1. ABSENT MOTHERHOOD AT HOME
That was my winter with Muriel Rukeyser, poet and activist (1913-1980), ‘beautiful Muriel, mother of everyone’, as Anne Sexton called her. It was hard. And now it’s spring. I have a first draft of a play that includes some of her poems and prose. Two side-projects that helped me explore aspects of the play are also finished: the re-edited Aphros Tinkerbell short film originally made for the 48 Hours competition; and the Tinkerbell story I wrote for the Grimm Fairytales for Aotearoa competition, which I may make into a comic. I have a writing buddy to see me through the rest of the work. And the parallel Development project ‘for women who make movies & for the people who love them’ continues to grow and give me pleasure. Last week I discovered that women direct 50% of the New Zealand feature films that the state funded in the last year: wonderful. (November note: One of the women directors was later replaced by a man – the first time I’ve known this to happen after a feature project has received state funding for production.)
The problem I had in autumn — that I’ve had all year, for many years — is still with me. The ‘absent mother’ problem. It’s in two parts. One’s domestic and entirely my own. The other one’s public. The domestic first.
My mother gave birth to me after the Second World War. In her early 20s, she belonged to the National Fire Service during the London Blitz, married and had a daughter for whom she cared on her own while her husband was in the Middle East. Her beloved only brother died as a pilot in the Pathfinder Squadron. Her husband came home with cancer. My father had been in the Royal Air Force with her husband and came to visit him. And during the year after her husband died my mother fell in love with my father; and married him. They conceived me on their honeymoon. She was 29. Eighteen months later my parents had another child. Shortly after that they emigrated to New Zealand. I feel very sad for my mother when I compare this cumulative disruption with the sunny twenties of my youngest child, about to be 29.
My mother once told me that when I was born she ‘turned her face to the wall’ because she didn’t want to look after another child. She also showed me letters she’d written, returned to her after an older family member died, where she consistently described me as difficult. That’s probably true: as an adult, I met someone I’d been at primary school with, who remembered me as ‘angry and ugly’.
I don’t remember my mother ever talking about the war; I heard second hand that she eventually grieved for all she lost after she watched a television series that marked the fiftieth anniversary of its commencement. But from the fragments I know I’ve understood why I experienced her as ‘absent’, and have no sense at all of having been mothered. And I’ve understood why I became driven to make sense of what mothering means and why I became an absent mother to my own children.
For years, as an activist, I didn’t articulate this problem. Instead, I worked to understand and address the larger, societal, problem that institutions and the people within them did not nurture women writers and artists and did not appreciate their (our) work. For some of the time, I worked in groups where – many of us at odds with our mothers – we looked for our ‘cultural grandmothers’. I helped produce children’s books which featured grandmothers. I co-ordinated a major touring exhibition called Mothers. And after my mother died I began to examine how I’d been mothered and how I’d mothered my own children and I wrote a book about single motherhood. On and on it went. On and on it goes. I was shocked when I read the last scene in my Muriel Rukeyser play – finally, maybe, I’d managed to tell the truth about what I’d lost and what I still need.
Although I’d felt its effects for a long time, I first named my absent mother problem when I wrote screenplays as part of my scriptwriting MA and then my Creative Writing PhD at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), when absent mothers kept slipping into my stories. Once I’d understood this and I’d named it, I thought that absent motherhood would disappear from my work. But no. In my next screenplay I decided to address it consciously, so it wouldn’t bubble up unexpectedly. I assigned the absent mother problem to a central character. But even then, the issue resurfaced in another way. And of course, the wider public problem is there all the time, in the Development project, which was part of my PhD and has continued for the three years since I completed the dissertation.
Of course I’m not the only woman who’s felt compelled to ‘write through’ the mother problem. In the last year or so there’s been Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and the memoirs I group with it, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and Susie Bright’s Big Sex Little Death. All filled with pain about their respective mothers. And there are cultural grandmothers who provide a tradition, too. Perhaps the Brontë sisters, aged between one and five when their mother died. Virginia Woolf for sure, whose mother died when she was thirteen. In Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel refers to Virginia Woolf’s diary record:
One day, walking around Tavistock Square I made up…To The Lighthouse; in a great, apparently involuntary rush … when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother … I suppose I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.
And I’ve followed Sarah Polley’s latest feature film Stories We Tell, about her social and biological fathers and above all, about her mother, who died of cancer when Sarah was eleven. When she dedicated the Toronto Film Festival screening of Stories We Tell to her mother, Sarah Polley described her as:
…a force of nature, the life of the party… and the best mother a girl could have…I’m so grateful I had her for 11 sweet years.
