Minds Went Walking

Dear Reader, it’s been a long time – months!

Since last I wrote, I am pleased to report that I have completed a proper draft of How to Avoid a Happy Life, and am awaiting marked up pages from my mentor, Howard Norman, without whom it would not be finished at all. He has brought to it and to me his wisdom, wit, and incisive but kind criticism. There have been a few times during the drafting that I’ve felt that going on was beyond me, that I could not do the subject matter justice, or fulsomely explain this thing or that thing, or put certain matters into the context I would like them to be in. But Howard always is at hand with an apt quote or a comforting observation – including, at a particular juncture during which taking a vow of silence seemed appealing, that writing a memoir will drive even the most experienced writer to despair. That a memoir is not stenography.

The memoirs I have been reading lately have reinforced to me that a story well told is more powerful than fiction. Recently, I’ve read and adored:

Found, Wanting by Natasha Sholl

Big Love by Brooke Blurton

The Sins of My Father by Lily Dunn

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

Memoir is a way of working out what happened, and putting it in context and order: done well, they are windows into the lives of others which deepen our understanding of how to live, how others live, and how we might regard others with kindness. All of these books do that and more.

In other (related) news, I am over the moon that the first narrative non-fiction piece I’ve published for some years – also dealing with some of the same subject matter appearing in one of the memoir’s chapters – has appeared in a fine collection called Minds Went Walking: Paul Kelly’s Songs Reimagined, edited by Mark Smith, Neil A. White, and Jock Serong. My piece is entitled Dumb Things, set in 1987 and 1988, mostly in the Sydney I’d hitched to with my friend Carita. You don’t have to love Paul Kelly to pick up the collection and enjoy it, but if you do, you’ll feel a deep sense of communion with this book.

Faking tough, 1987

Which brings me to one of the things I was saying to Howard in our most recent Zoom conversation. The memoir is called, as you know, How to Avoid a Happy Life. It is arranged, as you may have guessed if you’ve been a reader of this blog, around difficult events and experiences that have had force fields of their own. I hope that others, reading, will take comfort from tales from certain trenches. However, I have had the luck to have deep and abiding friendships, to have loved and been loved – not always, and not always consistently – but this has sustained me. And books, music, writing. Dogs and sunsets. And to have learned from my mother, ornery as she was, to lift your chin and keep going, no matter what, and especially no matter what people think. There have been times where I’ve felt ambivalent, to put it mildly, about life and the events it has visited on me and those I love, but mostly, I am grateful to have experienced it all.

I’m also grateful to have finished writing about it, for now.


Musings from memoir-land

Dear Reader, it has been an eventful time (London! Liverpool! COVID! Glasgow!) and I have been remiss on updating you on memoir progress, which has led some to surmise I have stopped.

I reached the 100k word count (yay!) at almost the same point that I realised the degree of difficulty of the enterprise (boo!) – no, that’s not quite true. I knew certain parts were going to be tricky, but answering the ‘What were you thinking?’ query is proving difficult to be able to answer in a way that is full, honest and makes a conveyable kind of sense. Sometimes, in life, you are only vaguely aware of why you or others are doing things: sometimes, it is only in retrospect, with reconstruction, that you can see the tapestry and not the stitching, but to write a memoir the answer cannot be ‘Nothing/Ten Different Things/I Don’t Really Know.’

The complicating factor of trauma is that the techniques you learn to survive it aren’t very helpful in trying to describe its impact on you. Mentally vacating the room, for example, is exactly what you need to do when you’re stuck in a situation you can’t physically escape; but describing that process, and what led to you needing to mentally vacate the room, without either glossing over it or depressing the bejesus out of the reader – well, it’s harder than it seems.

And then: what do you do with the happy bits? Like, you know, ABBA. Well, music in general. Writing about any life attunes you (ha) to the through-lines both of pain and joy. For me, music has been an enriching delight, and I remain grateful for who gave me the love of music – my mother, Mrs Sally Christmass, our wonderful music teacher and choir conductor, and ABBA, my pop-music gateway. To my great surprise, I am now an enthusiastic intermediate student of cello, in spite of physical conditions that once would have prevented me, and rehearsing with my musical-partner-in-broken-consorting, Nikki Jones. Again, how to describe the role music, and the friendships forged in music, has had without inducing eye-rolls in a reader?

The only way out is through, in writing and in life, and so I am writing and re-writing, paring and shaping.

And: if you get the chance to go to the ABBA Voyage concert in London, you’d be hard pressed to find more joy in one place.