Saturday, April 24, 2010

Practice Autobiography

To Jim from The Truth about Lies, to prove that I can sometimes at least try to fictionalise the truth.

I wrote the following piece as far back as fifteen years ago and I have polished it again and again till I fear it has lost most of its shine.

I should not say this but such is the editing work that goes on behind the scenes, like an orchestra practising for the big event.

The audience does not want to hear the mistakes and disharmony of these practice attempts; the audience wants to hear and see only the finished product. Though that is not entirely true.

These days audiences are also interested in process, at least many in the blogosphere are interested in process, because the blogosphere has become one big practice area for all sorts of creative endeavours. It is like one long writing workshop, a painting class, a photography lesson, in which people share their productions, their best, and sometimes their worst efforts, and discuss them.

With these thoughts in mind I dare to post a scrap of autobiography written largely from almost imperceptible memories and heavy doses of imagination. Does it hold any emotional resonance? I wonder.

The Dynamics of Liquids: Blood

I woke in the night to the sound of my mother moaning. A sad, choking sound, as if she were calling for comfort but at the same time stifling her need. It was dark in my room. A dog somewhere outside barked and the magpies began their morning warble.

I slid my feet over the edge of my bed and shivered as they hit the cold linoleum with a thud. The light broke up in blocks of gold along the darkness of the corridor as I crept close to my parent's bedroom door and listened. My father would be angry if he saw me.

‘Momma, Momma,’ I said, and peered through the crack. She sat on the edge of her bed, gripping the sides of her dressing gown together. At the sound of my voice, she stopped and stared out towards the hallway, her eyes ringed with shadow and her face the bleached white of the stones that lined the creek bed near our house. She yanked at the bedspread and tried to cover herself with the top sheet.

Ga maar terug naar bed, schat. Ik ben okay. Okay? Her voice trembled and through the crack in the door I could see the strain on her face.

I dawdled back to bed and as I slid under the blankets, my little sister, who was asleep in the cot against the wall, opened her eyes, stared at the ceiling, and then fell back to sleep. I pulled the blankets up to my chin and squeezed my eyes closed. Maybe then, I thought, maybe, then I could keep out the pictures running through my head, pictures in red, red blood on sheets and my father standing above the bed looking down at my mother.

That morning when my little sister woke crying in her cot, my mother did not come. My father came instead and took her to their room. He did not notice me. I pretended to be asleep. My big sister came a few minutes later to get me up. She was already dressed for school.

‘You better be good this morning. Momma’s sick.’
Inside the kitchen, two of my brothers, the little ones, sat at the table along the bench. I slid in to join them. The two big boys had already left for school. Their empty bowls were smeared with traces of dried up porridge.

‘I don’t want any,’ my youngest brother said as our sister put a full bowl in front of him. He was about to protest when my father walked in. I could hear the soft tick tock of the clock on the wall. My father walked the length of the kitchen out through the back door. His shoulders stooped over his long arms in which he carried the remains of a towel rolled over itself. It was stained red. He walked across to the sink; pushed aside the dishes piled there and crossed himself,
‘In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’

When he had finished, my father collected the towel and walked out through the back door. It slammed shut behind him.
‘What’s he doing?’ I asked.
‘He’s baptising the baby.’ My sister stood over the stove, the wooden spoon in her hand ready to ladle out the next bowlful from the saucepan. Strands of porridge had spilt over its edge and turned black at the bottom where the pan met the flame. It gave off a burnt smell.

‘Momma had a baby last night. It wasn’t ready to be born. It wasn’t big enough.’ For a seven-year-old, my sister knew a lot. ‘Father told me all about it. And now he’s gone to the back yard to bury it.’ She paused looking at us as if testing our reaction.

‘Father was too late, so the baby will go to Limbo. You have to be baptised before you die if you want to go to Heaven.’

‘What’s Limbo?’ I asked. My sister had just spooned out my bowl of porridge and put it in front of me. The steam made my eyes water.