But according to one review (I haven’t yet seen the film), her mother seems also to have possessed familiar absent mother traits when she was alive: she had tensions and disappointments; she was distant; she shielded herself against intrusion.
In the Q & A following the Venice screening of Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley acknowledged that “This film drove me completely crazy for four or five years and I was so happy when it was done…I really wanted to give up sometimes but I couldn’t be at ease unless I had made it.” And in another Q & A, following the Toronto Film Festival screening a little while after Venice, she said:
It was really hard. I don’t think it was about the film, I just knew I wanted to get the hell out of the editing room every day. I spent a lot of time on my BlackBerry when I was there. I’m not a tortured artist in any way. I enjoy working on films but this was pure agony. Every second of this, pretty much, was agony. You start to realize why most people spend most of their lives avoiding talking about their families and their childhood.
Getting through the process gave Sarah Polley a better understanding of the subject matter of Away From Her and Take This Waltz, her narrative features: “Both of them feature a woman who was in some ways straying outside of her marriage and trying to find the truth in the relationship. Now that I’ve made Stories We Tell I realise that those films were shadows of this film.” But it also left a gap: “The question for me now is, Where do I go from here?”
It seems that absent mother obsessions can be resolved in two ways. Virginia Woolf’s “great, apparently involuntary rush”, is rapid, largely unconscious, and has a satisfactory resolution: “I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.”
The other way takes longer, a slow process of coming to terms with pain. Jeanette Winterson’s ‘mother’ (and coming out) novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was published in 1985, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? in 2012. In Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel describes years of therapy; she doesn’t start writing Are You My Mother? until she’s in her late forties and it takes her years to write. And – although it’s not certain that her mother was an ‘absent mother’ – in a similar process Sarah Polley made shadow works until she made Stories We Tell, where “I really wanted to give up sometimes but I couldn’t be at ease unless I had made it”. Is the Muriel Rukeyser play the end of my process? Have I expressed “some very long felt and deeply felt emotion” and does that mean I’ll lay it to rest? I know I want to give up but I also know won’t be at ease until I’ve written the best play I can. I hope I can get through to the other side. I want to be free of my obsession with absent motherhood. I want to write Petrushka as a ballet movie. I want to make short films on mobile phones. I want to be free to tell stories in all kinds of ways, about all kinds of things.
But it seems that there may have to be another obsession to take its place. This how David Mamet describes it:
Artists don’t wonder, ‘What is it good for?’ They aren’t driven to ‘create art,’ or to ‘help people,’ or to ‘make money.’ They are driven to lessen the burden of the unbearable disparity between their conscious and unconscious minds, and so, to achieve peace.
It makes sense to me that I write to lessen the burden of the disparity between my conscious and unconscious minds, to achieve peace. I imagine that Sarah Polley will identify a new impetus to do the same. And Muriel Rukeyser also wrote about this process in a 1976 lecture, The Education of a Poet, which I found in Jan Heller Levi’s A Muriel Rukeyser Reader:
It was through a promise that I knew really what writing poems meant to me…my best friend said she wouldn’t talk to me unless I would stop writing poems. I had to promise to stop writing. Not being talked to was the worst promise I could imagine; I gave my promise at once. For four weeks I didn’t question; it wasn’t anything I could question. And then a poem began. I went into a great storm about that poem which was building and forming. I lived like that for two weeks, and finally one night I got up and wrote down the poem. At school the next morning I said to that friend, “I couldn’t keep my promise,” and she said “What promise?” I realized in a flash that it meant nothing to her and I knew what it meant to me. The pressure and the drivenness was in that moment, and has been there ever since.
I recognise the feeling of poems and stories as storms that keep building. But I wonder what’s under my absent mother obsession that’ll keep me writing?
I also wonder about my internal/external relationship with disparities out in the world, where absent motherhood exists on a larger scale. What will keep me going there? If I resolve the domestic absent mother problem, will I stop worrying about absent mother(s) out in the world? Logic tells me that I will, but I feel slightly anxious about it.
2. ABSENT MOTHERHOOD IN THE WORLD
So much has been written about how institutions and powerful individuals within and outside them fail to nurture women artists and writers, to acknowledge the worth of their (our) storytelling and to invest in them (us). Often this discussion is based around statistics, about publishers and reviews via VIDA, about Hollywood at the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, in the Writers Guild of America West Hollywood Writers Reports, about art world gender equity in Australia at Countesses, to give just a few examples. But the processes that generate the statistics are less well documented and depend on anecdote. As I’ve found in my own research into state film funding in New Zealand, statistical information rarely includes details about the numbers of women who compete, who submit work , who apply for positions and funding. Nor does it address specific contextual details, like the role of advocates and the ways that decision-makers engage with individuals who may at some time benefit from their decision-making.
