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.

Received with blank faces.

Week Eight has consisted of applying for corporate jobs, reading beautiful lyric essays and writing ugly lyric essays of my own.

Lia Purpura’s essay collection On Looking arrived in the mail this week, and I’ve dropped the remains of Marieke Hardy and You to read it. Some of the essays are a little too American for me to understand them (I am not being flippant there — I mean the nature and animals described are so distant from my experiences that I can’t quite work out her inferences), but for the most part I loved the spaces between words. The way her essays lie on the page in fragments and invite me as the reader to discover the hidden connections. In particular, the essay ‘On Aesthetics’ stuck with me — fragments of motherhood experiences, with small recollections from her own early childhood. These parallel timelines — equally as intense — are given meaning by the narrator’s recollection of a teenage mother’s experience: sitting with her child on the verandah of their house, and seeing a small red dot land on the baby’s forehead. A dot that come from a gun focusing on a target. It is a group of men, focusing a laser on the child from the window of a car. As the mother jumps to her feet, the red dot floats along the line of her breasts, and the men laugh. What does this scene mean? Purpura invites us to speculate.

Having read Purpura’s essays I was driven to try to construct my own fragmented essays. I played with parallel time, mirroring images, implicit connections. Most of my experiments failed, at this stage, and I’m a little disappointed in myself. I read a brief essay aloud yesterday in class and it was received with blank faces and hardly any feedback. While I didn’t like the essay myself — I thought the jumps in time were confusing and the passages too dense with information — I really don’t like to bore/confuse an audience. I didn’t like the essay because I don’t think I knew what I was trying to say — my point was unclear and thus I was sharing personal experience for no overarching reason which would justify dedicating 500+ words to myself.

This weekend I plan to revisit my own work and try to work out what the hidden connections are in these lyric essays, before I present them as creative work.

Short (dark) memoir piece.

Memoir: ‘fact, fiction, memory, speculation, intervention, testimony, fabrication, retrieval’ Drusilla Modjeska

Unedited.

(Apologies, I’ve written this in second person.)

Working on subjectivity and fragmentation, and how they can reveal truth. Feedback would be lovely.

It is dark and you are walking.

It is dark and you are walking. Heavily because you are angry, but lightly too because the tears have eschewed your vision and the old man on his porch down the road shouldn’t know you’re in the dark alone. Behind is the light from the kitchen, the clang of the gate, Coco’s pleas to come too. In the house your brother will be reading Encyclopaedia A-G, slower now that you are no longer a rival. Your mother will be telling your father that their daughter is selfish and inflexible. In the night, you see the numbers she repeated: 10, 8. 10, 8. 10, the number of your years, the number that suggests you can surrender the book to your 8-year-old brother if he so wishes to read it. Even if you were halfway down the page on ‘Butterflies’, deciding on your favourite wings. Even if he has read the whole lot a million times, and you have too. In the dark the number 10 appears in tree branches, the puddles on the asphalt. The number plates of passing cars. Perhaps someone should have stopped by now. You are a crying girl, stomping and creeping along the street, in her purple dressing gown, feet in runners 2 sizes too small because you refuse to play a sport. No one knows where you are.

In your room between the mattress and the springs is a picture of a yellow-haired girl (you) and a brown-haired boy kissing. Their arms are elongated, their hands hidden because you could never draw fingers. Your mother has found the picture, found the diaries — every one of them you wrote and slowly discarded — later might find the text messages, the site history. Your sister, now 6 years old and asleep in the room you share, will probably tell her about the time you stumbled home from work with twigs caught through your hair. But that will be years from this night. This night you walk to the park alone, hoping someone might stop their car, might see you, you don’t care what next. At school you’re warned that dangerous people offer lollies, but you never liked sugar and you aren’t afraid. Maybe someone will brake by the curb, ask your name, be brown-haired with beautiful hands and take you away from competitions over encyclopaedias and how old and young your years are.

In 10 years you will have walked far away from this town, ridden in fast cars, long forgotten about the wings of butterflies. One night you will fight with a lover (brown-haired, will bite his nails) and you will walk out of the door and into the night. You will walk along Bell Street in the northern city suburbs, heavily and lightly under the streetlights glaring into passing cars. They will keep driving. The road will melt into highway and the footpath will disappear. A bridge will reach through the darkness. The road trains will roar through the night. No one will know where you are.

Weaknesses, words.

After much listmaking and reading and general stressing out, I wrote  1000 words of a draft yesterday. Probably bad words, possibly fictional words — I haven’t been brave enough to re-read yet — but according to my boyfriend, it looked like I was vomiting onto the computer screen. Which is okay, I suppose. They did come from within.