‘Limbo is where babies go when they aren’t baptised. And because it’s not their fault they didn’t get baptised, God made limbo. And it’s as good as heaven. You get to eat whatever you like, whenever you like. And you don’t have to do any work or anything and you can play all day. But the trouble is, in limbo you don’t get to see God. In Heaven He’s around all the time, but not in limbo. In limbo you can have a good time but you’re on your own.’

Through the kitchen window, we watched our father force the heavy spade into the ground with the full force of his boot. He dug up clumps of dirt, which he threw in a mountain beside him. The soil soon changed colour from the dark brown of the surface to the khaki yellow of the clay beneath. He was intent on his digging, and brushed away flies with the back of his hand. He dug a deep hole. Our goat, Hettie who was tied to a eucalypt at the far end of the yard dragged on her rope and managed to reach the edge of the hole. My father waved her off with his spade. Hettie tottered away. Even she knew to keep a distance from my father.

It was hot the day our mother lost her baby. What began as a drip became a flood. Drips of old, brown blood that later gave way to new blood, fresh and flooding. All day long, she felt the outward flow of a life that had only just begun. Like a penny doll in its little cradle, she said. Twelve weeks into the world and it was gone.


BwcaBrownie said...

'lost it's shine' ? No no no - it's burnished now.
According to writer colleagues of my dear UK (published author) blogpal Norm*Geras, a book is never finished.
Keep burnishing everything for richer and richer patina.

Ann ODyne said...

You ask 'does it hold any emotional resonance'? when you absolutely don't need to.
You created tension, and then released it (not completely released in this reader's case though as it was very very moving). Excellent.

Frances said...

I liked it very much, Elisabeth.
Imagination, subliminal memories? It reads with great authenticity.

Anthony Duce said...

I thought the story was very good, and would believe completely that it was true, if for no other reason then I have been following for a while, what you write about. I feel like I know all the characters, learning more each time you post. Thank you. The description were very visual.

Lisa said...

This is excellent writing Elisabeth. You covered a lot in this post too and I learned something from you.

Every word invoked emotion like I was there with the little girl.

Nancy said...

You are an absolutely incredible writer. I don't think this needs any more burnishing. It's perfect. Wow.

Marja said...

Elisabeth I am highly impressed You have excellend writing skills I was completely drawn into the story and the shivers went through my spine reading about the miscarriage. Surprise to read some dutch. Did your mum spoke a lot of Dutch to you or mostly english. We always speak Dutch to our children

Sharon Longworth said...

Elisabeth, this is great. You've evoked tension, pain, confusion and fear, without being heavy-handed; still leaving us as readers something to think about. Well done.

Frances said...

Elisabeth: You may have fictionalised your truth, but you have not written fiction.

This incident could be easily translated into a powerful stand alone short story.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Brownie, for your generous comment and for the link to Norm Geras's blog. I checked it out. I agree that a book in someways is never finished, but that makes it hell for the author.

Thanks, AnnoDyne. I'm glad it worked to some extent for you. Sorry for the tension build up without release. It's only intended as a short excerpt. It is not finished.

Thanks, Frances. I'm glad you found it authentic. It'd take some effort I imagine to turn it into a short story. You never know, one say I might try.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Anthony. I'm beginning to feel giddy with all this talk of truth and fiction. As long as the piece works well enough for some, that has to be enough. Thanks again for your generous comment, Anthony.

I'm glad you resonated with my writing here, Ocean Girl. Thanks.

And thanks, Nancy. Your praise borders on the excessive but it's lovey to read it anyhow. Who can resist a word or two of praise.

Elisabeth said...

Thank you, Marja. My parents spoke in Dutch when we were little but gradually they began to converse with us and each other in English mostly. The Dutch in Australia are terrific at assimilating, as you would know. My parents wanted to blend in.

I can still understand Dutch well, but I have trouble in speaking it. Thanks again, Marja.

Elisabeth said...

Thank you, Sharon. I'm grateful for your comments and glad that you found something to think about after you read my piece. I was wary of posting it.

Helen said...