Sometimes these advocates and decision-makers are men and sometimes they’re women. And it seems to me that there’s a subset of these, of women who have a very important ‘parental’ role. Those who fulfil this role for other women – usually of a younger generation – tend to move between public advocacy and support in the domestic sphere. The older woman has access to resources, and links the younger woman to what she needs, in the public sphere and domestically; she is the ‘good mother’. (This is different from the professional support some women and men give some men and women, which can be characterised as ‘mentorship’, a business-oriented, professional and entirely non-domestic role, where the mentor may or may not also advocate for the mentee.)
The Good Mother in the World
Two examples of the ‘good mother’ subset I’ve read of recently are Jeanette Winterson’s friendship with crime writer Ruth Rendell and Lena Dunham’s with screenwriter Nora Ephron. Here’s Jeanette Winterson’s reference to Ruth Rendell in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, in the context of Ruth Rendell’s help when Jeanette Winterson was tracking down her birth mother.
I had confided my fears to my friend Ruth Rendell. Ruth has known me since I was twenty-six, and she lent me a cottage to write in when I was trying to make my way. I wrote The Passion at her house. She had been The Good Mother – never judging, quietly supporting, letting me talk, letting me be.
She is a Labour peer, and therefore a member of the House of Lords. She knows a lot of people and she thought she could help. She summoned a few baronesses for a private discussion, and the consensus was that I should proceed with the utmost caution…put me in touch with Anthony Douglas, chief of Cafcass – the UK children and family court advisory service.
Nora Ephron’s relationship with writer/director Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture, Girls) showed similar characteristics to the one between Ruth Rendell and Jeanette Winterson. After Nora Ephron died this year I was deeply envious when I read Lena Dunham’s tribute, as were various other writers and directors on Twitter. “In March of 2011,” Lena Dunham wrote, “I received a short, perfect e-mail from Ephron, saying she had seen and enjoyed my film and would like to take me to lunch.” The relationship that followed enriched Lena Dunham’s public, working, life and her domestic life, to the extent that after a Thanksgiving with Nora Ephron and her family, Lena Dunham went home “and likely offended my own mother by announcing that ‘it was with the kind of family I was meant to have'”.
Domestically, Nora Ephron helped Lena Dunham to establish a home that was independent of her parents and was deeply influenced by Nora Ephron’s own choices. When they met, Lena Dunham “still lived with my parents in a small and windowless back room downtown”. This “amused and appropriately appalled” Nora Ephron. And after reading Nora Ephron’s essay about re-starting her life as a single mother by falling in love with an apartment, Lena Dunham “decided I might be capable of living alone”. She looked for somewhere using ‘Nora-esque’ criteria, found somewhere, waffled about it, heard Nora say “Perfect. You’ll never regret it”. Delayed moving in for three months until “Nora insisted that I use her contractor, who fixed my little home up in a way she would have approved of”.
Nora Ephron also provided useful guidance for Lena Dunham in her life as a writer/director and about the interface of that with her ‘domestic’ relationships.
Over the course of our year-and-a-half-long friendship, Nora introduced me to, in no particular order: several ear, nose, and throat doctors; the Patagonia jackets she favored when on set because they were ‘thinner than a sweater but warmer than a parka’; ordering multiple desserts and having small, reasonable bites of all of them (I thought, Oh, so this is what ladies do); the photography of Julius Shulman; the concept of eating lunch at Barneys; self-respect; the complex legend of Helen Gurley Brown; the Jell-O mold; her beloved sister Delia. She explained how to interact with a film composer (‘Just say what you’re hearing and what you want to hear’) and what to do if someone screamed at you on the telephone (‘Just nod, hang up, and decide you will never allow anyone to speak to you that way again’). She called bullshit on a whole host of things, too: donuts served in fancy restaurants; photo shoots in which female directors are asked to all stand in a cluster wearing mustaches; the idea that one’s writing isn’t fiction if it borrows from one’s life.
Her advice was unparalleled. At one of our lunches this past January, I was sheepishly describing a male companion’s lack of support for my professional endeavors. She nodded in a very ‘don’t be stupid’ way, as if I already knew what I had to do: ‘You can’t possibly meet someone right now. When I met Nick, I was already totally notorious’—note: Nora was the only person who could make that word sound neither braggy nor sinister—’and he understood exactly what he was getting into. You can’t meet someone until you’ve become what you’re becoming.’ Panicked, I asked, ‘How long will that take?’
Nora considered a moment. ‘Give it six months.’
