Bill MacKay at Seacliff with children, early 70s. photo: Ruth Gerzon

All our children asked me how I felt about Bill’s death.

But my memories of Bill are distant, as he is in the Seacliff landscape in the photograph. And (mostly) my feelings are distant, too.

For decades, I rarely saw him. Our last in-depth and loving conversations that I remember were sometime in the late ‘seventies. When we spoke after that, we did so mostly as friendly acquaintances-with-history, not as friends.

But what I learned from him and continued to build on is with me every day.

About poverty, from visiting his parents Mac (William John) and Edith Hyde (born Beck) at 76 Reid Road in South Dunedin, where the primary model for this drawing was in a prominent place.

About communism, from Mac’s devotion to Mao Tse Tung with the immediate evidence of his Chinese friends, including the local fruiterer who was very generous to the family, and the regular arrival of China Reconstructs.

About a woman’s life with an alcoholic, from Edith, who cooked on a coal range and occasionally in an electric frypan and hid the new vacuum cleaner under her bed so Mac wouldn’t rage about mis-spent money.

And from all that to some understanding of my own privilege.

About serious reading and about looking and making: Bill introduced me to John Berger. He would have introduced me to lots else if I hadn’t learned from John Berger that I needed to look for my own sources. And to try looking and making for myself away from Bill. And in collective contexts rather than as an individual.

About having children and being conscientious about supporting them while persisting with a serious arts practice and in a viable intimate relationship. This was hard and often unsustainable for him and made more difficult because he was living with an undiagnosed illness. But he did his absolute best. (I’m not sure I did.)

So, how I feel is mostly linked to images I remember from 1968-1981 (or so).

In 1968, Bill lived in a flat known as ‘The Wine Shop’, above the wine and fish and chip shops on the corner of Great King Street and Howe Street in North Dunedin, with various mates like carver Ross Smith and his dog Josh, leather worker Kristin Chance and poet and artist Peter Olds, who gave Bill this drawing.

Peter Olds Eagle Angel (ink on paper 41x57cm 1971)

I met Bill and Ross and Josh when I visited Kristin about a leather mini-skirt she was making for me. Lots of others stayed or visited. I met Bridie Lonie and Cilla McQueen here too. Others I easily recall are James K.Baxter, John Casserley, Juliet Walker (in alphabetical order).

I remember some big paintings Bill did at The Wine Shop, especially one of a figure with a collaged winter coat. But I can’t find any images of them.

Then, in 1969, we went to live in Auckland, at 77 Symonds Street and then 29 York Street in Parnell, where Dylan was born in early 1970. Bill often worked as a ‘seagull’ on the wharf and had a good mate called Bernie, an American who had a subscription to Village Voice.

I found this of (probably) ‘seagulls’ in the hold of a ship on Auckland wharves about the time Bill was there but am not sure who took it.

Bernie passed on copies of the Village Voice after he’d read them and we loved them.

I went to university and worked as a cleaner and after Dylan was born helped my friend Sue Spiller – who lived at 22 (?) York Street – run the cafe at Elam, the University of Auckland art school. I remember cinnamon buns, and pushing Dylan up Constitution Hill in his pram.

The earliest of Bill’s works that I can find reproductions of are those Bill did with/for poets when we lived in Seacliff from 1970-early 1975 (which I wrote a little bit about in my PhD, from p22) and then in Wellington. We went to Seacliff because my mother had a railway crossing cottage there and sold it to us. It had a wattle and daub building in the garden that Bill used as a studio.

After that, his street paintings from the late 70s; and the illustrations he did for Māori Publications in Ruatoki, in 1980.

The first work Bill did for a poet, that I’m aware of, was the cover and some illustrations for Trevor Reeves’ Stones (Caveman, 1972). Not great pics, from just before the Corona virus lockdown. I’m not very skilled at the best of times and under the Alexander Turnbull Library’s fluorescent lights I really struggle, too.


The energy in this drawing came, I believe, straight out of the emotional energies at Reid Road.

Stones p30 (more illustrations too, not reproduced here)

Then came the illustration for ‘The porch’ by Ian Wedde. The porch and the baby swing were at our place in Russell Road, Seacliff. But not, I think, the typewriter. I’m not sure we even had a phone then. Did we use the public phone at the Seacliff store? But we did have a washing machine, with an electric mangle that popped up viciously if fed with too many nappies at once.

