Friday, August 30, 2019

Robert Lord and me

Robert in the Shed- from my sketch diary. Riffing off the titles of his plays.



There is one last thing to do when leaving the Robert Lord Writers' Cottage in Dunedin. It's to write in 'the book'. This is something that you are presented with at the end, rather than at the beginning of your tenure and it's a glorious rabbit hole of remembrance from past writers to dive down. 
I recognised nearly all of them and was glad that the cottage is now equipped with double glazing and a heat pump, when reading about the battle to keep warm in an Otago winter- mostly from far north authors! This was my entry, typed printed and pasted because nobody wants to try and decipher my handwriting, least of all me!

The Cottage

I had all kinds of anxiety about coming to the cottage, leaving our house and ancient cat in Wellington (in the capable hands of friends of friends). We live in a big old 1910 villa, with my studio, a basement for messy work and a garage with off-street parking. The information provided was a spreadsheet of contents. How did a moustache cup relate to where we would live for 6 months? How big was the bedroom? Was there enough room in the kitchen for our sacred and necessary burr coffee grinder? Did the sofa bed in the writers’ room provide space for a friend’s bag when folded down and in use?

I searched in vain for photos on the internet and all I could find were smiling pictures of authors outside the front door, and one of the mantlepiece. I’m used to light and space, and knew I’d be cooped up in a historic tiny house with my husband. Would this be the end of a beautiful 40 year relationship?

I decided that I would take a full set of photos for the Trust to pass on to future residents.
We packed the car in Wellington with my pared down art materials, 2 computer screens, a sewing machine, clothing for multiple seasons and some odds and ends from the pantry. I threw in our good cotton sheets and steam iron; I was convinced there would be neither (there are). And off we went, waving farewell to the city of my heart and wondering what lay ahead in a city I’d only spent 2 days in (the Octagon) before.

When we arrived in Titan Street the party flat in George street was in full swing, and one boy in disposable overalls approached and asked if I would touch his bum as part of a challenge. This is the moment to laugh and rejoice the boldness of youth, so I raised my finger ceremoniously and prodded his offered derriere to the cheers of the onlookers across the road.
Then it was up to us, to greet the cottage and make it our own for the time being. I think everyone adds in some way to the place. Our contribution was to replace the lightbulbs with brighter ones and the Chinese hat lightshades with rice paper globes that let the light spread to the ceiling. 

Adrian, my husband fixed the front door hinges so that it didn’t stick, and we secreted a spare key outside after locking ourselves out one day and having to call the Cottage Trust rescue brigade. A couple of wooden blocks under the feet of one side of the bed sorted out the tipsy lean. We moved some furniture around just a little; Robert smiled from his place above the desk. Then putting away some travelling boxes, we found his, in the shed. I gather it is empty, his ashes now beneath the kowhai tree, but it seemed wrong to have him out in the laundry. We restored him to the coal range where we can say good morning and he can keep an eye on us, and I can thank him.

Each day I said goodbye to my husband and walked to the University through that stunning campus to the College of Education. I would stop for a coffee at the student Union or the Polytech Hub, and write in longhand, listening and watching students in the wild. Back in Titan Street, Adrian swept up glass and picked up rubbish, to keep it tidy and full of pride and I think his example has worked on the students. He eventually found contract work and the writers’ room has been busy with the sound of a keyboard in full thrash as he delivers marketing strategy for the Otago Polytechnic.

The writers’ room has also been where we sit and drink wine, watch Netflix, entertain friends and read books. We have watched students stroll past from Fatty Alley (Great King Street) laden with takeaways. On one cold day a girl walked past wearing nothing but a towel, and on another a boy in a towel knocked on our door to ask if he could use a phone, locked out as he was from his flat.

From our cosy cottage base, we have explored Dunedin, Central Otago and Stewart Island. I have written and illustrated 2 children’s picture books (due for publication with Pukeko Pictures later this year) the first draft of a junior fiction novel and more than half of a YA Graphic novel (still a WIP). 
I’ve visited schools, given lectures and been involved in the literary events of Dunedin. I buried a sketchbook in the cottage garden for 4 months to decay as part of my YA, unearthed it and it’s perfect for photographing. I dried it out on a plastic bag on the floor in front of the coal range.

