The Story of the Story

Tomorrow, I leave for Adelaide for the Story of the Story Conference to be held at Flinders University. The conference theme centres around the ethics of life writing.

I have been reading Margaretta Jolly’s book, The Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism, in preparation. Jolly is taking a master class at the end of the conference where we will discuss issues relevant to the ethics of life writing.

I have a great deal of trouble with the issue of ethics and life writing. I see from my reading that if we life writers are to take our work seriously then we must be more than careful about what we publish. We must be vigilant.

From what she writes, Margaretta Jolly went to great pains to get permission from all the people whose letters she had sought to publish even as the letters were found in many instances in university archives and the like. Many were in effect already in the public domain.

This has to do with the issue of freedom of speech versus the individual’s right to privacy. Because we are relational creatures whenever we write our own story inevitably we involve aspects that touch on the lives of others.

The ethics of life writing, as I understand it, involves an attempt to build a bridge across the divide between one’s right to speak in writing of one’s experience as honestly as possibly while at the same time recognising the rights of others, whose presence is included in the writer’s story, the other’s right to privacy.

Even as I write about this here, I fell vexed. It is hard for me to write now without feeling hot under the collar. Is there some emphasis on political correctness that I must tackle?

I get mixed messages. One of my supervisors suggests I write it all. I should be like Janet Malcolm, who writes in detail about what people do and say. Though to be sure, Malcolm’s had her share of trouble. She uses transcripts of interviews and the like. I’m not talking about interviews and transcripts by and large. I’m talking about having the freedom to write thoughtfully about my experience from my own perspective without feeling the need to ask people who might feature in my writing whether I have their permission to publish it or not.

Several years ago I wrote an essay about my analytic experience. The essay was published in the ‘Shrinks’ edition of Meanjin. I was happy with my essay. I felt it offered a good enough version of my good enough experience in my analysis. I stress it was a good experience.

My analyst thought differently about my essay, however. She believed that I had violated her privacy. Even though I was writing about my experience in analysis, her presence in the essay is central. So I disguised her to some extent. I changed certain identifying features and I gave her a pseudonym.

I suspect she has not forgiven me for it. At the time she was angry and I decided that I should avoid any further contact with her, but later I met her at a conference and she seemed to have calmed down.

Since then I find she has published writing about me, in a much disguised form, to the point that I have become a man, with no other identifying features. I would probably be one of the few people to read her essay who is able to identify myself. Though my husband also recognised the sections in the essay that describe me.

I’m not troubled by this myself. I do not mind that my analyst has written in some detail about the way I once thought during the course of my analysis: namely, ‘that I turned against the church with venom when I went to university…and found a belief in psychoanalysis as saviour’.

I have written about this myself, the degree to which I imagined that by giving up Catholicism for Psychoanalysis I had entered a better world and that my world was then a better world than that of those misguided people who still preferred religion.

I do not think the same way now and perhaps for this reason I consider the person whom my analyst describes as someone of the past, not me now and therefore not someone I need be ashamed of.

Nevertheless there is a view in contemporary psychoanalytic thinking that if an analyst/therapist were to write about a patient, how ever well described, then they should first seek that person’s permission.

In Freud’s day people did not bother to get permission, but we’ve moved further along the track now and recognise the difficulties inherent in the appropriation of someone else’s story for our own purposes. Think of Thomas Couser’s work. He writes about ‘vulnerable subjects’, those who cannot speak for themselves, including our own children, the disabled, and the disenfranchised about whom others might write.

Appropriating someone else’s story for our own ends may well be unethical and yet in some ways it’s what we often do when we write. And it’s what I find so troubling. Where’s the dividing line?

More recently I have encountered a drama within my professional association. I’m toey about writing any details here. See how paranoid I have become. I, who value openness, have become wary of ‘self-disclosure’, because of what others might make of it. So now I must be careful. Nevertheless, this issue of self-disclosure will be the basis of my talk at the conference in Adelaide.

I don’t know about you, but I’m of the view that when things are written down they take on a certain ‘unreal’ quality. They become something else. I try to write as honestly about my experience as I can, except when I am writing fiction, and I don’t do much of that these days. I do not enjoy the fictional process as much as I enjoy the process of letting ideas and words form in my mind and then tumble out onto the page. Inevitably, for me at least, these words tend to be autobiographical. And yet at the same time, once these words are down on the page they become somewhat artificial simply through the process of construction, and I would not want ever to be held to them as gospel truth, not that I believe there is any such thing.

It’s weird, words on the page have a substance and solidity that spoken words lack and yet the words on a page also have the fluidity that each individual reader brings to them.

