‘Discovery and invention can lie very close together.’

If you can’t locate yourself in some sort of narrative or myth, [Kim Mahood] writes, you can’t survive for too long in this country.

I’m currently reading Drusilla Modjeska’s collection of essays, Timepieces. Modjeska is an Australian writer who has blended fiction and nonfiction throughout her work. In this essay collection she reflects on the art of memoir, the desire to write and the play of memory and actuality in writing nonfiction. At least, that’s what she writes about in the essays I’ve read most closely.

One particular idea Modjeska discusses in her essay, ‘Writing Poppy’, is the way memories stay with us. She recalls visiting an English garden she grew up in, years after the publication of Poppy, a fictional autobiography about her mother. There are recollections of this garden in the book, which she didn’t revisit at the time of writing. This would be a typical way for a writer to research their settings — to revisit the place they are trying to accurately portray. But Modjeska notes, ‘The world I created at my desk was no less vivid.’ The memory was in her mind, not in the place. The garden was changed now, its cottage housing different people. ‘It was a husk; emptied of meaning.’ Visiting the garden while writing Poppy may have changed her memory from ‘sun-filled… a safe world of make-believe’ to nostalgia for something lost. And which depiction would have been more true?

Another essay, ‘Memoir Australia’, has my head in a jumble and I’ll have to take some time to think before I can reflect on it articulately, but in the meantime here are some of the lines that I think are worth reading.

‘There are [memoirists] who articulate something in the culture that is pressing to be articulated.’

‘The metaphor of the flawed glass has stood since as a kind of portal for Australian writers entering the exploration of their own subjectivity and its social meanings.’

‘Their experiences of the same creeks were as divided as our history, and as intertwined.’

‘The connections she is making across contested narratives, between ways of thinking and ways of being, and between present and past, need the wide spread of a book.’

‘What [a good memoir] asks for – and what it offers – is movement towards understanding.’

‘As readers of the twenty-first century, we know enough to know how impossible, and how essential that clarity is.’

‘[Memoir] has developed in a paradoxical space between two polarities, between the incapacity to tell its truth and the inability to avoid it.’

‘Anyone who can write can produce the effect of verisimilitude.’

‘A memoir may be full of wishful thinking or fantasy or denial, but these are part of its ‘truth’.’

‘If we think of memoir as a mapping of the mind rather than (or as well as) the recreation of experience, then what we are responding to is the way the voice encompasses the material it works with: fact, fiction, memory, speculation, intervention, testimony, fabrication, retrieval.’

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