In 2001, a gift from patron Glenn Schaeffer enabled Professor Bill Manhire to turn his prestigious Creative Writing course into a fully fledged institute. Since then, Victoria University’s internationally renowned International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) has produced dozens of graduates and established an important relationship with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “the most prestigious writing school in the world” according to IIML director Damien Wilkins. And in October last year, Eleanor Catton (class of 2007) won the Man Booker, the biggest book prize in the world. Samara McDowell (class of 2002) finds out what makes a Wellington writing education so desirable and traces the evolution of one of the city’s most influential institutions. Photography by Mark Tantrum

Modern Letters

(C)Mark Tantrum, All rights reserved

(C)Mark Tantrum, All rights reserved

(C)Mark Tantrum, All rights reserved

(C)Mark Tantrum, All rights reserved

(C)Mark Tantrum, All rights reserved[quote by=“Damien Wilkins, Dir­ect­or, IIML”]It’s hard to be a writer. Firstly, it’s hard to write a good book and then it’s hard to con­vince oth­ers that you’ve done so. It’s also deeply pleas­ur­able and fun and joy­ful even to be involved in such an enterprise.

If you’re really a writer, you don’t have a choice any­way.[/quote]

[quote by=“Jeffrey Eugen­ides, Middle­sex”]Before move­ments emerge, there are centres of energy…[/quote] 

[quote by=“Nick Hornby, on Bar­bara Ander­son (class of 1983)”]… and now it seems only a mat­ter of time before Wel­ling­ton replaces New York as the lit­er­ary cap­it­al of the world.[/quote]


Eight Million Stories in the Naked City

In the begin­ning there was a little option­al class for Eng­lish stu­dents. It was 1975, in one of those ugly beige uni­ver­sity tutori­al rooms, and Wel­ling­ton was a grey city, sombre, dom­in­ated by pub­lic ser­vants. The stu­dents were merely shar­ing the cre­at­ive work they were doing from the corner of their mind’s eye, so to speak. All very low key.

It wasn’t really part of their degree and they weren’t writ­ing espe­cially for the class, or any­body really. If your mark wasn’t very good, it just got dropped from your tran­script. It was just an option. Bill Man­hire, then in his 20s and recently moved to Wel­ling­ton from Inver­car­gill (and then Duned­in and then Lon­don) – “I was an aspir­ing poet and medi­ev­al­ist at the time” – got shoulder-tapped to run it, sort of by acci­dent. Then someone – he thinks it was Jam­ie Belich – wondered what would hap­pen if they all set out to write to the same exer­cise. So they did.

Man­hire (fam­ously retir­ing; now, fam­ously, retir­ing) recalls, “And this aston­ish­ing work came into the room.” It was sort of an acci­dent. Or syn­ergy, or serendip­ity, a seed hit­ting ground that’s not just already fer­tile, but already tilled – that thing that’s said to con­sti­tute luck, or geni­us. Only you can’t say “geni­us” around Man­hire; it’s not really a concept he’s all that fond of.

The Teacher

I’m called a lec­turer (in fact a seni­or lec­turer) – but I don’t lec­ture. No one at the IIML does. There is no talk­ing at the writers, we talk with the writers. It’s all prac­tic­al. The prac­tice of writ­ing is what we are inter­ested in and want to grow in the writers who study with us. That is the essen­tial nature of the IIML – the work­shop philo­sophy. Sit­ting in a circle talk­ing – not about “writ­ing” – but about the writ­ing we are doing. Right now. Strug­gling and grap­pling with, skat­ing down the smooth bits and hack­ing our way up the steep ones.

“If we talk and don’t write there’s no point. If we write and don’t talk about it we sus­pect we’ve cre­ated a work of geni­us. If we write and allow oth­ers to see and talk about that writ­ing, we real­ise (with equal parts dis­ap­point­ment and excite­ment) that it is not geni­us – it is simply and thrill­ingly a work. In pro­gress. With a past, a present and a future.”

(C)Mark Tantrum, All rights reserved

Ken Duncum, Dir­ect­or of Scriptwrit­ing, IIML

The Director

We were set up to pro­mote and foster con­tem­por­ary ima­gin­at­ive writ­ing. Obvi­ously through the work­shops we aim to encour­age stu­dents to write at a level which even­tu­ally, hope­fully, will lead to pub­lic­a­tion. But there are no sure things in art. (And I do think we’re in the busi­ness of art.)”

Dami­en Wilkins

The Publisher

What a stu­dent may get from a guided work­shop – from a col­lect­ive – I just don’t see that being pos­sible study­ing one-on-one, no mat­ter how gif­ted the teach­er. Because of the sense of pos­sib­il­it­ies you gain in read­ing many dif­fer­ent voices, in being exposed to many dif­fer­ent views. What you learn about edit­ing, self-cri­ti­cism, through read­ing your class­mates’ work… You start to see what works and what doesn’t, you start to feel that. I just don’t see why any tal­en­ted, ambi­tious young writer would not choose to do the course.”

