Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Writing and Place: Elisabeth Hanscombe

I'm delighted to present the latest in my series of Writing & Place guest blogs, this time from Elisabeth Hanscombe, based in Victoria, Australia, who writes what she calls "autobiographical fiction". Elisabeth who blogs at Sixth in Line, describes herself thus: "I am a writer and psychologist with an interest in the underpinnings of all things autobiographical. I’m keen to explore ideas about what drives the impulse to write, unconscious connections and the like. I’m interested in the text behind the text, embedded in the text and in readable theory in the area of so-called ‘life writing’ with its weave of fact and fiction."

This is how Elisabeth answered my questions on how where she is affects what and how she writes. Welcome, Elisabeth!

My Life as an Autobiographer

I live in Hawthorn, a leafy inner city suburb of Melbourne, Australia. My husband and I bought the house in which we now live in 1980 and we have lived here ever since through two renovations, four daughters and significant changes within the local community. As in so many other inner city suburbs, the area has become increasingly gentrified. I have lived in Melbourne in a number of different suburbs throughout my life, with the exception of brief trips interstate and overseas and a short six-month sojourn in Canberra, the capital city of Australia, when I was young before children and my husband had been seconded there.

I prefer to stay in the one place, to travel in my mind, rather than in fact. In this sense I am like Gerald Murnane, the little known Australian writer of ‘fictional autobiography’ who travels even less than me, but describes the most amazing places from his imagination.

Although I have lived in Australia all my life I have a deep and abiding sense of being Dutch. My parents were both born in Holland. They arrived in Melbourne in the 1950s with four of their eventual nine children as part of the post world war two exodus from Europe. I am sixth in line and the second child born in Australia.

I will slip a statement in here from a paper I wrote recently on migration. It speaks about this aspect of my experience, as a second-generation migrant and the degree to which this informs much of my writing.
‘I was born in Australia but I feel the weight of my parents’ migration throughout my childhood in my memories. The business of living in two lands, of being in between, of feeling neither here nor there. For me as a child Holland could only exist in my imagination. It was not real. It was my mother’s home and I spent much of my childhood flooded by the feeling that Holland was where she wanted to be, not here with me, with us her family, not here in Australia, not in my home country.’
I am a psychologist/psychotherapist by profession and this colours my perspective but essentially I write as an autobiographer, against a tide of resistance from those who object to such activities.

People generally recognise that fiction writing requires skill and artifice. They are less likely to recognise as much in autobiography. The artistry of fiction in some ways redeems it from its content, but given the prevailing view that there is little if any artistry involved in autobiography, readers tend to focus instead on the actual content. The belief that this really did or did not happen can lose us in a maze of endless argument of the fact versus fiction variety.

There are caveats. Although the word autobiography comes from the prefix ‘auto’, meaning ‘self’ and ‘bio’ meaning ‘life’, there is no suggestion that it refers to an entire life, a full and complete life. Besides no such thing is possible. In this sense memoir writing might be a better term, but even it refers to writing that is based on memory and memory is a complex notion. It cannot be reduced to one easy definition.

I write about aspects of my life that resonate for me at certain times for certain reasons but I avoid writing about the people with whom I work therapeutically, for the sake of confidentiality and also so that I do not exploit information or stories passed on to me in a protected context. Similarly I tend to avoid writing about my own children, especially where it matters. On the other hand, almost everything else is fair game if it is part of my experience, with the obvious proviso that I work hard not to libel people, not to write gratuitously about things that might upset people unnecessarily, and not to indulge in idle gossip or cruelty that might identify and hurt people however much they may have hurt me. We are relational creatures. When I write about myself I must inevitably write about those others who feature in my experience and my memory.

During a professional writing and editing course, which I undertook in the early to mid 1990s, I viewed my writing as a sort of autobiographical fiction. Occasionally I managed to produce and to publish fiction in the form of short stories but overall my writing tended to be and continues to be non-fiction. For years I have used the descriptor, creative non-fiction, following in the footsteps of Lee Gutkind, the so-called Godfather of creative non-fiction, but more recently I have dared to declare myself an autobiographer, one who writes about her life, not just about the past but about the present as well.

