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Paul Maunder's blog

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Writing

The business of writing

As part of developing a literature programme centred on Blackball (which has a literary and activist tradition), the co-op running the programme gained funding from Creative NZ for a 4 week residency  in a miner’s cottage donated for the purpose by West Coast historian, Brian Wood. There was a modest stipend attached. A kaupapa was set: working class, activist, possibly looking at the portal to the future, Coast referenced – and writers at any stage of their career could apply.

The response has been considerable and as the cottage was described as Spartan and the stipend is around the minimum wage, it has to be the kaupapa that has attracted people. Given the book market ever more narrowly focusing on crime, romance, cooking, gardening, health and biographies of sporting heroes, there is hope in this.

Reading through the applications I was surprised by the range of writing and writers. Universities play a big role, with writing courses almost obligatory; and then the specialties. History offers employment opportunities especially through tiriti claims, there are technical writers employed by corporates and government departments, people write about architecture and heritage sites for councils and DOC, there’s the educational market, the health market, the advocacy market, there is biography and memoir, there’s journalism, blogs and opinion pieces for web sites and newspapers, before we get to fiction with its genres and poetry with its personal vision.

There are the myriad competitions and on line journals and magazines. The successful writer becomes either a toolkit (the technical writer) or a brand offering content for a researched market. Readings, book signings, festival appearances  and interviews become a performance. Every publication, every speech given, every workshop held is necessarily recorded. Brand and voice become blended. It requires a lot of diligent work for the free-lancer who remains poorly paid and it is still best to nestle somewhere in a university department if at all possible. Writers of fiction are apt to find themselves dreaming of the best seller which can bring fame and fortune. And then of course there are the intermediaries: publishers and editors and marketers and patrons.

It’s a minor industry and begins with the solitary person confronted with the blank page or the empty word document. It has certainly made me ponder, for I write primarily in order to work out what I’m thinking. If I don’t write I begin to feel like a clogged up drain. Is that useful to anyone else? Sometimes. It means I can read someone else working out what they’re thinking and comment effectively. And vice versa. If there’s a story involved that’s a bonus. But there’s always a story involved. As Berger says, writing is an approach to experience and prior to printing and capitalist production sits the storyteller, surrounded by the whanau after the day’s work has been done, feeding the imagination and making sense of the world.

See how quickly one travels from the market place. The cave, the fire, the miner’s cottage. A sense of place. A promise of a better world.

Maybe this rapid movement away from the market place led to the flood of applications? Perhaps that movement is what is now necessary? The European left has a new paradigm: not the market, not the state, but people to people.

story telling

Dean

In the midst of the corona virus melodrama, normal life and death processes seem to be suspended or unnoticed. Hospitals are vacant and doctors’ surgeries sparsely attended. But last week, playwright, Dean Parker unexpectedly died and grief must be registered, outside his bubble.

Dean was a prolific writer of the well-crafted three act play (so prolific he has at least 38 titles to his credit). Dean’s career paralleled that other writer of well-crafted plays, Roger Hall. But whereas Roger has written about the foibles of the Kiwi middle and wanna-be middle class  (who tend to be the theatre goers) and as a consequence achieved popularity with that mainstream audience, Dean was a leftie who wrote about political subjects and social contradiction, so had a career-long struggle getting his plays produced. Rather than bums on seats he was interested in ideas in the mind. He required a national theatre like the Royal Court with managers who hold onto the Greek democratic tradition of the theatre playing a vital role in the necessary  debates among citizens, rather than the NZ provincial theatres’ struggle to survive as they compete with beers around the barbie and commercial television..

Dean was never bitter about the struggle to get his plays produced and he kept on writing no matter what. Of late, BATS in Wellington proved a more sympathetic venue, with a small theatre company being keen to put on his work.  But a BATS co-op is not capable of providing a living and Dean never bothered the arts council, so he sensibly made his money though writing for film and television. This led to his work helping to found the NZ Writers Guild which set itself up as a trade union negotiating on behalf of writers with the main employers, National Radio and Television and the NZ Producers Association. Despite some initial success this remains an uphill struggle.

