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

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