Telling and writing the story: Richard Fidler’s Seymour Biography Lecture

Richard Fidler

Richard Fidler, NLA, 2018

On Friday night I went to my fourth consecutive Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia. A highlight on the Library’s calendar, it’s an annual lecture devoted to life-writing, and was endowed by the Seymours in 2005.

This year’s speaker, Richard Fidler, was, at first glance, a surprising pick – but a very popular one. He is well known to Australians, for several reasons, but particularly for hosting, since 2005, ABC Radio’s hour-long interview program, Conversations. He has also recently written two historical books, Ghost empire (2016) and Saga land (co-written with Kári Gíslason) (2017). These books, the lecture promo said, contain short biographies of historical figures from, respectively, Byzantium and mediaeval Iceland. So, he has not written a biography or memoir or autobiography, per se, but these books contain small biographies. Moreover, his Conversations program, it was suggested, comprises mini-autobiographies of the interviewees. Fidler then, as it turned out, was well able to talk about life-writing or, more broadly, telling life stories.

After being introduced by the NLA’s Director-General, Marie-Louise Ayres, Fidler commenced by telling us that he’d titled his lecture, “Telling and writing the story”. The event’s promotion explained that this meant

outlining some of the tensions that come into play when bringing someone’s life story to a listening audience and comparing it to the freedoms and constraints involved in writing biography for a reader.

Fidler commenced with a little anecdote exemplifying the dangers of biography. Back in 1988, he had read, he said, Robert Caro’s The years of Lyndon Johnson: The path to power (1982). It’s volume 1 of a larger work. Caro has now published three more volumes (in 1990, 1992 and 2012) and has apparently announced that he will conclude with a fifth volume which, he said this year, could take from two to ten years. Caro is now 82. Fidler proposed that this story provides a warning for the biographer – as you go in, he said, have an eye on the exit! This issue has not – to date, anyhow – been a problem for Fidler whose biographical work has taken a very different, and much shorter path.

Radio versus print

As the lecture’s promotion promised, Fidler talked about both his written and radio work, reflecting as he went on the difference between the two. I love this sort of discussion, this exploration of different media, of different forms of writing and presentation, in order to tease out what is inherent to each. As a consumer and reviewer of media, I believe that knowing and understanding the form in hand is a critical starting point. I’m therefore going (to try) to marshal my report on this lecture to focus on these issues, rather than be a blow-by-blow summary.

Print

Early in the lecture, Fidler said that written stories can take more liberties – the story can sprawl, for example, diving off on tangents at will. Radio, on the other hand, is more linear, it must keep moving forward in a direct path (though it does have the voice to guile you!) He likened radio to a shark driving ever forwards, while print is like a Portuguese man-of-war which can drag all sorts of bits-and-pieces along with it.

Richard Fidler, Kari Gislason, Saga LandHe exemplified this through the Saga land project, first explaining, for those of us who didn’t know, that Icelandic sagas – Saga land’s subject – are stories of real Vikings. Icelanders read these sagas, he said, the way we read Shakespeare. He also explained that in Old Norse, the word “saga” means “telling. He then read the beginning of the first saga about Gunnar, showing us how the narrative tension builds. (We’ll leave, here, the side issue of how much of the actual stories about these real people is fact, and how much fiction or hyperbole, as it’s irrelevant to my main thread. It’s an issue, he suggested, best left to saga scholars who still argue about it.)

He realised, he said, that these sagas would translate well to audio (to radio and podcast). Their first two chosen stories translated pretty easily to the audio form, but then he got to the story of Gisli which turned out to be much harder to transform into a linear form. How could he pour this sprawling story into the narrow form needed for a spoken narrative – a paradoxical problem, given the sagas originated in oral form. The “crush of family”, the multiple but confusing relationships, he said, are important to Gisli’s story. Eventually, though, he identified its core, and developed the narrative from there.

Fidler went on to talk about more stories from Saga Land, and talked a little about Ghost empire which he described as, essentially, the biography of a city, Constantinople. It reminded me of another “biography” of Constantinople, Orhan Pamuk’s mesmerising Istanbul: Memories of a city. Anyhow, regarding writing Ghost empire, he mentioned in particular the mini-biography of Constantine XI and how writing about him involved “a strange act of sympathy.” In fact, he described biography as “a profound act of sympathy”, which means, for him, “sitting beside his subject” as he writes rather than observing from a distance.

