Who Owns the Story

The other day as I sat on one of those high stools in the glassed off alcove in Mario’s coffee house talking to a friend about my crisis of confidence, I found myself yet again re-evaluating my thesis in my head.
‘Why do you bother looking at Helen Garner?’ my friend said. ‘She is not so self-reflexive as certain other Australian writers. Writers like…’
He hesitated, scanning his mind, ‘…like Drusilla Modjeska.’
Ping went my mind. Back to Modjeska.
‘But she lives in Sydney,’ I said, and my friend laughed.
‘You have to have access to her?’

I have asked myself this question many times over: why do I feel this need to mix the writer with the text?

Why can I not stand up like any self respecting critic and simply analyse the text? Why do I find it so unsatisfying, simply to pull apart someone else’s story on the page?
Why am I always trying to get myself inside the story, to get inside the story of the back-story by way of any connection I might form with the actual writer?

The writer and the text are not the same, I know that. But often times I find I am more interested in the writer, than in the text, and yet the text leads me to the writer.

Halfway up the Burke Road hill in Camberwell, just before the railway station there was once a bookshop known as The Little Book Room. It was unusual for its careful selection of books, as if the owners had handpicked each book with great and loving care. The shop had the feel of a personal library. It was like roaming through someone’s store of books in an overcrowded house. The books even lined the steps and at times appeared in what seemed like no particular order at all.

It was in this shop that I first came across Drusilla Modjeska’s, biography of her mother, Poppy. The cover drew me in, the sepia toned photo of a mother and her baby, the words transcribed from the text, Modjeska’s words, so familiar to me now, a mother urging her baby to look into the mirror.

‘There, see there. Look it’s you.’ That moment of recognition, between mother and baby, that moment of connection.

I bought the book and read it over the next weeks. The story and the writing gave me hope, the greatest hope of all that someday I too might be able to write like this.

Modjeska became my initial point of reference for my own attempts at writing. When my writing teacher in the novel writing class I joined in 1997 criticised my narrator as drowning the energy from my story, I listened only with one ear, one eye. I wanted too much to be like Modjeska. She could get away with it. Why ever could I not join her , imitate her style?

Now I recognise the need to find my own voice, even as it echoes back in my ears, tinny and self serving, with none of the gentle cadences and rhythms of Modjeska’s words, but I must trust myself, otherwise I will plunge back into that empty space of my childhood where I seemed able only to copy the greats.

Poppy’s story impacted on me, the thin veneer of criticism against Modjeska’s father who could not understand or show compassion towards his troubled and sensitive wife, Modjeska’s grandmother, China, who bore Poppy into the world, China who seemed so cold and unyielding.

I read Poppy with an eye to the words. Their meanings did not envelop me until later. I was so entranced by the sheer lyricism of Modjeska’s prose that initially I did not take in too much of the story. The childhood memories of Modjeska’s mother, her mother’s depression, all these images washed over me. I found I was more concerned with the narrator, than with the one whose biography she records.

In an essay about the process of writing Poppy, Modjeska writes: ‘To write as an act of remembrance, is to be like a lover, a perfect lover who can enter but not possess…’

I have been in the wars of late over issues to do with the business of ownership. Who owns the story? – the person who writes the story? the person written about? None of us or all of us?

I ask you.

Apple pie order

I had such a day yesterday, a doing-jobs-I’ve-put-off-for-weeks day and now I feel that blessed relief that comes of a nasty job well done. I feel virtuous. Even as my feet are cold and I should put on socks, I can ignore them better when I feel this way. Such feelings are short-lived. I cleaned the stacks of notes surrounding me in my writing room into orderly piles and filed them as needed. I sorted the articles I need for the two essays on which I am currently working, one on migration and the other, straddling two worlds, as autobiographer and psychotherapist.

I do not know how it happens. It sneaks up on me. I begin to work on something and the books and papers begin to collect around me, one on top of the other. Then they become interspersed with letters, magazines and any other correspondence that comes in over the period. After a while I cannot find anything and yet this mess making, as I call it, becomes an inevitable part of the process for me.

Recently in The Age I read an article about Jane Clifton and her writing space, which she loves in part because it is away from her home. She can work in silence and peace all day away from domestic demands and children, then at the end of the day she can tidy up her space and return in the morning knowing the room will be in ‘apple pie order’. Her words: apple pie order. Apple pie order lasts for me as long as an apple pie would. I forgive myself this. I suspect it is the way I am.