Fer­gus Bar­row­man, Vic­tor­ia Uni­ver­sity Press (VUP)

The Student

It’s a fant­ast­ic pro­gramme with an amaz­ing track record and close ties with a ter­rif­ic pub­lish­er, taught by writers I deeply respect. What else could you hope for?

“I try not to think too much about the earthquakes.”

Doug Dilla­man, class of 2014

It soon became an actu­al class, this Ori­gin­al Com­pos­i­tion thing – ENGL 252. And it star­ted get­ting kinda fam­ous. That is, its stu­dents star­ted get­ting pub­lished, and the books went out into the world, the way these bold adven­tur­ers do, and they did well, and got noticed; and so did the course. It became sought after.

There were only 12 stu­dents per class, which meant only 12 stu­dents per year. More and more people applied but the class star­ted to seem smal­ler and smal­ler. People got rejec­ted, and cried. People got accep­ted, and cried. People got accep­ted and threw parties, and then they moved (or they moved back) to Wellington.

What I’ve noticed, one year into work­ing here, is that the cul­ture seems to work – cul­ture in the sense of ‘this is how we do things’. That’s influ­enced by the his­tory, the people, the work­shop and read­ing pro­gramme approach, the pub­lish­ing suc­cess of gradu­ates, the rela­tion­ship with VUP, the build­ing, the city… a whole bunch of things that affect each other.

“But it’s indefin­able too. You know, when a work­shop is excit­ing and fruit­ful there is a par­tic­u­lar chem­istry, a qual­ity of open­ness and atten­tion that’s going on, and without want­ing to make grand claims, maybe that is a good vibe that can oper­ate on oth­er levels. But with writ­ing you don’t always know right away why some­thing works. It can take some time to fig­ure that out.”


(C)Mark Tantrum, All rights reservedEmily Per­kins, Seni­or Lec­turer, Writ­ing for the Page, IIML

Then people star­ted to get really mad about it. In all three senses of the word. There were com­plaints that the course was turn­ing writ­ing into a kind of closed shop; that it was this culty thing that turned out stu­dents who all spoke in the same voice; that writ­ing classes are – some­how – cheat­ing. Too many people were get­ting pub­lished and it was turn­ing writ­ing into a “pro­fes­sion”, or writers into “pro­fes­sion­als”, or some­thing equally dark.

All the stu­dents were attract­ive young women with a highly spe­cif­ic kind of long hair (well, aren’t they?) – they were all spec­tac­u­lar babies – which said some­thing about the course, or about writ­ing stu­dents (or per­haps about how best to keep warm in Wel­ling­ton). Any­way, writ­ing can’t be taught, they said, except that what was being said there sotto voce was more like writ­ing shouldn’t be taught.

I didn’t teach [a par­tic­u­lar] stu­dent to be bril­liant and urgent – that was the alchem­ic­al product of genes, upbring­ing, way­ward read­ing, etc. – but it was a mar­vel to see how the pro­vi­sion of a few tech­nic­al point­ers, togeth­er with the work­shop envir­on­ment of push­ing and strok­ing, allowed her to do the work, put it on the page.

“Cul­tur­ally, pla­cing a value on acts of the ima­gin­a­tion is not some­thing it makes any sense to object to. Most of the cri­ti­cism comes from fear, envy and ignor­ance. I’m always struck by how car­toon­ish the attacks on Cre­at­ive Writ­ing are… From what I know, the most endur­ing writ­ing groups out of the IIML tend to con­tain very strong and indi­vidu­al voices.”

Dami­en Wilkins

By 1997, odd and col­our­ful things had been hap­pen­ing in Wel­ling­ton: it didn’t feel grey any more, or sombre. (And the cof­fee was amaz­ing.) It was still a city of pub­lic ser­vants, but it had become a cre­at­ive cap­it­al. Good old ENGL 252, good old Ori­gin­al Com­pos­i­tion – that Rather Unex­pec­tedly Dash­ing Duck­ling – duly became a swan: New Zealand’s first Mas­ter of Arts in Cre­at­ive Writ­ing was estab­lished (although still part of the Eng­lish Department).

I think our MA year and the under­gradu­ate courses are superbly struc­tured. They start with writ­ing exer­cises, which are about rules and play, and gradu­ally move to work­shop­ping of longer pieces. Read­ing is cent­ral. You’re always being asked to organ­ise your thoughts about what you’ve read. This basic organ­isa­tion of teach­ing and learn­ing was evolved by Bill…

“It’s highly con­trolled – sur­pris­ingly so – but there’s very little dir­ec­tion in terms of, say, lec­tures about aspects of craft. The guid­ing from the teach­er is in the form of this class struc­ture and in the way work­shop con­ver­sa­tions are man­aged. It’s a sea of talk but there are always dead­lines and we put quite fierce demands on out­puts. We expect our stu­dents to work hard. I think the staff works hard too. Anec­dot­ally, our level of engage­ment with stu­dents is a note­worthy aspect of our pro­gramme. That, again, is part of Bill’s legacy.”

