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:
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.
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.
Dear Reader, If you’re following along at home, you’ll notice that there is another bodily ills excerpt, which post-dates this one. So two should be one and so on, but no matter. I am tempted to re-name this section: How Reading Led Me to Incorrect Conclusions about The World, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring, and besides, the main subject is illness and its close companion, suffering. Howard Norman has observed that I have the tendency to compress events, amply demonstrated here. TW: see above.
As a child I was fascinated by tales of life-altering illness. In the books I read, such illness was accompanied by the development of moral courage and heroism, and most importantly, it attracted the admiration of others for one’s staunch attitude in the face of suffering.
Gwen had kept a volume of medical encyclopedias from the early sixties she’d acquired during one of her aborted attempts at becoming a nurse. I pored over its descriptions of illnesses, injuries and abnormalities of all stripes. There were colour transparencies showing organs, bones and blood, as well as engrossing pictures of suppurating sores and skin diseases. A whole section was dedicated on how to prepare for and survive a nuclear attack. I felt mildly envious of the pictures of children practising their responses to an H bomb: hiding under desks, their hands covering their necks, or with their neatly attired families in their bomb shelters, the mother in her immaculate dress preparing meals from their tinned supplies. I understood little of world affairs, but I understood enough to know that Kelmscott was so quiet and boring that I would never have reason to participate in such a drill.
I was particularly affected by the illustrations of the onset and development of polio, beginning with a girl having sore throat and a fever, being taken away by an ambulance, and emerging with callipers. As a child growing up in a household of smokers, I was always getting sore throats, and wondered, each time, if this were the day the ambulance would come for me. I pictured my parents standing worried over my hospital bed, hoped I wouldn’t need physiotherapy like Alan Marshall in I Can Jump Puddles, but was sure I would emerge with wisdom and patience, like Katy in What Katy Did.
If that weren’t enough, I was introduced to the consequences of child blindness caused by disease, first in Scholastic books on Helen Keller and her fascinating teacher, Annie Sullivan; and then by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her Little House series. In the latter, the scarlet fever which had beset the Ingalls family when Laura was thirteen resulted in her annoyingly perfect older sister Mary first having to have her long blonde hair shorn off, and then becoming blind as a result of the fever ‘settling’ in her eyes. This tragedy galvanises the family: makes them close, forces Laura to work hard in school to become a teacher to help contribute money to send Mary to Iowa School for the Blind, and (it is implied) causes Laura to become a writer, as she is suddenly required to be Mary’s eyes, narrating everything for her benefit.
How I longed for, and feared, a similar tragedy! I tried (and failed) to teach myself Braille, or even the raised alphabet, from the back of my Helen Keller book. I wandered around supermarkets behind Gwen, eyes squeezed shut, pretending to be blind, just in case.
When I was seven, my youngest cousin, Lara, was born. She was a chubby, healthy-looking child, at first, with halo of bright red hair, but she had a bronchial wheeze and developed a hacking cough. After being told she was a neurotic mother by a raft of GPs, my aunt happened to have two-year-old Lara with her at the children’s hospital while getting her son seen to after a playground accident.
‘I’m not worried about him,’ the treating doctor said, ‘but does the baby always breathe like that?’
Later that evening, my aunt and uncle were told that the suspected asthma was in fact cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that at that time had few effective treatments and a high fatality rate.
I understood from the grave tones in which Lara’s condition was discussed that her health was poor, and her prognosis serious, but to me she seemed mostly normal for a long time. She had a sunny and sweet temperament, and didn’t seem particularly interested in the excessive attentions she was given by adults, nor the indulgence allowed her if she wanted extra lollies or ice cream, denied to the rest of us not suffering from a life-limiting illness. She didn’t want to go on the below-ground trampoline that was my greatest envy: it had been bought in the hopes it might loosen the mucus in her lungs better than the physiotherapy with which her tiny ribs were hammered morning and evening, and which developed admirable arm muscles in my aunty. So my cousins and I took advantage instead, while Lara waited around inside, wanting us to play more sedentary games which, I am ashamed to say, I often avoided.
