Sunday, September 27, 2009

Optimal anxiety

Yesterday the day seemed swallowed up by football, even as my family does not participate much. I was sad that the underdog team lost. It was a close game, in the wet and cold rain. Only ten degrees and the ball had been slippery. People here in Melbourne get worked up about their football. I’m glad I do not participate. If I did I know I’d be like all those others – frantic for my team to win.

This loyalty to a team is seductive stuff. Wanting our team to win, desperately above all else, identifying with the heroes, the strong ones, the achievers is heady stuff. I find it hard watching my own children when they are in competitions, most often of the public speaking variety. Occasionally I watch my daughters play basketball and the adrenalin pumps through my veins at such a rate, I would rather not be there.

I find life anxiety inducing enough. Why do we create more of it voluntarily? To me watching competitive sport induces too much of it. Playing sport I imagine is different. At least there is something you can do with your anxiety. As one of my daughters who acts tells me, although she feels the butterflies in her stomach before the event, once she is on stage she goes into a sort of trance and loses herself in the experience. All her energy goes into her role.

Perhaps I am writing about this topic here now because in three days time I will present my paper ‘Straddling Two Worlds: the writer and the psychoanalytic psychotherapist’ and I am nervous. Appropriately nervous I would say.

I learned in psychology many moons ago about the importance of an optimal level of anxiety. It energises you. An excessive amount of anxiety can destroy you - stage fright and the like, and no anxiety whatsoever will most likely render your presentation flat and boring.

I am also a tad nervous about flying, but I am getting more used to that. There was a time when I hardly ever caught a plane, but these days I seem to travel through the sky at least two or three times a year and at least one of these trips tends to be as far as Europe. I am becoming a seasoned traveler, and less like my beloved Australian writer and correspondent, Gerald Murnane, who never travels in planes and refuses to move far beyond his home in Macleod.

He travels in his mind, he says, and in his writing. I like to do this too, but real travel in real time also has its merits, if only to shake us out of the daily grind and a sort of sedentary complacency. Besides things seem to take longer when we move out of our routine.

I shall report on my shake up on my return.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Story of the Story

Tomorrow, I leave for Adelaide for the Story of the Story Conference to be held at Flinders University. The conference theme centres around the ethics of life writing.

I have been reading Margaretta Jolly’s book, The Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism, in preparation. Jolly is taking a master class at the end of the conference where we will discuss issues relevant to the ethics of life writing.

I have a great deal of trouble with the issue of ethics and life writing. I see from my reading that if we life writers are to take our work seriously then we must be more than careful about what we publish. We must be vigilant.

From what she writes, Margaretta Jolly went to great pains to get permission from all the people whose letters she had sought to publish even as the letters were found in many instances in university archives and the like. Many were in effect already in the public domain.

This has to do with the issue of freedom of speech versus the individual’s right to privacy. Because we are relational creatures whenever we write our own story inevitably we involve aspects that touch on the lives of others.

The ethics of life writing, as I understand it, involves an attempt to build a bridge across the divide between one’s right to speak in writing of one’s experience as honestly as possibly while at the same time recognising the rights of others, whose presence is included in the writer’s story, the other’s right to privacy.

Even as I write about this here, I fell vexed. It is hard for me to write now without feeling hot under the collar. Is there some emphasis on political correctness that I must tackle?

I get mixed messages. One of my supervisors suggests I write it all. I should be like Janet Malcolm, who writes in detail about what people do and say. Though to be sure, Malcolm’s had her share of trouble. She uses transcripts of interviews and the like. I’m not talking about interviews and transcripts by and large. I’m talking about having the freedom to write thoughtfully about my experience from my own perspective without feeling the need to ask people who might feature in my writing whether I have their permission to publish it or not.

Several years ago I wrote an essay about my analytic experience. The essay was published in the ‘Shrinks’ edition of Meanjin. I was happy with my essay. I felt it offered a good enough version of my good enough experience in my analysis. I stress it was a good experience.

