THIS ITCH (THE BLUE NIB: The Write Life)
In ‘Jesus in a Tree’, Diana Powell describes transplanting details from her own life into her fiction. The inclusion of known life –
her own – into unknown life – her fictional world – satisfies a need for personal connection: ‘this is me’, even though none of
her readers may be aware thaT it is. Does it matter that the source of the image is her particular perception? Isn’t what matters
the sheer evocative power of an image like ‘Jesus in a tree’? Isn’t that part of a writer’s gift, the ability to illuminate a perception
through words: what, to adapt Alexander Pope, may have been apprehended but never so evocatively expressed? To acknowledge
and find significance in the ephemera of our being? We perceive the world uniquely, yet that ability to perceive is also part of our
shared humanity. No matter whether we write about what we know in a literal sense or not, we write about what we perceive,
we write about how we imagine life has been, is, or might be.
Talcum powder puffs up from my baby brother’s bare bottom. He is lying across my mother’s lap in the bathroom at the Hill.
She smiles at me: ‘What are we going to call him?'
I am only three years old, yet that sudden luminous sense of the power of words, hovering like the floating motes of talc, is with me
still. Absurd, of course: I had no power, certainly not in any naming; my mother wouldn’t even have remembered what she said.
But that’s where the writing starts.
Years later, I’m congratulating a student on his prize winning story. He grins and shrugs and asks
‘What’s with this writing thing anyhow, Miss? Like, I mean, why?’
What to say? Where to even start? My turn to shrug: ‘It’s an itch you’ve got to scratch, that’s all.’ An itch you’ve got to scratch:
the personal sensation has an immediacy which philosophy can only dream of.
My own teachers were very different. Miss L mounted the dais when she talked about POETRY. She clasped her hands, gazed out
the window… and snorted. Phlegmily.
Mrs. C’s academic gown was always off one shoulder, and she scrawled rather than printed on the blackboard; but she also scrawled
in my margins. What scored a high mark from one did not from the other. I wrote accordingly. The personal became pragmatic.
It took me a long time to admit that I ‘wrote’. The creed of grammar schools then was that you could never presume to be in the same
league as Austen, Bronte, Eliot, Lessing... never mind the poets. Yours not to emulate, yours to appreciate. In the boarding house, I wrote
compositions and kept my parents up to date every Letter Writing Sunday. The personal was too petty.
At school, essays were to show one’s appreciation of literature; at university, the y were to expand it. My reading was changing my thinking;
my writing was trying to understand how… and why.
In final year, there were no lectures or tutorials on James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. I decided I would ‘do’ it anyway. I made up an elaborate thesis about coalescence and consummation, which I’ve long since forgotten; what I do remember is my glee when the exam results came out.
The personal had done it.
Ireland to Sydney: context pulled from under my feet. Aerogrammes: flimsy blue butterflies
flitting from one hemisphere to the other. Newsletter for Darlinghurst Resident Action Group (DRAG). Lesson plans, teaching:
‘Are the stories true you wonder, as you picture circling leers round the plump staccato rears’…
My first story is published.
My partner and I decentralize: context sideswiped again. A regional theatre group sets up; I write
a play about sexism and pyramid selling. The actors come for dinner in character. I hesitate about putting tomato sauce on the table;
one character would take it with everything. I don’t. I serve up dinner. He asks for tomato sauce. I am over the moon.
The play is performed to applause. But I’m not in a city, there’s my partner and babies and the casual teaching list.
I go to a ‘writing’ workshop. The others lean forward, notebooks quivering. By the time it’s my turn, I’ve decided nobody is really
interested in any words but their own and I don’t care what they might think of mine anyway. The personal is on my own.
There is a new genre: Young Adult fiction. What voice do I know? The kids.
Like Atticus Finch, I start walking around inside somebody else’s skin. The personal is empathetic.
So it goes; so I juggle. My YA fiction is published… until my publisher is taken over by a bigger company and they change their list. Extension English, full time teaching, my own children finishing
school; I don’t have time or energy. And how long can you continue writing YA fiction when you
are now essentially a HA? (Historical Adult) I keep writing stories, like a spider, spinning webs out of myself, taking time to make time… Rejections feel personal. But so do successes.
