Thursday, December 5, 2013

Two thoughts for the month: (1) the 2014 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship and (2) the unparalleled place of writing in the arts.



1. It’s now been a couple of months since I found out I am to be the 2014 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow and I’ve still not really recovered from the shock (and excitement!) Amid the many organisational priorities (dates, flights, accommodation, house sitters, leave applications, winding up the teaching year, starting to learn a little French. . . etc. etc. ) there has been one element that struck me from the start and continues to do so. It has to do with the people who have held this extraordinary residency together for over 40 years.

The fellowship was originally conceived in the late sixties by Celia Manson and Sheilah Winn, who set up the
original Winn-Manson Menton Trust.  This trust has enabled a writer to go to Menton every year since 1970.  Creative New Zealand administers the Fellowship, and it is also supported by the Sheila Winn Charitable Trust, the Jack Jeffs Charitable Trust and the French Embassy. I am so very grateful to them all for placing their faith in me.

What has really struck me, since I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the Trustees, is the dedication and quiet determination these marvellous people have shown in supporting New Zealand writers. Many are not writers themselves (though some are) – but they all share a passion for Katherine Mansfield, France and writing. They help each year’s Fellow through the hoops of bureaucracy and uncertainty, at the same time nurturing the wonderful sense of excitement that comes with the thought of spending time in the south of France.

They have been kind, patient and remarkably generous. They are the unsung heroes of the Fellowship, and I’d like to thank them for all the years they’ve put into keeping alive this exceptional opportunity. I applaud their open mindedness in choosing a YA writer, and the generosity of the ‘terms’ of the Fellowship, which leaves the writer free to pursue a project at their own pace. They have an innate understanding that the very opportunity to live in another country will feed the writer’s mind for years to come. Thank you, thank you!

2. The other thing that struck me recently was the place of writing in the world of arts. I’d like to
make a case for writing as the ‘ultimate’ art (if we exclude storytelling, which is the heart of all art, in my humble opinion!) Let’s go through and explore this further.

Painting: yes, it can tell a story, and it can move the emotions, no doubt of that. But it does not require total immersion in the imagination to interpret it, as there is a visual clue to the work’s intent. Even if the work is abstract, the colours and the way the medium is manipulated provide some kind of stepping-off point before the imagination takes over. Likewise sculpture and all other ‘material’ arts.

Music is the same. Though the listener can paint whatever picture they like in their minds, the music’s tones, rhythms, movements all work to help prime the imagination according to the composer’s wishes. Add lyrics to that and the imagination can step back even further, having now two strong ‘leads’ about how to frame the story. Add drama (i.e. opera) and we are handed yet more clues.

Plays, films, performance art – all these again provide the audience with added dimensions of the artist’s vision. Our imaginative response is shaped by the actor’s appearance, dress, deportment, style, voice, lines,
movements . . . all this and more, to feed into the picture.

Yet it is only writing that provides a pristine imaginative portal from the writer’s imagination to the reader’s. And it is only writing that allows the imagination to do all the colouring in, create all the background music, clothe the characters, give them voice and join the dots. It feeds each reader (or listener) differently, as each individual imagination compiles its references from its ‘owners’ experiences and understandings. And because we have built up the pictures, sounds and references ourselves, we are therefore much more emotionally engaged as well. We have become part of the story, a collaborator just by virtue of our ability to read (and let's not dismiss the amazing ability of our brains to decode letters on a page and transform them into something we can picture, feel, smell, taste, love or hate - another reason for placing writing, and reading by inference, at the top of the imaginative and intellectual tree.) Therefore we are going to feel the joys and pains more deeply because we have invested time and imaginative power into the experience. The stories become part of our story, shaping our future reading as well.

Hey – that’s my theory anyway! What do you think?


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