Memoir    Interview    Poetry    Fiction

Excerpt from a reading journal, 2006

January 2006

           It takes years to write a book – between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be
           statistically insignificant . . . Out of a human population on earth of four and a half
           billion, perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year. Some people
           lift cars too . . . feel no pain in child-birth, go over the Niagara falls in barrels . . .
           Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.

                                             The Writing Life – Annie Dillard


In. A mixture of excitement and terror. I keep telling myself I’m already a writer – but there’s a voice in my head telling me journalism is really cheating: we just use other people’s stories. The difference is that this year I’ll need to make it up, using my imagination. What’s in there? Memories, images, feelings? Surely not enough to fill a book?

Resolve to pull myself together and try to enjoy it. Remind myself how lucky we all are – these twenty would-be writers – to have a year to devote to playing around with words.

My MA project still appeals – I’ve been living with the idea for several months now – a good sign. I’m interested in the idea of two women from different eras who are both painters, and somehow showing the parallels in their lives. One is a contemporary mother, the other a 1920s spinster; both are struggling with returning home to New Zealand and their work. I even have a working title, The Colour for Hills.

. . .

20 January

Realising the unique difficulties of writing historical fiction – how do I get inside the head of a 1920s woman and what do I know of New Zealand society at that time? It’s not only the problem of discovering how she thinks and how her voice will sound, but also the practicalities of life: housework, transport, and so on. If I have her in the kitchen, for instance, what will she cook on and what would she cook – or would she have a domestic servant to do that?

. . .

Drusilla Modjeska begins her book, Stravinsky’s Lunch, with the questions raised by the story of Stravinsky’s lunch – apparently the legendary composer demanded that all be silent at lunch if he was in the midst of creating a symphony. When this tale was relayed to Modjeska, the men present reacted by saying this was a small price to pay for the creation of great art; while the women were more inclined to the opinion that Stravinsky should have/could have had his lunch on a tray in his room. Modjeska argues that life must go on as well as art – the two do not have to be separate and there needs to be compromise.

She writes: ‘At stake are questions about how we live our lives, what we are prepared to ask of ourselves and of those who love us, what value we put on love and what value we put on art; what compromises we will make; which gods we will appease.’

I think this will be the big question of my book. The dilemma of Stravinsky’s lunch also sets art and life in opposition to each other – can they co-exist? Modjeska says: ‘we don’t need to give up love or subdue life to be an artist we merely need to open the door to something or some capacity within ourselves that is already there’.

Hmm. Love the sound of this but I can’t believe it – at least in my experience art can easily become all-consuming.

. . .

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

Rereading this, decades (!) on – and looking at how amazingly clever she is about men and women and art. There’s Mr Tansley, the house guest, shaking Lily Briscoe’s confidence with his whispering, ‘women can’t write, women can’t paint’. There’s the way Woolf shows the split of pre- and post-war society and attitudes and how this fed into the art of the time.

Woolf is also very good at describing how a painter might think as she is in the act of painting – I’ve noted all the passages on Lily’s secret obsession with her work, while life goes on around her.

One of my issues at the moment is how to convey the act of painting, how to show this in words, when it is so visual. Many film-makers have tried but the danger that the audience just ends up watching paint dry is always there.

I think the Frida Kahlo bio-pic (Frida) succeeded – the whole film was saturated in her colour and dreamlike fantasies – the film made the world look like a Kahlo painting. Pollock also worked but I think that was because his painting process was in itself a performance – so dramatic to watch. How to do this in print?

. . .

Striking a Balance: New Zealand Women talk about career and family - Jillian Stewart and Susan Davis

Especially interested in the Jacqueline Fahey interview in this book: she’s such a lively and provocative thinker and I’ve always responded to the vibrant out-there humanity of her paintings. She has been described as the first woman painter in NZ to publicise the oppression of domesticity (she was born in 1929).