Islands 7, 1974, 124-129

Then in 1975 I got a job at the Alexander Turnbull Library, and we moved to Wellington. And Bill made  ‘The beacon’, also with Ian Wedde.

Spleen 4, July 1976 14-15

This is a truly awful photograph of the double spread. Spleen was so good as a tabloid alternative to Truth, and I enjoyed reading old copies while I looked for this.

And now I remember that Bill did a whole lot of paintings on board with letters (& numbers?) in bright primary colours, like the strip of letters on the left of The Beacon spread. He exhibited them somewhere but I can’t remember where, possibly in Dunedin, where the Hocken Library bought a collage with similar colours, called Standing Couple 1971, 72/62. (1)

Later on some gloomier work superseded them from Bill’s proof sheet of mostly research photos that I found the other day. This was on paper.

I think the Hocken Library’s portrait of Peter Olds by Bill dates from around this time, though the library’s catalogue describes it (V2013-013-001 .oil paintings) as ‘ca.1978’. Or did Peter visit us in Wellington and Bill painted it then? It might be this one, a little blurry from that proof sheet.

Bill drew Alan Loney, too, for the cover of Alan’s Shorter poems: 1963-1977 (Auckland University Press/Oxford University Press, 1979).


I really like verso title pages. Not sure why… And this one is relevant?


And then, in 1977, Bill got a grant from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, the precursor to Creative New Zealand, to work on his street paintings.

Strongly influenced by Richard Estes’ photorealist cityscapes, he made a series set in Wellington’s Courtenay Place and Cuba Mall that featured shop window reflections, especially the electrical supplier in Courtenay Place and the poster shop in Upper Cuba Street.

Unknown title & dimensions, possibly oil on canvas or board.

From that proof sheet again, this photo, of an unknown man, outside our then home at 10b Oriental Terrace, which he used for this painting.

a passing model, outside 10b Oriental Terrace, near 10a (one of three photographs)

On the same proof sheet are other photos Bill took in and around Courtenay Place, which he used as research for reflections in shop windows and for shop signs.

Sue Thompson outside her dairy in Majoribanks Street and windows, traffic and people in Courtenay Place

And these in Cuba Street.

And he probably painted this, also from that proof sheet, as research too.


Bill also liked painting paper bags with groceries in.

Here’s another paper bag and the edge of me and my pounamu ring, wearing the leather skirt Kristin made.

Screen Shot 2020-04-11 at 5.04.05 PM
Poster Shop (oil on canvas 140x140cm 1977-1979)

I think Bill also thought about the young men he cooked for over one summer break, over in Hataitai. He loved that job and they enjoyed modelling for him.

And he loved painting June Salmon, mother of Kieran and Shevaugn (not sure about the spelling), who lived down the hill from us in Mount Victoria, in Levy Street, not far from the Thompsons’ dairy. I think that’s a kind of self-portrait at lower right, the artist smoker, looking.

Like the other Poster Shop painting this has beautiful and political detail that aren’t quite clear here. But these are the best images I can find (3).

Screen Shot 2020-04-11 at 5.03.24 PM
Poster shop (oil on canvas 126x169cm 1977-1979)

I loved Bill’s prep drawings for this.

Bill also painted people who reminded him of his mother. She was a very loving woman and he loved her right back. And he saw her sadness.

Edith Hyde MacKay 1970s

She and Dylan were both models for this painting.

Around this time, as I remember it (but I may be mistaken) Bill worked on the A&E desk at Wellington Hospital. And there was quite a while before or after when he was a wine steward, at the Royal Oak (I think). And this self-portrait accurately conveys his state of mind while there.


It was a relief for everyone when, via Ruth Gerzon who took the photograph at Seacliff, Molly and Don Turnbull’s Māori Publications Committee offered Bill a job to illustrate the children’s books in te reo that they were making for Rūātoki School. In 1980 we all went with him to live in a school house and I went regularly to and from Wellington, where I was working at the Women’s Gallery, which Bill had helped to set up that January, making plinths for Keri Hulme’s work etc. (2)

And Anna became more present in our lives, as you can see from this crowd scene.

Bill illustrated at least three picture books at Rūātoki: Te whakarapu tuna / te kaita ko Molly Turnbull; te kaimahi pikitia ko Bill MacKay (1980); Tuna nioreore / Kaa Williams, author; Bill MacKay, illustrator (1980); and Kia tupato kei whakama / Noki Martin, author ; Bill MacKay, illustrator ( based on a legend about Rata and his canoe, 1981).