Enough juggling. Time is running out. I sign up for a PhD in creative writing. The creative part becomes my first Historical Fiction. I imagine myself into a world I can’t possibly know except through research and discovery and personal whatiffering; like music, I’m transposing into another key. The key turns and it’s published. But that never means the next one will be. And there are all these new writers and new ways of writing for me to read and admire and…
keep scratching that itch…
'I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say', said Flannery O'Connor. Seems like a suitable quotation
for a blog. Writing becomes a habit of mind: whole conversations rehearse themselves inside one person's head... relating
with infinite variety to what's actually said. In that sense, reading is like writing... except that some total stranger is
speaking the other part.
So... I read what someone else says to recognize what I've thought but not managed to say... or for the thrill of the
unimagined 'yet', the unexplored mindscape...
2021: I return to my blog as I extend and improve this website. Time to get my literary house in order... that's this week.
this week. Next week... there's a story. Some poetry? Another novel?
FEBRUARY 19th 2017
HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY OF AUSTRALASIA
Trained it down to Melbourne to be one of the HNSA'S 'meet the author' panel in
Melbourne's Mail Exchange Hotel: an opportunity to share views and clues about historical fiction.
Answers to questions
The immediate inspiration for LIVING LIKE A KELLY was, quite simply, an old woman’s face. In the historic courthouse building in Beechworth, there is a photograph of Ellen Kelly with two of her grandchildren. Looking into those deepset eyes in their nest of wrinkles and imagining how much
they had seen… that was the moment I knew I’d write her story. I have been fascinated by myths
and mythmaking all my life and there would be no Ned Kelly myth without his mother.
2. The novel formed the creative component of a PHD in Creative Writing, illustrating its critical thesis,
SUCH IS LIFE: MYTH AND MEANING. My enquiry was into the subjective nature of mythmaking and
how stories made through individual memory and imagination might become the myths of a
whole society. I was also interested in adding a woman’s voice to a predominantly male narrative.
3. As a migrant to Australia, I am particularly interested in the colonial experience: how you cope when
everything you’ve taken for granted all your life no longer applies, how you adapt or don’t adapt,
how you create a new tradition.
4. My primary resources were books: historical documents such as those available in the State library,
secondary sources such as the books making the moral arguments for or against Kelly as well as histories of the period: the outstanding one being Ian Jones’ NED KELLY: A SHORT LIFE. I was also lucky enough to have Ian Jones’s personal advice and support; with him, I have explored the various Kelly sites in and around Beechworth.
5. The distinction between the imagined and the actual past is like a rainbow; you can never quite
reach it. The notion of historical authenticity contrasts historical actuality with historical myth or fiction. Yet does not the myth become real once people believe in it and act accordingly?
Whose matter of fact is accepted as the fact of the matter, and how do we go back to check?
Suffice it to say that I think the historical novelist has a responsibility to stay true to the facts in so far as they are known… and where they are not known, to imagine within the bounds of
6. My favourite character in LIVING LIKE A KELLY would have to be Ellen herself. After that photographic
encounter, I discovered a headstrong, horse mad little girl from the North of Ireland…very much like
myself. After a voyage across world, she grew into a woman of courage and resourcefulness, who may have loved not wisely but too well... but who never gave in.
7. As an historical novelist, to some extent your plot is already there; it is difficult to imagine a Ned Kelly novel without his trial and execution. Interest, therefore, is as much in the weaving of the
web as in its length and breadth. For that same reason, you can’t fly by the seat of your pants
either; there is the matter of authenticity and historical conscience.
How long a book takes to write depends very much on circumstances; writing the novel as part of a
degree, for instance, ties you to an academic program. Other factors include availability of resources,
expenses, work commitments... and how long the story has been percolating away in your
head. Simplest of all, your life may get in the way.
8. Authors of influence include…
Hilary Mantel…. inside Cromwell’s skin…
Tim Winton… the Riders… going back to go forward…
Kate Grenville… how circumstances shape us…
David Malouf… an Imaginary Life… Ransom…mythmaking
9. Believe you have a story worth telling.
Give it time. Draft and redraft; if it’s worth telling, it’s worth telling as well as you possibly can.
10. My next book, OF BREATH AND BLOOD, is out there at the moment.
Set in Parramatta Female Factory, it centres around the 1827 riot, where the women
broke out of the factory to protest against conditions within it.