Saturday, May 07, 2011

Honesty is not a sworn statement

My father appeared in my dreams again last night. He sat at his usual place in the lounge room in Camberwell, behind the closed door, the one you entered from the corridor that led away from the kitchen. As usual he was drunk, but the action of the dream is lost to me now.

My mother’s eyes welled up in tears yesterday when I visited her in the hospital. She takes pleasure in talking about her children, her grandchildren and now her great grand children, the ninth of whom is yet to be born, my daughter’s baby in July.

'And none of you on drugs,' my mother said, as if this is our greatest achievement.

I have held onto the fantasy that my mother will leave this world around the time her next great grandchild is born. I have seen this often: birth coincides with death. My daughter’s grandfather, my father, died when she was ten days old. The cycle of life.

I am back into a concern about the nature of the written word, the way it can convey a depth of meaning and emotional truth that far outweigh the veracity of the events the words might seek to cover.

Does this make sense to you?

It is part of the autobiographical contract to write as honestly as we can, but honesty is not a sworn statement. It is an attempt to delve into the depths of a writer’s inner world and explore what might be happening there without too much judgment or second-guessing. At least it is so for me.

I have been reading Paul Williams The Fifth Principle, the story of one little boy’s beginnings in a world in which essentially he experiences himself as a no one, invisible. He takes this view on the basis of his mother’s absolute hatred of him.

It is strange to read about the inner workings of a man whose early life is marred by so much hatred. That this man is also a well-known psychoanalyst in Britain adds to the picture, but should it?

Williams qualifies his story in the preface. He writes about a child’s experience and again I suspect he does not want to be held to ransom or account for all he writes.

He writes that the book takes as its subject ‘aspects of the author’s life… [but] it would be misleading to consider the writing as the ‘autobiography or “the case history” of an individual’. And here Williams comes to the crux of that which I, too, struggle to say:

‘The author of the book, and the individual written about, are not the same person… the author has undertaken, on behalf of the subject, to provide a faithful, intelligible rendering of unintelligible events…’

In other words do not take to reading this story as concrete evidence of Williams’s actual, factual and total life. Our inner lives are far more complex.

It is the sorry lot of the autobiographer to have her writing treated as gospel. Readers can become preoccupied with the facts of the events and lose sight of the experience, and of the writing.

Did that really happen to you? What a terrible story. How can you write about it?

The exclamations have an unsettling effect, as if I must write defensively, write a preface like Williams, as if I must justify my words on the page. They might offend.

Years ago in a writing class, the teacher urged us in our work shopping to treat all writing as if it were a piece of fiction, regardless of its content.

Treat it as a fiction, whether it is or not, talk to the person who has written the piece as the writer and not as the central character. Talk to the writer separately from the narrator, that way we can talk about the quality of the writing.

We can talk about what the writer is hoping to communicate perhaps. We can talk about the places to which the writing takes us without getting bogged down in the external factors beyond the writing, as if they are facts that need to be documented for a police record.

Sometimes I feel like a criminal when I post my words onto this blog, as if more often than not I must justify what I have written here, and even more than that I must account for the very fact of posting my writings in this so-called public space, which can feel at times strangely intimate and at other times as if I am shouting out in the middle of a crowded market place and no one can hear.

I am not selling facts. I am offering experience, wrapped in emotion, for the price of thoughtfulness and goodwill.
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