Two weeks until deadline.

This blog has been quiet in the past few weeks — mainly because I decided to move my research journal offline, into a diary. I felt I was holding back too much on how I felt about the writing and the reading and the general rhythms of my Honours research. So yes, these reflections are now hidden in a handwritten research diary.

The exciting news is that I presented a research paper at Critical Animals in Newcastle on the weekend. The panel was titled “Authorial Ethics” and it was exciting to see the different ways we interpret the author and the concept of ethics. One of my fellow presenters spoke about the author’s identity — if there is one — in a world where art depicts life. In other words, what is the author but a filter for all of their experiences? The other presenter on the panel (also from RMIT) talked about the conceit of documentary making and auto-ethnography — basically, what it means to construct the self on film. I spoke mainly about the ethics of borrowing other people’s stories, and representing family members as characters on the page. Being part of the panel was an insightful experience, and I look forward to presenting again soon.

Fortunately, I have just been accepted to speak at RMIT’s Placing Nonfiction Symposium in December. The paper I will present here will be about Virginia Woolf’s moments of non-being, from her memoir collection, Moments of Being. Here is my official proposal, for a better idea:

What are the limits of nonfiction? Where and how is “nonfiction” – a concept founded upon a negation – placed, and what is at stake?

“Every day includes more non-being than being,” Virginia Wolff writes. In her memoirs of childhood, this non-being is “the invisible and silent part” of her life. The moments that are remembered simply through sensation, as the moments that passed between the memorable, “life-changing” events. In my research, I am exploring how to write about these moments of non-being through memoir. I have reconstructed an array of scenes from my childhood home. These scenes depict the non-being of drinking tea, fluffing up cushions, practising scales on the family piano. These were everyday rituals that I had never reflected upon before, and I don’t quite recall the details. Perhaps these scenes frolic between non-fiction and imagination, however, excluding these non-events from my memoir would leave readers with the risk of a causal narrative, a story that ignores the complex rhythms of both everyday life and writing from memory.

My entire Honours project is due two weeks from tomorrow, with exegesis alongside. It resembles a book now, complete with chapters, page numbers and white space. I have sent around a PDF of the final draft for new eyes to read (sister, housemate, etc), and I ran into an writerly friend yesterday who offered to take a look. I am unsure about how much is left to do — the arguments are there, the references are perfect, but having read the whole thing through so many times, I can no longer find new information. There is so much I have learned this year that has not made the final cut of probably a warm night. My nonfiction work was inspired by David Shields, but in this final draft he is only mentioned twice in passing. My research was also inspired by an earthquake, but the resulting memoir is mainly about me. I am waiting to hear the thoughts of the few readers who are taking a look at it — but at the moment I worry I have edited my writing down to something unexceptional. That probably means the work is reaching its final edit, when I can completely understand all of my ideas and therefore no longer find them exciting.

Mood Indigo (film)

And I headed to Nova again yesterday to see another film — Mood Indigo. This is a French film, starring Audrey Tautou and one of the main actors from The Intouchables, and I thought the plot sounded quite wacky and poetic and an escape from all of the nonfiction works I had been reading/watching.

Mood Indigo begins with this quote, from the author on whose novel the film is based:

This story is completely true, for I imagined it from beginning to end. (Boris Vian, Froth on the Daydream)

My initial reaction to the film’s opening scenes was one of disbelief. This couldn’t actually happen, I thought. Not in real life. Clearly I was still climbing out of my nonfiction bucket. Once I had processed that this, believe it or not, was actually a made-up story, I really did enjoy the artsy, poetic nature of the film, with its obvious stabs at Sartre and constant, jarring computer animation throughout.

Ultimately, the wacky, not-quite-realist film made me once again consider the “truthiness” of fiction. In the film (and presumably the novel on which it was based) the emotions of characters are translated to visuals in a way that is impossible in nonfiction. In nonfiction, a doorbell can’t scuttle along the wall to signify loneliness. Two kinds of weather can’t fall either side of a table to show character’s true feelings. We can imply it, but we can’t (or shouldn’t) create unbelievable details to better emphasise a mood or a point. In this instance, nonfiction is harder.

Stories We Tell (film)

The last week has been a little crazy. I worked five days straight and submitted my (official) exegesis draft. To reward myself, I spent last night at Nova, seeing Stories We Tell, a Canadian film/doco by Sarah Polley. Ed had recommended this film ages ago, when it screened at MIFF, but I think I had been overseas? Anyway, I was lucky enough to see it yesterday.

