Angela Andrews was due to start a PhD in creative writing when the second Christchurch earthquake hit in February 2011. Her fourth child had been just six weeks old when the September earthquake happened. By the time of the February quake, in which 185 people were killed, Angela and husband Nick, like so many others, were reevaluating their priorities.
‘Nick and I both thought quite deeply about what was important to us,’ Angela says. ‘It sounds horrible to say it, because it was such a traumatic event and there was so much loss and horrible stuff, but for us there was a good part about it as well.’
That ‘good part’ involved Angela returning to what she loved—writing. They moved from Christchurch to Auckland and Angela did her PhD remotely through Victoria, with poet Bill Manhire as a supervisor for the first year. Another dream made real.
It also meant foregoing another passion—medicine.
‘I think it’s fair to say that the fragility [the earthquakes] exposed made me think in a newly focused way about what was most important, which was family and writing, and medicine fell off because I knew I couldn’t do justice to all three.’
So now, Angela is a doctor twice over—a medical doctor and a doctor of philosophy. She’s a ‘brain’, a great conversationalist, under-stated about what she’s achieved, but eager to talk about words and writing and books and theorists and poetry.
She started her Master of Creative Writing at Victoria when her first child was just two weeks old. By then she was already a hospital-based doctor working in paediatrics, and she saw parenting as an opportunity to step away from the pressures for a while and do what she loved.
‘I just felt like I didn’t want to keep going on in life without going back to writing,’ she says. ‘I was in that world of over-busy, high-functioning people, and so I thought that having a baby was quite a good chance to do something else.’
That was back in 2005. In the years that followed there were more children, and more moves for Angela and Nick, who is also a doctor. From Wellington to Hastings for six months, Palmerston North for a year, back to Wellington for a year, then Christchurch.
And then the earthquakes. And then a return to writing.
‘I loved it,’ Angela says, of the masters course. ‘If I could just live there and do that course, I would do that. The first really obvious thing about it is that it’s an official thing, and it makes your writing an official thing. You have deadlines that you have to stick to. And then I think the second thing is that obviously the supervisors were really great and you have great conversations and the reading material you get recommended is great. They’re really supportive. And then the third thing is that you’ve got this group of other amazing writers that are reading your work and you’d never get that opportunity again.’
This last bit wasn’t strictly the case, because the PhD came around and gave Angela more of the same, except with less intensity … ‘more of a marathon type thing. With the MA you were having workshops twice a week, with a PhD it’s once every six weeks.’
Angela graduated from the PhD programme a year ago and has been having ‘an empty year’ of catching up and is now figuring out what to do next. That’s complicated by sickness in the lives of family and friends.
‘In myself, I don’t feel like I can say writing is more important than all of that.’
One very cool thing Angela is doing is teaching creative writing at a woman’s refuge. She’s learning as much as she is teaching—rediscovering just how important being able to creatively express themselves is to the women who find themselves there. The emphasis isn’t so much on teaching techniques, but providing the space for these women to speak up and be heard, which some of them have never had.
‘We give them diaries and then we set a writing exercise and they write for half an hour. We share each other’s work and it’s as simple as that.’