Archive for the ‘the writing life’ Category

Not quite the Oscars

Monday, August 5th, 2013

So, I heard today that Peter Fitzpatrick’s book The Two Frank Thrings won the National Biography Award. Of course, I’d figured out I wasn’t winning it as the Award presentation was in Sydney this morning, and last week there was no suggestion that I fly over there from Perth. (In any case, my book was always a real long shot to win it.) I’d kind of hoped that Robert Drewe would win so that I could casually drop into conversations here in WA the phrase “Robert Drewe and I…” – he being a bit of a WA literary hero. I haven’t read Fitzpatrick’s book but it sounds terrific and fun, too. When you think how much research goes into a biography like this, I reckon he deserves the Award.

It’s really great to be shortlisted for an Award of this nature. Something like getting a great review from a critic you admire combined with a big hug! And I like the way the press release announcing the winner also had the Judges’ comments on all the shortlisted books. Here’s what they said about my book:

“Rachel Robertson’s gracefully written memoir about life as the mother of a child with
autism is a deeply moving, compelling narrative from a perceptive writer. Robertson’s
son, ‘Ben’, is one of an estimated 230 000 Australians with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

She writes of Ben’s life but her relationship with her son is bound up with her own past
and so this memoir is, in many ways, a relational biography: the lives of ‘Ben’ and
Rachel. Reaching One Thousand combines several elements: analysis of the latest
pedagogy about autism; discussion of daily life; descriptions of her son’s behaviour and
her own reactions; reminiscences of her own childhood. Robertson addresses the fear
we have of ‘strangeness of others’, by delving into what might be seen as her own
strangeness as a child. In contrast to some seemingly similar stories, this memoir never
positions ‘Ben’, the child with autism, as a problem or an object; the author tries
wherever possible to enter imaginatively into his mental landscape.

This memoir also interrogates narrative and identity. Autistic children are said to have
great difficulty in communicating and forming relationships. Robertson uses the vantage
point of her relationship with her son to critically evaluate the literature on autism at
every point. In this way the book becomes an outward looking conversation about autism
and the possibilities of management and interaction. Crucially, Robertson addresses the
ethics of life writing; specifically whether her use of ‘Ben’s’ life story constitutes a
betrayal, or an invasion of privacy, on her part. The issue of invading people’s privacy is
at the centre of all memoir but it is rarely so directly considered.”

I’m grateful to the Judges for engaging with my book so deeply, to the NSW State Library and to the Award sponsors, Dr Geoffrey Cains and Michael Crouch AO.

Events and talks about biography are happening all this week at the NSW State Library, including the National Biography Lecture on Wednesday, which is being given by John Elder Robinson. Robinson has written several memoirs about living with Asperger’s Syndrome. To me, this really shows the way society has changed over the past ten years in terms of listening to and respecting people with neurological differences like autism. Promoting this change was the main reason I wrote Reaching One Thousand, so I’m happy!

By the way, a colleague at work asked me the other day if there was any news on this Award. I told her I was pretty sure I hadn’t won, but was fine about that. She said, “Yes, that’s right. You can be like Hugh Jackman at the Oscars when he didn’t win best actor!” I’ll go with that, I think.

My summer reading

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

What bliss it is to sit down in front of a fan in the middle of the day in Perth and read a book purely for pleasure, not for reasons of research or teaching, but just for my own delight!

I started this year with The Devil’s Cave by Martin Walker, the latest Bruno, Chief of Police story set in the Perigord. Of course, I had to drink wine and eat lots of soft cheese and pate at the same time, as food is so much a part of this book!

Now I am half way into The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves by Siri Hustvedt, a fascinating memoir that is also about neuroscience, psychology and even philosophy. I’m reading it after reading her essay collection Living, Thinking, Looking, which I also found absorbing. As I read, I keep marking especially intriguing passages. I used to feel a bit guilty about writing in books, but now (if I own the book), I find it liberating to do this. If I go back to re-read a book and see my own marks or comments, I’m often amused to see how the same or different things catch my eye at different times.

