Talk notes: NZF Writers and Readers – Women Changing the World

Above: Anahera Gildea, Maraea Rakuraku, Michelle A’Court, Charlotte Wood, Charlie Jane Anders, Renee, Annabel Langbein, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Patricia Lockwood, Kim Hill and Harry Giles. Below: Jenny Bornholt, Louise Wallace, Tayi Tibble and Marianne Elliot.

Do you know how hard it is to draw people with microphones in front of their faces or lecterns, in the case of Michelle A-Court?

I made the mistake of trying to fit everyone onto the first page, which is why the second page is so empty. A special sorry to Selina Tusitala Marsh’s beautiful face. I chose the wrong angle to draw her from and did my best to recover. I’d like to think it’s dramatic rather than insulting. After all, the theme of the night was don’t police the way we present ourselves. I want a ‘grumpy face’ like Kim Hill’s.

Thanks to Booksellers NZ, for the ticket.

On leaving

I left a place. I drew a thing. I wrote a speech.

Leaving-Rangitoto

In “How To Tell A True War Story” Tim O’Brien says you can tell a true war story by how it never seems to end. I am sure many of you feel the same about leaving speeches. No one says “I’ll keep this brief” in a leaving speech and means it. We all become Polonius – caricatures of the right thing to do. Buffoonish. Moralistic. Liable to narrate our own deaths. “Oh, I am slain.” Leaving speeches never end, not just in the pejorative sense of them going on in their Tolkienesque way – “You thought that was it? Oh no, we still have the scouring of The Shire, baby” –  or feeling fraught with the violence of experience but also they also never end because they stay with you. That last experience stands in for your whole experience. If you’ve never seen them before, it IS your whole experience of them.

This makes endings important. They are how we shape our understanding of characters and people. People become characters to us. Endings give them an outline. Endings, oddly, make people whole. They pull them into relief. They highlight the pertinent and mundane. They equalise. Endings defy the unceasing soap-opera of our daily existence, our work that is never finished, our feelings of scarcity. In the nothing of the ending, in absence, we can see what we have. We can be full. I can get drunk on the emotion, the authenticity, the intensity of a severed connection.

And they connect with our own endings, whether they are good or bad. Because, they are a time for reflection. Because, if you are like me, you may be writing your own leaving speech right now. I have 9 and a half years of writing leaving speeches. It doesn’t matter that I have not wanted to leave, that I have known this place to be a great place to work. Despite this, while our beloved colleagues and friends have been up here, doing this, standing here, year after year, while they were fearfully, tearfully, formally putting a fullstop on their time here, I may have sometimes let my attention wander. I may have been writing my own exit.

Obviously the construction of the ending is something that English teachers cannot ignore. It can come up in the exam. And if we weren’t already preoccupied with the richness of doom and gloom, as if meaning was only found in unhappiness, we would still need to teach it. It’s hard to end well. When Charlie Kaufman’s character comes to screenwriter theorist Robert McKee in Adaptation about his inability to finish his film, he is told: “Wow them in the end. Wow them in the end and you’ve got a hit”. There’s a bizarre hubris to applying this to a leaving speech, to my own end. As if I could make myself a hit. As if anyone has that power. And yet, this is the closest I’ll ever get to giving an acceptance speech. And what’s the prize, anyway? Calling a leaving gift a prize would be a mistake. I’m going to propose that my prize is your attention – or the illusion of it since you are in your own heads trying to work out how you go. I get to control my end. I don’t go with a whimper, but with a bang – and can defy the hollowness of an exit unseen.

Ironically, all my imagined endings, my leaving speeches, have been all beginnings. It’s hard to think about endings without noting the beginning.  Mary Ruefle points out in Madness Rack and Honey that in life the number of beginnings are equal to the number of endings but in poetry we never end. Poetry continues off the page. It is never finished.  Leaving speeches defy the poetry of life. One of my favourite endings in literature does this. Vonnegut begins Slaughterhouse-five with the end. “So it goes”. It is inevitable. He recognises that we know where we are going. The question becomes not, “What will happen?” but “How will it happen?”  Perhaps I like it because this conception of the end opposes McKee’s flashy idea of the end that ‘wows’. It takes the pressure off. The narrative attempts to exist all at once.

I never finish these speeches. They are delicately confined to the time limit of other people’s swansongs. I’m interested by the term swansong –  the idea that the end is transformational – the point of becoming – the point of beauty.

These speeches have reflected my mood. I could fill a speech with lists of insightful things students have said – Like the time Joon Im described conflict as the clash of competing desires, or Grace Foot proposed that tragedy was exquisite or the time Rosie Luo said the crisis she’d had while writing her Hamlet essay had been one of consciousness because existential did not seem to fit.

