Cantabrians wanting to write memoirs of the earthquake years should get to work, says author Amanda Cropp. Kim Triegaardt reports.
It was July 26, 1953, and a group of weekend climbers from the Taranaki Alpine Club, including several nurses from the local hospital, headed up Mt Egmont (now Mt Taranaki). Thoughts were of friends, a challenging ice-climb up the extinct volcano and a fun time out on a mild winter's day.
With little warning the weather turned extreme and by the time the snow-blown stragglers struggled back to New Plymouth, five of their party were dead. They'd been swept, roped together, off Hongi's Bluff.
The bitter cold and mind-numbing horror of the tragedy was captured in a story written 46 years later by one of the climbers, Lorelei Cropp, mother of Sumner-based journalist Amanda Cropp.
'I gave my Mum and Dad notebooks a few years ago and said, 'Please write about your life'. While I knew she had been up on the mountain and that there had been an incident, I had never appreciated the impact the tragedy had on her.'
Cropp, who earlier this year published Shaken, Not Stirred: Family Survival in a Quake Zone, a personal account of living in post-quake Christchurch, was 35 when she had her first child. She asked her parents to record their memoirs when she realised they might not be around to tell their stories to her children. Her mother proved a natural talent, her stories simple but evocative, while her father tended towards more factual histories.
'When it comes to writing your memoirs, there is no right or wrong,' says Cropp.
So don't let thoughts of 'I can't spell', 'I'm not a writer', or 'My English isn't good enough' stop you.
In these days where computers have spell check, they'll always be someone in the family who can proofread and, if your stories are ever picked up by a commercial publisher, there would be a team of people ready to polish your work to make it ready for publication, there are no excuses. The most important thing is to get writing.
Cropp is holding a memoir-writing workshop at the Christchurch Writers' Festival this Friday, focusing on capturing personal quake stories.
She says while the ideal is always to keep a diary, and making notes and recording memories as they happen, it is possible to "shake loose' the memories that make your experience unique.
'Reading my mother's stories made me realise how important it is for memories like that to be saved. What's happened in Christchurch is similar because the quakes have had such a huge impact on people's lives and kids who are 4 or 5 now won't remember much but will probably want to know, down the track, what it was like,' says Cropp.
'Shaken, Not Stirred is full of stories about how we came together as a family and a community, and how we made sense of what had happened to us.
"It reflected ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, how the children went to school, what we ate, how we cleaned and cooked, how we coped when life as we knew it changed completely.'
Following the quake, Cropp wrote a diary for The Australian Women's Weekly and the hugely positive reader response to the initial 3000-word magazine story prompted her to keep the diary going and turn it into a book.
She says if you haven't been keeping a diary, it's not too late to begin writing about your quake experiences.
'A lot of people have said to me they wished they'd written a diary, but now they've forgotten all the interesting bits that made their story unique, and now it's too late.
'But don't think too much time has passed. All you need is a few prompts and once you start, you'll remember more and more details.'
Cropp says to make it easier to get started do some mind-mapping. Write down headings such as school, entertainment, church, eating, sleeping and work then jot down thoughts and memories around each main subject. Expand them out by asking questions like, what did you eat for dinner on the night of February, 22.
'For us, it was baked beans heated up on the gas stove, and served on white bread while we sat in the garage,' says Cropp.
Who was with you, were there neighbours you hardly knew or, like the Cropps, an exchange student from France.
'The French exchange student staying with us was remarkably calm about the whole experience, despite never having felt an earthquake before.
'As well as the who, what, where and how of each topic, don't forget about your five senses - can you remember how you felt, what you smelt, heard, saw and touched.
"I remember doling out gardening gloves to everyone so we could safely pick up pieces of glass from the floor in the kitchen and dining room and shovel the gloop from broken jars into plastic gardening bins. It seems a bit odd now, but it worked a treat,' says Cropp.
Looking at photos can help.
'If you have a photograph of the contents of the pantry on the floor bring it to life by describing what's there.
"In our case it was a sticky mix of paprika, turmeric, brown sugar and dried fruit mixed up with the red wine from bottles that had crashed down from the top of the cupboards above. It smelt like a winery."
Cropp says what you're looking at then becomes more than just an untidy pile on the floor but something that will give your children or extended family, years from now, a better understanding of what you faced.
Be prepared however, because the biggest challenge to writing your memoirs comes when you have to confront the painful experiences, things that haunt you, truths you might be running from.
Grant Hindin Miller runs memoir- writing workshops at the University of Canterbury's Department of Continuing Education. He says exploring and writing about painful memories might seem daunting but there is research backing up the old axiom - it's better out than in.
'The Auckland Medical School has done research on the writing of memories and discovered that the recording of memories is beneficial to your actual physical health,' he says.
'Most of us might imagine that writing memories could be emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually beneficial, but this research has proven that writing memories boosts the immune system. And the amazing thing is that it doesn't matter whether those memories are positive or negative. The health benefit is the same.'
But his students are always in charge of what they write and what they share.
Cropp has twinges of guilt about what it cost her mother to write about the Mt Egmont experience. It is hard not to read the simple honesty of her reflections without a lump in your throat.
'My brother began climbing and one Christmas wanted an ice-axe,' says Cropp.
'It was only when I read Mum's account of the Egmont accident that I learnt that she could not bring herself to buy him one because she was haunted by the memories of her friends who were roped together and died on the mountain."
'When someone has the courage to tell the truth, it enables someone else not to feel alone,' says Hindin Miller.
'I have found that when a group writes and shares together, week after week, they develop a bond, a natural sense of community, and give each other permission to explore deeper and more meaningful experiences.
"The classes are filled with great bouts of laughter, and sometimes, lumps in the throat. I can think of no more rewarding experience than writing and sharing significant memories.'
Cropp says to get started on your memoir, don't see it as a story of your life, but rather a snapshot of pivotal events that stand out as meaningful.
Her two sons are natural raconteurs whose banter often provided material for her columns or diary entries, and she made a point of jotting down scraps of conversation before they were lost in the hurly burly of post-quake life.
'Don't think you'll remember them, because you won't,' she says.
'My fridge door frequently sported scraps of memo paper covered in notes of things the boys said or did. It's those moments that become real gems and bring situations to life.'
Post-quake, Cropp carried a small notebook to supplement the diary she kept at home. She says by having a pen and paper handy you capture the spontaneous, funny, quirky and sometimes downright ridiculous details that create laugh-out-loud moments years after they happen.
'I met a friend who had a generator to keep her freezer going. She ended up storing a placenta for some complete strangers until the power came back on, but she made sure to label it prominently so one of her family members didn't think it was a piece of steak or venison.'
Only in post-quake Christchurch, says Cropp.
Don't worry too much about issues such as defamation, because, unless your memoirs are widely published, it's likely they'll only have a small audience and the worst thing that might happen is not being invited to the next family Christmas dinner.
But Cropp warns defamation can be an issue if you hope to publish a memoir for public consumption, and you need to think about including sensitive information that may upset someone.
Hindin Miller says his favourite quote when it comes to memoir writing is from the 19th century: "Some people go to the grave with their music still in them."
'Let it not be us,' he says.
Amanda Cropp's writers' festival workshop Capturing Quake Stories will be held on Friday, from 1.30pm to 4.30pm. Cost $40. See chchwritersfest.co.nz.
Grant Hindin Miller hopes to resume his Gifting Your Story courses soon. Contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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