My analyst thought differently about my essay, however. She believed that I had violated her privacy. Even though I was writing about my experience in analysis, her presence in the essay is central. So I disguised her to some extent. I changed certain identifying features and I gave her a pseudonym.

I suspect she has not forgiven me for it. At the time she was angry and I decided that I should avoid any further contact with her, but later I met her at a conference and she seemed to have calmed down.

Since then I find she has published writing about me, in a much disguised form, to the point that I have become a man, with no other identifying features. I would probably be one of the few people to read her essay who is able to identify myself. Though my husband also recognised the sections in the essay that describe me.

I’m not troubled by this myself. I do not mind that my analyst has written in some detail about the way I once thought during the course of my analysis: namely, 'that I turned against the church with venom when I went to university…and found a belief in psychoanalysis as saviour’.

I have written about this myself, the degree to which I imagined that by giving up Catholicism for Psychoanalysis I had entered a better world and that my world was then a better world than that of those misguided people who still preferred religion.

I do not think the same way now and perhaps for this reason I consider the person whom my analyst describes as someone of the past, not me now and therefore not someone I need be ashamed of.

Nevertheless there is a view in contemporary psychoanalytic thinking that if an analyst/therapist were to write about a patient, how ever well described, then they should first seek that person's permission.

In Freud’s day people did not bother to get permission, but we’ve moved further along the track now and recognise the difficulties inherent in the appropriation of someone else’s story for our own purposes. Think of Thomas Couser’s work. He writes about ‘vulnerable subjects’, those who cannot speak for themselves, including our own children, the disabled, and the disenfranchised about whom others might write.

Appropriating someone else’s story for our own ends may well be unethical and yet in some ways it’s what we often do when we write. And it’s what I find so troubling. Where’s the dividing line?

More recently I have encountered a drama within my professional association. I’m toey about writing any details here. See how paranoid I have become. I, who value openness, have become wary of ‘self-disclosure', because of what others might make of it. So now I must be careful. Nevertheless, this issue of self-disclosure will be the basis of my talk at the conference in Adelaide.

I don’t know about you, but I’m of the view that when things are written down they take on a certain ‘unreal’ quality. They become something else. I try to write as honestly about my experience as I can, except when I am writing fiction, and I don’t do much of that these days. I do not enjoy the fictional process as much as I enjoy the process of letting ideas and words form in my mind and then tumble out onto the page. Inevitably, for me at least, these words tend to be autobiographical. And yet at the same time, once these words are down on the page they become somewhat artificial simply through the process of construction, and I would not want ever to be held to them as gospel truth, not that I believe there is any such thing.

It’s weird, words on the page have a substance and solidity that spoken words lack and yet the words on a page also have the fluidity that each individual reader brings to them.

I remember the writer, Elizabeth Jolley, once talked about her experience of having her fiction read. She described how one day a woman in her audience asked Jolley about the lesbian references in Mr Peabody’s Inheritance. I think this was the book. Elizabeth Jolley asked whether they talking about the same book?
‘No,’ the woman replied. ‘There’s a scene in the book where you describe rumpled sheets on a bed. Clearly this refers to a sexual encounter between two women.’

This had not been Jolly’s intention. Never mind. Who cares these days about authorial intention. One reader read a new image behind Jolley’s words and this indeed is what happened for her, the reader, regardless of what Jolley thought she had written.

After writers have written their readers come in with their own experiences and interpretive devices. It is as if the readers then re-write the text on the page in their minds to their own satisfaction and a new construction, several new constructions emerge. I call it subjectivity.

We all do it. Everyone knows this and yet there is still pressure as a non-fiction writer somehow to provide a clear cut and factual account of events. Now, if we are to take on board the extremes of ethics in life writing, we need to get permission from many others to put our words out.

How much does this requirement then strangle the writing? I ask you.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Self and other: the difference between the inside and the outside

This is how I remember it.

