A Way with Words: Owen Marshall

by Owen Marshall / 18 May, 2017
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Owen Marshall. Photo/Stu Jackson

Owen Marshall describes his writing day.

As a young man, I read articles in the Paris Review on the craft practices of famous writers. Many had fascinating, sometimes contradictory, lifestyles, but what seemed a frame for most was an insistence on resilience, self-belief and intellectual idealism. Every writer develops a regime best suited to personality, and the prevailing circumstances, which may change dramatically, but the goals are constant.

I began serious writing when married with two daughters and with a full-time job. I wrote late at night in a small basement study, I wrote in the holidays, I rose at six o’clock in the morning – but not as often as I intended – and wrote before going to work. I wrote when I should have been assisting my wife, but she seldom complained and she accepted my affliction. I wrote in longhand, and with two fingers produced final copy on a portable typewriter. I wrote enthusiastically after receiving acceptance letters, and doggedly following rejection.

After having the good fortune to hold fellowships at the universities of Canterbury and Otago, I made the risky decision at the beginning of the 90s to become a professional writer, and the precarious income as a consequence prompted me to be industrious and organised. At last I had the blocks of time a writer needs, though I was to realise that in itself is no guarantee of accomplishment. I bought a computer and found it a wonderful asset, especially in revision, although much of its capability remains a mystery.

For me, mornings are the best time for writing, and when engaged in new work, I set myself a daily target of 1000 words. These days, I am slower and settle often for 500 words. I have a walk after breakfast during which time ideas may come. My study is upstairs with a view of distant Mt Cook. I need seclusion to write: no music, no company. The only voice is my own as I test the cadence of the sentences. As with any activity, sometimes the writing goes well, sometimes not. The best days are those in which any consciousness of surroundings, or the passage of time, is lost and I am fully in the world of the story. After such mornings, I feel a small satisfaction for the rest of the day. During other spells, I remain distracted and have a sense both of labour and the mediocrity of the outcome.

My advice to university classes is not to begin the day by opening and responding to emails, but often I defy myself. In the afternoons, I take a break, another walk – tennis, or squash, when younger – read, edit, review, tend to correspondence. In the evenings, I usually return to my desk for a time, but I am now less driven and will often watch television or socialise. The routine has become relaxed: I spend an increasing amount of time with my daughters and their families.

In a sense, though, I am always writing: I am accustomed to seeing the world as story, as copy, and consider myself fortunate to be able to spend most of my time doing what gives me the greatest satisfaction.

Owen Marshall’s latest novel, Love as a Stranger, was published in April 2016. A fourth collection of his poetry will be published by Otago University Press this year.

This article was first published in the April 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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