we are talking a mile a minute. We need to say something to let folks know why these things are happening.
When we talk about ‘freedom,’ ‘justice,’ ‘strength,’ or ‘home,’ what do those mean? They are very real things that we strive for or have an idea of. That some of us have a very clear image of when we think of them while some of us are still trying to figure out exactly what it means to us individually or to the communities we’re a part of. These are important words, ideas, concepts and we are thinking of them constantly.
We use these words to describe these different sensations and destinations. But what happens when we add sensations onto these words themselves? Like yes, I am happy. Or yes, home is literally this house I am in while I type this. But what does ‘happy’ look like? Or what does ‘home’ smell like? Is it just the one thing that made you happy in that instance or can we think about what happiness on a larger scale might look like? Smell like? Taste like? Sound like? Feel like?
Can home be so much more than the literal house or structure we are in? Can it feel, sound, and taste such a specific way that when you thought of those things, you would know that it’s not just home, it’s your home?
I like this exercise because it encourages us to think about words, feelings, and concepts in ways that I feel most of us normally don’t. I’m always down to add more meaning and layers to stuff like this. It helps us to think and feel more about what’s important to us and that is needed more than ever these days.
I grew up learning about and reading Greek mythology. I knew most of the creation stories and origins for the main Olympians, but it wasn’t till undergrad that I finally got around to the Iliad by Homer. I knew the basic plot of the story but hadn’t actually read it. And while the story itself was its own thing, it was the structure that caught my eye more than anything. The structure of the epic poem. The ways in which stories of heroes, who are often full of themselves and are mostly seeking glory at the expense of almost everyone around them, are told and how much emphasis is placed on praise. On recalling every “noble” act and gesture. On glorification of actions in the face of war and conflict. And calling on the assistance of Muses to help the storyteller in their recitation because it wasn’t enough for a mortal to tell the story: heroes deserved recognition of the divine as well.
But what does it look like to take the epic and bring it to the current times? What does it look like to rethink a hero’s tale and what does it mean to be ‘heroic?’ Like sure, the people in these classic stories are perhaps according to many perspectives “heroes,” but what about those of us who don’t wake up and tie literal swords to our waists in preparation for battle? What if our battles look different? What if waking up is a heroic act in itself? Or making it down to the store and back? Deciding to pursue joy and self-care, big and small, for the day?
And what does a hero look like? What do we look like as a hero or who are our personal heroes? And who do we call on to help sing our praises/the praises of those we look up to?
It’s important to think about these things. To rewrite the idea of a hero and what acts are considered heroic or noble. I continue to ask myself these questions in an attempt to push my understanding and compassion, to widen my perceptions. To come into a more holistic viewpoint that allows for even the most seemingly mundane act to be considered a deeply courageous one. This is necessary work.
Today we learned about fiction. Specifically, my dear friend Paulina walked us through the basic steps of character development, story arc, and thematic elements. All important and necessary components for fiction pieces and, to be sure, many other, longer forms of writing. But as a poet it’s definitely a new experience. In particular, the parts having to do with planning and progression. While I have no doubt other poets have their own ways of going about writing that include some form of planning, focusing on a theme or topic, and wanting to start or end a certain way, I very rarely have done that with my own. In my experience, I’ve just sat down to write because I want to write: whatever the topic is I find out through the writing.
Which is why I enjoyed Paulina’s workshop. It can be scary to try new things and get out of one’s comfort zone but it’s still important to try. Especially when we are so used to doing one thing only and doing it the same way over and over. I have been so used to the way I have been writing for most of my life and being pushed out of that habit today made me nervous but ultimately I came out of it with another way to look at writing. With another genre to try out. With more tools for when I get stuck or want to add a little more to what’s going on.
I think this can be applied to so many things in life. This idea that we don’t have to stay in this one thing we are good at or we think we’re good at. There’s nothing wrong with being good at a thing. But there’s also nothing wrong with maybe trying to learn about something else. With adding another instrument to your tool box. Whether that be through writing or with so many other things we are taking on and learning about these days. It’s not bad to push ourselves to learn more and connect with other art forms, practices and perspectives (with respect and permission, of course) that we otherwise might not have. We’ll stumble but what’s important is we keep trying. If there was ever a time to keep trying, it’d def be right now.