When the WORD blog team put their hand up to cover different sessions at WORD Christchurch, I was fortunately alone in choosing both “The Storyteller” and “Black and Blue Storytelling” with Ivan E. Coyote. As the event continued and audiences enjoyed the stories, people kept coming back for more and more. By Sunday morning, “The Storyteller” session was sold out and WORD volunteers brought more chairs in.
Ivan hails from the Yukon, Canada and their stories are autobiographical, exploring family history and dynamics, gender identity, social justice and equality. At times self-deprecating, but with a good sprinkling of wit and humour so that the messages they are conveying are all the more powerful for being from personal experience. To deliver these messages in any other way, would perhaps come across as a lecture. Ivan has taken pains to point out that that is not their intention. In a Radio New Zealand interview Ivan explained that the medium they use is very traditional, whilst the subject matter is not. They write the story down and craft it before learning it, then once it is learnt, they are able to really tell it and tweak it and ad-lib for the audience. The result is a very natural, polished telling by a gifted raconteur.
Autobiographical storytelling requires a fine balance between truth and privacy. Ivan applies a strict set of criteria to their writing / telling. They ensure that the story is honouring and they thoroughly examine their own motivation in writing the story – for example are they trying to ensure that they have the last word? The essence of this is ensuring that they show compassion and that they “use their powers for good”. Ever since the sessions during WORD, I keep thinking what a great attitude and approach it is to aim to make everyone, even the most challenging person in the room comfortable and included. At the end of the day, why can’t we all just get along?
Ivan uses story to recount interactions with people with absolute attention to detail. “I’m not so much OCD but ATD – that’s attention to detail”. Through “Scars” we learnt a little about the mysterious world of a hand model, the map of childhood accidents and ultimately the effect of top surgery. This was moving for both the teller and the listeners. The humane telling elicits empathy, groans and sighs from the audience. On Sunday morning there was barely a dry eye in the room.
The session ended on a lighter note with Ivan telling a series of “literary doritos” short, bite-sized stories inspired by overheard snippets of conversation and a standing ovation.
I asked Ivan if they intended readers to read their collections in order, as it seemed that Missed Her was intended that way. Ivan said that it didn’t matter although the Tomboy Survival Guide would probably be better if it was read in order. You read it here first…
Black and Blue Storytelling at 27 steps brought me right out of my comfort zone. To be heading into Christchurch whilst stone cold sober and on my own on a Friday night after 10pm was a big thing for me – but there aren’t that many opportunities to hear adult storytelling. In my excitement I hadn’t really reflected on the name – black and blue storytelling in that some of the stories might be a bit risqué.
According to the host, Derek Flores aka ‘The Unicorn’, the aim of the evening was to conduct a social experiment to find “an inconvenient space and cram as many people as possible inside”. It was hot, or as the Unicorn described it “toasty” and the vibe was becoming a lot more like hot yoga – we were achieving weightloss through storytelling – yay!
To add to the surreal vibe, Mitchell the bar tender circulated bills to the people seated and unable to get to the bar. It is virtually a story in itself that, at the moment of Ivan E. Coyote’s introduction, Mitchell was trying to rest payment from them for Ivan’s bourbon.
Ivan had a simple message for the crowd in “A Cautionary Tale”. A tale involving a retro, blue polyester tuxedo, beer, ecstasy, air travel and inappropriate packing told with humour and panache. Don’t drink beer. We laughed, empathised and cringed together.
This tale features in the book “Gender Failure” written with Rae Spoon, exploring their failure to fit into a gender binary world.
The Unicorn and Alice Canton wove an improvised tale that spun, as improvisation can into a surreal meander where the thread was almost lost until the Unicorn brought it all back together to a conclusion. The contrast between the crafted story and improvisation offered two very different oral narratives – a rare and welcome alternative offering in a literature festival programme.