Sometimes these unwritten speeches are anecdotes of my own humiliation – Like the time I showed a colleague a boob by accident or when I explained to some Geography students that, if they thought Rangitoto Island looked like a nipple, they clearly hadn’t seen any nipples or realising, when David Hodge said to me at the meet-the-principal thing at teacher’s training college that “Oh, you’re that Long Bay girl”, that perhaps putting my high school certificates into a CV may not be the done thing.

More often than not these unwritten speeches are odes to colleagues, treatises on the value of teachers. Endings, in this way, are about thanks. You all deserve to have speeches made about you, to blush with the understanding of your worth and then to generously feel that someone else deserved that praise more because you are better people than me. This would take more than the 10 minutes I have allotted me. Actually, the thing in front of you took roughly 10 hours **gestures at picture**. If you want to read what has gone off the edge, I have given the originals to Patrick Gale, who I feel is a good steward. I got a bit over-zealous. I forgot the limitations of the photocopier. But there many of you are, held in a snapshot – still, unchanging. Held at my end.

Freud said that the pleasure principle is actually a desire for the ultimate stasis – the end. I’m not necessarily a fan of Freud, but what Peter Brooks does with this idea when applying this to story, is point out that narrative endings give us something we never let as individuals –  the chance to see our lives as complete. This makes leaving speeches even more important. They give us a celebration of ourselves that we never get. This is the weight that the ending must bear. It must hold everything together. It not only must wow, but contains the burden of completion.

There’s a morbidity to this idea, of course. And when you don’t know the person, it’s like you skipped to the back of the book or are at a funeral for someone you don’t know. The intimacy bridles and prickles you and you shift about, feeling lost in an absence of context or possibility. You become aware of the people you cannot and never will know. That they are people with inner lives, and they were here, parallel to you, and now they are going. There’s a word for it, perhaps invented, – sonder – but it is heightened in this context as you become aware of them only at the point of leaving. They were closer to knowable than the strangers you sit alongside on the motorway or queue with in the supermarket and perhaps you feel you missed out. I often do.

I will apologise for removing this speech to the sphere of the meta, not in the modern sense, but in the Greek sense. I will not ask for forgiveness; I will give you an explanation. Metaphor originally meant to carry. To carry meaning from one thing to another. The meta speech, then, must attempt to hold all of the others. The meta is a greedy and loving act. It is my way of pulling all of the other speeches, unfinished or otherwise, yours and mine, past and present, inside and making them part of me. I can remove myself and stay apart of it.

A Kate Camp poem, “The biology of loneliness”, notes that ‘it is a mistake to come to the end of ourselves’. And yet, that is what I have to do. I have to come to the end of myself in this place. I’d like this to be more like the Maori proverb of walking backwards into the future than a proper ending. I’d like it to be an ending where we are are all part of the wharenui, the living story. This end is the crest of a backwards wave of time, which, in this moment I can see as complete but, in time, I will push out and out until I cannot see the shore line anymore. I will leave my end with you.

Talk notes: Weaving Words – 2017 NZATE conference

The theme of the conference, for me, was “Patricia Grace really is here, we promise.” Every time a speaker would try to locate the honoured guest there would be a kind of pleading in their voice.

“Is Patricia Grace here?” Pause for response. “Okay, I guess we’ll introduce her later.” She was the most slippery of taongas.

Cynthia Orr made her apology for bending copyright rules on Grace’s short story, “Butterflies”, to a room full of English teachers nodding in agreement, but Patricia Grace was not there.

“She was here earlier…” Another plaintive conference organiser explained. This really mitigated the somewhat offensive and claustrophobic notion that Grace was to sit ‘at the bar’ and be available for us to talk to. On show. I found myself feeling that the conference’s pet writer had other ideas. She would go where she pleased. I found myself thinking that she wasn’t at Waitangi at all.

When Grace was finally introduced, at the conference dinner, my experience was no different. A giant centre-piece of woven flax blocked her from my view. Part of me wanted to keep it that way. It seemed narratively apt for me to never see this unassuming giant of New Zealand literature. The sophisticated subtlety of her writing would get to match her presence. Powerful and invisible at the same time.

Then she spoke. And it wasn’t just a few words she had for us. She thanked English teachers for their interest, their copyright violations, for keeping her in print. She spoke of the power of representation. She spoke of things I don’t remember because I was not immediately prepared to take notes.

Patricia Grace was worth cheating my drawing rules for. The sketch above is not from life, like the others, but from a terrible low-light photo on my Samsung Galaxy, blown up as much as it would let me. It’s a terrible drawing. The notes are patchy.

I like the idea that she defied capture until the last.

