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Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein

November 12, 2019
Garner and Krasnostein on stage

Krasnostein (L) and Garner (R), & Auslan interpreter

To say I was thrilled when Son Gums’ partner offered to buy tickets for us to see Helen Garner in conversation (last Saturday) would be an understatement. I have never seen Garner live before so that would be one bucket-list item ticked had I a bucket list! The fact that the conversation was to be conducted by Sarah Krasnostein (author of The trauma cleaner) was the icing on the proverbial cake.

This conversation was, in fact, the opening event of the Wheeler Centre’s inaugural Broadside Festival, promoted as “two days of an unapologetically feminist agenda”.

The Festival was opened by the Governor of Victoria, Linda Dessau, who referenced Barack Obama’s recent statement that “tweeting and hashtagging isn’t activism”. Festival Director Tam Zimet then started proceedings, explaining that the Festival’s purpose was “to bring conversations that are too hard or too much to Melbourne Town Hall”. She quoted Zadie Smith who was also in Melbourne for at the Festival, and who described writing as “taking the temperature of the moment”. This, of course, beautifully describes Helen Garner’s writing.

The Conversation

The conversation centred around the recent release of Garner’s Yellow notebook: Diaries, Volume 1, 1978-1987, so the conversation began by discussing both diary writing and the process of preparing them for publication. Krasnostein, who asked rather long but always thoughtful questions, talked about the role and function of diaries, suggesting they exist for their own sake but are also works in themselves. Garner’s diaries, she said, contain harvested and preserved details from the world, but also show Garner’s “fearless self-scrutiny”, plus “the things one can think but not say”. Garner said that she has always loved notebooks and pens, and how as a child she loved the peace and solitude she got from writing her diaries.

Several times through the conversation, Garner described her diary-writing as being partly about practising writing. She writes everyday, agreeing that you can’t wait “for ideal conditions”. For her, it’s all about “mother discipline”, by which she meant using the time given to you. She also commented on how much work you do when you are asleep, and referred to lessons from Marion Milner’s book, An experiment in leisure which taught her to sit quietly, with a sense of “nothingness”, to let ideas sort themselves out. This is not the same as waiting for inspiration, though. Garner, being her plainspoken self, said that “inspiration is bullshit”. Instead, “you do things little by little”. Writing, said Krasnostein a little later, is not the hard part. It’s getting to the desk.

Later in the conversation, we returned to diary-writing as stacking up the practice hours. Garner said she knows “how to put a sentence together”. (If you love Garner, like I do, you love her sentences.) But, said Garner, writers also need to know grammar. Without it, you can’t criticise your own work. The lack of grammar teaching is a “terrible loss”. Writers also need to read a lot to see how other writers do it. She bemoaned the fact that some books look like no editor has been near them. You see their “life-force leaking out of every joint”.

Krasnostein quoted Joan Didion’s statement that “style is character”, which somehow led to Virginia Woolf’s statement that you tell the truth about yourself first before you can do so about others. Krasnostein wondered whether being clear-eyed about yourself – one of Garner’s strengths, for me – was training for how to write in public. Garner took this to suggest that being honest about yourself gave you permission to write about others, but she didn’t think that would “stand up in court”! Garner suggested that memoirs can sometimes play fast and loose with other people!

Around here, Krasnostein asked whether revisiting earlier diaries – for any of us I think – shows that we are unreliable narrators of ourselves! Garner essentially agreed, saying that “memory is a creative act”. Reading one’s own diary “can be bracing” because it shows how over time you change stories, often showing yourself in a better light. There’s no way out of this, Garner believes, you just do the best you can. “Everything is fleeting, fleeting, fleeting”, she said. Writers write down stuff because they are terrified of forgetting. (I know the feeling!) “Writers are afraid of losing things”. This returned us to an idea that recurred through the conversation, that of writers preserving. Krasnostein quoted Philip Larkin’s statement that “the urge to preserve is the basis of all art”.

Of course, the process of making private diaries public was also discussed. Garner said she cut a lot. Her challenge was to decide what others might find interesting. She established certain criteria, such as she would not rewrite, and would only change (or add) something if it would otherwise be meaningless. A diary, she said, “has no voice over, unlike a memoir”, meaning that you can’t say “I did that then, but no way would I do that now, because now I’m a nicer person”. Accepting herself as she was at the time of her writing brought her to understand that she wasn’t unique, which made her feel more “comradely” with others. “We all hurt and are hurt,” she said. Krasnostein offered the idea that “the more vulnerable you are, the more you connect” to which Garner replied that this is what she hopes!

Another point Garner made was that tone is important, that “tone is character”, to which she then gave a feminist twist by saying that women have felt they’ve had to tone themselves down. She writes short books, she said, because she feels she has only a limited amount of reader’s attention.

I loved Krasnostein’s summation of the diaries as offering a new expansive view of Garner, but retaining her familiar voice, her “forensic eye for detail”, and her “lean lyricism”. I can’t wait to read my copy.

Q&A

There were several questions, but I’ll just share a couple:

  • on her daily writing practice: She rents an office, which stops her getting caught up housework! (In other words, she has “a room of her own”!) I particularly liked her point that she makes her notes about the details, say, of the court cases she attends, but, separately, she also documents her engagement with what she’s seen/heard, what she thought and felt. This material is “brightly alive … a treasure trove of information”. It doesn’t fit into the other boxes but it’s the richest when she comes to write. This is what I think is often missing from my reports of literary events. I need to do more of it.
  • on whether her views on Feminism had changed since the me-too movement: Not really seemed to be the answer. Garner, like many of us I believe, simply knows that when she discovered Feminism it changed her life: “It was like I’d been underwater and I finally put my head up and took a breath.” The me-too movement, like most movements, has been mixed, but “these things keep developing”.

