Skip to main content

Moving forward

This is Ken Duncum, walking past the window next to my computer, as he often does. Under the cherry tree. He's the Michael Hirschfeld Director of Scriptwriting at Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML)—what a mouthful. And last month he won the 2010 New Zealand Post Mansfield Prize. Some of his eighty MA students—ten a year for eight years—may have been at the ceremony where NZ Post announced the award. Others, like me, were ghosts there, clapping as hard as we could. And whistling. Stamping our feet.

Ken’s supervised my work for two and a half years now, for my MA and—as his first PhD candidate—for the second half of my PhD. So I guess I’m the luckiest student of all, to date.

At law school, I encountered something called the ‘Socratic’ teaching method. I remember it as being brutal sometimes, and never particularly helpful for my learning. But with Ken I participated in another kind of Socratic teaching, a generous practice that expressed itself through his careful attention to the pages I wrote, his active reading and listening and his questioning. And his gift for the right imperative at the right time. "Go wild", he said when I started the last script. I loved it all.

I’ve given him my scripts and he’s read them. Often twice. And then we’ve talked. He’s asked sharp questions, and I’ve responded. And I’ve talked about my confusions and he’s asked more questions that helped me work them out. Sometimes he’s made notes on his white board as we go. Sometimes he’s explained things, sometimes for the fourth or fifth time (I’m a slow learner). Once, he played Snakes & Ladders with me. (Because I was trying to understand more about how people respond emotionally to the creation and deferment of hope, the key elements of drama, according to David Mamet. Because I wanted to find out if and how Ken’s responses to the Snakes & Ladders states-of-being were the same as or different than mine. Because I wanted to write a game script, about women who want to make movies.)

Ken's teaching encouraged me to become a child again, to access my imagination more fully. And then to grow up: to understand and articulate my motivations, ideas and emotions more clearly (and those of my characters). And then to move forward with writing my stories.

After nearly a year in this little PhD office I’m no longer as conscious as I was of the audience outside the window when I’m eating toast & hummus & tomato. Don’t care at all when tomato drops onto the plate when I take a bite. I don’t eavesdrop as often on the conversations outside the window. And I’ve trained myself not to hear or, if I hear, not to remember, the substance of conversations that seep through my door. But Ken’s door is opposite mine and I’m always aware of the high volume of traffic when he’s there. Often, I hear a knock on his door, and someone say, as I do, too, “You got a minute Ken?” And his warm hello, the visitor going in.

And I know that often the visitor-without-an-appointment, like me, won’t be there to talk about writing. Because we also go there to ‘chat’, as Ken calls it, about what’s happening for us with our projects and about problems beyond the writing. Many of us have brought him our latest scripts to read, long after our student time is over. And he’s read them and responded. But we also say to one another about all kinds of things: “I’ll ask Ken”. And we do. Knowing that his active listening will help us problem-solve.

As Ken's eight years have passed, more and more of us bring good news, too: of success in competitions; of funded readings and productions of our plays; of success within NZ Film Commission programmes—its First Writers Initiative, Short Film Fund, and development programme; of films made without Film Commission support; of writing for television and radio; of awards; of enhancement of work in another medium through what Ken taught us about structure.

I've heard Ken say that working at IIML is the best job he's ever had; he enjoys himself. But at the moment his voice sounds somewhat weary. I imagine he's had very little time for his own writing this year, with two PhD students on top of everything else, so I’m very happy that he’ll have a year to himself, much of it in the soft and beautiful French south, at Menton. Doing whatever he wants. Like lots of writing. (I applied to IIML after I saw his play Cherish, and long to see his next play.)

And I’m glad Ken’s going before I leave myself. If he’s gone, I won’t be tempted to knock on his door with one more script, for one more talk, for one more chat, a final question. When he goes, I’ll cry a little, his apprentice whose apprenticeship isn’t yet over. Here's a pic of me standing at the window, looking at the space he used to move through, remembering his waves: you get the idea. (I'm laughing now.)

When I leave in a month or so, I’ll also miss the long wooden table under the window, the afternoon sunshine some days, this steady summer quiet. Opening my pencil case, taking out my little silver pencil sharpener, sharpening my pencils, opening my project book. Hearing the murmurs and laughter of Katie Hardwick-Smith, Clare Moleta and Chris Price. Seeing Bill Manhire or Damien Wilkins, absorbed at the photocopier, when I go to the kitchen. And occasionally—through the window—Bill’s smile and wave.

You may be asking “Why does this matter? It's just a university writing programme, where you liked the people and you liked the space. Ken's just a teacher, doing his job well, with an ongoing commitment to former students. Get over it. Who cares?” Well, I care, beyond my individual concerns, for good reasons I think.

