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.

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The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead

First round of assignments is over, yippee! And results back for the project presentation I was stressing about the other day — High Distinction for all criteria (again, yippee!), meaning that my 2013 goal to overcome public speaking fears is on track thus far. Anyways, enough self-congratulating. I’m taking this afternoon off research (kind of) and reading the pile of books I have been adding to since March 1. Most, of course, are some sort of creative nonfiction:

Better than Fiction, a collection of travel stories published by Lonely Planet, written by wellknown fiction writers (e.g. Isabel Allende, Sophie Cunningham, Steven Amsterdam, Alexander McCall Smith).

Non-Fiction, a collection of absurd stories by Chuck Palahniuk.

Enduring Love, Ian McEwan. Can’t wait, can’t wait, can’t wait to read this one.

You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead, memoir (collection of memoirs) by Marieke Hardy.

Newest KYD. 

The last few pages of The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, by the wonderful David Shields, which has blended scientific fact with cultural criticism to present the relationship between Shields and his father. The structure of this book is very clever — as the content moves through the process of ageing — Shields growing up and his father growing old — Shields’s stories about his father are repeated, each time becoming smaller and less fantastical. Shields tells us multiple truths — each telling of the same story slightly altered, slightly frailer. This is Shields’s method of dealing with subjectivity of childhood, adolescence, family ties? I suppose.

Exciting, but a long way off.

I am slowly crawling out of the hole I’ve been hiding in since last week’s round of assessment. I presented the beginnings of my memoir project via slideshow and discussion on Wednesday and submitted an essay on subcultures at midnight on Thursday, and then crawled home to bed. Presentation went swimmingly, essay not so much. I spent all my time preparing to speak to my class about the memoir/essay that is beginning to form from fragments, minus stuttering, minus redface. The essay suffered as a result, mainly because I finished it in a rush — still unsure of my argument, still preoccupied with understanding the topic.

On a brighter note, I was contacted this week by the directors of Critical Animals, a symposium for creative research that runs alongside the National Young Writers’ Festival in Newcastle in October. I applied to present my Honours research, and my application has been accepted — I’ll be participating in a panel on truthtelling in nonfiction writing alongside a filmmaker and a PhD student. Exciting, but a long way off. By October I’ll have a fleshed-out project, solid research findings and an idea of what I’ll be doing beyond Honours. Hopefully.

I haven’t listed my readings here for a while, mainly because there has been so much cross-over and re-reading lately. I’m currently edging through David Shields’ nonfiction work, The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, which merges memoir, cultural criticism and scientific fact to illustrate the relationship between Shields and his elderly father. In the mail are David Shields’ Remote, Lia Purpura’s On Looking and Sven Birkerts’ The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. Spent the last of a book voucher treating myself to (yet another memoir) Marieke Hardy’s You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead. Not sure when I’ll find time to read all of these, but.

Memoir Hunger: A Manifesto

or, A Fragmented Conversation with David Shields about Fragments

(This is a collage essay that I completed in today’s Nonfiction lab. Any comments/critique very welcome.)

1. David Shields (quoting Raban) says, ‘The moment you start to arrange the world in words, you alter its nature. The words themselves begin to suggest patterns and connections that seemed at the time to be absent from the events they describe.’ He discusses the way a good writer will shape minor, otherwise irrelevant details to propel a story forward, choosing each word carefully to lead the reader in the right direction/s. Which makes me wonder about the seemingly irrelevant passages and reflections in recent nonfiction I have read. In one particular essay, the writer jumped back and forth between her visits to her mother who has dementia, and her volunteer work with fragments of pottery in an archaeological museum. There are so many implicit connections my mind made between these two situations, without even noticing the writer had pushed me to make them.

 

2. 90% of the surface of the world is water.

We waited for the telephone poles to fall but they didn’t. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘This is what dying feels like.’ A boat to somewhere. Shouts that are carried away on the wind. A husband and child just out of reach. Another child at school, unawares.

The earthquake did stop, after all, as all earthquakes do. I ran in to call Nick’s teacher.

 

3. I’m thinking that my own work is investigating how we can make a story from fragments of reality – in this case, a Facebook newsfeed from across the world, published hourly by someone who I haven’t seen since I was twelve years old. What lies in the gap between these fragments? What do I have to (want to) add to bring these together into something coherent? About which, David Shields might say that is art, that our minds form logical connections between fragments and the story may write itself. But in the act of writing, the story may become a different story to the one I think I’m writing.

 

4. My voice is too quiet on the airwaves as I try to keep the conversation light. Whenever I speak I have to repeat myself, breathing softly so as the speaker doesn’t pick it up. I am not a child. I am not a child. The Ruby who Alison has known is the twelve-year-old daughter of an esteemed colleague. A bossy child who cries at the first hint of criticism. No, maybe that’s not it. Twelve years old, insistent on wearing the same magenta turtleneck every time Alison and her husband visit their house for dinner. Twelve years old, winning Scrabble with annoying two-letter-words. Stop. I am the child again, remembering myself and not my surroundings. Who was Alison when I was twelve years old? Who is she now? A mother? A university educator? An expat come home?