Fahey says: ‘I realised that as much as I loved having children, I couldn’t bear not to have some voice of my own. I couldn’t bear to become invisible.’ She had a platform built over the kitchen with a ladder up to it and she would paint up there while she also kept an eye on her children below . . . and she always made sure they had a sleep in the middle of the day and she worked then too.

‘I treated the house as my scenario, my theatre – painted domestic stuff . . . it was quite intentionally political too . . . I was exposing the chaos of daily life, taking away the gentility of pretending all the time which was keeping women subservient . . . you know, someone’s coming, quick, quick tidy it all up, etc.’

I’m wondering about ‘Motherhood’ and how to do this? It’s so hard to write about children without it sounding corny and clichéd. It almost does so inevitably, the subject-matter is so charged and saturated with advertising imagery and parenting manuals. But I really want to do this – it is so important and vital.

Had a look through some interviews I have done – or read – in the Age newspaper with mothers who are artists, in which they discuss the juggling act, hoping this might help:

Melbourne photographer, Polly Papapetrou, and her daughter Olympia – the daughter as muse and active participant in her mother’s photographs – a solution to the circumstances of motherhood? They are, as Polly says, collaborators.

Sculptor, Inge King, on trying to make art with two small children around:

           My poor children! They survived I was just very strict with them. I had to be to
           get through what I wanted to do; it was survival on both sides. Being an artist is an
           obsession. You are not doing it because you fancy it? it is part of your whole
           personality . . . . whether one should ever have children under those circumstances is
           another thing . . .

Joanna Murray-Smith, playwright, on motherhood and creativity:

           the stimulus of being a mother is just extraordinary; people tend to talk about being a
           mother and pursing the arts as being conflicting forces and in a practical sense that is
           true but in another sense the opposite happens, particularly in those early months of
           first motherhood, I felt as if my nerves were on fire.

. . .

This is an awful time – like waiting in the wings. The characters are starting to form but I can only write tiny scenes, flitting from Charlotte to Kate. I have no idea how they will fit together – or about the whole enormous book.

What an absolute joy to read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours on Damien’s recommendation yesterday. Such grown-up clever writing . . . He is clearly paying homage to Woolf’s writing style but he is also firmly contemporary in his ideas and settings, especially NY City. Then there’s the rhythm of his writing: the way he balances sentences and his piercing observations of the all-important minutiae of life – always rings so true. Luscious to read. I kept stopping and just marveling at it. The structure is fascinating: each chapter is about one of the three characters who represent different time periods – and everything else as well – love, loss, motherhood, creativity, relationships, the search for meaning.

Maybe this is a way through for my book – to devote a chapter to Kate and then one to Charlotte? But each must have an equally riveting plot otherwise the reader might find the interruptions to the flow simply irritating. The way Cunningham masterfully merges the three stories, gradually drawing the threads closer and closer together is something I will need to look at very carefully. I had hoped to do something similar but more obviously: having the two characters’ lives have some sort of connection over time, which helps each to move on in their lives ? or at least Charlotte’s legacy helps Kate . . .

. . . The 1950s housewife character was the least successful I think, though she was still very well drawn – this section had a slightly stilted feel compared to the other two. These are three women – Mrs Woolf, Mrs Brown and Mrs Dalloway – who are all in some way disconnected from whom they would really like to be, how they would really like to feel, from the madness/wildness they are drawn to . . . and this is tied up in complex ways with the men in their lives, who in various ways, control them. Need to think about this in context of my work too: both Charlotte and Kate are struggling to find the ways they can live fully despite their circumstances.

Writers and Readers Week

First up, Nigel Cox, author of Tarzan Presley, Responsibility and Skylark Lounge, among others. Such a generous speaker, despite his obvious frailty – giving out his trade secrets with a wonderfully dry wit. He was fascinating on how he found the voice for Tarzan Presley: a convincing first-person voice to tell a preposterous story (Tarzan growing up in the company of apes in the dense Wairarapa bush). The voice, as he reads, is beguiling: low-key yet with a scientific formality at the same time. An intimate voice yet one of great knowledge, a ’seen-it-all type’ voice is how Cox puts it. Once he found that voice the story just ran on – it was a compulsion, he says.

