NZSA Kirikiriroa Regional Roadshow, Sunday 15 October 2023
Conference Closing Keynote by Lee Murray
What a wonderful day we’ve all had. So much learning. Thank you to all our presenters today for sharing their knowledge and their insights with us. My brain is simply bursting with new ideas. I’m sure that like me you all want to rush home right now and give your character greater depth, even a faceless one, put a final twist in your tale and tighten up that theme, take your readers to beautiful poetic places. Insert funny Kathryn Burnett joke here.
I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment while I tell you about my favourite storyteller. His name was Morgan, and died two weeks into the pandemic, during New Zealand’s first lockdown. He was my dad, and he was an incredible storyteller and world-famous in our family for his made-up bedtime stories.
My favourites were the tales of Horace and Aristotle, who were two bumbling and endearing little frogs who lived in the creek at the bottom of road in Whangarei. Let’s just say they weren’t always the brightest tools in the box—seriously, Aristotle, he was really dumb—but they were cheery little souls and full of derring-do. And you know, life can be perilous if you’re a frog; there are roads to cross and cats to outsmart, and even reaching the counter at the ice cream shop can be tricky. But Horace and Aristotle would brace themselves for adventure. They’d catapult themselves off the washing line, or they’d surfboard across the road on a sheet of corrugated cardboard, or swing in on a curtain cord (a plot event which I think George Lucas might have stolen). Dad was a great performer too, adding his own special effects, giving his characters’ quirky voices, making funny noises, and adding humour and drama to his tales.
Anyway, the thing I learned from those stories, is that the little characters at the end of the road, from little countries at the bottom of the world, can achieve their goals if they dared to step out into the world, if they worked together. Shared their skills. Believed in one another. Lifted each other up. And I think I’ve seen some of that here today.
Another story that Dad used to tell was about Professor Morgan—yes, Dad’s name was Morgan—and his famous ZZZ-Burp. The ZZZ-Burp was a machine made from bits and pieces Professor Morgan found in his garage. A beach umbrella. A pair of gumboots. A dinghy. A bicycle bell. The very same things that were my dad’s garage. Professor Morgan cobbled them together to create a magical craft something like all of the Thunderbirds rolled together into one. It could go on the water, and under the water; it could fly, and it could travel across time. You always knew when the ZZZ-Burp was on the move because it made the sound zzz-burp, zzz-burp, zzz-burp.
In the stories, the mayor would call up Professor Morgan, who would be he pottering in his garage, and tell him of some dreadful problem that needed fixing. The town was too drab, and no one wanted to holiday there. The coral was disappearing from the bay. A meteor was plummeting towards Earth. Professor Morgan and his ZZZ-Burp would jump into action.
Little tangent here to tell you that my dad could fix anything. Literally anything.
I used to ride my bike to school every day. And my school skirt would get tangled up in the chain, and I’d grease all over my socks. Dad figured he could fix that, so he found a BBQ plate, and I don’t know, he fixed it to the bike with a piece of No8 wire, and honestly it looked like part of the bike, it was the same colour and everything. It was just like a bought one as Dad would say, and I never got my skirt tangled or my socks stained black ever again He made a custom violin holder too, from a piece of bent metal and some hosepipe (to protect by violin case) which I then secured to the bike with a bungy cord. And I was very short—even shorter than I am now—so even with the seat down as low as it could go, I still couldn’t reach the pedals. Dad went into the garage and fashioned some wooden blocks to build them up and allow me to ride. Dad was great at fixing bikes.
In another story, when I was little and the power went off, Dad would set candles around the living room—a bit like a séance or an exorcism— and the whole family, my two brothers, my sister, and my mum, would sit in a circle in the candlelight, the only time we used candles because they were dangerous, and we’d tell spooky stories. And when he figured enough time had gone by, Dad would sing a little song which finished with the magic words Gobbledy, gobbedly gook, lights go on. And I cannot tell you how many times, that worked. Maybe he sang it more than once until the lights came on. I truly believed my dad had superpowers, whether it was with technology, or science, or a hug, or sometimes with magic, Dad could fix anything.
