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Flight of the Mind: Day 1, Summary

October 24, 2009
Geraldine Brooks, 2008 (Photo: Jeffrey Beall, via flickr, under Creative Commons CC-BY-ND-2.0)

Geraldine Brooks, 2008 (Photo: Jeffrey Beall, via flickr, under Creative Commons CC-BY-ND-2.0)

Today I went to the National Library of Australia’s Flight of the Mind conference – and, well, my mind took flight! The conference title comes from Virginia Woolf:

The old problem: how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact. All the difference between the sketch and the finished work.

Today’s program focused largely on the nexus between fact and fiction (or imagination). The sessions were:

Session 1: Kenneth Binns Lecture

Geraldine Brooks set the tone – as of course she must, being the key-note speaker – by arguing the value of historical fiction. It’s just as well Inga Clendinnen wasn’t there because, like Kate Grenville, Brooks argues that there is validity in “putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes”. She argued that in historical fiction we get “the constants of the human heart” even though the “material world” might be different. She said that the things that divide us – race, gender, creed, time, place – are less significant than the things that unite – love, pity, fear, compassion, and so on. I like her view of the world! I felt like asking her whether she agreed with Inga Clendinnen’s statement in The history question: Who owns the past? (Quarterly Essay 23) that: “It is that confusion between the primarily aesthetic purpose of fiction and the primarily moral purpose of history which makes the present jostling for territory matter”!! Basically, Clendinnen disagrees that novelists can make a contribution to history through, what Grenville described as, “empathising and imaginative understanding”. I’m simplifying a bit of course but, as I understand it, this is the nub – and I fundamentally disagree with Clendinnen (much as I admire her!)

Session 2: Creating fiction from fact: History as inspiration

The three speakers in this session essentially continued along Brooks’ theme, arguing about the truths that can be explored through fiction, with Goldsmith going so far as to say that as well as creating fiction out of fact, novelists can create “fact from fiction”. Rodney Hall talked a bit about the process of writing historical fiction and quoted Robert Graves who once told him to “write first, research later”. Hall suggested that it is important to get the facts right because once a reader stumbles across something they don’t believe, it interrupts the reader’s ability to lose themselves in the text. Fair enough I think – but clearly there are facts that need to be “right” and facts that can be “toyed with”. Otherwise, how could Hall get away with writing a novel titled The day we had Hitler home in which Hitler comes to Australia? It seems to me then that whichever way you look at it, readers of (historical) fiction need to understand in the end that they are reading FICTION!

Session 3: Recreating a creative life

This session focussed on the challenges of writing biography – of finding information, of making selections regarding what to include, and so on – and there were some interesting issues discussed but I’ll leave those for now.

Session 4: Writing across boundaries

Felicity Packard, who teaches creative writing as well as being a practising writer, made some points which clarified things nicely. She talked about working within the conventions of dramatic writing (such as Aristotle’s classic 3-part structure and the need to focus on just a couple of main questions) and the conventions of form (such as the 13-part television series). The other two speakers also referred to the issue of form. It made me realise that the writer of historical fiction works within two constraints – that of form, and that of the history they are working with. It can’t be easy!

Kevin Brophy also talked about the issue of plausibility. He said that journalism needs to do little to achieve plausibility, while fiction needs artifice to reach the same goal. And this brought me back to Geraldine Brooks’ reference in her key-note address to journalism being “the first rough draft of history”. Journalists, she said, get down the facts that are available at the time; then historians go back later and fill in the gaps using the additional records available to them after the passing of time. After all this is done, though, there are still voids – voices that are missing, such as, for example, those of the inhabitants of the plague village of Eyam upon which her novel Year of wonders is based. The historical novelist is, she said, “the filler of voids, the teller of lies” that convey “the emotional truths … the constants of the human heart”. I do wonder what Clendinnen would have said had she been there…but, in my view, today’s speakers did a good job of balancing “the exact” with their “flight[s] of mind”.