Whilst it isn’t mandatory for a writer here, I got a tattoo, my first. It will feature in ‘the work.'
Sorry Mum.

We have been cultural; we went to the Larnach Castle Ball as Charles Dickens and Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. I made a faded and tatty wedding dress complete with bustle on a borrowed dressmaker’s mannequin in the lounge. At one stage, wedding petticoats and a veil hung in the shed, dripping tea stain. I think this may be the only time in Robert Lord’s history a wedding dress has been made in the cottage.

We have been amused by the cottage, warmed by the cottage and sheltered by the cottage. I have learned to be economical with dishes and cooking in the tiny kitchen. I think of Robert and wonder if he was more of a wine and nibbles sort of chef. And in our final few days here, will be saddened to leave our temporary home. It has become quite a part of us. Or we of it.


I thought about all the photos I took when we arrived and how useful they might be to a new writer prior to arrival and realised that entire charm of No.3, is the unexpected. The joy of discovery; it’s the not knowing that makes this so good, so utterly special. Not knowing what you are coming to, the friends you’ll make and the work you will achieve… the ink you will get. Robert knows. What a good man.

I think I'll keep the interior photos to myself :)
With so many thanks, forever

Fifi Colston (writer)
& Adrian Parkyn (sidekick)



Miss Havisham's Shed

Fresh Ink- Ampersand Tattoo

Friday, April 05, 2019

Making connections, joining the dots


The Sleepout- from 'The Workbook' WIP


A residency requires two things from oneself:
stopping slapping yourself that you finally got it.
and
the ability to say no to all the usual requests for freelance work that you normally say yes to because 'god knows when you’ll get work again'. 

It’s been nearly 2 months since we set sail (literally, on the Interislander ferry) for Dunedin. In this time, our ancient cat has not apparently died, or even missed us. He’s going to be so annoyed when our doting house residents leave and we come home. We bought 6 months of Chef and Whiskers cat food for the duration and he is determinedly working his way through it all. All hail the cat of 9-12 lives.

Dunedin has been warm and sunny and welcoming, and we venture forth in the weekends to visit beautiful places like Nugget Point Lighthouse in the Catlins. St Clair remains our favoured spot for the moment, but we may change our minds as the cold weather sets in. Today I donned the puffer jacket, but the students are still sporting bare legs and jandals, so maybe I’m a Wellywuss. 

I’ve settled into a new normal as far as the work goes. I set out in the morning from the Robert Lord Cottage, leaving my husband with strict instructions to enjoy his free time and not spend too much on coffee or Lime scooters for the day. I walk across the park to the University and find one of 2 or 3 cafes to have what I’ve coined as my 'flat write'. The coffee restriction directive does not apply to me, as it’s very necessary to the process. My favorite spots are in the Polytech Hub or the Otago Student Union. Here I can eavesdrop on young people and watch them in their unnatural environment called Tertiary Education. The moult has finished and their full coats are on and pretty soon I think there will be some mating rituals to observe as they try and keep warm. My hide is a laptop and I keep very quiet so as not to disturb them.

By late morning I get to my office at the College of Education. By this time the sun has gone off my desk and it’s easier than squinting or drawing the curtains. The whole tower block is about to undergo a refurbishment and so the next writer in residence may have spivvy blinds and new carpet!

I field emails, requests for work and follow ups on things I said yes to before I knew I had the residency- the truism is, that when you are busy, people want you even more. This is a good thing for both the ego and the bank balance. Of course, being a freelancer, I never expect this to last. All self employed people will know this fear. The one that has you never plan for a holiday/new clothes/car repairs more than one month in the future, because you never know if you’ll have work to pay for it.
So, now with a salary (be still my unaccustomed heart) it’s possible for me to say no. But I have to exercise that muscle fiercely. Because now all I want to do is my project. I draw in the afternoons when the light is best in my office. I’ve set myself a herculean task that involves two different drawing styles to be combined into kind of graphic novel, but with all the prose as well. I am making contact with students who can both inform me and read over what I have written for authenticity and tone. I’m meeting people who are welcoming me into their arts and literary lives. I have my formal Fellows welcome next week at The Hocken Library with the other Arts Residents. I’m presenting at the Dunedin Readers & Writers Week.