I loved her propensity for asking a question when she already knew the correct answer but wanted to let you make a tiny fool of yourself. The best example of this was when we were discussing a popular book and she earnestly asked, ‘Did you think that was a good book?’ I said, ‘Well, yes,’ before Nora came back, sharply, with ‘It wasn’t.’ I later told this story onstage with her, and she laughed as though she knew it was one of her most awesome tricks.
Nothing I’ve read implies that Lena Dunham’s mother was or is an absent mother, but when I read and reread this tribute I’m struck by the ‘mothering’ qualities it describes and how they parallel those in Ruth Rendell’s friendship with Jeanette Winterson. Do women writers need this kind of relationship even if they’ve been well mothered, because ‘mothering’ of women writers is largely absent from the public sphere? I’ve also come to understand these mothering relationships as providing a serviceable and life-enhancing ‘hinges’ for artists of various kinds, which help to integrate domestic and arts practices and public activities. And that made me think again about the ‘hinges’ which connect my domestic life, writing and filmmaking and my activism. I concluded that one of them is the washing. The other is the parenting I’ve received at IIML, which I’ve referred to before as a domestic environment that suits women writers.
This image is from Joanna Margaret Paul’s short film Nappies. Joanna (1945-2003) was a friend. Her mother, artist Janet Paul, also mothered young women artists alongside her own four daughters. Joanna articulated the hinge between domestic and arts practices better than anyone else I know of:
As a woman painting is not a job, not even a vocation. It is part of life, subject to the strains, and joys, of domestic life. I cannot paint unless the house is in order. Unless I paint I don’t function well in my domestic roles. Each thing is important. The idea that one sacrifices other values for art is alien to me, and I think to all women whose calling it is to do and be many things. To concentrate all meaning and all energy in a work of art is to leave life dry and banal. I don’t wish to separate the significant and everyday actions but to bring them as close as possible together. It is natural for women to do this; their exercise and their training and their artistry is in daily living. Painting for me as a woman is an ordinary act—about the great meaning in ordinary things. Anonymity pattern utility quietness relatedness.
Is it possible that Ruth Rendell’s and Nora Ephron’s mothering of women in the next generation of writers manifests the idea of bringing significant and everyday actions as close as possible together? And that ‘the washing’ is one of those everyday actions, like making a home, that helps to do this? The washing’s insinuated itself into my work processes at least twice I can remember, when women used pegs as a metaphor to explain ideas. The first time, it was filing. “It’s like your washing,” said the expert. “You sort items into categories when you wash them and then you peg them out according to category. All the jeans together. All the towels together.” I was embarrassed to explain that o no, that wasn’t how I did it at all. The second time, it was scriptwriting: “You peg the story on the line, action after action after reaction after action (etc).” (I struggled with the linear nature of this process. And still do.)
I’m wary of essentialism. As I work my way through this essay I know that there are many women whose experiences are different than mine. But I’m going to argue that washing’s a more significant presence in most women’s lives than in men’s. Take my sons. I taught them to do their laundry and the family’s laundry, ‘the washing’, when they were very young. But its exigencies aren’t embedded in them. Last Easter, they all stayed here, with two other male relatives. And one son saw me with a laundry basket and said “It’s just like home! J always has a laundry basket on her hip”. Another son was staying a few months ago, and as I organised the washing he said “S is always organising the washing”. When S-his-girlfriend said “It’s important,” he looked unconvinced, said something like “Yes, but I don’t need to think about it until the pile’s substantial”.
One of Tillie Olsen’s greatest stories I Stand Here Ironing is about a mother who feels she has failed her daughter. I just re-read it and it made me cry, as it does every time. Here’s the ending:
She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.
Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom — but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know — help make it so there is cause for her to know — that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.
I recognise the meditative rhythms of the daily washing in this ironing story, how the everyday keeping-things-clean-and-tidy can become a meditation that generates a story, an image, a poem, and link those rhythms back to Joanna’s manifesto.
After I began to think about the role of washing, I started a Pinterest board to try to understand it further as a motif in women’s art and writing and as a domestic concern that punctuates their (our) work practices. It includes photographs, a poem and a pantoum from Twitter friends, a clip of Patti Smith showing a baby shirt and talking about her bleach-free household, an early Lily Tomlin washing skit, books where laundry’s foregrounded. On Twitter, Erika Mitchell, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey has described “doing endless laundry for her son and sorting out his rugby kit”: the washing’s big in her life, too. And I took the beginning of that laundry thinking into what I wrote about a workshop at IIML.
The International Institute of Modern Letters As Hinge
I naturally absorbed ideas about women, sexuality, power from the subjectivity of male poets…the dissonance between these images and the daily events of my own life demanded a constant footwork of imagination, a kind of perpetual translation and unconscious fragmentation of identity: woman from poet.