As a teenager, I sometimes resented that Lara was tolerated for things I had been criticized for: that is, she wasn’t smacked, or told no (very often), and if she complained, she was not informed she was a whinging child who needed something to really whinge about. Her food fussiness wasn’t a sign of moral degeneracy. I thought she was being spoiled, the way everyone treated her. She didn’t even seem that sick.
Until she did.
When she was seven, Lara started getting sicker. She was skinnier than I had been in my most extreme anorexic phase, and the kids at her school teased her about her knobbly knees so relentlessly she was taken out of school altogether. She became lethargic, watching her older brother and sister squabble and laugh and play without the longing she used to have: now she was too tired. She found drinking the powders and pills she took to help her digest harder to stomach.
And then, in January 1985, just after her eighth birthday, she died.
Gwen and I drove to my aunty and uncle’s house. I was scared of seeing my cousin’s dead body, but she seemed less dead than very, very still, neat in her bed. Her forehead was cooling as we kissed her goodbye. At her funeral, the coffin she was placed in was tiny, and it was not the effort of the weight of it that made the funeral directors lower it slowly down. Her brother and sister were considered too young to attend: only my cousin and I, being both fifteen, were allowed. There were prayers and the prayers did not comfort me.
I expected, based on all the books I’d read, that this type of tragedy would galvanize the family. As it was a time in my life where everything else seemed to be disintegrating, not least of which a reliable sense of self, I was keen for our family to unite over this terrible and unfair event. It seemed particularly galling to me, as someone taken to fervent bouts of Christian belief from time to time, that it befell the most religious of my mother’s family. The sufferings of Job were not incomparable: after losing Lara, my aunt and uncle’s only son, Konrad, developed the epilepsy which was the symptom of a to-be-fatal brain tumour.
But the loss of Lara rent the family, the increasing illness of her brother a further demonstration of the unrelenting unfairness that had befallen us. My grandparents raised the pitch of their mutual ire; my mother retreated into beer, cigarettes, and misery, and my aunty and uncle doubled down on the religiosity that promised that Lara wasn’t gone, just waiting for them in heaven.
Against their incomparable suffering, my own, which was chiefly mental, was not of a scale deserving of attention from my family. The primary events which had caused the mental suffering, such as my parents’ sudden separation, incidental molestation, and Gwen’s conga-line of men streaming through our various rented houses, were not recognised by my family as being any cause for comment. Indeed, I felt their criticism of me increased. My alternative dress now included stare-inducing dyed and radical hair; taking Gwen’s lead, I regularly drank myself into oblivion and took up indulging in more-or-less consensual sex with neighbourhood boys; and I found an outlet for my unnameable angst through epic episodes of binging and purging which left me with detailed knowledge of the least smelly public toilets adjacent to food courts in the metro area.
When I did finally land in an adolescent mental hospital later on in the year Lara died, this was not mentioned at the Sunday lunches I was allowed to attend on weekend leave; instead, the usual teasing or mocking I received from certain relatives morphed into a watchful silence. A person was meant to deal with unpleasant feeling through acceptable methods such as imbibing quantities of home brew or flaying oneself into martyrdom. A person was, above all, meant to keep it to oneself instead of putting on a show, or making a spectacle of yourself, or in any other way making the invisible visible to all.
One happy result of my multiple mental hospitalisations was that I finally stopped thinking there was something wrong with me, and started thinking there was something wrong with the family I’d grown up in.
Dear Reader, I have been beavering away at the memoir (and, as it happens, a few other creative projects besides) so I thought it was time to share some of what is turning out to be a rather lengthier chapter than the rest (to date). Howard Norman has suggested that I use the structure of this final part as a template for what I will do once I return to fill out the previous five. The lacunae in the first draft of this section are shared by the rest of the manuscript, so I am cutting out superfluous information, slowing down the compressed narrative, adding in dialogue, including more about Annie, and, as always, trying to reconstruct how it was I was feeling about it all as it was happening. So, here’s a taster.