First, from Te whakarapu tuna:

TWT p1
TWT 6-7

From Tuna nioreore:

Tuna details

And Kia tupato kei whakamā:

Kia Tupato2
Kia tupato pp

And then everyone went back to Wellington and moved from 10b Oriental Terrace to 8 Oriental Terrace. In 1981 Bill spent a lot of energy on anti-Tour demonstrations in Wellington and Palmerston North and very much enjoyed making protective clothing.

He also painted murals all around the town: at the Wellington railway station; on the toilets at Te Aro Park, then called Pigeon Park; at the arts centre in Willis Street; at the Johnsonville Pool; at Thorndon Pool. Pretty much all of them under the Temporary Employment Scheme or the Project Employment Scheme, I think. Most, perhaps all, have disappeared.

And during that time we separated.

Marian and kids - R
.l-r unknown youth, Marian, Alex, Kate Carnegie, Ian Carnegie, Stepan Krautschun (Juliet Walker’s son, obscured) & Dylan at Charles Plimmer Park ca. 1979 photo: Ruth Gerzon

Bill at Paraparaumu 2012, with dog, cheese and coffee

(1) The Hocken also has an Els Noordhof oil wash portrait of Bill, 75/54, which I can remember him sitting for when he was, or had just been, Feste in the Globe Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night.

(2) In my thesis I wrote: ‘Here, clutching a bag of groceries, I’m the ‘model’, a performer, the painter’s audience, half out of the frame; and an audience for passersby. The painter’s primary focus appears to be on the poster shop window (on the corner of Cuba and Vivian Streets) and the posters real and imagined inside; the imagined posters are highly political. But the painting was made when I was moving outside Bill’s frame to join women artists, to become their audience rather than his, and myself a performance artist. When I look at this image now I think, O Bill. Did you place me like that because I was half out of your domestic framework or because you wanted me half out of it? Or was it nothing personal at all? Bill was reading John Berger—as always—at this time, and this painting followed another painting in the series (below) where June Salmon is much more present on her edge of the frame.’

(3) More about Bill and the local women’s art movement here.


The teapot there is big and round. Shiny stainless steel. It needs a tea cosy and it has one, pretty and well-padded. That morning, just after dawn, at first I forget to use it. I’m often dozy, early on. Then, on my way to cover the teapot, I notice the drawn curtains. Mindful of my responsibilities, I go to let the daylight in. I pull back a curtain and see someone outside, curled up against the front door.

At home, I’d jerk open the door and shout: WHAT do you think you’re doing? But my lethargy gives me a moment before the adrenalin kicks in. In that moment, I think. And I ring The Boss. Should I call 111, I ask? Yes, she says. And stay in touch.

So I tap with enthusiasm: 111. (OO! That’s what it feels like!) Get the fastest list of phone options ever: Fire-Service-Ambulance-Police (maybe not in that order). Police, I say, for the first time ever. Almost immediately, an Efficient Young Woman: This is the Police, where is your emergency?  I respond quietly, because I’m close to that front door and the phone isn’t portable.

The introduction takes a while. Fifty-two seconds, according to the EYW’s Police Event Chronology, which I later obtain (recording thirteen action-packed minutes, RRRR-redacted, mostly in capital letters and minimally punctuated), with a CD record of our conversation.

I’m tense. I can’t remember the street number. And I can’t find it in the file provided. I can’t read the phone book without my reading glasses. And EYW wants me to stay where I am, so I can’t fetch them. But we get there with the necessary basics, Whew.

EYW asks me to describe the person at the door, tucked into his hoodie and now on his hands and knees. The top of his head rests against the doorsill. He rocks to and fro and scrabbles with what looks like a credit card. Then he’s on his feet and I can see a few more details. His height. His clothes. (MALE U[n]K[known] RACE APPROX 18-19 YEARS OLD BLUE JACKET BLUE PANTS APPROX 5’9” SLIGHTLY STOOPED HOOD UP says the Event Chronology). The police are on their way, says EYW.

And he disappears. Up the path maybe. A different kind of Whew. (INFMT HAS JUST LOST OBS). Gone.

But no. He bangs on the back door. Rattles the handle. I can see his shape through the rippled glass. (MALE NOW KNOCKING ON BACK DOOR ADVISING TO JUST KEEP DOORS LOCKED AND NOT LET HIM IN…INFMT SUSPECTS ALCOHOL/DRUGS AS MALE MOVING SLOWLY…BOBBING UP AND DOWN). He starts to scrabble again. (Is he using that card to open the lock?) He thumps.