Adrienne Rich, from Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother p186
As I wrote earlier, I’ve written before, and with love, about the support that the IIML gives women writers, including me. I’m forever grateful to it as an institution, and to the individuals who work there. But when I returned for a workshop after a time away, I understood that alongside all the privilege of being there, there might have been gendered practices that compounded the domestic and other good mother absences.
For years after I was introduced to Adrienne Rich’s writing, I read only women’s work (except for men’s crime writing). That helped me avoid dissonances between men’s writing and “the daily events of my own life” and to appreciate how diverse women responded to the question that Muriel Rukeyser asked in Kathe Kollwitz “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” But at IIML I learned that I can earn a lot from men, too. So I’m more open to their wisdom than I used to be. That’s why I listened to Teju Cole.
It’s late afternoon. I’m done for the day, so I open the IIML newsletter, for a bit of R&R. And I read that Teju Cole’s coming to Wellington to give a masterclass at IIML and a reading at Unity Books, with a Q&A.
Of course I google him. And see that he’s into John Berger (one of my great loves, though I never got into his fiction and poetry). And into specific cities (as I’m into Wellington and the streets close to my home, after years around Bill MacKay’s street paintings of people in nearby Courtenay Place and Cuba Mall). And that he’s from Nigeria: thanks to Beti Ellerson I’m hugely interested in women filmmakers in African countries; and because of Wellywood, I’m also interested in Nollywood, along with Hollywood and Bollywood. And I read about his novel Open City and Brussels as an open city. Remember my friends in Rennes who came there from places like Iran and Iraq and Chile and Somalia and Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, because Rennes was one of France’s open cities for refugees. (There was another word for it though, a reception city?)
…a form of writing for which there is no exact English term: fait divers. This is a French expression, in common use for centuries, for a certain kind of newspaper piece: a compressed report of an unusual happening. What fait divers means literally is ‘incidents,’ or ‘various things.’ The nearest English equivalent is ‘news briefs’ or, more recently, ‘news of the weird.’
There are many ‘serious’ writers on Twitter. But few seem to be as serious about their tweets as they are about their writing for other kinds of publication. Maybe because (like me) they use their 140 character tweets primarily to share useful information about what’s going in their worlds? Small Fates does something different and I have some questions. Next, I read Teju Cole’s The White Savior Industrial Complex where he quotes John Berger: ‘A Singer May Be Innocent But Never the Song’ and he provides an analysis that I want to share with my sons. I envy the people in the masterclass. And I tweet my envy and my desire.
Of course I’m not the only one. Other writers know a treat when they see one. Quite different than a reading, even a warm and stylish reading, even a Unity Books classic.
One of them tweets Teju Cole directly. His answer’s kind.
Yep! All over Wellington excited writers prepare for the visit. For example:
And then, I go to a launch at Unity. I don’t often go to launches. But this one’s special, because the book’s by one of my PhD classmates. Lawrence Patchett’s I Got His Blood on Me.
By now, Teju Cole’s dropped out of my over-busy mind. But he’s at the launch. And about the same size as the rest of us, with a quiet-and-thoughtful-look I like. My envy surges back. I ask a mate who’s still an IIML PhD student (and one of the most-hard-working people I know): “You going to the masterclass?” And he says “No, I just don’t have time”. I suggest I take his place, and because he too is kind he says “Sure”. I go home and ask an IIML contact, another kind person, for permission to join the masterclass. May I take my mate’s place? Before I sleep an encouraging response arrives from him. I text back:
Tx a million! Am shining w gratitude & hope, lovely change from puzzling over old age & death.
And when I wake up in the morning there’s another text, sent after midnight:
…thats fine. Masterclass is 3-5pm Fr – ie today – at IIML. Enjoy!
I text straight back:
Ooooh yay! So thrilled! A huge thank you! Feel so lucky!
The sun shines. I bring in the carpenter’s dry laundry. Behind the washing line, under the bare-branched pear tree, many violets are in flower. I admire them. I hang out the carpenter’s wet laundry. I tread in cat shit. I clean the treads on my left shoe.
Back inside, I read more tweets:
I read my emails. One from Siberia outlines distressing news about Side by Side, an LGBT film festival travelling within the Russian Federation. The headline reads:
Lynch Mob Like Tactics From Homophobic Youths and Inadequate Police Protection Force Side by Side LGBT Film Festival to Cancel the Third and Final Day of the Event in Novosibirsk
The police protection was inadequate partly because the officers were outside the film festival building, overseeing a picket in support of a homophobic law, about to have its second reading in the Novosibirsk parliament.
