Hello again. What a time it has been … six rejections in recent weeks, seemingly endless school holidays, a self-organised ‘exegesis retreat’ at the coast (a lonely and fretful week, not at all like Varuna), a three-week bout of laryngitis, various emotional dramas on the home-front and, last week, my normally wonderful hairdresser gave me a mullet (thankfully now fixed). During this time of rejections and mullet-induced low self-esteem, I’ve continued to step out of my comfort zone in academia – I gave my first lecture (the students clapped when I finished, and one student even came up to me afterwards and told me how much she enjoyed my talk, which greatly restored my confidence in life), put in an abstract for a creative writing symposium coming up at UNE next month and finally started writing my exegesis. Yes! And I’ve actually made some headway – over 8000 words on my ‘method chapter’ last weekend – and it was even kind of enjoyable. I’m about to go back to it this morning, but thought I’d better post something because it’s been so long. Next week, I’ll hear whether I was successful in my application for an artist-in-residence position at Bundanon – oh, please! – and then I have to wait until December to find out about a residency at Hedgebrook, a women only writing retreat on Whidbey Island near Seattle. Check it out – www.hedgebrook.org. In the meantime, I will continue to ‘keep the faith’ as Anne Reilly says, and send my work out with renewed hope. As promised some time ago, this post includes a ten-minute presentation I gave at UNE recently about my PhD research – part of which is the memoir I am reworking for HarperCollins. My apologies if you’ve heard any of it before. Until next time …
The creative project for my PhD thesis, ‘Iron Men: Alchemy at Work’ combines immersion research and memoir to explore the challenge of disaffected youth from a mother’s perspective. Much of the story documents nearly two years that I spent ‘hanging out’ at a welding shed with local Armidale youth worker, Bernie Shakeshaft, and a group of young welders, many of them early school leavers.
In my paper today, I will discuss some of the ethical and aesthetical choices I made with regard to my writing style for this project; the process of sharing the work with the subjects of my writing; and the difficulties that arose because of that process, especially when the focus of my research changed. I will conclude my presentation with my findings on this process and some thoughts for future research.
In my writing about the Iron Man Welders I’ve chosen to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. First of all, to explain this concept, I’ll share some feedback I received from an early reader of my work who said: ‘I like that you take me into the shed, and that I get to be one of the boys in the sense that I listen to their dialogue. I also like that the dialogue and the scene that you set does not interfere with my interpretation of what is happening or being said.’
Here is a short excerpt from ‘Iron Men’ to further illustrate this concept:
In the makeshift kitchen at the shed, I made a cup of tea to warm my hands and then wandered back to join the boys who were still gathered near the door. I noticed Freckles had retreated from the fire in the forge, and was showing the others a bandage on his arm. I heard someone say, ‘We could all brand our chests. Iron Man Branding!’ I sidled up to Bernie to ask what that meant.
‘Hey Freckles,’ he called over. ‘Tell Helena about branding.’
Freckles looked a little sheepish, but explained what happened. A few weeks before, he’d heated up a bottle opener embossed with a turtle and then pressed the red-hot end onto his forearm: ‘I left it on the skin too long,’ he said. Two weeks later, when he finally went to the doctor, he discovered he had a third-degree burn.
‘Did you tell the doctor how you did it? ‘ asked Greg.
‘Yeah,’ said Freckles in a tone of ‘why wouldn’t I?’
We all laughed.
‘Love the fuckin’ honesty!’ said Bernie, giving Freckles a pat on the back as he walked by, grinning like a proud father because he’d told the truth, even though it was a stupid thing to do.
I could have approached this subject matter in a very different way, by ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. For example, in 2009, John van Tiggelen, a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Good Weekend magazine, wrote an article called ‘The Lost Boys’ about a similar program for troubled youth. Here is his opening paragraph:
Jamie is 14. He is fit, handsome, ginger-haired and, relative to his mates, late to lose his virginity, though not for lack of girlfriends. He beats himself up about this. Spare him the guff about sex being no substitute for love. He has a depressed mother who drinks too much, a disease that lands him in and out of hospital, a father who rejected him, a stepfather who belittles him and a brother who raped him. His sexual health counsellor, whom he sees fortnightly, has told him the longer he leaves it, the more daunting it will get. His saving friendships are with a football coach who hugs him and a best mate who, until recently, went thieving and tagging with him around the streets of Dandenong, in Melbourne’s deep south-east.
I recently emailed John van Tiggelen about the ethical issues he encountered through the writing of this article, and I now understand why he chose to write this way, but this paragraph still shocks and distresses me. I can’t get my head around how Jamie would have felt as he read it. For me, the welding boys’ reaction to the writing was always at the forefront of my mind when I was working on this project, so although some of the Iron Man Welders may have similar histories to Jamie’s, I chose not to go there – and I sort of like the way I haven’t disclosed their stories.
