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A Way with Words: CK Stead

CK Stead. Photo/Marti Friedlander

CK Stead describes his writing day.

When (just past the age of 50) I took early retirement from my university professorship to write full-time, I and my family pulled down an old shed in our back garden to be replaced by an ample single room. I’ve never been sure what to call it: “the Lockwood”, “my office”, “the studio”, “the shed” – none of these seemed quite right. The important thing was that it was mine, unlike all the rest of the house, which was common property of the family. It meant I went out one door, across a deck and into another: that represented “going to work”.

I built one whole wall of book shelves and filled them with the books from my office at the university; and I kept office hours. The mornings were for whatever serious literary task I was engaged on, fiction or poetry. That might continue after lunch, but more often the afternoons were for other literary tasks – reviews, literary journalism, occasional public talks or lectures, political commentary, research.

I’d felt anxiety that, lacking students and colleagues and the framework of timetables, terms and vacations, I might go slack, go slow, stop writing. I need not have worried. I was doing what I wanted to do rather than what an employer required of me. I had never been a slow or unwilling worker, but now I discovered how much I could accomplish when I was working only for myself. During the three decades since, I’ve published (both here and in the UK) a novel every second or third year, with usually a collection of poems in between. I’ve also accumulated and published a collection of essays, reviews, political and social commentary, and [done] public lectures every few years.

At first I missed my students and colleagues, but not too much. I never really minded being alone. The room was nice, its polished pine walls covered with books and pictures, its windows looking out on a green garden in a quiet street that ended in one of Auckland’s mangrove bays. I walked a mile or two before beginning work; and soon developed the habit of swimming with my wife Kay eight months of the year, skipping the cool period of June to September, when we sometimes managed to swim in France. My count of the number of visits to a buoy marking the edge of the channel at Kohimarama has become a shared public joke. I keep count of my swims and sometimes write about them. My most recent collection of poems was called The Yellow Buoy.

Every year I’ve gone abroad for two, sometimes three, months – occasionally longer, as when I was appointed Senior Visiting Fellow at St John’s College Oxford for 1996-97. My work is centred here in New Zealand, but I’ve had a second, subsidiary literary life abroad, and when I’ve ruffled feathers or incurred odium here, which has happened not infrequently, there’s always there to escape to, in reality, online or in thought. I seldom stop writing when abroad unless working on something that requires access to my own library and papers. Most things I write I take with me in my head, and can do anywhere. I’m a writer: writing is what I do.

Described thus, it may sound as if it has been the ideal literary life. It has not, because there’s no such thing. It has been full of vicissitudes, failures, disagreements and disappointments, along with its fair share of successes, prizes, good fellowship and rewards. It has been a good life, the one I wanted from an early age when I first discovered the inexhaustible pleasures of serious reading, and the joys and pains of serious writing.

CK Stead’s latest works are Shelf Life: Reviews, Replies and Reminiscences (Auckland University Press) and The Name on the Door Is Not Mine: Stories New and Selected (Allen & Unwin).

This article was first published in the April 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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