Twenty-five year eleven girls at Vaucluse Convent for ladies. Mrs Raj is our new and exotic biology teacher who speaks with an accent and wears brightly coloured saris over a cropped bodice. I can still see the line of her coffee coloured flesh between the waist of her sari and the edge of her top and I wondered two things: Why isn’t she cold and what do the nuns think? This is in the late sixties. Women do not expose their midriffs except in advertisements for bathers or those Metre Maids on the Gold Coast. The nuns are already railing against the amount of leg showing under our school dresses when we hitch them up desperate to wear a mini dress, a la Jean Shrimpton.

We are sitting on our high stools in the new science block, which was built on government funds where the old tennis courts once stood. Our arms are adjacent to the bench tops in pale pinewood. The copper taps each shaped like a swan’s neck fall into sinks along the line of bench.
‘Each of you girls take a glass.’ Mrs Raj has put out a series of clear glasses and set them on the bench top, one per girl. ‘Now I want you to spit into your glass.’
What! A murmur from the classroom that bounces off the walls. What is she saying?
‘Spit into your glass, girls, as much saliva as you can get.’
We look at her face. She is serious. We spit away. Giggles, grunts and the splashing whistle of twenty-five girls spitting into glasses.
‘Now set the glass in front of you and wait.’

The puddle in the bottom of my glass of bubbly saliva is thick and sticky. My stomach roils as if I have exposed something that should not be seen; as if I should rinse the glass under the tap for fear that others will see it too. I cannot look over at the other girls’ glasses. It is as if we have been asked to take our clothes off and we are standing naked, eyes ahead, hoping that no one will notice our vulnerability, that no one will cross our gaze.
‘Now,’ says Mrs Raj. ‘I want you all to drink it back up’
‘Yuk,’ the class calls in one voice.
‘Do as I say girls. It will not hurt you.’
Loud swallows and grunts as each girl tries to take back inside the saliva she had so eagerly parted with a few minutes ago. It is cold on my tongue, worse to swallow than medication but I get it down.
‘Now, girls, the reason I have asked you to do this is to show you the difference between the inside and the outside.’ Mrs Raj is serious. Her voice does not falter, even underneath the singsong lilt of her Indian accent. ‘When the saliva is in your mouth, as it is every minute of every day, you don’t notice it. Your saliva is you. Spit it out and it becomes not you. Drink it back and it’s like something completely foreign to you, when only minutes ago it was you.’

Mrs Raj beams a smile that shows all her large straight teeth, white against the gleam of her skin. The red smudge of paint on her forehead matches the redness of her lips and the faint blush in her cheeks.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Little Book Room

Halfway up the Burke Road hill in Camberwell, just before the railway station, there was once a bookshop known as The Little Book Room. It was unusual for its careful selection of books, as if the owners had hand picked each book with great and loving care. It had the feel of a personal library, like roaming through someone’s store of books in an overcrowded house. The books lined the steps and at times came in what seemed like no particular order at all.

It was in this shop that I first came across Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy. The cover drew me in, the sepia toned photo of a mother and her baby, the words transcribed from the text, Modjeska’s words, so familiar to me now, a mother urging her baby to look into the mirror. 'There, see there. See, it’s you.' That moment of recognition, of mother and baby, that moment of connection.

I bought the book and read it over the next weeks. The story, the writing gave me hope, the greatest hope of all that someday I too might be able to write like this.

Modjeska became my point of reference for my own attempts at writing. When my writing teacher in the novel writing class I had joined in 1997 once criticized my narrator as drowning the energy from my story I listened only with one ear, one eye. I wanted too much to be like Modjeska and she could get away with it. Why ever could I not join her , imitate her style?