He also puts the notion of the value of a narrator beautifully: it is not just a first person talking but the ’sound of a person being in the world: the feelings, intellect, intimate things . . . ’ The focal length can move very easily back and forth. This is something I am playing around with too, the shift from the character’s inner thoughts/memories to outer appearances/dialogue, how to make this work without appearing to be telling the reader what the character is thinking in great slabs of introspective, didactic text . . .

In Cox’s novels, the relationship of the narrator to the story is quite complex: the narrator is part of the process of making the fiction. I find this appealing, the idea of not pretending to the reader that this is a world in itself, but playing around with the role of the author creating the fiction quite openly. ’Each story had its own ideal form and you try to find what that is . . . ’ Cox says.

All very post-modern but it just seems more interesting too, to have these extra layers of meaning. Another potential thing to play with, perhaps – although maybe I am doing the classic beginner writer thing of using every colour in my new paintbox?

Cox is scathing of ‘beautiful sentences’. There are too many out there already, he seems to be saying. What he wants from a novel, what he is interested in is: ‘the buzz of being alive in the world rather than beautiful sentences’. The buzz of being alive is what hooks us into a book but I can’t help thinking that some window-dressing in the shape of melodious sentences has got to be a good thing, alongside all the sharp, witty and humane observations. Michael Cunningham manages both in The Hours, I reckon.

Missed Cunningham’s talk thanks to a train breakdown – furious!

Australian author, Michelle de Kretser, was well worth the trip in – such a vivacious, intelligent and modest woman. She talked about the intersection of the individual and history and how the Empire goes on long after its political power has waned – she herself being, as she puts it, ’the mute eloquent testimony of the flesh’: a Dutch/Sri Lankan mix ’the dissonance of her appearance as the visual manifestation of history in the long post-colonial moment’.

I haven’t read The Rose Grower but must, especially as she talked about unconsciously choosing an historical topic for her first novel because all the research it involved was reassuring and a way of ’protecting’ herself (from being alone with her imagination). This is something I suspect I have been doing too. In her second draft she slashed out all the historical references pretty much. She originally worried about how her period characters would garden, brush their teeth, etc., all the stuff I am worried about! And then decided to let go of the information but also not be paralysed by the lack of information. As de Kretser says: ’I don’t have to do a dental hygiene scene’.

But as a journalist with an historian’s training this sounds like a tall order for me! She talks about giving herself permission not to know things: ’information is the enemy of literature’. ’Narrative is about what you leave out,’ she said. But she noted the fascination in the detail – I can see that both are true – but how to do it!

Helen Garner

Such an honest, modest and rigorous writer/journalist. She openly injects the personal; she reveals her instinctive responses and talks about them. Her journalism is always self-disclosing and her humanity shines through.

Her advice is to keep a dated diary each day as your recollection of an idea/event will never be as fresh later on and the freshness is useful to use later. She thinks objectivity is phoney and she also has a desire to invite the reader into the world she is in – she uses fictional techniques and metaphors. She calls her work ‘porous’ journalism/fiction. She mentions the movie Capote as one of the few about a writer that is convincing – because, she reasons, you see him simply absorbing the atmosphere in a room: sucking in the detail through his pores, not his intellect: ’a quiet and inward process of creating’.

Lyndall Gordon

A deviant vs. a definitive biography! ‘What we do is morally indefensible: treachery and theft.’ Her justification for using her friends’ stories and lives? To preserve a friend’s life, to help it to endure in some way. Virginia Woolf called her novels elegies to real people she had loved. (Which is a really nice way to put the plundering I am beginning to realise is rife.) In contemporary biography, Gordon says, the challenge is to give a life the narrative momentum of a novel, ’a genre that takes us closer to what stirs at the heart of a life’.