Kate (booksaremyfavoaiteandbest) also wrote this up – including Garner’s comment about age freeing her to talk to random people on trams.

Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein
Broadside Festival 2019
Melbourne Town Hall
9 November 2019

25 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2019 1:46 am

    Thank you for this write up. I saw lots of tweets about the event as it was happening but it’s so much nicer to have a more rounded report of what happened rather than just seeing the comments Garner made. I’m reading her diaries now and it’s such a joy to pick it up each day to read just a few pages. I can see how she uses it as writing practise because it all feels like it fell out of a novel. She’s such a talented writer, but more importantly she’s a great journalist in the sense that she has a terrific observational eye and records detail so evocatively.

    • November 13, 2019 8:45 am

      Yes, she’s both of those isn’t she, kimbofo. I’m itching to read it but I have to read other things first!

  2. November 13, 2019 6:30 am

    Thank-you, Sue ! – and extra thanks (alhough it’s not as if they’re deserved) for being a Garner fan. Maybe you’ve learned more from that than you reliase !

    • November 13, 2019 8:46 am

      Haha, thanks M-R, I know those who aren’t Garner fans. I guess I can understand that … though not really!!

  3. ablay1 permalink
    November 13, 2019 7:07 am

    Great to get your notes on the conversation, thank you. I keep a daily diary like many others, and sometimes wonder what it’s for – not for publication, certainly, but to make sense of the chaos of daily life. I have to do more of ‘sitting quietly with a sense of nothingness’. I look forward to reading Garner’s new book and admire her honesty.

    • November 13, 2019 8:48 am

      Sounds like we feel the same about Garner, Anna. I’ve never been a big diary keeper, though I have at a couple of intense times in my life. They’re definitely not for publication! I wish I could keep ones like Garner’s!

  4. November 13, 2019 7:33 am

    I love to hear see authors and thinkers speak. The issue of publishing diaries is interesting. Personally, I think that I would hesitate to put my own, private thoughts out there.

    • November 13, 2019 8:50 am

      Haha, I would too, Brian. The thing about Garner is her honesty … but I think also that she records things she notices, people she meets, rather than just emote or blurt like I do (on those occasions I’ve kept a diary, anyhow).

  5. Meg permalink
    November 13, 2019 8:20 am

    How lucky were you Sue. What a great evening. Helen Garner is going to be at Readings Melbourne, at the end of month and I hope to attend. I love her observations, they are so revealing of life. Helen Garner must be our most significant living Australian writer.

    • November 13, 2019 8:51 am

      Readings will be great Meg because it will be more intimate. This was wonderful though because of Krasnostein as well.

  6. November 13, 2019 10:17 am

    Sue, I loved this. Thanks for talking about this event. I am going to order this book as soon as I finish writing this post!!!! I do love reading and hearing about diaries. I think some of us have a gene for the love of reading and stationery supplies. 🤠🐧

    • November 13, 2019 10:19 am

      Thanks Pam. Yes, I think we do. One of the things I love about visiting Japan looking at stationary sections of their stores – even convenience shops!

    • November 13, 2019 11:27 am

      I’m walking into town to Fullers to pick this book up eat a bagel and cream cheese and get some exercise. Too bad you can’t join me.

      • November 13, 2019 11:41 am

        Too bad indeed Pam. Since my lunchmates have bailed on me today I would have been ready for it.

        • November 15, 2019 12:00 pm

          Oh well, next time. You will have to visit next year. Fullers is celebrating their 100th birthday and have all kinds of events. They put out a lovely newsletter every fortnight. You can signnup for it on their web page. Rightly called Fullers Fortnightly..

        • November 15, 2019 4:31 pm

          Oh dear Pam, I’m trying to reduce my emails it increase them! But I’ll have a look.

  7. November 13, 2019 11:36 am

    So pleased you were able to attend, and even more pleased that you wrote it up for those of us who didn’t go (although I did go to see Zadie Smith that evening). Some fabulous insights here, thanks. I’m a Garner fan – out and proud – and am currently very much enjoying her diary. I’m gulping it down though, and will have to go back again to read it more slowly and try to work out how she does it!

    • November 13, 2019 11:42 am

      Thanks Michelle. Zadie Smith would have been great too. I can’t wait to read the diaries.

  8. Mary permalink
    November 13, 2019 2:26 pm

    Great write up and some great tips for aspiring writers. I am going to a conversation with Garner and Michael Leunig on Saturday as part of the Stonnington Libraries Literary Festival. They are discussing “living creatively and soulfully into your eighth decade.” Should be interesting!

    • November 14, 2019 2:00 am

      Thanks Mary – yes, the session had something for everyone, writers and readers.

      That sounds like a great event – those two on that topic! I’d go if I were in the area.

  9. buriedinprint permalink
    November 14, 2019 11:14 am

    I can see how thrilling this would have been. Bucket-list material indeed.
    Also, I love the idea of age-related tram chatting. 🙂

  10. Diana Blackwood permalink
    November 16, 2019 12:52 pm

    Interesting. Thank you. Most of us needn’t worry about whether we’d publish our diaries because it’s unlikely that publishers will come knocking!

    I so agree with Helen Garner about the ‘terrible loss’ to our linguistic culture that ensued when the teaching of grammar was abandoned. (Try correcting someone’s muddled syntax when your explanation of what has gone wrong makes no sense to that person.) The decision to ditch grammar in schools was taken by people who had benefitted from the very knowledge they were withholding. How fair is that?

    • November 16, 2019 4:47 pm

      Thanks Diana… I guess most of us here come from the grammar generations and are glad we did. My 80s born children learnt some, enough to know to ask questions when they are not sure, but that’s partly I think because both parents talked about grammatical things, and pronunciation, a lot!

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