Practice Autobiography

To Jim from The Truth about Lies, to prove that I can sometimes at least try to fictionalise the truth.

I wrote the following piece as far back as fifteen years ago and I have polished it again and again till I fear it has lost most of its shine.

I should not say this but such is the editing work that goes on behind the scenes, like an orchestra practising for the big event.

The audience does not want to hear the mistakes and disharmony of these practice attempts; the audience wants to hear and see only the finished product. Though that is not entirely true.

These days audiences are also interested in process, at least many in the blogosphere are interested in process, because the blogosphere has become one big practice area for all sorts of creative endeavours. It is like one long writing workshop, a painting class, a photography lesson, in which people share their productions, their best, and sometimes their worst efforts, and discuss them.

With these thoughts in mind I dare to post a scrap of autobiography written largely from almost imperceptible memories and heavy doses of imagination. Does it hold any emotional resonance? I wonder.

The Dynamics of Liquids: Blood

I woke in the night to the sound of my mother moaning. A sad, choking sound, as if she were calling for comfort but at the same time stifling her need. It was dark in my room. A dog somewhere outside barked and the magpies began their morning warble.

I slid my feet over the edge of my bed and shivered as they hit the cold linoleum with a thud. The light broke up in blocks of gold along the darkness of the corridor as I crept close to my parent’s bedroom door and listened. My father would be angry if he saw me.

‘Momma, Momma,’ I said, and peered through the crack. She sat on the edge of her bed, gripping the sides of her dressing gown together. At the sound of my voice, she stopped and stared out towards the hallway, her eyes ringed with shadow and her face the bleached white of the stones that lined the creek bed near our house. She yanked at the bedspread and tried to cover herself with the top sheet.

Ga maar terug naar bed, schat. Ik ben okay. Okay? Her voice trembled and through the crack in the door I could see the strain on her face.

I dawdled back to bed and as I slid under the blankets, my little sister, who was asleep in the cot against the wall, opened her eyes, stared at the ceiling, and then fell back to sleep. I pulled the blankets up to my chin and squeezed my eyes closed. Maybe then, I thought, maybe, then I could keep out the pictures running through my head, pictures in red, red blood on sheets and my father standing above the bed looking down at my mother.

That morning when my little sister woke crying in her cot, my mother did not come. My father came instead and took her to their room. He did not notice me. I pretended to be asleep. My big sister came a few minutes later to get me up. She was already dressed for school.

‘You better be good this morning. Momma’s sick.’
Inside the kitchen, two of my brothers, the little ones, sat at the table along the bench. I slid in to join them. The two big boys had already left for school. Their empty bowls were smeared with traces of dried up porridge.

‘I don’t want any,’ my youngest brother said as our sister put a full bowl in front of him. He was about to protest when my father walked in. I could hear the soft tick tock of the clock on the wall. My father walked the length of the kitchen out through the back door. His shoulders stooped over his long arms in which he carried the remains of a towel rolled over itself. It was stained red. He walked across to the sink; pushed aside the dishes piled there and crossed himself,
‘In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’

When he had finished, my father collected the towel and walked out through the back door. It slammed shut behind him.
‘What’s he doing?’ I asked.
‘He’s baptising the baby.’ My sister stood over the stove, the wooden spoon in her hand ready to ladle out the next bowlful from the saucepan. Strands of porridge had spilt over its edge and turned black at the bottom where the pan met the flame. It gave off a burnt smell.

‘Momma had a baby last night. It wasn’t ready to be born. It wasn’t big enough.’ For a seven-year-old, my sister knew a lot. ‘Father told me all about it. And now he’s gone to the back yard to bury it.’ She paused looking at us as if testing our reaction.

‘Father was too late, so the baby will go to Limbo. You have to be baptised before you die if you want to go to Heaven.’

‘What’s Limbo?’ I asked. My sister had just spooned out my bowl of porridge and put it in front of me. The steam made my eyes water.