Now I recognise the need to find my own voice, even as it echoes back in my ears, tinny and self serving, with none of the gentle cadences and rhythms of Modjeska’s words. But I must trust myself, otherwise I will plunge back into that empty space of my childhood where I seemed able only to try to imitate the greats.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Everything is breaking down in our household. It seems to happen every ten years or so. All the white goods, not all perhaps but a number of them, decide to die simultaneously and we are left with the expensive and time consuming task of either getting them repaired if at all possible, or replacing them. Having said they have died, it’s not possible to resurrect a dishwasher that has an element which has turned into a raised crescent moon shape making it impossible for the bottom foot that spins through the dishwasher to function. The fridge door has sunk so low it now exposes part of the fridge’s insides. I know both these machines are now energy inefficient so not only do we have to contend with the hassle of the broken down machine we also have to feel bad for wasting energy.

Yesterday morning my shower went cold because the pilot light on the hot water service had gone off. That was easily rectified, even I could fix that, but finally the switch on the central heating unit refused to click, so the unit no longer operates.

It could be worse. It’s not so cold these days. We can manage without central heating. A couple of months ago it would have felt a disaster but spring is here now. The blossoms are erupting and t-shirts have taken the place of coats.

Let's hope there are no more breakdowns for a while at least.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Obligation versus love in Samson and Delilah

On Thursday afternoon at the La Trobe staff/postgrad seminar a couple of postgrads presented papers on the film ‘Samson and Delilah’. Hannah offered an overview of the film, and talked about its disturbing and yet beautifully haunting quality. David asked the question why some people believe the central character, Samson, should need to speak. He does not. Apparently, David told me later, he had read numerous comments on line from people who had seen the film and resented the fact that the two central characters barely speak at all throughout the film.
'How can this be?' They ask. David backed his talk with an audiotape in which he had remixed bits of music from the film interspersed with the name, Samson, stuttered in the background. Samson's only sound comes when he voices his name with a stutter. He has been glue-sniffing for such a long time it has damaged his brain.

The third speaker, Alison who teaches at LaTrobe talked about the difference between obligation and love and how these two notions have become confused within western culture. Not so, she suggested within the aboriginal community as depicted in the film.

There is a scene where the young Delilah discovers her grandmother dead one morning. From the onset we can see that Delilah has been devoted to her grandmother. She takes her to the clinic, she cooks for her. They dot paint in the dust on the ground together.

It is hard to do justice to this film, to the images, the sense of barren hopelessness and boredom as depicted in the lives of Delilah and more particularly Samson who continues to sniff glue for comfort.

After Delilah finds her grandmother dead, the women from the town, a small group of them, round middle-aged aboriginal women, set upon her with sticks and their fists. They beat her savagely.
‘You did not look after your gran,’ they say. ‘You did not take her to the clinic.’ You did not feed her, care for all the things that we, the viewers, know the granddaughter has done.

It comes as a shock. I had expected the women of the town to embrace the young girl in her grief. I had expected them to take her in their arms, to welcome her into their homes, but not so. They beat Delilah back and blue and leave her listless on the mattress in the dirt that is her bed.

In the seminar we puzzled over the meaning of this event. One person suggested she had thought that maybe the women beat Delilah because they felt guilty for all the things they had not done themselves to support the grandmother – a projection of their guilt onto Delilah.

When I saw the film I had no idea about why this happened. Was it a cultural ritual that I knew nothing about? The film offers non-aboriginal people a close up view of life in a small aboriginal community and although it is fictional it resonates with a sense of being a truthful account of how things are. Alison wondered whether the women beat Delilah in an attempt to inflict bodily wounds that in time would heal, as an aid in the process of mourning, part of their obligation to the young abandoned girl.

Some one out there would know more about what this scene might mean. There were visitors in our audience from Batchelor Institute in Alice Springs. I asked if they had thoughts about the film, but Alison suggested they might not like to be put on the spot. They did not speak, which I suppose harks back to David’s question, ‘why does Samson need to speak?’