I’m being resident. 

This is what it’s all about. Making connections, joining the dots, exploring new work, that one day, with the greatest of luck and fortitude, may become published. And if nobody wants it, I will put it all up on some platform so it can be shared and, hopefully, enjoyed. Because it’s no use to anyone in the bottom draw of my cloud storage waiting for someday. Never wait for someday, do it now, with the Residency Application for 20/20 open, if you are a kids lit author/illustrator, apply. 

Join those dots.



Tuesday, March 26, 2019

After the Ides of March





I was going to write about all my feelings around this last week in New Zealand. 
But if you follow me on facebook, Instagram or Twitter, or stumble across me in comments on news items, you will know very succinctly how I feel; I feel just like the rest of you. Unless you are someone called something like Aron, Derek or Ryan with a fb profile full of guns and army fatigues. Pro tip- never argue with these people. It’s a waste of your intelligence; you will become stupider with more contact.

So, wiping myself down with sanitising cloths after emerging from the sewers of social media (funny how you trip into them unwittingly and then have to try and claw your way up out of a slippery siding), I will tell you a little more about my residency and how that is going.

Dunedin proves to be more beautiful every day, despite some students being totally unaware that being a Tidy Kiwi keeps it that way. My husband took to brushing up broken glass and rubbish in our little street and it looks much better for it. I think he may have guilted the Young and the Feckless into following suit, because it has remained almost spotless for a few days now. By the time we leave here in August, the students will have run out of money for takeaways and beer and be deep in work they should have done in the first semester. It will be very quiet. Bless. 

I have visited Hoiho: yellow eyed penguins and Tunnel Beach and marvelled in the stunning coastline. Taken a trip to the quirky and fascinating Museum of Natural MysteryThe Otago Museum, gone to music performances at The Marama Hall and of course quite a few new favorite coffee spots with fellow writers and visiting friends... and the odd bar or two. I am pacing myself, because I don't want it all to run out before I go. It won't of course, Dunedin has a myriad of things on and I am entertained daily. It would be easy to forget what I'm down here for. 

So, how's that novel going, part two.

With a new project, I find, there is the standing around the edge of it, peering over the side, stepping back and going away to think about it a bit more. Like a high diving platform. Summoning up the courage to commit, because once you do, there is no going back and everything else is a distraction you really don’t need, in case you hit your head on the board. I can report my diving is not up to Olympic or even national standard. I got my bathers wet and have to work on my technique. Let’s call it a shitty first dive. But there are parts of it I like very much, so I’ll keep going, because that’s what this time is all about. I can report I have also, as part of what is turning into a graphic novel of sorts, drawn a lot of rats. I have saved one as my instagram profile to ward off the requests from 'Single Dad, Ohio' (aka, scammer with a laptop and Western Union account for me to pour money into) to get to know me better. I don't think they will be able to in all seriousness say 'Hi Beautiful'. Unless they have a thing for rodents.

I’m still sketching people. Here’s one I did on Friday 15th March, in the morning, before the Christchurch Mosque massacre and the rosy tint fell from our happily deluded glasses. The Ides of March.

I was at an iDFashion talk by Kate Sylvester and was fascinated by this birdlike lady in designer clothes in the audience. I wote something. 

Kate talked about Francis Hodgkins, inspiration and sustainability.
The tiny woman fell forward, caught herself, fell again.
Narcolepsy?
She was unsustained. By the talk. By food.
The WORLD at her feet, fashion forward, modelling Twiggy of her youth.
Fashion just could not hold her up.



Sunday, March 17, 2019

Thoughts from Dunedin




Friday 15th March

At lunchtime I applaud our beautiful tamariki for protesting climate change. Calling for global action. Inspirational. Our younger generation leading the way for the planet. I’m so proud I want to hug them all. The world is looking up.

After lunch, I sit in the audience for a panel discussion at ID Fashion when my silent phone keeps buzzing. The talk is of sustainability and the challenges ahead for designers. I look at the desperate message from my adult son. ‘This is happening in Christchurch, right now!’
I check the link. Not an earthquake.

