Book Review: True Stories by Helen Garner

First released in 1996, this collection of non-fiction stories spans a quarter of a century in an extraordinary writing life. Helen Garner is regarded as one of Australia’s foremost writers with a body of work ranging from journalism to novels, screen-writing to reviews. Her recent published works have been non-fiction including This House of Grief and a collection of essays in Everywhere I Look. There are many hints of what was to follow in Garner’s work in some of these essays.

The book opens with an overview of Garner’s writing career at this point titled ‘The Art of the Dumb Question’, before segmenting into four parts: A Scrapbook, An Album; Sing for Your Supper; The Violet Jacket and Cruising. The stories are roughly grouped together by themes, spinning and weaving through a wide range of topics and experiences from teaching students about sex to a series of sisterly interviews (Garner is the eldest of five daughters and one son). The reader follows her into a mortuary and into a registry office, before travelling by train across Victoria and out to sea on a Russian cruise ship. There is time to marvel at the amazing produce at the Royal Melbourne Show, and to gain insight into the professional pride of maintaining a public pool – the Fitzroy baths.

Darker themes are explored rather than evaded. Following the piece on days spent observing at the morgue there is a somewhat surreal visit to a gun show. The shadow of violence and aggression overlays ‘The Violet Jacket’ and ‘Killing Daniel’ is devastating to read, a piece that once read cannot be forgotten. There are fleeting moments captured with clarity, such as an old woman making her way down hospital stairs with the help of a younger woman. She says ‘It gets worse. It gets worse. The grief gets worse.’ Garner’s ear and eavesdropping skill are demostrated throughout the collection.

But humour and honesty is also in evidence. Garner is upfront about her otherness, her role as the observer with a notebook, cataloguing and condensing the essence of human experiences, significant and otherwise. Warmth and wit flows through the sibling interviews with each sister numbered rather than named. The shifting alliances, the similarities and shared histories are documented in such a way as to give a sense of the camaraderie.

In David Jones’ ‘perthume’ department, Two says to One, ‘Here – let me squirt this on you, in case I hate it.’

In ‘Three Acres, More or Less’, Garner writes of a block of land with old orchard trees, a couple of dams, a shed and a house. Her father pays an unexpected visit, giving a brusque overview of all that is wrong or needs work about the place before quietly admitting before he leaves that he could live in a place like that. During the night, the silence is shattered by someone out in the dark with a shotgun. In true Garner style, the story doesn’t finish quite as you might expect.

For all the moments of seeing the world through the prism of other people’s lives and experiences, there are glimpses of the familiar in these stories for me. The drawing of a young, sulky girl by John Brack. The visit to Sovereign Hill at Ballarat on a day so hot that Garner buys a copy of Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton and reads it at the Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, sitting under a large sign saying SILENCE.

Garner is generous in sharing insights into her writing process. The collection includes stories of attending writers’ festivals and reviews of other writer’s work, including Elizabeth Jolley and Germaine Greer. ‘Patrick White: The Artist as the Holy Monster’ is an excellent overview of David Marr’s biography, described as a ‘grand and gorgeous book.’

I read the book on planes, in buses, at meal tables. I became deaf, I laughed, I cried.

Some of these stories were familiar, read years ago. But this recent encounter seemed to lose none of the vivacity and humanity despite the passing of the years. I’d found the audiobook on the online library catalogue, narrated by Garner herself. This was an audible treat, a wonderful way to immerse in these individual but not unrelated stories. It has only served to deepen my existing appreciation of Garner and her extensive body of work.

[Photo: view inside the Mechanics’ Institute and Free Library, Soverign Hill]

Putting Creativity Out There

Over the last couple of years I have been writing fiction. This has mainly been in the form of short stories along with the first draft of a novel. The words have been growing slowly, building up in the background.

Some of the short stories have had an airing in my writing group, and this has been invaluable in a number of ways. Following constructive feedback, I have usually come away with a couple of areas to rework. I’ll admit that there are times when the feedback has been a bit challenging to hear, but usually once I digest the suggestions and revisit aspects which were confusing, the work feels stronger. I have been filing away the updated pieces, satisfied with the knowledge that they were as good as I could get them at this time.

There are lots of writing competitions out there, but I have been a bit reluctant to send these pieces out into the world. Late last year I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert which made me think that perhaps it was time to let some of my work go, to see if it could stand up on its own. In my writing group there was encouragement to get our work out there with a clarion call to collect rejection slips as we set our stories free.

I had been keeping an eye on competitions through a free weekly newsletter from the NSW Writers’ Centre and had printed out an entry form for a writing competition in Victoria. The form was filed and promptly forgotten until I discovered it, a day or two before the closing date. Fortunately submissions were online and I picked a story that met the competition criteria and sent it off before moving on to my next thought. When I came across the competition form a month or so later I tore it up, thinking that was the end of it but at least I’d tried.

