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 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’.

Exploring Un-Memories

I attended my first supervisory meeting yesterday with Francesca Rendle-Short, who is an Associate Professor at RMIT. She is the author of two books (a novel and a novel/memoir) and various papers. You can check out her work here. Anyway, we had our first meeting yesterday and I came away from it with a more tangible (and slightly changed) direction to my research. We discussed my desire to write the story of my subject, and Francesca suggested that exploring this desire, rather than simply doing the project and quashing my own thoughts about it for the sake of facts, might be a worthy project in itself and provide a sturdier, more ethical base on which to build the larger project of telling someone else’s story. She pointed out that if I really wanted to tell this story and have it published, it would be a project more than a year in the making, and the background aspect would be a valuable place to start.

I was initially resistant to this suggestion, wondering how it would be more ethical to start a project about someone else without asking them for their story? Upon reflection, though, it makes sense. The question I’d been asking myself was how could I tell this story truthfully. It would make sense to explore this question further and fully understand my own subjectivity before trying to apply it to circumstances involving ethical responsibilities.

SO, my slightly altered research question is something along the lines of:

In March 2011, there was an earthquake in Japan of magnitude 9.03, followed by a tsunami of 40 metres that travelled 10km inland, followed by the slow leak of a nuclear disaster. There was a consequent earthquake on social media documenting the events unfolding; a fragmented retelling. From the media’s silence in the aftermath, individual stories began to emerge from the rubble. Experiences, trauma. Due to a family connection to one particular survivor of this disaster who left for Japan ten years ago, I am interested in retelling this story of an earthquake. However, creative nonfiction is impossible to detach from subjectivity, fragmentation of truth and personal interest. My project will explore the implications (and ethics) of telling someone else’s story.

The idea is, in the context of my Honours project, I would explore my own subjectivity relating to the experiences of my subject and how they have formed the expectations and presumptions that I would take into our interview process and project together. Currently, I am caught in the state of not knowing. What are my memories of my subject, and what have I imagined in these past ten years of no communication? My project will form a memoir of sorts, in that it will be a collection of memories and the un-memories that come from silence and consequent projected images of someone I haven’t seen in the flesh since I was small. It will explore where our subjectivity comes from and how it can change our perceptions of other people. How our minds reassemble fragments of someone and the implications of this on the truth.