I’d be willing to bet cold, hard cash that of all the writers who took part in WORD Christchurch this year, Steve Hely is the only one who has “actor: flautist and shirtless bohemian, The Office (US)” on their CV. Assuming that he does, in fact, even have that on his CV… and if not, why?
He’s also one of those annoying people who are intelligent, funny, and interested in lots of things and therefore make the rest of us feel bad with their rampant overachieving.
In addition to having worked on some of the best comedy shows EVER (in addition to The Office and 30 Rock, there’s American Dad and chaotic political comedy Veep – pretty sure those are on the CV), he also does a podcast, The Great Debates, in which he argues passionately about the big questions in life… such as whether dogs should be allowed on the beach.
He’s also written several books. His novel “How I became a famous novelist” is a satire of the literary world (and somewhat awkwardly, given the context of this talk, literary festivals).
His two non-fiction efforts are both travel books, of a kind. The first, The Ridiculous Race, documents the competition he and friend Vali Chandrasekaran undertook to travel around the world, in opposite directions, without air travel. First one back to Los Angeles won. The second follows him on his trip down the west of the South American continent, right down to Tierra del Fuego at the southern end of Chile.
On Comedy writing
Toby Manhire started out asking him quite a few questions about the process of television comedy writing*, and how it differed between shows like Late Night with David Letterman and 30 Rock.
Letterman had much more of a factory approach where people worked independently like “12 monkeys at 12 typewriters”, which answers the question “if infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters will eventually produce Shakespeare, what will a drastically smaller number get you?” A Letterman top ten list, is the answer.
Sitcoms, according to Hely are a more collaborative kind of environment, though being employed as a writer on a show that is already hugely successful is pretty intimidating. Of his arrival at 30 Rock, says Hely “I was a scared little puppy trying to help out”.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Great television writers have a magpie-ish ability to retain “something weird, some odd sentence that someone said to them” and turn that into a gag or even a whole episode. There is also such a thing as “riffing” for comedy writers though it’s “embarrassing to talk about compared with guitar music because it’s less cool, but it is, in a way, similar to how music is made”.
With regards to his forays into sitcom acting, it was definitely useful, as a writer, to have that experience, to be able to understand what it’s like for the actors.
“The feeling of being an actor is terrifying and strange.
And in a long-running show like The Office, the actors have spent more time with their characters than many of the writers have so “you’re wise to listen to the actors’ ideas about their characters.”
Hely admits to a certain kind of wanderlust and feels that travel breaks a person out of the routine ways of doing things, creating a certain kind of heightened awareness. Where will I get food? Where will I sleep?
“It really makes you feel alive”.
He’s also interested in the whole genre of travel writing – the history of going somewhere and reporting back on it, from Herodotus to Mark Twain (another American writer who has visited Christchurch, by the way).
There are examples of this interest in The Wonder Trail, which in certain chapters feels like a meta-travel book (a travel book about travel books) when Hely documents the history of what what travellers of old have made of the place that he’s visiting in the present, which allows you the perspective of seeing what has changed (or not) in the meantime. It’s an amusing, enlightening, and informative read, whether you’ve any interest in travelling to South America yourself or not, there’s plenty to keep you reading.
On Trump, Clinton and Sir Edmund Hilary
There’s no denying it, things have gotten weird. Or as Hely puts it “that satire is being outpaced by reality is alarming”. Er, yes, it is rather.
Hely is in a good position to say just how alarming as he got press credentials for and attended the Republican National Convention. He found it “upsetting”, though in the wake of Ted Cruz not endorsing Trump it felt “like a pro-wrestling match – I enjoyed the chaos of that”.
A lot of Trump’s political success, he believes, is “because politicians are boring”… as they should be – “I want boring people working on policy,” he says.
Trump is woefully unprepared for the job.
“His plans for being president don’t seem like those of someone who thought about being president for more than an hour…”
Whereas Hillary Rodham Clinton has probably been thinking about being president “since the second grade”. This is not to say that he’s necessarily a fan of HRC. In fact he thinks she’s very cavalier with the truth, going so far as to call her “chronically dishonest”.
