Thursday, September 29, 2005

Life writing, a question and a memory for you, dear reader

Memoirs are big on the publishing lists. Read this article to see my point.

'Of the 50 or so books entered [into the National Biography Award], nearly 40 were autobiography. As one of the judges, Edmund Campion, says "the overall impression is that there is a floodtide of autobiography being written in Australia today".'

I wonder why we read these stories about other peoples lives with such greediness? And what makes a good memoir?

I've been reading Lin Cunxin's Mao's Last Dancer, Gaylene Perry's Midnight Water and Arnold Zable Scraps of Heaven. Last year I read Running with Scissors and Dry by Augusten Burroughs morbidly fascinated by just a) how weird a life could become with a poet mother (sorry, kids!) and b) the childhood's aftermath.

What did I learn from these books? Or isn't that the point?

At least one I read simply because I'd met the person involved - it wasn't the writing that held me, so much as the public journey into the private self. This was the least interesting reading experience and I asked myself why. In the end, I think it was because this book taught me the least - about writing, about experience or about different lives. Perhaps the lives were too familiar to me, even though the experiences were different.

This whole field of writing is now called Life Writing - and is taught in post-secondary instititutions. Years ago I used to teach journal writing at Melbourne's CAE. It was a course I loved teaching as I had kept a journal myself from the age of about eighteen and still cart most of these around with me. I am also an avid journal reader - I began with Boswell. I read Boswell, in fact, before I understood his sexual shorthand - all that unsheathing of swords in the back alleys made London sound terribly dangerous. Nor could I understand why he sometimes had it sheathed for protection - protection against what? I had to ask my mother. (Sorry, mother, but you did give me Boswell to begin with!)

Some years on I discovered Anais Nin and became a devotee - for about five volumes of her prolific journals. Around Volume Six, I think, I became disenchanted and more so when I read Deidre Blair's biography.

Life writing is the kind we can all do - we know our own stories - or do we? What can we find out about ourselves and our stories by delving deep into the past? That's the question I'm asking myself over the next few months and the one I challenge any interested writing-readers to ask themselves.

Here is your first writing exercise:

Life-Writing Exercises

1. Create a time-line for set periods of your life – try dividing your life into portions that make sense to you, divided, perhaps by birthdays, events, schools or addresses.

So, for example, my time-line would be:
1 – 9 years old – life as a family (my father died when I was nine). I would further divide this between addresses:
Umina Carlton Adina Street Perth Street
1 – 2 years old 3 – 5 years old 5 – 7 years old 7 – 9 onwards

Write a description of the earliest room you remember and then pull back the camera, as it were, and write as much as you can remember about the house. Then pull back from the house and try to remember your neighbourhood. If, like me, you have lived in a number of residences in your first time-line, do this with each. Consult photographs or ask family members for clarification, but begin each piece of writing with only what you remember. It is amazing just how much you can remember when you start to write it down.

Check here again for an example of what I remembered! See you in a couple of days.

Knitting news? Pi Shawl, strange little jacket featuring drop stitch and Colinette yarn in my new palette of greens.


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