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(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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