Writing Process Blog Tour

Before my mother died, Esther Helfgott invited me to join her on a writing process blog tour.

 Two others, Amanda Pearson and Kath Lockett have agreed to join me.

Here’s my response to the four questions, Esther raised.   Wade through if you will.

1. What are you working on?
At the moment I have two major
projects in my sights.  The first, a
book, I have been working on for the past twenty years.  Its first life came in the form of a memoir,
which formed the basis of my time in a novel writing class in the early
nineties.  In those days it was not the
thing to write memoir unless you were a person of some note and so I tried to
represent my writing as fiction. 
I never completed the initial
memoir but have plucked from it whole chunks that then fitted well into essays
I have written over the years in the fields of trauma writing, autobiography
and psychoanalysis.  The memoir shifted
then into a hybrid form: part essay, part memoir with an academic edge when I began
my PhD on the topic, ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’. 
Despite my PhD, I have neve
considered myself an academic.  I want my
writing to be accessible beyond the narrow confines of academia and so after I
finished my thesis I began this second version of my book, which contrasts my
life as a child with an experience I had within the psychoanalytic institute in
Melbourne where I once undertook training. 
After I completed this memoir I began the process of getting it published.  But after five rejections from mainstream
publishers I have decided to seek further editorial help and advice.  Mary Cunnane has read the book and made
suggestions about further improving it.
So this is my current aim to get
this book as good as I can and eventually published. 
My second project, which I began in
June when I was at Varuna on a weeklong writing retreat, is an essay that
explores the nature of anorexia.  This
work is still percolating in my mind.  I
have memoir sections that I might well include but I am also reading more
deeply through the analytical literature to add to my theoretical understanding
of this state of mind and body, the state we call anorexia.
2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I think of my work as a hybrid form.  It is not simply memoir, but incorporates
elements of the essay form, in a struggle to sort out issues that trouble me
and of the theoretical, but only with a lower case ‘t’.  I’m not interested in highbrow academia but I
am interested in difficult ideas about what makes us tick. 
3. Why do you write what you do?
I write into my internal world when
I find myself struggling to make sense of events both from the past and present.  Things that niggle at me: experiences and
people who stick in my head and imagination and demand some sort of fleshing
out.  I write because it helps me to
escape the confines of emotional experiences that can be too much for me.
As soon as I begin to shape
experience onto the page it loses some of its sting.  It’s as if the very effort of taking
something from my mind, my memory and imagination shifts the event into
something new.  Maybe it’s akin to what
I’ve heard fiction writers describe as their ability to create whole new worlds
and characters who will not so much bend to their will – as much of this is an
unconscious process – but characters and events that come alive only through
the writing process with this one writer. 
I write to get some sense of power
over my life, a life in which I can sometimes feel strangely powerless, as a
woman, as a mother, as a wife and as a therapist.  All these roles lend a certain authority to a
person but they also constrain.  The
writing allows me to transcend some of the boundaries of my day-to-day
life.  To play around with my identity
even as I seek always to stick to the truth as best I can – whatever the truth
Even as I try at all times to be
authentic there is something of the fictional about the process of writing
non-fiction for me that becomes the thrill. 
Whenever I put words down on a page I’m struck by how many choices I can
make in how I position myself in relation to this writing.  I can emphasize the people involved, the
setting or my own internal state. 
Whatever I decide to emphasize then affects how a reader might interpret
my writing. 
The element of the reader and the
space between the writing and the reading also adds an unpredictable dimension,
including an element of unpredictability, both thrilling and terrifying. What
will my reader make of what I have written? 
What sense will readers make of the story I tell? 
These things matter to me but they
are not primary.  In the first place, I
write for myself.  For the pleasure of
putting words and spaces onto a page and creating something new for myself and maybe
for others to read that will add to the volume of imaginative prompts
available. This to me is what makes a writing life worth living.  It adds to the colour of my world.  It bursts open the constraints of the day to
day.  That’s why I write what I write.
How does your writing process work?
I write Freefall following in the
steps of the writer Barbara Turner Vesselago
I write into my mind.  I start
without any preconceived ideas of where I might go.  I see what comes up for me.  I rarely if ever plan.  Planning for me is a no-no.  I prefer to go into the unexpected.  I prefer to go into places when I have no
idea of where I might end up.  I might
tell myself that during the week I fiddle with a question that’s niggling at me
or a scene that I want to explore, but that’s the extent of my planning.
It makes for unwieldy writing and a
need for much shaping and shifting after the event, but initially I need to
write without the so-called parachute.  I
need to Freefall.  I try to write at
least on weekends first thing in the morning during the working weeks.  On holidays, I try to write every day.  It is frustrating because I would enjoy more time
to write but I have acclimatised to this life of catching words in the nooks and
crannies and it seems to suit my messy nature. 
I write reams and reams of words,
images, ideas and thoughts and then if for example I’m working on an essay, I try
to pull these disparate pieces together. 
I try to find a beginning and I build on that beginning, dipping back inside
my compost bin of words until the essay begins to take shape.  It’s a long and slow process but it gives me
pleasure.  I like to juxtapose disparate
ideas together.  To see how these ideas
might connect.  Parataxis they call
it.  Chunks of information or ideas can
sit together in uncomfortable union.  The
gap of white space on the page between each chunk becomes the bridge that readers
use to make connections over different themes. 
I am a messy writer.  I create chaos in the first instance and refuse
structuring until late in the piece.  I
have the greatest difficulty with structure because I prefer the image of the moment,
which is why I might require more of my readers than some are prepared to
give.  I might put too many disparate
things together but other times they work. 

