So what *have* I been doing this year?

Like many people at this time of year, I am muttering to myself with increasing urgency ‘where did the year go?’ Well, I have a good excuse for the lack of posts since January.

All year and right up to last week, when I have been doing more writing for the online Te Papa channel, I have been putting the finishing touches to my new book. Real Modern is being launched this coming week at Unity Books in Wellington and I am so pleased to see it out in the world!

standing real modern

As every writer knows, a book is a labour of love. At 432 pages with more than 500 images (b/w and full colour) it is a big beastie! It is beautifully designed to evoke the period and to recreate the material world of post-war New Zealand in a way that invites you in to the era. The book covers a whole range of areas of everyday life in a thematic structure.

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Each chapter has an overview that surveys that theme and then is followed by vignettes of 10 objects or sets of objects which flesh out the arguments and materialise it more fully. I have aimed not just to have a catalogue of objects, such as you would find in a museum collection publication, but to write a material history than focuses on practices as well as things.

me with last proofs

Meeting with the publisher to look at the final colour proofs open at the page with the quilt below.   Photo by Catherine Chadwick

me with advance copy

Proudly clutching the advanced copy the afternoon it arrived! Photo by Catherine Chadwick

As I write in the introduction to the book:

[r]ather than discussing individual objects that are ‘designer’, special, unique or modern classics, the book puts a large array of more ordinary objects in the spotlight.* It shows that function is just as important as form, emphasises the ordinary rather than items ‘on show’, and reveals the hidden beauty, variety and colour of commonplace objects.

The objects discussed in the following pages are also put back into their everyday context. Many ‘ordinary’ activities such as such as sitting, waiting, cooking, gardening, washing, listening to the radio, enjoying hobbies, queueing, shopping, driving or riding in a bus can be overlooked when objects are the focus. These arenas are precisely the spaces where we spend most of our lives in the present, just as we or others did in the past. They are fundamental to historical experience yet are so often overlooked.

By paying attention to these kinds of activities, as well as to the things associated with them, we can see that the life of past objects is inseparable from the social routines they were part of. This also means that value is based not in a product or its meanings, but in how it is put to use. In emphasising habits, routines and patterns, then the issue becomes ‘not just what things mean but how things are done’. In taking this approach, Real Modern goes beyond the domestic doorstep and out on to the section or into the street and beyond. Bringing together the domestic and non-domestic and a range of activities that they encompassed enables a fuller consideration of how daily life was experienced in these decades, in the round.

* Endnotes are in the book

 contents page

The contents page gives you an idea of its scope and the groovy colour scheme deployed throughout the book.

Real modern explores the role of things in people’s lives to further understand how people lived. It does this through a focus on everyday activities: getting dressed, gardening, going shopping, making dinner; sewing; listening to records, going to school or work, going out, playing sport and more. The book does not aim to be a total or comprehensive history of daily life in these decades. Nor is it a history of this period in the conventional sense: the ‘big events’ or ‘the turning points’. Rather, it is an example of material history: it shows how, through this focus on objects, their uses and their meanings, we might gain a different view of the post-war period.

Here is the quilt seen in the photo above to whet your appetite. You can buy the book here.

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Patchwork Quilt, Ruth Bright, (maker/artist), 1967, New Plymouth, Gift of Irene Middlemiss, 2012, GH017657, Collection of Te Papa.


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How writing groups work

The reaction to my last post on writing retreats was so positive — thank you everyone for your likes, retweets and reads—I thought I would continue the vibe and focus on writing groups.

I have been part of a writing group for three and half years now and it is a key part of my strategy for keeping the writing going between retreats. Some of the same elements of a retreat are carried over: good company, good food, and work in progress. What’s different is that it is disciplinary specific: we four are all historians. This provides a different kind of intensity and also a taken-for-granted understanding of what I am trying to do, which I really appreciate.

The group was initiated by another member who had a semester’s sabbatical and had to complete her book manuscript in that time. We decided that it was a great idea for all of us and had an initial meeting. What’s interesting for me about the constitution of the group is that it consists of a former colleague, my PhD supervisor and my MA supervisor, who are all now good friends. So we all knew each other and each other’s work well.

We decided that we would meet roughly every six weeks on a Monday evening for dinner at a wonderful local restaurant, and that we would eat, drink and talk about what we are currently working on and our progress to date. At the beginning of the year we usually share an annual writing plan and then we do a stock take at the December meeting of what we have achieved (or not).

A typical meeting consists of brief updates from us all and then we focus on one member’s work in particular. We might circulate abstracts and bits of drafts for reading beforehand, and the woman whose work is in focus might provide a fuller piece. We are meeting this Monday and I have part of a chapter to respond to in advance, from a larger book manuscript. Often we also talk about workplace issues or support we might want for thinking about our career. We try to keep moaning to a minimum! We also have a practice of bringing the artefacts, our publications, to the table, to be passed around and celebrated in person. Our collective productivity is really quite amazing.