It was a bright summer’s Wednesday in February 2015. I woke up in my small but airy unit in inner city Maylands, with Annie in her room and Hecta curled in his basket. The year’s first meeting of the Public Administration Committee would be held at 9am: the committee was inquiring into prisoner transport, and today I’d be advising on which prisons and lock-ups to visit, which witnesses to call to give evidence. I couldn’t wait. I had a committee chair I got on famously with, and a job which married my love of research and writing with my curiosity about the world. Since I’d left calling the Council to attention as Black Rod, I’d done inquiries into pastoral leases, flying over the striated red plains of the Kimberley in a plane so small I’d had to breathe into a paper bag as it see-sawed to land; recreational hunting, which had taken me to the remote forests of Orange, New South Wales, where I met hunters who hated the industrial meat industry, and to Victoria near where I’d had my horse-riding accident, and where I cuddled rescued baby wombats. Now, prisoner transport.
I had reason to believe that the wheel of fortune was indeed moving on and up. I had taken Annie to New York in January, aided by a grant I had got to attend a writing retreat in Vermont at the beginning of February. The distance from our Perth-based woes had been bracing, as had minus-25-degree-centigrade Vermont. While I was away, the guardian had arranged for John to be placed in care, and the sale of the house was in its final throes.
On my first day back from the US, dizzy with jetlag, I had visited John in his new abode, a locked dementia unit his father had also been in. I was worried he’d be sad about not having Hecta there, or that the move would be unsettling. Neither thing appeared to bother him. He greeted me cheerfully: he did not notice my three-week absence. He still knew who I was and was happy to see me. We went out into the beautifully landscaped courtyard. He proceeded to strip the foliage from every bush there, and deposited the leaves in his pockets. When I left, I told him I’d be back tomorrow and he waved and smiled and turned away, unconcerned. After four very difficult years, it was a relief.
Before I left for work, I checked my phone to see if Nigel had replied to my good-night text the night before. He hadn’t, which was unusual, but it had been the first sitting night of the new parliamentary year. Perhaps he was tired, or distracted. I sent another good-morning message, and got in the car.
Because it was committee meeting day, I did not have time to write, as I usually might have. I had been translating Annie’s experience of having a father developing early onset Alzheimer’s into a young adult novel, Before You Forget. Writing provided me with the optimism inherent in the making of coherence. When I wrote, I was no longer at the mercy of the tangled feelings, reactions, hopes, and regrets, the habitual composite of which I experienced as myself. Having watched someone’s selfhood dissolve into a morass of reaction, repetition and anxiety, I also had the dual perception of knowing that Self – anybody’s – wasn’t solid in the least. At minimum, it was reliant on the possession of adequate myelin, something over which nobody had control, no matter how much Sudoko you might play. Neither the witty-lovely-John nor impatient-angry-John I’d lived with were solid or reliable or true: they were the product of electrical impulses in the brain as much as the product of experience, let alone a flimsy notion such as choice. The contemplation of this led to regular existential abysses from which, I often told people, I was only rescued by Nigel.
For Nigel remained my untainted good thing. No matter the storm that surrounded us, he remained steadily at the helm, navigating me through of the chaos of administrative tribunals, the wrath of people earned (his now ex-wife) and unearned (my ex-in-laws). He was careful in his reactions, reliable in that his words and deed exactly matched each other, entirely opposite to the daily volatility I had experienced with John. The ways in which he was exciting – taking me riding on the back of his Ducati, impromptu visits to golf and gun ranges, quad biking and helicopter riding, surprise plane fares to my brother’s 50th and Broome holidays – were perfectly balanced by his in-person calmness, his Islander reserve, focused listening, and unruffled demeanour.
Before I went into the meeting, I checked my phone again. Still no text from Nigel. I would go and see him at lunch time in his office, the way we always did on a sitting day. He would be handsome in his bar jacket and jabot, and his kind eyes would be happy to regard me after an absence, the way they always were.
I was part way through the meeting on prisoner transport when one of the committee staff came to the door and asked for me.
Dear Reader, a warning (or invitation, depending) that this entry deals with more musing on the process of writing a memoir. Come back later if this is not your thing.
The (at the moment) final chapter of How to Avoid a Happy Life is entitled ‘Find Yourself and Your New Partner Being Chased Down the Street by a Phalanx of Reporters’. It has been the section most difficult to write, and after kind, expansive, and direct feedback from my marvellous mentor Howard Norman, it turns out I’m not nearly done with it yet.
