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.

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.

Hello, stranger.

Hello, stranger. I know. It’s been a while.

I’ve been trying to work out why I haven’t written for so long, and I’ve found the reason(s) to be a mixture of self-doubt and self-preservation. I’ve faced the blank page too many times in the past two months, freezing up at the white screen, wondering what the point is of what I’m writing. Analysing subjectivity, I reached the point about a month ago where I was analysing my own every word, trying to find the reasoning behind each of those words, the experiences that had led me to type that exact sequence of letters onto the page. I think I went a little crazy, analysing myself and then analysing that analysis and so on. And then it became too much for my computer, which crashed. (That’s not an excuse, but it was probably a side-effect of this neurotic journey my writing has taken since May.)

Aside from the overanalytics (word?), I’ve also been away because my memoir project has led me to deal with material — memories — that are unfiltered, uncensored and potentially hurtful to some readers of this blog. My research question continues to evolve, but at this point asks: in writing subjectivity as content rather than unintentional subtext, how can I transcend the paradox that is ‘writing the truth’? To answer this question I am writing down memories without editing. We tend to edit our memories for logic, propriety and consistency before we recount them to others, and I think this editing leads to the omission of the important details — those that indicate the fallibility of memories, the irrationality of emotions and the presumptions we make based on our personal experiences of the world. I think this is where our subjectivity lies and I think it should remain explicit or at least ‘clearly implicit’ in our stories. Sometimes what ‘makes sense’, whether it be linear or rational or provable, isn’t necessarily ‘most true’.

Sites of memory.

‘(I hope you will forgive me if I use the word “truth”. The moment I say “truth” I expect people to ask: “What is truth?” “Does truth exist?” Let us imagine that it exists. The word exists, therefore the feeling exists.)’

Helene Cixous

This week I’ve been looking at where the key terms I’m using in my research actually come from. This was prompted by the feedback I received r.e. my initial literature review, which I’d found myself a little lost in while writing. Perhaps because I was confused by the terms — their complexity but also the ground they cover.

What do I mean when I say ‘truth’? Would a word such as ‘veracity’ or ‘verissimilitude’ better identify what I am referring to?

What I mean when I say ‘subjectivity’? What am I implying here — self, selves, identity?

What do I mean when I say ‘memoir’ and ‘essay’? There are so many different forms and expectations of these that I am assuming when I write these words that they can be categorised, no?

I’ve been reading the essays collected in Truth in Nonfiction, edited by David Lazar. I found this source while I was reading past Honours exegeses to try to work out how I could structure my own. The essay collection features David Shields, Oliver Sacks and Vivian Gornick (among others) and provides a range of viewpoints on the concept of truth that can be found in writing. Interesting questions asked in the introduction by David Lazar:

‘Do we speak of truth as opposed to lying, or as a necessary conjunction?’

‘Truth is elusive, yet it may be necessary to our sense of memory and life narrative, to the forms we try to create literary art out of.’?

‘Is it “truth”, or truth, or Truth?’

Taking these ideas and then writing, I am drawn to the idea of truth as life narrative. This week for our nonfiction class we read a piece about memory — “Writing the Individual Back Into Collective Memory” — in which Susan A. Crane cites French philosopher, Maurice Halbwachs. Halbwachs claims that we can only recall memory within a social framework — be that family, religion, nation… In this way we have multiple pasts, each one dependent on the group it connects to. Our family memories exist within that framework and those connections, for example. My memories of childhood are connected to a country town and a nuclear family, and I am not called to remember them beyond this space. But then how does this past connect to who I am now, in another place with different people who didn’t share those experiences with me? I’ve noticed that I remember less of Warrnambool now that I have spent time and space away from that place — but things rush back when I return. Crane cites Pierre Nora, a French historian, who would call this a ‘site of memory’; in some way which isn’t really scientifically possible, my memories are stored in this site, and it is only there that I can retrieve them.

