A former physiotherapist turned writer is the recipient of the 2020 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship.

Poet, essayist and novelist Sue Wootton will travel to Menton, in the south of France, next year to work on her sixth poetry collection – but first she has a PhD and second novel to finish.

While it sounds like a mountain of work, Dunedin-based Wootton says the PhD and novel fit together.

Her PhD looks at how stories and poetry can contribute to a better understanding of what being well means.

"Some novels are particularly good at challenging conventional ideas about success and failure, strength and weakness, ability and disability," she says. "It seems to me that vulnerability, loss and dependence are inevitable in anyone's life and that literature is an often under-recognised and really important source of wisdom about navigating tough times."

Her novel is about a group of friends affected by New Zealand's 1948 polio epidemic. Thanks to another award, the 2018/19 NZSA Beatson Fellowship, Wootton will travel to Whanganui, site of the former Duncan Home and Hospital for polio, where some of the novel is set, to do further research.

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With 20 years as a physiotherapist, she says her ideas about creativity and wellness – and for the novel – started to take shape as she worked with survivors of injury and/or illness who were learning to make new lives for themselves.

She was particularly struck by those who survived polio – New Zealand saw outbreaks from 1916 until the early 1960s when a vaccine was introduced – and went on to develop Post-polio syndrome which can be progressive and cause problems with muscle function, pain and fatigue.

"Life is not something we can control, although we like to think that we can," she says. "I had a patient in the Shetland Islands who had had polio and we were the same age but how lives had completely diverged because of what had happened to her.

"People would amaze me with their resilience, adaptability, endurance - and love of life - in the face of unwanted limitations and restrictions. I also noticed how much happier people are if they have some kind of replenishing creative practice - whether it be music, art, writing, reading, gardening or building matchstick houses."

Eventually, the pull towards writing her own poetry and fiction - rather than clinical reports - was so strong that she dipped her toe into the world of creative writing. Her first collection of poetry, Hourglass, was published in 2005 while being awarded the Burns Fellowship in 2008, which allowed her to write a third poetry collection, was a turning point.

She says traveling to Menton will allow her the time and space to take her poetry writing in a different direction.

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• In its 50th year next year, the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship is for established writers and is administered by the Arts Foundation. Previous recipients include Mandy Hager, Dame Fiona Kidman, Janet Frame, Witi Ihimaera, Roger Hall and Michael King.

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