A team like no other

25 June 2018

Catherine Chidgey and Tracey Slaughter.

Students asked for it, and they got it – a masters degree in professional writing at the University of Waikato.

Two award-winning authors Tracey Slaughter and Catherine Chidgey oversee the Masters in Professional Writing.

“We introduced the masters degree because there was demand for it,” says Dr Slaughter.  “Many of our bachelor students wanted to continue with their writing studies and this degree allows them the freedom to explore professional writing from many angles.”

There’s a core paper, designed specifically to enhance workplace readiness, which students take alongside elective papers that range across a variety of fields, from creative writing to writing for promotional purposes and advertising, for digital media and for scholarly and professional publication.

Dr Slaughter, whose PhD was a study of New Zealand women’s autobiography, is a two-time winner of the Katherine Mansfield short story award. She won the Bridport short story writing prize in 2015 and was a finalist in the Manchester Poetry Prize the same year. Her novella The Longest Drink in Town was published in 2015, and her short story collection Deleted Scenes for Lovers won rave reviews.

Catherine Chidgey’s fourth novel, The Wish Child, won the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize at last year’s Ockham Awards and she quickly followed that up with The Beat of the Pendulum, a ‘found’ novel.

Among her numerous awards, she’s a recipient of the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship, been to France on the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, won the inaugural Glenn Schaeffer Prize in Modern Letters and has held the Robert Burns Fellowship.

Ms Chidgey says she gets a lot of joy and plenty of ideas through teaching.

“One of the best things about being a teacher is that thrill you get when a student’s work really starts to sing... when you’re sitting in the classroom and listening to them read and thinking, I wish I’d written that.”

She says teaching means she keeps engaging with and thinking about the value and the limitations and the possibilities of those basic tenets of creative writing – focus on the sensory and the concrete, for instance, or write what you know.

“I talk with my students a lot about ways to overcome the internal censor – that cruel little voice that is always telling you your work’s not good enough, not original, not worth finishing. When I have those conversations with my students, I’m reminded to take my own advice – to ignore that voice, shut it out of the room, at least while you’re getting down a first draft.”

Dr Slaughter says writing is generally such a solo occupation, so the classroom can be a good place for students come together to discuss their work. “We provide a safe and encouraging, supportive environment. We meet regularly for workshops where we discuss participants’ progress. They need to have a lot of self-belief and a bit of a thick skin. The group environment motivates people to keep going, while tutors and students alike can give constructive feedback and assist with technical aspects of writing that may still need development.”

And what makes a good writer?

“I don’t think there’s one single thing,” Dr Slaughter says. “I’d say read a lot and read widely, all sorts of genres from all sorts of countries and eras. I know people on the master’s programme will be readers who immerse themselves in the language of books. Be observant down to the details that other people are likely to miss. Constantly be on the alert and take note of how you and other people behave in different situations. Open your senses, all of them, fuse the genres and don’t be afraid to push boundaries.”

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