How I Write: Witi Ihimaera

by Witi Ihimaera / 06 December, 2017

Witi Ihimaera. Photo/Andi Crown

Witi Ihimaera describes his writing day.

I’m a farmer’s son, and Dad taught me how to work.

Right now, most of my day is involved in the business of being a writer and not actually writing. I’m launching Sleeps Standing with co-author Hemi Kelly in various places around the country.

Today was a good day, though, as I finished the biz by 11am and got a couple of hours of work done on Native Son. I looked at my notes from the telephone conversation two weeks ago with John Jones, of the Gisborne Herald, about the time I was a reporter in the 1960s. In those days, universities never had creative writing courses and the Herald was mine.

The writing is intermittent but I’m hoping to have a big burst this summer. I will get up at 8am, write until 10am, have a swim, come back and write until 12.30pm, have another swim before lunch, write again from 2-5pm, swim again, eat, and then come back and write until 11pm.

Writing is a physical activity and swimming keeps me fit. During this time I eat simple salads and fresh fruit, drink the occasional glass of wine and go out regularly with friends to a place where I can sink my teeth into a porterhouse steak, medium-rare, charred on top, sauce on the side.

I take an artisan, rather than artistic, approach to the job. Life crafts the work; the work crafts the life. I’ll spend time with Jane, my daughters and three mokopuna. James loves to swim with Papa, Gran and Grand-aunt Sarah, while Ben and his cousin Aria build castles on the beach. All that is writing too; Ben’s worked his way into Sleeps Standing.

To get back to my actual, physical, writing day, sometimes the business involves keeping future projects moving. Today, I called Pania Papa, a te reo specialist, to ask if she would join a literary project that is still under wraps. Then I did some new writing for composer Janet Jennings for our project on the Waikato River. Inspired by Anne Salmond’s latest book [Tears of Rangi], I want to interpolate a chorus at the very end about cleaning up our rivers.

I finished the day starting the draft of a screenplay for a television documentary to be directed by John Keir for Maori Television. The kaupapa, concerning New Zealand’s war dead, is one I can’t refuse. I have to get the questions right: Who owns our dead? Why doesn’t New Zealand have a national cemetery? Who signed on behalf of Maori to allow our dead to lie overseas? What would those soldiers think if they saw what we are doing with the freedoms they fought for?

It sounds like a lot of work, but it isn’t, really. And it’s not hard to do if you know how to breathe. You breathe in, wait for your blood to sing, and then you breathe out the waiata.

And, as Dad would say, it beats digging in fence posts.

Sleeps Standing by Witi Ihimaera and Hemi Kelly (Penguin) is out now.

This article was first published in the October 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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