Radio

Of course, many in the audience were keen to hear about Fidler’s hugely popular radio program, Conversations, and Fidler did spend some of his 45 minutes on it too. He started by saying that the program’s aim was to present the stories of unknown people although, as listeners know, he also interviews better known people like “astronauts, authors and scientists.”

Fidler talked about the challenge of creating coherent narratives out of his subjects’ lives, many of whom, unused to the media, struggle to tell their stories coherently. His producers spend a long time talking – often on the phone – with selected interviewees, teasing out a narrative. Life is messy, a bit like a teenager’s bedroom he said!

Moreover, how reliable is memory, he asked – and then told a pertinent personal story to prove just how unreliable it is! He quoted British poet, Lemn Sissay’s definition of a family:

“Family is memory disputed between a group of people over a lifetime.”

Love it. Anyhow, he said that, consequently, he asks his interviewees “What do you remember?” rather than “What happened?” This question can often result in wonderful reveries, ones that make him almost stop breathing in order to not break the momentum. He gave an example from his interview with Angela Lansbury who gave an evocative description of the London of her childhood. Fidler said that he could see that a movie of that time was playing before her eyes.

Overall, he said, producing Conversations required artful deception in order to create the narrative arc of an hour.

Why read or listen to biography?

This subject wasn’t – really – specifically addressed, but Fidler did say a few relevant things. Regarding the value of reading Icelandic sagas, he said our interest springs from a deep-seated human need to understand our own lives through those of our ancestors. The sagas, he says, may fall short in terms of biographical rigour but they do tell larger truths. They were enjoyed as escapism but they also offered a different way of being human. Apparently, the poets Auden and Borges loved Iceland’s sagas.

Somewhat related to this issue was his discussion about the overall value of radio. It’s more intimate than television. It’s also more “profoundly democratic because you can’t be seen” and therefore not judged by the markers of appearance. He saw this as “a noble nakedness.”  In addition, radio has, he believes, an “enormous didactic momentum”, one which can create a “commonwealth of shared sympathies”, a sense of shared humanity.

There was more, including a Q&A during which questions included how subjects are found for Conversations, what he would ask Constantine XI if given the chance, and his tips for new interviewers.

But, I’ll leave it here and conclude with Fidler’s impassioned concluding statement, made in the context of the week’s astonishing events in which the ABC lost both its Managing Director and Chairman of the Board. He said that the public trusts that the Board will support the ABC, and that it’s not the government which funds the ABC, but you (that is, us), the audience. That of course brought him resounding applause – and so, sadly, ended another excellent Seymour lecture.

Further reading and listening: Saga Land: The Book and Radio Series

Previous lecture postsRobert Drewe (2015), David Marr (2016) and Raimond Gaita (2017)

Seymour Biography Lecture
National Library of Australia
28 September 2018

Truth, Truthfulness, Self, Voice: Raimond Gaita’s Seymour Biography Lecture

Raimond Gaita and Marie-Louise Ayres

Raimond Gaita and Marie-Louise Ayres, NLA, 2017

This week Mr Gums, Brother Gums and I went to one of the highlights of Canberra’s literary calendar, the Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia.  It’s an annual lecture devoted to life-writing, and was endowed by the Seymours in 2005. This is the third one Mr Gums and I have attended, the first in 2015 being given by Robert Drewe, and last year’s by David Marr.

Raimond Gaita is best known to Australians as the author of the award-winning Romulus, my father, which, he informed us, is not-a-biography-nor-an-authobiography. He’s not, he said, a writer like those other Seymour speakers such as David Marr and Robert Dessaix. If we thought he would then go on to expound his theory of biography/autobiography/memoir, as might be expected for a “biography lecture”, we were mistaken, because philosopher Gaita had other plans.

And here is where I come a bit unstuck, because philosophy is not really my thing. I am therefore going to simplify – hopefully sensibly – what was a seriously philosophical argument that I tried to follow while also taking notes. I am going to limit my post to a few points that grabbed me – and that I believe I got right! I must say, though, that even if I didn’t catch all his arguments, I was thrilled to finally see this thoughtful, considered man in person.