I spend the morning researching and writing a blog post to support Side by Side. Put it online. Grab the carpenter’s dry laundry off the line. Throw it on a chair. And run down the hill to Erin Greenwell’s My Best Day at Wellington’s LGBT festival, Out Takes. Then out into more sunlight, onto the bus and up to IIML. I want to be there early.
I am early. Walk past the cherry tree I used to watch from my office window, its bare branches as beautiful as its spring flowers will be. In the IIML front door, to a crowded foyer; it’s a little foyer, easily crowded. And the first person I see is Teju Cole. We exchange tiny smiles and I slip past the others: more smiles and a warm thank-you-for-letting-me-come from me. And then down the stairs to ‘the room’.
IIML’s Twitter profile says: ‘New Zealand’s oldest and most distinguished creative writing programme. (And we have the best harbour views. The profile photo is taken from our workshop room.)’. The profile photo shows the view.
When you enter the workshop room, you walk through a glass double doorway into a rectangular room the size of a large-ish lounge. The window with ‘that’ view is to your right, a windowed wall. Next to it, the windows continue along most of the longer wall, in front of you when you walk through the door. Immediately through those windows is an old flowering plum’s uppermost mass of branches and twigs. I love that tree too. The wall opposite the big view has a screen.
For most classes, there’s a circle of comfortable armchairs around a long low table. Usually around twelve. Each MA stream (two writing for the page, and one scriptwriting) has ten students and the PhD group a couple more. I think the circle can accommodate as many as twenty people if there are visitors, as when ‘second’ PhD supervisors visit from other parts of the university. But today there will be more than twenty people, and the armchairs and some additional (less comfortable) chairs are in rows, facing the screen.
I’m here early because I’m always sad when I reach this room and need time to get over it. I’m an activist. I explore media convergence. And because I’m visually oriented, never studied ‘literature’ and have never been a serious writer for the page, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by what I don’t know about reading and writing fiction and poetry. Often I don’t know how to identify what I need to know and where to find it. With images, I have fewer problems. And I was at IIML for only eighteen months of my PhD. I needed more time with the on-to-it other PhD students and with Bill Manhire’s astonishing questions. Another eighteen months in this room and I’d have been right, I believe. A major regret.
No-one else is here yet. I do a Goldilocks and find where I want to sit. Second row, against the doorway wall and at 45 degrees to it, half-facing the plum tree. I can pay attention to Teju Cole in front of the screen and see the big view if I turn my head slightly. Comfortable chair. Just right.
And then I sit with my sadness. Remember how lovely it is when the plum begins to flower. Remember another Friday, sitting about here in the circle facing Lorry Patchett, whose turn it was to present to the group. Observing his impressive pile of ‘post-it’-ed books. Trying to keep up with his sophisticated-but-a-little-uncertain discussion of creative non-fiction. And I come right, warmed by gratitude for this place.
Others arrive. Nearly all women. No surprise. More women come here than men. They do well. And they do well when they leave, especially those who write for the page: publication is more straightforward than production and women writers are more welcome in New Zealand’s literary world than in its screen and theatre worlds. The strangers around me introduce themselves. The woman next to me asks me about the readings. The readings? I say. Was there prep? She hands me her copies: Aha, the Sebald and Coetzee that Tina mentioned in her tweet. I speed read. Four PhD students arrive and settle themselves together at the back. Everyone talks. A couple of extra chairs are added near the door, for latecomers.
Teju Cole enters. The talking slows. A male student walks in and Teju Cole comments on the gender imbalance in the room. Five men? Twenty-five women? He mentions his Art History PhD work, how there are many women art history students, but all the professors are men. He gets it. We get it. Later, in this room filled with apparently Caucasian people – though we know that’s not so – he refers to the white straight male norm in stories about New York. He gets it.
The talking stops. The intro starts. And then the intro’s over and everyone’s on alert. Teju Cole explains the agenda. An hour with the readings, then a discussion of Open City. Then Small Fates. And then he says that he’ll call on individuals. For a moment I’m back in the torts lecture theatre with Professor Palmer and his seating plan, on a day when I haven’t prepared. O hell. I shift slightly until I’m well hidden behind two women in the front row, drop my head, open my little Moleskine and start writing.
It turns out the ‘the poets’ group didn’t receive the readings either. And when a pile of photocopied readings is brought through the door and passed around, I help myself. Then, as the pile reaches the back row, hear that the copies are only for the poets. O hell again. Swivel slightly, check that everyone else has copies. Whew. Don’t have to stand up and offer the ones I shouldn’t have taken. I settle in to listen with care.
I love the way Teju Cole discusses the way the writers construct the first person narrator in The Emigrants and the third person narrator in Disgrace, and the contributions from the class. I follow as closely as I can, taking notes. And again when he starts to talk about Open City.
