Only Connect: The Making of an Autobiography.
Originally published in Landfall 188 (November 1994): 247-54.
To write the story of your life is to embark on an arduous, confusing and sometimes frightening process. Most writers recognise the problems and the risks, and shy away from them. I, on the other hand, devoted five years of my life to this intense examination of it – more than that, since unlike other writing projects this one never really goes away, even when it’s finished.
Why did I do it? Well, at first I didn’t mean to; the idea grew with the telling. I was well on towards the end of the first volume before I fully realised the scope of my endeavour. Not till the end of the third did I understand the full implications, for myself and others, of even carefully selected truth-telling about my life and times. Which is to say, I suppose, that I learnt far more from the experience than I knew at the start. In a sense all writing is like this, but it came as a surprise to find how true it was of this genre. Despite knowing, as it were, the plot and characters, I had constantly to embark on fresh journeys of discovery.
For all that I did have an initial conviction, a motive if you like, one that as it turned out was so durable that it never left me, and indeed made the whole enterprise possible. Without it I could not have persevered, or endured the passage.
It came into existence, this germ of an idea, quite gradually, out of years of poetry readings. My first collection of poems was published in 1975, public reading was becoming common, though it was not nearly as popular and established as it is now. I began nervously to do it too, occasionally by travelling to other places, I published more books, and in 1981 went off to France for my year as the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow. All through the eighties I read often in various parts of the country and began to attend writers’ festivals overseas.
The question of who I was – which really meant where had I been before, since clearly I had lived some other life before this fairly visible one – came up constantly, in talks after readings and at other times. Women who cherished unsatisfied ambitions to ‘do their own thing’ were particularly curious about the facts of my life. I could never find an answer, or not one that was in any way appropriate to these conversations. As I wrote in a poem at the time, everything was ‘too much to say, or too little’. At the same time I had begun to meet other women – the American poet Amy Clampitt was one – who had published a first book in middle age, and whose early lives seemed, like mine, obscure and mysterious.
From the flippant ‘Oh, I wasn’t anywhere’, which even as I said it induced in me an uncomfortable sense of betrayal, I moved a long way in my own thinking, though not in my power to explain what ‘anywhere’ (or the ‘nowhere’ it implied) might be; still less how the transition had occurred, which was of course what they really wanted to know.
Life Number One, as I began to call it, the years I had spent living in country towns and bringing up my family, had been vital, authoritative and comprehensive. I strongly (though privately) resisted the assumption, which I could see many people made, that Life Number One had merely been a matter of waiting around for Life Number Two to take over.
This was the time when the Women’s Movement in New Zealand was maturing, becoming more historically aware. A number of books appeared, examining women’s changing life patterns, especially the late start on careers. I contributed to several of them, but each time I finished an article or an interview it seemed that I had merely set the stage for the real story. One perceptive reader, Ian Reid at Deakin University in Australia where I was working while I wrote one of them, observed that it was less a finished statement than a preparation for something larger and more searching. I seemed to be giving the reasons for my life to fall into two distinct and separate phases, but not how it actually happened.
Other women’s experience offered parallels, but mine seemed a particularly clear-cut, not to say dramatic example of what I was coming to see as a phenomenon of my generation. Although we had all learned to speak of our shaping influences as ‘conditioning’, I knew that there was a much larger question to be asked than that of a simple change of occupation. The process had been one in which my outlook, my habits of living and my assumptions about the nature of experience had all been overturned. It had been long and tumultuous, and it had altered for ever the world in which I did, or could, continue to live.
As the urge – I might almost have said the responsibility – grew to account fully for this upheaval, I sometimes reflected that if I had been a historian or a sociologist I might have tried to tell this ‘truth of a generation’ in some scholarly way. As it was, the only avenue open to me was the writer’s and, gathering momentum as I went along, I took it.
The questions to be asked were constant, remorseless. I had begun with the search for a pattern of cause and effect in the events of my life, the choices I had made (and quite early I came to see that all choices, event the passive ones, were mine). Beginning in the middle, where it seemed at first that my story lay – as the articles and interviews I did testified – I looked more closely at the reasons I had arrived at just that point at that time. Everything connected. I went back and back, and in the end was asking my ‘why’ questions of my childhood, my parents, even more remote ancestors. When I say this now it sounds perfectly obvious, but realising it was my first and perhaps most crucial insight into the nature of my task. And because my life had always been a very populated one, I became aware of the same patterns in the lives of friends and family, people I encountered. The ‘why’ questions became an obsession; indeed much later this habit did in turn have to be altered, or at least controlled, since it threatened to pursue me through the whole of the rest of my life.