Imaginative Deconstructions: Fiona Kidman, Jenny Pattrick and Judith Binney.

Are novels and history both imaginative constructions? When does history stop and fiction begin?

Pattrick talked about the setting as being real but the central characters are always her own, as did Kidman: she bases her books on a real place and then populates them with imaginary people. Fiction is to create the voices . . . Charlotte McDonald mentioned the changing boundaries between history and biography, while Binney was wary of subjective writing: the trend of the assertion of self being counter to the pure training she was given; she feels it is arrogant.

I wonder about this: I don’t think it is possible to ever be objective in history – we select, we emphasise, we are a product of our times. I prefer Helen Garner’s approach – more humane in a way, with less pretense of detachment, though I think the authorial voice has to be used carefully and sparingly.

. . .

17 March: In which the writer is worried about plot.

Cannot actually write today, feel paralysed. My concept is way too complicated – the shifting tenses, the sense of location/dislocation for the reader – how to do it? Start reading some of my own interviews with artists to see if I can glean something – a feeling, a memory of a studio, a sensibility? Thought of John Wolseley and his glorious, crumbling gothic studio; his wonderful post-modern ’maps’ with the perspective swirling around and little sketches of flora and fauna and notes written in the margins – so magical and rare and quirky. I’m thinking of Kate and her abstracted landscapes: maybe they can be a little like this – also someone else I recall too, who made maps that were like huge translucent curtains with layers of historical imagery on them, bits of William Morris wallpaper? Topography, signs, symbols, patterns from the past. Could Kate somehow make something like these that would reference imagery of 1920s? I really like the idea of the symbolism of maps for Kate – in navigating a place for herself – could her failed attempts at painting landscape turn into some sort of maps? With domestic items in there too. Thinking about the layering of a place, the layers of history like another map running underneath the ground. Not an entirely wasted day after all but still no PLOT!

. . .

Meeting with MA supervisor, Peter Whiteford

He is very perceptive. Picked out the two scenes with Kate that I am least happy about – my feeling is they are written in more lightweight style than I really want. I feel kind of stuck with this style for Kate at the moment. He said he thinks I am a better writer than this, which is kind.

He also asked which character I prefer. A really good question to think about. I really don’t have a preference. Charlotte, funnily enough, being the historical, more ’made-up’ character is proving easier to write, when I had assumed she would be much harder. But, that said, I don’t think I have firmly located her in the 1920s yet. Kate, and what I want to say through Kate, is proving much trickier. I guess I want it to be wry and funny but also dark and what is coming out is a little twee and too easy .

Then he mentioned Maurice Gee’s Scornful Moon. Which, incredibly, has a character called Charlotte who is a painter, and whose lover is called James. Her father also burns her nude sketches. I am staggered! Feel sick!

Decide not to read it as it would throw me off completely. Decide to change the names of my characters and then it should be OK. Damien was reassuring and says not to worry about any of this at all but I still feel uneasy about my work being so close to Gee’s. Still, having similar ideas to Maurice Gee can’t be all bad!

. . .

The Brush Off

Was so great to see this John Clarke/Sam Neill movie last night. A glorious and alarmingly accurate spoof of the Melbourne art-world based on the Murray Whelan book by Shane Maloney. It made me realise what I could do with Kate’s Melbourne life, how I have so much material about the city’s art scene that could work into this. The National Gallery of Victoria with its fortress-like walls and its moat and giant (medieval-style banners). The obsequious arts consultants and patrons in their bow-ties. The red and gold interior of the Arts Centre with all that tacky 80s glitz; the NGV director and the Premier at loggerheads over Art; the vast amounts of money ...

It also made me realise – again – what a clever writer Maloney is: he shows so much with dialogue and mannerisms. I am looking at everything like this now, the work that dialogue can do, or setting, to show character and mood . . . in books, too, looking at how the writer handles period detail, how to show, how to describe emotion and interior monologue in a subtle way . . .


