Sunday, July 12, 2020

Writer in Residence: Michael King Writers Centre

Below is a slightly amended report I submitted to the MKWC at the end of my two weeks writer residency:

July 11th 2020 of our year of Covid-19    
Tonight is my last night at the Michael King Writer Centre. I’m sitting in the Dame Chris Cole Catley Room because it’s warm but, more importantly, it’s a room filled with books. The Annette Isbey portrait of Michael King (what a handsome man he was) stares down at me – not judging, I feel, but encouraging me; urging me to haere tonu, haere tonu.
            Though I liked very much the writer’s studio, I worked out by the second week I liked being in the house better. It’s been raining non-stop and my writing uniform consists of pyjamas and wooly socks. When out in the studio, I cannot nip to the kitchen easily for a cup of tea or coffee without getting my feet wet. In the first week, this probably meant I got a lot more solid writing done.

My Project:
I planned to work on my memoir, The Writing Teacher, 50 years of New Zealand’s education system (1970- 2020). My first set of foster parents are here in Auckland and I was anticipating that I would also use the time to write a reflective chapter about teaching in the time of Covid-19 (not something any of us could have anticipated last year when I applied for the residency!)
            But, by the time I arrived in Devonport, I was already exhausted from 22 weeks of teaching (including working through the school holidays to prepare for online learning) and then six weeks of remote teaching. I was really worried the time I was at the Michael King Writer Centre would be wasted as I’d be too emotionally and physically spent to make use of the opportunity.
            Turns out, it was exactly what I needed. I was able to spend time with my foster parents interviewing them about their ‘take’ on the decision to foster me as a 16 year old. It was invaluable to fill out the memories I have of the early 1980s: what things were said in the staff room about me, how decisions were reached to ensure that I continued my education; the way the staff consulted with each other to help my foster parents (Wendy, my foster mother, was a teacher at the school) manage me and my sometimes challenging behaviour. Wendy was able to also provide excellent suggestions for other places to get information to ‘fill in the gaps’.
            Luckily, because of the Baily Collection in the Michael King Centre, I was able to browse texts which were perfect as memory joggers for those early primary school years.
            Because of the toll Covid-19 has had on me (on all of us), I did not write anything on the memoir apart from an essay on my reflections of the last term. However, I took lots of notes, including titles of books browsed in the Centre’s library which I know will be really useful to me when I am ready to get into the narrative of my life again.

 There is the saying ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. Being here at the Centre, looking through the books, especially the collections of short stories and poetry, as well as the educational resources in the Bailey Collection, has provided me with lots to go on with – things I would not have thought about to include or research further.

The other writing I did was work on book two of my Charlie Tangaroa series for Huia. I wrote 5,000 words, plotted out the structure and was able to ‘untangle’ some knotty bits as a result of reading some snippets of a couple books on the craft of writing from the bookshelf.
Charlie Tangaroa will be published September

At home, I would have been distracted by the demands of family and would not have slipped a book from the shelf, sat on the lovely couch, and read. I would not have given myself permission to do that. Here, as writer in residence, I felt I could – in fact, I felt it my duty to fill up with as much of what was on offer right here in the house.

Currently, I am working toward my Masters in Te Reo Māori and do have a 2000 word essay to write on poroporoaki. Once again, I found such wonderful texts to read and take notes from for my assignment. Texts I would not have known about to search up at the Massey University library.
            Finally, I wrote some teaching notes for one of my novels. I was able to do this over two days – completely uninterrupted; something I could not have done at home.

Other organisations or institutions
            On Wednesday, 1st of July, I presented a workshop to new (or new to New Zealand) English teachers at the National Library, hosted by AATEL. The title of my workshop was ‘The What, Why and How To’ guide for teaching writing to secondary school students.’
            There were 20 teachers plus four of the librarians in attendance.

