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Central Sunday - Write from the heart of Central

The Central App

Pallas Hupe Cotter

09 October 2021, 4:57 PM

Central Sunday - Write from the heart of Central Barbara Sumner and Diane Comer were the speakers at this years writers retreat

In our continuing Central Sunday series, we look at some events happening around our district and the people who make them happen.

For the third year in a row, during the last week of September, I drove the hour or so from Alexandra to Oturehua.

I rolled through dry brown hills dotted with schist tors, and past green and gold paddocks that eventually lead to the deeply furrowed Hawkduns. And when I arrived, my wheels crunching on the gravel outside where I’d live for the week, I shut myself inside a cabin and spent entire days typing.

I was there to focus on a passion project: writing.

In my case, a Masters’ thesis/memoir. I was among 29 other people focused on similar projects at the 3rd annual Under Rough Ridge Writers’ Retreat.

All of us scribbling away, while being inspired by the surroundings as well as all the published authors who live in the Ida Valley.  

Not everyone knows that at the heart of gold country lives a community of writers.

Their words give voice to the Otago soul of New Zealand’s literary world: poets and authors Brian Turner and Jillian Sullivan; screenwriter and novelist Mike Riddell and his newly-published wife (and former judge) Rosemary; poet Bridget Auchmuty and editor and author Paula Wagemaker.

Over the past twenty years or so, each of them, for one reason or another, has chosen to move to Oturehua. And for the past three years, they have opened their doors to invite people to join them, from all over the country.

29 like-minded people joined together this year for the annual writers retreat in Oturehua

At the retreats, the Oturehua literati share their accumulated knowledge and wisdom, hosting workshops on subjects from “finding your writer’s voice” to “learning how to write cinematically”.  Aspiring memoirists like me, as well as novelists and playwrights, come together to brainstorm and spark creativity. This is what writers’ retreats are about: providing the place, space, and stimulation for writers to work on long-form projects that require concentrated blocks of time and focus.

There are also featured speakers there to guide us. Last year we heard from novelist Kate De Goldi and Grahame Sydney (yes, he writes and paints). This year’s retreat featured Diane Comer, author, essayist and senior tutor at Victoria University. Barbara Sumner was the other headliner. An author and filmmaker, she’s probably best known for her documentary This Way of Life, which was short-listed for an Oscar and won multiple international awards. Their talks gave us all quite a lot to consider as we wrote.

Sumner recently authored what she calls a “memoir and commentary”, Tree of Strangers. She asked some critical questions writers need to think about when they write nonfiction: how reliable is your memory? And whose story are you telling? We live in a world where so much is shared and recorded, but the impact isn’t always considered. She admits being disappointed by the long-term consequences that followed her most recent project. And she’s come to believe you can sometimes “tell more truth with fiction than nonfiction”. So her latest project is a novel.

Comer is a migrant and author of The Braided River: Migration and the Personal Essay. Our backstories feel a little braided. Like me, she’s lived in several countries, and has chosen New Zealand as her home. Comer spoke to us about why you might choose to write a personal essay. Essays, she says, can express our sense of identity, belonging and connection. She highlighted, too, how helpful they can be in processing what happens in our lives: though we live our lives forward, as Kierkegaard once wrote, “life can only be understood backwards”.  

We did have a little downtime during the week. And were encouraged to gather at the local Railway Hotel pub, or Hayes Engineering, for coffee. We could buy supplies at Gilchrist’s Store, to fuel long days spent inside at our local accommodation providers. I thoroughly enjoyed crunching along the rail trail on the day it snowed, while breathing in the perfume of spring blossoms. Others explored on their bikes. Each year this retreat creates a mini-tourism ripple. 

While there, I thought deeply about my surroundings. Oturehua is surrounded by working farms. It’s lambing season and at times the roads fill with shorn sheep.

Working with the land, as someone there noted, seems more “real” than typing words for people to read. But as I wander around Central Otago, appreciating the fruits of all that labour, I imagine all the lives lived and stories told over the decades. And I know that without writers describing them, helping preserve the beauty and value of places and people, the lessons learned from all that hard graft and mahi might be lost to history. 

And as I write this, I hope to have yet another chance next year to appreciate the rich resource of wisdom and natural beauty that you can find at the heart of Central Otago’s Ida Valley. 

If you have a story of something you would like to let more people of Central know about, or would like to contribute to our Sunday series, simply email [email protected] and we will make contact.