Addendum: I have it on good authority that Patricia Grace chose the bar and stayed there for three hours. This is even better than I could have hoped for.

Otter-dogs 95: Prolepsis

I have one actual example of prolepsis that I can think of in my life; It involves a wall and two people much smarter than myself. I had forgotten about it until recently because I’d fallen out of touch with these friends. The story itself is a lesson in the consequences of forgetting so perhaps that’s appropriate.

The story is really simple. Two people proposed that I would stand on a wall. I, for some reason – the details of which escape me, was determined that I would never stand on the wall. Not in any possible future. Not any-when. It was not going to happen. There would never be any reason for me to stand on that wall of my own volition, unforced.

I guess prolepsis can only ever be a sort of accurate prophecy when applied to the real world. If prolepsis changes the question in narrative from ‘what’ to ‘how’, you can never really have real prolepsis in your life because you can never know for sure the ‘what’. I was fairly certain of this ‘what’, the idea that I would never stand on a wall, as trivial as that sounds.

It was a low stone wall, grass at its base. It fits your idea of what a wall looks like in your mind very well, I expect, apart from its lowness. The border between properties. The border between me and a different possible self. One who I never thought I would be.

Having been so sure, you would think I would have remembered my vow. No such luck. When I was next at their house, the two, very calmly walked up the lawn and onto the wall. I, having no idea what pre-meditated spell they had cast, followed. (It must be said in my defence that they made wall-walking very appealing). Mercifully, they did not gloat. It is not everyday that one gets to pull a person into a different universe and, as those of us who haven’t done it can imagine, it must be a very satisfying feat.

I was furious. Not with them but with myself. I had let myself become the person I never thought I would be. My other self, the self who never walked on that wall, had been forever abandoned. I don’t know why this was such a loss. Why would one self be more valuable than the other? At no point was I ever allowed both futures. I think it was the sense that I had betrayed this lost self that annoyed me the most. She had relied on me to keep her intact and my negligence had seen her vanish.

I guess what I’m saying is that prolepsis, in our temporal experience, is the point of realising your future has been already told. It’s a sardonic, “I told you so”, a reminder of our lack of control. It’s an exercise in humility. But it isn’t only that. It’s also a glorious point where things make sense, where ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ come together. And, for this reason, I’m grateful to have one example of this narrative magic.

Otter-dogs 92: A couple of moments

I’ve been re-reading Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud, which got me thinking about the choice of moment in comics. Otter-dogs tends to pack the moments in. Moment-to-moment is almost the only transition that I use.

This was fun and, in some ways, an elaborate excuse to share a couple of moments from the AWF.

Moment one: The moment where I started explaining to an officer that the reason I had been speeding was that I was late for a spoken word poetry show and let the end of the sentence quietly trail off.

Moment two: The moment where I was asked if I was the one who drew the comic about Katherine Mansfield. You know, because there is probably only one woman who knows how to draw or, perhaps, would have the gall to do it in public. I smiled and said that, “No, I am not Sarah Laing,” forgetting, in the moment, that I do actually draw a comic with Katherine Mansfield in it and this was the perfect opportunity for a spot of dopplegangery mischief.

Otter-dogs 90: Can an otter-dog be a cat person?

Not in my experience

Here’s a story that isn’t my own but has become one I tell, the story of Brandy the dog. Maybe utterance is better. If you are a person who separates story from plot, there are some events, some happenings, in a sequence, possibly fictional, from which to draw meaning from. They certainly meet the criteria for one version of what makes a story, even if it is my own incomplete one.

This story always starts with a discussion of dogs. Discussions to do with dogs have limited directions. Comfortingly ritualistic, they tend towards listing. List the things you know about dogs. Everyone gets a turn. If someone mentions a breed of dog you have owned, you are allowed to say something about that dog. If you also know something about the dog a person is discussing, you are able to say something too. If you don’t know the dog, you may ask questions about its temperament or habits. Don’t settle on one dog too long. Other people have dogs they want to discuss. And, if someone mentions that they like big dogs, I get to say, “Dad had a St Bernard called Brandy.”

I have a habit of narrating other people’s experiences. I catalogue them, match them to other situations, exhibit them.  In some sense we all become museums of the people in our lives. Involuntary display cases. Vast. Bewildering. Sheathed in glass. But I shove other people’s stories to the front while mine languish in the backrooms. They are my go-to when interacting with the world.

“I had a friend who…”

“My husband used to…”

“My brother, John, thinks…”

“My Dad had a St Bernard called Brandy.”