There are two main reasons why I didn’t do this. The first is that Bernie’s youth-work philosophy is very much about working with what’s happening in the present, rather than putting energy into what happened in the past, and I think I’ve reflected that in my writing. The second reason why I didn’t write such explicit histories of the boys is because I always knew I was going to share early chapter drafts with them. I’m pretty sure if I had written something in the style of John van Tiggelen’s article, they wouldn’t have wanted me to continue with the project. So why did I choose to show them?
Many writers of creative nonfiction maintain that there are strong ethical and literary reasons for writers to allow their subjects to read and comment on early drafts of the work. For me, the primary reason was to establish trust. US journalist, Michael Rozek, believes that sharing the work in this way is essential, not only to the integrity of the finished piece, but to the relationship of trust between writer and subject. “Nonfiction is a sacred trust,” he says. “This is their life … Not only their life to the rest of the world, but this is their life to them.”
I admire his stance. From the start of my PhD project, I wanted to be completely open about what I was doing and, for me, that meant sharing the writing. I was initially confused about how to do this, because some of the boys lacked the skills to comprehend and respond to a written text, but when I finished the first chapter, Bernie devised a provisional solution. He arranged to have a barbeque down at the shed one Friday afternoon, when I happened to be out of town. The boys and a few visitors sat around on milk crates, smoking, the older ones having a few beers. Bernie told me later: ‘Simmo (another youth worker) read it out to them in twenty minutes .. never seen the boys sit so quietly, the atmosphere was positive and the boys were deep in thought.’ Straight after the reading, Bernie passed around paper and pens and asked the boys to write down the first three things that came into their head. He later gave me their comments:
Don’t real know, weird being in a book, interesting to hear what we do in like a story, telling the truth, it’s funny, it was really good, I think we should put real names, are we gunna get into shit with OHS or COPS if this becomes a book?
This process continued for the first five chapters and was very nerve-wracking for me, even though I never attended any of the chapter reading-sessions. I realise now that sharing the work in this way had a huge influence on how I wrote and, in retrospect, although full of noble moral intentions, it wasn’t a good idea for me as a writer. There are two reasons for this. The first of these is related to the writing process, which some people characterise as having two distinct stages. Cate Kennedy calls these the “hot” and “cool” stages. The hot stage is when you plunge in and create your first draft, trying things that may or may not work, letting your imagination run free. No inner critic is allowed. The ‘cool stage’ is when you’ve got your draft and you’re ready to revise and let the critic back in. Stephen King describes this process as writing with the door “closed” … or with the door “open”.
By choosing to share each chapter as it was written with the subjects of my research, I was writing with the door “open” right from the start … and having the door open means you’re thinking about your reader. In a recent E-newsletter from the NSW Writers’ Centre, editor Linda Funnell says: “If you are focussed on the reader when you’re trying to get the first draft down, you can end up paralysed, trying to second-guess your reader’s response”, and this is exactly what happened to me.
The second problem that arose from sharing the writing was when the focus of the work changed. The fifth and final chapter I shared with Bernie and the boys was about a visit to the police station with my son. It was a turning point. As the ‘narrator’, previously a background observer, I had entered the story in a much larger way. And at that point I became blocked, or, as Linda Funnell calls it, “paralysed”. I was no longer sure where I was going with the story. I’d set out to write about the Iron Man Welders. This work was supposed to be all about them. Now I was almost centre stage. I was worried about what Bernie and the boys thought of this new development… were they ‘annoyed’ with me, or bored by this description of a mother’s frustrations. Also, this chapter wasn’t as “funny” as the other stuff they’d read… things had suddenly become a lot more serious.
I began to wonder how I was going to create narrative drive without my personal story, especially because I’d held back from delving into the boys’ personal lives. I got scared. Stephen King calls this stage the ‘hump’ – a point that most writers reach in the genesis of a full-length work, but for me, it was intensified by the process of sharing early chapters and of working with the “door open”.
In Oct 2009, Anne Collins, a senior editor from Random House Canada, met with me at the Brisbane Writers Festival. She’d read the first 20 pages of my manuscript – and liked it – but asked: “So how are you going to make this into a book?’ After we talked a little more about where the story could go, her advice to me was: “Go where it scares you. Write as if everyone is dead, and don’t show anyone till it is done.” To a large extent, I did that, but I can still improve on this practice. And that’s one thing I’ve learnt through doing this PhD – to not show early drafts to the people I’m writing about, or to anyone else. My writing mentor, Judith Lukin-Amundsen, says that the ability to keep your writing to yourself, to trust in yourself and not seek reassurance from others at an early stage, shows maturity in a writer’s development.
I’ll conclude today’s presentation with one of my findings on this sharing-the-writing process. With hindsight, it would have been better to share just one chapter early on – one that Bernie and the boys could have read to help them understand what I’d meant by ‘creative nonfiction’, and so they could know what my writing style was like. I could have avoided a very long period of unproductive time if I’d waited and shown them the finished manuscript much later on. And I’m sure this would have still maintained the “sacred trust” … which is so important in the writing of a project like mine.