            In week two, I caught the ferry again and visited Unity Book Shop (and Little Unity) and spoke with Briar Lawry (current judge for the NZ Books Awards for Children and Young Adults) and we discussed my upcoming novel, Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea. Also, I bought books (of course!)

Other Events
            Because of the uncertainty around Covid-19 restrictions, I did not arrange anything formal for the two weeks I was here. However, fellow writer in resident, Fifi Colston and I, along with Melinda Szymanik, visited Maria Gill at Point Wells on Saturday 4th July. We spent some time at the Matakana market and then the evening discussing the latest children’s books and the value of residencies for writers as Maria is writing an article for the Magpies magazine. 

On Sunday the 5th, we enjoyed a party in Westmere to celebrate Fifi’s 60th birthday. On Monday the 6th, I travelled with Jeannie Mclean to a crime writers monthly coffee meeting at Hobsonville Point. It was wonderful to meet and listen to New Zealand writers of the crime and thriller genre talk about their books, their current works in progress, and to receive advice about international marketing of New Zealand books.

Tania and Fifi, grateful creatives
            This place is beautiful: the bird song (despite the many days of rain), the garden, the walk to the top of Takarunga, the house itself: all just so wonderful. The bed was delicious to sleep in; the layout, provisions and amenities made me feel very spoilt. The time and the stipend was the boost I needed, for writing can be such crushing mahi. I am grateful that I got to share these two weeks with my dear friend Fifi. We spent many hours talking about our projects, about writing, about how lucky we were to have this opportunity. We encouraged each other daily and I actually confess to being a bit competitive toward Fifi and her steady, persistent work ethic. It was a motivation to keep going when I’d had enough of the writing I was doing.    Thank you to Tania and Jan for being such wonderful hosts, thank you to the trust for all the work you do to honour Michael King and thanks to Creative New Zealand for support with the funding. 

The photographs on the walls in the hallway, the wonderful range of novels, plays, collections, journals in the bookshelves, the artwork and poetry posters are testament to the depth and breadth of talent and creativity in this small community that is writers of Aotearoa New Zealand. 
The hallway with photos of alumni
The Writer's Studio

Auska the cat

Final day.

What a huge honour I feel now that I can add my name to the list of alumni. I can’t believe the two weeks has come an end but I know the gratitude I feel toward the trust for awarding me this residency (and my school for allowing me to take it),  never will.

Ngā mihi nui ki a koutou katoa.

Tania Roxborogh
11th July 2020

Friday, January 25, 2019

Advice from an ill disciplined but 'successful' writer

I'm not good with being told what to do but these TEN things I know about what I see in the world of 'successful' writers. Here's my advice for what it's worth: 

1) you've got to be good, really good, at writing. If you aren't then learn how to be - go to workshops, get a mentor, read good writing.

2) you've got to put the hours in. Mostly I hate it, this writing gig. It's exhausting, frustrating and often boring. And put the hours into the re-writing too.

3) see above - the truth that people don't see is that behind the shiny new book is hours of editing, re-writing, proof-reading and at least two other people's eyes looking at the work.

4) it isn't easy getting your work published. Especially in New Zealand. I have an agent. A well regarded successful New York agent. He's awesome. I have won awards. I have 30 books published. Yet, I have a rejection for every single one of them. Even publishers who have published previous books have turned down my latest.

5) You never 'make it' as a writer - you must continue to hone your craft. I am always reading posts by writers and editors I respect and I am constantly reading good books (and sometimes not good books).

6) I am 'successful' because I give back to the writing community and I try to be involved. In other words, I have made wonderful connections with other writery people who are my 'tribe'. I try to avoid negativity and keep polite - New Zealand is a VERY small place.

7) I am 'successful' because I am open to criticism and am totally willing to rework my writing.

