Introducing our newest editors at fingers comma toes:
Thomas Charles Cairncross | contributing editor since 2022
Joy Tong (童诗佳) | contributing editor since 2022
Hannah Scovell-Lightfoot | arts editor starting 2023
Lola Elvy at fingers comma toes: What inspires you to create? What kinds of things do you like to create, and why?
Joy Tong: It’s hard to say! I’m inspired by lots of things, but lately, it’s been other pieces of art (a good song, a cool painting, an insightful piece of writing by somebody else). If I’m ever in a creative block, writing or creating something as a response to another work usually helps me to get back in the flow. In general, I tend to focus on very personal, specific topics—I find that pieces that dig deep into someone’s self actually resonate powerfully with their readers. I’m most struck by unique voices that arise from exploring the inherent power and political nature of personal stories. My go-to form is poetry or short prose, which really lets me hone in on a specific moment or feeling, and continue from there, letting me unpack and understand ideas in ways I haven’t before. I also enjoy experimenting in the playground of language and structure, seeing how words sit on a page, the kinds of images they create, or the way they sound aloud.
Thomas Cairncross: Silly ideas inspire me. When you sit with the people you are comfortable with, and you joke, you build on the ideas of your companions, those are the ideas that inspire me, those are the seeds which grow and get scribbled into the journals or onto scraps of paper —doomed to be placed somewhere safe, then probably lost.
Seeing a billboard, or reading something, that makes you stop and think Huh—that inspires me. For example, I was wandering through town, and saw a business named Lennox Bathrooms and thought that would be a wonderful name for a D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) character, and from there came a personality and a whole backstory.
I like to create. But most of the stuff that I create never makes it to pen and paper, and of those that do, even less is crafted into something readable. My creativity lies in brainstorming, spinning an idea out of bits and bobs, adding and refining as time goes by, and while there may not be any lasting records of this process, it’s a fun process! Sometimes the process is the most enjoyable part of the story.
Hannah Scovell-Lightfoot: I feel inspired to create quite simply by the emotional experiences I have as a human. Pain, more than any other feeling, is a big catalyst for my creativity—I’ll create a dance out of it, or a rather tragic painting or sing it to a minor key. At the other end of the spectrum, I love to laugh. I find myself and all of us quite amusing which inspires me to create comedic characters and skits that often make fun of how seriously we can take ourselves and encourages us to lighten up a wee bit. Sometimes I press record on video and see what character comes out of me.
LE: Let’s talk about reading—what do you like to read and why? How does what you read affect what you write?
TC: As part of my study, I just read The Brimstone journals by Ron Koertge, to and with a class of sixteen-year-olds. I enjoyed it because of the variety and authentic feeling of the voices within the text, and found it quite worrying as someone who is entering into education. Texts like The Brimstone journals can help readers to understand the individuality of characters and how they mesh together to create a complex and human narrative.
Science fiction holds a place in my soul. On reading Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, I was reminded of how a different world can be so odd, of how imagination can fly and take an idea to a place very strange. After reading Voltaire’s Micromégas I saw how our own mundane world can seem outlandish from afar.
I like to read and write pieces that take me from my desk, and drop me deep into the narrative, within the workings of the author. Also, pieces that are just plain weird—experimenting and getting things wrong sometimes are valuable experiences for a writer in the process of finding something quite cool.
HSL: I enjoy a range of reading. At the moment I’m reading (again) Inquire Within, a spoken word poetry book by IN-Q. I like it because it is heartfelt and moving and true to life while not leaving me feeling hopeless about where we’re all headed, as some writing does! I also enjoy reading books like The Little Prince, novels that are succinct and offer timeless wisdom. What I read affects my writing in the way that I usually feel inspired to journal about what I have read. I find journalling a great creative outlet because I can get everything that’s rattling around my head out and in front of me. As I put words to my experiences and feelings, I often access greater clarity around the respective situation. Sometimes what I’m writing about morphs into a poem or a rap. I usually have some kind of bio-hacking health book on the go, as I am fascinated by the human body and how I can optimise my own to be as functioning and vibrant as it can.