As I worked through my own experience, new imperatives kept appearing; new duties, almost. A curious word to use, but it does describe the sense I had of having to tell, if it killed me, the exact truth as I’d seen it, since it was obvious that there were a thousand ways of evading it (self-aggrandisement, gossip, romantic fiction, name-dropping, self-pity . . . ). Each new phase had to be examined with as much rigour as I could bring to bear on it, but it must also come to life; this was after all a story, not a treatise. I had to look at each piece of my life as if I was in the middle of living it. My method was to think my way back to each event or phase, to be there, live it again, however difficult or painful this might be, then come out the other end and begin writing. That way it was still raw and close, but I would be ‘cleansed’ by having moved (just) outside it. I used to think of Chekhov’s dictum about writing: grasp the absolute reality with all its mess and contradictions, but be as cold as ice yourself as you do it.
The question of how each phase was connected with those that came before it, and prefigured others that were to come, was a technical problem of a different kind. I made a rule that I would not be seen to know in advance what was to happen, yet there were times when a glimpse of later awareness cried out to be included. On the whole I dealt with this in the writing itself, by adapting the tone to express what was the truth of the event, but which I had not understood at the time. One example is the account of Chester’s sojourn in New Zealand in The Quick World. I could not, in fact, have used this light, amused tone while I was in the middle of that experience, yet it conveys exactly how I came to see it, without the need for laborious explanations.
As I moved through various phases of the story, I became more and more practised in this method of building into the prose itself the attitudes and comments, insights acquired after the event, which I did not want to talk about directly. Again and again I would write a piece of simple narrative, then rewrite it, complicating the account by suggesting in some way that other views of the matter were possible. I greatly enjoyed this procedure; it was as though I continually set myself tests – to introduce important extra material without anyone knowing that I was doing it.
Links with the past I hinted at, or asked questions about, or put into dreams or reflections – all common novelists’ techniques. Writing autobiography was far more similar to novel construction than I’d thought. Characters, real or fictional, have to behave consistently; they make laws you have to keep. My characters, including myself, had to be looked at in the round, I had to understand them as the people they were, without forcing them into shapes that my attitude to them might demand.
Writing about the gradual collapse of my marriage was the most severe test of my capacity to do this. I rewrote this section many times, trying for some sort of objectivity, a way of doing justice to both people living through those years of anguish. My salvation in the end was to draw on wider patterns of social behaviour, the climate of the time, as a way of seeing our case as in some ways typical. No life is lived in isolation; certainly mine was not. The tensions were between being exact about my own experience, and being fair to the entire situation. It’s no wonder I came more and more to think of myself as ‘her’, not ‘me’. I had to. In any case, it isn’t the narrator’s job to make judgements; if it is anyone’s it’s the reader’s.
At times I felt a need to tell a story that I believed had been neglected or avoided altogether. The account of my years as mother of young children is the best example. This was Life Number One, to which I wanted to give full value. However as I came closer to it I began to realise that the experience of a woman spending her days with young children, either in city suburbs or in country towns as mine had been, was insufficiently and often unfairly documented. Writers avoided it. One year I chaired a seminar on autobiography for the Women’s Book Festival, and one of the participants actually said of her own story, ‘I took it up to my marriage; after that it’s just Mum and kids, and nobody wants to know about that.’
I came to feel fiercely defensive about this submerged world that it seemed everyone had been refusing to uncover and delineate. The general perception appeared to be that it was boring, or mad, the material of suburban neurosis, a valid enough view in some cases, but a narrow stereotype nevertheless. I knew that living in this milieu could yield a rich, dynamic, compelling experience – which mine had been. However, it was probably hard to ‘find’ (as indeed it proved to be) because each day, densely packed as it was, ran into others similarly close-knit, and the whole gradually formed a variegated but forgettable mass. Children grow quickly and each day tends to obliterate those that have gone before.
I was lucky to have some diary material, as well as letters that I and others had kept. And I had my own memory, of course – apparently a phenomenally good one. It was not, I explained many times, when I began to read from one volume or another; it was just that there is a process of uncovering forgotten material which I – and anyone else – could use if they chose. The trick was to focus on some prominent, remembered event, consider it with full concentration, and quite soon related incidents would begin to come up into the light, as it were. More and more of them; I often wrote with little pieces of paper surrounding my page, noting the once-forgotten details that I now wanted to use. The process is one that did not finish with the end of the books; I am still bedevilled by tempting glimpses that I didn’t ‘find’ in time.
