One of the things I did when up was up in Auckland for the writers’ festival was meet my friend Donald for breakfast one morning, on K Road, just after I had fallen over while walking to meet him. It was raining and those little raised metal dots that announce a pedestrian crossing were slippery. Both of my legs shot out from underneath me like they were on model train tracks, then I was lying down on the road. It almost felt good. It’s better to be unambiguous about falling over. A wave of pedestrians came towards me with concerned faces, and that made me feel good too, in the midst of shame. Anyway, Donald was my high school music teacher in the late 90s. We’ve stayed in touch off and on, and he still plays clarinet in various orchestras and teaches music. He is a tall man with a large smiling face and he has a lot to say. He says things like: ‘Wait – I have just remembered an anecdote from my past.’ In my mind he always wears a mustard-coloured corduroy jacket – this was the jacket he always wore as my music teacher – even though he’s been wearing other sorts of jackets for the last few years.
‘I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my TV,’ said Donald. We were sitting in a cafe where rumpled, writerly-looking types were dotted around the tables. I noticed a man I had danced at aggressively at Bar Bodega, like some kind of dancing bully, about ten years ago and I took care not to catch his eye. I remember him reciprocating but reluctantly.
I can’t remember word for word what Donald said, but I have an approximation. I was lamenting the fact that I don’t give myself much time to write these days – I am always doing something else at the same time, or thinking about things I have to do, or feeling worried about spending time on it at all; this is always a banal thing to say but it also seems like an inevitable thing to say, it just comes up as soon as people start talking about their art. Donald said: ‘I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my TV. But the thing is I’ve taken to practising my clarinet in front of the TV while watching movies. This is actually how I watched the entirety of Frozen.’
I haven’t seen Donald play for a few years but I remember him being an expressive player. He sways around and bobs at the knees, and wears a deep frown on his face. I pictured Donald standing up in front of the telly while playing his clarinet. It struck me as a version of shouting at the TV. ‘But can you take in anything of what’s going on in the movie while you’re playing?’
‘Well, every now and then I’ll stop so that I can catch a bit of dialogue or something, but it’s amazing how much you can follow just by watching the action and playing the clarinet.’ Then he said: ‘I’ve just remembered something from my past. My friend once told me about the cricketer Bob Cunis, and how there was this radio commentator who was rambling nonsensically about Bob Cunis when nothing was going on in the match. He said something like, “Ah yes, there goes Cunis … Cunis, a funny sort of name; neither one thing nor the other.” And my friend said that when I’m playing my clarinet in front of the TV, I’m pulling a Bob Cunis, because it’s neither here nor there, it’s neither one thing nor the other. So that’s why I’m thinking about getting rid of my TV, because it would be better for my clarinet practise; I wouldn’t be pulling a Bob Cunis, I would just be doing one thing instead of two things.’
This story came back to me later, because I realised that I myself pulled a Bob Cunis over the weekend. On Sunday afternoon I had to read at the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. Along with Alice Miller and Diana Bridge, I was a finalist to win twelve thousand dollars, an amount of money that seems almost limitless to me – ‘I would be set for life!’ I cried to myself derangedly – as it is vastly, vastly more money than I have ever had in my bank account, and although I told myself that I wouldn’t win, and although I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t win (it’s funny how you can ‘know in your heart’, but all of your other organs wrestle the heart to the ground to get it to shut up), there was clearly a small but stubborn part of me that was hoping I would. This part of me was losing control. It had got on a plane with the money and flown to the other side of the world. There is a lesson here. Hope is inevitable. But you can keep the hope under control by keeping it to yourself. My mistake was to talk to other people about what I might do with the money. What good literary cause should I donate some of the money to? What charity? Should I start up a fund for something? (I became obsessed with doing something very worthy with this money.) But also: should I get a new bike, and what sort? What kind of nice winter coat? All of these questions were mistakes, because when people responded, their answers gave the possibility a sharper form, and hopefulness, with its deadly bulk, began to overshadow pragmatism. From time to time I would give myself a stern talking-to. ‘You know that this is not how prizes work; you don’t win them just from hoping.’ This worked for a while, and then this other voice would say: ‘Obviously that’s true, but, you never know …’ I imagined one outcome and then the other, over and over; the two began to overlap and blur together. I was pulling a Bob Cunis, doing and believing neither one thing nor the other, and I wandered around like that for ages; like an actual cricket match it went on painfully for days and days.
The oddest – and, alright, the most pitiful – thing is looking back at the acceptance speech that I scribbled in my notebook on Sunday morning. Writing this speech, too, was a mistake, but a hard one to avoid. You tell yourself: I’m just being sensible, I must be prepared for all outcomes. But mostly what you are doing is exercising a catastrophic hope. I share a snippet of this speech here in an effort to defuse some of its woefulness. (I would like to make an anthology of unused acceptance speeches. Little unmade futures.)
But, ridiculously, when all three finalists were quietly told an hour or so before the reading who had won (it was Diana Bridge, congratulations Diana), I felt extreme relief. Thank fuck! There would be no expectations. I could continue to write in the margins and no one would accuse me of being ungrateful. And I wouldn’t have to decide what to do with the money. I would not have to be responsible. I could wallow in the strange comfort of my debt once more. But I still felt disappointed, and I noticed that my hands were shaking and I felt sick. It was like experiencing a physical withdrawal from hope; and becoming, again, just one thing, instead of two things.
Just before the reading, I bumped into Greg O’Brien and said that I didn’t know where the green room was – the place where all the writers had to meet before the event. Greg linked my arm in his and cried, ‘Look, I’ll take you there!’ and escorted me down the stairs. At the bottom, he said, ‘I’m putting my money on you!’ This conviction, even if it was off-the-cuff, something to be said in between places, suddenly felt like it was enough for me. I didn’t need anything else. I said, ‘I have reservations, but I’m definitely feeling hopeful.’