I’m frightened, I say to the operator. What if he breaks the glass and comes in? How much longer will the police be? (To my surprise, on the CD, my voice sounds calm.) You’re doing great, she says. Not long, she says. They’re setting up cordons. (UNITS NOT FAR OFF – ONE GOING 10/7 BUT AT CORDON). I’ll do some qi gong breathing, I say.

Then I hear another voice: ‘Marian’. I have to go, I say. I’ll be back.

The Elderly Female would love another cup of tea. I sidle into the kitchen, pour the tea, get that tea cosy on and take the cup to the bedroom. I want to thrust it at her and race back to the phone. But I slow down, share a few words and a smile. Decide that I can scoop her up and run with her if necessary. Yes, I can. But how would we get past the Male, whichever door he comes in?

On the way back to the phone I pass the kitchen. And I see the Male plainly for the first time, through a pane of clear glass next to the back door. He’s rocking to and fro again, but on his feet. Looks a bit like my youngest son. And confused. (CAUC WITH BROWN STUBBY HAIR).

If he gets in, I say, back at the phone, I’ll go into the Elderly Female’s bedroom and shut the door.

The EYW asks about gates. Explains that a police dog is coming to track the Male if he runs for it. (ADVISED IF MALE DOES LEAVE TO NOT EXIT PROPERTY IN CASE DELTA ATTENDING). I move slightly, to see a bit of the path. And hear something. Running feet. A flash of blue? A chase? Then hear a cheery voice, Hiya mate. They’re here, I say. (INFMT CAN SEE POLICE TALKING WITH MALE NOW). Stay on the line until an officer arrives at the door, EYW says. (WILL STAY ONLINE UNTIL POLICE 10/7 WITH INFMT). Please ask them to knock very quietly, I tell her.

A gentle knock. Here they are. Goodbye then, I say. No, she says. Wait till you’re in contact. I answer the door. A tiny quiet police officer. Can I come in, she asks. No, I say. I’ll just say goodbye to the 111 woman. And come back.

I return to the phone. EYW and I say goodbye, almost absent-mindedly. Both of us on to the next thing. Thank you, I say. I return to the tiny police officer. Give my details again. He’s a neighbour she says, highly intoxicated. Got the wrong house. (EXTREMELY 1K MALE 0 NIL ISSUES). She holds out her palm. On it rests a drivers license and car keys. These were out here. Are these yours? No, I say, wondering why she asks; she must have just seen the young man whose photo is on the licence. (GIVEN THE VERY 1K MALE A 4L HOME). Thank you, I say again.

Then back to the phone. Call The Boss. She’s relieved it all went well. And how are you? she asks. Drained, I say. I think I’ll make a cup of tea. And then I hear another call from the bedroom: ‘Marian’. Gotta go, I say.

The beautiful Elderly Female gives me another smile. I’d like some more tea, she says. That one was cold. Sure, I say. I’ll put on the jug.


This story’s for my big sister Judy, who was probably there when I had my very first cup of tea, with every good wish for her special birthday, with carnations that remind me of our grannie and this photo to remind her of New Zealand.


artist smocks, Waitakere

artist smocks, Waitakere


Now working mostly on Throat of These Hours, a stage play and a radio play, with posts here and here. These plays are part of the Development Project, at Wellywood Woman.

And, staying with an artist mate at the beach while she paints my portrait, I’ve started work on a new comic, from a story I wrote last year, building on Mouse. Lovely to DRAW for a bit. Finished at year’s end I hope.

I’m writing a play that includes some of Muriel Rukeyser’s poems.

Muriel’s* second book of poems, U.S.1 (1938) excited William Carlos Williams, according to Jan Heller Levi.** When he reviewed it, he wrote that there were passages

…that are pretty dull but that is bound to be the character  of all good things if they are serious enough. When a devoted and determined person sets off to do a thing, he wants to get there even if he has to crawl on his face. When he is able to, whenever he is able to, he gets up and runs.

I get it. I remember crawling along McFarlane Street, looking for words:  prep with Madeline’s word list, for the Aphros 48 Hours film.

Me and Tink in McFarlane Street May 2012, courtesy Struan Ashby

Overwhelmed as I am by the volume and qualities of Muriel’s poems, if I’m devoted and determined maybe I’ll use them effectively. Get up and run, some days. Soar with Tink now and then.