An amazing example of this was the time she claimed to have been named after our own Sir Edmund Hilary. Later fact-checking revealed that Clinton was born years before Sir Ed and Sherpa Tensing reached the summit of Mt Everest. So why lie? Did she even really claim that? Was it a joke that got misreported? If not had she just, as Hely put it “wigged out” and made it up, or did someone in her family tell her it was true and she believed it?
We know from audience member (and veteran political cartoonist) Peter Bromhead, who knew Sir Ed and spoke with him about this very topic, that Clinton certainly did relate the story as fact and that the man himself had believed it to be true initially. As to why Clinton lied…well, who knows? Or as Hely suggested, was it true after all? Might her parents have just been really, really keen on beekeepers?
Hely is a fan of Cormac McCarthy but also evocative non-fiction like The Possessed by Elif Batuman. He’s also loves the design of Penguin classics.
The Sunday Fringe at the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival was at one of my favourite new Christchurch places – Space Academy / Kadett Cafe in St Asaph Street. It’s just such a pleasant space to be in – great hot drinks, yummy food, AND an exhibition of The Smiths posters.
I was keen to go to this session, being a magazine lover from way back – raised on Twinkle, Tammy, and Misty comics, then Mizz, Q, Select, NME, British Vogue … Also, the library has just launched a magazine uncover – huraina.
The panellists on How to start a mag are eminently qualified to talk MAGAZINES: Debbie Stoller’s mag-baby is BUST (up to issue 100), Luke Wood (Cheap Thrills), and Duncan Greive from online mag The Spinoff (via Real Groove). The session was ably chaired by RDU’s breakfast host James Dann.
In the world of magazines, the tension between quality content and business/advertising/the Web is massive:
Don’t sell your soul to the advertisers. Magazines can become deformed by demands of the advertiser and fat with ad pages.
The culture and the capital are never going to be compatible.
How on earth do magazines make money?
How do you sell magazines when there are fewer bookshops and less people buying mags?
Why would people buy content they can get free on the web?
NZ Herald and Stuff are both trying to be gossip sites, magazines, and provide serious news. The broken economic model dictates incoherence.
A world without intelligent discourse gets you Trump and Brexit.
Who wants to advertise to smart, funny feminists? Turns out – no-one.
So why make a magazine when it’s all against you? The big driver is PASSION. As Luke Wood said:
As a designer I guess I do fetishize the object. Somehow when it is in print, it is more archived. I believe in the content that we’re publishing.
And the experience of reading a magazine is different to consuming “weird snackable crap” on the internet. Debbie Stoller said:
It’s the quality of the time that you spend with it. It’s a more quiet focused time – it sticks in your memory more.
I can’t finish with mentioning this rather splendid quote from James:
Magazines smell really good; the Internet doesn’t.
Tara Moss has worn many hats — model, crime writer, journalist, and now author of two non-fiction titles, The Fictional Woman and Speaking Out. Where The Fictional Woman is part-memoir, Speaking Out is designed as a handbook for woman and girls, full of practical tips on how to speak out and how to deal with the backlash if you do. There’s a whole section on surviving social media (don’t let the trolls get you down), which unfortunately gets more relevant every day.
So why did a crime writer choose to write a nonfiction book that isn’t about death? Well, she says, here’s a powerpoint presentation I prepared earlier. There followed twenty minutes of increasingly depressing statistics about the lack of voice and representation of women in media and politics. Suffice it to say, we can do better. (Except Canada, phwoar: fifty/fifty representation in parliament! Be still my beating heart.)
When we are silent or unheard our ideals and perspectives, our needs, our pain, and our struggles remain unknown or unacknowledged; and often for this reason, unchanged. — Tara Moss
This just emphasises what I’ve been hearing from many of the other panels. If we don’t hear indigenous voices, if we don’t hear LGBT voices, then we’re not representing our society. As someone who’s been nosy all her life I’ve never quite understood why we haven’t figured this out yet. Listening’s not that hard, is it? We might learn something.
