Speech! Things I Learned at Art School

Photo at McLeavey Gallery courtesy of Russell Kleyn, 2021.

Things I Learned at Art School was released on August 24th, 2021, in lockdown. I’ve only recently managed to have a flurry of in-person events, including a reading at Unity Books Wellington on Thursday November 18th. I asked Harry Ricketts to intro me for good reasons revealed below. His speech, then mine.

Harry Ricketts: Launch Speech for Megan Dunn, Unity Books, 18/11/21

I’ve known Megan since 2013, when she took my second-year creative non-fiction course CREW 257 at the International Institute of Modern Letters. This course (I’ve taught it for 20 years) has a different flavour every year, but the 2013 flavour was particularly distinctive. This was partly because it happened that four of the group were very close personal friends and their work was really written for each other in a kind of private code, opaque to the rest of us. It was also distinctive because of Megan. She was working on several things, but the 12,000-word portfolio she submitted at the end of the course was especially arresting and was a version of what became her first book, Tinderbox, eventually published in 2017.

I hope Megan won’t mind if I read a segment of the report I wrote on that portfolio:

I really enjoyed “Tinderbox”. I’ve read it twice and enjoyed it the second time even more than the first. I feel that you have now hit on a way to combine your passion for books with your desire/need to write. As this piece stands at the moment it is a clever, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant blend of various elements. These include: Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451; your various attempts to rewrite that novel; slivers of your own life in the book trade; slivers of your London and more recent life; your frustrations with writing; and Clarisse’s efforts à la Jasper fforde to wrest control of her story and/or escape from it. You juggle these elements with great skill, ingenuity and humour. I kept wanting a particular section not to stop but then found myself equally caught up with the next one, and the next. You suggest that structure used to be a problem. Well, I think you have evolved a good working structure for this piece, based on alternation, variation and return.

I still hold by all that and, if you haven’t read Tinderbox, do read it. It’s all the things I said and more. My report went on:

I do really think you’re onto something with this novella. It’s allowing you to include all these different elements, fictional and autobiographical, literary and factual. It’s allowing you to be serious and playful. It’s allowing you to invent and to record. I want to know how it is going to proceed, resolve itself or not resolve itself. So, you have to stick at it, finish it, try to find a publisher. But also start the next one.

And here we are tonight with that next one, which is again a wonderful Megan blend of wit, ingenuity and pathos, full (like Tinderbox) of “alternation, variation and return”, and, added to that, a lot of heart. Like Tinderbox, Things I Learned at Art School is a hybrid: this time, part personal essay, part memoir.

There are evocative glimpses of Megan growing up with her mother, ricocheting around in an assortment of temporary North Island locations, including the presbytery in Huntly and a flat above an old people’s home in Rotorua. We meet Strawberry Shortcake and Western Barbie (Western Barbie has a horse called Dallas and a pash on Action Man). We meet the mean girls who teased red-haired Megan at high school (how could they!). We meet her best friend at Elam Art School, ‘David’, with whom she set up the Fiat Lux gallery in Auckland. (When their Intermedia tutor angrily repeated her question to a very late David “‘Why aren’t you on time?’, he replied: ‘I’m sorry, I thought it was a rhetorical question’” – such a cheeky reply.) We meet (via film and Megan’s memories) Daryl Hannah, the actor who played the mermaid in Splash; mermaids are one of Megan’s lifelong obsessions, and I hope the subject of a future book. We meet, as Wendy Cope puts it in one poem, “so many kinds of awful men”, and each time we see Megan, like the Wendy Cope character, “make a new mistake instead.” We meet Holly and various other girls at the massage parlour Belle de Jour and the club Showgirls where Megan worked behind the bar. When one client at Belle de Jour walked in and said to Holly “‘This must be the best job ever. I’d love to do this job’, she instantly replied: “Yeah, until you saw yourself walk in.’”