Writing, writing, writing and still just scenes, though Peter’s suggestion of concentrating on one story has made things less complicated. Getting desperate for a plot though. Had four huge writing days before first folio deadline. It all feels so much better – not out of the woods by any means – but much better. Realise how extremely difficult pacing is – to give the reader enough to keep them interested but not too much and give it all away – drip-feeding – it has to be seamless, not clunky – not easy! Charlotte is becoming Christina now and James is Daniel.

. . .

My workshop session

Despite predictable dread of this, it was actually quite good fun, interesting and useful . . . Damien’s comment that Christina seemed slightly pickled still sits on my conscience, though. A lot. I think I can solve it by making some of her scenes in the New Zealand landscape a little more cowpats and less daffodils . . .

Generally the negatives were the same points raised by all – and often things I knew myself but was hoping no-one noticed! Specifically that the joins of the Grace plot device seemed a bit ragged – they were, as I only added them into four days before deadline! Interestingly, several classmates said they felt some key scenes were too compressed or rushed – they wanted me to linger more in some of the chapters – particularly Chapter One which tells too much too soon. I agree: it was hard to write that and hint at so many of the themes to come in the novel without it being like a compressed short story – too breathless, maybe? I’ll go back and expand a lot more – let the characters and themes have space.

It was really interesting to see who in the class ‘got’ Kate’s state of mind and who didn’t; who got the theme of the book as the two characters both being conflicted by their different roles/circumstances – sometimes I wondered how much this was to do with what was on the actual page and how much it was to do with what stage of their lives each reader was at (there are the 20s, 30s 40s and 50s represented in the class). This muddies the water somewhat – how to tell which comments to take on board?

. . .

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes – Janet Malcolm

Got this after Pip’s fascinating reading class on the differences between fact and fiction, biography and journalism. Some great material here, in particular Anna Funder’s Stasiland. I had heard this was good and will read it now, as the excerpt was so impressive: particularly the way she seamlessly blends factual telling and the personal feelings of the author. This is proof of how the fictional parts actually make the factual more ’real’ for the reader in a strange way. Was good to discuss the moral position on all of this too – what is true and accurate and how much does it matter? There’s no one answer to any of this, just think of the value judgements anyone brings to a work of fact without meaning too – is everything subjective?

Richard Holmes writes about the moral position of the biographer – he asks what right the biographer has to trespass in people’s lives, to sift through their letters and draw conclusions? Holmes says quite rightly: ‘we get back the answers only to the questions we ask of life’. Then if you want to feel really guilty about snaffling someone’s life story there’s Michael King’s maxim: ‘To the living one owes respect, to the dead one owes the truth.’ He believes in ’compassionate truth’: this will be part of the debate between Pete as a journalist and Kate as a researcher of Christina’s life, in my book.

Kate has a crisis about looking through Christina’s private letters – she wonders if she is just trespassing? How can it be an accurate portrayal?

Like Anna Funder, Samara McDowell’s band-on-tour diary (which appeared in Sport) was also a seamless blending of personal impressions and the subject’s story. I liked Funder’s vulnerability, I think in a way this is more honest – I like to know where the narrator is in the story, what they think.

I also agree with John Banville when he said that you can never solve the mystery of someone else’s life (entirely) and Humphrey Carpenter who said that biography is really a meeting between the biographer and the subject

Something to think about and play around with in Kate’s discovery of Christina’s private correspondence. Holmes mentions empathy as a complicated area – why is someone drawn to a particular subject in the first place? In my book, this is something to do with the parallels between Kate and Christina’s lives but do I need to make this more overt? Humphrey Carpenter says biography is either an act of worship or an act of destruction – this is Kate’s dilemma too – will her good intentions lead to the latter?

. . .