(C)Mark Tantrum, All rights reserved

Dami­en Wilkins

Then some­thing else happened.

I’ve been in the luck busi­ness all my life. I liked my odds with the institute.”

Glenn Schaef­fer

In the new mil­len­ni­um – not so much bound­ing onto the page as swoop­ing in from the sky, scat­ter­ing light and green­backs – there was sud­denly this game-chan­ging, extraordin­ary, swash­buck­ling and start­ling new character.

He’s like a super­hero, he’s deus ex mach­ina, he’s Daddy Star­bucks, he’s an Enid Blyton mil­lion­aire (Yanks are always mil­lion­aires in Enid Blyton): he is, at any rate, wildly unlikely. Things like this just don’t hap­pen in the real world, do they? He’s a phil­an­throp­ist and a lov­er of con­tem­por­ary writ­ing. He’s com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing writers inter­na­tion­ally and he’s pas­sion­ate about fos­ter­ing emer­ging writers. He’s a pat­ron, on a grand scale. (He’s a dream.)

Writ­ing from Las Vegas on Man­dalay Bay Resort let­ter­head, Glenn Schaef­fer made such a big offer that Man­hire at first thought one of his friends had nicked that Vegas resort let­ter­head and was pulling his leg. It was like a fairy tale – not so much you shall go to the ball, but more that what was once humble Ori­gin­al Com­pos­i­tion is the ball. It has a whole dance hall all of its own, now known as Glenn Schaef­fer House.

Thanks to the dona­tion from Schaef­fer – and the match­ing fun­drais­ing upon which the gift was con­di­tion­al – little ENGL 252 has become its own depart­ment with three streams – Poetry, Prose, Scriptwrit­ing; ten stu­dents each – and under­gradu­ate courses in non-fic­tion and children’s fic­tion. It has vis­it­ing pro­fess­ors and writers-in-res­id­ence, along with work­shops, schol­ar­ships, pro­ject funds and ‘Writers on Mondays’. And then there are the annu­al exchanges with the Iowa Writers’ Work­shop, which Wilkins describes as “ground zero: the most pres­ti­gi­ous writ­ing school in the world… Since writers are always passing through our doors – as inter­na­tion­al mas­ter-class guests or as pub­lished gradu­ates or as friends in the lit­er­ary com­munity – we act as a kind of hub.” A hub with an unlikely name: the Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute of Mod­ern Letters.

It’s often harder than you think to shed received ideas about what a nov­el or short story should be, and to write from curi­os­ity and in your own way. A good writ­ing work­shop, com­bined with read­ing intens­ively, can help that pro­cess. It seems to accel­er­ate dis­cov­ery and, ideally, height­ens risk-tak­ing and aware­ness of the effects your work has on readers.”

Emily Per­kins

And the ex-stu­dents keep win­ning awards (big awards; big­ger; then, biggest), which, like being beau­ti­ful, is not at all the point or even par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant, but, also like being beau­ti­ful, is cer­tainly eye-catch­ing and gets you all sorts of related perks.

And if it turns out I’m wrong, I’ll still have spent a year in a great city study­ing storytelling craft, chal­len­ging myself cre­at­ively, and earn­ing a respec­ted degree. Which is a rather won­der­ful worst case scenario.”

Doug Dilla­man

Wellington as Gotham City

In 2012, Bat­man retired (gra­ciously) from the field, swooped off to his inner-city eyrie in Gotham to write poems full time and gen­er­ally try to ignore the whole icon thing and is reima­gined as Col­on­el Sanders – after all he’s cre­ated a brand – and Robin steps up, to step in. And Robin then says, slightly plaint­ively, from the office with the stun­ning view – this is both start­ling, giv­en Wilkins’ bio, and then, when you con­sider it for a moment, inev­it­able – that he has imposter syn­drome. Well, they are big shoes.

How Not to Have a Philosophy

[quote by=“Bill Man­hire in 2012”]We don’t have any­thing as grand as a philosophy.

Bill Man­hire in 2012[/quote]

Red RocksOne senses it is the word “grand”, rather than the concept of “a philo­sophy”, that is at issue here. Man­hire has been waging an appro­pri­ately – and decept­ively – low-key war against gran­di­os­ity since he star­ted teach­ing, way back in 1976. In fact, you have only to enter the build­ing to feel the IIML philo­sophy begin seep­ing from the walls: what every­one calls Bill’s leg­acy. It doesn’t get artic­u­lated but if it did, it might sound some­thing like this:

Read, and keep read­ing: you are the sum total of the voices you have read. Write, and keep writ­ing. Take work­ing ser­i­ously, and your­self, not. You are not a sol­it­ary geni­us, because you are not a) sol­it­ary – you are part of a com­munity of writers, both the ones sit­ting next to you in the work­shops, and the com­munity on the page and screen all around you – or b) a genius.

Stay ignor­ant. Stay curi­ous. Stay open. Stay feel­ing like the young­est per­son in the room.

Hut Builder I got his blood on me the_luminaries_a_p

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