I weave the autobiographical with the more abstract and theoretical to create a tapestry of voices, my child self, my adult self, my academic self and many more voices in between. I agree with the literary critic Lynn Bloom, who quoting from Joan Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook, says writers of creative non fiction have an ethical duty to ‘live and die by a single ethical standard…to write how it felt to me…That standard and that alone,’ Bloom argues ‘is the writer’s ethic of creative non-fiction.’ Writers of such non-fiction, she insists, are duty bound to write ‘the unauthorized version, tales of personal and public life that are very likely subversive of the records and thus the authority of the sanctioned tellers.’ (Lynn Z Bloom ‘Living to tell the Tale: The Complicated Ethics of Creative Non-fiction, University of Connecticut. College English Jan. 2003 65.3 pp 276-289.)

At the moment I am working on a PhD in the unit for studies in biography and autobiography at LaTrobe University here in Melbourne, in the suburb of Bundoora. My thesis topic is Theories of Autobiography: Life writing and the desire for revenge. I use my own autobiographical writing along with the writing of other mainly Australian writers, for example Helen Garner, the Brett sisters, Doris and Lily, and Gerald Murnane, to explore the degree to which the desire for revenge as it erupts through experiences of hurt and trauma – I stress the desire, the feeling, the wish, and not the enactment – can lead to feelings of rage, shame and resentment. These feelings, once processed and understood, can become triggers to the art of writing, of creativity generally, and particularly of life writing. It can equally apply to fictional writing.

The ‘desire’ becomes the spark. Too much of the desire and everything is spoiled or destroyed but enough desire, enough of the feelings like those of a hurt and wounded child, can inspire writing that is powerful, effective and alive. At least this is my take on it. It is a hot topic and one that has been around for a long time.

I write to find a voice after a childhood of silence. I write to create an aesthetic primarily as a communication to others about what it was/is like for me and also to evoke a response from others, to be heard, and to be acknowledged. The writer Margaret Atwood lists some 72 different reasons for why writers write. I suspect there are almost as many reasons as there are writers. The need to write and to be read is a universal experience among writers and the underlying motives are again complex. I write to deal with my life, to share ideas and to make sense of things that would otherwise remain a mystery. I write to be remembered and to preserve the experiences that rush past me so quickly I am lucky to grasp a fraction of them. I write to live. I write because I cannot do otherwise. Writing for me is like breathing these days; without it I would die.

The past informs much of what I write, living here in the relative comfort of my life as a wife and mother, a practising psychologist and a PhD student. The past is in my blood and more so because I tend to remember aspects of it vividly. The rest I make up. When I fail to remember I am still curious about the things that fall through the gaps and so I must resort to imagining. I do not want to lose touch with these memories and imaginings, these hauntings. I want to preserve something of my past for future generations.

Given that in my family of origin I am sixth in line, one of the ‘little girls’ and more especially one of the girls, my opinion was not worth much. Such legacies do not disappear. It is part of why I am so taken with the degree to which a sense of unfairness and hurt can lead to resentment and a wish to turn the tables and no longer be the helpless little one. I also write as a woman, in what I consider in some ways is still a man’s world. I would like to think that gender no longer matters when it comes to the recognition of the quality of writing but I think not, not yet at least. Finally, I write as an Australian citizen in a country whose identity is fragmented, through the process of migration, a process I do not oppose but one, which may well have contributed to the cultural cringe that is so often reported here. As a child when I sensed my mother’s longing for her home in Europe I felt that even the land on which I stood was inferior. Compared to Europe, we in Australia had no culture, or so I believed. We were taught at school in those days that we had begun as Britain’s penitentiaries for convicts and as well we learned later that had stolen this land from its indigenous people. It is only in the last fifty or sixty years that Australian women writers have felt confident enough to write about the seasons as the opposite of that experienced in the northern hemisphere.

For me as a child growing up in Australia I was torn between two countries. My mother in those early days decried Australians their lack of culture. To her they seemed ill educated, uncouth. No theatres to speak of, few bookshops, few cafes on the street, none of the bustling city life she remembered from her life in Haarlem, Holland. I thought of my mother in those days as a snob, but I also took pride in the foreign.