8) I am 'successful' because I don't give up (even though I wish I could - it's exhausting getting rejected over and over)

9) Honestly, in my opinion, you don't want to be like me: I write in bed. I write on the couch, I sometimes write at my desk. I usually don't write enough. Especially lately. I watch HOURS of telly - HOURS. My husband and I love crime shows and thrillers and sci fi (he's a DC man but I love Marvel just as much). I 'could' be writing instead of watching tv but I watch critically and I love it.

10) Finally, if you 'want to be a writer' then you have to write. But, find a way to do that which suits you. When my children were small, I wrote while they 'played' or slept. Later, I wrote during weekends and school holidays. Sometimes I'm really focussed and disciplined; mostly I procrastinate and the birth of social media has been a wonderful distraction. 

Do your writer thing your way and don't feel guilty - unless you're not actually writing at all. In that case, go away and do some. Now. 
Go on. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Power of Protest; the power of words to change our world

What follows is a response I sent to a question asked on our English teachers' forum: "how to approach the violence in some of the texts [we're] teaching this year, so as to do more than wring hands about it; to use it as a vehicle for reflection and change."

I love my job so much - I love how much I get to be involved in the lives of young people who are so amazing and curious and angry and scared
My awesome Y11 class of 2016
and willing to try but needing guidance. So, this is what I said:

Firstly, (to paraphrase Edmund Burke) that the only requirement for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing should be one of the cornerstones of what we do what we do and why we are teachers. To me, being an educator is not about 'knowledge transference' alone but about helping make the (wider) world a better and safer place because, man o man, there are some really, really bad people out there.  

I've suffered terribly at the hands of bullies (when a child and as an adult), abusers (physical, emotional, sexual); I've seen or experienced first hand the heart break of racism, sexism, all manner of discrimination. My family has suffered as a result of cruelty and lies and judgement. Yet, despite these terrible things, I have endured. So has my family. 

And so has (and do so) many who have suffered such great injustices and heartbreak because, though the human propensity for violence is shocking, the strength of the human condition to survive and thrive and make the world a better place is at the core of why great literature, great story makes living on this earth bearable. It's no longer enough to teach the skills of reading and writing -  for what is the use of that, if they are not used to challenge all that is wrong in society and to celebrate all that is good?

Secondly, our rapidly changing world demands that we encourage our students to not sit back and allow 'evil to flourish'. We have to mobilise them and give them the tools and education to challenge their own thinking about difference and violence. It is NOT okay to accept causal racism, misogyny or homophobia (thank goodness) but our communities are stained by the nastiness of fear and judgement of difference. 

Scratch the surface of any institution, and there it is: the Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo movement; the Black Lives Matter movement and our own 'Roast Busters' and the Russell McVeagh 'open secret' of abuse of power.  And I'll add the vitriolic reaction to Guyon Espiner and RNZ using te reo Māori because that's the waka I'm on at the moment.
The comments on blogs and Twitter and Facebook show that, despite the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, Gay Pride Movement, people still have multiple forums to spew their fear and nastiness and so give voice to this 'evil'. We need to show our students this and unpack why it's there. 

Thirdly, we all ask this question when considering texts: what was the author's purpose? Or, 'what is it the author wanted me to learn, know and understand as a result of this text?' In my opinion, the answer is always about shining light on the human condition and to challenge the reader to reconsider their own view of themselves and, hopefully, modify the way they think and act. Make it personal and relateable. Using another paraphrase (from Atticus this time), that you never really understand a person until you climb inside their skin and walk around it, it is on us to do what we can to bring this understanding. Understanding is the antidote to fear and discrimination. 

A reader's short response to my novel
I have just finished reading Bastion Point with my Y9s and it has woken many of them up to our history and brought some understanding as to why Māori have continued to protest about land loss, the Treaty, and the importance of language. I have shown them news footage and let them listen to first hand accounts. Reading the text was only the start. I deliberately chose the novel because of a survey I did with all my classes last year around Māori language and protocols. The heartbreaking results have spurred me to try to challenge the thinking that the survey exposed - from disinterest all the way to open aggression against things Māori…I had to ask 'where is this anger coming from?' It is helpful too that, as the writer of the novel, I can first hand answer the question around author's purpose and I'm lucky I guess that I can do that but it's only one tool to help to challenge the negative mindset of so many.