Jan Heller Levi also refers to Muriel as ‘our great epistemologist of feeling’:

In her life and work, she wanted to draw on two ways of knowing (she would say “reaching”) that have been deemed in our culture mutually exclusive: verifiable and unverifiable fact… As she wrote in The Traces of Thomas Hariot (1971), “the poem is not ’emotional thinking’ nor any other putting together of the split terms of our usage.” It is, she said, an expression of the life buried beneath these terms, which we can “bring…through in ourselves.” King David, she said, knew it and named it in the prayer for his son Solomon: “‘the thoughts of the imagination of the heart'”.

OK, back to Final Draft, holding onto all that, especially the thoughts of the imagination of the heart. Grateful that I have a writing buddy to report to at day’s end. And that I have a treat planned after work: seaweed collection (if the City Council doesn’t get there first: now there’s some motivation).


*I think of Muriel Rukeyser as ‘Muriel’, just a tiny bit younger than my beloved friend Nancy–now 100, and someone I  talk with over a cup of tea, with respect but without the carapace of formality. (But as I choose to do this I remember how rigorous Jacquie Baxter was in dividing references to her former husband between ‘Jim’ and ‘Baxter’, and referred to herself too as both ‘Jacquie Baxter’ and ‘J C Sturm’.)

**”Too Much Life To Kill”: Some Thoughts on Muriel Rukeyser” (1999) How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet? The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser eds Anne F Herzog and Janet E Kaufman 282-286


The Problem
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.

More Problems?
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.


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 FurnitureGirls) 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.

The Washing

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?)

Bill MacKay Poster Shop 2 1977 140x140cm (that’s me holding the bag)

Then I become intrigued by Teju Cole’s Twitter project,  Small Fates, tweets about events reported in 1912. He describes them as:

…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.

Getting there
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.

A Start
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.

A Stop
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.

Another Start
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.)

Matariki Mural Wellington 1981 (detail) – made when the Matariki (Pleiades) women poets group was refused state funding to tour

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.

That first Canterbury (7.1) earthquake, September 4, 2010, seems a long long time ago now. It’s overshadowed by the  February 22 2011 6.3 earthquake which, although smaller in magnitude, caused significant loss of life; and by the continuing aftershocks that have left Cantabrians exhausted.  I visited Christchurch in November 2010 and heard many stories. This one affected me most. (I wrote it as an experiment, to take some screenplay writing principles into a prose poem.)

Song for the broken woman with the big warm heart; for lisa’s work, hovering at the edge of the page; & for Jennine, her feet inside her rhinestone sandals reaching deep into the earth, & her voice-that-made- my-hair-stand-on-end and which I cannot-otherwise-find-words-for

It was a quiet night. A quiet night.
A late wintery spring night.

She turned her silver Mercedes into the drive. The drive that bumped across the field.
Drove her silver Mercedes down
past the big house.
To the cottage.
A little wooden hut really.
Two rooms.
With a kitchen tacked on one side.
And a bathroom on the other.
All just big enough for one.

And she quietly prepared for bed.

And over at the big house a car door slammed.
And the big door of the three-car garage rattled shut.
And a bird called. Briefly.

She turned out the light.

About 3.48 a.m.
the cats took off
(& were not seen again).
The birds rose from the trees.
Whoosh. Whoooooosh.

And then the train came.
Through the cottage wall. Behind her bed.
No. It can’t be a train. There are no trains here. It must be a truck.

Then she got it.
Woke up.

The stones in the ground ground on.
And on.
The earth’s tympani.
Gusts of its giant tambourine.

She shook.
Shaken. Stirred. Shaken.
Crack. Crack. The cottage hogged.
She tried to hug her self.

In the dark
it took a while to open the back door.
The key wouldn’t fit the keyhole.
Was it the keyhole?
She lost her way.
Because it was dark.
And the fridge had fallen.
And was in the way.

And the three car garage door had torqued.
So the silver Mercedes was the only transport.
For everyone.

And when they gathered at the house down the road
not one of them thought of making everyone a cup of tea.
Instead, they told one another stories
that usually
they wouldn’t have told
may have been
dangerous to tell.
But with twenty-two splits in the land around them
and a couple of really deep holes
they had to get those stories out fast.
In case.

she had a cup of tea in her hand
and she looked out the window
and saw a circle of cattle.
Heads together.

she said.
And, hands circling their cups,
gripping their cups,
they all looked.
And they didn’t move.
And the cattle, black against gray, didn’t move.
And the watchers didn’t move.
For some time.

a single cow moved a single ear.
And another text came in: R u ok.
And then the first after shock.