I still feel uneasy about my sense of discomfort that we, a small group of postgrads and staff from the English department at LaTrobe should sit around musing over the meaning of this particular aboriginal film, laying on it all our intellectual assumptions about what the story might be telling us, while in our midst sat three or four silent people from such a community, who chose to remain silent.

Chose I say, but I wonder, did we silence them? They were students of creative writing come to LaTrobe to learn. I suspect in their small groups they may well have learned especially under Alison’s care.

I am finding it hard to put into words Alison’s point about the clash between love and obligation. She reckons that we have lost sight of our obligations in our western style community/world because we tend to respond to crises with affect, affect as in emotion. We are taught from earliest days that we must empathise with the other. When something goes wrong for the other we become overwhelmed with our feelings, our tendency to identify and then we fail to act. We fail to act because we do not automatically, unconsciously know what our obligations are. We are burnt out.

In aboriginal communities Alison argues most people have a strong sense of obligation. She offered an example from her own life, eavesdropping on an aboriginal woman whom she had met who was dealing with a series of crises from those near to her. This woman did not, it seems, become overwhelmed. She did not judge those who had stuffed up such that they were now in crisis. I cannot remember the details, but the crises could well evoke moral condemnation in our community.

This woman knew instinctively what to do. Alison talked about how we in western societies are burned out by our struggles in responding to crisis with affect.

You get off the train at Flinders Street and you are surrounded by it, by people for instance begging for money. What do you do? She, Alison, when she visits the city gives away one twenty dollar note to the lucky one, whoever that might be and leaves it at that. She cannot do enough. She recognises the bottomless pit. Others, she said, might give a dollar muttering to themselves that they know the person begging will go off and most likely use it for drugs or drink. Others will distance themselves and rationalise that there is no point in giving anything when the person begging will most likely abuse it. We are burned out and overwhelmed by too many calls on or empathy.

I am afraid I have not articulated this well. I am still puzzling about it. I have not done justice to Alison’s argument, but it intrigues me because it introduces an element I had not considered before, the element of obligation as distinct from empathy and love.

I have long fed on the notion that empathy is all. Empathy is king. But now I wonder. I think Alison is suggesting that were we to have a clear knowledge and understanding of our obligations to one another then in a moment of crisis we might know how to act, almost on automatic pilot, a bit like driving a car through a dangerous situation, knowing exactly what to do without even thinking about it.

When her own beloved grandmother died, Alison said, she felt nothing. But she and her mother knew instinctively what to do as they sat there in the dead of the night in the small township of Maldon with her just deceased grand mother. They sang Anglican hymns.

I know that when my father died, I too felt a sort of nothingness. For me the action came with the funeral but even then I distanced myself from the event. The others, my older siblings took over and dealt with the crisis. Someone must and perhaps that is as it should be. The oldest ones generally move first, the others must follow or make their own way, whichever feels right.

Samson and Delilah as Alison suggests is a love story perhaps, but not a romance and one that deals with people who meet their obligations, while others fail.

Monday, September 14, 2009


In the bathroom this morning I noticed the almost empty bottle of Givenchy III perfume that my husband gave me years ago for one of my birthdays. I have stopped using it because the dregs in the bottom of the bottle have gone stale. They smell now more like alcohol and have none of the freshness that first came from the bottle.

I might ask for a new bottle of this perfume for my birthday. I do not remember ever buying myself an expensive bottle of perfume. It does not seem to me the thing to do. I buy bottles and sprays with cheap scents regularly, especially Tweed, which my daughters insist marks me as an old woman, but somehow I stick with this perfume because I have always loved the smell. It is familiar and somehow for me it has become my smell. I am like a baby, the scent of her mother is the scent she longs for.

Once I considered perfume as a gift a wasted present. I did not want my husband to buy perfume for me, any more than I wanted flowers or chocolates. To me these were non-presents, the things you buy when you have no idea what to get.

I did not want these presents because they signified a lack of care. I wanted things that were more specifically geared to my image of me, whatever that may have been.