The reason this chapter was difficult to write is not because, or not only because, it deals with my partner’s 2015 very public mental breakdown, which led to the chasing described in the title. Although reflecting on the events that led to the above, and everything that happened subsequently, was less than edifying, the difficulty for me as a writer is simply that there is Too Much Information.
How do you decide what to leave in and out in a memoir? In fiction it is easy (relatively): anything that does not serve your narrative trajectory is out. But in a memoir, there is a fine balance between explaining too much and leaving your reader baffled.
By way of example, at the beginning of 2015, I was working in a committee of the Legislative Council of Western Australia, the context of which is important to understand for the impact of subsequent events. In the first draft, I have tried to summarise the salient features of committees and the Council thus:
Committee meetings are, generally, considered sacred. As creatures of Parliament, committees operate under the Standing Orders of the chambers, have the same powers and privileges as the Parliament itself, with considerably more secrecy attached to their proceedings. If anybody, staff or member alike, broke committee confidentiality, they could be subject to the exercise of the powers of the House, which included fines and imprisonment for contempt.
Unlike some Westminster parliaments, which have required themselves to observe procedural fairness or removed their ability to imprison for contempt all together, the Western Australian parliament in 2015 had not legislated its powers away. It had imprisoned someone as recently as 1995. Then, the Usher of the Black Rod had been sent to arrest former public servant Brian Easton after he refused to apologise to the Council after his involvement in a political scandal, the consequences of which resulted in a Royal Commission, the charging of a former Premier for perjury, and the suicide of Easton’s ex-wife. Unlike the Legislative Assembly, which was generally prepared to keep its powers in reserve, the Legislative Council was regarded as being far jumpier about upholding its privileges.
So, being called out of a committee meeting was so out of the ordinary that even before I was at the door, I was wondering if somebody had died.
I suspect you started yawning somewhere between the first and second paragraphs. How much is necessary to give adequate information on what comes next?
Howard Norman has given me the following task: if the information in the expository parts is not integral or indispensable, cut, or at minimum, streamline.
The other, trickier part is to slow the velocity and tension in what I’m writing, but to still keep pace. Because there is so much sheer chronology to fit in, I have gone hammer-and-tongs in this chapter. There is much by way of immediacy, but this is at the risk of emotional depth. As Howard said, a memoir isn’t Wikipedia.
One of the ways Howard has suggested doing this is reflecting on the contrast between the sheer public nature of what happened and how it was, experiencing it privately. Include in it not only what happened, but how you survived it.
Dear Reader, this section contains descriptions of the above, as well as a couple of creepy doctors.
In January 1993, I had my first close encounter with bodily ills which, in bringing me uncomfortably close to mortality, provided a new lens through which I saw the world.
I was working in a ski lodge in Dinner Plains in the high country of Victoria. During one of my free days, I had been placed on an ex-racehorse to take up the rear of a trail ride. I had blusteringly said to the owner of the trail ride company that oh yes, I had ridden horses before, not revealing that the horses involved were tough-mouthed nags on trail rides in the sandy plains of Perth, horses which would no more rise to a trot than they would begin discussing world affairs over the feedlot.
The ex-racehorse, realising it had an inexperienced rider lacking the moral force required for control of a large animal, took advantage by racing up the inside of the plodding trail horses the minute he was able, before bolting across an open plain and heading for the trees, most of which featured branches the exact height required for scraping off unwanted passengers.
‘Sit back!’ yelled the trail leader.
‘I can’t!’ I wailed back.
I tried to un-wedge my Doc Martens from the stirrups without success.
‘Agh!’ I responded.
In order to get to the scraping-off branches, the horse first had to navigate a series of fallen logs. I’d always wanted to try horse jumping, preferably in a sandy ring with nicely painted Koppers logs, rather than involuntarily, in the middle of the Victorian highlands, three hours away from the nearest hospital.
The horse jumped. I did a backward somersault, which might have been okay if a) it hadn’t been over the top of fallen logs, and b) my foot hadn’t been jammed in the stirrup. Going by the resulting bruising and injuries, I landed first on my lumbar spine on one log, then pivoted onto a second with my thoracic, my ankle sustaining a clean break as it wrenched from the stirrup.