“a tragic poem”

Raimond gaita, Romulus my fatherWhile Gaita didn’t engage, in the expected way anyhow, with the theory of his subject, he didn’t ignore it either. He explained that he doesn’t see Romulus, my father as biography or autobiography because it doesn’t contain “the critical psychological probing” you expect (or, perhaps, that he thinks we expect) in biography. He sees the book, rather, as “tragic poem”, as being about “broken lives” but not “diminished” ones. His described his book as tragedy, which he defined as reflecting “calm pity for the suffering it depicts”.

He wrote it “truthfully” as witness to the values by which his father lived, the father who, he said, gave him his “lifelong moral compass”. He discussed criticisms of his book, those arguments that had he been more ethically critical or more psychologically probing, he would have presented a more understanding picture of his mother. Don’t you love the way people are so ready to criticise what writers don’t do, rather than focus on what they do do? After all, the book is called Romulus, my father! I know, I’m being a bit ingenuous, since writing about his father does necessitate writing about his mother, but I stand by my point nonetheless.

Now, back to Gaita … to explain himself, he quoted Iris Murdoch’s statement that understanding another person is a work of “love, justice, and pity”. However, he said, he was 12 years old when his mother killed herself. He did not know her as an adult, had not conversed with her as an adult. He can, for example, speculate about what his father and his father’s friend Hora might have thought about things, but he didn’t know his mother: she doesn’t have an “individuated presence” for him. He sorrows for his mother (and admits that in writing about her he has put her under “intense scrutiny”) but he knew her only as a boy would.

At this point, he referred to Freud’s describing biography as being “vulnerable to psychological distortions”. Were Christine and Romulus really as he depicted them? Well, not, I understood him to say, in an absolute sense (but yes, he hoped, in his own sense). You ask seven people, he said, to describe a person and you’ll get seven different descriptions. You cannot match/judge these narratives against a single (simple? absolute?) notion that would guarantee “truthfulness” about that person’s life.

Truthfulness, et al

Gaita then went on to say that he is currently writing essays about people who have mattered to him. These essays have to be truthful but they can’t say everything. He hopes, however, that what is left unsaid will not compromise the truthfulness of what is said. He’d like to think that this is a justified hope. I think, in the right hands, it is!

One of his essay subjects is Martin Winkler who taught him German at school, and with whom he maintained contact long thereafter. Winkler is, he said, the wisest man he’s known. Around half of his lecture drew, in fact, from this essay on Winkler. I’m not going to repeat all he that said in detail here, but the essay, from what he shared with us about Winkler’s beliefs and ideas, would be well worth reading when it’s published.

So, just a couple of points. German-born Winkler loved German language and culture, but he was not blind to what Germany did during the war, which “lacerated his soul”. Winkler knew the dangers of following tradition which enables hiding behind respectability and which, in effect, enabled the Holocaust. However, he did not believe this had to diminish his love of Bach, or of German culture. Later in the lecture, Gaita commented that who would have thought that we would be now placing our faith in the Germany of Angela Merkel. (It just goes to show, doesn’t it, that people and/or nations can change. We live in hope!)

Another idea Gaita shared relates to love, ethics and values. For instance, he said, a feeling or emotion such as enthusiasm is ethically neutral, but love is “good”. It, in showing what people love, can be revelatory of value. He quoted Plato’s statement that love never proceeds by force or submits to force. Gaita also shared Winkler’s view that the core of responsibility is to be responsive to the needs of others in the lived context, which I assume means understanding people in terms of their lives rather than via some idea of absolute values.

Around here, if I remember correctly, Gaita returned to Romulus, his father, and in particular to Romulus’ compassion for his wife and her lover, which was evidenced, for example, by his providing financial support for them. Some of Romulus’ friends did not understand this (did not understand his father’s “goodness”). They felt his behaviour – his foolish heart – led him to dishonour himself. In other words, Gaita pointed out, another person would tell a different story about Romulus. So, the question is, was he a good man or a cuckold? There is no ethically neutral ground by which you can weigh the facts of his life to give one right answer or another. (Again, I think I’ve understood his point correctly. At least, what I’ve written makes sense to me, so that’s perhaps good enough!)