The next book on my January reading pile is Theories of Memory: A Reader edited by Rossington and Whitehead, which a dear friend gave me for christmas – what an inspired choice!

And of course, I must recommend The Best Australian Essays 2012 edited by Ramona Koval, not just because one of my essays is there, but also because there are a lot of very good essays in this book, including Gillian Mears’ essay about writing the wonderful novel Foal’s Bread.

Happy New (reading) Year!

Writing and ethics

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

I’m delighted to have an article in the latest Westerly magazine, which focuses on Writing and Ethics. My article ‘The Air that Falls’ is an exploration of writing about family, drawing on my own experiences and analysing Aftermath, a memoir by Rachel Cusk. Some of the press coverage of Aftermath was savage and this was one reason I wanted to write about the book. If she can write and publish a book about a marriage breakdown, can she really love her children? asked reviewers.

Also in this issue of Westerly are non-fiction pieces by Kim Scott, Alice Pung, Frank Moorhouse, Benjamin Law and Rozanna Lilley, as well as lots of new poetry and some great fiction. Here is how Moorhouse starts his essay:

“I tell new writers that the literary writer has three ever-ongoing negotiations in their life by which they gain the privilege of a literary vocation, that is, the privilege to write what one wants to write, in a way he or she wishes to write, and to spend most of one’s time doing it at one’s own pace.”

The first negotiation he speaks of is the negotiation with one’s family and friends – essentially a negotiation about resources and ethics. This, he says, is the most difficult negotiation. And this, I suspect, is why this volume (57:2) of Westerly will interest so many writers and readers.

Thanks for the contact

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

I’ve not written a blog entry for ages (as I’m trying to write something new), but today I’ve been energised to do so by a wonderful email I received. A reader contacted me after finishing Reaching One Thousand, explaining that he was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome some years ago. He has now written a fantastic poem, partly triggered by his reading of my book. I found it so moving to read the poem.

I’ve received a lot of generous emails from readers, giving me their responses to my book. It’s a real privilege to hear from people who have taken the time to read a book and then bothered to make contact. It wasn’t something I was expecting, but it has been quite moving at times. Parents, grandparents, teachers, interested individuals as well as autistic people have all been in touch. One of those lovely surprises in life.

Iceberg exercise

Friday, October 5th, 2012

This is iceberg as in the force that sank the Titanic, not the lettuce!

Talking to a student the other day about her (very good) work, I used the old iceberg analogy. This is where we say that a writer should only show the reader a small percentage of all that research and thinking that we do to get to the final product. The rest is sitting under the water, not visible but certainly holding up the work that the reader is enjoying. My student felt the desire to include all that she knew about the topic – and she knew a lot. I was asking her to cut some of that information out and trust that her writing would resonate with all that she knew, even though it might not all be specifically mentioned.

A good exercise for practising this is to take a scene that you’ve already written and rewrite it completely. This time, you have to leave out a key part of the scene or some key events (that’s the ice under the water) and make the scene you write (the visible ice) convey that part of the story through feeling or in some other way.

Why not try it?

Getting close

Friday, September 14th, 2012

In her review of the film “Hemingway and Gellhorn” in The Monthly, Helen Garner describes a moment in the film where photographer Robert Capa says to Martha Gellhorn, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”.

This is great advice for writers. It is so easy to stand back, at a safe distance. So much harder to move in, closer and closer, until you are right inside your own body, writing slowly and carefully about the details that make a moment or a person or a thought or a feeling worth writing about. Up close you can capture the breath of a sleeping child, the dust on an autumn leaf, the fear in the mirror.

This is where writers need to be – very close indeed.

By the way, Garner pans the movie!

One perfect symbol

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

When I worked in book publishing in London in the late 1980s, there was much discussion about how the (then) new technology of electronic typesetting would kill off the printed book within a few years. Well, it didn’t happen then. Publishers, writers and readers have had about 30 years in which to prepare ourselves for the possible death of the printed book.

I’m still not prepared, though. I love the physical object of the p-book. And so do lots of others.

