Jane Lowe does not yet call herself a writer.
Even with most of a book under her belt and various notes that will eventually turn into stories, the Auckland woman is waiting until she claims the title.
It’s funny, she says, because everyone calls themselves a writer these days, but while everything is power to them, she still doesn’t feel like she’s earned it.
“As soon as I get something in print, I’ll be a real one.”
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Lowe is one of many New Zealanders who have found the country’s lockdowns giving them the time and inclination to finally put pen to paper or at least fingers to keyboards.
An inspirational upsurge has seen student numbers double at an Auckland writing school and a new slew of self-published books. Penguin Random House fiction editor Harriet Allan also says the company is getting far more submissions than it did before the lockdown.
Lowe’s book isn’t in print yet, but it will be, and it’s been a long time coming.
The 54-year-old has always wanted to be a writer. She used to be a journalist, but writing direct news left the creative itch untouched and for years she remained on the back burner, although she still jotted down little ideas. Some she never saw again while others grew up, but still life got in the way.
“In the first one I lost an important freelance contract and all of a sudden it was like I had permission to write. But it’s fine to say ‘just write’ but sometimes you need let us tell you.
By enrolling in the Creativehub course, Lowe was made aware of this. The result so far is around six short stories and an essay: some are completely made up and others are taken from personal events that she has fictionalised. It was both a stimulating and cathartic experience.
“I am a pasifika woman but I was bought without any knowledge of my culture. I feel like there are stories in there.”
Lowe may never have called herself a writer though she always had to, even when it was “damn hard.”
“You start with the blank page and it’s terrifying – but once you have something on it, it feels so good.”
John Cranna started Creativehub 12 years ago and says more students have signed up for his writing classes during the country’s lockdowns than ever before. The company has set up two course components to deal with the influx.
“People really took a little time to reflect on the shape and trajectory of their lives; maybe the pandemic has given them a whiff of their own mortality.
He suspects that when New Zealanders retreated to their homes they were forced into a state of sustained contemplation and it was from there that the writing began. Like Lowe, many had always planned to write but never had the chance to get down to it and do it.
“We Kiwis place a high value on fanatical unrest and the pandemic has created an oasis of relative calm.”
Many of the students who signed up were interested in writing a memoir: those non-fictional accounts of an author’s experiences and memories. Cranna says the purpose of a memoir is to record a lifetime and thinks that’s something else the lockdown has made us think about.
“The unexamined life is not worth living, as the saying goes.”
While there’s no doubt that an increase in student numbers is good for business, Cranna says writing is also good for people, especially when their own lives are the subject. Most writers tend to intertwine their personal experiences with their fiction, modeling or adjusting real life events to fit the creative storylines.
No matter how they do it, it’s therapeutic.
“Writing it down, ordering it and codifying it helps a lot of people deal with family trauma of which there is an amazing amount.”
Pat Backley wrote her first book during the 2020 lockdown when she decided to stop “laying on the couch, watching Netflix and overeating.
“I said to myself, ‘take charge! You can’t waste your life, why don’t you write a book? So I took a bunch of scraps of paper, spread out around the house, stayed up day and night for two weeks, and wrote Daisy.
The 71-year-old self-published the historical novel and then continued writing. A memoir came next; a sequel to Daisy followed, and then she co-wrote a book about immigrant women. Two more books came next.
“It’s almost like someone took the top of my head off and 70 years of words just flew away. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to have a new career. at my age.
Like Lowe, Backley had always wanted to be a writer, but it was always something she put on the back burner. In retrospect, she thinks that was a good thing, given that she now has so many years of experience to draw on for her work.
“I don’t regret not having started sooner, I just need to live a long time to put on paper what is in my head.”
And there are still a lot of those things. The ideas keep coming, the books will keep coming, and Lowe doesn’t really care if they sell; she writes because she has something to say.
“If anyone around the world can get something out of my books, I’ll be happy.”
Daniel Harrison (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Maniapoto) has always written for himself, but it was the national and regional confinements that prompted the forties to finally take things seriously. Everyone seemed to have new hobbies while they stayed home, so he thought it was time to get back to an old one.
“At that time, my mother received a medical diagnosis which was not very favorable and it made us introspective as a family. She started telling us stories about the old days, things that happened in Northland in 1911 and it made me think ‘why is this a story that hasn’t been told?
He began his research on the period 1911-1913, just before World War I, when he thinks modern New Zealand really took shape. Her book will explore both how pandemics shaped ancient history and the Maori response to them.
“I felt this was a chapter of NZ that was not talked about. My fear is that the story is bigger, better and better than me as a writer.
Harrison says the New Zealand lockdowns not only gave her time to write, but they gave her inspiration on what to write.
“Human beings have always been storytellers, regardless of their culture of origin. It is a universal quality of us as a race.