When I realised I was on the ground, rather than being decapitated by a branch or dragged along the ground like a papist during the reign of Henry the Eighth, I was, for a moment, relieved. Then the combination of being unable to breathe and pain of a magnitude I had never experienced combined to make me wonder if I was dying, or, if I wasn’t, whether death would be preferable.
The trail riders caught up with me. As soon as I was able to breathe, I began to moan.
‘Stand by,’ said one of the trail riders. ‘I’m a doctor.’
The doctor proceeded to prod and poke various bodily parts, including my back and my legs, prompting me to moan more loudly.
‘Be quiet,’ he said. ‘I’ve been in Vietnam, and I’ve seen men in real pain.’
I used all of my Kelmscott words to describe exactly what I thought of him and his opinion.
‘Her back’s not broken, but her leg is,’ he pronounced to the assembled.
‘The ambulance can’t get in this far,’ the trail leader said. ‘We’ll have to get the ute to get to the road.’
Being lifted into the back of the ute, and being transported on a bumpy bush track to the ambulance, took the pain to yet a new, piercing level. The ambulance then took some hours to wend down the mountain to what was less a hospital than a nursing outpost, which was not equipped with Xray equipment equal to the task, so I was bundled back into the ambulance and transported a further hour to the mainland hospital, by which time I was retching with pain unrelieved by a Panadol lozenge. The pain radiated around my ribs as if I were encased with barbed wire, and my foot and ankle bloated and throbbed.
The pain around my ribs was caused by compressed thoracic fractures, apparently to the surprise of Dr I’ve-Been-In-Vietnam, and the ankle was a Potts fracture which was pushed back into place by the orthopaedic surgeon after filling me full of pethidine.
Gwen flew over to Victoria, with a mixture of concern and annoyance, to return me home, an echo of the trip she had made in 1964, except this time returning with an injured adult child. It was the first time she’d set foot in Melbourne since relinquishing her son nearly thirty years before, and she hated it no less on this occasion. She wheeled me around the city, which was not especially wheelchair-friendly in 1993, all the while complaining about the cost of everything and how stressful it was and how she missed her husband. We arrived back in Perth, to my dismay and her delight: my wheelchair didn’t fit in the house, and neither did I.
I was admitted to hospital for a couple of weeks, in the hopes that my pain levels would subside long enough for me to use crutches. As I had been hospitalised interstate, I had a single room until they were sure I wasn’t harbouring golden staph. The room was abutted by a shower cubicle which had a partition under which one could see. Although it was supposed to be for disabled folk, it was not quite big enough to accommodate a wheelchair, nor did it have a working lock. Gwen got her GP in attendance, an ever-smiling man whose eyes kept dipping below my neckline as he spoke to me. One day I was showering, my casted foot wrapped in plastic while I sat on a plastic chair, having hopped over to it, when the doctor came and said he wanted to see me.
‘I’m in the shower,’ I told him, redundantly, as I could see his shoes under the door.
‘I just want to see how you’re moving,’ he said.
I turned the shower off and hopped toward the towel. ‘Just wait,’ I said.
He pushed the door open; I leaned back on it, hoping my wet, good foot wouldn’t slip.
‘I’ll be out in a minute,’ I said.
‘I don’t have time,’ he said angrily, and started shoving against the door while I, with my newly fractured back, held the door as fast as I could.
Eventually he gave up, and I shakily retreated to my bed. When they moved me to the women’s ward later that day, I was relieved, even though I was kept awake by my fellow residents, old women with dementia wailing, or snoring, or else trying to get into bed with each other. It was better than having my mother’s GP get into bed with me.
Sometimes I do not feel I have been well served by the books that I read as a child. They did not correctly inform me of the effects of the tragedies, or mere misfortunes, borne of bodily ills. You might find yourself getting wisdom through being forced to re-examine your life from the unusual prism provided by pain, illness, and life-limiting diseases in your close kin. However, you are much more likely, in my experience, to find your family fracturing in imitation of a crushed bone, or to find yourself preyed upon by those attracted by your vulnerability.
Dear Reader, if reflections on writing are not your bag, stay tuned for another installment of the memoir, coming soon. Also, TW below: suicidal ideation.
Writing a memoir is not for the faint of heart. People often joke about putting things in their memoirs, or of what they’ll write when they retire etc, but the strange combination of detachment and unflinching honesty which is required to write a memoir requires fortitude and therapy in roughly equal amounts.