Dean became renowned as a script doctor for film projects – if a script wasn’t working send it to Dean. He had a lovely story. Once the producers of a film about to go into production were tearing their hair out over a script that had gone through umpteen versions and called on him to help. Send me the first draft, he requested. They did so and he retyped the script and sent it back with his invoice. That’s it, they enthused, that’s what we’ve been looking for.

He had a sardonic relationship with the Auckland Theatre Company which was logically his production house. But think of the Remuera crowd, they would plead with him as he presented them with another well-crafted play written from within a working class consciousness. Fuck them, he would reply.

Like any expert craftsman he kept himself out of the work, although for a playwright that is difficult. He admitted the influences of Catholicism and his Napier teachers, his mother, the themes and events of the late sixties, the Irish struggles and his flirtation with the Party. He loved James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s monologue. Of all his plays, Greek Fire, set in Cairo during WW11 and with John Mulgan at its centre, seems most like him. Sadly, I don’t think it has ever been produced. I saw a rehearsed reading and it has stayed with me. There was something of the foreign agent to Dean, the cadre in hiding, the monk in his cell, and he felt a kinship with John Mulgan, the Kiwi who wrote Man Alone, went to Oxford, served with the British Army, worked with the Greek resistance, experienced the dreadful betrayal of that country’s left after the war and committed suicide.

Dean remained stalwart during the post-modern fragmentation, was always generous and always ready to meet for a beer at the Grey Lynn Working Men’s Club when I was in Auckland. We would swap yarns. He was the one who suggested a working class museum in Blackball. I never attempted the mainstream theatre but like Dean kept on working no matter what and he appreciated that.

He will be sadly missed, a man out of his time, out of place in some ways, yet resolutely creative, maintaining a culture which , one day, hopefully soon, the world will return to.

RIP comrade.

The Writer

Reading Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water again, reminded me of how elemental she is to NZ writing. For she was just a writer, whose sole task is to find the words to describe people and environment. Her madness, which is unexplained except as a nervousness, an anxiety about the world, gave her the content. It forced her into contact with society as madness, made up of the patients and the staff of the looney bin; the asylum as microcosm.  She is not interested in politics except as a sort of class system among the mad, which led to patient distribution to this ward or that. The patients and their peculiarities, the staff and their’s, the natural world – that’s it. The writer’s task is to write. There is no explanation, no Freud or Jung here, the madness just is. ECT is administered to enable forgetting. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, best to forget it. ECT will help the process. If that doesn’t work, a leucotomy.

We know the story of her being saved from that by a story, by publication, the doctor realising she was a writer and therefore it was a mistake to fry her brain permanently.

Writing, once she was out of the bin, was a restoration of memory through writing. She lived reclusively, for the shyness, the anxiety presumably remained. But as pure writer, as writing as a singular vocation, she has no peers. The genius in the attic, or in this case, the provincial town suburb is a correct paradigm.

There is one description that remains with me: of her getting on the wrong side of one of the staff through perceiving an empathy for the patients lurking behind the brisk nurse’s mask. She is caught watching, caught understanding, becomes a caught-out consciousness, possessing the power which consciousness brings. Thereafter the staff member hates her and punishes her, for she has been exposed. It remains the writer’s dilemma: to shut oneself away and just write or to reveal her knowledge in the public arena and become threatening or foolish.

I can have that dilemma in the village in which I live. Consciousness is threatening, a negating of daily routine, of daily mask. To know can be an act of unkindness, even arrogance. Bill Pearson made no friends locally when he wrote Coal Flat.

There have been a lot of diggers operating in the area lately, so let me finish this post with a poem.

The mechanical arm

The compressed power

Of hydraulic fluid

The bucket scraping and lifting

The man in the cab

A strange animal

A beast of prey

Devouring the earth.

Time stands still –

Green leaf, insect life,

Worms, caterpillars

Aphid, grub,

Stone and rock

Powerless.

Flat and tidy the result

Ready for concrete or asphalt

Those lifeless materials

Of modern man

 

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