‘Limbo is where babies go when they aren’t baptised. And because it’s not their fault they didn’t get baptised, God made limbo. And it’s as good as heaven. You get to eat whatever you like, whenever you like. And you don’t have to do any work or anything and you can play all day. But the trouble is, in limbo you don’t get to see God. In Heaven He’s around all the time, but not in limbo. In limbo you can have a good time but you’re on your own.’

Through the kitchen window, we watched our father force the heavy spade into the ground with the full force of his boot. He dug up clumps of dirt, which he threw in a mountain beside him. The soil soon changed colour from the dark brown of the surface to the khaki yellow of the clay beneath. He was intent on his digging, and brushed away flies with the back of his hand. He dug a deep hole. Our goat, Hettie who was tied to a eucalypt at the far end of the yard dragged on her rope and managed to reach the edge of the hole. My father waved her off with his spade. Hettie tottered away. Even she knew to keep a distance from my father.

It was hot the day our mother lost her baby. What began as a drip became a flood. Drips of old, brown blood that later gave way to new blood, fresh and flooding. All day long, she felt the outward flow of a life that had only just begun. Like a penny doll in its little cradle, she said. Twelve weeks into the world and it was gone.

Why I write autobiography.

I read a short piece in the New Yorker review of books yesterday in which Janet Malcolm talks about the difficulties of writing her own autobiography. How hard it is to keep out the excess detail that would most likely be of interest to the auto biographer only.

It is easier for a journalist or biographer, she writes. The distance and objectivity required enables the writer to pick out the salient pieces, the things in the life story that will keep the reader interested, and will keep the story rolling along.

When you write your own story you are far more likely to get stuck in the mire of details from your life, details that become tedious and irrelevant to your reader, however riveting they might seem to you.

The difficulties of writing autobiography multiply.

To begin with there is the business of being bound to ‘write the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. An impossible task, given there is no such thing as absolute truth, only multiple variations of it, and multiple perspectives.

The literature abounds these days with the discounted evidence of people who claimed they were telling the truth of their stories, when the facts of history disproved their claims. They may have written a good story but they betrayed their readership by claiming it to be true, when it was not.

Beyond writing the truth, autobiographers are also obliged to focus on their own lives. And given that it is impossible to write about yourself without including details of other people’s lives, then autobiographers must consider disguising those others to such an extent that they cannot be identified. To disguise your fellow travelers in life is to begin to write fiction.

I once wanted to write about my siblings from the perspective of the lives of the saints after whom they were each named. To write in this way would demand that I use their first names. I could not therefore write about them, though I was safe enough to write about my own patron saint, Elisabeth of Hungary. I would tell you the story here, but I digress.

So now we arrive at the first catch twenty two: write the truth but keep bits of it hidden, particularly the identities of those who wish to remain concealed. To establish the identities of those who might wish to remain concealed is to alert them to the possibility that you might write about them. This opens up Pandora’s Box.

If you do a run around among your siblings, parents, friends and close others about how they might feel were details of your memories of your life together included, you are likely to fall into thorny bushes. And, as Drusilla Modjeska once wrote to me, there are those whom you expect to object who will not, and those whom you imagine to be in support, who will be furious. You cannot predict.

I once wrote a series of letters to my nine siblings suggesting that we cooperate in the writing of a book. We could each write a chapter on what it was like growing up in our ‘troubled’ family. The book never eventuated. We could not cooperate. Besides, I am a middle child, sixth in line. How could the editorial role fall to me, someone in the lower echelons of family chronology, and a girl to boot? How could I be permitted to take on such a task? How could I be deemed the arbiter of what gets included?

The advantage for a woman of my generation, who is more likely to have changed her name in marriage, is that the details of her family name are obscured and therefore less likely to become an issue in the disclosure stakes.

Most teachers of writing will tell you just to get on and write it first, worry about how you publish later.

The joys and dangers of blogging are that less of this process needs to take place. It is rather like going to a bakery where the bread is fresh out of the oven, rather than going to the supermarket where the bread has been standing around for hours going through the process of being sliced, bagged, labeled and transported to supermarket destinations near and far way. The latter bread tastes more predictable and bland but it is safer perhaps, albeit more doctored, than the stuff fresh out of the baker’s tray.

