Sunday, January 31, 2010

Writing Your Past

In the Weekend Australian Review yesterday, there was an article about Andrea Levy who wrote, among other things, Small Island which won a number of awards in the UK. Her new book, The Long Song, is about slavery in the Caribbean and is a topic she said she thought she could avoid. Her family comes from a West Indian background, and she said that to go back in history and write about her heritage meant that she couldn't help but "bump into" the topic of slavery. It was 300 years of one of the "biggest demographic transformations" - a whole society and way of thinking.

While she goes on in the article to talk about being seen as some kind of spokesperson for issues around migration and tolerance, I got to pondering about the ways in which writers seem to always, inevitably, write about where they come from, or what has happened to them, through their fiction. Someone once said that we gather enough material in the first eight years of our lives to keep us in stories until we die. I also remember Melbourne writer, Carmel Bird, telling students in her classes that until they have written out the stuff that makes them cry and cringe (not her exact words, but close!), they can't go on and create new work.

Sometimes I ask my students if they are aware of writing about certain themes or incidents in their life, either consciously or unconsciously. They usually say no, but those who are open to the idea will go away and then come back the next week and reveal that they have found repeating resonances. For years, I wrote about abandonment, creating characters that were left alone all over the place. Finally I connected this with my mother dying when I was young.

Did it stop me writing about the theme? No, but it did make me more aware of how I dealt with it, and eventually it bored me and I could move on. I wonder if this is why so many people write "misery memoirs" - that until they do, they can't move on either. And why do others read them? Because they haven't learned how to deal with their past yet, and want some help? I can't bear to read most of them. It took a long time before I could admit I only got 30 pages into Angela's Ashes and had to put it down, because so many were raving about how wonderful it was.

There is a difference between writing out what's raw and angry and unbearable so that you are "healing" yourself, and writing something that other people will want to read, and find engaging. Sometimes it's hard to know the difference, but craft and skill is a bigger factor than we think. I recently was told about a book called The Inconvenient Child, which was written by someone other than the person whose memoir it was. The story is amazing and awful, one of abuse in the welfare system in NSW, but Sharyn Killens allowed Lindsay Lewis to write her story for her, a decision that must have taken a lot of courage. Many writers would have wanted to be centre stage and not give that licence to another person.

There is nothing wrong with writing as therapy. It's what you do with it afterwards that can create a problem. Many stories are not publishable, either because the market is saturated or the writing is simply not good enough. What else can writers do here? Publish as a blog? Self-publish? Simply write and move on? Or turn it into fiction? This last option can be a trap, too. It still comes back to writing skill and craft. Without that, it may be better off in your bottom drawer after all or, if you really want an exorcism, burnt!


LindsayLewis said...

Hi Sherryl

Thank you for your comments and for mentioning our book The Inconvenient Child. The writing of Sharyn's story was very difficult emotionally at times but I always knew I would get to the uplifting and joyous end of her story.

Thanks again for your support.

Lindsay Lewis

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post, Sherryl. My first novel, like many first novels, had an autobiographical framework with a fictional story woven into it, and I wrote part of it, weeping helplessly, at a writer's retreat run by Carmel Bird. I found then and now that 'Truth' is messier and less satisfying than fiction, but lived life does give our fiction an authenticity and richness that resonates with others. Thanks for posting; yours is a great blog. :)

Sherryl said...

Your website is great, Lindsay. It was really interesting to watch the videos and read more about how the book was written.
Hope it's still selling well!

Sherryl said...

Christine - it sounds like that retreat with Carmel made a difference to your book. What was the title of it?
I wonder if we put our past into every book we write, even if sometimes they're things we don't consciously remember!