Then I received a phone call. From Victoria. A phone message to let me know that I had won first place. I listened to the message a couple of times, stunned. The judge’s comments on the website said my story was charming and well-constructed. I felt giddy with delight. My story, inspired by a podcast about the vital role played by memorial halls in small country communities, had been good enough. You can find the story here.

So I will continue to create and dream and polish and put my work out there. I have recently come across the following in Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. It sums up how to behave as an ambitious writer:

The ambitious writer doesn’t hide her short stories in a drawer when she completes them, she sends them out. She starts with The New Yorker and works her way down. She doesn’t hesitate to approach a successful writer and ask questions, or follow an agent into the elevator so she can give a pitch. Even if she’s shaking in her Hush Puppies, she goes after what she wants. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, getting lucky, a chance encounter, a fortunate happenstance – all these might play a role in getting what you always dreamed of, but the ambitious writer is the one with energy and fortitude and stick-to-itiveness that the Elmer’s folks would like to patent.

Do you let your creative work go out into the world?

[Photo: three green owls]

A Creative Checklist

Recently I came across a section called ‘How to Build a Sustainable Writing Practice’ in the Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers by Judy Reeves (pp 147-150). A Writer’s Book of Days, also by Reeves, is one of my favourite writing books, and below is a summarised version of a checklist on building a writing practice, but it could be applied to any creative endeavour.

  1. I identify myself as a writer. When someone asks me what I do, I answer, ‘I’m a writer’. Or at least I always include it.
  2. I give myself affirmations, claiming myself as a writer: notes in my notebook or journal, in my writing space or by saying them out loud.
  3. I have a writing space. Even if I actually write all over the place, I maintain a sacred space for my writing.
  4. I have the tools and materials and support I need for my writing. I buy or borrow books about writing and subscribe to literary journals and writing publications.
  5. I have writing friends with whom I write or talk about writing or do writing things with.
  6. I do writerly things: I’m a member of a writing group, I go to readings. I read interviews with writers and listen to what they say about the craft and life of being a writer.
  7. I write to writers whose work has impacted me, and thank them. In these letters I claim myself as a writer and tell the writer what their work meant to me, writer to writer.
  8. I make time for my writing on a regular basis.
  9. When I can’t keep my writing date, I acknowledge why and reschedule.
  10. When I see that I’m consistently breaking my appointments, I review what might be the cause – chosen time isn’t right, life is too busy right now, goals too high, ___ – and make changes where necessary.
  11. I put my writing time high up on my priorities list. Not some vague ‘when I can’ or ‘if I have time today’.
  12. I set aside enough time to build consistency; if not daily, at least five times a week.
  13. I also create special times for writing – a long weekend or a retreat (with other writers or by myself) or to participate in a conference or seminar where I’ll actually write.
  14. I write. When I go to my writing space, when I set aside the time, I don’t just think about writing or talk about writing. I write.
  15. When I’m stuck, I find out what’s holding me back. When I procrastinate, I acknowledge that’s what I’m doing. When I’m afraid, I face my fear and write through it. And when all is said and done, I write.

How are you travelling with your creative checklist?

[Photo: Cowra Japanese Gardens]

Still Not Telling

Last week I wrote about how as a reader, listener or observer we tend to overlay our own thoughts and perceptions upon artistic endeavours. This led me to think about what this experience has been like as a writer, to have my work read and reviewed.

There are times when I’ve had my short stories critiqued and I’ve been surprised – and quietly delighted – with the interpretations, assumptions and insights that readers share with me. It is really interesting to experience. Sometimes I’ve been asked ‘what happened next?’ which can be a very difficult question to answer. There are times when I genuinely don’t know.

It can be revealing to have layers and nuances in your work picked up by others, and quite often these touches have not consciously been included in the writing. It is with distance or a different perspective that they become most evident.

At other times, the vision and intent that had been so clear in my mind doesn’t always translate clearly to the page. What had seemed so evident to me may not be apparent to the reader, and this is where getting feedback before releasing work out into the world can be beneficial. Another option might be to leave the work to rest a little longer, then return with fresh eyes to read through and pick up on ambiguity or gaps that may not have been evident in the earlier reading.

Belonging to a writing group with critiquing sessions is helpful in many ways, and being able to get an idea of what your work sounds and feels like is one of the main benefits. You also get the chance to hone your own critiquing skills by reviewing the work of other writers. This helps to sharpen the skills with your own writing, as well as giving you access to a sense of what a reader experiences when they read your work.

What insights have you experienced by putting your work out into the world?

[Photo: sunset at Wellington, NSW near turnoff for Wellington Caves on the Mitchell Highway]