A wonderful piece of work! I especially loved the 'limbo' explanation. Thank you for sharing this with us ~ we are the richer for having read it.

melissashook said...

I like this a lot and think it has real resonance. And am glad that you posed it.

My only thought is that there are some places you don't need to clarify. we clearly get the idea that your father is someone to stay away from, so it's probably better to stop at "He waved her off with his spade."

(of course, the terrible idea that the goat is going to dig up and eat the baby does came up here for me because it's so close to the little grave..and that adds a rush...)

thank you..

A Cuban In London said...

What a painful memory. And yet, how marvellously you turned it into a story. About this:

'The audience does not want to hear the mistakes and disharmony of these practice attempts; the audience wants to hear and see only the finished product.'

As a person who did a lot of acting for some years with an improvisation troupe, I enjoyed our rehearsals better than our shows. So, sometimes, the audience wants to hear the disharmony, because we are aware that that is the only way to the brilliance of the symphony. As in your case.

Greetings from London.

Kirk said...

Very good, Elisabeth. In some odd way, this story is about a lack of emotion. The two little girls don't find the whole event devastating, because they haven't really been taught to find such things devastating, and can't yet see things from their parents point of view. What should rob them of their innocence, doesn't. They maintain their sense of wonder. At least I think that's what you're trying to say. If I got the whole story wrong, please let me know.

One thought on the finished product verses a work-in-progress. On a first read, I prefer to see the finished product. If I like the story enough, as I like this one, then I'm curious about the first, second, third, etc, draft

Kass said...

I believed every word of your story. I agree with Kirk, I found the sister's detachment quite spot on. The limbo explanation was inventive. I was horrified for the mother, though.

Excellent story-telling!

Elizabeth said...

I really liked this piece. I found it filled with tension and ominous, and very much from a child's point of view. I think that's important, actually, here. That this voice is a child's voice with all of its weight and innocence, too.

I can't wait to read more!

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Helen. Limbo has always stayed in my mind as paradise without the trimmings, for some the essential trimming.

As a child I could not reconcile this version of limbo with the limbo rock - you know the dance wherein people try to wriggle their way under a long piece of stick held by two other people, one at either end. I'm still not sure I can.

Kass said...

Elisabeth - my April 24th poem was written for L and E (as noted in the tag bar) - that's Leslie and you. Thanks for your kind comment.

Jim Murdoch said...

This is an excellent piece of writing. The title’s a little cumbersome, ‘Blood’ would have worked fine, but that’s a minor niggle, that and I would have liked to know the age of the narrator. Now, as for whether this is fact, fiction or faction only you know. But that goes for everything you present to us here. You can call it truth and we can find truths in it but how accurate it is is another matter. The truths in this short piece are profound – what’s not true about it? – but as you admit yourself you were very young at the time and so certain embellishments have to be fictionalised, added for dramatic effect. I know that many of my early memories are actually amalgams. I ‘remember’ my dad lighting fireworks out the back door when we were wee but I only remember the one time, at least it feels like the one time; realistically it has to be snippets from several years edited together in my head. I say that you’ve embellished the story but I have no idea which parts have been grafted on. My guess would be details like the strands of porridge but it could very well be that the smell and imagery was the trigger for that memory, very much like Proust’s Madeleine cake, which in reality was actually a bit of dry toast. Was Proust being dishonest by this edit? Would it have been somehow more truthful if he’d kept it as toast?

If you can take an incident like this and develop it then why not do it with the other things you want to talk about? I’ve just finished reading Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas. In it she says this: “One of the paradoxes of writing is that when you write non-fiction everyone tries to prove that it’s wrong, and when you publish fiction, everyone tries to see the truth in it.” I’ve just started my review of Our Tragic Universe by pointing out all the similarities between the author and her protagonist; there are many. The question is had she presented this to the world as autobiography would people have been as interested? In her case, perhaps, yes – she seems to have lived quite an interesting life – but I suspect any real interest would be because she’s a famous-ish novelist. Would people pay money to read the autobiography of an Australian psychotherapist whose not Billy Connolly’s wife? A novel by a woman who happens to be an Australian psychotherapist is a different proposition.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks Melissa. I'm not surprised that I commit that most criminal of crimes - I tell rather than show.