My tastes have changed over the years. Now I love a bunch of flowers, not so much chocolates because I rarely eat them, but they’re good to share with others who do. Here I am now thinking of asking my husband to get me perfume. But it is a specific perfume and one I’m sure that whenever I use it I will be filled with a sense of bygone days of memories of dressing up to go out to special occasions.

I wear Givenchy on such occasions – weddings, dinners and funerals. Givenchy for me is a ritualistic perfume. And I am a creature of habit. Over the years many people have bought me a bottle of sometimes expensive perfume. I might use it once or twice, but the smell jars. I have a series of bottles, almost full, lined up along the marble ledge of the wash basin against the mirror in our en suite bathroom. Golden and glowing, they hold no allure for me. I want only the perfume that’s familiar to my senses, the perfume that now smells to me of me, whether it’s Givenchy or Tweed or just my ordinary unadorned skin. I don’t want to clutter my senses with foreign perfume smells.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

My Mother/Myself

My daughter has landed in Manchester. In her text she tells us it’s sunny. It’s strange to me that once I know she has reached her destination I feel as though I can stop holding my breath. Even when my daughters take a brief trip to the country I feel this need to know they’ve reached their destination intact, otherwise I fret.

I have been trying this morning to write a speech for my mother’s ninetieth birthday next month. I have long told people that I wanted to give a speech at my mother’s funeral, because I still resent the fact that I was not able to do so for my father when he died. When my father died 27 years ago now, my oldest brother wrote the eulogy and asked our now estranged brother in law to read it out at the funeral.

It was a double whammy this gesture. I think my brother may have been trying to re-involve said brother in law into the family at a time when my sister’s marriage was on the brink. My brother-in-law had found someone else. That my brother did not read the eulogy himself created a distance for me and the words my now ex brother-in-law read in the church about my oldest brother’s version of our father rang untrue.

I was much younger then, I’d just given birth to our first daughter who was ten days old. My mind could not have been sharp, but I remember feeling cheated at my father’s funeral because my oldest brother had focused on all the positive aspects of our father that he remembered and they bore little resemblance to the man my father became when dealing with the rest of our family.

I am sixth born, hence my blog name. It has always mattered to me, this family chronology. I agree with Frank Sullivan, who writes on birth order: family chronology is a powerful influence for most of us in how we lead our lives.

As a child I resented that I was not first or last born or at least bang smack in the middle of the nine children. The brother, the one above me who was the first of my parents' children to be born in Australia always seemed better placed than me. He at least could identify himself as the first Australian born child and in the middle. The four oldest were born in Holland; they had that special privilege. The last four born in Australia seemed like an after thought.

Of course my perspective on this keeps changing.

At my father’s funeral I resolved to have more of a say about my mother’s life at her funeral. But this speech on which I'm working now, is not for my mother’s funeral. It is to celebrate her life, while she lives. She will tune in and although her hearing is not the best these days I must write this speech with my mind on her.

How can I write about my mother from a purely positive perspective without my speech sounding cloy and false? There are of course good aspects to my mother. She has always been an optimist and this has helped her through a most difficult life, at least when we were young, but it has also led her to a level of denial that leaves those others of us looking on with a sense of being left out in the cold.

I want to write about my mother as honestly as I can. I want to be able to include some of her ‘warts’, but I do not want to hurt her feelings. Every time I go to write about her strengths I have my brothers, mostly my brothers, though not all of my brothers, in my ear telling me otherwise. She’s manipulative, they will say. She neglected her children. She’s a bitch.

Are these really my brothers' thoughts, some of my brothers' thoughts, or are these my thoughts? I have to own up to my own doubts.

My mother/myself. I share my mother’s name. A Dutch custom. The oldest daughter is named after the mother’s mother, the second daughter named after the mother. The same applies to sons. Elisabeth Margaretha Maria. My mother bore the title, Mrs, and I the Miss, but otherwise our names, until I married and changed my name and then later still when my mother remarried and changed her name again, were exactly the same.