I think this is because I lack confidence in my own experiences. They don’t take up space. Or they haven’t been inflated. My experiences end, as Elliot says, like the world, ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. Even this is over-stating it, adding too much proverbial egg. I need to bolster my insubstantial narrative voice with allusions and posturing. By rubbing up against Elliot’s hollow men I can give the void an illusion of meaning.

First and foremost, it must be said, Brandy, my father’s St Bernard, was a racist dog. That is one of the ways the story starts.

My own anecdotes are all beginnings, and, if I ever venture to start them, I realise they aren’t going anywhere mid-sentence. It’s not the feeling of running out of train tracks; It’s the feeling that there never was a train. It’s in these awful moments that I perceive the eyes of my audience glazing over and mine do too. I wish the glazing to be sticky, thick and sweet. To distract. To distract from the fact that I have nothing. I hope for my story to be snatched away from me, while we clean the yummy from our eyes, to be completed by another. It’s the opposite of wanting to catch the pass-the-parcel. It’s the conviction that someone else could finish it better.  Help me complete it, I yearn. Save me from myself. I’m incomplete. I don’t have the stamina for the end.

My aunt had Brandy put-down while my father was out of the country. That’s another way the story starts. And ends.

Privately, I’ve always found it hard thinking of Brandy as a boy-dog. My associations with his name are markedly gendered in the other direction. The other Brandys I’ve known of are a namesake of an alcohol-induced conception and a pop-singer.  What dog-Brandy has in common with the other two Brandys, apart from his name, is that I never met him. He died before I was born. His end was before my beginning. Brandy-the-alcohol-tribute was a girl from another school who I was told about at a party. The drunk girl regaling me with this information had blond ringlets that bounced as she trumpeted the origin of her friend’s name and that of her sister, Midori. The drunk girl’s name was Bailey. She was drinking Baileys. I have no understanding of whether this story was a defence of her choice of liquor or an attempt to conjure some illusion of solidarity in numbers. I wasn’t drinking. This makes people nervous.

Later that night my friend, Catherine, would get too drunk on peach shnappes, pass out and leave a gluggy trail of drool on somebody’s mattress. I called her parents. I helped her into the car. The story left me there.

Brandy left Scotland for Malawi in a custom-made dog box, “They don’t make them that big”, and took an “instant disliking” to the indigenous population. This makes me feel uncomfortable. Having been disowned for his potential to eat sheep, Brandy turned his aggression towards ‘the other’.

Brandy was not always my father’s dog. He wasn’t there at the beginning. Dad was asked to take him on because his original owner’s neighbours were farmers. The farmers said that if Brandy killed a sheep, they would shoot him. I imagine these farmers as sensible people who looked on with horror at their neighbours ill-considered choice of dog. Sensible and practical. I don’t believe they were bluffing. Brandy’s owners were out of their depth. They did not like to be reminded of their neighbour’s practical guns and were secretly relieved that they would not have to maintain this growing mountain of a dog, so they found a man who would love him and he was shipped to Africa.

If I am not telling the story, if it has been mercifully taken over by my father or my mother, at this point I will ask, “Wasn’t Brandy hot in Malawi?” Somehow the answer, “No”, always slips from my grasp because it doesn’t seem possible that 100kg of dog could be happy in Africa. Yet, apparently, apart from his dislike of Africans, Brandy thrived. He was fed on grain and vegetables, given regular rabies injections and slept a lot. A good dog life. The way Dad tells it, Brandy was pretty well-behaved, not a sheep killer but a gentle giant. At least, he was good after Dad punched him in the face. Dad broke his hand but established himself as top dog.

My mother only met Brandy once but, because there is a photo of her and the dog, I think of Brandy as her dog too. Mum is so beautiful in the photo, neatly dressed, red hair vibrant, fresh faced. The dog reaches her shoulder, clearly twice her weight. She is standing stiffly, not out of fear but because it’s cold. They aren’t in Africa. It’s after Brandy was moved back to Scotland to live with my Nan and aunt, when he was past his sheep-eating prime. I only recently discovered that this was because Dad’s first marriage broke up. The photo is of Mum meeting the nearest thing Dad had, at that point, to a child. Many years later she would inherit my dog after the break-up of my marriage. She is wearing white socks. Maybe she hadn’t realised how cold it would be.

Brandy’s end is simple and off-stage. And, as with the beginning, Dad wasn’t present. Brandy had to be put down because he had developed epilepsy. 100kgs of epileptic St Bernard was not something my Nan and aunt could face. They were upset about it, they told my father. They were upset about it still by the first time I heard the story. All involved would assure themselves, “But 11 years is a good life for a big dog”. Nobody wants to terminate someone else’s beloved pet.

Much later, both Nan’s and my aunt’s deaths would happen off-stage for Dad as well. He would be in a different country, again, too much water away.