Not for me cold tea. I much prefer it hot.

I’m out of whack.  This morning when I
started to make my usual cup of tea I found myself making coffee instead – the
whole coffee shebang, complete with frothy milk.  I usually drink coffee
later in the day and start off my waking hours with Earl Grey tea. 
Before I realised I was making coffee instead
of tea, I had been lost in my thoughts, which is easy to do on a Sunday morning
early before any one else is up, including my husband who likes to leave his
tea until it gets cold.  Not for me, cold tea, I much prefer it
Life is feeling too hot at the moment and my
head is full.  I wondered as I fiddled with water from the kettle and milk
from the fridge, why I did not know the reason behind one of my daughters being
up early this morning well before me.  Unheard of on a Sunday
morning.  Perhaps she had told me.  And that’s the thing, I can’t
I can’t remember either what was the question
that Helen Garner asked at a conference yesterday, not a writing conference,
mind you, but the famous Freud conference, one in which psychoanalytic ideas
get thrown around. 
I have gone every year for the last several
years to the Freud conference and each time it is a thrilling event, for me at
least, not only the topics discussed, but the audience interaction.  The
audience interaction is the most amazing of all.  It is one of those
conferences where half at least of the audience of around two hundred people
know one another, a small conference by some people’s standards but by the
standards of the psychoanalytic community in Melbourne it is huge. 
I expect Helen Garner was there for ideas that
might filter into her book on the Farquharson case.  The Farquharson
affair is the sad story of a man who killed his three sons on Fathers day
ostensibly as an act of revenge against his estranged wife. He pleaded
innocent, saying that he had lost control of his car through a coughing fit as
he approached the water into which he drove with his sons.  He managed to
free himself, but not the sons.  The jury would not buy his defense.
 Farquharson, as I understand it, after an unsuccessful appeal, is now in
I write about it all here dispassionately, but
it has rattled me, all this talk of homicide and madness.  I could write
about it with my academic hat on, but my point here is more related to the
behind the scenes experience of being at such a conference, the shiver of
anxiety I felt in a room filled with people many of whom I know, some of whom
I’m fond of, some with whom I have deeply personal connections, mostly via my
work, and others with whom I have no connection at all, and the odd person – I
stress odd – towards whom I feel downright hostile.
I’m writing this in short hand and leave you
to read between the lines.  It is one of those situations where I cannot
be more specific, though I can be specific about this amazing section of the
conference where the writer, lawyer and psychoanalytically trained professor, Elyn Saks, who
also happens to be schizophrenic, spoke about her life and her wonderful book, The Centre Cannot Hold – also the title of the
The topic was unsettling but more so the fact
that it was delivered via satellite link-up.  Elyn Saks sat facing the
screen and what to her must have looked like an audience of bobbing heads and
clapping hands.  She sat at a dark desk which was centred in what looked
like a conference room or large office.  We, the audience, could see only her and the chair in which she sat, the table/desk in front of her, all in dark office colours, against a huge white board on a white wall. 
It must have been evening time for Elyn Saks
at eleven am Melbourne time but she did not seem so much tired as surreal.  That
was until she spoke, at which time she came alive, especially during question
Hers was a plea to recognise that people with
schizophrenia and other sharply defined mental illness can and do lead
successful lives.  One difficulty among many, seems to be that people with
severe mental illness are often told to lower their expectations: Go get a job
in Safeway or something, once you get over the hurdle of a psychotic episode.  Don’t try to do too much.
When I asked a
question of Elyn Saks during discussion time, I felt this
weird collision of worlds.  I held the microphone in my hands and faced
the screen where she sat.  It was like one gigantic skype session,
only with a audience of two hundred people and Elyn Saks alone at the other
My question, more a comment dealt with the issue of separation, which she describes in her book.  How unbearable she
had found it when her first therapist in London left her, because she and her
husband were moving elsewhere as I recall.  They had to pry Elyn
loose.  I know this feeling well and she spoke to it well.
A family gathering from my mother’s day, when she was one of the little girls in the front row.  For some weird and surreal reason this photo reminds me of the Freud conference, another gathering of sorts, where the ghosts from the past settle on our shoulders and our futures are as yet unimaginable.   

And here’s a quote from Samuel Beckett, to help you on your way: 
‘You must go
I can’t go on.
You must go on.
I’ll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any – until they find me,
until they say me. (Strange pain, strange sin!) You must go on. Perhaps it’s
done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me
to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That
would surprise me, if it opens.)
It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know, I’ll never
know: in the silence you don’t know.
You must go on.
I can’t go on.
I’ll go on.’ 
Before I stop I must acknowledge my good blog friend, Kath Lockett from the Blurb from the burbs blog, and Goofing off in Geneva, who graced me with a Liebster award.  With many thanks, Kath.