 

5. I’m thinking that my own work is trying to interrogate the concept of “un-knowing”. The act of not interviewing a subject, and the outcomes of that silence of what I don’t know. My mind creates a picture in the act of not-knowing. How would this imagination that has been the last ten years of my relationship with my subject affect telling her story now? David Shield might suggest that this is a new territory to play with, and that being openly self-reflective is no more subjective than the writing of the story based on interviews. At least I am being open about not telling the truth while not telling it.

 

6. David Shields (quoting Dyer) says, ‘My books [are] works of art rather than accumulations of information.’ He is comparing the novel to the nonfiction work, declaring the process of arranging and structuring words and story to be the same for both forms. Which makes me wonder how memoirists, novelists and essayists decide which one of these they shall be. Should we be reading all writing as art and not educational in an informative way? What is information, anyway?

 

7. Beyond the fence our neighbour — who had some sort of mental disability that was never talked about — watched us from his balcony as his house bashed back and forth, the metal shutters of his house slamming in no kind of rhythm. I looked back at Hans holding Emi, and we were on a boat on a high sea to somewhere, where there was a violence in gravity and the water had become the earth.

 

8. David Shields (quoting Gallagher) says, ‘The moment you put pen to paper and begin to shape a story, the essential nature of life – that one damn thing after another – is lost.’ He is talking about the unavoidable process reality undertakes when being recorded – that it becomes just an aspect of the writer’s view of that reality. Which makes me wonder how nonfiction writers document these aspects during their research – do they take their own perspective as their own subjective truth, or do they interrogate themselves? Do they ask, why is this what I remember? What if I’m wrong?

 

9. I’m thinking that my own work is exploring the gap between our experiences and those of others. Investigating the reasons why we want to read (and write) stories about other people, regardless of the limitations of truth. Is it empathy? Self-interest? A fear of silence? In response, David Shields might say this is human nature, to want stories, to reach out for reality even though it will remain untouchable. We are trying to grasp the fragments of what have been our memories and existence.

‘Nonfiction is undoubtedly problematic, but in a good way.’

My reflections upon our very first Nonfiction lab, during which we discussed David Shields, the construction of reality and whether or not the “prettiness” of something tells us that it’s made up —

Thinking about the concept of “nonfiction” and my research, I wonder if I could convey another woman’s experience in a way that it will remain a true account but also captivate its readers. As discussed in last week’s Nonfiction lab, the significance of ‘I’ expressing my experience of the world makes a work nonfiction – but does this mean my subject’s story becomes my story through that mode of expression?

Beyond the basis of my research question, our discussion about new-age concepts of capturing memories and personal histories opened an area of research that I’d love to explore. This could be through experimenting with different modes of interview with my subject, e.g. recording an interview simultaneously with a voice recorder and with notetaking, and reflecting upon how my own subjectivity (found in the notes) will have already “changed” my subject’s story. Another way to approach this idea of capturing memory is to test how my subject’s story might change tone/focus if she is presented with stock photographs of her experience (which, by the way, was the series of natural disasters occurring in Japan in 2011-12, and her family’s subsequent immigration) while I interview her. I could ask her, if she is comfortable, to reflect on how she feels media coverage may have changed her experience/memories, and how the events she has lived through may have changed the way she has thought about her life and history since. This research may begin to reveal an answer (one of many, I’m sure) to my questions, ‘Whose story is this? How is it true?’

I have been reflecting in these last few days on the question of intention. If someone writes a work with the intention to write the truth, does that make it nonfiction? What if no one believes it? On that note, I am reminded of a story (one of my few fiction pieces) I wrote two years ago about a woman who finds out she was an accidental pregnancy. Upon reading it my mother called me from across the country to reassure me I was ‘always wanted and loved’ – she worried that my story was true, regardless of my intention. How relevant is the intention of the writer, anyway? And what is my intention, in regards to my project? Do I wish to tell the truth? Do I wish to tell a captivating story that will be published and resonate with its readers? Can both these objectives be achieved within the same work? Does it matter if they can’t?

One phrase mentioned in our class that has remained with me, is ‘negotiated memoir’. Having gone home and Googled it, I was pleased to find that this is David Carlin’s own concept; writing someone else’s story is a negotiation of sorts – you are the writer, the ‘first person’, but essentially you are bound by the trust of the subject. (I may or may not have jumped right onboard this idea and read David’s paper, ‘After Barthes’, which discusses it further.) I guess my project will be a kind of ‘negotiated memoir’ too, and so I hope to further explore the implications of this in the weeks to come.

As we discussed, the area of nonfiction is undoubtedly problematic, but in a good way.