Down the road at morning milking time
the cows would not stand.
They would not move.
And when she turned the silver Mercedes onto the road,
driving to work:
(to work?)
she drove very slowly.
Sobbing now & then.
She saw birds on the road
which did not move.
Though they were alive.
And she stopped.
And sent a text: R u ok.

Days later another text came in
from far away:
Are you alive?
She did not answer.
She put the last load in the boot of the silver Mercedes.
And tossed the cellphone on top.
Then she walked past the cottage.
Past the puriri tree.
To where it all became a little wild.
And lay
on the earth.


Remember, we can donate to the women’s refuges in Otautahi/Christchurch. They still need our help:  here or here (Shakti Asian Women’s refuge) or here (Otautahi Maori Women’s refuge).

10 March

Here’s my story for a comic, with some of the panels I drew. I didn’t know enough to make sure the text would reproduce clearly, so I’ve left the original text. This is fine, I decided, as this is my experiments blog. I’ll publish more panels soon. Many thanks to Dylan Horrocks for getting me past my fear of drawing and for his all-round superb teaching. And to the others in the class for their inspiration and support.

19 March

Here’s the rest. Last week, I heard Denise Mina talk about comix. There are helpful hints, she said. A list. One hint: No more than 40 words a panel. She also said that she thinks that writing comix (she’s writing them for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) uses both sides of the brain and is different than writing other things, even though she doesn’t draw the pictures. Is this why I enjoyed making Mouse so much even though I can’t draw, why I enjoy writing screenplays so much even when I don’t get to make the pictures, and am thinking of turning two screenplays into graphic novels?

I. Last summer… I hissed at the local cats

Making themselves at home among the silver beet

& on the compost bin

And I grabbed my big gardening fork

Hissed again.

Shook the fork at the cats-on-the-run

& plunged it into the compost bin

(to establish if there was compost ready to use).

And I impaled a mouse.

On the fork’s left prong.

It wriggled wildly. Little legs & tail working hard to get away.

I closed my eyes

& plunged the fork again.

Levered the prong against uncomposted vegetable matter (bits of seaweed) until I was fairly certain the mouse was off the fork.

Went inside & knocked off a whole pipette of rescue remedy.

II. When autumn comes

I eat a lot of toast.

I used to make it in the oven. Then the kids gave me a toaster.

And last autumn I did what I always do.

Dropped in two slices of bread

Depressed the lever


The mouse ran along the bench, jumped off the end and disappeared under the stove. I later learned that mice can fit through a gap the size of a 20c piece: it would EASILY squeeze round the edges of the toaster’s little cages that hold the bread, and out the slot at the top.

And then the mouse haunted me all winter. It came and went. Especially in the kitchen.

It nibbled apples.

Pushed walnuts across the table and onto the floor.

Gnawed its way into the icecream container where I keep scraps for the compost.

I enclosed everything I could. Lids on really tight.

I shut drawers and cupboards.

It ran wild in the drawers and attempted to chew its way OUT of cupboards.

I shifted the chairs away from the table.

It made no difference. Mice JUMP.

I took everything off the table.

The mouse left tiny turds EVERYWHERE:

Inside pots and frypans

Beside the toaster and on the toaster tray

On benches and windowsills

In the airing cupboard.

In my bedroom—

—the mouse galloped along behind the pillows, woke me from a dream of thundering horses. I banged on the wall to scare it. Thumped on the table to make it go away.

I discovered more tiny turds among my pencils, behind my staplers. And worried that the mouse would run across my face at night. Or nest in my bed.

(Later, I discovered its nest among some winter clothes I never wear. More shit, some bits of walnut shell.)

I considered and rejected a warm welcome for the local cats, went online to find other ‘natural’ ways to get rid of a mouse.

BUT just as I was about to experiment with

peppermint oil;

used kitty litter (but where’s a local cat who uses kitty litter instead of my vegetable garden?);

& more expensive ways to chase a mouse away like

dried snake poo;

& an electronic beeper (hissing does not work with mice)

IT DISAPPEARED. For longer than usual.

And then the smell came. From under the sink. I opened one door. And then the other. Looked in all the saucepans and containers (some of the lids no longer on tightly.)

I was frantic.

Finally, I went through every plastic bag stuffed behind the rubbish bin. And there it was.

(Later, I read that mice enter a resting stage known as torpor when they sleep. Did my mouse become sluggish while searching the far reaches of a plastic bag, take a nap, and run out of air?)