As you know, a good script's fundamental to a good feature film. And writing the script's often the longest part of the process. For instance, according to the New York Times, Nancy Meyers the writer/director of It’s Complicated, just out in the States, takes two years from start to finish to do a movie—a year for the writing, six months for the shooting and another six for the editing.

And, as you may remember from the other day, Peter Jackson was quoted in the Australian as saying:
The strength of a film industry is based totally on the strength of … the creative individuals working within it, the writers especially… a healthy film industry is…not really to do with infrastructure or anything else, it's about finding talent and nurturing that talent.
Ken's been developing talent, and I think that IIML provides a model for nurturing film writers as well as writers for the page. So it's helpful to think about the various elements that make the model work.

At IIML, nurturing scriptwriting talent goes far beyond the painstaking Socratic method with individual students. In twice-weekly class meetings (in the-room-with-the-wonderful-view) Ken initiates discussion about stories, structure and ‘rules’ and mediates experience in giving, receiving and using criticism. He also helps the class develop collegiality, regardless of our diverse backgrounds, diverse imaginations and the diverse practices that inform our scripts. (Here’s someone with every scene no longer than half a page, someone else who writes long scenes, or master scenes. Someone who uses…, someone who uses--, someone who enjoys using!!!) Students have always spent some time in industry placements and now they also work on projects with acting and film school students. At the end of the MA year we’re ready to build on a strong theoretical and practical foundation. And I think most of us are also a whole lot more disciplined than we were before we started. How can this kind of experience be provided outside IIML, and extended for individuals who've completed the MA?

I also care because within the larger IIML context women writers flourish. This year, the 10-person PhD group (eight women), included writers of fiction and poetry as well as us two scriptwriters. And, back in the-room-with-the-wonderful-view again at six-week intervals, I heard Bill ask questions that made my hair stand on end, using Ken’s techniques—or maybe Ken learned his techniques as Bill’s student, long ago. And I watched Bill make and pour the coffee when we had a break. And I began to think that IIML over the years has become a women-loving institution, and to appreciate the consequences of that for New Zealand literature, and perhaps, eventually—as Ken’s graduates’ work reaches critical mass—for women's feature filmmaking in New Zealand.

A few weeks ago, there was a little flurry in the United States, when the Publisher's Weekly announced its list of the year’s best books. It did not include a single work by a woman writer. WILA (Women in Literary Arts)—founded in response to perceived bias against women writers in the Association of Writers & Writing Programs—protested. Women & Hollywood and many others joined in. (WILA very quickly gathered too many fans for a Facebook group—over 5000— and are now establishing a website with a new Facebook page.)

And I thought, as I casually engaged with this controversy, that there was no way a New Zealand publication could create a list of New Zealand books of the year without including titles written by women. And wondered why. After all, few women here write and direct feature films, just the same as everywhere else. (Today I read on Indiewire that over the past decade, women directed only five of the 241 films that have grossed $100 million: Twilight, What Women Want, The Proposal, Mamma Mia!; Something’s Gotta Give; Shrek; & Shark Tale with a woman co-director: 2% all up. Only 31 films directed or co-directed by women grossed over $20 million in contrast with 1,000 films directed by men. In my view, those numbers are so small because of the cumulative effects of industrial indifference to women as storytellers and as audiences.)

And I now believe that IIML's programme is one reason women feature prominently in New Zealand’s annual lists of best books and books to buy for the holidays. Women are strongly represented in each of IIML's three annual MA streams (two groups of writers for the page, and Ken’s for scriptwriters) as well as in the PhD group, and even more strongly represented in The Expanding Bookshelf, a regular item in the IIML newsletter. The Expanding Bookshelf records publications from those associated with IIML. Twenty books by graduates were published this year, and women wrote every one. As well, in this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards, one graduate, Emily Perkins, won the Fiction award and the Montana Medal. Another, Jenny Bornholdt, won the Poetry award, and a third—Eleanor Catton—won Best First Book: Fiction. Again, all women. In time, will the women graduates who write scripts be equally successful at getting their work in front of audiences and winning awards?

Why do women thrive within IIML's culture? Do IIML’s graceful, generous, teaching practices work especially well for us, whatever medium we write for?  Does IIML have just the right combination of rigour and tenderness? And what—if any—effect does it have that three of the four full-time teachers are men? If men teach women writers are we more likely to take ourselves seriously, access our imaginations more effectively and write better? I don’t know. Because I also see and hear—as I collect photocopying and cups of tea downstairs—that students have a great time in the IIML classes that women teach. And I loved being taught by Linda Voorhees in a two-week master-class that Ken arranged, and would do another MA to learn from Paula Boock, this year’s writer-in-residence.

