Pillow Talk

Sleeping in the bed of Aotearoa literati: Lana Lopesi on the pressure of writers’ residencies and their legacies.

Posted on
06.03.21

After a long day of writing [watching Netflix] I climb into bed. A double bed with good back support, it has an aqua-coloured duvet cover, four pillows and two cushions. I set my laptop up to stream something, because even though the blue light makes me sleep badly I prefer it to the silence of the mauna. Depending on the day, my mind usually continues to think about whatever it was I was writing. Attempts to silence the thoughts take hours. I turn away from the blue light, lie on my side, look at the pillows, and think about who else has slept in this bed before me. 

I’m on a residency at the Michael King Writers Centre. Every morning I leave the house and walk no more than five steps to the writer’s studio. Through the window of the studio I watch fit Devonporters walking up to the summit of Mount Victoria and wonder: is this view of moving activewear what Eleanor Catton saw when she was writing her 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries? The hallway is lined with portraits of everyone who has previously been on the residency programme, and a blurb about their project. I see Anthony Byrt, who mentored me for one incredibly influential year, a year that laid the ground for the writing I do today. His residency project was writing The Mirror Steamed Over: Love and Pop in London, 1962, which is on this year’s Ockham Awards general non-fiction longlist. I also see the faces of other writers whose work I have always admired – people like Victor Rodger, Pip Adam, Tina Makereti. From the bookshelf specifically reserved for the work of residency alumni, I procrastinate my own writing by reading Amy McDaid’s Fake Baby, longlisted for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, also in the 2021 Ockhams. I wonder how many other longlisted, shortlisted and even winning Ockham projects were written at the desk I’m writing this from. 

Fuck, what a weight. 

Is this view of moving activewear what Eleanor Catton saw when she was writing her 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries?

I’ve always been a bit of an escapist. And a romantic. Moving to places away from home, where I can see the ocean, has always been the psychological answer to any writer’s block. So a residency, the gift of time and space by the ocean, feels like a pretty sweet gig. A writer’s process is not a straightforward one: it feels a lot like a pendulum that swings between productivity and procrastination. Between dreaming and being disciplined. Part of the time I needed was shaking off the hangover of writing my very fresh PhD thesis and remembering my non-academic writerly voice. Finding the poetry, remembering the sentence structures I like, and the prose. Feeling rebellious doing non-academic shit like cussing, using contractions and starting my sentences with and.

The gift of time can also be an intimidating thing to receive. Being on residency, in this house, in this bed, is like entering a space where time collapses, where the flow of people, of words, of projects retracts into a single pressure point of literary legacy. I research, read, write and rewrite for 11 to 12 hours a day but still, when I clock off, I have the guilty feeling of not really being productive enough. I wonder what is expected of me. Have I really been gifted time that belongs to me, or does it belong to those who are paying for it, or to my publisher? 

Am I allowed to use a residency like a wellness retreat, a space for me to get better and recover from the rat race of New Zealand literature or academia?

Under the crippling weight of successful projects produced from within this three-bedroom villa, of bookshelves and of framed portraits – where do the failed residency projects go? The collateral damage alongside the few that get to the finish line and stand on the stage, the shrapnel. Am I allowed to use a residency like a wellness retreat, a space for me to get better and recover from the rat race of New Zealand literature or academia? Am I allowed to fail? If this book flops, if the words written never make it inside the covers of a paperback, will I get a chance at a rebirth, like The Rock’s character Spencer on Ballers, whose invincibility makes him keep coming back from numerous failed business ventures? And yes, I did watch all five seasons during my residency, as well as Harriet, and Malcolm and Marie

For close to a year now I’ve found myself in spaces and on projects that have forced me to think about legacies, burdens of history and the weight we place on artists. What about the burden we place on our artforms, leaving legacies of absence in our families? Or the weight of capitalism that makes us produce too much, leaving legacies of mediocre ideas? 

Tonight I’m sleeping for the last time in the bed of Aotearoa literati, wondering if I will add to the legacy of the illustrious MKWC alumni, or if I will quietly disappear into the background of failed residency projects, and the books that almost were.

Feature image: Lana Lopesi