To taste the sea, all one needs is one gulp.
My mentor Howard Norman asked me why I had applied to him for help. I’ve published more than a dozen novels and understand, obviously, the discipline required to write (and to deal with the vagaries of publishing, which is a whole other matter). I understand, I hope, structure and pace and developing characters. But writing fiction, even if autobiographically inspired, is a different beast to a memoir. A memoir is not a history, and, as Howard Norman reminded me, it requires many of the same elements of fiction writing. But the intersection with Others, and the need to understand and describe your own responses and reactions, are two things not required by fiction, and which I need to get a handle on.
I have a tendency toward the dense and the summary, for example, which means that I need to go back and develop further. For example, I began one of my chapters with ‘I celebrated my sixteenth birthday by deciding it was time to kill myself’. I give a brief overview of the factors that led to this, but it needs more than a flippant faux-dramatic sentence. Similarly I mention finishing my PhD at the same time as another event happening: apparently I need to explain a bit about my compulsion to study and how I have managed it among the unfolding chaos. Howard says: slow down. Explain.
Which brings me to the Other People problem. I have not included very much about my daughter’s growing up with a father developing Alzheimer’s, as well as having been otherwise difficult, because I don’t want to describe her experience. But in memoir, it is important to give the full picture of your main characters. I need to explain how I thought she was coping with things. So it’s tricky.
And then there’s defamation. There are some things I know I will not be able to publish, but I need to write my perspective of what happened and edit later. Legal Aid gives a handy guide to defamation in Western Australia which I have by my computer:
If someone causes harm to your reputation by publishing material about you that changes the way people feel about you, you may have been harmed in a legal sense. Not all offensive, embarrassing or upsetting remarks cause harm to your reputation.
Defamation is when words have been spoken or written which:
harm your reputation in the eyes of ordinary people in the community,
harm your reputation in your trade or profession (for example, lead you to get less work), or
are likely to result in you being shunned, avoided, made fun of, or despised.
A claim for defamation is a complex, time consuming and expensive legal matter.
The law in Western Australia encourages people to resolve disputes about defamation without going to court. Even if defamation is proven, it does not mean the court will award you much or anything in damages.
Fortunately for memoir-istas everywhere there’s also this: Things like gossip or embarrassing stories are unpleasant, but do not amount to defamation unless they cause the required harm to your reputation.
So, I need to test to make sure that I don’t include that kind of material. (Luckily you can’t defame the dead, so some of it will be fine!)
The process of writing continues to be a joy, a puzzle, a privilege. I am grateful to have this time to be doing it, and if you’re considering doing it to, investing in a mentor might just be the thing you need.
Dear Reader, as my present week has been dominated by death, I thought it might be time for its opposite. Content warning: may contain mention of vaginas and the things that come out of them.
A vigorous easterly wind rustled the overhead canopies, bringing hot weather and sneeze-producing wheat dust from the recent harvest, as John and I trod the deserted footpaths of the co-op in the middle of the night, trying to hasten the contractions that remained stubbornly at a you-don’t-need-to-come-in-yet distance apart. Images of women rushing to hospital to immediately give birth in television shows bore no resemblance to the interminable hours we spent waiting. The child had already shown a reluctance to leave the womb by being ten days overdue: when I’d had a scan to make sure all was in order, the report came back ‘VERY active baby’. The baby’s in-utero kick-boxing and half pikes with twists, however, did not translate to any desire to exit its enclosed comfort. I began to wonder if the child would emerge at all, or whether I was having a very convincing phantom pregnancy.
All the things I had thought I would want at the birth – all my close friends, a masseuse, gentle music playing in the background, to be in water, to endure without pain relief – were the opposite to what I actually wanted when my body started the work required to expel the baby from its watery home and into the world. John eagerly responded to my demands for medicine balls, apple juice, a receptacle to vomit in, but I regarded him balefully, him being responsible for me being in this predicament in the first place, and was relieved each time he went off to nap on the couch. Gwen, in contrast, was completely present and knew exactly what words to say and when for perhaps the only time in my life, only once leaving the room to sob because the sounds I made birthing resembled the sounds Frank had made, dying.