(Later, in the single-question Q&A, Gaita elaborated on his ideas of goodness and character. His father’s “goodness”, he said, was completely absent of condescension or superiority, something which many of his compatriots did not see or accept. Gaita, though, believes there should be more of such “goodness” in the world.)

For Gaita, growing up with such a man, seeing such compassion, was a gift. And it’s largely because of this that he did not grow up bitter. To be able to love, he said, is as important as being loved. You can, he said, be morally clear-sighted and at the same time love clear-sightedly. (I like this.)

Around here, we got into a discussion of facts and their meanings. You need, he said, to be truthful about the meaning of facts, which is more important, or relevant, than the facts themselves. (Regular readers here will know how much I liked this idea.) By example, he talked about the final sentences of Romulus, my father and of language choices that can convey different meanings. He could, for example, have written that his father was buried “not very far from” or “close to” or “near” his mother. He eventually chose “close” for its layered meaning – but he worried for a long time about whether the world also conveyed “sentimentality” (which emotion he sees as antithetical to truthful or authentic feeling). In the context, I think he made the right choice.

So, a very different biography lecture to the previous two we’ve attended. But, when you ask a moral philosopher to speak, that is, I suppose, to be expected. In other words, although we got a lecture which did address ideas regarding “truth” in writing about a life, it was also one that extended way beyond this to a discussion of values. My mind was certainly stretched – and is probably the better for it.

Seymour Biography Lecture
National Library of Australia
12 September 2017

More from David Marr …

To write my recent post on David Marr, I did some research, as I usually do when I take notes at a lecture or seminar, because I need to make sure that the book title or author name or quote that I recorded in my notes are correct. That’s how, for example, I found the exact quote from Cavafy that I used in my post.

However, when doing this research I sometimes uncover items that don’t relate to the topic I’m researching but are too good to not share. In the case of Marr, one of the pieces I found was an interview with Marr conducted by the National Library not long before the lecture. It’s not long but contains a couple of comments that I loved.

The full interview is available online at the NLA, but I’m just going to share his responses to three questions.

David Marr, Quarterly Essay Faction ManThe first question asked what was “the best part of writing” his latest book, his Quarterly Essay on Bill Shorten titled “Faction man”. Marr answered

Learning what I didn’t know then explaining it to readers as baffled as I once was.

I liked this because in the lecture we attended he described himself as an “explainer”. Makes sense to me. In fact it’s what we want writers like Marr to do for us, isn’t it?

The next question I want to share asked him for “the strangest piece of advice” he’d “ever been given as a writer”. He responded:

When you’re cutting, never cut the jokes. The old newspaper editor who told me this wasn’t inviting me to be trivial. He was saying: delighting readers matters and humour is a way to the truth.

I totally agree. We can be too earnest at times. A good sense of humour never gets in the way of the truth, in my experience.

The last question I’m sharing asked him for “the strangest question” he’d been asked about his writing. He said

My mother rang one day years ago and asked: ‘Are you working today or just writing?’ I’ve celebrated that ever since.

Besides making me laugh, it brought me back to his Seymour lecture and why he wrote his biography of Patrick White: it was inspired by a contradiction between White’s statement that his parents never wanted him to be a writer and the fact that his parents apparently bankrolled a publisher in order to encourage them to publish White’s poems. (Interestingly, Bill, commenting on my Seymour post, said that his parents didn’t want him to be a truck drive but they still helped him by his first truck. So, perhaps White’s parents’ action doesn’t contradict White’s statement about their wishes for him!)

Here I stand: David Marr’s Seymour Biography Lecture

This week Mr Gums and I went to our second Seymour Biography Lecture, an annual lecture devoted to life-writing which was endowed by the Seymours in 2005. Our first, last year, was given by Robert Drewe who discussed memoir as a form of life-writing that is differentiated from but as valid as autobiography. It was a wonderful lecture, so we were keen to attend this year’s, and particularly when David Marr was announced as the speaker.

