17-20 March: Ruapehu Writers Festival
We all went up to Ōhākune for this – John, Emilia and Poppy the dog, and me. I was probably more excited about this weekend than our wedding, or any of the other trips we’ve taken this year. Why? I think because it seemed to combine writing with family – especially Emilia – making me think it was possible to strike a balance between both.
We made the decision that I would leave early on Friday in the little green car, taking Poppy with me. This was so I could attend some of the Friday afternoon events, without having to look after Emmy. She would be at her gran’s for the day, until John picked her up in the late afternoon to drive her up, meeting us up there at about 9 p.m that night. This also would allow me to leave later on the Sunday, and for John to get Emilia home at a good time.
But about 30 minutes from Ōhākune, the green car broke down. Without the use of my cell phone (the battery had died) and with no houses in sight, I waited, grateful for Poppy’s company. Thinking the green jelly bean had merely over-heated, I started the car after about 30 minutes and drove off. It soon became clear that there was something very wrong with it though, as it lost all power within a few minutes. I coasted to a group of three houses, hoping to get help and a power plug for my phone.
No one was home in any of the three houses (although I found out later that one of the houses belonged to the ‘Big Is Good’ guy from the Mitre 10 ads). Becoming desperate, I walked around to the rear of one of the houses, found an out-building operating as a laundry, and plugged in my phone. With 1% battery, I called John, who called the AA.
As I waited for my phone to charge, extremely nervous of course and highly aware that I was on someone else’s property, I saw the owner – a youngish dreadlocked man – come home from the paddocks. He walked around the back of the house and saw me in his laundry. He looked completely unsurprised and unfazed, and simply said ‘hey’, like he was expecting me. I apologised, explained, and he tried to help me fix the car.
Anyway, the short story is Poppy and I had to be towed into Waiouru by the AA, and then hitched a ride with a Z-Station employee to our Air BnB place in Ōhākune. As I sat down with the bottle of red that I bought in Waiouru – a nasty Australian Shiraz purchased grumpily at a 300% mark-up – I started to get all superstitious. Were these all bad omens for the attempt to balance writing and motherhood? Is this the wrong road? These ideas were backed up from the most unlikely source, the mechanic in Waiouru, who said to me, ‘The universe is trying to tell you something’. This was just after he ceremoniously pronounced the green jelly bean ‘deceased’.
The rest of the weekend, however, proved both me and the mechanic wrong. It was incredible. I loved it. I learnt a lot. I got to spend time with John and Emilia as well as do writing things. Here are some highlights from the weekend:
Writers Talk Structure: Pip Adam, Emily Perkins, Fiona Farrell
Pip talked about the relationship between structure and force. She stressed how the structure creates different forces within a work, and urged writers to play with varying structures to see what happens to force. She also said that her writing starts with a problem. This problem she doesn’t know how to answer until she begins writing.
Fiona said that structure isn’t something that is evident before she starts writing. At the beginning, she said (and this is my experience too), you have a spinning orb or nucleus of an idea, around which material keeps getting added or attached. And then out of this you need to enforce or impose a structure. She commented that this can often be tricky with nonfiction since it tends to have no clear ending, which means that you have to think very hard about structural tension and how to write it in.
Referring to her book The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, and the fact that it’s written in 100 small fragments, she said that this structure reflects her mindset after the earthquakes. Her brain was fragmentary, in a state of shock. So the structure reflects her ‘quake brain’. In this book, she said, the structure has an internal driving force, which asks you to make something out of all the little pieces. Together, they make a narrative, but they require the reader to do some work.
Emily called structure the ‘belief system of the work.’ She also talked about how the tension of the piece is bound up in it, bound up with the question, ‘At what point do you reveal certain information?’ She referred to Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, quoting the line, ‘we hunger for ends and for crises’. As a reader, as well as a film spectator, I’ve often thought about the importance of an ending. Although I admire the French New Wave and modernist fiction and other open-ended narrative forms, I can’t help but love a good, solid, closed ending. I guess the force of the piece is entirely bound up with its movement towards the end and so, in a way, a sense of an ending must be there, latent, from the beginning. I think this sense of ending is as important to the essay as to other forms.
Emily also spoke about how a story can be told in the cuts or the gaps. She urged us to think cinematically about writing for this purpose – think, for example, of utilising jump cuts, fade outs/ins, flash backs, blank screens (or pages), and so on. Like the others, Emily said that she doesn’t plan her structure before starting to write – the structure emerges from the writing process itself.
This is all excellent advice, and something I should try to absorb since I tend to approach essays in a similar way that I do an academic piece – with a detailed structure in place and knowing pretty much in advance where it’s going. It would be good to learn to let go of this.
Small Town Shadows: Elizabeth Knox, Tina Shaw, Antony Millen
I was interested in this session particularly for thinking about my essay on place and remoteness – although, I think, this essay has since mutated into something entirely different. Nonetheless, I will write down some of the ideas that captured my attention. Most of what follows comes from a conversation between Elizabeth and the chair, Martin Edmond.
They were talking about the process of reinventing yourself. Elizabeth was talking about moving between towns, and how this creates exciting opportunities to reinvent one’s identity. In a new town, you could turn yourself into a different character. She went on to say that in the small town you can’t really reinvent yourself; you haul your past with you even if you don’t want to. Other people tie you to your past self. She also commented that remote places are often a vessel for the imagination – something that’s certainly been borne out by our literary and cinematic history.
Martin said that, like R.H. Morrieson’s fiction, everything that can happen in the world can happen in a small town. It’s just that it’s more visible in the small town. He linked this idea with social media, which, he thought, tended to reproduce the small town. The globalised world, he thought, envies the small town.
Elizabeth replied with the comment that the small town, in social media or material reality, can be a source of tension. How do you move on from something bad when you’re trapped in a small town? How do you go on living there when you’ve basically fucked something up pretty badly? And this tension, between the past and present, can be a great thing to exploit in writing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cherie Lacey is a lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. She completed her PhD in New Zealand film and holds an MA from the IIML. In 2016 she co-edited (with Ingrid Horrocks) the book Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand.