5 Quick Questions with Helen Lehndorf

Helen Lehndorf’s book, The Comforter, made the New Zealand Listener’s ‘Best 100 Books of 2012′ list. Her second book, Write to the Centre, is a nonfiction book about the practice of keeping a journal. She writes poetry and non-fiction, and has been published in Sport, Landfall, JAAM, and many other publications and anthologies. In 2021, she co-created a performance The 4410 to the 4412 for the Papaoiea Festival of the Arts with fellow Manawatū writers Maroly Krasner and Charlie Pearson. A conversation between the artists and Pip Adam can be heard on the Better Off Read podcast here

What were you doing just before you answered this?

Writing. I’m working on a creative nonfiction book about wild food. It’s the school holidays so I get up early and try to do 500-1000 words before breakfast. It’s when my brain is freshest and least resistant.

You’ve been to the retreat a few times, what is it that makes you want to keep coming back?

I’ve been to every single one so far! I love the welcoming and relaxed atmosphere that Kirsten creates. Also, I find the summer school holidays quite demanding (in terms of parenting) so I look forward to the retreat as a delightful gift of writing conversation and inspiration at the end of summer to remind me I’m a writer and set me up for the year. 

You started a really exciting project recently where you’re unschooling an art school experience. Could you talk a bit about this project?

I’ve always loved dabbling in visual arts. Recently I decided I’d like to improve my visual art skills and deepen my knowledge of visual art through studying artists. I have lots of friends who home-school or unschool their children and I was inspired by them to ‘unschool’ an art school experience for myself. Basically, it’s a continuation of the playing around I’ve always done…but I’ve scaffolded it within a project. https://www.instagram.com/unschoolartschool/

I am all about the riches to be found by allowing myself to be totally open to creative process (rather than a focus on product) so it’s all about radical play and self-acceptance and following threads of curiosity as far as they take me. An artist I admire, Katie Mae of Chatterbox Press 

inspires me a lot with her focus on process and making do with your circumstances…not wishing it were otherwise. She calls what she does ‘visionary making meets domestic culture’ and has a drawing-a-day project of what she calls ‘visibly mediocre’ drawings. There’s something so radical about allowing people to see the clumsy explorations of the learning process, I think. I have hopes to one day do large abstract paintings inspired by the natural world…but I don’t have the space in my small-ish house full of people to do large anything right now…so I sit at the kitchen table, work in sketchbooks and on small pieces of paper and try to hone my skills. 

I loved watching the work you’re doing as part of this project it feels like a whole new genre. Can a picture paint a thousand words?

That is very generous! I think it can. I’m really interested in the Buddhist art form of the Ensō…the large black circle done in one gesture. I think they are so beautiful and like a zen koan, the good ones contain so much! New Zealand artist Max Gimblett has famously adopted and adapted the form. My favourite Ensō artist is the Japanese Buddhist teacher, Kaz Tanahashi. I have read his books and watched everything I can find about him on YouTube and learned so much about Ensō, peace and presence. He’s an incredible man who has used his artistic ability to campaign for nuclear disarmament and world peace. 


 The thing is, Ensō are incredibly hard to do well. They are the quintessential ‘my five year old could do that’ art form…until you actually try to make one yourself. What is needed to make a successful Ensō is complete presence, groundedness in the body, release of expectations, child-mind. I firmly believe the best abstract paintings are made from a similar grounding. 

So with ‘Unschool Artschool’ …I am trying to cultivate this way of being and make art like a child again: for the joy of it, no expectations, often drawing from memory. It is very hard to make art like a child because I am a neurotic adult and damaged from cultural stories about art…sometimes I DO find the child-mind and the making process is so rich and time-stopping. However, I have to make art a lot to be able to find this kind of approach. Maybe one day I will have enough presence to attempt an Ensō…but that feels a long way off.

Tell us about your workshops, what should people expect?

This year, I’m doing the Friday night writing session. It’s always fun for me because at that moment, people have just arrived and are excited and full of anticipation. Because we have so many people who return every year, I take care to do something new each time. Last year, I did an exercise about writing from tangible objects, the year before was fiction from food. 

This year I’m doing something based on my recent re-reading of my writing hero, Annie Dillard. I’m going to ask people to explore the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of their writing selves. I hope it will be a good inspiration-dip for the weekend ahead. 

Keen to join Helen? Register now for the 2022 Kāpiti Writers’ Retreat