JT: It’s been harder to actually read for enjoyment in between all the exams and assignments, unfortunately. I’ve always had a rather eclectic taste in reading: my adolescence was filled with fantasy and historical fiction (which taught me lots about narrative devices and plot), I love a good poetry collection (Ocean Vuong, Sylvia Plath, Nina Mingya Powles, and Grace Nichols are favourites), and recently, I’ve been reading bell hooks’ All About Love: New Visions (amazing so far, would highly recommend). The media I consume, books or otherwise, plays a big part in my own style. This isn’t only at the language level, where I am constantly trying to learn new ways to imbue words with meaning, but also to look at how certain tropes or views work. Being cognisant of things I like or don’t like, as well as why I feel that way, is an important way for me to develop my own writing.
LE: What do you look for in others’ work—in a story, essay, or poem, or in painting, photography, or other visual art—when you’re reading or seeing with an editor’s eye?
HSL: In visual art I look for content that speaks to the heart. I enjoy seeing pictures and photos that genuinely capture a person or people. For example, a painting of the face of an old woman in whose eyes can be seen an entire life of experience and resulting wisdom. Or simply a candid photo of two friends laughing. I appreciate the skill and time and energy taken in creating visual art, regardless of whether it personally reaches me, so I look for that, too. For example, Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory is not one I’d hang on my walls because it disturbs me; however, his work does move something uncomfortable in me, which speaks to the power of his style and his skill as an artist.
JT: A well-paced storyline that compels me to keep reading, a turn of phrase that makes me see or think about something in a new way, usage of figurative language that evokes a fresh, vivid image—I love anything that surprises me. The elements I look for will vary based on genre, but if I am engaged throughout the piece or perhaps there is some kind of underlying, thoughtful development, I’ll probably be a fan. I’m swayed by creative, intentional explorations of language or syntax—in other words, clichés or vagueness don’t usually click for me.
TC: When reading poetry and prose, one of the first things that stands out to me is, how does this piece sound when it is read aloud?
A big part of storytelling is in the telling, so the voice of the text is important. I say the voice of the text rather than the voice of the author, as an author may write differently depending on the day, mood, or topic of their subject piece. But the voice of the text should be relatively consistent, or at least make sense within the narrative.
So, when I read a poem that has structure, and with word choice that allows me to read it aloud without tongue twisters, then I feel I can relax and fall under the author’s spell.
When I read prose that sounds like it’s being read to me by a friend, I feel comforted as if lazing by a campfire. Or perhaps the narrative voice is eerie and provoking, and I feel anxious or spooked.
When I read essays, or non-fiction, there’s more impact when the topic is thoroughly broken down and made relevant to the context and to me. Explanations are important with this genre of writing, and writing with the idea of explaining your subject out loud is a nifty wee tool to have.
Writing about yourself is quite hard. It forces introspection, which can be somewhat confronting. But this is a good activity, and a positive process. As writers, creators, and people, it’s important to ask ourselves who we are, now and again.
Also, as writers, don’t forget the key rules: Break all the rules, experiment with writing, and have fun.
LE: When it comes to your professional lives, you’re each pursuing different goals: Thomas, a Master’s of Teaching at the University of Otago, after finishing your Bachelor’s in English and Classical Studies; Joy, a degree in Biomedical Engineering and Chemistry at Duke University, with a special focus in healthcare; and Hannah, a year-long theatre programme in Christchurch. What motivates you each in your studies or draws you to these particular fields?
TC: Stories are something I’ve always held dear, whether it was hearing the myths of Loki and other gods, or my Dad’s science fiction collection. Books, stories, and tales have always been there nurturing me. Through stories we can experience and live lives that reach to the edges of imagination. Through stories we can learn: Aesop’s fables are wonderful; The Tortoise and the Hare is nearly universal, and gives the valuable lesson of persistence! Stories are how we discover the exploits of our Whānau, our family, and how we form bonds with the people around us.
And through all that, stories allow us to pass our passions, our voices, and dreams on and into the world around us.
I like learning, and I like learning with people. One of the aspects of teaching is to be constantly learning with and for your students. If I can learn some stories with my students, well, that sounds rather fun to me.
The name English is a bit of a misnomer. Rather than teaching the English language, I aim to teach stories and foster the ability for students to think critically, and to express themselves, their ideas and thoughts. With English, I want to show how brilliant and expansive the world is (perhaps by showcasing some of the works submitted to fingers comma toes) and to challenge the students to question and create in the space around them.
Classical Studies is typically a foray into the Ancient Greek and Roman societies, including art and mythology. I would love to broaden that to include some ancient science, and bring in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. The wider the scope, the better the framework of our understanding.