When I work on an essay, it’s the same. I begin in a mess. I make many false starts. I cobble together bits and pieces that seem relevant from writing already written, then I try to find some narrative thread to tie them all together. I use Gail Jones’s wonderful parataxis. She has given me permission to continue in this disorderly way. To bring together what appear to be discrete blocks of writing: things that resonate for me, as having some underlying connection, even if the connection is not obvious. Then over time I work on these pieces. I play around with them. I drag one chunk from down under and bring it closer to the beginning. I add new chunks. Then at some point when I sense I have completed a good enough first draft, even though I know it is far from ready, I send it to someone like my wonderful editing and writing friend Christina Houen in the west who will read the piece through and give me an honest appraisal, often at this stage a scathing appraisal where she will point out all the bits that do not work.

More often than not, Christina will urge me to trust my own judgment, to write more autobiographically and to dispense with at least half of the wonderful quotes from other writers that I have included in my first draft. I do this every time and Christina has the same response. I love the quotes I use. I have an ear for them but she is right, they are the voices of others and sometimes my first draft can read like a collage of other people’s ideas and my own voice gets drowned. At this stage I often feel desperate, hopeless. The essay has become an impossibility. But I heed Christina’s advice. I pare back and pluck out the excess to try again.

Grace Cossington Smith, one of the artists whom Drusilla Modjeska writes about in the biography Stravinsky’s Lunch did this with her painting.

‘A continual try’, she writes. ‘It’s true of painting, it’s true of writing and it’s true of life. The process of staying with that continual try can produce long low loops and sudden illuminations, which we see in retrospect as springing open and banging closed. But in the tug and pull of time, it is another day lived, another piece of board on the easel, another squeeze from the tube…’(p. 322).

All this trying can be messy: lots of false starts, lots of unwanted bits floating around the room in the form of my notebooks, other people’s texts. My computer desktop is littered with new readings. My husband is disgusted. He is an orderly worker; he needs to be. He’s a lawyer.

At a seminar on memory several weeks ago I tackled Jeffrey Olick on his desire for order. He had talked about wanting to establish a canon for memory studies, namely his need to list a series of basic texts with which anyone should familiarise themselves in order to become proficient in the area, beginning with Holbwachs, Durkheim and the like.

People in the audience, creative types who do not follow easy, straight trajectories, challenged him. Someone offered Ross Gibson as an example of an academic whose work is scholarly but would never reach Jeffery’s canon. Jeffery’s canon is only to include theorists, no case studies, he declares.
‘Ross’s work is not scholarship,’ says Jeffrey. ‘It is art certainly, but not science.’ No room for art within Jeffrey’s canon. Then the fight was on for young and old.

When it was my turn to speak I told Jeffrey about the essay writing mantra my lawyerly husband trots out, about the need to plan: Write in the first instance what you plan to say, then write it and finally write about what you have said. There you have it: simple, so simple so neat, so orderly and to my mind so boring. I told Jeffrey before writing an essay I never plan.
‘I would not want you to be my lawyer,’ Jeffrey said after I had tried to suggest that both methods have their place, both are valid, simply different ways of approaching our work. No Jeffrey could not agree. The creative exploratory work of the Ross Gibsons of this world is all very well. But real scholarship comes out of painstaking theoretical writing that covers the field. Maria Tumarkin, Jeffrey says, is doing a bit of both. Christ knows, I think most of us are doing a bit of both, but in Jeffery’s mind the only valid work is the abstract, distinct and theoretical.

I felt for him then. He was outnumbered by most of the audience. He, the esteemed visitor from America who had been hailed the guru of memory studies and came here as a guest of Swinburne’s Institute for Social Research had been reduced to rigidity. By the end it was as if people were challenging his offering so heartily that if he were more sensitive than he appeared to be I think he could have felt very hurt and troubled. But I suspect, given his proclivity for distance and abstraction, he has a thicker hide than most of the messy creative types, all of whom, myself included are far more insecure in our undertakings. We can never have the confidence of a canon.

Canons include and exclude. Although they purport not to be definitive, they become that way simply through the power of the list. A list becomes a measure of belonging. If your work, your book, your name is on the list, you belong. If it is not, you are an outsider and somehow the outsider is measured in such academic circles, as far as I can see, as a maverick, not kosher, not rigorous enough in their scholarship.

Scholarship, schmolarship. To me it’s all about reading as much as you can within and around an area and trying hard to think your way through the ideas, the stories from the past and present, trying to come up with your own measure of things.

In my writing I have found so many ideas repeated again and again and every time I read the same idea repeated in a different voice, by a different writer, the idea takes a slightly nuanced slant in a different direction that shifts and balances the weight of other ideas. But the basic ideas remain.

Here I remind myself of my analyst’s helpful comment years ago about the nature of theory. ‘Theory,’ she said, ‘is simply other people’s ideas.’ Other people’s ideas I would add now that have been validated and confirmed by others in authoritative positions from the academy. Not every one’s ideas can be offered the label of theory. Ideas also need time to percolate within the public psyche before they can be offered the status of the theoretical. But they are ideas nevertheless and the world is full of them, and rarely can if ever reach anything like a state ‘apple pie order’.