Finally, I tell all my students that their voices matter; their words DO have the power to mobilise and make a difference. I tell them that they must never stop speaking out. My Y12s in particular have had a lot to say about the students from Stoneman Douglas High School and those who are speaking out. Those kids have cause, have the fuel to feed their anger and are using whatever means they can to speak out against the wrong. 

It's on me to provide the tools, the words, from the best minds so that my students have a fighting chance. Wisdom and words from Shakespeare, from Harry Potter, from David Hill, from Selina Tuilata Marsh. But also, Mike King and Lesley Elliot and Chloe Swarbrick.  Isn't it always the poets and the students who start the revolutions? I apologise that I am going to mangle metaphors and overstate things, but, as an English teacher in a NZ secondary school,  I see myself as the 'arms dealer' in the battles against all that is the wrong.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


“Some are born great, 
some achieve greatness,
and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.
Malvolio, reading, from Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ (Act 2, scene 5)

‘Are you winning?’ is a question an old boss used to ask. It was a colloquial form of ‘How are you?’ but, for him, was also about whether you were winning the battle against the pile of planks to de-nail, the fenceline staying plumb, or the job being finished before the weather packed it in.

Like my old boss, the motivational experts tell us winning is about not giving up; it’s overcoming obstables; it’s about picking yourself up when you’ve fallen. Which is all very good to try to encourage you when you are finding life hard, there are problems which seem to get in the way of success or when you fail.

But winning in the true sense of the word, as in, first place, the best in your class, a prize which cannot be earned just by showing up and doing the work, that’s a whole other matter. Especially in a world that feeds off headlines or putting people into catagories: first class, No. 1, champion, award winning...

I’ve written previously about the pain of rejection; about the delight in acceptance; not about how it is for me to win!  I feel a weight of responsibility with this win. And felt it leading up to the announcement. It is as if the wairua/spirit of the story of the fight for land for Ngāti Whātua and for all iwi stood behind me. My win or loss was going to be part of the narrative.

This blog post is an attempt at just that. To put into words how it felt to have my book Bastion Point win its category in this year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Firstly, after the immediate giddy delight, fumbling acceptance speech, tears, kisses, hugs, there was still a shadow of disbelief: Seriously? Am I like, good? Better than just good?

Secondly, there is guilt – for the disappointment the other contestents will no doubt be feeling – I have been there and that sort of gut punch is unpleasant and not wished upon others I admire and respect. Whose books I loved (more than mine but that's because of the 'familiarity breeds contempt' syndrome) and who I was convinced were more worthy.

Finally, there is fear mixed with relief: that that is ‘it’ – there is nothing more to strive toward. I’ve made it. I’ve done it. I’ve managed to snag that elusive ‘best in show’.

In talking with other ‘winners’ (past and present), it seems that we share this in common. There’s also the surprise at onlookers’ surprise when we say ‘we didn’t expect to win’ – as if we are being falsely modest. We’re not. See Juliette MacIver and Sarah Davies ruminate on who they expect might win their book’s category and then watch their faces when they learn they won!

It’s a strange beast, this writing lark: on the one hand, it’s all on us, the writer, to do the business. Yet on the other hand, we just couldn’t do the work justice without our Beta readers, our family, our cheer leaders, our agents, and our amazing editors. To miss out on an award is to feel disappointment for ourselves but also that we have let the team down; to win, like I did on Monday night, feels like I have given the best compliment, the best return of invested time, energy and talent to those who have continued to cheer me on. I’m sorry that in doubting myself, I doubted you. William Shakespeare has the best advice for us all hidden in this observation of human nature:
 "Our doubts are traitors,  and make us lose the good we oft might win,  by fearing to attempt.”
Measure for Measure