The film opens with the Margaret Atwood quote I posted here recently:

When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else. (Alias Grace)

The film is about Sarah Polley’s mother, and — without giving too much away — old family secrets. Polley interviews different family members and friends, and gains a slightly different story from each. This wasn’t surprising to me, after all the research in memory and subjectivity I have undertaken this year. What did surprise me, though, was the different ways people understood story, and the ways in which it should be told. One family member wrote a memoir and wondered about the perspectives of other people. Another interviewee expressed the view that they were the owner of the story and were the only person in the world who could tell it “truthfully”, even though their record of it contradicted everyone else’s.

The way that secrets were uncovered through intensive interviews made me wonder about the nature of storytelling. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else. The details of what happened will ultimately be adapted, changed and shaped in the telling of a story — but if we were to refrain from telling it for the sake of preserving the “truth”, then there wouldn’t be a story.

So much to do.

Reworking my draft today. My supervisor is really happy with my creative work (yay) and so now the focus is on the exegetical side of things.

Right now I’m developing strong theoretical introductions to each of my small chapters to best highlight the main idea discussed in each. Here are my titles:

when new beings are made

when there is distance

when this is home

when we don’t know yet

when names aren’t named

when the washing machine is a lion

when it’s the middle of a story

when we can’t forget

I’m incorporating the importance of time in my memoir (and all memoirs), hence the “when” of each title. Still working out how to explain this well in my writing. Back to it now.

So when a reader says, ‘But this isn’t the Ruby I know…’ I can smile, brush them off and declare, ‘No, it isn’t.’

‘It’s about you but it’s not about you at all. How can that be?’

Today I’ve been re-reading some of my main sources — Shields, Woolf, Clendinnen, Modjeska — in an effort to frame my ideas about memoir and contextualise the questions I’ve raised about my own creative writing. Reading these again now, with extra knowledge now stored in my head, I’m finding more and more ideas that I must have skimmed over when I first read their work last semester. The line above is from Shields, recounting a fiction writer friend’s reaction to his nonfiction work. Shields doesn’t seem to care about this response — that is, he is thoughtful about it, rather than concerned. I’m trying to think about my work in the same way — ethics as not simply ‘what is the wrong thing to write?’ but as more ‘how can I use this writing to answer a question or form a useful purpose?’ So when a reader says, ‘But this isn’t the Ruby I know…’ I can smile, brush them off and declare, ‘No, it isn’t.’

On a side note, I’m finding this blog difficult to maintain at the moment. I think this is because I’m gradually moving from a reading/writing stage to an editing stage, and so my thoughts are moving around in circles, overlapping material I’ve discussed before — whereas a blog should move forwards in some way, no? At the moment, I’m thinking (and thus this blog is written) like this:

photo

 

One-week hiatus.

I took a week’s hiatus from my blog. The main reason for this is that I sent myself a very big deadline for yesterday — to write the eight middle chapters of my exegesis. Our full draft isn’t due until next Friday, but I wanted to set myself this extra deadline so I get some sleep next Thursday night. Also, I’ve gathered (through trying to write about my creative work) that I only discover what I’m trying to say through writing about it — so now I can use extra editing time to sharpen those points and link them into a stronger argument. I met today with Francesca, and we talked about what will need to go into my introduction and conclusion to frame the chapters. What is really coming out in my work are different ideas about time — momentum and rhythms of time, the passing of years and the loss of time. I’ve titled each of my exegetical chapters to begin with ‘when…’ because these all talk about time and refer to characters set in different times. Each ‘when’ refers to a different period.

My nine creative chapters have all been published here. The publication of the final three was anticlimactic — a steady, gentle flow of readers, according to my stats page. A minor critique from Tom, who is offended that he only appears in one piece and is asleep in said piece. A blog follow from someone in Oman, too late. There will be one more piece to the memoir, a small one, which I am still composing. I haven’t yet decided if I will publish it online too.

On not publishing memoirs.

Today I read this excerpt from Emily DePrang on her decision not to publish a memoir she’d written, even after being offered a contract. I found it here on the Brevity blog.

What stopped me was that a memoir’s quality correlates to its honesty, and my book deal would be built on a kind of lie. I would only be pretending to be at peace with my past and ready to share its lessons with the world. I’d only be acting like I thought it was okay to dish my ex’s dirt. I’d seem brave, but it would be kamikaze courage, not an earned, owned courage, not one that endures. It occurred to me that writing a memoir should be like posing nude in front of an art class for three hours, not like flashing a camera after a few tequila shots.

Here‘s another paper about not writing a memoir about someone intimate to the writer. Willa McDonald concludes that there are decisions to be made — risks to be considered. Where do responsibilities lie?

In my own work, I wonder where my responsibilities lie?