My own memoir practice has become a process of automatic writing, using “natural” connections my mind makes to the words I am writing to record sequences of recollections. Upon revisions, these sequences jump in time, place and even voice as I drift between different “selves”. This week, I’ve begun to move these fragments of memory into themed groups, based on the recurring themes and motifs I had found in my automatic writing. I’ve noticed I often mention the temperature and my tone tends to also reflect the temperature. This is part of my memories because I have Reynaud’s — my hands and feet lose circulation very quickly in the cold, which is rather painful and has led me to black out in the past. Through collecting all of the memories that refer to temperature (both literally and figuratively) I have been able to develop a personal essay that recalls multiple times and places but is strung together by a thematic thread.

Excerpt from work-in-progress:

Just lately, I’ve grown to welcome the cold. Between my fingers, through my hair, through the crack in my window in the early mornings, a whisper blown from somewhere far off. This is the same wind that blows waves into the shore, the same air breathed by a Samurai centuries ago. I jog towards the park, lift the frost from the grass with the lift of the soles of my sneakers, fingertips tingling, fighting to feel. For a moment I’ve forgotten the iciness of the blizzard up north, the darkness of the subway in Tokyo where my hands lost their grip on the railings and I fell hard onto a businessman’s briefcase, eyes shut. Now, I open my arms to the cold, gulping it in and I run faster, higher. The frost flares out behind me, melting into the past.

Positive blogpost, yay!

Rant.

I’ve been feeling a little lost in my research these past few days.

Reading text after text after text has made me lose sight of what my research question is, and also worry that it has perhaps already been answered by an entire body of work — whose answer I don’t really understand. Reading more of Patricia Hampl and Sven Birkerts, I am constantly thrown by their flippant mentions of subjectivity that of course is used as a device and not worth mentioning. I have tried to follow writers’ leads with how to use subjectivity, only to find myself digressing to moments in childhood that don’t quite relate and make sense to anyone including myself. I’m failing to write in the form of lyric essay, and upon forcing myself to type without stopping I find myself inventing and well, lying about what happened because the whole story is too long to explain. I’m also anxious about presenting anything in my next Nonfiction class after the reaction my writing received last week, and this is hindering me from writing anything challenging. I’m pretty upset with myself at the moment about all of these things, but at the same time trying to sort through them as best I can. I’m meeting with Adrian (Program Director) this week which I’m a little nervous about because I’ve had trouble articulating my direction lately, and meeting with Francesca next week — hoping to be in a happier place by then.

Rant over.

Today I’m working on getting some words on paper for my Nonfiction lab assignment. This is what the lyric essay had been intended for, but I’ve kind of given up on that form for the moment because I was losing confidence in my writing ability pretty quickly and that’s definitely not worth risking right now. So today I’ve been working on a memoir piece tentatively titled ‘Origins’, where I’ve tried to combine the origins of this project, based on what I know: 1. the origins of an earthquake based on my very small knowledge on the subject, 2. the origins of my relationship with Alison, 3. the origins of my relationship with Japan. I’m struggling a little with the linking part, but on the whole I’m feeling a little more positive about writing and research in general. Here’s a somewhat satirical excerpt (sorry, I’m in that kind of mood):

I became aware of the existence of Eastern countries when I was five, during my teacher’s attempt at a Japanese language class. Kon-ni-chi-wa, we chanted after her until the syllables engrained in our minds, and I swear we were shown drawings of dark figures balancing buckets on their heads. Having never left our twenty-five thousand white faces, a jetty and too many football clubs, I can’t blame her. When I was eight Sensei moved to town and took our classes, where we ate chocolate Pocky sticks and coloured in pictures of Pokemon. Japanese class was the best.

My mother, who I later realised has a teeny-weeny obsession with other cultures, signed us up to be a host family when the first wave of Japanese exchange students arrived. Takashi stayed with us the year I was ten, a sixteen-year-old basketballer who liked Britney Spears and barbecues. My sister Matilda (six) welcomed him with a drawing of a yellow stick figure smiling, while Henry (eight) cut out a Pikachu from a box of Corn Flakes. I don’t remember what I gave him, but I recall being puzzled by the idea of not being the oldest child anymore.

The school trip to Japan was at fourteen, by which time Sensei had stopped bribing us with sweets and most students had dropped the classes for PE. At home, we were hosting our fifth student and Mum was making sushi every time friends came over. Of the trip, I remember fireworks, a tuna factory and my hostfather’s pinched face when my best friend bled all over their couch.

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.