Which is another rule of successful autobiography: the rule of keeping it vital, which as Janet Malcolm points out, involves a degree of exclusion and a level of fictionalising that clashes with the first rule of ‘telling the truth’.

The next accusation to be leveled at the autobiographer involves that of narcissism. What makes you think your life is so interesting that anyone else would want to read about it? Who do you think you are?

You do not hear such arguments leveled against artists who paint their self-portraits regularly, who examine the intricacies of their form and with flourish. These self-portraits are rarely considered narcissistic, at least not as far as I have heard. Artists can include a life long chronology of their self-portraiture and no one bats an eyelid, but loves to see the progress. No such indulgence is offered to the unwary autobiographer who repeats herself, whose self image changes over time, and who is inconsistent in her self appraisals and perspectives of others.

It is one thing to write about the past, especially the far distant past, ten years ago and more. There is a certain sense of completion to events that happened then. We have had time to think about these experiences, to reflect on them and every time we do, they change a little.

Memory is like that. Every time we remember an event we reformulate it. We tweak it at the edges. We offer it more internal and logical sense than it might have had at the time.

As Timothy Garton Ash writes memory is like a re-write able CD, each new version replaces the last. And we all know that memory is unreliable and prone to distortion.

When we write about the present the task is even harder. Our memory for recent events is likely to be better. We can embellish the details more effectively. We can remember more precisely the exact curve in the teacup and the way her hair curls on top, but the experience is all too close. It feels raw. It has little of that sense of completeness that comes out of our continual revisions – both conscious and unconscious – and therefore it is prone to exaggeration and distortion.

Besides the people who participated in the recent events described are far more likely to be around at the same time and their memories of the event are also fresher. They might have a different view and disagree with yours, or they might not yet be ready to reflect on the experience.

So it was for me when I wrote about my daughter’s wedding too soon after the event and posted it on my blog. She had not realised that I had felt so hassled on the morning of the day. Why hadn’t I talked to her about it? she asked. Why had I chosen to write about it on my blog? Why had I included details that might identify her?

My blog is too public. I can be too readily identified. I should conceal my identity and not let anyone else in the blogosphere know who I am in real life.

‘The people who blog are not all who they say they are,’ another daughter tells me. ‘You can’t talk about those people in blogdom as real, because there is every chance they are not.’

I am torn. What would it be like, I wonder, to write under a veil of anonymity? To write under a pseudonym? To write as though my name were not my name. To write as though I were someone else.

I have not yet been able to do this effectively. I have tried to write fiction. I have tried to write about events that come from the well of my imagination, but they are always events that have been part of my experience. I might give over the events to various made up characters, but they too come from my experience.

I cannot write into the complete unknown, but I admire those whose imaginations are so robust that they can.

I am stuck with the so called ‘reality’ of my world, its past and its present. I feel handicapped by this and yet I cannot write about any other world or place and time. Only the world I know. When I imagine other worlds, invariably I remember them through the lens of my own experience.

I do not write the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, only variations on it. I write from my experience but the events I describe are based on memories of times gone by, even if they only happened yesterday, and in so doing I embellish these events, I reconstruct them.

I do not lie, but it is not the absolute truth and my perspective can vary depending on from which part of me I write. For I am as multiple in my perspectives as are those other participants in the same events.

Now I will tell you why I refuse to travel incognito, even on this blog where my adult children warn me I should be more careful. I should conceal my identity; I should hide the ‘truth’ of myself.

I grew up in a family in which we were told to ‘do as if nothing is wrong’; ‘keep it to yourselves’; ‘don’t let the neighbours know’; ‘hide’.

I write to escape these injunctions.

I write to reorder and thereby to create some illusion of control, to redress wrongs, to turn my helplessness into strength, to expose the wrong doers in my life, including my own wrong doings and to offer another perspective, one that can be reworked again and again into another version of the same events by other writers and participants to come.

Through my writing I can both hide and reveal.