The Fuse Box: Essays on Writing from Victoria University’s
International Institute of Modern Letters by Emily Perkins and Chris Price, editors.
Wellington: VUP (2017).
RRP: $35. Pb/flaps, 296pp.
Reviewed by Shelley Chappell.
The Fuse Box is a vibrant and creative collection of essays on writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters. Edited by Emily Perkins and Chris Price, both senior lecturers for the IIML, the collection contains twenty contributions from established poets, dramatists, novelists and writing teachers. The book’s blurb declares that the collection ‘offer[s] writing strategies and guidance for all stages of the writing life.’
The introduction by the editors suggests that readers ‘might think of The Fuse Box as something of a companion volume’ to the IIML’s 2011 The Exercise Book, edited by Ken Duncum, Bill Manhire, Chris Price and Damien Wilkins. Unlike The Exercise Book, which true to its name provided writing prompts, The Fuse Box is not a handbook of straightforward suggestions or instructions about how or what to write. The fifteen essays, three interviews and two poems that make up the collection instead offer different writers’ personal experiences with writing or their reflections on particular aspects of the writing process.
The collection opens with James Brown’s delightful poem, “The Day I Stopped Writing Poetry” (p 26) and in neat bookend style closes with a poem by Hera Lindsay Bird. In between these creative works, readers can expect to find other playful and creative pieces, like James Brown’s fun alphabet frame essay, ‘Turnips’ (pp 41-52), which offers nuggets of alphabetised advice, Bill Manhire’s ‘Deepest Blue by Accident’ (pp 179-195), which explores the inspiration of accidents such as typographical errors, and Chris Price’s ‘Mouth Music: Some proposals about listening’ (pp 221-236) which places writing alongside music and explores what may come of the comparison.
The collection contains intellectual essays, like Damien Wilkins’ essay on personal change in characters, Emily Perkins’s exploration of silence in writing and Stephen Burt’s contemplation of experiment in poetry. Other contributions offer personal reflections – interviews with award-winning Lloyd Jones and Patricia Grace shed light on how and why they write, and other contributors, such as Elizabeth Knox, Ashleigh Young, Victor Rodger and Nina Walowalo with Tom McCrory similarly share personal insights into their experience of writing.
Regardless of background or writing speciality, many of the contributors have comparable significant things to say about what inspires them to write (and continue writing), authenticity and challenges. The personal stories and reflections they are willing to share have a lot to offer fellow writers. For example, Tina Makereti’s essay, ‘The Story That Matters’ (pp 91-100), begins and ends with a reflection on kaupapa, ‘a word that can encompass both purpose and the concept of a manifesto’ (p 91) and challenges writers to really ‘think about the purpose of what we write’ (p 91). Her description of the discomfort of writing is echoed by Tusiata Avia, who calls for solidarity and compassion, welcoming ‘[y]ou and your voices [of self-doubt] … [for] we are teeming with them, struggling with them too’ (p 202).
Readers seeking practical actions to follow in relation to their own writing may get the most out of Gary Henderson’s ‘What to Write About’ (pp 122-129), Stella Duffy’s ‘Thinking from the Middle’ (pp 130-137) and Ken Duncum’s ‘Take Two: The psychology of the rewrite’ (pp 271-283).
The apparent outlier of the collection may seem to be Emily Perkins’s interview with ‘Write Where You Are’, a collective of four writers who teach creative writing in prisons. However, the conversation between Perkins and the collective stimulates thinking on the purpose of writing – and in so doing, fits neatly within a collection that offers readers a wide range of access points to explore the ‘how and what and why’ of writing (Intro p 19).
Shelley Chappell is a literary analyst and writer of fantasy fiction and fairy tale retellings for children and young adults. She is the author of Beyond the Briar: A Collection of Romantic Fairy Tales (2014) and a variety of short stories.