David Marr, NLA, Sept 2016

David Marr, NLA, Sept 2016

David Marr, as you may know, is one of Australia’s most recognisable contemporary public intellectuals. He wrote a biography of controversial politician and Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick (Barwick) and the multi-award-winning biography Patrick White: A life. In recent years he has written several biographical essays for the Quarterly Essay: on John Howard (2007), Kevin Rudd (2010), Tony Abbott (2012), George Pell (2013), and Bill Shorten (2015). The National Library of Australia’s Director-General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich said, when introducing him, that these essays represent “a new form of biography”. That sounded interesting, but it turned out not to be the subject of his lecture. Oh well … a topic for another day, perhaps?

At this point David Marr got up to speak … I’ve seen him many times on television, but I greatly enjoyed seeing him in person. He has a lovely, natural speaking style – articulate, but informally formal if that makes sense. He started by saying how good it was to be giving a lecture in someone’s name, not in their memory but in their presence! (The Seymours were in the audience).

What’s the story?

Marr commenced by describing how he was called to Patrick White’s place in 1988 during one of White’s “near-death” experiences. When he got there, other family and friends were already there, waiting for the ambulance. Eventually, Wendy the ambo arrived, walked in, and asked, very appropriately Marr said, “What’s the story?” As it turned out White lived through more episodes like this, before dying in 1990. He told us all this, not so much because it was an interesting story, but to make the point that although he was present at these occasions, and although he wrote about them in his White biography, we will not find him there. That is, he did not put himself in the room with the others. In fact, he did not put himself in the book anywhere (although he admitted, slyly, that of course he is everywhere in the book – the words, the judgements, are his).

Marr then gave us his rules for biographers, but I’m afraid I only got four of the five down. They are:

  • The voice of the subject must be clear;
  • The biography must not “muck around with time”;
  • The biographer must spare the reader his/her “homework”; and
  • The biographer must stay out of the life.

This last “rule” would be the theme of his lecture …

Be an invisible biographer

Before exploring this, however, Marr said that it is the biographer’s truth that everybody’s life is open to writing about, that no-one owns his/her life. True, yes, he said, but “mighty obstacles can be put in your way”. Subjects can:

  • Stop their friends talking to you
  • Block access to their papers
  • Withhold copyright consent. He expanded here on family ownership of copyright, and the typical family view that “what’s hidden in life must be hidden in death”. (Hence, methought, sisters like Cassandra Austen destroy precious letters!)
  • Place a curse on their biographers. Here he mentioned Greek poet, Cavafy, who wrote “From all I did and all I said/Let no one try to find out who I was” (“Hidden things”). Cavafy also said that sometimes it is better to wait, that some things cannot be understood until time has passed.

Marr said he feared every one of these obstructions when he approached White – particularly the curses! But the timing was right for White, and Marr’s biography project was, amazingly, accepted. Marr described his aims as absolutely conventional: “I was  born in Pymble after all,” he said! They included finding out who White was, where his books came from, his impact on the world and world’s on him, and so on. But White – the irascible White – saw it quite differently. He saw it as his “last reckoning”, his last chance to see where all his life passions had ended up, his last chance to see which of his many and diverse arrows had hit their mark.

Marr spent four years (I think) on the project, meeting with White, visiting places he’d been, meeting people he knew, and so on, but he is not in the book. Editors today, he said, would “tell me to get in there”, to write of his adventures in research. He described this style as “quest biographies”, and he doesn’t (generally) like them. They “inflict their homework on readers” and “they also bugger around with time”. For example, the biographer may write about being in Greece researching the subject’s life while simultaneously describing the subject’s life in that place in some time past. Biographers can also, inappropriately in Marr’s view, foreshadow aspects of the subject’s life, as in “that was the last time X ever went to Y”. He argued that it is the great drama of our lives that we don’t know what is going to happen. Great biographers make the future unknown, he said. Even though we usually know the fate of the subject, a good biographer can make it a surprise.

He gave examples of visible biographers that he doesn’t like, but admitted that rules can be broken. The “quest biography” is, for example, suitable for the life of a fraud. And there are cases where the biographer has “absolutely earned the right” to be in the biography, the perfect example being Boswell in his Life of Johnson. Boswell’s world was Johnson. He spent twenty years talking, living, arguing with Johnson. Do the work, said Marr, put in the years, and deal with yourself as ruthlessly as Boswell does!