As always there are moments when my whole body listens and I can’t move my pencil, so my notes have big gaps. And I have some questions, mostly about the differences between writing for the page and writing scripts and tweets. For instance, when Teju Cole talks about Coetzee drafting Disgrace, and having to make the reader want to stay with the main character, he doesn’t mention the Save the Cat strategy used in scripts, where writers make an unloveable character do something loveable early on. Is that a strategy novelists use too? Will check that out. He says he uses reported speech in Open City because he likes the way it looks and because reported speech doesn’t look as though it’s claiming total recall; the narrator is ‘really real’ and therefore not claiming total recall. Does he also like the way dialogue runs down the page in scripts? (I do, because my eye takes in the page as though it is listening, or breathing in the words.)
I don’t ask my questions because I’m an unprepared ring-in and if – as I suspect – I’m the only scriptwriter in the room and the only person obsessed with media convergence, my questions are probably inappropriate. But when we reach Twitter, in the last half hour, Teju Cole talks about writing whole sentences on Twitter. And I can’t help myself. I ask about ampersands and punctuation, my question overlapping with someone else’s. A whole sentence includes punctuation he responds. The sentence is the best technology for transmitting states of mind. If we use perfectly balanced old-fashioned sentences the reader is affected but can’t tell you why. I want to ask again: What about ampersands? I love their use in poems, isn’t there a place to cross them over into ‘full’ Twitter sentences? I love their use in some friends’ hand written letters. I also love their use by scriptwriters to distinguish two equal writers (Teju & Cole) from ‘the writer’ and another or others who worked on the screenplay. But thinking about it later, I realise that I never see ‘&’ within printed prose on a page. All this is the kind of stimulus I need.
After an hour on the readings we have a break. I talk to the woman next to me about places we both know: Teschmakers-Chapel Karitane Oamaru Kakanui Seacliff Warrington Waitati Waimate. There are apricots dipped in chocolate to eat. I relax into the familiar and pleasant, knowing that I’ve either done my prep for the Open City and Twitter sections or won’t need it.
My crap note-taking and crap memory fail me here. I think that Teju Cole listed some writers in that first hour and more writers in the second. But he may have done it only in the second (or the first). Anyway, there were Seebald and Coetzee and Whitman and Baldwin and Walcott and Heaney and Kavafy and Elizabeth Bishop and some others and Emily Dickinson. And as he moved on from the (first?) list I wanted to ask him “What about Rukeyser?” whom I always associate with Whitman. Muriel Rukeyser, of whom Adrienne Rich wrote: “She was never literally lost, but we still have to reach her”. What does Teju Cole think about her, I want to know, but again I don’t feel able to disrupt the flow. And then, as we all enjoy ourselves in that second hour, as I relax, and perhaps after the second (or the only) listing of almost all male influences, into a tiny spare perception-space slips a sudden sharp thought: This Is How The Master Narrative Is Transmitted To Attentive Women Writers. In rooms like this. Benevolently. Uneasy, I push the thought away. But in the Twitter discussion it comes back.
According to Teju Cole, his Small Fates are both a way to confront mortality and to interrupt the flow of Twitchat. Here are some stories from today.
That day, he tells us that what makes his project work is the facts; each story has a name, place and date. And each tweet takes up to twelve drafts. When he shapes and shapes the tweets to affect the reader, he uses commas to ‘control velocity’ (I *love* that).
Then Teju Cole takes a Dominion Post out of his bag and reads us a paragraph, inviting us to experiment with him and write a tweet. There’s an ungendered child in the story. And in one draft Teju Cole refers to him with a masculine pronoun.
Then the official two hours are over. ‘The poets’ leave for their next gig. The mothers. The train people. As the numbers diminish, the tweet-talk becomes more intimate. I could participate. And what could I offer? Which of my questions or stories? Not questions about gender that bring a lifetime’s grief with them. Not the disruptive questions, crashing into this generous writer’s R&R time. And my Twitter stories all relate to those questions. I gather cups and glasses from under the empty seats around me, thank Teju Cole and take the glasses to the IIML kitchen. Take pleasure from cleaning them.
By the time I reach home the washing on the line is evening-damp.
Are You My Mother?
How many of us women in that lovely room felt any gendered dissonance? I don’t know; I haven’t asked around. Because of my awkward relationships to ‘literary’ reading and writing I had to attempt to translate at every level, so my perception of a gender issue sneaked through and surprised me. Maybe it was different for the other women there. Maybe they took what what they needed, with gratitude that I share. But I worry. I feel that something’s lost, has been lost for a long time. And I want to reach it.