The relationships formed among MA students each year—in the highly focused twice-weekly meetings and during the socialising that comes from that—may also make a difference. I know I treasure movie- and theatre-going and ongoing discussion with people I studied with, informed by what we learned at IIML, the intimacy that comes through learning together so intensively, and by our continuing writing practices. These friendships enrich me—and my work—more than I could ever have imagined.

So here I am at the end of the year, picking up a pencil, and about to turn Development into a shooting script, inserting scene numbers(!) and camera instructions like ANGLE ON(!), about to create storyboards (!!). I’m scared. Terrified. An apprentice going out into the world for the next stage of her apprenticeship—where there will be many and varied teachers—carrying her laptop, her pencil case, her project book, her scripts, and all that IIML's given her. Smiling through the fear, because there's joy there, too, a huge appetite for the adventure of getting this story onto a screen.

And there you go, Ken. Travel safely. Thanks a million for the privilege and pleasures of learning with you. (And sorry about the photo. It doesn't do you justice: sometime I'll take a better one. When you're back again.)

This post's also for you two, Allie Eagle—as you paint a series about men—and Heather McPherson—as you complete a series of poems about poet Ursula Bethell. A little contribution to our decades-long conversation about what works for women artists and writers.

8. P.S. (22 March 2010) Although I started this post at the end of December, I finished it in March, just before I wrote the 6 March post, about a contrasting culture at the New Zealand Film Commission, which invests in very few women storytellers. And about Kathryn Bigelow's success with The Hurt Locker, which encouraged me to experiment with subject matter I'd avoided in my scripts.

Then I went to my last PhD-group meeting at IIML. There were twelve of us this time, talking in turn about our projects. And as I listened to the others (and, regardless of the privilege that got us through the door to that room, and the privilege that affects us and readings of our work outside that door, in that room we're all 'other', each another writer, with no qualifier, because we'd each need so many qualifiers to describe what we bring to the writing, e.g. an older-New-Zealand-immigrant-undereducated-lesbian-disabled-woman-lawyer-mother-and-former-child-of-Welsh-English-and-Native-American-descent-creative-non-fiction-and-script-writer, just for a start*) I gained another insight into what a women-loving institution means for women writers. Place us within a nourishing environment for three years or so, free to choose what to investigate and write about, free to be fearlessly all of who we are, and we'll go for it in every imaginable direction.

So, as you can see for yourself in more detail, as writers, we—like the men in the class, and regardless of our chosen form—might explore imaginatively and analytically (creative writers sometimes struggle to separate the two, but for a PhD we have to give it a go): missing person behaviour; authenticity and form in the biographical novel; chronic pain; freedom fighting; a collection of nineteenth century New Zealand photographs; the process of adaptation from screen to stage and back again; mothers-in-law; reclamation and revitalisation of an identity decimated by colonisation; the experiences of nurses on active duty in World War I; Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand's tallest mountain; large built forms of architecture and engineering. I can only begin to imagine the diversity of exciting feature films made, if the film industry cherished and supported its women storytellers as much as IIML does.

I was last, to hand over a bound copy of my thesis and say good-bye. As usual, by the end of the three hours I was shattered by the collective impact of the presentations, so stimulating and inspirational in many ways. I was inarticulate and close to tears as I thanked everyone. Wondering how the rich and varied productivity of the writers in that room-with-the-beautiful-view can be transposed to women's feature filmmaking, globally. Wondering still, 'How, exactly, does IIML do it? How can whatever-it-is be replicated?'

*followed rapidly by: Bad Girl; If-You're-Scylla-I'll-Be-Charybdis; Siren; Virago--


  1. what a generous acknowledgement of your time there with Ken and the other people on your course M.Evans! If there is one thing I have learnt from you over all these years is on the importance of saying thankyou well! and there you are doing it again.

    And thanks for this post...the portraits are beginning. I have put them off for long enough. Now that my dear Mum has departed there is no delaying any more. Some things need to be done. It has taken me about 6 years to get this far. I was amazed that you have had eight years at the above. And there is so much more off the page than on. Always so much more to do eh?

  2. O dear, what did I say? I do get tangled, in these long posts sometimes. They're fiddly to do and in tiny type & I'm a hopeless proofreader. It's Ken, not me, who's been there eight years. And yes, there's a lot off the page, off the canvas, isn't there? The best bits, sometimes. We'll do a seaweed swoop soon-- A big hug to you--


Post a Comment