Megan is supremely generous to other people’s wit as well as her own, and the book is a treasure trove of one-liners and comically rendered situations, which we fully realise were horror shows at the time. The pages seem to turn themselves: “The flat was the size of a hiccup”; “the summer holidays stretched ahead like a Friday night with nothing to do”; “The shop had a small room out back that got only a grim thimble of sunlight.” As you can tell from the last two examples Megan’s wit, like all the best wit, is shot through with melancholy. As she says in “Difficult Father”, a poignant piece about a year in her late teens living with her father in Lyall Bay: “it seems to me that the subject of literature is quite simply always the sadness that gets between the teeth of things and can’t ever get out.” One of the many stand-out pieces here is “Art in the Waiting Room”, a heart-turning account of her mother’s last illness.

Megan, you clearly did learn quite a lot at Art School, including eventually that, though you had a certain talent for ‘appropriation’, you weren’t really a visual artist – though that slow realisation provides great copy here. Who wants to read about other people’s success? Success is boring but failure, and failure is rarely straightforward, is endlessly fascinating and sympathetic, because we all know about failure. Through its wit, its humanity and its melancholy undertow, this terrific essay-memoir turns all those early restless, questing years before you headed off for a decade in England from loss into gain, and memorably demonstrates the kind of artist you have turned out to be: a writer, and a terrific one. More, please, Megan.

Me and David at Fiat Lux, circa 1997.

Megan’s Speech on Things I Learned at Art School

I hate writing. I know it’s not a catchy life affirming opening. But it’s true. I will spend all day avoiding writing. I am someone for whom the threshold is high and the flesh pale and weak. I don’t want to run in. Yet run in I must.

Why? After all these years and all these workshops, I still don’t know. The process remains painful in a way that watching Netflix never is, even when watching Netflix is boring. Writing is never boring but always so demanding. So many decisions, so many false turns and revelations that seem to matter to no one not even myself, and then a sudden win. Three cherries in a row, the jackpot, memories pinging pure and gold out of the slot. And me like Sharon Stone in her mink coat in Casino scooping the chips up, sure by the end of the film she’ll be craven and out of her mind, giving Joe Pesci a blow job just to stay alive but for a while she was LUCKY. She had it all. 

I got lucky in 2013 when I signed up for CREW 257 the second trimester of the Creative Writing non fiction workshop. I was then 37 years old and a project manager for Booksellers NZ. I had tried and failed to sell my first novel in England. For a while agents were all over me and the chances seemed good, but then I got unlucky. No coins came out of the slot. Me and my mink coat had trudged back to New Zealand to glower and be disgruntled and also to attend my Mum’s 60th. What had gone wrong with my book? Could I make it go right again? I had all the marketing worked out, but no cigar. I was not going to publish a dazzling novel this side of 40. SHIT as my mother used to say. Or FLIP, if she was self-censoring.

However, in my spare time as a Project Manager (in a desk opposite Hera Lindsay Bird who was the office administrator for god sake!) I had started to write again. Art reviews. People seemed to like reading my art reviews.  People said I was honest. In art writing this is a striking anomaly so I instantly made an impression. I realised, ‘gee I am writing what is called nonfiction.’ It was the one area of writing I had never thought to study. I did so many writing courses when I first moved to London. Narrative Drive in Dalston with the Carribean author Jacob Ross, Finding your Voice (1, 2 & 3) at Citylit with the Irish poet Martina Evans. Then I finally got into and graduated from the University of East Anglia with a Masters in Creative Writing (prose strand.) I wanted to be in the prose strand. I wanted to be a novelist, because that’s what books are called novels and the highest accolade is to have made one up – especially a good one and we mainly talk about the good ones. However I have since learned I needn’t have fretted about such semantic details. Because even non fiction books are called novels. I know cause that’s what people call my books which are not novels.

And both of my books Tinderbox and Things I Learned at Art School owe a debt to Harry Ricketts who took CREW 257. Here is our course book as evidence (and advertising, Harry still runs this course.)

I especially liked Eliot Weinberger’s essay Naked Mole Rats which tells you a lot about mole rats in a short space of time before suddenly popping up in the Civil War in Somalia. Last line: Their hearing is acute.

Me too. The writer is a witness. Reliable as a mole rat.