Months later, I go to a Writers on Monday session, one of an annual series at Te Papa Museum of New Zealand, organised by IIML. Blood and Money: Gigi Fenster, Kirsten McDougall, and Lawrence Patchett. And Damien Wilkins from IIML as chair. I go to hear Lorry, but enjoy all three. All IIML graduates. All with new books, their first books. All with male protagonists in their new books. Damien asks a them a question about gender. “The voice came first and I wanted to have that freedom,” answers Kirsten, and Gigi agreed with her. Aha, I thought. Listening to men’s voices, reading men’s work, does that mean that men’s voices are more likely to come first?
Of course I believe that women should be free to explore whatever and whoever they wish, in fiction and in film. And there’s lots of New Zealand women’s fiction with women as central characters. But I’d wondered why New Zealand women feature filmmakers tend to tell stories (as narratives or docos) with men as central characters and concluded that it’s possible that if they do this they’re more likely to find investment for their projects. But is it possible that men’s voices, men’s stories are also more seductive? Is that why New Zealand cinema has no woman protagonist who’s unforgettable?
The week after Blood and Money: Gigi Fenster, KirstenMcDougall, Lawrence Patchett, it’s Bill Manhire’s turn in the Writers on Mondays programme – Songs of My Life: Bill Manhire. Off I go along the waterfront holding my munted umbrella by the edges of its drooping canopy, wouldn’t miss Bill’s session for the world.
And it’s worth it for the poems. For hearing that like everyone else Bill writes out of his own inner weirdness. And because I have my little Moleskine and am thinking about this post, I jot down the names Bill and Damien Wilkins – again the chair – refer to.
James K. Baxter. Alan Curnow. R.A.K. Mason. Seamus Heaney (at some length). Lorca. Robert Creeley. James Wright. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (associated with Emily Dickinson). Denis Glover. Hone Tuwhare. Carl Stead. Phillip Larkin. The Brothers Grimm. Robert Lowell.
Emily Dickinson. Edith Sitwell. Eileen Duggan. Sylvia Plath. Janet Frame. Barbara Anderson.
And. Jocelyn ‘Tui’ Wilkinson.
Jocelyn ‘Tui’ Wilson was born in Dunedin in 1901, lived in Europe and North America, and died in London in somewhat mysterious circumstances in 1939. Her poem cycle ‘Tranmere Road’ was published privately in 1920, and her subsequent notoriety is said to have inspired a character in an E.F. Benson novel. Letters from the Levant appeared in 1928. These two poems are taken from a large body of unpublished material, and suggest her ambivalent relationship both to the country of her birth and to religious belief.
According to Bill, writer Jo Randerson and other women invented Jocelyn ‘Tui’ Wilkinson. Again, I started to listen hard and couldn’t take notes. But I think the group planned to create Jocelyn ‘Tui’ Wilkinson’s house on Mount Victoria, where people could visit. They planned Jocelyn ‘Tui’ Wilkinson products. And when they applied for Creative New Zealand funding they wanted to include some Jocelyn ‘Tui’ Wilkinson poems. So they asked Bill to write some. Sport published two of these poems. Bill used Emily Dickinson and Eileen Duggan and I think (that memory again!) another poet as reference points when he wrote the poems. (Eileen Duggan 1894-1972 wrote Bequest which I placed next on the right on my poem mural below, made with friends at the Women’s Gallery in 1981 as part of Bridie Lonie’s Women & the Environment exhibition and associated programme. I’ve looked for Bequest and can’t find it again; it’s marvellous – refers to the Pleiades, like the Sappho poem.)
And I wonder, why did Jo Randerson & Co ask Bill, and not a woman poet, to write the sample poems? Bill, who is a tireless advocate and mentor for women writers. And I wonder, where are the Good Mothers like Ruth Rendell, Nora Ephron and Janet Paul in today’s New Zealand? Does it matter if they don’t exist?
In January, I get my gold card. Get over it, I tell myself. The absent mothers, the pervasive fathers, the constant washing. Finish your play.
There’s a companion piece to this post here. And yes, I thought ‘o no, there can’t be more’, too. But there was. And that’s it, for now.
First published in Looking Like Sean Connery 20 November 2012.
And then I found an image of the Eileen Duggan part of the mural.
I was uneasy about publishing this essay because I hadn’t asked the IIML workshop participants for permission to publish what I wrote about my experience of the workshop. If I’d gone to the workshop with the intention of doing this, I would have asked at the beginning of the session. But I didn’t expect to write about it at all. So when I finished the essay I contacted Teju Cole who gave his permission to publish and then Damien Wilkins, the workshop convenor, who gave his permission. I still feel uncomfortable but not uncomfortable enough to take this offline, back into my private notes.