David Marr, Power TripThen Marr admitted that he has broken his own rule – when there’s been a purpose for him to be there in the work. His Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd is an example. He told of dining with Rudd who, late in the meal, asked Marr what his essay was about. When Marr told him, Rudd lost his temper, in a very controlled way. He was “astonishingly eloquent”, Marr said, speaking from his “angry heart” and Marr had to be there to be able to describe the experience.

So, there are no rules, but overall he’d like to see an end to biographers in the text. They should be in the shadows, “manipulating everything”, and saving their stories about themselves and their research for writers’ festivals and, when they’re old, for lectures!

Q&A

We had about 15 to 20 minutes of Q&A but some of the questions, interesting though they were, ranged wider than the focus of Marr’s lecture, so I’ll keep this brief.

  • How do you choose who to write about? Marr chose White because he read something contradictory about White’s parents. White had always said that they did not want him to be a writer, but then Marr read somewhere that White’s parents had bankrolled a publishing project on the condition they published a book of White’s poems. He wrote his Barwick biography because he was enraged by what Barwick was getting away with. He’s an explainer he said, rather than a creator.
  • Do you as a biographer ever withhold information? Yes, said Marr. There are some private matters that have no place in biography. His deal with Patrick White, he hastened to say, was that it was his (i.e. Marr’) book and he would write what he wanted to write. Any information he withheld, then, was withheld because it was not, in his opinion, essential to our understanding of White. Legal issues, too, can sometimes result in information being omitted, as has happened with his various Quarterly Essays on contemporary politicians.

During the book signing at the end of the evening, Marr commented that his was “a craft lecture”, meaning I suppose that it wasn’t a theoretical or philosophical one on the form and its meaning. Well, “craft” it may have been but I enjoy hearing from writers about their craft and, anyhow, amongst the “craft”, as you can probably tell, we got a bit of theory and philosophy too. Another wonderful Seymour lecture, with another thoughtful, inspiring writer.

Who me?: Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography Lecture

One of the best parts of living in Canberra – and there are many best parts, despite what the politicians and media seem to say! – is that we have the National Library of Australia. It presents many literary events each year, to which I only ever manage to make a few. Some of them I’ve written about here, some not – but I am going to share the latest, Robert Drewe’s Seymour Biography Lecture.

Robert Drewe, Shark netThe Seymour Biography Lecture, endowed by the Seymours in 2005, is an annual lecture devoted to life writing. The inaugural lecture was given by one of Australia’s most respected biographers, Brenda Niall. Later speakers have included Robert Dessaix and Drusilla Modjeska. Initially hosted by the Humanities Research Centre‘s Biography Institute, it was transferred to the National Library in 2010. When I saw that Robert Drewe was to give this year’s lecture, I had to go. While I haven’t reviewed Drewe here yet, I have mentioned him a few times, and have read some of his work in the past. He has written novels, short stories, essays and memoir. The shark net, his first memoir, was adapted to a well-regarded miniseries in 2003, and his second, Montebello, was published in 2012. (I mentioned these in my recent Monday Musings on literary autobiographies.)

The lecture will I’m sure, like those before it, be made available via the Seymour Biography page (link above), but I would like to share a few ideas that struck me.

Memoir, or autobiography?

Drewe talked about how memoir is viewed, the fact that some see it as self-absorption or as narcissistic, about revenge or self-justification. He quoted American critic William Gass (author of Autobiography in the age of narcissism) who attacked memoir for being about self-absorption. Gass ridiculed the genre: “Look, Ma, I’m breathing. See me take my initial toddle, use the potty, scratch my sister; win spin the bottle. Gee whiz, my first adultery-what a guy!” Hmm, I have friends who don’t like memoir for this very reason.

Drewe gave a brief history of memoir – particularly memoir as confession, or redemption – through the writings of St. Augustine who made memoir, he said, an interior exercise, and Rousseau who moved the confession or memoir into the literary arena. He told us that Patrick White described his Flaws in the glass as not a memoir but a “self-portrait in sketches”! Flaws, Drewe said, is regularly criticised. English critic, Richard Davenport-Hines, for example, wrote that White’s “spiteful bestseller Flaws in the Glass must rank as the most inadvertently self-diminishing memoir since Somerset Maugham’s”.