In CREW 257 Harry taught me to pay attention to the transitions between sentences and paragraphs, this was a new casino chip in my hand.

Now I have realised this isn’t where I thought I was going but I think I am writing one of those yes you actually can teach creative writing think pieces. I’m not sure yet, because I haven’t thought enough about it. It won’t mean as much of course because I am not famous. Whereas when a famous writer says famously on the Guardian that you can’t teach creative writing, the world is returned to its right order. Fools are all put back in their places, paying for and teaching arts degrees. Sanity prevails. Talent, elusive, mercurial and very finite, is also put back on the top shelf where everyone thinks it belongs.

I just Googled Hanif Kureishi who said that such courses are “a waste of time” at the Bath Literature Festival in 2014. He was probably misquoted and I half believe him because look at Stephen King and JK Rowing. This shit sticks partly because it is right, right?

Anyway this is what Hanif said:

“A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

He was a Creative Writing Lecturer at the time.

When I arrived at CREW 257 I was somehow still in the process of working out whether or not I could tell a story and whether anyone could follow it to the end, without dying of boredom first, including me. I wanted to make a story up, but it turned out that somehow when I told my own story that worked better. I write in life sentences. My own. I was very annoyed by this. I still am. Oh to be Margaret Atwood or Eva Mendes, or better still some arresting combo of the two? But then again Things I Learned at Art School is decanted from memories that are over twenty, even thirty nay forty years old. Can I honestly say that it is the simple truth uncorked here?

I can tell you that I have squeezed my memories like the bladder of a cask of red wine. Then gone back for more. Every last drop. Memory is key to writing. It’s like the alphabet, so fundamental to even being able to tell a story that goes in a line. Very few stories take place over just a few seconds though I am sure there are some. There must be beginnings and middles and ends. Just like life. When I was that gullible 37 year old project manager who had just started at Booksellers NZ I was able to get my first business cards made. I had to choose a quote to put on them. I chose Joan Didion “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s one of Joan’s corkers. The rest of the quote is pretty interesting too. Google it for the rhyme.

I think we write partly because we remember, or maybe because we forget. Memory when its purest somehow comes unbidden. And most creative writing courses will teach you to access your memories, surprise or shock you into it.

Now if I submitted these cliched sentences to the critique of CREW 257 in 2013 I would have got a very hard time. The talent in the class was merciless. It was comprised mainly of people in their twenties, I was aghast by how talented they were. A reminder that while I was struggling to manage projects in a swivel chair on the thirteenth floor of the Booksellers office, talent was still being born and remade, endlessly. Or like Hera was sitting at reception quietly sending out the world’s best Tweets. SHIT. Or rather FLIP.

Harry asked me after one assignment in class, have you ever written anything like that before.

I was thirty seven so I said, “yes.”

He kindly met me for coffee at Vic books and entertained my burnt-out heart with a new idea. I could escape from the tyranny of the novel.

That jumpstarted Tinderbox. Tinderbox did surprisingly well considering the amount of people who have never read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And considering the awful and prodigious amount of spelling mistakes in it. By the time Tinderbox was published I had had a baby at 40 and things were decidedly un-spellchecked.

Now I am 46 and I have written another book about myself. It contains lots of sentences with stories peeking through them like a woman’s illicit long red fingernails opening the venetian blinds in a Robert Palmer music video.

I was on a Zoom recently with an art group and a woman in her sixties said she hated the cover and had started the book but thought it was for teenagers, now she’d heard me speak she’d try again. Yes, my memoir is jam-packed with generational references that might be alienating but whatever you can say about Strawberry Shortcake I don’t think you can call her obscure.

I put my Mother in the book, before she died, and then I put it in her the essay near the end because she was dead and I’d never get her back. I can’t promise I won’t do it again. I didn’t make anything up, but I left a lot of stuff out. Boyfriends, dead air time, memories I’ll never get back.

I hope you will enjoy it because iIsn’t that the mark of a life well lived? The one thing I will say about my books, they are much better read than my business cards, which never really got released from their plastic pack.