The reality is not that women talk more … but that we want and expect them to talk less. — Soraya Chemaly
Oh, right. That’s why. Even about issues that you’d expect women to have an equal say — birth control, parental leave, women’s rights — we’re still deferring to male opinion. And let’s not even talk about violence against women. No wait, let’s. Did you know a woman dies almost every week in Australia at the hands of a current or former partner? Did you know one out of five women experiences sexual violence, worldwide? That violence against women and girls remains unchanged despite a downward trend in all other crime?
This can all seem incredibly depressing (it is), but at least things have changed since the 20th century. We can improve this situation; it’s not static, it’s not just the way things are.
The more we speak out, the less easy it will be to silence others … Toxic silence does a lot more damage than oversharing; silence has never solved anything. — Tara Moss
So here’s your homework: read Speaking Out. Speak out more, and listen to those who are already. Comment on this post. Tell your own story. Once we have an equal voice, everyone will be better off.
Ever since WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival ended on Sunday I’ve felt rather sad and a little lost. When I’ve been to other literature festivals I’ve been enthused, happy and have absolutely gorged myself on as many sessions as possible. Then they ended and that was that. WORD was different to that and also, for me, significantly different to previous WORD festivals. Let me try and explain how.
For me, WORD 2016 was like having my best friend visit for a full on weekend of anecdotes, reminiscence, political discussion and culture. Now they’ve gone back home and I miss them.
However, the absolute highlight of the festival, for me was the oral storytelling of Ivan Coyote. It is a rare thing to find oral storytelling events in literature festivals. It is, as the saying goes, “as rare as hen’s teeth” to find storytelling for adult audiences. But WORD programmed this to audiences who lapped it all up and hungrily asked for more. Oral storytelling is the one thing above all that I’ve missed since moving to New Zealand from the UK over 7 years ago. I hadn’t come across Ivan Coyote before, so my choice of their sessions was purely guided by the words “storyteller and raconteur”. My punt paid off as these sessions were fantastic. Like most storytelling events, they were just too short and that’s a great criticism to have!
So now, I have a few more books and collections on my shelves just like an album of photos to remember the weekend. Until the next time, WORD.
We all consider ourselves good people, so it can be confronting to realise that we’re unwittingly contributing to oppression. For peace of mind it can seem easier to ignore the evidence rather than engage in change, thinking if we cover our eyes then it isn’t there, it’s all the past, it doesn’t affect me. Or we go to the other extreme, demand our education from those we meet rather than listen to those already speaking.
When you quiz me on genocide highlights — “Were those smallpox blankets real? I’ve always wondered about that” — to sate your hunger for facts, I do not owe you a free education of the kind that my university students pay for, and I am not so flattered by your interest in my people that I might unfurl a lecture on 500 years of colonization for your edification.
Nic Low asked about the role of anger in writing. Both have been through traumatic experiences – rape, disordered eating, the removal of a child – but are still gentle, kind people in person. Writing provides a safe space for anger. Eckermann brought up the idea of good anger and bad anger, and Washuta responded:
We have that bad anger and what do you do with it? A lot of us just destroy ourselves with drugs and alcohol, because that bad anger has just embedded itself, and then we’re told Oh that’s all in the past, that was hundreds of years ago, get over it. The reality is that in our communities we are experiencing ongoing colonisation every day, all the time. We are still a colonised people.
Eckermann agreed – they don’t want to hurt others, so they hurt themselves. She hopes writing can bring us closer to a collective understanding and healing. By acknowledging pain, maybe some can begin to heal.
Who are you writing for?