In our research class last week with the Program Director, Adrian, we were asked to graph our own process of completing a project. What we love, what we dread, what we spend the majority of the time doing… and then our supervisors would be given these graphs, so they can learn and respond to our strengths and weaknesses. I learnt that most of my peers writing drafts, spend too much time planning, and hate bibliographies. But looking at my own graphs, I learnt that apparently the thing I like least is ‘printing’. In other words, what I learnt from my graph (and what may be gathered by my supervisor and peers) is that what I like least is revealing my weaknesses to other people I don’t know well. Printing is definitely not the task I like least on the list — but it is one where I can blame strange technology rather than my own abilities and efforts.

What I truly like least on that list — what stresses me out more than anything else — is actually the writing itself. I’m trying really hard this year to write without editing myself, to write great quantities in search of fragments of quality. But I’m fearful of my writing being unoriginal, uninteresting, too self-important that I will lose readers and supporters with each sentence. I still have diaries and stories I wrote from when I was a child, where I am the main character and so frigging self-righteous. That’s what I’m worried about, that’s what I edit out before I even type a letter. That the details I remember, the feelings I have toward things, aren’t relatable to other people and reveal some kind of idiosyncratic truths that are still childish and inconsequential.

But isn’t self-reflection unavoidable in the form of writing I have chosen? I suppose that’s another reason I am interested in personal nonfiction — finding an adult voice and words that are somewhat eclectic and worldly. No longer fearful of grades and parents and all the things I don’t know yet.

BOOKS READING

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers

Creative NonfictionIssue 47, Winter 2013. (I know, not really a book.)

You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person, ed. Kim Dana Kupperman

BOOKS COMPLETED

Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction, ed. Lee Gutkind

OTHER READINGS 

“All in the Family”, June Cross

“It’s All in the Past”, Michael Patrick MacDonald

“You’re History”, Patricia Hampl

“Memoir Matters”, Cheryl Register

“Where Falsehoods Dissolve: Memoir as History”, Carlos Eire

“Making Memory”, Samuel G. Freedman

The Real Through Line – Poetry Symposium

‘There are truths… the real (or Real) is not a given constant.’ Pi O

I spent most of today at the warm, insightful symposium The Real Through Line, presented by RMIT’s nonfictionLab and Monash’s Centre for Australian and Postcolonial Writing. While I don’t see my creative practice as “poetry”, I was interested in what the eleven speakers would have to say about the balance of language and content, and also the place of nonfiction within a larger field of literary form.

The three speakers who spoke to me most were Ann Vickery, Pi O and Jill Jones.

Ann Vickery presented a paper about Juliana Spahr’s work Well Then There Now, exploring the construction of a self, the different ways of belonging, and the ways we tend to depict intimacy. She talked about ‘gliding identity’, where the “here” and the “there” depend on where the writer is standing. From here, I started thinking about how the one experience will always be recounted differently by each person present — with a different structure, intention and linearity. I spoke to my sister (17) briefly this week about her memories of our family friend ten years ago, only to find that she has forgotten everything except the unspoken pressure on her to behave, to ‘be a good child’. She doesn’t remember what I remember, perhaps due to her age at the time, but also because she holds different values to me; different things are important to her. She remembers behaviour; I remember winning (and losing) boardgames. She is also less nostalgic than I, perhaps, because she hasn’t moved away from the place of these events? Who knows why?

Pi O’s paper claimed every kind of art/documentation was and is realism, and that if we claim that one kind is more real than another, we are claiming to have found a universal truth, which we of course can never find. He argued that ‘the notion that the more linear something is the more successful it is, is wrong’; words without a narrative, without temporality, are no less representative of the real than a scientific report. Humans don’t have the answers; Pi O declared that he loves the form of a human being, ‘because you can put anything and everything inside’. Pi O argued against nonfiction stories being judged by their ability to serve as a doctrine, preferring a system where individual stories are written for the individual’s sake, regardless of their reality and worldliness. Response from the audience: ‘But some things are more real than others!’

Jill Jones discussed several nonfiction projects, evaluating them on their ability to ‘negotiate’ with daily experience (‘whatever that is’) and the collective voice. Questions raised regarding experience: What is it? Are we it? Is experience the sum of what happens to us, or is it instead the way we act (or simply are) in the world? ‘We talk about experience as lived moments… What exactly is an “unlived” moment?’ Jones quoted a participant in one of the projects, Andrew Burke: ‘Everything about [my poem] happened, but I imagined the cop chase. Sometimes you have to imagine the real.’ Thinking about my own project — my project of remembering and documenting my memories — I wonder what “experience” is, that influences and makes up these memories. What did I learn from these memories? How did my actions and existence as a child and an adult influence these memories? Will I have to imagine in order to recall what “really” happened, so that a reader understands? Jones seemed to think so, her concluding words declaring the intangible truth is best conveyed ‘through opacity and paradox’.

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.