Walking outside, there are still people who don’t know. Taking selfies, buying clothes, drinking coffee. Laughing in the sunshine. I want a megaphone so I can shout to them, ‘Stop, stop, our world is now different!’
Fashion seems irrelevant. Red is all the rage.

Saturday 16th March

I go for a walk. The New Zealand flag is at half mast. Events have been cancelled but Gun City is open. ‘6 Fun shooting activities you can have without a firearms licence! ‘The ad features a man with his tiny children, laughing and bonding over a tripod mounted weapon. Aiming at targets, finger on the trigger. Kapow. So much family fun to be had.

A visiting friend and I make our way to the mosque, buying the last sad bunch of lilies at Veggie Boys.
‘There’s been a run on them today’ says the girl at the counter.
A group of students walk alongside us clutching posies of wild flowers plucked from gardens, maybe their flats, maybe someone elses. Nobody would begrudge a stolen bloom today, headed for a memorial, an offering of sorrow. We lay our flowers down, a poor substitute for regret, but all we can do right now. Two more students tie a bunting of international flags to the railings. A young Samoan girl writes ‘We love you’ inside a heart, with pink pavement chalk.
Aroha, sorry, we are not this, this is your home, spelled out in pastels.

An official sign on the mosque gate, that has been there forever says:
‘The Messenger said: do not harm or reciprocate harm’. And something about making sure you park legally please.

Parked outside on their feet are two policemen. It’s a shock to see the black weapons in their arms. They hold them like an uncomfortable apology, shaped like death.

Huddles of Muslim people. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to intrude.
We start to walk away and there is one young woman in a hijab staring at the all the tributes.
I touch her hand and say clumsily, ‘I am so, so sorry,’ and we fall into each other’s arms and sob. I hold her tight and she holds me tighter. My friend embraces her too. There is comfort in a single act of touch. For us maybe more than this woman. We want to be forgiven for our country becoming this horror for her.
We walk home my friend and I, swiping at our wet faces.

There are green clad students partying on a rooftop. Early St Patricks Day. One boy leans over and vomits again and again and again, over the wall into the garden. A waterfall of chunks. He gets up, steadies himself and opens another beer to the cheers of his mates. Later he will climb aboard a Lime Scooter, fall off it and clog up the overburdened emergency department with a broken leg. His parents will be so proud he’s at Uni in Otago, all his future ahead of him.  He doesn’t look like the praying sort.

Sunday 17th March
I hear there’s a rush on gun sales before the law change on ownership.






Monday, March 11, 2019

Hows that novel coming along?



On Saturday I will have been here a month.
The burning question is‘ So how’s that novel coming along?’

The truth is, I find myself thrown back into my Masters at the IIML, when having been accepted with a brilliant submission, I got there and found my ideas ran off like disobedient terriers. I went through an angst filled period of self loathing, resignation that I was totally useless, a complete fraud and was not worthy. 

Then I got down to writing.

It takes a while to settle into a place before the muse can be given free reign (my story and I’m sticking to it). Every day seems distracted by something that takes me away from my IMPORTANT work. Things I didn’t finish in Wellington before I left. Getting a Residents Parking permit, so further fines are avoided. Tell me, why does every student on George, Titan and Great King Street own a vehicle? When I was a poor student, I sensibly lived at home and used my parents car, and all their petrol whilst receiving a standard tertiary bursary. Kids these days…privileged much (joking here).

Then there is meeting up with other artists, writers and going to check out the museums and libraries. And St Clair Salt water pool until it closes with daylight saving. ID Fashion this week, French film Festival the next. So busy! So much to see and do. A thousand ways to avoid writing.

But still, walking everyday to my office across the North Ground green, through the University, along the Leith. Watching students, listening to conversations whilst pretending to look at my phone. Realising YA doesn’t always mean 15 year old at school. Can be an 18 year old school leaver. Back in my day we left school at 16 most often. What is a YA audience anyway except for a yarn intended to absorb anyone over the age of 12?

And drawing.