Initially I thought I was writing for myself, or for my community, but now I think I’m writing for the future. Poetry is supposed to change and inform lives… I mean statistically we know that one in four women is raped in their lifetime, but we have to share our stories so it’s not just statistics, it’s life lived. – Eckermann
I wanted to see people like me on the page – I didn’t know any other native people at college, I was diagnosed bipolar, raped, had an eating disorder, and to me they all seemed interconnected but I couldn’t find anything that reflected my own experience. So my books are a gift to other college students. I knew there had to be other people like me, and there are. – Washuta
How do you feel about your country?
I’d like to remove the culture of denial in Australia. It’s been really rewarding going to other countries that know their histories, who aren’t afraid of their history. — Eckermann
There’s this cheerful narrative about the brave pioneers who crossed the continent to create something out of the “pristine untouched wilderness” when really people were doing all sorts of maintenance work. The pioneers just didn’t understand how the land was being used, or couldn’t see it. But it’s always “It’s really nice that the Indians helped the settlers make something out of this super boring place.” — Washuta
The session ended with a plea for greater friendship and connection in the face of the tsunami of racism that seems to be washing over the world.
So listen to others. Be kind. And go read their books.
Can Kiwi writers do comedy? New Zealand writers are repeatedly told that their work is too dark, too serious. Is this true? Three local writers got together at this event to tickle this topic. Here’s what emerged:
Damien read from his novel Dad Art – in his words ‘a mid-life crisis book about a basically contented life with a pulsing vein of anxiety’ – and it was funny. Not in a here’s-a-funny-joke way, but in subtle observations that make you think ‘I know someone exactly like that’ (and it may even be me). His excerpt was an account of a motley crew in a Te Reo class. Think I recognised myself there! Damien feels that one of the ways that comedy works in fiction is through structure, that is repeated references within the story. A sort of insider knowledge type of humour, one in which he has ‘created echoes’.
Danyl read from his novel Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley. Set in the Aro valley near Wellington, Danyl researches his novels very carefully – after all he knows people who live there. When asked if readers take offence at some of his observations, he replied that what seemed to offend them most was if he altered the geography in any way! He’s a big believer in writing funny stuff in, thinking it is fantastic and then removing most of it on the next reading. Definitely a ‘less is more’ approach to comedy in writing. He also likes to make fun of conventional wisdom but feels that makes his humour unpalatable to the ‘cultural gatekeepers’.
Robert (call me Bob) was all set to read from his latest work Please Do Not Disturb, but had brought the wrong book. By this stage we were nicely warmed up so we all thought that was hilarious. Instead he read from Terms and Conditions – his novel on being a Corporate Lawyer. In this book the devil is in the detail. He calls himself ‘the devil’s ghost writer’. His advice to readers is – always read the small print! He loves the act of writing but says that self-editing ‘is like performing an autopsy on yourself’. Bob finds tackling topics from weird angles can be funny. He also writes what he likes. You are always going to offend someone in his opinion. If that’s a worry to you, you’re in the wrong job.
They all hated the title given to this festival event – Tickled Fiction, finding it childish, shallow and borderline pervy. Put on the spot in question time Bob said he liked ‘You Write Funny’ as an alternative.
Relentless and unstoppable digital forces have changed the flows of information in recent years. And there’s no going back. There’s a multiplicity of media sources out are all vying for our precious time: pushing hard news and hard bodies at us through every possible platform.
Arguably, no other sector of the economy has been rattled by such changes as that profession and bastion and truth – journalism!
To discuss this, an extensive panel was formed at the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. Cate Brett, Simon Wilson, Morgan Godfrey, Duncan Greive and Paula Penfold got together on stage and thrashed it all out. The message seemed to be that such circumstances are a mixed blessing.
Some say “the news has been democratized”, giving everyone with a digital device “a voice”. But then, “everyone” includes your friendly neighbourhood skinhead. Others claim we’re all being exploited by commercial entities, who distract us from real issues by pitching to our carnal desires. Little New Zealand media sources can’t compete with behemoth businesses, resourced to catch a bigger share of public attention.