I thought about adding my mouse to the compost heap.

I thought about a formal burial.

& then I wrapped it in a plastic bag inside another plastic bag and added it to the rubbish.


I cleaned and scrubbed everywhere: bottom airing cupboard, toaster tray, behind the stapler.

Put the fruit and nuts back on the table. Chairs up close.

Deleted the bookmark about mice and peppermint oil.

Went back to hissing at cats.



III. I could have realised when I found a walnut on the floor.

But I didn’t.

And when I heard little sounds at night I thought they were winter storm sounds.

Then, apple core in hand, I lifted the lid off the ice cream container where I keep scraps for the compost (I swear it was on tight-ish.)


Out flew

A mouse

It vanished… You know the story… Along the bench and under the stove. I cried a little. Before moving into intensive defence mode.


And the mouse never made it to my bedroom or my work table.

And it didn’t try to chew its way out of closed cupboards.

It did jump out of the toaster once.

But it didn’t discover the airing cupboard.

It too disappeared.

And so far there is no smell.

When I turned the compost at spring’s beginning, I was VERY careful.


Immediately, a lovely response from downstairs. Love it! Will check where he got it:

September 20, 2005

How to catch a mouse without a mousetrap


I had a little friend visit my apartment the other week, and for a while there I was ready to make peace with him and co-exist. But after I cleaned up the place and ordered pizza one night, and it crawled up the side of my chair onto the sleeve of my shirt, I knew it was time to bid farewell.

Here’s how I caught the critter:

Get a toilet paper tube and crease two lines to form a flat sided tunnel.
Put a treat on one end of the tube: A cracker and dab of peanut butter works great.
Get a tall (at least 20 inches) bucket. A trash can works well.
Balance the tube precariously on the edge of a table or counter with the treat hanging directly over the tall sided receptacle.
The mouse will scurry to the treat (they like tunnels) and fall into the trap.
Set the fella loose at least a mile away from your abode.

Postnote: It worked within the hour.

Also, folks have asked how this could work if you don’t have a counter or table. Simple: get a piece of cardboard and crease it to make a ramp up to a small trashcan.

And then, this morning, in today’s paper, news of a revolutionary new mouse trap, the Nooski.

I ate the last of the apples from our trees the other day. I hadn’t noticed a rotten one at the bottom of the bowl, and it had affected the others around it, so I chopped out all the good bits and had an apple feast. (And the slugs and snails have been partying in the silver beet, more than I’ve ever experienced, so that reliable winter crop is severely compromised. I blame the cat. One of the neighbourhood cats that I hiss at killed a thrush and left it in the middle of the silverbeet garden where I didn’t immediately see it. Now the birds that gorge on the snails and slugs aren’t around. Scared off I reckon.)

The end of the apples brought a problem. My budget at the market. Ever since WINZ reduced my benefit I’ve gone to the market once a fortnight instead of once a week, spending $20 a fortnight instead of $20 a week. And it’s worked, just. Two dozen eggs: eggs are my only first class protein except for an occasional can of sardines (can always tell when I need one of those–when my thinking gets fuzzy). Eggs are essential and when I have fewer than two a day my energy goes. Onions, potatoes, maybe a kumera, lots of garlic, a lemon or two. A lot cheaper than the supermarket, but it soon adds up. Sometimes there’s enough left over to buy a Sunday paper. But not often.

Most of the year I don’t buy fruit. When there’s no pip fruit in the garden, there are cape gooseberries or strawberries, or lots of parsley for vitamin C, but last year, in the apple gap, I bought apples at the market. Of course, I could have relied on the stewed apples in the freezer, but there’s something about a real crunchy apple and the frozen apples won’t last till the end of January when the next apples ripen.

So I made a hard decision. Spend $5 extra a fortnight at the market, for apples and, if possible, a little more vegetable variety. And eureka!!! There were 99c a kilo Pacific Queens! Which meant, after I bought 14 of them, that I had a little bit of money left over for some wonderful cut-this-morning spinach. And, if I didn’t buy a paper, some little cheap tomatoes. Will I be able to absorb the extra $5 a fortnight? Not sure, but I just enjoyed a crisp Pacific Queen. (If only it wasn’t so cold. Have had to turn the heater on a couple of times, for most of the day, because I had things to do I couldn’t do in bed and six layers, a hat and gloves weren’t enough, so the power bill may make the $5 decision for me.)