Oh, and if you would like a summary of Day 2, don’t look here. Due to other busy-ness, I only booked to attend Day 1.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2009 11:18

    I wish I’d come to this…It sounds wonderful. Some of my favourite speakers (Brooks, Goldsmith, Conte) are always good value, but I would also like to have heard Claire Thomas (Fugitive Pieces?) and Rodney Hall, and I always attend biography sessions when I can because my writing (when I get on with it) is focussed in that direction.
    IMO Clendinnen is trying to claim writing territory for one ‘genre’ (i.e. history) when in the 21st century it has to share the space.

  2. whisperinggums permalink*
    October 25, 2009 13:24

    Claire Thomas’s book is Fugitive Blue – Dobbie Award and longlisted for Mile Franklin. (Fugitive pieces – which I haven’t read either!, is by Anne Michaels). She was gorgeous – and I really should have bought her book but it was all a bit busy. The last NLA seminar I went to (as distinct from the breakfast with Malouf) was on biography and autobiography and it was great. You would have loved it – I like thinking about those areas too.

    Hall was excellent – I’ve only read two of his books but really liked them. I’ve seen Brooks before and she was her same wonderfully charming and eloquent self. Have read but not seen Goldsmith so that was great. And I’ve heard of Conte of course but haven’t got around to reading his book. It was great seeing him but he was probably less interesting in terms of addressing the topic. I agree with you re Clendinnen. Love reading her but I do think her reaction here is narrow even though she tries to show that she has literary credentials. She’s so intellectual though that one feels nervous refuting her!!

  3. October 25, 2009 18:52

    Well, you certainly got a lot from that! Sounds like it was a fascinating event. The creating fiction from fact topic sounds particularly interesting in a day when “faction” is becoming ever more popular

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      October 25, 2009 20:03

      Yes, it was interesting Tom – and it’s a topic that fascinates me a lot. ‘Twould have been nice to go today as well but you can’t do everything can you.

  4. October 26, 2009 00:59

    Oh you know I have to take issue with Grenville but I doubt Brooks would say anything like that she has a “new way of doing history.” I’ve read three of Brooks’ books and enjoyed them to varying degrees – March was super. Let Grenville try putting one of her novels out there as non-fiction (he he). They are not channeling some ancient spirit who lived then – they’re making things up according which go along with what they know in today’s world because that makes for a better story than what really happened. Clendinnen has written about Aztecs and Aboriginals who don’t have our world view or sense of moral duty or much else. She has to use their sources. Fiction is fiction and if someone calls a hot selling novel non-fiction they will be blasted – as well they should be. Clendinnen doesn’t write novels. (lol) So long as it’s labeled fiction I don’t really have a big problem – it’s just that some people believe everything they read and they get their history lessons from fiction and I’d be one of those people who will have a very hard time maintaining my suspension of disbelief if something is obviously invented *to replace* the historical evidence (not in the absence of historical evidence).

    Fwiw, I love historical fiction which fleshes out the evidence – uses it for inspiration, as noted above. There’s lots of kinds of truth to explore – Hitler going to Australia isn’t exactly one of the items up for exploration – and although we dismiss that item, if he decided that many, many Australians were Nazis on the basis of that fiction then what kind of truth is that?

    But I would have loved to have been at the fair. Omg. Heaven. You are so lucky.

  5. whisperinggums permalink*
    October 26, 2009 07:48

    LOL Bekah – and you know I was thinking most of you when I wrote the above! I do think Grenville was just a little excited when she said the words she said. I actually think that Brooks would align herself quite closely with Grenville because both of their fundamental beliefs is that you can empathise with characters of the past. You do your research they say – and both of them do – and you find the voice for that time BUT they say there are constants in the human heart and that’s what they seek out. Clendinnen, on the other hand, laughs at the notion of empathising. A reader may feel that someone hasn’t empathised well, hasn’t got the voice, but that’s not Clendinnen’s point. Hers is that you can’t do it (empathise) in the first place. Re Grenville – I reckon we should focus on the text which is sold and classified in the fiction sections of books and libraries (!) and not what she said. And she does make it clear that she wrote fiction doesn’t she, even though she did make some claims for contributing to “history”. It’s great though isn’t it that the subject has been brought to the fore? You would have loved the seminar, I know. It was stimulating and very well done.

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