Saturday, October 11, 2008
Nurse to the imagination
I have just enjoyed a wonderful hour at the Burns Festival listening to former Robert Burns Fellows Maurice Gee, Owen Marshall, Bernadette Hall and current fellow Sue Wootton talk about what the Burns Fellowship brought to their writing lives. The presence of Maurice Gee was a delightful surprise as the programme listed Ian Cross, the inaugural Burns Fellow, but he was unable to make it, so Maurice Gee stepped into the breech.
The session was chaired by Lawrence Jones, who is not a Burns Fellow, but has been in the English Department at the University of Otago since 1964, the year of Maurice Gee's tenure.
Lawrence read from Ian Cross' memoir Such Absolute Beginners, which gave Ian's voice and experiences to the session in absentia. I will now have to acquire the memoir, as it sounds a wonderful read.
Maurice Gee (1964) was astonishing with his candour and honesty in what was a difficult year in his personal life. He talked of the novel he worked on during his tenure and the highlights of being a Burns Fellow, but it was his admission of what would now be diagnosed as clinical depression and his personal situation which surprised the audience and made us realise what a special hour this was.
Owen Marshall (1992) was very animated and clearly enjoyed his year in Dunedin, including the more social aspects of life as part of the university and writing community. He proved he could be most persuasive by convincing the Robbie Burns Pub that they should sponsor the Robert Burns Fellows with some wine! It also confronted him with technology, with a computer supplied by the university after Lynley Hood's persuasion, which he determined to master, however basically. The tenure gave him the opportunity as a short story writer to get his teeth into a novel. As a father of a young family, it also gave welcome financial support and an opportunity to write full time rather than at the dregs of the day.
Bernadette Hall (1996) was charming and noted how supportive the fellowship had been of poets. She talked of the steel beams and strengthening supports put into place by the likes of Charles Brasch; brave people who supported the literature and the arts with founding Landfall Magazine in 1947 in a time that had been dominated by the second world war and again strengthened and girdered up this by establishing the Robert Burns Fellowship. We take for granted, today the infrastructure provided by literary magazines and fellowships, but it was founded by these risk takers and visionaries.
Sue Wootton (2008) talked of the connections the Burns Fellowship offered, with the past, with other arts sectors and fellowships. She also talked of the value of feeling selected for this, of a panel of unknown people choosing you as the recipient and of the effect of this on self-confidence. She talked of the value of a working space, especially in the life of a mother with a young family, where you could stare out the window for hours on end thinking, without having to justify it, or feeling the need to stick a sign on your forehead saying yes, I'm working.
All of the fellows talked of the honour of being selected, of the huge relief financially to be able to take a year paid to write, the value of providing that dedicated writing space and, for the majority, how it provided the platform to be able to become full-time writers.