On writing about trauma, sex and violence

This is so hard to do well – everything comes out as a cliché. Today in class we discussed Pip’s rape scene – it was like Anna Funder’s in Stasiland in that it was so matter of fact and bald in its telling. This seems to be where the power comes from. Some people in the class thought specific detail rather than a generalised picture gave something a sense of greater authenticity. I don’t think a description of rape will ever seem ’generic’ to me, but then again I don’t think a scene of a mother stuck at home with a crying baby will ever just seem like another humdrum suburban neurosis scene either. I think it’s something to do with the female voice in fiction – still being put down but now in a world-weary, we’ve-heard-all-this-before type way.

Drusilla Modjeska in The Orchard talks of how women writers can feel crippled by the weight of male censorship of their style of (more personal) writing: ‘the problem with the opinions of men is that they are as transparent as air. Because the masculine assumes the universal, men wear their certainties, their agency so lightly that very often no one notices; it is like the air we breathe.’ YES indeed.

Anyhow, after the rape scene in Stasiland, Funder does something quite brilliant when she is talking with her East German friend, Julia: ’her eyes, grey-green, have a dark shape in them. When it moves, I see that it is me.’

Yes! There it is: the writer and the subject and the complex interchange that goes on between them to produce a memoir, a biography, a kind of truthful, factually based story . . .

Was also interested to read Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman discussing the traditional opposition between domesticity and creativity: as Anne Stevenson says in Writing as a Woman: ’The mood of efficiency, of checking things off lists as you tear through the day’s shopping, washing, cleaning etc. is totally destructive of the slightly bored melancholy which nurtures my imagination.’

This is music to my ears in terms of Kate’s own juggling act to find space to be creative and my own juggling to find time to write – not so much time to write but time to think about plot and character; just down time – that’s what is missing with such a tight schedule of writing during morning kindy hours.

. . .

Went to a new book group last night – a group of intelligent outspoken women, holding forth on Fiona Kidman’s The Captive Wife, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Blind Assassin and many others. A great reminder that there are readers out there – these are the sorts of good souls who devour a book every week – and interesting to listen to what they said: rating the plot, characters; whether they were gripped, cared; couldn’t put it down; felt it had resonance – whatever. A reminder of who we are writing for.


Have had a block of time to write: three days! Going for it. Just want to get to the finish line, no matter how silly the words are. Hit 50,000 words and seemed to have tied off a lot of the loose ends. Writing incredibly fast now, but can’t tell if this writing is as good as the slower stuff of earlier on, where it could take all day to get 300 words. Killed off Grace and that felt really good! It gave Kate the momentum to move on. Still not sure how to resolve the issue of there being no more nudes painted by Christina in her later life – I do not want her to be left trapped, I want her to get away. But if she does, why doesn’t she paint what she wants to? Unsure of this. Is this the hairline fracture that threatens to bring down the whole building that Annie Dillard talks about?

. . .

In which the writer recovers from some particularly vigorous reader feedback . . .

Just when I was starting to feel like I was getting somewhere! Have I come all this way for nothing – does any of it work?

Must not panic. Must hold onto the thought that, despite it needing work, I actually like some of my book and sometimes, I even read an occasional passage and think (privately) that it is poetic and special. (Of course there are other huge slabs that make me cringe.) I still believe my book makes a lot of valid points about motherhood, identity, creativity, love and obligation. And it is a story of some kind.

Why do we do it? At the risk of sounding both corny and grandiose, I think it has more than a little to do with Anne Lamott’s notion: we write to expose the unexposed, so we can all compare notes.

What have I learnt this year:

           1. That I can write far more words that I’d ever imagined.
           2. That plot is fiendishly difficult. It is like juggling with far too many balls, all of different
           sizes and weights, including some that have rolled under the couch and need to be
           retrieved before anyone notices.
           3. That I am allowed to make things up but this is never, ever as straightforward or
            innocent as it sounds.
           4. That writing requires a good grasp of amateur psychology and an excellent memory.
           5. That voice is all-important. If the voice is strong and beguiling enough, the reader will
           follow it anywhere.
           6. That the writing I enjoy the most is about (to paraphrase the late Nigel Cox) ‘hearing
           the sound of someone being alive in the world’.
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