For most of last year I felt as if I was always turning up with little to show for it. Yet it was always good to talk, to get reassurance and to get searching, productive, questions about what I was trying to do. Having to front up regularly was very good discipline. I also find that I learn as much from the other members and their wrestling with writing, as I do from what I am attempting to do. It is patently clear that I try to do too much and have a long, ambitious plan in February, when really I should just concentrate on the main thing on my list. So I have taken myself in hand. This year is much better in that respect.

In the first year we helped our colleague finish her book and she won two prizes for it. There has been one from another member since (gone to press due to be published in August) and the other two of us have nearly finished our ones. There have also been articles, chapters, online encyclopedia entries, and several conference papers each. In between meetings we text, email and phone encouragement (and empathy), and email new articles we have published to each other. It is just wonderful to know that my writing group members are always there for me.

Happily, I will be able to report on Monday that in the last six weeks or so I have delivered a keynote and an invited paper (in sequential weeks!). I have received feedback on my book manuscript from a good writer friend and the publisher, and completed the revision of the introduction, while at my writing retreat. I have also sorted out what I have to do to next on the book revisions and in what order. I have done lots of thinking and planning about my current and next projects. I have also commissioned the last contributor to an edited collection on material histories that I am preparing and received another abstract and paper in outline. Oh, and of course, I have started this blog!

The bliss of writing retreats

I am writing this from a desk looking over Lake Taupo, in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. A well-stoked fire is roaring and six women are writing with me as we share space in a large hall. All is companionable silence.

This is the tenth year I have been coming to either a winter or spring retreat of ‘Women Writing Away’ at the Tauhara Retreat Centre. It has made all the difference to my productivity and also to my hopes and fears around writing. I would not have published as much scholarly work as I have, nor learned how to think, plan and organise around it, if I had not attended these retreats. They form precious bright spots in the year when I can leave everything else behind and focus. Yet, as other women have commented, at the same time it feels like a holiday because we have good company, good food, and as much sleep as we want to have!

ImageThe main building at Tauhara, image from website

The WWA retreats are organised by the incomparable Barbara Grant from Auckland University, who has written about them here. They follow a well-developed template of a mixture of writing time, work-in-progress sessions, group paragraph editing, optional workshops, and a collectively written murder mystery that often has a lot about university politics and bureaucracy thrown in for good measure!

The retreat centre at Tauhara is around the lake in Acacia Bay on semi-rural land. We supply our own breakfasts and coffee, and daily lunch and dinner, made from local produce, is provided for us. This takes the time and angst of meal preparation away and leaves ample time for writing.

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The dining room, image from website

The aim of the week is to produce an article ready for publication or for a conference, or a chapter towards a book or PhD. We arrive for Sunday night for introductions, orientation, planning and decompression, followed by a shared dinner to which we all contribute. After the first, sometimes slow, day of writing on Monday night we do the mandatory group editing of a paragraph. This exercise is brilliant. We read a paragraph aloud sentence by sentence and respond to feedback on the appropriateness/accuracy of words and send, the rhythm and length. I always come away with a much punchier and convincing paragraph and it is amazing how reading aloud helps!

On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights we share work in progress. The idea is to bring an issue, a puzzle or a piece of draft writing to the group for reponses. Last time I got collective thinking about my schedule for finishing my book and we set up an email group that I agreed to check in with every two weeks. This time I am going to run an ‘elevator pitch’ for my book past the group so that my introduction has a consistent focus. At the moment it takes several goes at saying what the book is about!

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My desk as I write this

After lunch most days there are optional workshops on getting writing going, first sentence exercises, writing book proposals, applying for grants or whatever someone nominates.

On Friday late afternoon we reconvene as a group to set some goals to keep the writing going when we return home. These are emailed to us afterwards so we can keep to our promises! Then on the last night we read aloud the Case of Missing Conclusion, our jointly written murder mystery.

I usually bring one main project and other subsidiary ones. When I first started attending, there was no WiFi, and we could really keep to the retreat nature of the week. Now I do a lot of (re)searching on line so I choose to pay for WiFi access for the week. I have managed in one week to draft out a whole article, but usually my aims are more modest. If find that I do as much research planning and strategising, as actual writing, as I have uninterrupted time to think. I find the week a useful stock-taking time.

I always make time to have an on-site massage. Self-care is a big part of the week.

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Accommodation units, image from website

This year I plan to go in Spring as well, as my current large administrative role makes it more difficult for me to carve out writing time. This week it is revisions to my book manuscript, which has had more than one trip to this oasis on the edge of Lake Taupo. I’m optimistically hoping that it will be the last time I bring it!