On upsetting people

A sister rang to complain, I’d written a piece on my blog in which I’d used the names of living people.

I told her I had invented these names, but given it was a piece of memoir, why didn’t I explain I had made them up? she asked.

And can she trust me not to violate her privacy by using her name in any of my writing?

It’s thorny territory and I’ve been here so many times before, you’d think I’d get used to it. This ghastly position of knowing I upset people with my writing.

Not intentionally.

I make up names all over the place and do so out of respect for people’s privacy but also in order not to appropriate someone else’s identity.

People still feel betrayed.

As Helen Garner argues: ‘Writing …  like the bringing up of children, can’t be done without causing damage’.

Like most people, I prefer to be liked. I do not relish the rancour of people towards me, especially those who matter, my friends and family.

Nor do I enjoy the sense I get from time to time that I must choose: either my writing or my relationships.

Is it okay for me to put my writing out there given it might upset others because they feel I have misrepresented them or their story, even as I’m doing my best to tell my own?

‘You can’t write things without the people you write about feeling betrayed,’ the journalist Margaret Simons says following a conversation with Helen Garner.

So why does it make us flinch to be written about?

According to Garner, ‘it’s not so much the revelation of fact, as the feeling that somebody else is telling your story, and stating something without the justifying tone that you use yourself…You feel stripped and bare and you can’t say “Oh well that’s just me,” in that cosy way that one does.’

When someone writes about you, they use their own words, their own impressions. They look at you from the outside, whereas you can only see yourself from the inside. You can only imagine how you might come across.

In a recent radio interview with Philip Adams, Helen Garner challenged the idea that writers have no right to tell other people’s stories.

‘Who owns the stories anyhow?’ she asks. ‘Stories are not just bits of stuff we pick up on the street and can possess.’

Stories float around and are there for everyone.

Everyone and anyone is free to pick up these stories and make of them as they will.

That’s what writers do, they gather together the impressions that come to them as they write and try to shape them into a coherent narrative.

Whether it comes under the rubric of fiction or memoir, it’s still an effort to shape a story that resonates for the writer and hopefully will also resonate with readers who will likely experience the story differently from the way the writer first envisaged it.

I have written a memoir about aspects of my childhood. It’s been a long time in the making. It has undergone many transformations, but in the process I hope I have distilled something of the essence of what it was like for me as a child growing up in my particular family.

I write about my experience from my perception knowing full well that the way I see the world will be different from the way my siblings may have experienced events.

They will see the past from their vantage point, and that’s fine.

We all have the right to tackle our stories in our own way, without breaching one another’s right to privacy. Hence my use of fictional names.

I write to convey something of the emotional truthfulness of my life growing up during the fifties, sixties and early seventies in Melbourne, Australia, not as a statement of facts, but as a story.

I’m writing in an effort to explore what it was like for me as a small child, an adolescent and as a young woman in the flush of first loves.

I hope people can read my work with an open mind, and not get stuck in merely trying to establish facts.

Facts matter when we’re talking about concrete events and people and places. But when we tell stories, although the factual skeleton might need to be firm, the flesh around those facts will be different depending on who tells the story.

This is my version. And it’s only one version. There are likely to be many others. But I expect only a few will get written.

Some might be passed on by word of mouth; others might be transformed into visual art, into music or any other form that can convey something of the story.

Not one of us holds a monopoly.

Three bears, cults and extraversion

I made up a bowl of porridge for my daughter this morning,
the easy stuff out of a sachet, with two minutes in the microwave instead of one and
a half, given I had put in too much milk. 
My daughter was in a rush for work and I was trying to help her get out
the door in time. 
The porridge at first was too sloppy and therefore needed
more time in the microwave and then when she did not eat it immediately it
became too lumpy.
I think of those three bears, and Goldilocks’s desire that
things – chair, porridge, bed – be just right.
I did another Myers Briggs test this week and came out
with a slightly different score from the first time I’d tried it. 
I’m sure this is not the official test but it’s one that’s
free to try on line. 
My daughter reckons I should take the results of the first
test seriously, at least more seriously than later results because by the
second and third times I was likely to answer less honestly given I could anticipate the questions.  
questions like: after you have been socializing heavily do you prefer to spend
time alone.
Well, yes and no. 
I can manage more company after a I’ve been with a crowd but equally
there are times when I’d like some quiet time. 
This is why I dislike these tests so much.  They tend to demand ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers
and therefore become reductive. 
I know the test managers ask the same questions in reverse
order to try to trick the truth out of you but I suspect people can become
test-savvy and answer in whatever way they feel might best suit their
These tests to me are like horoscopes.  You go along with whatever suits you – namely the positive
interpretations, and ignore the rest.
I came out as Extravert 78%, Intuitive 38%, Feeling 62 %
and Judging 22%.
At a glance, I’m not much of a judge.  The other results don’t surprise me so
I have my third Christmas party this afternoon, and my
last bar Christmas day on Monday evening. 
I haven’t done too badly.  I
do not yet feel overwhelmed by the sense of excess this time of year
Shades of the question I quoted above from the Myers
Briggs test.  That one is to root
out the introverts,  I’m sure.  
My husband and at least one of our daughters are so-called
introverts.  My older sister
reckons a person on the introversion scale a la Myers Briggs, is simply one who
derives energy from their own company, from quiet times.  While an extravert is a person who
derives energy from time spent with others. 
I’d like to think I derive energy from both sources and to
an extent I suspect we all do.  But
it’s true, I prefer the company of others to total and prolonged solitude.
When I was a school girl we went on retreats once a
year.  A week or maybe three to
five days during the school day dedicated to prayer.  I pretended to enjoy those days.  The imposed silence. 
During retreats there were times when we sat in chapel
together and a nun read to us or the priest held  Mass or benediction,
something that involved noise, voices, or better still singing, but
then later we were meant to make our own entertainment, namely in the form of
more prayers and contemplation.
I can see us now, thirty or so fifteen-year-old girls, our
missals in hand wandering around the gardens of Vaucluse Convent ostensibly in
deep contemplation.
The more outgoing girls caught one another’s gaze and
burst into fits of giggling.  The
nun in charge who stalked around behind the rose bushes offered an unspoken
reproach and silence prevailed again.
I longed for the hours to pass.  It felt as though I had been tied in a strait jacket and
could not move my arms.  I should
have known from this experience that I would never make a nun. 
Nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  All three would have been impossible
for me, and yet there was a time in my life when I contemplated taking on such
a life, out of love for my favourite teacher, whom I once decided I had wanted to
emulate.  Even if it meant hours of
imposed silence and a pretense – for me at least – of prayer.  
This nun has since left the convent but
not before I gave up on that particular vocation. 
The other day I listened to Phillip Adams during his radio program Late Night Live on the topic of cults
Apparently there is a group of people in London who were arrested.  Three women had been held in enforced
captivity for thirty years, one of whom must have been born into slavery.  Apparently they are part of a cult
Their story fascinates me but the discussion of cults
fascinates me even more.  One
speaker made the point that if you get a group of people together and keep them
separate from outside influences for long enough they can begin to develop
kooky ideas. 
Madness breeds out of too much introversion, though
equally there is the opposite madness, that of the mob. 
It all comes down to balance I suppose, a bit like my
daughter’s porridge this morning: not too runny, not too firm.