In Memoriam

London NHM 1100621

“Good stories have teeth.”
Elizabeth O’Connor, 1956-2014

Elizabeth O’Connor was a teacher of writing, a dramaturge, and the Literary Manager of the Court Theatre (among much else).

It was in the latter capacity that I met her, doing a week’s internship in her little office at the top of the Christchurch Arts Centre (now, alas, no more). My task was to make a dent in the two-foot-high stack of scripts on her desk that had been submitted for consideration. As a budding playwright myself (budding? I was barely a sprout) I found both the job and her company very instructive.

The above quote is something Elizabeth used when teaching writing to children. It’s a sort of visual rendition of the fortunately-unfortunately pattern of storytelling, with the ‘teeth’ becoming longer and pointier as the stakes rise and the reversals hurl the character from the heights to the depths and back again. (Children tend to enjoy things that involve big pointy teeth, as do those of us who spend much time in the company of our inner child.)

In 2010 Elizabeth invited me to be part of the Court’s Young Playwrights Initiative, where I developed Dead Man Talking – again, a hugely instructive time. Encouraging as she was, Elizabeth was not one to let you get away with doing less than your best – and she knew if she hadn’t got it.
She was also instrumental in bringing about DMT‘s subsequent performance as part of the Elmwood Players’ 3 Piece, Sweet!

In short, I owe her a lot. She was not only rich in knowledge and understanding of storytelling, theatre, and the theatrical world, but she shared that wealth. She not only welcomed newcomers to that world but elicited the best from them while helping them find their feet. The New Zealand theatre world is a good deal the poorer for her untimely loss, and she will be sorely missed.

The last communication I had from Elizabeth was an assessment of a play I had submitted for the Olga E Harding New New Zealand Playwriting Award. She wrote “should write more”.
I have. And I will.

The Seven Lessons of the Week

And I thought last week was rough!

It’s the middle of Saturday and I’m still short 1800 words. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make that up (in both senses of the word) in just one day.

But I’ve learned from this week, hard as it has been to fall so short.


Lesson 1: don’t try to cook something new the night you’re supposed to be breaking the back of the week’s word-count. I got beat by the beets (and they dyed my hands pink).

Beet hands

Lesson 2: when ‘persuading’ a catweasel to release the bird in his mouth, wear gauntlets. Otherwise he may plug a bit of bird-feather into your hand and the wound will become infected, lessening usefulness of hand. (Supplementary note: make sure all pieces of now-deceased bird are removed from hand wound, or pain and swelling will be ongoing.)


Lesson 3: storms happen (literally and figuratively). If you need to spend extra time in the morning figuring out what you’re going to wear when walking to work in 200 kph winds (that’s 125 mph for the imperialists), take the time.


Lesson 4: know where you’re going. Roughly. I get bored if it’s all nailed down, but it turns out I can’t pull stuff out of the air for any length of time. I spent my two writing mornings this week trying to nut out some dramatic needs for the characters – once I know why characters do things, it’s easier to figure out what they’re going to do.

Now All I need is a Cape

Lesson 5: it’s just numbers. You can’t let them scare you. Dig down deep, find your motivation, and write. Remind yourself why this story should be told. Then tell it, as best you can. No one else will tell it for you.

Storyteller - D7K 3359 ep

Lesson 6: when you don’t know what happens next and it all seems to be palling on you, throw in something unexpected. This was part of my I Will column.

Ruins in the woods

Lesson 7: There’s only one way to do it. Pen in hand…