Cris Cucerzan (Writing for the Page, 2019)

The MA workshop was a space where people were collectively and generously invested in developing a fine craft.

Cris writes: 'You arrive as a butterfly with impostor syndrome; you leave a larva with a glimmer of talent and the newly-discovered daring to wander into the night.

'I began with metaphors at the end of 2018 as I do here because my decision to do the MA doesn’t make sense except when you know that I didn't have a firm idea of who I was as much as a desire to clarify it for myself. I had just moved to Wellington after burning out cruelly from teaching in Auckland. The MA held the colour of hope and the words to form questions I hadn't yet posed.

'I don't know what I was thinking, but there was a whole lot of feeling involved. I toiled on the writing sample for a month before applying, and a month after the submission date, I was put on the waiting list, having obviously not made the first cut into the Poetry and Non-fiction Class. I felt resigned, maybe despondent.

'Then someone dropped out, and suddenly I was in.

'The idea to write a book of essays appeared to me as a project connecting my childhood in Romania with my adolescence and adulthood in New Zealand. I came armed with memories, my wife's unceasing encouragement, an expired poetic licence, and the experience of teaching English for four and a half years to high schoolers. In our second or third workshop, I did a writing exercise where I mused on the act of watching my brother play Starcraft from my parents' bed. One of the poets in the class said that it was not something anyone else felt nostalgic about. I was privately crushed by her words, a feeling I would learn to cherish as a signpost – here, kid, you haven't yet put all the pixels in the picture to make things clear. So I got better. I got more specific. I mined my maternal tongue for metaphors (with mixed results) and twisted my English into essays crossed with memoir and poetry. In the fourth or fifth workshop, I was advised to dollop my texts with servings of Romanian food. Someone wanted more of my grandmothers on the page. Another wanted to read about the Communist regime under Nicolae Ceaușescu.

'Every week, this was the lesson: receive the feedback, consider it, consider what it suggests that others are imagining (and not) when they read your writing, and change something. This cycle suited what I had previously learned as a teacher: my capacity to be transformative in action (whether writing or teaching) is proportionate to my willingness to be transformed by it. The MA workshop setting was perfect for this endeavour because it was a space where people were collectively and generously invested in developing a fine craft. The year had the framing of a university course, with the academic fine print and the dread of deadlines. There was rigour; but there was also goodwill, and there was so much kindness. There was vulnerability and manaakitanga. Tears and tissues were passed across the room. It took a few months, but a community was founded among the waiata of tūī in the canopies outside. We read each other's work and penciled comments between mouthfuls of carrot cake.

'The MA year was terrific; and terrifying; and terrible; and terrific. I loved the smell of the library, the conversations in Chris Price's office, the culture that the particular group of writers in my workshop had built – one of mutually-assured support. I keep thinking of the year in construction terms because we all signed up for the effort of holding our craft up to the scrutiny of critique. Not everyone understood what I was trying to chisel onto the page. I don't pretend to have understood everyone else's work, either. But by the end, I found something I hadn't had at the beginning: an approach, a way into writing borne out of a new kind of reading, itself borne out of the companionship in the workshop and the ideas we threw out to each other. Although writing is a solitary act, the MA year showed me that continuing is always in the context of community.'

Bio: Cris Cucerzan was born in Brașov, Romania, and moved to New Zealand when he was 11. He was awarded the Modern Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize for his essay collection 'How to be a New Romanian', the manuscript of which he developed during the MA 2019 year. Before that, he taught English at Aorere College in Auckland. He currently teaches English at Wellington College.

Read more:

Listen to 'Phone Calls' (Radio New Zealand's Page Numbers 2020)

Read 'Miscommunicado' (Turbine | Kapohau, 2019)

Read 'Chowder' (Flash Frontier, April 2019)