I remember the writer, Elizabeth Jolley, once talked about her experience of having her fiction read. She described how one day a woman in her audience asked Jolley about the lesbian references in Mr Peabody’s Inheritance. I think this was the book. Elizabeth Jolley asked whether they talking about the same book?
‘No,’ the woman replied. ‘There’s a scene in the book where you describe rumpled sheets on a bed. Clearly this refers to a sexual encounter between two women.’

This had not been Jolly’s intention. Never mind. Who cares these days about authorial intention. One reader read a new image behind Jolley’s words and this indeed is what happened for her, the reader, regardless of what Jolley thought she had written.

After writers have written their readers come in with their own experiences and interpretive devices. It is as if the readers then re-write the text on the page in their minds to their own satisfaction and a new construction, several new constructions emerge. I call it subjectivity.

We all do it. Everyone knows this and yet there is still pressure as a non-fiction writer somehow to provide a clear cut and factual account of events. Now, if we are to take on board the extremes of ethics in life writing, we need to get permission from many others to put our words out.

How much does this requirement then strangle the writing? I ask you.

2 thoughts on “The Story of the Story”

  1. I've just started a book by Amos Oz which describes the workings of an author's mind. What is described is different to what I go through, more pronounced, but I can certainly relate to what he's writing about, the fact that everything he experiences gets tested out as potential fiction, indeed it becomes fiction and starts to incorporate things from his past. But that is the way it is. As I wrote in a novel once: "Writers don't have lives, they have ongoing research."

    Any member of my family reading my books will instantly recognise snippets from my past and from the pasts of people I know but they are so mixed up that no one else could stop and say, "Ah ha! This is a bit of biography here, this is. Gotcha!" To take a musical analogy I regard what I do as sampling and all writers do it. It's nothing to feel guilty about. What we, and our family members need to realise, as you say is that the reader contributes a significant amount to his or her final interpretation of the work and no two will be the same. No matter how much effort we put into our writing we cannot anticipate the needs, wants, thoughts and opinions of every potential reader.

    When does sampling become plagiarising? That's a hard one to define but I expect it's all to do with quantity and context. In my first novel I wrote this:

    Jonathan was lost. He was lost in thought but he was lost in other ways too. Up until the morning before, his life—his whole universe—had revolved undisturbed, like a little gyroscope. He’d had one when he was young, when he was four, to be specific. In the hospital, when he’d had meningitis (the bad kind) his parents weren’t allowed to visit him and all the nursing staff wore white masks all the time but, for some reason, he never found them menacing. His father had it brought in. It really was too much for him—it wasn’t a toy—and the nurses had to make it go. Somehow, to their credit, there always seemed to be someone available for this task. One in particular (actually the matron), when he cried at bedtime, would sit on the side of the bed and let him nuzzle against her. All he could remember was how clean and soft she felt despite the starched uniform.

    Now it's true I had meningitis when I was a kid. I think I might have been three and not four and it was the bad kind – three years later my brother contracted the not-so-bad kind – but it wasn't a gyroscope my dad bought me, it was a clown that balanced on a rope. It was years later I got the gyroscope. The nurse is a pure invention. All I remember is that there were nurses with masks on and I got told off for wandering into the corridor and talking to another boy who was also in isolation.

    This is fiction though. I use locations I've been but change them to suit. The pond in the park in The More Things Change wasn't kidney-shaped but I needed it to be and so that's what it became. There must be a temptation though to incorporate chunks of people's lives into our writing. There I can see people rightly objecting.

    The ethical issue here is all to do with motive. Why are we using this bit of real life experience? Could we be accused of exploitation? The whole point to being a writer is that we invent. Our source material may well be real life but that's it. I object for example to artists who have assistants who do all the grunt work for them. That really bugs me. I expect my artist to be an artist and not a designer. I recall one fellow who sent the raw materials to a museum with instructions on how to assemble; he never touched the thing! I would hate to have the finger pointed at me and be accused of not writing my own books.

    Some people are flattered though when they find themselves immortalised in a work of fiction. I took a conversation I had with my daughter about her moving out, fictionalised it and presented it to her and she was overjoyed. It was her, but it was not her. She could live with that.

  2. Thanks, Jim.
    Your responses are so generous. To me they read more like posts than comments. There's no need for a distinction here I suppose, but the convention seems to be the shorter the better. Though that applies to the internet across the board.

    I'm delighted with length, when people have something to say – witness my blog. However much others may or may not be willing to read.

    My first thought in response to this your latest comment, Jim, beyond what I've already written above is that you are a fiction writer and therefore one of the fortunate ones.

    Although people you know will look for signs of themselves in your writing, you can always claim the subterfuge of fiction.

    Nonfiction writers can't.

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