What is it about Helen?

I wanted to go to the Helen Garner talk at the NonFictioNow Conference in Melbourne last year, but couldn’t, so was very pleased to see this video via Virginia Lloyd’s twitter. I can’t seem to embed the video, so here is the link to the Wheeler Centre website, which will take you directly to the Garner video.

I took some notes, of course. I am obsessive with my notes. At around 12:30 minutes, I think she makes a joke that no one seems to get, or at least no one reacts to. There are no laughs, no titters, not even a stirring of response. She is talking about Michel Houellebecq’s book The Map and the Territory, and she says something like this (this is paraphrased)

The dead man is a character called Houellebecq but because this is fiction we won’t let that distract us.

To me, this is a clear reference to Garner’s novel The Spare Room, and the fact that some people made a big deal of her calling the main character Helen. She also refers — admirably, and without flinching — to The First Stone, a book which seemed to leave a trail of destruction in its wake, a book I defended on a couple of occasions; not the politics of it but the writing of it and her position in it. I argued to people who had not even read it, that it is a surprising book, surprising in the candid self-deprecation that Garner evinces, and that it’s a good book not just for that reason. Just as the young women in the case had the right to not be interviewed, so did she have a right to write about it (see later point in this post about ownership of stories).

People are still cut about that book, it was so polarising that it made people swear off her writing and I suspect made a lot of people stubbornly and petulantly not read Joe Cinque’s Consolation. Sometimes it seems like I’m the only person who likes Garner, likes her writing not the least because she doesn’t shirk from the hard stuff while at the same time is clear she’s not ‘courting it’ to be scandalous or high-profiled. She is fascinated and compelled by the hard stuff and brave enough to do it her way. I admire her. I think she’s funny and humble and intelligent and thoughtful and sensitive and brave and determined and puts words together beautifully. I would love her for a teacher. I would sit at her feet adoringly, but she’d probably make some funny comment about her clunky, unflattering shoes or bunions or something.

In the talk, she makes interesting comments about shape and structure too

In this frightening state of inactivity, I have a thousand things to say but I lack a form in which to hold them. I can’t force them into a shape. If I try, it damages them and it damages me. Force is destructive. Until I make the form, or rather sense one arising spontaneously from the material as I… brood over it, the things I want to say aren’t even things. They’re only ripples of consciousness… “bits of the mind’s string too short to use”. I have to respect them and collect them without knowing what they are.  I have to go out of the house and walk around the world, porous. I have to wait and wait and wait… if I try to force the unborn thing into some clever shape that my bossy intellect thrusts at me, I’ll deafen and blind myself to what’s going on around me. Busy hauling those seaweed ropes out of my guts, I’ll miss the moment when the wind changes.

I like the bit about her ‘bossy intellect’ and just having to be patient, waiting for things to find their form, not trying to force a structure. I get this.

She also talks about the question of who a story belongs to and ‘do I have the right to tell it?’ This is something I’ve been thinking about for a few years now. In my second project, I have main characters who are men and who have different cultural and linguistic backgrounds to me.  Also part of the story has been much-written about before, so on not a few levels, I am stretched in terms of authenticity. But Helen reassures me that

The story does not exist as a story until the writer makes it. The story is not an object that’s been dropped on the ground. You don’t stroll past and see it lying there, pick it up, dust it off and put your name on it.

This is good. The story does not exist as a story until the writer makes it.

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