He was one also one of those consummate joiners. Both my parents were. They were on the church committee, the PTA, the school board of governors. They coached netball, rugby, swimming, rowing. They were scout leaders and Girls Brigade leaders. Dad was a volunteer ambulance officer, a Rotarian, and justice of the peace. He believed in community and collective power of passionate folks. A frosty dip to raise money for a new ambulance. He’d be there in a bikini with a wig on. Bottle drive to provide new school library books—sign us up.
Speaking of drives, I did a membership drive for SpecFicNZ a few years ago, and I was startled by the number of people who said, why should I join up? What’s in it for me? Because Dad always told me that if you wanted to change things, if you wanted to make a difference, then you joined forces with other people who felt the same way in order to make those things happen. To create critical mass. Because there’s power in numbers, isn’t there? And if you didn’t have the bandwidth to jump in and do the work, then you joined anyway so the people who did have time would know you believed in them, and to give them the seed funds to do the work. So as a writer, I’ve taken that on board. I’ve joined so many groups. Little informal critique groups, who meet over coffee, to global groups like the ITW, HWA, AHWA, IAMITW, SFWA, and the SFPA. I’m a member of Bookrapt, Tauranga Writers, SpecFicNZ, and of course the NZSA who have put together today’s fabulous sessions, an organisation which works hard to make things better for New Zealand writers and writing.
Right now there are a lot of things in the world that needs fixing.
This week a new war started in the Gaza strip, on top of the war in the Ukraine, and all the other conflict across the globe. We’re seeing women’s rights being whittled away everywhere, in the Middle East, in Africa, and even in the US with last year’s overturning of Roe versus Wade legislation. The planet is in a climate crisis. Just this week Brazil’s government has declared a climate emergency as it faces devastating floods, of course here in New Zealand we know the horror and pain of this having just gone through Cyclone Gabrielle. Over the ditch, southeast Australia is facing a spring heatwave and widespread bush fires. Globally, we’re losing biodiversity at a great rate of knots. World Wildlife Foundation estimates we are losing species at 1000 to 10,000 times the natural extinction rate. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of child abuse in the world. Our suicide rates are the same. We’ve just come through a pandemic, and many of us are struggling with mental illness and trauma, sometimes unacknowledged and untreated. Our people are struggling with poverty, living in their cars, going hungry. For writers and artists, LLM and developments in AI such as Midjourney are impacting our livelihoods, making us fear for the future. And yesterday we had a general election, so we understand something of political and ideological divisions that exist even among our own neighbourhoods.
On the face of it, it’s all pretty demoralising. I mean, what can we do? We’re just couple of little frogs down here. The thing is, as storytellers and poets, we can make a difference. Stories are how we make sense of the world. They allow us to look at problems in a new way and from new or sometimes old perspectives. Stories can entertain, educate, and engage. They’re transformational.
And we’re not only storytellers. We’re storytellers from Aotearoa-New Zealand. The first country to give women the vote. A tiny country with space programme. Our landscape is held up by ancestors that embody our mountains and rivers and forests. We understand that those spirits nurture and sustain us, that they are significant and deserving of respect, and in a world first we have taken that important concept and codified it into law so we can protect our unique environment. That’s pretty amazing. We had the first transgender MP, the first 8-hour working day, the first bungy jump, and we’re on our way to being the first country run on 100% renewable energy. All that from an oddly diverse bunch of people. People who like Marmite, and the feel of sand between our toes.
As New Zealand storytellers, we can make a difference. We can help change the world and make it a better place. There isn’t a problem that can’t be fixed. We just have to look at it in a new way, take a new approach. ZZZ-burp. ZZZ-burp. ZZZ-burp.
So here, along with all the new ideas we’ve learned today from our fabulous speakers, are some extra takeaways from my favourite storyteller, my dad Morgan.
· No matter how small you might feel, how unprepared, believe in yourself, go on the adventure. Create your own ZZZ-burp. Have fun. Learn new things. Explore.
· Practice kindness. Swing in on a curtain cord and help out your friends. Join the club.
· Be like Professor Morgan and put yourself in the story. Use your unique voice. Be vulnerable and inventive. Go off the beaten path.
· And finally, think of new ways to approach a problem. Use that Kiwi number 8 wire ingenuity. Tack on a BBQ plate and get it done.