One of the things I decided when I was coming down was that my sketchbook was getting thin on drawings and I had lost the urge to doodle. Part of this is because I no longer feel the need to sketch something from life, because I’m a practised illustrator. So why fill up a diary with studies of fruit and suchlike? I know how to draw them and doing more bores me. The other reason to draw was to nut out designs for clients. I don’t have a client down here, I AM the client. So I bought a brown paper sketchbook (to challenge my tonality) and decided to fill it with whimsey and humour during my time here. If I draw something I have give it a different spin.

I thought I was just amusing myself, but the revelation to me today, was that this is an integral part of my project. Not these particular drawings as such, but the way I’m interpreting the world around me. My proposed project includes diary sketches and a fundamentally different view of life from my protagonist. 

Every new thing I am experiencing here is feeding my work. From losing my keys down the lift well at the College of Ed, visiting Bruce Mahalski and his Museum of Natural Mystery (and coming away with bones), to chortling at the blatantly naughty signage on scarfie student flats.

And sitting in the Student Hub today, I did what has always worked for me best when writing. I got out lined paper, a pen and started. And it’s filling me with that certain excitement that other writers will know…the one that has you wriggling about with delight. Because you are on your way.

So how’s that novel going Fifi? I can report today, that it’s going just fine.

PS- if you want to check out my sketches, follow me on instagram or facebook.
And here is Smaug of the lift shaft, waiting for my keys.






Monday, March 04, 2019

Writer in Residence- the inside oil!



Writer in Residence…it conjures up a Roald Dahlesque picture does it not? In an overstuffed threadbare armchair, crocheted rug over the knees (granny squares 101) with a leather bound desk (spotted with ink, and bearing the scratch marks of an author’s unpublished despair). Stabbing furiously at a typewriter (Olivetti Leterra 25). The residence is an orangerie circa 1922 with wooden framing, glassed panes: some slightly cracked from the insistent tapping of the peach trees outside, on a warm Francophilean day.

I am, for my sins- it pays to have some apparently, The Otago Children’s Writer in Residence for 2019.

Not France, but charming and endearing all the same. My Olivetti is a keyboard from Jaycar Electronics, hooked up to multiple screens and powered with a Microsoft Surface Pro- bought with my winnings from a World of WearableArt entry. My chair is College of Education standard issue, the desk too, with a set of draws which boasts a small selection of stationery (rumour has it there is a stationery cupboard from which one might help oneself, should a freelancer who has paid for this stuff all her career be so bold. Be still my beating and astounded heart!).
I have photocopier privileges. The residence is on the 4th floor, a room with a view of the Forsyth Barr Stadium and the Leith. There is a sign on the door ‘Children’s Writer in Residence’ and one might expect to slide it open a crack and see a woman with a multi coloured wig throwing words in the air and catching them in teacups, for further wetting of the literary whistle.

If you peeked in at me, you would find instead, a small woman with ashy hair, a room taken over with drawing board, paints, brushes, paper and skeletal models of characters made from wire and clay. There’s an Otago Uni branded keep cup and a thick wad of manuscript that has yet to find a home. YA rejections, trending to the max. It’s looking at me askance whilst I work on a new project. Sorry Wild Cards, you were so the last 10 years of my life. Let’s take a break whilst I dally with a newer, more exciting diversion, one that takes me out to dinner and pays the bill.

Having this much sought after and prestigious position comes with the weight of expectation. Mostly, actually, entirely from myself. Am I worthy? Is my project up to it? Can I deliver anything? If I do, will it ever be published. Publish or Perish, is the academic’s motto is it not? Myself and many writing colleagues perish on a yearly basis on that premise alone, such is the fickle industry we have chosen to align ourselves with. We resurrect ourselves again and again.

The reality is, though, published or not, this 6 months is whatever I make of it. The point of writing is writing. 

So, to keep myself honest to my proposal (which gives me more than a frisson of excitement when I look at it), I’ve decided to blog weekly, about my experience here, What it is to be a Writer in Residence, and how it will impact my work. I've survived O Week, settled into my new surroundings and I’ll start by thanking Creative New Zealand, Otago University and the College of Education for the opportunity and the late Robert Lord for the cottage I'm living in. 
Chur!

To be continued… (and no, I didn’t wake up to find it was all a dream)