There was another problem, more fundamental than any of these: it’s that a life is not really much like a book at all, however careful or exact that may be. A single day in a real life is filled with an amorphous mass of contradictory experiences, many of them happening at the same moment; if you tried to follow even one day, faithfully and in detail, you would never finish, and your readers would die of boredom or confusion. Even James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who tried documenting the inner life moment by moment, without the limitations of external time, wrote extremely structured narratives. I decided to cope with this dilemma by identifying themes, and grouping material under one or another of them. A sub-plot (which is how I sometimes thought of them) would come in, have its turn, after a period with the main story.
This could be tricky – for an autobiographer as, I am sure, for a novelist. When I was writing Bonfires in the Rain I became entirely absorbed in my married life and my children, and it took my editor, when a whole draft was completed, to point out that for a long stretch of time I’d lost track of my first family, notably my mother. By this stage in the story this was a secondary theme: I had to find some new places for it to enter the action. I grew familiar with phrases like ‘at the same time’, ‘all the time this was occurring . . . ‘ And of course I continually selected from the mass of material that must always be there, hoping I kept a balance, hoping I kept to the point – which is to say the pattern of cause and effect that I believed underlay the whole.
I still haven’t mentioned privacy, other people’s, and mine, though this was often the subject of the first questions I was asked after the publication of each volume. Early on, I decided that my rule would be to take from other people’s experience the least possible substance I needed to illuminate my own; and, as in other aspects of the work, refrain from making judgements. Also that the real story – why my life had changed in the way it had, and what were the effects of the change – should end about ten years before the present. These were useful working principles, but I greatly underestimated the proprietary passion people could feel at the prospect of being characters in another’s story.
The problem became most acute in the later stages, for the obvious reason that a number of people who had played a crucial role in my personal drama were not only still alive, they lived nearby and were in some cases very well known. My policy was to show the MS to everyone who was mentioned in it; if they approved the text there was no more to be said. I had already made it clear in an author’s note that I knew that my view of events was not necessarily shared by others who had participated in them, that there were different ‘truths’ for each person. But I also offered to consider possible changes. If we couldn’t agree on these, and I thought my story would be impaired by the loss of the material under examination, I would fictionalise the names, thus removing any chance of identification. In the event, this seemed a workable policy when the material was in MS, but contained some nasty shocks when the books were published.
I am still rather mystified by this phenomenon. Perhaps it has to do with telling true stories – one’s own version of what is true – in a small community. Some people who had felt at home with their presence in a MS, privately read and talked about, were horrified when others read about them in the public forum a book creates – and the fictional names proved a far thinner disguise than I’d thought. There were a few angry letters and conversations; tears, hurt feelings – some of them mine – then awkward silences. But if I was painfully surprised by this, I was more surprised by what followed. After a few months the whole situation simply vanished; I even began to hear from people who wished they had had a larger share in my story. Perhaps it wasn’t quite that the books themselves unnerved people, rather the thought of what other people might be saying – and perhaps getting wrong (whatever ‘wrong’ might be).
But there was a much wider and more typical reader reaction, which at first surprised me too. Over the last few months I have been working on a revised, slightly reduced, but in essentials unchanged, single-volume version of the autobiography. In the author’s note I have prepared this time, I have thanked my readers. An unusual gesture for a writer, but one I think it is important to put on record. Initially readers actually enabled me to carry on; throughout the writing of Hot October I was racked by doubts (‘everyone’s got a life of their own, why do they want to know all this stuff about mine?’). Then other people took my story to themselves, showing me that my desire to understand, however tentative and unsure it had been at first, had echoes in innumerable other lives. People said to me more times than I can count or remember that, though the details might be different, in telling my story I had also told theirs.
I know now that there is a theory of autobiographical writing which proposes that men and women characteristically take different approaches to it. Men tend to write from the centre of a world in which they have an established position, often a record of success, which the autobiography documents. Women on the other hand write from the outside; they have no secure, given place and so must find it. They must, as I had discovered when I set out on my own enterprise, constantly ask why things are as they are. They write their own story in order to find out.
The quality and depth of my response from readers – men as well as women – has suggested to me that the second method, the search for reasons and connections, is the broader quest. If it is, will this change as the world puts a more searching spotlight on men’s experience, while it accommodates a greater range of action and aspirations for women? It’s a question that of course I cannot answer, but one which the discoveries inherent in writing my own story keep constantly in my mind.