The corset and a draftsman’s square.

The second day of the year and I sit down to a tidy desk, a tidy room and a fresh spirit. I spent the best part of yesterday sorting books, filing papers and clearing out my writing room such that I can now think more clearly at the keyboard. I did not resolve to do this. I just did it knowing that were I to leave it any longer the weight of the mess would swallow me up and I could no longer think at all.

For me there is an optimal level of mess that is conducive to thinking; too much mess, or no mess at all and it seems nothing happens in my brain. In my tidying up I found a draftsman’s square, which I imagined belonged to my husband but had somehow found its way into my room, as things sometimes do. I brought it to him.

It turns out it once belonged to my father. In all likelihood he made it himself, my husband said. It is a tool that allows you to measure exact right angles and to be certain of the straightness of a line.

The draftsman’s square becomes a metaphor for me, a metaphor for structure. Structure, or rather a lack of it is one of my greatest handicaps. I blame my father for this. In that part of my mind that likes to order things, which is paradoxical given my abhorrence of too much structure, I imagine that the business of structuring is a masculine attitude of which I do not have enough. Were I to have a better grasp on structure I would not feel so daunted by the piles of paper, the thousands of words I have written thus far on my thesis topic, ‘life writing and the desire for revenge’. I would easily put them into order.

I try. I have tried and I will try again but it is so hard to find a structure that can contain the ideas without one spilling over into the other. The ideas are never neat and orderly, they are not discrete pieces of information and when I write about one idea, such as the nature of shame, it leads me on to think of trauma, and trauma leads me on to think of rage. I can define all these various emotions. I can offer examples, but soon they leak one into the other. I can put them all together in the same chapter, which I have done so far, but then the chapter gets longer and longer.

It does not surprise me that I have not yet managed a book. A series of essays yes, but an entire book with one chapter linked to the next requires structure.

My father’s draftsman’s square is made of a fine-grained wood, a reddish toned wood, and most likely oak. It is smooth to feel and stands erect in front of me like a lopsided crucifix. My father’s initials were JCS and my brothers sometimes called him JC for short. He was imperious and intelligent, a razor sharp intelligence but the alcohol soaked it up as did the trauma of war and migration, family shame that he tried to leave behind in Holland, nine children and more beside. He was not able to teach us about structure.

My father’s draftsman’s square will be my guide.

I once described a memoir on which I was working – though at the time when memoir writing was not fashionable, I called it a novel – as being like my mother’s corset, thick and bulging, held together with safety pins. This is a feminine perspective, though it is not so much feminine as a constraint on femininity.

I never wore corsets myself. By the time I came of age they were no longer in popular use. Corsets represent too much structure, too much held in, too much firmness and control.

I often wonder about the women who lived one hundred years ago, the women we see portrayed in films, the BBC period dramas into which I love sometimes to escape: those women who were their husband’s possessions, who owned next to nothing, who could not control a thing except through wile, cunning and manipulation. Those women who had a structure imposed upon them and had no choice in the matter.

Many years ago my oldest daughter gave a speech at a Rotary competition in which she who was then sixteen years old talked about the freedom she believed she had in life as a young woman of the 1990s to choose her own destiny, a career and/or children. She now has both, but she will tell you that it is not as easy as she once imagined. In those days the way was open to her, as long as she worked hard and fought for her rights.

My daughter did not win the competition. A young man who has since risen to extraordinary prominence here in Melbourne, a young man who at the age of 25 is the editor of a significant magazine called The Monthly won the competition. Or at least was one of the winners. It is strange that I should remember the evening so well.

The young man talked about film noir. I do not remember the details of his talk, nor of the films he discussed but I do remember him. He was all but fourteen years old and had a commanding presence, a wit and stature that belied his height and his years. My daughter’s talk was fine too but hers lacked humour and the adjudicator at this particular eisteddfod was looking, among other things, for humour.

There was another participant whom I also remember well. She stood to speak and after the first ten or so words she froze. She had rote learned her talk it seemed and anxiety had grabbed her by the throat and forced all memory of the words she once knew so well from her mind.

Never rote learn a speech, my daughters tell me. Always prepare it in your mind. Use a point system: make three points and speak around them. Prepare well. My daughters are good at structure. You would not know it from their sometimes-untidy bedrooms but you can see it when it comes to their written work.

You must plan ahead, my husband told them whenever they approached for help with an essay, plan ahead and write out your plan. I watched my oldest use sheets of butcher’s paper to plan out her structure for her honours thesis years ago.

A couple of years ago I tried to do something similar. I wrote up a plan of my ideas and the people who had written about these ideas like a type of racecourse that I might charge around, but like a racecourse, it became circular.

I pinned my plan to the side of my filing cabinet and there it sits. I do not refer to it. It has become an unused corset. I know in my subversive mind that for all I have learned about ways of structuring, the importance of planning and thinking ahead, I will not do this. I will not write a plan again. I will do as I have always done. I will launch into writing to see what comes up for me. It is the thrill of exploration into unknown territory that gives me the greatest pleasure.

One day soon I know I will need to drag these thoughts into some kind of order but for now I will write corset free.

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’.