There was no comfort to be had during labour: it was labour spiritual, emotional and physical. I entered the birthing tub only to immediately leave it: contrary to what it said on the tin, the still water intensified the pain of contractions and the warm water added to the already unbearable overheating. I vomited without caring I was vomiting, or where. I could not stop the diarrhoea which was no doubt worsened by the castor oil I’d taken to hasten this very event, so spent most of the second half of the labour alternating between standing in the shower and sitting on the toilet. When the midwife inserted her entire arm up my vagina, like a vet into the rear end of a cow in All Creatures Great and Small, to see how I was progressing, I could not have cared less. When she intoned approvingly ‘roomy pelvis’ upon retracting her limb, I felt re-energised with pride. I was built for doing this. I would never care about anything ever again. All the other activities and concerns of my life – writing, relationships, education, work, endlessly agonising over this thing and that thing – fell away. There was nothing beyond this. All human history and human endeavour, I was convinced, culminated in this act. I understood why men were obsessed with creating their own brain children, ideas of Uber mensch, of domination through violence and war: in the face of this, men were powerless and pointless.
These lofty considerations, as well as certainty and concern for dignity, fell away when the transition to the final stage of labour began and the pain took on an all-encompassing dimension which I had naively believed had already been reached. When I inquired, ‘Is it too late for some pethidine?’ I already knew the answer, and had a brief reflection on all the women before me who had died in childbirth. I understood now the extremity of being required for this ordinary act: these women were heroes. They fought and they lost, but the point was the fighting.
I was sitting on the toilet, resting in between the only thing that now existed in the world – the tense and release of pain – when the midwife suggested now might be a good time to stand up. I was surprised to feel, when I reached an inquiring hand down, a warm cantaloupe-shape protruding from my nether regions. As speedily as the preceding ten months had gone slowly, the baby was caught by the midwife and placed, bloody, purplish and whole, on my lap.
For second the baby was still, and then with a jerk reared back, took air, and yelled.
I stared at this fully formed human I had produced. I looked from the black-haired infant to John and Gwen, who were both crying, united in astonishment.
‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ Gwen asked, when she could.
‘Oh,’ I said. I lifted the chubby knee a little and said, ‘It’s a girl. I think.’
Some time later – after the afterbirth, the stitching, the first suckling – John and I gazed in wonder at the swaddled infant.
‘Ba-ba-ba-ba,’ John crooned, as he had been crooning at my stomach for months.
I tried to tally this curled-up collection of limbs, spine, shoulders with the unknown shapes I had felt under my stretched skin. Outside, I would have to learn the shape of this baby anew. Then I felt the side of her foot, and recognised what I had felt beneath my ribcage. I had massaged this nub of flesh and felt it push back in response. If I closed my eyes and massaged the foot under the swaddling, I found myself reassured by this edge, this relic of familiarity between one state and the next.
‘Baby Annie,’ I said. ‘Welcome.’
As foreshadowed by the ultrasound report, Annie came out a VERY active baby. She was alert, interested in all movement, and ready to be amused.
Baby Annie did not take to sleep, mostly because this interrupted her access to her supply of milk, which she extracted voraciously, and also because it robbed her of the opportunity to be involved in whatever was going on.
I would sit outside in the mornings with her on my lap, under the shade of the eaves, the scribbly gum drooping nearby, the nasturtium leaves a pillow of green. I found myself singing the songs Gwen had sung to me as a child: A You’re Adorable, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Close to You. She would smile and kick her legs, and I felt a comforting continuity with my female bloodline which I had never before experienced. In these mornings, breathing in clean air, staring in wonder at this miracle of flesh, I felt content.
It seems timely, dear Reader, to share this with you. Content alert: see above.
There is a photo of my mother in a coffin.
Her eyes are closed but her glasses are still on, indicating that she is, in fact, alive. She’s clutching a bouquet of fake red roses, and is surrounded by bunches of fake flowers in real (although empty) beer bottles. She’s managing not to smile.
The coffin belonged to one of Gwen’s ex-boyfriends. I think his name was John, but it might have been Allan, or Steve, or Mike. It was a great prop to bring to a Halloween party in 1990, and much hilarity no doubt ensued as people climbed in and out of it, pretending to be dead.
