Spent three hours in the Honours lab today, preparing my ethics proposal for the project component of my research this year. As my nonfiction project will be a work formed predominantly from interviews, I am required to submit this proposal to a committee of strangers who will decide if my project is ‘worth the risk’. This process takes at least two weeks, so my intention was to have it sent off by the end of the weekend.
So yes, I spent three hours completing that proposal, saved it to a USB and then promptly left that USB in the back of the computer.
In other news, the expanse of research itself is beginning to unnerve me. Reading five essays a week, writing profusely, attending a symposium in the holidays, applying for conferences that are months away, submitting to publications, writing this blog… I’m carrying a wad of printed papers around in my backpack just in case I’m presented with any free time. Tomorrow Numberworks’nWords is flying me to Sydney at 6.30am to consult with our Mosman centre, and all I’m thinking about is how many pages I can read on the plane. Will I be awake enough to write at that time of the morning? Will the taxi driver be happy for me to spread my work across his backseat? Deeeep breath.
What I am reading (one of my five for this week) is a research paper by Luanne Aileen Armstrong from the University of British Columbia. Well, let’s say I’m reading a part of the research paper (seeing as it’s over 300 pages long). The Ecology of Identity: Memoir and the Construction of Narrative. Not a wellknown paper, but I’ve found Armstrong explores ideas relevant to my project. She declares writing a memoir to be an act of discovery rather than of memory — that it may be a work about you but you still won’t know what it’s ‘truly about until it’s done’. She asks if memories can in fact be replaced by memoirs. She also asks, ‘What connection does the writer’s emotional stance towards her material have with the ethics of telling it?’
Armstrong quotes William Kittredge: ‘Our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in.’ And Richard Hoffman: ‘Memoir must be about the myriad ways the past and present conjugate to produce the future.’
Armstrong’s research is helpful to me, because she has begun to raise some of the questions I myself have been wondering about, but couldn’t quite articulate. What are the ethics of writing “truthfully” about people I know? How do I put a memory into words, if I can only remember a moment of it, and not a place or a time?
I spent some time on a small writing exercise to try to understand Armstrong’s point about discovery. I reflected on the time spent with my little sister in Argentina in 2011, and tried to develop a piece based on our interactions late at night when we were half-asleep, when she told me all the things that had happened to her in the last year. These conversations remained with me, but not as words — more as the moments that captured us, the city lights out the window. However, as I made myself write, our whispers began to form in my head, quiet so our mother wouldn’t hear us from the next room. My sister describing the Caesarean conducted on a neighbour’s cat, the furry pink worms being dropped into a pail of water before she could close her eyes. Myself, watching her pale one-year-older-than-last-time-I-saw-her face and wanting to snuggle closer, and not knowing how. These probably aren’t real memories. Or maybe they are now.