Zing Stories

Marks on Paper

"What peculiar creatures we are, you and I, making our marks on paper...pursuing our peculiar passion for talking with strangers." So says Inga Clendinnen in Tiger's Eye, a memoir triggered by the experience of suffering a grave illness.

Clendinnen is a professional historian, an expert on the passage of time and event, but one senses that she was as complacently naive about the fleeting limitations of a lifespan as the rest of us tend to be - until her illness. Awareness of mortality fired a sense of urgency. Recovered, she writes: "I know how little time there is" and ponders the nature of the self - this "stuck together ‘I'... a fabricated, chemically supported, contingent thing."

Not all writers of life stories have Clendinnen's literary and historical bent but, it seems to me, they face the profundities of human existence as she did. To live is hard, argues Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman, a work about the lives of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. "It is only by great effort that we rouse ourselves to act, to fight, to struggle, to be heard above the wind..." How much more so is the effort to write, especially for those people who do not even define themselves as writers?

Yet people do it.

In my home region of the Sunshine Coast hinterland, I've been helping people record their lives for about six years now and my students are rarely professional writers. Something makes them want to share their lives with others, many because they have suffered in some unusual way and hope that the stranger reading their particular story might be spared the pain they underwent. Life story writers wish others to know.

My commitment to supporting their autobiographical projects has coincided with the boom in confessional writing and publishing: these days there are many life stories on the market. Their insights can be quite specific. Madness in the family? Try Ann Deveson's Tell Me I'm Here about schizophrenia; Margo Orum's Fairytales in Reality about bipolar disorder. What's it like to be married to a famous artist? Barbara Blackman will tell you in Glass After Glass. Want to feel more grateful for your childhood? Try the McCourt brothers. Want to understand Aboriginal Australians? Herb Wharton has compiled interviews of Murrie drovers in Cattle Camp; Ruby Langford Ginibi searches for her Koorie roots in My Bundjalung People. And so on.

No wonder people want to add to such an innovative and useful genre. Fortunately there are many excellent how- to books available - I always use Patti Miller's Writing Your Life - but here I want to draw attention to three concepts lifted from the Buddhist tradition and explore briefly some examples derived from my teaching work. As a writer you could do worse than embrace them conceptually, play with them consciously, and observe their play in your life and the lives of others.

Buddhist wisdom holds that the characteristics of human existence are Impermanence, Suffering and the Lack of a Permanent Self.

David B. is 70 and has spent over two decades researching his family tree. It goes back, he boasts, to 10th century Denmark. He is a devout Christain and laces his spoken narrative in a manner that gives him pleasure: drunken Uncle Hans' tragic death was God's will, and so forth. This bias is not the problem; the audience for his work is a limited one - his family - and they will forgive, perhaps praise, his foibles. The problem is that he has cancer and is really too sick to go on. Week after week he neglects to write. The dream of compiling a readable volume from the raw material of his research is vanishing. He has left it too late. The other students feel tender towards him - he reminds us all to make good use of our time.

Toni S. has come to a life story class to write a love story. In a private session she confides to me that she has never gotten over a youthful affair with a married man. The consequences of her 16 year-old fall into the deep river of love have overshadowed her life. Her parents intervene and force them apart but the lovers meet again - two decades later. It is as intense and passionate as it always was; at last Toni tells her married man the secret she has carried all her adult life - she gave birth to his child and her parents forced her to give it up for adoption. There is more to this story - more sadness - and many readers would find it touching and instructive but Toni S. cannot write it. Sorrow blocks her path. Trials and tribulations are the most precious assets the life story writer can have but she also needs to have drunk deeply from life's sweetness. Unless Toni S. sees the sweetness she will stay blocked.

On the other hand, a life devoid of the geography of human suffering is devoid of interest. One student lived such a protected life that the biggest conflict she could recall was a mere incident involving a misunderstanding with another parent from her daughter's school.

The lack of a permanent self
What the individual does in his /her lifespan is the result of a complex interplay of causes and conditions. In other words, life is a chaotic dance in the cosmos. A worthwhile life story does not shy away from this truth. Tom has lost his old selves - and knows it. The man who was a famous rock musician - Tom 1980 - doesn't exist any more; nor does Tom 1990, the heroin addict. Tom 2000 lives alone in an isolated farmhouse and writes about the wreckage of lives he has known. He's come along to one of my classes to check if he's on the right track.

He is - the dude can write. Jesus said, Whoever loseth his life shall find it, but few of us are game. People like Tom and Inga Clendinnen do it by accident - though generally speaking, the Western mind has great difficulty with the suggestion that the ego self is a delusive construct. In ordinary life each person tends to identify with the ego and judge everything from its standpoint. Me, my, mine are our catchwords. (This awful thing should not have happened to me. My life is more intersting/tragic/publishable than yours. That enemy took what was mine.)

The matter of managing the self on the page is the autobiographer's greatest challenge. Angela's Ashes towers above other memoirs of childhood because the writer - adult school- teacher Frank McCourt - has got right out of the way. Its impact lies in its egolessness. If Tom can complete his memoir, it will sell, for people are curious about the mind of an addict and Tom tells it without trying to protect his ego - he tells it like it is.

Not that the publication of life stories is everything - and I tell my students this. What matters is the journey of talking with strangers - as Clendinnen puts it - and the putting down of marks on a page. When I teach, I hope I help my students face this journey, which is none other than engaging fearlessly with life as it is.

Writing Queensland published this essay on personal story writing in April 2001. I feel it is just as relevant now.


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Zing Stories
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