But at the end of the day, rather than teaching English and Classical studies, I want to teach students.
JT: I’ve always enjoyed science and engineering for how it lets me tinker with things, and also slowly start to understand how the world around me works—particularly how we function as humans. I’m interested in pharmaceuticals, particularly the science and technology of actually delivering therapeutics to different bodily targets. There are so many things we still don’t understand about ourselves, and I enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of tackling this challenge. Healthcare research really excites me, but it also has very clear deficiencies. In a field that is often unethical, male-dominated, and doesn’t include the experiences or voices of people of colour, there is a need to make sure that our work actually serves underrepresented communities. While I don’t necessarily know how to address that yet, it’s an important guiding principle in how I approach advocacy and research.
HSL: I’ve always has a passion for acting. When I was little I’d put on shows for anyone who’d watch, often (forcefully) bringing my younger brother on board for involuntary collaboration. As mentioned previously, I have always liked to make up various characters that are comedic in nature. Playing these characters feels very natural and there’s an essence of doing it that just feels “right”. I took drama in high school to explore more of my natural enthusiasm for acting, and, having taken a few years off academic study, I am inspired now to explore this passion and see where it leads!
LE: How does your main area of work/study apply to your creative work, either solo or in the community (with fingers comma toes or elsewhere)? Are there any overlaps?
HSL: Just as theatre comes alive through the witnessing presence of an audience, so does any other kind of art. With this awareness, importance is placed on the visual aspect of whatever is being shared and can be applied to other creative works such as paintings or photography. In theatre I look for acting that is believable and has a sense of soul, and I look for this same essence in visual art.
TC: As an editor, a climber, and a teacher, I find joy and meaning in supporting people pursuing their passions. fingers comma toes has given me the fantastic opportunity to read through and review the work of young writers. In my stint as an editor, I have seen work from writers as young as eight, and as old as twenty-one, and in that medley there have been works that warmed my soul, and those that pulled me through chilling narratives. And through those literary adventures, my joy is in the reading and the writing of comments which may help the authors in growing into more confident and competent creators; and with each submission it seems I have more to learn than I have to teach.
As a climber, it’s my privilege to see new climbers enter the game, to see them tackle difficulties, and to coach them through. I’ve taken part in assisting a couple introductory courses, designed to give people their first contact with outdoor rock climbing, and the range of people I’ve met, and seeing the elation on their faces as they overcome the next hurdle, is sublime.
And as a fledgling teacher, well, it’s pretty much the same as my philosophies as an editor and a climber!
But how does all that work with my creative process? My creativity is not something that comes from nowhere, it’s sparked by the people and happenings around. The creativity that I value is not necessarily my own, I quite value working with the creativity of others.
JT: I’ve actually played around with incorporating scientific ideas and vocabulary into creative writing—the unexpected ideas and contrasts are fun to work with. I’ve written poems about a rat dissection, or a short story that included bits and pieces of a biology course. The analytical and creative frameworks learned in science/engineering are also skills that translate well into writing and editing. In the end, science isn’t inherently uncreative. There are still plenty of moments, whether it be an in-class experience or an entire paradigm, that offer something to build upon.
On a slightly different note: in our current age, where anyone on the internet is a self-proclaimed expert (we all know someone who diagnoses themselves or others with random websites), I think it’s increasingly important that the STEM community learns how to be empathetic, trustworthy, and clear communicators. This might not fall into the creative side of writing, but it certainly demands a thoughtful use of language to make research more accessible.
LE: Joy, apart from working with fingers comma toes, you are also Associate Editor for your university journal The Archive, and a musician. Tell us a few words about your roles in your creative community—how do these creative endeavours of yours intertwine? What’s special about these different creative communities that excites you?
JT: To the consternation of my parents, I’ve always had divided passions and spent too much time on all of them. In the writing community, being both a writer and editor has helped me grow in both roles. It’s an honour to read a wide variety of voices and subject matter, and be inspired by stylistic approaches and devices that I’ve never seen before. Music has been a big part of my life, as someone who grew up as a pianist and took up voice later on. I’m currently part of an a cappella group on campus, and throughout earlier years I’ve always been part of some choir, orchestra, or other ensemble. These experiences inspired much of my earlier poetry, and lots of my imagery was rooted in music. I particularly love opportunities where groups get to share their love for different arts and support one another. This year, I’m the Events Chair for Duke’s Asian Students’ Association, and a highlight of this role has been creating space, in the form of showcases or festivals, to celebrate student artists. I think what consistently draws me into these creative communities is the drive to create something meaningful together and the love for our craft—whether it be a moving performance, a powerful collection of writing, or a striking piece of visual art. Creativity in all forms can tell transformative stories, and (at the risk of being cliché) is integral to being human.