My mother no longer has to pretend to be dead. Just before she reached that inevitable state, we were discussing funeral arrangements.
‘Hey Mum,’ I said. ‘Do you remember that boyfriend of yours – the undertaker?’ ‘John?’ she said (or Allan/Steve/Mike). ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Could he do your funeral?’ ‘No, he’s dead,’ she said.
And then we laughed and laughed, until the cancer in her kidney gave her a pain in the stomach and she was reduced to wincing and giggling.
It was a moment of levity, taking place for her in the midst of three weeks of surprise suffering, belated and incomplete taking stock, and indignities; and for me, in the midst of surprise anguish, attempted and ineffectual resolution-finding, followed by a years-long eruption of feelings of abandonment hitherto under- if not unfelt.
My mother had been threatening to die since I was seventeen. Then, she’d been diagnosed with emphysema, but continued smoking and living until a series of strokes at the age of 56 put paid completely to the first, and curtailed the style in which she’d been doing the latter. For eighteen years she’d been a hemiplegic, sustained primarily by a diet of ham sandwiches and pies, increasingly confined to her loungeroom chair, her legs and feet distended with retained fluid. She criticised everyone and everything from this vantage point, softened only by offerings of stuffed or porcelain meerkats, or by beating her husband in the daily cryptic crossword.
Every time someone famous or heroic died, she’d say, ‘Here I am sitting on my fat arse, useless as tits on a bull.’
She was regularly taken by ambulance to hospital after falls, unexplained drops in iron levels, twisted bowels, or cysts. After each phone call, on my way to the hospital, I’d wonder if this really was the beginning of the very drawn-out end.
‘They reckon there’s nothing wrong with me,’ she’d say, sounding irritated. ‘But what would they know.’
She hated her doctor and said he was useless, but would not go to a different one. Her husband was constantly going to specialists and doctors: when I inquired why, she said, ‘How would I bloody know? He doesn’t tell me anything.’ When I pointed out she could, as a concerned wife, ask him, she looked at me as if it was a stupid question, requiring no response.
At work, after her actual funeral, I found language to be inadequate to explain to colleagues how I was feeling, or the nature of my relationship with my mother. As a shortcut, I displayed the picture of Gwen-in-a-party-coffin as a shorthand way of saying I was having a hard day.
When I was crying next to her bedside, close to the end, she said, ‘Remember the good times.’
You can’t remember the good times unless you’ve reconciled with The Rest of It. The Rest of It is never simple, linear, or confined to one’s own experiences. Grief, if you had a childhood resembling mine in any way, dumps The Rest of It unceremoniously on you. First, you’ve got to dig your way out of it. Then you’ve got to sort it – that lump there, that lump there – until you’ve got piles you can Marie Kondo, and only then, beneath all the rubble, you can find the things that give you joy. Or, if not joy, a sense of satisfaction that The Rest of It is in the past, and you, by some combination of luck, love, and sheer bloody mindedness, are here.
This is the blog which will contain my reflections on the process of writing a memoir entitled How to Avoid a Happy Life. I did a straw poll, which heartily endorsed having a separate site from my website containing young-people-related bookish content. So, this is it.
For years I have had people saying to me: you should write a memoir. But I had no idea how I would form the wildly varied and chaotic and weird collection of experiences into something coherent. Then my mother died at the end of 2019, and the ensuing extremity of grief and the re-triggering of trauma meant that writing became a necessity. I had to make order of the chaos. And the only way I could do this was by adding liberal doses of irony to temper the ‘did that shit really happen?’ nature of it all.
I am undertaking this with the mentoring support of US writer and memoirist Howard Norman. He is a Vermont-based novelist and memoirist whose has twice been named as a finalist for the National Book Award in the United States and whose books have been translated into fourteen languages. He has received the Lannan Award in Literature and is Professor Emeritus of Literature at the University of Maryland. If that wasn’t enough achievement, he has also received a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, the Harold Morton Landon Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and the New England Book Award.
Howard is also a great human. If you haven’t read his memoir I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, I highly recommend it, along with all of his other books. They’re tricky to get in Australia, but worth your persistence.
I look forward to sharing the process of writing, re-writing, and reflection with you.
You must be logged in to post a comment.