I was interested to read writer and book collector Julian Barnes in The Guardian Weekly saying that he thinks the p-book will survive, albeit it in altered form. The day after reading that, I read ‘Touch of Class’ by Robert Collins in The Weekend Australian Magazine, where he describes some wonderful ‘books’ that you can read on your iPad, like Eliot’s The Waste Land and Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, complete with sound recordings, vision of the original manuscripts, glossaries, extra information like photos, videos and scholarly articles. They sound pretty good. I will probably buy the Eliot one day, though I won’t be tossing out my scruffy old self-annotated copy of his Selected Poems.

I love what Barnes said about reading near the end of his Guardian article: ‘When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life; you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape – into different countries, mores, speech patterns – but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic. And for this serious task of imaginative discovery and self-discovery, there is and remains one perfect symbol: the printed book.’

The deep life

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

I read a lot, probably too much.

I should read less and do more of the practical things of life, like cleaning the house, getting some exercise and weeding the garden. I know I need practise with practical activities because the other day it took me 30 minutes to take the beeping smoke detector off the ceiling to change its battery and then another 30 minutes to fail to get it back up there. Tears and swear words later, my friend arrived and sorted it immediately – the problem was all to do with a little red tab that had to be tucked under the battery. How is it that some people can see that sort of thing straightaway and I can’t?

No amount of great literature is ever going to teach me how to be comfortable up a ladder fiddling around with batteries and buttons and little red things. I know this. I know I can’t rely on my friends to help me out every time either. You only get good at things through practice, so the smoke detector should be a warning to me – get practical.

Yes, I said to myself, but first since I’ve just made a coffee I’ll sit down for a quick read before I tackle the garden weeds. An hour later, I was still engrossed in The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, a novel set in the 80s, partly about a girl who reads too much!

What excuse is there for people like me? I don’t know, except I also came across this sentence by Mary Jane Moffat: “Literature is one of the few resources we have in modern times for living the deep life and not being simply spectators of our own experience.”

This is so true: the more I read, the more I understand myself and others. This is worth something, surely.


Friday, July 27th, 2012

This, from Margaret Atwood: “Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.” (From her book Negotiating with the Dead.)

Isn’t this true? When you begin working on an essay or a story or a poem, something is obscured, but you don’t necessarily know what. There can be an emptiness – a void, the sense of something unknown or unspoken, something felt but not fully expressed yet. And you work with it, around it, towards it. You dive down into the darkness, and find – or rather create – a pattern, a way of shedding light.

And if you go down there and come up with nothing, well, you just do it all again the next day, and the next … Diving and writing, writing and diving.

Being a ‘real writer’

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

When my book was published, a writer friend said to me, ‘now you must feel that you’re a REAL writer?’ I know what she meant, because having a first book published does feel like a watershed, an event that defines you as the real thing. I also knew that it was false – the product and the process are quite far apart at times. (Though I love having published a book and my publishers, Black Inc, were and are terrific.) Now, four months after publication, I can see the irony. Now I’m a ‘writer’, I’m doing less writing than I was before I was published! The past year or so I have spent editing my book, proof reading it and then doing publicity for the book. I really enjoy talking about autism and memoir and meeting readers – its been great. But there hasn’t been much time or energy for writing anything new – until now anyhow.

That feeling of noticing the world in a different way, looking at people and places slantwise has finally returned to me. I’m back at the beginning of a writing project, fumbling around in the darkness, no idea what I am doing or why, making obscure notes on the back of shopping lists, cutting out articles from the paper and then wondering which side I cut it out for, borrowing bizarre books from the local library (thank you City of Melville), listening to the sound of crunching leaves underfoot, being preoccupied without knowing what preoccupies me, feeling horribly restless and then unable to settle to anything, waking from dreams that escape just as I reach for them, buying my son red shoes … hold on, perhaps the red shoes aren’t a sign that I’m writing again, though they could be, because I love the colour that is back in life when I’m sort of, almost, writing again. It can be painful though, the struggle to create something new, something worthwhile and beautiful and true, which is what I strive to do. Still, like a lot of life’s pain, I don’t want to do without it!