Inside the Surrey Hotel: less than 24 hours to meet the deadline for New Zealand’s finest writers residency award

As the deadline looms for the 2018 Surrey Hotel writers residency award, and entries continue to pour in from published authors and exciting nobodies, 2017 winner Charlotte Graham-McLay files a report on her experience at the Surrey. She danced a lot.

During the school holidays, I used to throw tights and leotards and grubby, smelly pointe shoes into a sports bag and head out of Auckland for a week at a time just to dance. It was a relief, getting away from all the high school interactions I could never figure out because I hadn’t been to a proper party yet and I was always at ballet class when the cool TV like Dawson’s Creek was on. Instead, on these trips to beachside Christian camps, or cavernous dance studios in Wellington, I could do something comparatively simple: thrash my body with hours of ballet classes every day until my hips ached and my toenails fell off. Ballet was the most elusive pursuit and somehow also the easiest: you did the steps; they were never good enough but you knew, in your mind’s eye, what good enough looked like, and then you just repeated them over and over again, hundreds and thousands of times until you got better or set the building on fire. It is absolute insanity. I wish everything in life worked like that.

Back then, I took for granted that I could access this language of movement, which always hung together to say what I meant. I’d danced since I was four and I didn’t know, at 17, that not everyone found something like this. One day I’d be much older and trying to write the way I used to dance, launching myself between two poles to grasp a word or phrase that would make the whole thing fit, but without any of the same confidence I’d had when I threw myself out into space.

I miss the ease with which that happened when I danced. How strange it is to have found so young such a fully-formed language, only to decide, aged 18, that you would not use it again, and to put it away and find a career in something else instead, one in which you would never feel quite as comfortable.

Those weeks away were on my mind when I boarded a flight to Auckland last September to write for five nights at the Surrey Hotel. I packed a sports bag with baggy t-shirts and fleece pajama pants and ballet legwarmers – because no one yet has invented anything better to keep your calves toasty without overheating your thighs – and prepared to spend a week writing about the psychology of the classical ballet dancer. As I have watched my old friends from high school ascend to national and international ballet careers, and sometimes fall out of them just as quickly, these questions have preoccupied me: why would you keep doing something that hurt so much? And when given the keys to the kingdom, to transcending space and time and possibly physics, why would you you ever stop? Do you really need to lose all those toenails? The big questions of my life, basically.

Portrait of the author as a child dancer with seahorse (left)

A word about the Surrey: it is the best kind of weird. If you really like dog statues, which I do, and mock Tudor wood paneling, which I do, then you will love the Surrey. It reminded me of a kind of gothic Cobb & Co. It is definitely 100% haunted, and I do not only say that because Gareth Morgan was reportedly staying there at the same time as me. I did not see him, because I barely left my room, except to scurry to the gym along the hall. It was not a very good gym but it was exactly the kind of spot you need in between a day of writing while scrunched up in bed and a night of writing while scrunched up on the ground.

My room was excellent: the bed was comfortable and the space was large enough that when I moved the furniture I could dance in it, which I did. My friend J told me he was once at a writing residency underneath a troupe of dancers who practiced, thunderously, all day and night while he was writing, or trying to. Fortunately for the Surrey’s other guests, I was on the ground floor. I shut the curtains so I would not be distracted by the buses wheezing past, pre-purchased a bag of snack foods from the Countdown up the street, and I really went for it.

A little over a year ago, I took a science writing paper at Victoria University’s creative writing school, taught by Rebecca Priestley and Ashleigh Young. I hadn’t been writing for long and I was trying to find the shape of it, to work out what you did to put the right words in the right order and how you were supposed to know when it was good, or good enough.

An all-or-nothing sort of person, I had sworn off ballet when I was 18 and swerved off to university to study journalism instead, a 14-year love affair ended because the art I had pursued was just not that into me, or at least did not reciprocate my levels of affection. For years, I had wanted nothing more to do with ballet – a symbol for the feelings of disappointment and inadequacy that were so easy to keep carrying around – but in my late 20s, a confluence of circumstances wore me down. Tired of trying to find things to do with my time that captured that feeling I’d had once and lost, I ended up angrily at the back of a ballet class one night and found it felt the same as it always had: infuriating and frustrating; a way of feeling seen and understood. The hundreds of repetitions of a movement towards a clear goal felt meditative now and it restored something to me. It made life feel easier. I was really pissed off about it, actually: I had never been able to do ballet just for a laugh and so here I was, 30 and obsessed with it again. Thinking about it all the time. (Like I’d ever stopped. I’d just stopping doing it out loud.)

