Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Writing from Life

Yesterday the Writing Fiction undergrad tute I'm teaching this semester was talking about the line between fiction and fact, what we felt was free ground for us to draw from, where we felt the moral line is drawn between art and life.

On the way home I was still thinking about it. When a group of writers have a conversation, who owns it? Who has first dibs to write about it? Last week I was chatting to Rod Jones in the cafeteria about Classics and I mentioned how I had moved to Melbourne hoping to study Classics, and at that stage it was my ambition to do a PhD in Ancient Greek literature and be odd and lonely (okay, actually I didn't mention the odd and lonely part, so already this is a fiction). But I didn't get into Melbourne Uni, I got into Monash, which didn't so much have Classics but had a strong archaeology department. So I studied that instead. I thought I would quite like archaeology, and I was happy to readjust my fantasy to be odd and lonely and in Egypt at a dig site tilling earth steeped in myth with a teaspoon, finding shards and dwelling inside narratives. But I actually found archaeology bitterly cold and flat. It wasn't about stories or mythology it was about verifiable facts and what things weren't. The stories that were full and round in my mind were flattened, the details stripped back to expose the bare facts within. I couldn't see people, like I could when I was reading Euripides or even when I was writing an essay about women collecting water at the well. All I could see were the broken things, the artefacts, their stubborn refusal to complete themselves or to sing or to be what they had been or where they had been or when they had been before.

Rod Jones pointed out that archaeology isn't the writer, it's the critic.

Of course.

The text isn't being created, or even read in the indulgent sense of the word, it's being tilled with a spoon. It's being exposed to a set of criterion, interpreted to an inch of its life, the myth is not the myth, it's not the dream, it's the factual basis. Who wants truth? I'm not motivated by truth, or at least the truth I want is a different kind of truth, not generated by facts or relics but generated by stories. There is of course a kind of beauty in the critique I'm sure. And like philosophy or psychology you probably have to get to PhD stage before you really start thinking with true originality, tilling your own earth. But still, it was an unappealing process to me.

I knew an archaeologist once, John his name was. I liked him, he lived with Zoe (hmm, should I be offended that she says blogs are for the tediously self indulgent?) for a while, but he always kind of baffled me. There was a precision about him, a kind of reserve, he never seemed to burble excess words. his concerns lay somewhere between the intellectual and the concrete - the whimsical, the silly and the useless didn't seem particularly to interest him (though he had a wonderfully dry sense of humour). Being as I am a great fan of whimsy and uselessness and one to often burble excess words, I found that next to him I felt kind of excessive myself, and shallow and sort of new, where he seemed intrinsically deep and old. I was entranced by the fact that his interest was in a kind of agricultural archaeology - he studied seeds, in Israel I think it was. It has a romance to it, tilling the earth, creating a picture of daily life, of something extremely ordinary and transitory, but also remote and distant, and cyclical, bound up in the same dirt we now farm, with the same seasons, the same sun, the same moon pulling the earth through the same space, our crops descended from their crops. But as soon as he went into detail the romance was lost in the dry facts, a different kind of buried, and really, I don't have the patience for digging with spoons.

Anyway, the conversation with Rod, who is doing a PhD in classics, was much shorter and pithier than that. Jen was there too, she writes books based on Greek myths so we all own and have some kind of stake in that conversation. Perhaps it wasn't even a new idea to them, but it was to me. It's intriguing to think what each of us would make of it if we were return to it at some point in fiction, how different our lived memories of conversations and all the things, all the referents and memories our words point to, would be.


  1. "I felt kind of excessive myself, and shallow and sort of new, where he seemed intrinsically deep and old".

    I know a guy who makes me feel like this. He is a philosopher working in logic (not the excessive French kind) and he's always pinning things down to what they are. He's also really interested in child development and anytime the girls do something new he tells me how it fits into developmental processes. But that's not the truth for me - my girls uniqueness and remarkable thoughts and behaviours are the truth. As you suggest, a fact is not a truth.

    I suspect this is the case for most professions. Writing stories seems to me to be the result of inspiration and muse but there must be lots of processes and skills that strip the mystique from writing fiction. Or does there continue to be magic there?

  2. That's actually a really good question Kris. I was reading this yesterday (an interview with Sonya Hartnett) and I must say her answer is different to mine, though she's been doing it longer than me:
    She says she would not be a writer if she had her time over and only gets a 'bloodless pleasure' from it.

    I think for me I've got to a point where the basic structure is intuitive enough that I can just let the 'muse' take over and enjoy the absorbing task of writing, immersing myself in the poetics of language. However I am finding that in order to grow as a writer and challenge myself, I'm having to think about the 'maths' of it a bit, fiddling with structure in order to make the writing more interesting. Also I guess writing my thesis - which is in part about exploring the relationship between creativity and writing and questioning my own motives - is kind of an archaeology, it's not very enjoyable work and least interesting when I am 'excavating facts' from secondary texts, far more absorbing when I'm delving into the primary texts and creating my own parallel story (which is what close reading feels like sometimes).

    I don't know if that really starts to answer your question, but it's interesting to think about. Thanks!