This year I can’t afford citrus fruit and sugar for marmalade. Beth and I used to make it together every July, and after she went I kept making it because it’s so enjoyable from the first cut into the fruit to the last scraping at the bottom of the last jar. Last year I made lime marmalade for the first time. I remember an old friend who stopped making her Christmas cake and went into decline. I hope that this isn’t the beginning of the end for me. The other night I woke up and wrote on a bit of paper “I think I’m going to die tonight” because I thought it might be interesting for whoever found me to know that I knew. But here I am. Still looking for work.

AFP arrives, didn't see this. Photo: Scoop

I walked into Courtenay Place to buy my meds and thought, might as well go to the library (am reading a new discovery, Randall Peffer) and when I reached Civic Square I heard music. A busker playing an accordion, and not many people. A woman’s voice. I kept going.

Then the audience started to clap, in time. With enthusiasm. That doesn’t often happen. So I turned around, and lingered on the edge of the crowd. Had a wonderful time. Even clapped a little, during the second-to-last number. Something about angels, and waking up.

Not the best bit of this song but you get the idea Photo: Scoop

Had never heard of Amanda Fucking Palmer and Jason Webley. They were so whole-hearted. Wonderful. Looked them up on the net when I got home.

See what I mean about heart? Whole-heartedness? Photo: Scoop

AFP can be my p-d-i-l any old time.

And then I got to the bus stop and found I had only $1.80. So I walked home along the waterfront. And saw the wharewaka by night. Gorgeous, though it seems odd that there’s a restaurant right next to the space for the waka. Woke up this morning and heard that the waka space isn’t big enough to house the waka. Now there’s a song.

The best part about going to the doctor: Looking down the road to those prison-like buildings, the Rita Angus Retirement Village, and being very happy that I'm not there—I'm out on the street, feeling good(ish). Kilbirnie Medical Centre at left.

To the doctor today. Every three months, I go. And this week would be a real problem if I hadn’t thought ahead and cancelled my Sunday trip to the market, because there are enough fruit and veges in the garden and I bought two dozen eggs last time ($3.50 per doz).

I used to go to the Wellington People’s Centre. I could walk there, pay $16 for the consultation plus $3 for a prescription, and walk home. Now, there’s no doctor at the People’s Centre but I can go to Kilbirnie and still pay $16. But it’s a $3.50 bus ride each way to Kilbirnie, unless I want to spend 2 ½ hours walking, and now I have a new medication to lower my cholesterol, so that’s $29 all up.

So even though this week I’m saving the $20 I always spend at the market (sometimes $2.80 of that for a Sunday paper), I still have to find another $9. And, this month, WINZ reduced my benefit by $20 a week, because of my ‘income’ which isn’t really income given what it takes to earn it. (If I could claim the costs of earning it I would have no ‘income’ at all.) I really miss the $6 all-day bus tickets, because when I started going to Kilbirnie, I’d use that all-day ticket to go a little further afterwards, to the California Garden Centre in Miramar. And because the bus fare was cheaper and I had only one prescription and WINZ hadn’t cut my benefit, sometimes I would buy a plant. But mostly I’d just admire all the trees, plants, and gear they have. A real treat.

So why, when you live behind a henhouse, you may ask, am I buying eggs? Well, there are only three chooks there at the moment, and the people up at the house look after them and collect the eggs. When there were six chooks, the p-d-i-l used to drop some eggs in my mailbox each week. Still dropped in a few till quite recently, when I caught her helping herself to some of my courgettes (and I think she’d already got some beans). She didn’t like it when I told her that I was the only person to pick my veges. Parsley, yes. There’s heaps. Help yourself.

And then my strawberries started going missing. So I called her on that. “They’re not veges,” she said. So I cut her off at the pass. “Please do NOT”, I said, “Help yourself to anything that I have planted in the garden. Except parsley. When I have extra veges, I’ll pass them on.” And she pointed to the pear tree, fruit ripening really well this year, and asked “You didn’t plant that?” “Yes”, I said. “I did. And if there are some with codlin moth that you can cut up and bottle, I’ll put them aside for you”. “BOTTLE?” she said. And then there was a loud cry from the house and off she scuttled. Haven’t seen a home grown egg since. And the hens seem to be getting out and making a mess of my garden a little more often than usual.

I think that the anti-cholesterol meds, over the three months, have made me cranky (and forgetful). Thinking of ways to be a little more friendly towards the p-d-i-l. But she comes with the baby. I’m not ready to be a grandpa.