Friends, opportunities and writing

This week our small team at work as been attending the Writers & Readers week. I took the Masterton shift and I thought you’d like to read here what I first wrote for the work blog.

I’ve never been to a big-city Writers & Readers event so I don’t know what I’m missing out on although Twitter tells me they have floral arrangements.

Sounds fancy.

Driving to Masterton I listened to a piece on Radio NZ about the recently-announced proposed staff cuts at MFAT, which was described as having ‘a sophisticated work force.’

Sophisticated is a word that creeps me out and instantly makes me feel inadequate. A bit dorky, parochial, regionalist … more my kind of words.

I was right at home at the Masterton run of Emerging Writers. We sat in a wonderful old chapel within Aratoi Museum surrounded by art of the region; people came in quietly and without gusto and the chair (David Hedley of the wonderful Hedley’s bookshop) called people by name when they wanted to ask a question. That, the polite reverence of the audience, the couple of husbands who’d clearly been dragged along (there’s always at least one at Wairarapa events) and David’s reference to Eleanor Catton being a ‘young lady’ gave this an air of a warm family event.

I kind of felt we should have been sitting on mismatched sofas with tea and shortbread.

Hamish Clayton (Wulf), Craig Cliff (A Man Melting) and Eleanor Catton (The Rehearsal) were on the bill – talking about their work as ‘emerging writers.’ Given their string of awards and accomplishments I did wonder when they could shuck off that mantle although as Hamish Clayton pointed out they were still ‘new’ enough to have had the good grace to read each other’s work before appearing together.

As Hamish Clayton spoke about developing his work it struck me that what he was really speaking about was being open to opportunity. Wulf began in a way from a friend’s off-hand remark about a much-loved poem (Wulf and Eadwacer) needing to be made into a novel… the Wulf from a walk in the Botanic Gardens at dusk where shadows and tree stumps create their own characters. Opportunity and seeing the familiar in new ways: not trying to develop a new voice for Te Rauparaha; picking up the New Zealand landscape as a central character instead.

Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal began life as a dramatic monologue for a friend (side note writers: make friends with people – it will help your career), which was put away unfinished, then pulled out when Catton was looking for submission material for her application to IIML.

Catton treated the book’s development like she was writing a play and ‘playing roles’ continued as a key theme. As she tells it, just like a theatrical performance “sometimes you’re privileged to see inside the characters heads, other times you just see their actions.”

Asked about her time in Iowa she said she realised while there that our writers have an enormous freedom in what they’re doing.

“New Zealanders aren’t trying to pose and ‘be a writer’, they’re just doing it.

“We have literary heroes but don’t feel the need to carry them on our shoulders. After all, who on earth could be Janet Frame?”

Craig Cliff used to be all the about the numbers and the spreadsheets: writing more than 800,000 words in 2008, using Excel to work out correlating themes in his short stories to develop the evolutionary chain running through A Man Melting.

He says that while publishers were reluctant to take short stories when he was approaching them, “short stories are in ruddy health at the moment.”

He cites Pip Adam, Tina Makeriti and Alice Tawhai as short story writers to read.

“You can fit a short story collection into your life.” A longer story at lunchtime, a quick one on the bus to work…

These days he’s more a 100-200 words a day guy; working on his third novel (he’s thankful that the first two won’t see the light of day) he’s setting it in the past and trying to carve out a niche that is different.

Footnote: You often see in affluent towns and suburbs (Greytown, Thorndon) little footpath bowls of water for thirsty dogs. I suggest a similar scenario for Writers & Readers events where the age of the audience is in the cough-prone demographic (60+)… sponsored water bottles at events would add a new marketing angle and put a stop to the regularly fits of dry-throat-coughing that regularly disturbed this event.

IMAGE:  L-R Hamish Clayton, Craig Cliff and Eleanor Catton from the Writers & Readers website

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