I'm not sure what I think about these things now.

My friend the Australian writer Gerald Murnane who has critiqued some of my writing along the way suggests that I do the very thing you suggest because I have been seduced by the movie making mentality.

He once wrote these words to me: 'The person telling the story is an adult, but she wants to suggest at times the thoughts and feelings of a young girl. A balance or rather a suitable ratio has to be found. In all my years as a teacher I found most students did what you've done here: they tried too hard to "get into" the child's mind and ended by making the narrator seem herself too child-like to have composed the story. I can't tell you the right ratio but I'm sure there should be much more of the adult in the narrator ... After all the author and the reader are all adults, the narrator is reporting as an adult to adults something that happened to her as a girl. Try to picture yourself sitting in a gathering of your best friends and exchanging stories of childhood. You decide to tell a story of what happened to you ...

Surely, surely, surely you would tell your story in adult language , only occasionally resorting to childish language in order to add urgency or a touch of "realism" to the narrative. (This may be the most valuable bit of advice I'm able to offer you in all these pages of comments). '

I hope it's a useful piece of advice for all of us. I find it so.

Thanks Melissa.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Cuban, I'm with you when it comes to my interest in exploring process. There's something fascinating about the behind the scenes events that lead onto the finished product and I agree, it's often times good to work backwards from the end.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Kirk. You're not the first to point out to me the lack of emotion in one or another of my so-called characters.

I suspect there is an element of dissociation, not in its pathological sense, but in the sense that often when we are struggling with an experience we switch off in a way and just get on with it.

Sometimes we pass on the angst to another, often a child and certainly more often than not onto our readers.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Kass for both of your comments here.

I rarely read the side bars on other people's blogs, so I missed the dedication of your poem to Leslie and me.

I am mono-focal, if such a word exists. I shall take another look.

I've just been over to your blog now to wish you a proper happy birthday there and I lost my first comment on your blog and now I am rattled and all over the shop because I have too many windows open and I am a computer Luddite but I'm grateful for your comments and I hope you have a wonderful birthday.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for your encouragement, Elizabeth.

If you scroll back to my comment to Melissa you will see where I quote from the writer Gerald Murnane about the business of developing a child's voice in writing. I think it's important and I'm pleased that the piece worked for you.

Elisabeth said...

“One of the paradoxes of writing is that when you write non-fiction everyone tries to prove that it’s wrong, and when you publish fiction, everyone tries to see the truth in it.”

I love this quote from Scarlett Thomas, Jim.

I clicked on your comment to my post here with my heart in my mouth - slight exaggeration - but I braced myself. I'm overjoyed that you think the piece is okay, okay enough.

What am I doing here? Making you my fiercest critic?

Perhaps we all do it, find someone who will pull us up short, whose good opinion we value and who will not let us get away with things that we might let slip through if no one else notices.

I agree with all that you've written here Jim, but I bet I keep writing contemporary autobiography the way I do because I'm a bit past all the old stuff. And I'm not sure I have the capacity and certainly not the time to write a 'novel'.

Take a look at the link that Bwca Brownie recommended here, Jim, if you haven't seen it already and have time.

It's to Norm*Geras's blog and refers to the notion that a book is never finished. The link is there in the first of the comments here. I think you'll find it interesting.

I look forward to your review on Scarlett Thomas's book, Jim.

After such positivity from you, I'll sleep well tonight.

Jim Murdoch said...

Paul Valery famously said that a poem is never finished only abandoned. I suspect that is true for most writing. I look at poems I wrote years ago, poems I remember being so pleased about when I’d finished them and now I wonder what I must have been thinking. That aside, as I’ve stated before, I don’t believe that any work is ‘finished’ when the author lets go of it. It’s the readers that add meaning to it, they ‘finish’ it. Some people will read this little piece and connect. They may have lost their own baby, they may simply have had an overbearing father or they may just remember being that young and not fully understanding the world in which they found themselves. I regularly read Elizabeth Baines and Emma Darwin’s blogs so, although I can’t remember them offhand, I’ll very likely have read what they had to say. I’ve also read and reviewed a couple of books by Elizabeth Baines.

