[your name here]: Life Writing. Edited by Jack Ross. Introduction by Mary Paul. ISBN 0-473-09551-3. Massey University: School of Social and Cultural Studies, 2003. x + 140 pp.
Introduction (Mary Paul)
[your name here] (Jack Ross)
Poem for Dad (Kirstin Douglass)
Father (Jennie Allan)
Father (Harley Hern)
A Lamp in My Life (Julie Rah)
Bedtime (Kath Harris)
Bedtime (Jennifer Marsters)
Chips (Lisa Allen)
Nostalgia (Janine Howe)
Death of a Tree Stump (Fiona Lambert)
Changes (Evan Lazarus)
Morning (Jacqué Mandeno)
The Range (Kay Paltridge)
Silence (Antonia Smith)
The Drums (Alice Whale)
Before the Law (Vicky Adin)
My Mice (Harley Hern)
School (Jacqué Mandeno)
Scent of the Sun (Victor Poliakov)
The End Justifies the Means (Noeline Sadler)
The Cure (Barb Smith)
Ham and Mustard (Sarah Thrasyvoulou)
Race Day (Barb Smith)
The Basketball Game (Donna Banicevich Gera)
The Barbecue (Carol Buchanan)
The Anniversary (Barbara Grigor)
Seven (Melanie Shaw)
The Swimming Lesson (Rowan McCormick)
Lea & Perrins (Deanne Taylor)
Footsoldier (Lisa Allen)
Circumstances of Love & Lust (Phoebe Bellows)
from Black Sand (Barbara Grigor)
Just Deserts (Noeline Sadler)
The Barbecue (Nina Soma)
Fragments of My Life (Alice Whale)
Roger Thomas Ward Smith (Peter Linnell)
Three Good Things (Rowan McCormick)
Notes on Contributors
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The very process of writing, because of its privacy, and concreteness, forces understandings. Yet everyone can do it. And it is so gentle, despite the fears, hesitations and uncertainties that often accompany it.– Gillie Bolton & Morag Styles, The Uses of Autobiography
This quotation heads the course outline of the university paper these pieces were composed for. I chose it for the word ‘gentle,’ but also for the phrase ‘forces understandings.’ I think this quotation makes writing sound like a live thing, one which forces understandings, but does so gently. That was the mood we invited at the sessions where these stories and poems were read aloud and discussed. The quote also gestures towards the quiet privacy of self-conversation that takes place as one writes, as one questions oneself: Is that what I mean? Does that feel right? Or, what is it that I am ignorant of here? What more do I need to know to write this? What does it mean that I am unable to create a single perspective on this event? Why is this so mysterious to me?
Students taking the course were encouraged to see life writing broadly, as including autobiography and biography in many modes. For example, autobiographical writing can include: family and childhood memoirs; accounts of life by well-known identities such as writers, sports people or politicians, or those who have lived through extraordinary times; confessional writing, including poetry; political testaments and accounts of persecution; travel writing of many kinds; accounts of ‘rapture’ and spiritual experience; even essay writing. Many different media are also involved: prose, poetry, performance, radio programme, interviews, film or television, newspaper features may all be used to convey autobiographical experience. One of the attractions of autobiography is our sense of access to a real person who has recorded their actual feelings and experiences. Yet, we are also aware that that most people’s memories can be both fallible and inventive (patched together from stories they have been told and ‘filled in’), and that an autobiographer uses similar rhetorical devices to a fiction writer.
Some historians and theorists suggest that autobiography and the novel are both genres based around interest in interiority and the self, and are closer than is generally realised – there is not necessarily ‘a clear distinction between the confession and the novel.’ (Marcus: 235) Another issue which arises in thinking about life writing generally, is how much someone is a ‘product of their time.’ We can’t write about ourselves, or others, without some idea (and perhaps theory) of social context. Yet this is a matter which is always paradoxical because, as one theorist writes, paraphrasing the philosopher Kant:
Concepts of the outside world without self-observations are empty: self observations without concepts (of external reality) are blind.(Marcus, 166)
There are also many kinds of biography and many different ways of writing, or compiling, biography. For example, there are: book accounts of public figures or memorable family members; ‘profiles’ in magazines; historical writing based around key figures; anthropological and psychological studies; evidence given in a court room; documentary biography on radio or television; and even poems and dramatic monologues.
Questions of how to balance author’s commentary and quotation from original sources are always to the fore in biography, as are questions about causality – why he or she acted in the way they did. Also important are ideas or assumptions about the relationship between individuals and history. And often, as with autobiography, we as readers question the motivation of the author as we read. Why is he/she interested in this person? What is he/she showing us? It is often said that a biographer must like the person they are writing about. To produce biographical or autobiographical writing you do not need to study the whole of the history of these genres or to define them definitively – but it helps to have a sense of how the genre has evolved, how different subject matters have been treated and what other people are writing now – what is current.
In the course we read extracts and books in order to identify how writers produce exciting and engaging writing that resonates for readers, and to find models for the kind of life writing we wanted to produce. Students carried out regular short writing exercises and practised giving and receiving constructive criticism – most of what you see here consists of modified forms of these exercises, though a few represent the longer major project. As has been often acknowledged, the constraints of an exercise can liberate your writing; the exercises included here encouraged detailed perceptual recall from childhood, bringing description of emotion and an object together, recalling family taboos or family gatherings. They often had twists and turns to them, involving switching of an element or point of view. Workshops led by poet Jack Ross encouraged the surprise when a piece of fantasy writing and personal writing got spliced together, while Anne Kennedy used recall of bedtime rituals and the ventriloquism of writing from the point of view of a ‘famous’ person from history.
Each week students attended lecture/seminars discussing examples of, and ideas about, life writing. For this they were required to have read an article or extract. For the second part of the course, the workshop sessions, they were asked to bring along their writing ‘homework’ and be prepared to discuss it with other students. Any response to this writing had to be genuine. Only then is it useful to the writers, because it can show her or him how intelligible their piece is and what surprising understandings they were creating. Comments on features such as structure, word choice, condensation, and imagery helped them to revise and edit their work and to decide on the direction of their major project.
The protocols (or kawa) of the workshops were: ‘Don’t be too self-conscious about the work produced – it’s raw, waiting to be worked, you’re not trying to prove anything. Be supportive of each other, be constructively critical, not negative; do not use the workshop as an opportunity to show off technical virtuosity – it intimidates other people – and do not refuse to read your work out week after week, or it will become an increasingly frightening prospect.’ (Liz Allen, in The Creative Writing Handbook). Sometimes it could also be useful to ask questions about intention and purpose, so that our writers could gauge how their readers were responding.
One of the desired outcomes of the course was that it should ‘improve the student’s understanding of how personal and non-fictional narratives contribute to New Zealand’s cultural history’ – which is, I guess, to say that such narratives both record and construct that history, and that they do so in language: in English words, as well as new variations that themselves have a history. To complicate matters, many of these pieces were written by people young and old not born in New Zealand, some with other native tongues, who now live here. The collection reflects that mix of old and diasporic identity.
Hopefully you will feel both recognition and curiosity when you read what’s been gathered here – speaking to the typicality of what is also most personal.
Marcus, Laura. Auto/biographical Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994)
The Creative Writing Handbook, ed. John Singleton and Mary Luckhurst (London: Macmillan, 1996)
The Uses of Autobiography, ed. Julia Swindells (London & Bristol: Taylor & Francis, 1995 )