My mother likes to tell me that of all her children, I am the most like her. As a child I enjoyed the comparison, as an adult I do not. There are aspects to my mother’s personality that bother me and I do not like to identify with them, besides my mother was a first-born, I am a middle born, we have to be different.

My mother left school at fifteen to help her mother care for her five brothers and her little sister, I went to university, the first girl in my family to do so. We have had a different life and yet I identify with her optimism and to some extent a certain level of idealism and naiveté, even though I know it’s there. Still I do not desist from it.

My mother, I fear, does not see that her optimism borders on denial, and can tend to exclude the experience of others, besides she has her strong religious beliefs that help her through everything and I have no such comforts.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Navigationally challenged

I will feel better once I know that my youngest daughter has arrived in London. She is traveling there for three weeks on a school music/sports tour. I do not enjoy the knowledge that one of my children is flying. I might as well be in the plane too for all the apprehension I feel. Even though I know that statistically we are safer in an airplane than we are in a motor car, I still fret.

I keep a special look out on the news for word of crashed planes. It is one of my pet horrors and more so these days because these days it is not unusual for one or another of my nears and dears to be mid flight.

On top of this I have noticed this strange heaviness in my torso of late, somewhere around where I imagine my ovaries sit, though it could be my intestines. Do they sit on either side? Jim might say, too much information here and I am reminded of the strange unspoken rules of blogging, whatever they are, but I take the plunge and mention it regardless.

I am no good about the location of body parts. I am as geographically challenged traveling around the internals of my body in my mind as I am traveling in my imagination through the countries of the world.

I have heard that women are less navigationally able than men, but with me it is worse. I cannot distinguish north from south, east from west. I can tell my right from my left by noting the presence of a writing lump on my right hand. But even now as I sit at my desk in my familiar writing room I have to think long and hard about where north, south, east etc are situated in relation to me.

I think the south is ahead of me because I know that I must travel down Tooronga Road to get to the seaside suburbs and Cheltenham where I once lived. Tooronga Road is to one side of the house in which I live and running therefore in a southerly direction. If south is in front then north is behind. Now I know the sun rises in the east in Australia and therefore looking out my window to where the sun first appeared this morning I must be looking eastwards. And west is its opposite. So now I have located my self in a north, east, west and southerly direction, I feel better.

If you were to ask me where England lies, and where my daughter is traveling relative to home I must think again. But I know we speak of Northern Europe and the North Pole. All these are ahead up above as I see it in my mind’s eye, so England is most likely to the north of us. Probably not directly north, though .

Having vaguely located myself and my traveling daughter I must begin to write more serious things elsewhere. Maybe I should also visit a doctor to establish that I do not have some dreadful disease that needs immediate treatment. This a comment from my hypochondriacal self.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Self indulgent writing or whistleblowing?

I had a simple thank you email from Katherine Wilson, a woman whom I have never met.

She wrote an article for Meanjin on the hoax she began, ‘Holding up the Mirror: Windshuttle, Me, and the Provocateur on Trial’. In this essay Wilson writes about the way she posed as a scientist, Sharon Gould, and wrote an essay which according to the journalist, Margaret Simons is ‘studded with false science, logical leaps, outrageous claims and a mixture of genuine and bogus footnotes’.

Keith Windshuttle fell into the trap and accepted the essay for publication in Quadrant without checking it, the fake footnotes etc. Simons blew the lid off the hoax after publication and then all hell broke loose, for a while at least, given the notion that Windshuttle had once accused a couple of historians of doing the same thing, not checking their facts, or worse making them up.

This it seems had been Wilson’s aim, at least in part: to test Windshuttle out. There’s a reference to Wilson’s article on Larvatus Prodeo, and there follows a stream of largely negative comments about Wilson’s writing such that I felt compelled to comment, too. I could not let it go.