It touches me that you value my opinion but please don’t make me into something I’m not; I’ll only disappoint you. And please continue with what you’re doing. You’ve followers have grown quickly over the few months you’ve been at this and you’re clearly affecting people with your writing. No piece of writing is beyond criticism but I don’t see my role as being the guy who only sees the black dot on the white page. What I believe is that asking writers to explain what they’re doing helps them develop confidence. Why? is not a criticism – it is a question. I don’t think enough writers ask themselves why they’re doing what they’re doing.

(The ‘black dot’ is something I learned about as a child. I was at a talk where the speaker had a white board on which there was a black dot. He asked people in the audience what they say and everyone saw the black dot. No one saw the white page. The black dot, he explained, was the man’s one bad quality and the white all his good qualities.)

I need to get back to that book review now. I’d planned to get it done and dusted today but it’s proving harder than I anticipated and I’ve been avoiding it but it won’t write itself.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks again, Jim, for your further thoughts.

I have found another quote for you.

Carol Shields wrote these words in her biography of Jane Austen, an exquisite little book.

Shields quotes Austen who once wrote 'The family was the source of art.'

Shields agrees: 'It might be argued that all literature is ultimately about family, the creation of structures - drama, poetry, fiction - that reflect our immediate and randomly assigned circle of others, what families do to us and how they can be reimagined or transcended.'

Ans so your black dot story stands out here.

It seems to me, the teacher who points out to us how readily we see the black dot and ignore the 99.9 percent white on the board is the opposite of a father who says to his son who has just received 99 percent in his exam, 'what happened to the other one percent?'

It's a wonderful story and one I need to remind myself of continually, growing up in a family not unlike yours in some ways, with a father who tended to notice only the black dot and who was unwilling to recognise the rest, in himself as well.

Self critics can become dreadful critics of others, especially of their children.

Anonymous said...

Incredible, excellent post, really enjoyed it :0)

Jessica Bell said...

Hi there! Thanks for stopping by my blog. Nice to meet a fellow Australian. Will come back to your blog to take a better look really soon! Cheers!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Is there emotional resonance? Sniff…wait a minute…I have to get a Kleenex.

Phoenix said...

This is incredible, Elisabeth. Very sad, very simply written (in a good way, not a "simple" way) and beautifully tragic. The start of the mother's story and her daughters'...the end of the baby's, I suppose.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks Eternally Distracted. I'm glad you enjoyed my story and that you weren't too distracted to get the time to plough through it.

Thanks Alliterative. I know another expat Australian writer living in Greece. You may have heard of her - Gillian Bouras. A wonderful writer, though I don't think she blogs. You might want to check her out.

Thanks, Jane. I'm glad it resonated for you.

And finally here, thanks Phoenix. It's a long time since I wrote this piece and I feel some distance from it to the point it no longer touches me, except as a series of words on the page.

I'm glad you read it more deeply, as I had originally intended, or at least I had hoped readers might experience it.

Dave King said...

Tremendous writing, very powerful and very moving. There is emotional truth in every line. Too gripping for words.

Mim said...

There's plenty of life in this story!

You may want to cut the last paragraph. Not that you asked for advice.

Gabriela Abalo said...

Hi Elizabeth,

I enjoyed each paragraph and was pulled into the story immediately… very, very catching. Well done!!


Aleks said...

Lieve,lieve vrouw,lady Elisabeth,wat kan jij goed vertellen zeg!! Ik kan me levendig voorstellen hoe je rond the vuur ergens buiten aan ons deze verhalen vertelt...
This is so masterfully well told that I kept my breath till the end and then to my biggest horror I sow no more words....where is the rest of it??? Breath taking,the way how you are able to keep the tention up to the level of screaming it out,instead of you!! Wonderful!!
I loved it when the Dutch words came along,I smiled,can you imagine? It must be love for that language,what else! :O)
Groetjes en liefs van mij!