When it came time to write a portfolio in my science writing class, I started to explore how little we know about the kind of brain a person is born with that makes them want to devote all of their time to something like ballet, to being the best at it, and what happens when that personality – a type we understand quite well in a sport, where achievement is measurable and rankable – collides with an art form where perfection is never attainable and beauty is both subjective and calcified. I wanted to know what happens to that obsessive, perfectionist brain, too, when you devote the early years of your life to something and then – through injury or exhaustion or looking wrong – it’s over in a heartbeat and you are left scrambling for a new purpose in life before you turn 30.

The sheer scale of what we don’t know about the dancer’s brain filled 10,000 words when I started writing, and interviews with professional dancers and former dancers around the world – old friends, childhood idols; dancers who have become psychologists and physical therapists and dance teachers themselves; dancers so hurt they never want to hear about ballet again – have eaten up another 20,000, most written while I was in residency at the Surrey.

I had never written without a deadline before and I was nervous. I do best with a yardstick to measure myself against, and I was worried I wouldn’t know what to do in a room by myself with no particular goal to meet. But there is something oddly compelling about an uninterrupted stretch of time in a hotel and down there on the floor in my leg warmers, I found it very easy to concentrate until my glasses were greasy and I had a headache. I permitted myself ahead of time to make shitty choices: I turned away the cleaners in my fleecy pajama pants; I got on those clammy, sweaty streaks where you’re writing something that actually feels decent and you know you should get up to take off your jumper but can’t bear to interrupt yourself so you just keep typing, all sweaty; I listened to all the music I usually ban myself from playing after midnight because it causes me to wallow in my feelings. I played it. I wallowed. I stayed up much too late every night and woke up all gritty and confused, surrounded by half-finished newspaper crosswords. In the wee hours, to keep myself awake, I got up and danced; Giselle Act 1 with a lot of bungled turns at the end; a jumpy thing of my own devising to Lorde. One night I taught myself a really stupid dance off a Haim music video and now if it ever comes on at the club, I will know what to do.

I found that if I pushed beyond the point when I was tired and wanted to go to bed and give up, there was always more to write. I left the Surrey with really dirty hair but a bit more confidence that I was writing about something worth saying, a subject that, even in the ballet world, isn’t talked about enough. Not long after, when asked what I was working on in front of a room full of people, I called it “a book.”

As a freelance journalist, it’s often the case that an otherwise perfectly enjoyable piece of writing is ruined for me because I am trying to do 15 other things at the same time. People won’t stop emailing me, and the deadline is always two days previously. On this trip, I didn’t answer emails and constantly told people I was “on a residency” needlessly, like a real arsehole. The time in Auckland enabled me to take a morning out to report on another story, as well, which was lucky because I was going a bit odd in that room by myself. I caught the train out to South Auckland, where I grew up, on a bit of a wild goose chase with a good-natured Swedish photographer I had just met that morning. We were thrown together in the way that happens when an assignment does not work out as planned, and we ended up wandering through streets and shops, clocking what was the same, same, different: in Manurewa, Southmall and the train station and McDonalds, a map of my childhood.

Every time I go home it feels worse than when I left and I miss it more, this place I had always been so excited to leave. It had been so long since I’d been in South Auckland that I was shocked to realise, walking past a shop in Manukau, that my mother had used to work there. It was her last job. Later, I stood outside the Manurewa Methodist Church where for years as a little girl I took ballet lessons from Mrs Peters with nothing but joy, before I turned 11 and changed up to daily classes at a serious ballet school in the city.

I had been feeling guilty about taking a morning off from the ballet project to work on the other story, but when I got back to the Surrey I was ready to tackle the bits I’d been avoiding and I got into my pajama pants and wrote all afternoon. I had slouched down in my seat on the train back from Manurewa like I used to, letting the rhythm direct the performance in my head as it always did; imagining, if the carriage was empty, what steps I would dance.


Entries are open until tomorrow, June 21, at 5pm for the 2018 Surrey Hotel Steve Braunias Memorial Writers Residency In Association With The Spinoff Award. Hurry, for God’s sake! Applicants should email a brief outline of their project to madeleine@thespinoff.co.nz. The shortlist will be announced next week probably. Good luck to all!


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