LE: Hannah, before the COVID-19 pandemic, you were travelling frequently. How did travelling influence your sense of creative community? How does creativity create community, both within and across cultural boundaries, and how does this sense of community change when travelling?
HSL: When I was travelling, I felt more belonging to the web of life. Music jamming was an experience that really highlighted to me the way that creativity can traverse our personal differences, and even identity. Music offers an opportunity for people from all walks of life to come together and find a collective groove where everyone speaks the same language. Despite not even talking to some of the people I played with, I felt deeply connected and part of a community during the musical exchange, if only for a fleeting collection of moments.
Life itself is act of creativity. Because of its direct relationship with existence, I believe creativity is actually what creates community in the first place and has the power to establish connection that transcends differing personal histories because of its primal nature. Travelling revealed to me that deep down, no matter where we’re from, we all want to be seen and feel connected to others. Creativity is something we all are capable of that can beautifully fulfill this need, no matter our cultural boundaries.
LE: Thomas, you’re very active in the climbing community in Otago. Tell us about this—how did you start, and what is it about this activity that particularly excites you? In general, do you find having a connection to the natural world fuels your creativity?
TC: I’ve been climbing for about eight years now, with some gaps for injuries and the business of life. Starting on plastic holds and wooden walls, and then dipping my toes into the terror of outdoor rock.
My first time climbing rock was panic. After navigating through that panic and returning to the ground, I was hooked.
Climbing can be seen as an individual sport: one where you puzzle and struggle your way up a piece of rock. But climbing is also a social activity; you work with your buddies to make sure everyone gets to their personal goal, and to do it safely.
When I moved to Dunedin, to start my studies at the University of Otago, I was thrilled to meet a thriving outdoor climbing community.
After climbing with one group for a wee while, I was invited to climb with the Alpine club, on their social Tuesday nights. The people at these nights were more mature, more sociable, and more my speed. After a while climbing with the Alpine club, I started to help out with the organisation and safety. Making sure everyone gets home safely is important.
Sliding your hands along a rock face, trying to find a pocket, a ridge, or bump to carry you upwards. Shifting your position multiple times per hold, to hang onto balance. And working systematically up or along, climbing becomes a dance of one. Yet the people around are also dancing, they listen to the rock with you, they encourage, and you respond. Climbing challenges you to look outside of yourself, to examine your surroundings, and work out how you fit in with them. Climbing helps you to reflect on your own workings, how you move, how you think, and how you feel. Through climbing (for me, anyway) there’s a sense of freedom, and creativity can show itself there too.
Thomas Charles Cairncross is a tinkerer of words and stories, following a wandering path of working with friends, peers, and strangers in the pursuit of shenanigans and teaching. He enjoys stumbling up rocks and the occasional pleasant chat with the physiotherapist. With science and speculative fiction stored deeply in the memory banks, Thomas is on the lookout for investments.
Joy Tong (童诗佳) is a writer, musician and professional cat-petter from Tāmaki Makaurau, currently pursuing a Biomedical Engineering and Chemistry double major at Duke University. Balancing her passion for STEM is her tendency to explore inexplicable thoughts with poetry and short stories. On campus, she serves as Associate Editor for the university literary journal, The Archive. Her works are published in Landfall, Mayhem, Starling, and Signals, as well as A Clear Dawn, an anthology of New Zealand-Asian voices.
Hannah Scovell-Lightfoot takes great delight in climbing trees, the barefoot existence, asking questions, rollerskating, and bearing herself to the rollercoaster ride of being alive. She most commonly finds herself floor-sitting doodling, organic shop perusing, improving her already rather extensive morning routine, having passionate conversations, journalling, hitchhiking, and engaging in satiric banter.
Thank you, Thomas, Joy, and Hannah, for participating in this discussion—and thank you, our audience, for reading. Wishing you an exciting, creativity-filled 2023 from our team at fingers comma toes!