Mare Biddle said...

"Strands of porridge had spilt over its edge and turned black at the bottom where the pan met the flame." Lovely. I can see each of them, but more importantly, for me, I can hear them. That's when writing truly speaks to me. I can hear the pot on the stove, the spade forced into the ground, and their father's baptismal prayer. And I can hear Momma in her process - and you in yours. Thank you.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Dave. I'm glad you found 'emotional truth in my writing that 'gripped' you. Who could ask for more?

Thanks, Mim. I'm grateful for your observation. Sometimes criticisms are easier to respond to than praise. They give me something to bounce against. Not that I don't welcome praise, it's just that I have a tendency to doubt it more readily than I doubt the criticisms, especially when those criticosms meet a nagging doubt of my own.

Originally I had included the last paragraph as the opening paragraph. I think it belongs to a larger piece perhaps. Still I couldn't resist putting it in here. Though I must bear in mind the old adage: 'Murder your darlings'.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Gabi for your kind words. As I said earlier to Mim, it's sometimes hard to respond to the positive. I'm glad you found the piece catching.

Lieve Aleks. I'm so pleased you enjoyed the Dutch in my story. I wish I could write in Dutch more but my command of the language is poor.

There is more to this story but I cannot put it all up at once, maybe only little bits at a time.

Thanks for your support and your cheerful disposition. You seem to pop up everywhere, and although I am not so dedicated to FaceBook I love to see your pictures and comments there too. You seem to be such a busy person.

As for your height, my father was six foot three inches, my mother five foot two. I am the tallest girl in my family at 5 foot six inches. Sorry for the old fashioned imperial measurements. I ought to be able to convert but it's late and I'm tired.

Dutch people tend to be tall. At least that's the stereotype, but you weren't born in Holland as I recall. So from where do you get your height?

Elisabeth said...

I'm so pleased that my writing speaks to you Mare, as yours speaks to me.

It's wonderful to be able to communicate like this across the world.

Only your communications at the moment are about current distress when so much of mine relates to the far distant past.

It's easier to comment on writing that deals with the past than that which deals with the present especially when the content of the writing is still active.

Take care, Mare, and thanks for your lovely words both here and there on your blog.

Reader Wil said...

Hi Elisabeth! It's a great story and didn't lose its shine at all!
So this is your mum, who still loves Koninginne Dag! Thanks for sharing your story and your visit!

Aleks said...

Hi Elisabeth,
Half of my close family are giants :O)compared to me! My only brother is very tall and his sons too,on the other hand my mom is not that tall either,my papa is tiny,little darling,he had a twin sister as I did,but mine twin was not born,so I do not know from where I got my height,maybe from sharing the very first everything with my twin!
And you are quite busy yourself too,if you see me pop up everywhere,:O)!
I missed you thou on my pages and there for I thank you for this comment/answer to me here.
Groetjes en liefs van mij!

Momo Luna S!gnals said...

Dear Elisabeth,

this story immediately brought me to that place. i could see the little girls, the pale mother, the strict father.
I love the conversation between the two girls. The words are really from a child. I love the explanation of limbo. I was pleasantly surprised when reading dutch.
I don't know anything about the techniques of writing, but i do know that i find your writings excellent and that this story moved me.

Heel veel liefs and groetjes van Monica

Mike McLaren said...

Emotional resonance? How could it not. A good piece of writing.

Sometimes my blog gets a polished piece, sometimes a piece of my process, and sometimes I post an experiment. Blogland for me is a reminder that the only reason I went to college was to become a writer... never mind that I eke out a living as a musician.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Mike. Blogland is the place in which we can write.

I often see it as a writing workshop, akin to the writers group in which I participated and enjoyed for several years.

We support and challenge one another and along the way we learn so much, at least I do. It sounds as though you do , too.

Thanks again, Mike