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Thursday 10 November 2016

The importance of personal histories

Posted in: True Stories
By Jacqui Stanford - 16th May 2015

Renee wants us to write our histories. The Otaki resident will be in Auckland for the Writers Festival tomorrow giving the lucky people who have nabbed tickets advice on how to get started telling their life stories.

The 85-year-old is a prolific writer. She has her own website where she blogs weekly, and publishes novels a chapter at a time. Renee is also a playwright, poet, memoirist and teacher.

While she thinks everyone should write their personal histories down, she’d really love to get more lesbians doing so.

“I’ve always thought someone should be encouraging lesbians to write their stories,” she tells “It’s so important.”

She doesn’t want our stories to be lost forever, and cites a fitting joke in one of her novels where a younger woman tells an older lesbian ‘you’re redundant - the young lezzies think they invented it!’

Renee says she was lucky when she came out as she met up with a whole load of wonderful people. “Some dykes’ experiences are not as happy as that. But these stories still need to be told. Because if we don’t then there’s going to be a whole patchwork of history, and we won’t be there! It’s ridiculous really. It’s really kind of urgent that a whole lot of people write about their experiences. They’re going to be forgotten. It’s easy to forget.”

Renee says it helps to give people a few clues on how to tell their own tales. She’s even written a handy guide called Your Life, Your Story, which sets out a practical way to do it so it doesn’t become such a big job.

“But the vital thing is they simply start.”

For those who haven’t managed to get tickets to her sold-out workshop, you can still get along to an earlier event at 3pm on Sunday where she will talk about her own life in writing.

She has plenty of stories to tell.

Born in Napier, Renee had a severely tough start to life. “When I was four my father shot himself and left my mother with no money, no house because it went with the job. She was Maori, we lived in a Pakeha community,” she shares.

“We were poor. I went out to work when I was 12. I said I was 15 and the boss pretended to believe me. I worked at the woollen mills then a printing factory, then got married and had three sons, then began writing. I wrote purely to make some extra money. I don’t know why I thought I could but I knew I had to learn things.”

She read articles and book reviews to find out how other writers were doing it, bought a typewriter and got going – after a few rejections her work started selling. She then went on to get a university degree.

“I didn’t fall in love with writing straight away but now I would say I’m obsessive. I write every day. My mother taught me to read and she taught me to work and these two skills are just the ones you need to be a writer.”

When Renee was 50, her life changed again. “I left my marriage and lived with a woman, met lots of lesbians, did lots of protesty things.”

She began writing plays, and everything she wrote had women centre stage. “They weren’t there because they were someone’s sister, mother, girlfriend, whatever, they are there in their own right.”

When she turned 80 she went to China, and when she came home she started a ukulele group. Three years ago Renee started her own website and decided to publish a chapter a week of a novel. She’s posted three novels so far.

She created her Your Life, Your Story workshops while recovering from cancer. The Wellington Cancer Society asked her to develop a workshop for cancer sufferers, either those in remission or those who were still having treatment - they could either write about their experience or about their life.

Renee has also worked as a drama and English teacher in secondary schools, directed lots of plays, and now teaches creative writing at Whitireia Polytechnic. She loves teaching, and laughs that it’s probably because she likes being the boss.

A fast-adapter she also loves technology. “I think I fell in love with it. It was just so wonderful.” Yet she didn’t like her first phone, which she thinks was a Nokia. But when she visited a friend who had an iPhone and saw what it could do, her love of Apple products began. “I just got into the car and drove down to Kapiti and got one!”

Renee now has a MacPro for work, an iPhone 6 and an iPad packed with ebooks. “I like that I can enlarge the font very much. Such a blessing for someone whose eyesight is not as good as it was. I am an avid reader, always have been since I discovered stories could be long ones and these were called novels.”

Passionate about many things, this weekend convincing people they can write their own histories is at the top of the agenda.

“For people who just want to write their life stories, it seems like a huge hurdle. It just seems like too much. They have jobs and partners, they’ve got the garden, they’ve got shopping, and it just seems like one more thing. But just doing even an hour a day is great.”

Once you get started, she promises it’s addictive. Writing is a compulsion for Renee, who professes “I am absolutely hooked!”

Check out her website and her oodles of writing, in many different forms, here!

Renee is giving a talk about her life at the Auckland Writers Festival in Auckland tomorrow at 3pm and you can get tickets here

Her Your Life, Your Story workshop which follows at 4pm is sold out

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Jacqui Stanford - 16th May 2015