Monday musings on Australian literature: Helen Garner on writing about self

I have mentioned Helen Garner several times in this blog, and the word I tend to use about her is “honest”. Her fiction is very much about “self”. And in her non-fiction that I’ve read – Joe Cinque’s consolation and The first stone – her “self” is an integral part. She is not what you’d call an objective writer. In fact, in a talk she gave in 2001 at the National Library of Australia’s conference titled “The Secret Self: Exploring Biography and Autobiography” someone who writes “helplessly about the intimate”.

This started with her first novel, Monkey Grip, which, though published to general overall acclaim, did attract some demurrers who argued that all she’d done was publish her diaries. That was in 1977. In her address at the National Library conference she spoke of how she’d been initially defensive about these criticisms but that in the succeeding years she’d thought about it and would now “come clean” because that’s exactly what she’d done. She’d cut out the boring bits, written bridging passages and changed names. And, she said, there’s craft in all that. “Why the sneer?” she asked,

…as if it were lazy. As if no work were involved in keeping a diary in the first place: no thinking, no discipline, no creative energy, no focusing or directing of creative energy; no intelligent or artful ordering of material; no choosing of material, for God’s sake; no shaping of narrative; no ear for the music of human speech; no portrayal of the physical world; no free movement back and forth in time; no leaping between inner and outer; no examination of motive; no imaginative use of language.

Sounds like a novelist’s manifesto to me! Anyhow, she goes on to say that she wrote it because she’s not such a narcissist as to believe that her story was so “hermetically enclosed in a bubble of self” that it could offer no value to anyone else. She’s talking, of course, about some level of universality.

Further, she says, when writing (whether from a diary or not), she has to find a persona … and it is different for every work. These personas may draw from her life but they are not identical with her. She cannot write until she finds this persona. (An aside. I love hearing from authors about what they need to get started. Australian young adult writer John Marsden says he must find “the voice”. Australian children’s writer, Paul Jennings, said he started with a “what if?”. Alan Gould about whom I posted recently starts with a sentence – which may or may not be the first in the book – and Helen Garner needs her persona.)

Garner’s persona, she admits, usually draws from herself, from “the intimate”. This inevitably results in some level of self-exposure, which, given our interdependent lives, can’t help but involve others. And so she has struck a deal with herself:

… if I’m rough on myself, it frees me to be rough on others as well. I stress the unappealing, mean, aggressive, unglamorous aspects of myself as a way of lessening my anxiety about portraying other people as they strike me.

She certainly keeps to her deal … and it often gets her into trouble, in both her fiction and non-fiction. Her latest novel The spare room is a raw exploration of a friendship between two women, one of whom is dying of cancer but refuses to accept it. The main character, the one not dying and who is challenged by her friend’s attitudes and demands, is called Helen! Life and art are very close in this book it seems, but she knows what she is doing. Her ethical challenge is about the “other” people in her life who get pulled into her exploration of “the intimate”. She says:

Writing, it seems, like the bringing up of children, can’t be done without damage.

Some time ago I reviewed a short story titled “The young painters” by Nicole Krauss. In it she explores the impact of writing from other people’s stories, and presents her case:

In the publicity interviews I gave, I emphasized that the book was fiction and professed my frustration with journalists and readers alike who insist on reading novels as the autobiographies of their authors, as if there were not such thing as the writer’s imagination …

Helen Garner has no real answer to the problems she poses (any more than Krauss’s fictional character does in the short story), except to say that

… if I can write well enough, rigorously and imaginatively enough, readers will be carried through the superficial levels of perviness and urged into the depths of themselves. I hope we can meet and know each other there further down, where each of us connects with every other person who has ever been loved, hurt and been wounded …

In other words, she’s looking for readers who can tell the difference between fiction and reality. This may not, I suspect, reassure all those close to her who may not want their lives to be caught up in such a risky writer-reader venture but, theoretically, I like what she says and the honesty with which she says it. I’d love to have been in the audience that day to hear the Q and As.

13 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Helen Garner on writing about self

  1. Garner’s defence of ‘Monkey Grip’ is reminiscent of the rhythm and language in Jane Austen’s defence of the novel in ‘Northanger Abbey’, don’t you think?
    Great post as usual, WG.

  2. Probably a lot of fiction is autobiography disguised as happening to other characters. I tend to think that fiction is more honest than non-fiction, because we need that ‘cover’ of fiction in order to be more honest.

    • I agree on both counts Tony … it’s probably more that Garner is less disguised than some, particularly because it continues through her work whereas other writers tend to disguise more after their first novels BUT this is a bit off the cuff. (BTW This is not meant to criticise Garner but just to say it’s her way of writing.)

  3. I find Garner’s writing irresistible – I have no idea how she does it, but I think that clear-eyed honesty that you identify is rare and very attractive. I thought Monkey Grip might be very much a novel for people who lived at that time and shared houses and so forth, but my 25-year-old daughter just read it and really enjoyed it (with some intelligent caveats about the portrayal of drug addiction – she felt that the characters’ ability to survive that, healthy and attractive, was glamourising things a bit: judging by the state of the people who get methadone up at the chemist each day, she probably has a point.)

    • Thanks zmkc … that’s an interesting reflection of your daughter’s. Certainly, our understanding of drug taking has changed quite a lot since then though there are people who survive drug addiction. Take Kate Holden (In my skin) for example. An autobiography. She doesn’t glamourise but she does survive. Still, I don’t think it’s worth taking the risk, eh? And yes, I do think she’s a great writer…the more I read her, the more I like her (albeit with those caveats I’ve mentioned before!)

  4. Very interesting! I remember being rendered speechless when Ian first said to me that my blog writing was creative writing, as I’d never considered that because it’s my life. But the more I’ve thought about it, it truly is. So more power to Helen Garner! Who says diary-writing, or writing of the self, isn’t just as hard work (or more so, because your heart is literally [well, not literally, but you know what I mean] in it) and laudable!

    Though this could be a self-serving comment 😉

  5. It’s dangerous being a writer’s friend, you never know when some aspect of you might show up in one of their books! I like what she says about diary writing. I never thought about it like before. Now I feel pretty good about all of the diary notebooks I have on a shelf above my desk 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s