John Hughes writes about his experience as a second generation Australian, the business of living in two worlds, and the importance of avoiding actual knowledge, ‘so that by knowing just a little, not only was he able to establish his own sense of self, he could also make himself however he wanted.’(John Hughes ‘Memory and Home’, keynote address presented at the Perth Day of Ideas, Institute of Advanced studies, University of WA, September 2006, p. 2.)

Like Hughes, without actual knowledge, whenever I imagined what life was like before my own began, I saw it as a series of images, in black and white, without sound, flat, one dimensional, like old photographs spilling out of albums, curling at the edges and fading in the centre. I saw a world of war, of bombs and starvation, set against the picture post-card tranquillity of Holland. My mother's Holland, with its frozen rivers teeming with children on skates in winter and later, in the springtime, lined with tulips and daffodils. Holland, the Netherlands, the land of longing, where it never gets hot and always stays green, even under the snow and ice of winter. In my child’s mind, I heard the name Neverlands, a country I could never come to know myself except in my imagination. Holland was in the centre of Europe and just as Hughes’s past evoked for him a sense of something foreign lodged within, so it was for me.

My mother had bemoaned her loss of Europe and all things cultural through her migration to Australia. Memories became my mother’s ‘currency’, at least for the time of my growing up when her difficulties with nine children and an alcoholic and abusive husband were so acute that she could not but fill the gap of her sadness with her memories of a grand European past. Her memories sustained me, too. They nurtured me throughout my own difficult childhood and created a sense of my family’s specialness, a specialness that resided in the foreign. But Europe was also a place of war and horror. I knew this from my father. I knew that he had fought in the Second World War, and through this, at least in part, he had become the man he was. So Europe for me became a hybrid – the beauty and the beast of my parents’ past.

The trauma of my past, through migration, through the experience of feeling lost and often silenced in a large Catholic family and other traumatic experiences later in my life all inform my writing. The memories become the triggers to a re-remembering and in this sense a reconstruction of the past, which I use as fodder for my writing. I then link the autobiographical to broader issues of meaning, but always told essentially through storytelling. To me story telling is the best way to get at an understanding of life experience. And I choose to use my own story because although I am biased in my subjectivity, it is still the one area I know more about than any other.

Thank you so much, Elisabeth, for that moving and fascinating insight into writing and family, history, fiction and autobiography. My mother was from Australia, I am also the child and grandchild of immigrants, this has given me much food for thought. Read Elisbeth's blog, Sixth in Line, and if you're interested in contributing yourself, email me.


Miriam Drori said...

"I write to find a voice after a childhood of silence." What a moving sentence. In fact the whole post, as Tania says, is moving and fascinating. Thank you, Elisabeth and Tania.

Rachel Fenton said...

Wow - too much to think about to comment properly right now...thank you..

Tania Hershman said...

Miriam, thanks for commenting!

Rachel, thank you too.

Not sure if Elisabeth's seen this yet, I am sure she'll turn up at some point!

Elisabeth said...

Yes, I've seen it now, Tania. It looks good. Thanks for all your work in putting it up. It's strangely daunting to see my face in colour on line.

Thanks, Miriam and Rachel, for your comments.

I'm sorry there's perhaps too much to think about here Rachel. It's one of my worst attributes. I go off on tangents and wind up far from where I started. There's always so much of interest to explore.

And Miriam, I'm glad you picked out those particular words. I suspect there are others who write for the same reason. Childhood experience can be silencing.

Jim Murdoch said...

How typical, especially of a child, to want to make unfamiliar sounds mean something. I love the ‘Neverlands’ anecdote. My parents aren’t Scottish even though all their children were born here and I also grew up with mixed feelings for both counties. What made matters worse is that, and this is unusual, I never adopted the language of my peers. My brother and sister both have strong Scottish accents but I never picked it up. Throughout my childhood I was singled out for ridicule because of this being called an “English bastard” and no one would believe me when I said I was born and bred in Scotland. To this day I still don't feel comfortable with my Scottishness despite the fact that I’ve lived my entire life here.