So, how do wholesome Kiwi journalists and news sources secure capital to compete for space within the saturated market, which is rather dominated by cashed up multinationals? Annoyingly, so many solutions seem to present a paradox – because the most critical and fundamental principle underpinning “The News” is OBJECTIVITY. Therefore, relying on government funding becomes a problem if your scrutinizing the behaviour of government: “biting the hand that feeds you”!
Getting help from unions or trusts was pitched as means to secure funding. But then, that’s also a problem when such entities also have political and ideological positions which journos feel compelled to honour!
And then there is advertising, which also means pandering to cut throat corporatism … These are some of the most important questions of right now. Because a robust and free press is right up there with free and fair elections and the right to vote!
If Caitlin Doughty had her way, we’d all be dealing with death very differently. Mortician and author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes she believes we have become too distanced from caring for our dead. Less than 100 years ago, that was what people did, they cared for their own dead. A sold-out Concert Hall audience at The Piano was ready to be convinced.
This was one of those events that barely needed a co-presenter. Not that he did any harm, but the forcefield of Caitlin’s presentation was so dynamic that I believe it would have been better to just give her a podium and free rein. She is just bursting with life, engaging, articulate and with the Best Hair At The Festival (a hitherto unexploited literary category.)
Our current means of dealing with the dead is 99% money driven. We have bought into the juggernaut that is the funeral business. In particular Doughty has the embalming business in her cross hairs. Nowadays she believes most embalming is completely unnecessary, expensive and results in corpses that do not even look like the deceased. Yet we continue with this practice – and I use that ‘we’ intentionally – apparently New Zealand ranks second in the world after the States in embalming statistics.
Not only is this bad for our pockets, but Doughty does not believe it has done our grieving process any favours either. Take children, for example. Doughty herself had a traumatic first encounter with death when she was about eight years old. No one spoke her through it and the spectre of death haunted her for ages. She jokingly refers to her relationship with death as the longest relationship of her life.
How did it all start? Straight out of a Medieval History degree she ‘tricked’ her way into employment in a funeral home where she was lucky enough to be given opportunities to do all aspects of the work, like scrape bones out of ovens, fetch bodies from where they had died under bridges and deal with grieving family members. She remembers (and how could a girl ever forget) at the age of 22 being left alone in the morgue to shave her first corpse. She feared she would get this horribly wrong with her wee pink razor and lashings of shaving cream. But bodies she says are just people, only a lot easier to deal with.
What are the alternatives to the expensive over-professionalised approach to death we are currently saddled with? The first hurdle to get over is to believe that the dead body is beautiful just as it is and that there is a sacred quality to caring for the dead. Everyone deserves ‘a good death’ but to get that you need to think about your own death and you need to talk about death to your family members. A good death is not going to happen all by itself.
The second hurdle is to become better informed about alternatives. Like initiatives to develop the composting of bodies, where instead of burning corpses, they are allowed to rot in an enhanced composting environment and so turn into soil in 6-8 weeks. There is also alkaline hydrolysis which flash decomposes the body and finally there is conservation burial where burials happen in endangered land and conservation areas.
Question time. Oh dear. First two not too bad – we got the afterlife question. Nada for her, said Doughty. She sees her life as a film reel that just runs out eventually and flaps about for a bit before it goes still. God forbid that the afterlife should be peopled by everyone she has ever known – all those dead people lining up to meet her at the Pearly Gates, thanks but no thanks. We got a question on hospital deaths, a euthanasia query and a formaldehyde question (look it up on Google lady!) Then the mic fell into the hands of a man who rambled all over the terrain, couldn’t get to a question, and just at the point when you want to trample over other patrons heads and wrench the mic out of his hand to ask your own perfect question, Doughty somehow managed to wrest a possible interpretation from his ramblings out of him.
As for my question, it might not be perfect, but I could have spat it out in nine words:
“Has being a mortician ever affected your love life?”