Some accused Wilson of writing badly. Self-indulgent writing, they said, writing that lacked a coherent argument. To me the accusation of self indulgent writing is a red rag to a bull. It reminds me of the argument my mother used when we were children when she was unhappy with is. The argument that this is pure 'selfishness'. Selfishness and self indulgence, what a way to try to undermine a person. That's not to say it doesn't happen sometimes, but it's not the case here. I doubt that Wilson would have garnered the attention she's received, she would not have been published in Meanjin were her writing as awful as some of her detractors suggest.

I disagreed in a comment on Lavartus Prodeo, then a couple of other commentators started to turn on me, for having a go at them, the mostly men, for not having read the essay, etc. How could I have read Wilson’s work it seemed and not share their views? One woman complained too, and she's a mother, she wrote, though at least she acknowledged that she does not like this style of writing., Each to their own taste. but to say something is bad because you don't like it or disagree with it, is simplistic in the extreme

Read Wilson’s article for yourselves in Meanjn, Vol 2, 2009, Winter or see references to her 'Diary of a Hoax' online, .

Wilson's writing is good, it’s passionate, and it’s thoughtful. She is clearly one smart cookie. It seems her detractors hate her examination of her own motives in writing the hoax article/essay in the first place. That she was about to give birth at the time the hoax came out, the original hoax came out that is, seems to have added fuel to the debate.

This is my blog. I can generate my thoughts. There may be some out there who disagree with me about Wilson’s work and I would be happy to hear from them, but there needs to be be more substance to it than the sort of criticisms that arise on Lavartus Prodeo.

I made the mistake of putting my full name to my comment, at least so one of my daughters told me. 'Never put your full name on a blog,' she said. Why? I ask. 'Why, because people you don’t want might get access to them.' I suppose this sort of self censorship applies everywhere.

As Jim remarks in an earlier comment on my blog. He presents certain aspects of himself in his blog, his writing self, with occasional glimpses into his private life, and the rest he keeps to himself.

We all do. We all censor ourselves, if we did not our words would come tumbling out like the unprocessed stuff of madness, of so called primitive process. Still I can’t help thinking that it is more honest for a woman like Wilson to try to grapple with a written explanation of what she was trying to do in creating the hoax she did, than it is for her detractors to complain of self-indulgent writing.

This issue is dear to my heart. To Helen Garner ‘writing is always a seething area of longing and anxiety, and fear and mistakes and daring and of consciousness lagging behind action'. I couldn’t agree more. I also think there is the issue of consequences. Writing can be a dangerous business. I fear that people read with blinkers on. I’m sure I do too. People surprise me then on what they take up and on what they leave out.

I have had a similar difficulty recently, where it’s alleged I said more than I should in public, not here in my blog, but in a professional gathering of colleagues.

See how cryptic I am. Censorship does this too you. It hands the reins over to the monkey on your back. I’m always swatting the monkey off my back, trying to push him out of sight (note my monkey is a he, but there are times when he’s more likely to be a she, especially when it comes to some of my colleagues.)

I think it was Ann Lamott, who referred to this monkey as being like your parents, your internal parents looking over your shoulder, approving of or more likely disapproving of what you write.

The monkey on my shoulder is big and hairy at the moment. So I seek solace in blogs, my blog, even as I recognise I run the risk of traipsing on sensitive ground.

As Wilson writes in relation to the exposure of her hoax, ‘It’s a wonderful thing to have a public voice, but it’s a shitty thing being the object of media predation’. And as she writes further ‘It’s a dirty business taking the piss. It’s dirtier still to report it’.

This is when all the moralizing starts, when the world gets split into victims and perpetrators. We all do it most of the time, we try to split the world into good guys and bad. We find it hard to see all the grey in between.

Wilson sees grey, when she writes with some compassion about Windshuttle the man, ‘in his emails…so perfectly nice, and in my own vulnerability, on a human level, I had mixed feelings playing Sharon Gould’ as opposed to her feelings about Windshuttle, the idealogue. There is a difference.