Auto-archaeology, Martyn Sanderson

Work in progress

What am I doing in New Zealand Books? It’s intimidatingly illustrious company, especially for someone who’s never written a book.

So let me just try to describe as simply and accurately as possible what I am in fact doing, my “work in progress”.

Three or two or five days a week, I drive up from Otaki to Massey, on the outskirts of Palmerston North, listening to Morning Report or Kim Hill. Checking out what’s in season on the market garden roadside placards; whether they’ve started work again on the new cutting outside Shannon; where lambs are being docked; which farms are cutting hay for baling; last month, the snow or low cloud cover on the back ranges of the Tararuas, changes in the light that sometimes stacks the blue-green hills in front of one another like rows of cardboard cut-outs, sometimes flattens them back to a shadowy bas-relief; this month, the blossom, and blush of new green on bare branches and cabbage paddocks. Very quietly revelling in the fact that for once I have a car that’s modestly reliable – and an engagement – employment – for a full year. And somewhere along the way, on this pleasant and picturesque morning drive, almost invariably the doubts start to cut in. How dare I call myself a writer? What possessed me to think I could write an autobiography? Who needs such a thing, anyway? Is this hubris, or what?

Turn off the highway into the university grounds. Switch off the radio so I won’t get an aural hammering from whatever electro-magnetic device powers the striped bar across the entrance to the parking area. Swipe my card through the swiper slot, drive in, park, walk across the campus greensward – or rather, as I noticed this morning, follow the asphalt path around the green lawn.

I wondered why I was keeping off the grass, and remembered the quadrangle at school, where it was the privilege of prefects and staff to cross the sacred turf; every lesser boy had to stick to the paths. There was a grain of sense behind the rule: 400 boys tramping across the patch of grass would quickly have trodden it bare. Other rules that structured the hierarchy of privileges, and were sanctioned by the threat of a caning, lacked even that much sense. For instance, the number of buttons you might leave undone on the jacket of your school suit was graded according to your seniority: only prefects could walk around with their coats flapping.

By now I’m ambling across the grass of the Massey outfield, of course, and even the cuffs of my leather jacket are flapping loose. And I’m musing on what an anthropologist might have made of Christ’s College in the ’50s. And so, by the time I reach the Old Humanities Building (right!) I’m back to work in progress. What is it? Auto-anthropology? I think of Lévi-Strauss, something to the effect that Marx was the geologist of economic history, Freud the geologist of the individual mind, he himself a geologist of culture. Is that it? A geology of the self, auto-geologist? How about spiritual archaeology? Auto-archaeologist? How about wanker?

Up the stairs. Unlock the door labelled “Writer-in-residence”, and confront this wonderful, luxurious, appalling freedom: time – paid time! – to write … whatever I like. Almost.

I’m still going through old notebooks, transcribing hundreds of pages of entries which are so often misguided or arrogant or unclear or incomplete or plain inadequate. So often I’ve written because there was nothing happening. Here and there, in amongst the musings and agonisings, a poem worth rescuing, here and there a whole passage of straightforward recording of events, scraps of a chronicle.

The setting’s congenial. After years with little or no contact with academia, it’s a bit like coming back to base – the spy who came in from the cold: and what have you got to report?

Lunch in the courtyard, with an old friend nearing the end of his years of work on a philosophy thesis (a student comes up: “I don’t want to be rude, but have you been on television before? Were you the fisherman in the Instant Kiwi commercial?”): we talk about my friend’s father, who used to employ Jim Baxter, Peter Bland, Alistair Campbell, at School Publications, and once, when I badly needed work, commissioned me to write a booklet on the New English Theatre and another on Thailand, and who served on the first Management Committee of Downstage; and about an old girlfriend who wrote unflatteringly about each of us and many others in her thinly disguised memoir of Wellington in the ’70s, and how mine won’t be in that lurid vein at all.

Oh, and I’ve missed out morning coffee in the senior common room, where I can chat about sacred spaces, and why it was called Downstage, and about moving the altar down amongst the congregation, without having to explain the analogy with the liturgical reform movement.

Working with students on a Samuel Beckett play, rediscovering his austere humour, relating that, again, back to the time when he was fresh and astonishing. Back to the beginnings of Downstage, which is a focal point, a before-and-after marker, in the story I’m engaged in. Happy Days. Krapp’s Last Tape. From An Abandoned Work.
And sitting in front of the computer screen.
And sitting in front of the computer screen.
Hum the old familiar Procrastination Blues, before getting down to another spot of spring cleaning, dusting off old metaphors and chucking most of them out.
Check out a favourite quote from Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

When you study Buddhism, you should have a general house cleaning of your mind. You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly. If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again. You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back. But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them.

Is that what I’m doing, my work in progress? Am I reducing the clutter, or adding to it?

Glance at a codification of the creative process pinned to the huge bulletin board on the office wall: Preparation; Frustration; Incubation; Insight; Implementation. Well, I’m incubating like mad, and not looking forward to all my chickens coming home to roost.

Take time out to write a few pages of an Introduction to Acting Skills and e-mail it off to a friend in Nairobi, entomologist and prolific playwright, who’s asked me to do it for a workshop this weekend on a political satire he’s about to stage at the Kenya National Theatre. Re-interpreting Brecht’s notorious alienation-effect in terms of traditional story-telling.

It’s work in progress, so it’s bound to be a bit of a mess.

Try to get up to speed, with a five minute exermacise in automatic writing: once under a time past and time to come when fruit was fruitful and hens laid down and gave up their secrets to constellations of foreigners, then when nothing conglomerated together in a Cornish pasty of confusion, relationships proliferated and Greek numbers figured largely in no one’s accountancy, thoughts came together like hailstones in a plastic meringue, and ponies jogged Heavenwards triumphantly if lonely. How did anyone suppose that cats would caterwaul while mushrooms dignified their passing? Home is the hunter, bugger him or her. Where to next, sighed the little red hen. There we go. Ho ho ho. If lions lunatise and moons foregather, when does Father Christmas hope to achieve epiphany, if you can call that an achievement rather than a gift? And what happens when the keys press themselves and words flow like an ice floe flowing towards floodgates? If only we knew, here on the Board, the everlasting committee of experts and wanderers. Where are you Descartes now that we can tell you we don’t need you or heed you any longer than a piece of string? And why all these questions when all I was awaiting was an untrammelled flow of floe of flow of forgetting the conscious control and letting it all hang in and out of the old Model T the model on the catwalk of time gentlemen please yourself. And again reJoyce. The old Irish ghost hanging under everyone’s shoulder just next to the smelly armpit of history or herstory or their anecdotal rambling. Time passes, of course, and five minutes is barely short enough to ignore the words floating outwards from this planetary epicentre where earthquakes would be a relief of Mafeking. Was that the exermacise of the day the mourning?

Aah, but that’s cheating.

But after all, it’s work in progress, so at this stage it’s bound to be a bit of a mess.

Martyn Sanderson was this year’s Writer-in-Residence at Massey University.

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