"My love of words began on my mother's knee when she read to me, stories, fairy tales, folk legends and the poems from AA Milne's When We were Very Young, "I went down to the shouting sea, Taking Christopher down with me ... We had sand in the eyes and the ears and the nose, And sand in the hair, and sand-between-the-toes ..." I was thrilled by the rhythm and the timbre of her voice enunciating those words. They filled me up.
"The love of words and literature was strengthened by regular trips, driving across the plains to the Canterbury Public Library to select an armload of books and to see the famous New Zealand writer, Margaret Mahy, behind the issues desk. I remember her wearing a Sanderson print smock that had peach roses and olive leaves and thinking how unusual this was. Seeing Margaret there was a revelation. She was proof that, women can write books in New Zealand, actually just over the hill in Governor's Bay. I had no idea, then, that one day I would go to Governor's Bay and sit on Margaret's sofa, beside a crackling fire and a tall picture window that looked straight up Lyttelton Harbour to Godley Head, and listen to her narrating the story of her life and work for my book Her Life's Work.
"At school I received an education in the English literary classics, which was all very good, but Wordsworth's daffodils weren't quite the thing for the raw and elemental landscapes of the South Island, where I grew up. Finally at university in a stage one paper on New Zealand literature I discovered the poems of Bethell, Baxter, Curnow, Glover, Campbell and suddenly I had poems about this land that I could recite in the mountains and by the lakes and tarns and rivers and in my own city. That year I also read Janet Frame's shatteringly beautiful autobiographical novel Owls do Cry set in Oamaru and Katherine Mansfield's short stories. It was in Katherine's journal that I found what I most wanted, a woman writing her interior landscape, and doing it honestly and poetically and with passion. The work was profound and sad.
"In my 20s I read The Women's Room by Marilyn French and was unsettled. She was writing out her anger and bitterness over the breakdown of her marriage to a doctor. I was engaged to a medical student and found her analysis of the patriarchal culture of the medical world confronting, but I liked her saying women did not have to put up with flak from men, that they should step out and develop their own lives. I felt a similar frisson recently when I read Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman. I thought good. Feminism is not dead and she's funny. That's the way to do it.
"These days my love of words and books flow into my teaching of memoir. I use excerpts from autobiographical literature for group discussion and to inspire the writing because I believe if you want to be a writer it helps to be a reader too. I think I am happiest when I am teaching. I love it when a new voice emerges, or when an experienced writer deepens her craft. I love to witness the pleasure on a writer's face when he reads his work and it reaches the listener and makes a connection.
"I am also deeply happy when I am journalling. Recently I learned about the power of words to heal. In 2011 I had an operation to cure a chronic back pain that failed. The day following the surgery a friend gave me a journal, and said "Write, Deborah. Write your way through." Was this possible? I felt fully extended trying to breathe through the moment, and woozy on the drugs, but I wrote three lines and the following day I wrote another entry and slowly the journal grew. As I wrote I began to notice that when I am journalling about what is directly in front of me, what I can see here, right now, slowly I relax and begin to feel more tranquil."
20 January (excerpt)
It is early morning and I am standing typing at the kitchen bench with the sliding door wide open so that the outside is coming in. Up against a blue sky I see the gum and the pohutukawa and the jacaranda. A light breeze is ruffling the leaves. The cicadas are singing. What happens to cicadas in the other nine months of the year when they are silent? What happens to wings in the rain? A bumblebee is sipping nectar from the sapphire blue flowers of the salvia that grows joyfully in the big terracotta pot by the window. The cats are fed and settled, one on the chair, assiduously cleaning his ginger fur, the other on the wooden floor, spread flat like a piece of golden pastry ...