Memoirs, Drewe said – looking at works like St Augustine’s – predated autobiographies. He defined the two forms as follows: memoirs are written from a life, while autobiographies are of a life. The change in preposition here is significant. As Gore Vidal would describe it, memoirs are about memory, while autobiography and biography are about history. In a memoir, a writer can take a memory and describe or expand it to tell a story about his/her life or experiences. Facts can be played with in order to find the emotional truths. Autobiography on the other hand – despite George Bernard Shaw’s “All autobiographies are lies… deliberate lies” – are expected to be factual.

Drewe told us that Sigmund Freud, when asked to write about his life, refused, arguing that it would be a reckless project. To tell his complete life would require so much discretion, it would be an exercise in mendacity. No wonder that, as Drewe told us, 99% of memoirists wait until their parents have died. Oh dear! I do hope my writing-oriented children are among this 99%! We did our best!

All this might sound dry and boring, but Drewe’s presentation was entertaining. He told us that when he thinks of autobiography he thinks of Father’s Day – and sports (particularly cricket) and political autobiographies. He regaled us with the punning titles of cricket autobiographies, such as At the close of playOver to meTime to declare (two in fact); Over but not out; and No boundaries. 

Before we had a chance to call him sexist, Drewe said that Mother’s Day made him think of WOTOs, that is, Women Overcoming the Odds, like, you know, widowed women running a cattle station in the outback, or a woman sailing solo around the world or saving an endangered animal!

Drewe returned several times in his talk to the issue of “facts” versus “truths”. He quoted Louise Adler who commissions political autobiographies for Melbourne University Press, including Mark Latham’s The Latham Diaries, Peter Costello’s The Costello Memoirs, Tony Abbott’s Battlelines, and Malcolm Fraser’s The Political Memoirs. Politicians have a good memory for insults and slights. Being memoirs, they are not necessarily verifiably factual. However, Adler, Drewe said, argues that their unreliability makes them riveting reading. They may be myopic, partisan, but they deliver riches. Drewe didn’t say this, but I’ll add that this requires a certain level of sophistication in the readers, that is, we readers need to understand the memoir genre and read with that understanding. I have no problem with that!

There is, however, what he called “the veracity squad”. These include the righteous readers or burgeoning historians – his descriptions – who are pedantic about facts. They don’t believe, for example, that you can remember dialogue from a family Christmas dinner twenty years ago and so they discount works that include such content. They wouldn’t approve, also, of crafting a particular person into a standout character.

Around here, Drewe referred to his first memoir, The shark net. He said he decided not to focus on the ego, but on the serial murderer with whom his family had contact, Eric Edgar Cooke. It’s basically factual he said, but he did imagine a couple of scenes – that is, he “fictionalized fact” – because he wanted to show Cooke as a human being.

I recently posted a review of Rochelle Siemienowicz’s Fallen. She tells us, in the Epilogue, that she’d initially written the story as a novel but her editor, I believe, suggested it would be better as a memoir. Drewe said in his lecture that “some stories are best kept true, some best as fiction”. The challenge is to decide which form is best. Some writers don’t make the right decision and find themselves in a literary furore, such as Norma Khouri with her fake memoir, Forbidden love. A more complex situation is Helen Demidenko with her fiction, The hand that signed the paper, which she falsely claimed was autobiographical. What both these writers failed to realise is that the first rule of memoir is that you shouldn’t lie!

Memoirs named by Drewe

During his lecture, Drewe identified a number of memoirs, some of which I’ll share as we all like lists:

Top selling Australian memoirs

  • Clive James, Unreliable memoirs
  • Albert Facey, A fortunate life
  • Errol Flynn, My wicked, wicked ways

Other memoirs

  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, memory (in my TBR)
  • Maya Angelou’s I know why the caged bird sings (read before blogging)
  • Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking (read before blogging)
  • Anne Frank’s Diary of a young girl (read before blogging)
  • Sally Morgan’s My place (read before blogging)

So …

Towards the end of the lecture, Drewe referred to an article titled “Reflection and retrospection” by American critic Phillip Lopate. It commences:

In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.

Makes sense to me …