Outside the Frame

A memoir is not an autobiography. A memoir can be one volume or many, can start anywhere, go anywhere, pick up any strand of a life-story and give it to the reader along with whatever mood and state of mind the author is in. The author you meet in one volume may not seem the same as the one you meet in another.

I struggled with a list of topics and time frames. I thought I had to start at the beginning. But where is the beginning? How far back do you go? Should you start before you are born, or when you come into consciousness, or after you get a job or become famous, or later on when you fail and decide life is horribly disappointing? Should life be divided into chunks: this is what happened when I went to University, this is what it was like when I lived on a commune, this is what happened when I left my husband … and so on … sounds boring already.

Many writers begin their memoirs by writing about the death of a parent. When your last parent is gone there is no-one left to know you as you were, to criticise you or be disappointed in you for what you failed to do or did not become, or to praise you uncritically and behave inappropriately at parties. I realise now, without intending to, I had begun my memoirs project in the same way. 

It doesn’t matter when or how these memoirs get published, which is also a great freedom. If none of them see the light of day before I die, they will be already written and edited and ready to publish and my literary executor will take care of it one way or another.

And it doesn’t matter how many volumes of them there one. One, three, more … no pressure!

The first volume, Regret Horizon, is about the year my mother Isabelle Arnold and my first husband Peter Hamilton both died, 2008.  I wrote a little of it while my mother  was in the final throes of her difficult  exit, aged 93. In the photo below, she was so young and glamorous, at art school at East Sydney Tech. I’m so glad I didn’t try to publish this first volume quickly because the next few years somehow changed the story and it has been edited and re-edited.  Knausgaard made me realise how much more careful I had to be when speaking of others. It’s almost ready to be published, January 2019. Thanks to Jordan Cantelo for permission to use his wonderful photograph Ocean Horizon as the cover image.  Visit Jordan at http://jordancantelo.com/

Distant Early Warning  (Volume 2) is about my family origins and my  life up to when I was about to start at Sydney University, at the age of seventeen. My son Daniel and my granddaughter Lily have read it. Dan suggested some corrections. Lily liked it. Now with hindsight (and a lot more insight) it is also waiting for a re-edit.

Bad Altitude  is about a brief time in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea with my second partner and two young children in 1973. The first few chapters have been written, as well as a long section which will probably be added on as a kind of intervention at the end of the book, an extended meditation on the role of one of the book’s seemingly minor characters in my life who in fact has loomed large throughout.

What’s missing? I need to find a way to write the missing volumes quickly now, although they don’t need to be in any particular order. From 1962 until 1970 I was a student at Sydney University, first an undergraduate who thought she was going to be a writer, later a postgraduate who turned into an anthropologist. This was the era of The Sydney Push, of early steps in the recognition of the Aboriginal presence in Australia and a time when I married a man twenty years older than myself, had two children, and did field work in Arnhem Land and Central Australia.

 At the end of that I was thoroughly confused and miserable.  I lost all confidence in anthropology and the formal structures of academic life, came back to Sydney, left my husband and went to live on a commune in Kurrajong just outside Sydney for over a year, until I met my second partner which is where Volume Three takes off. The Kurrajong period could be another volume. It was when the alternative society, the counter-culture and communal living emerged, a time of exploration, Eastern religions, food fads and drug-taking – the forerunner of so much of our contemporary popular culture. And of course there’s more after that but I don’t think there will be enough life left.

My memoirs are about a woman – well, a girl and then a woman – a rebel against the conservative fifties, a woman with husbands and children but also a woman with thoughts and ideas and a deep intellectual commitment to writing and art, who against all odds developed an apparently successful “career” and then came to regret it. The Memoirs will never be complete, and it will be for someone else to write the remainder as a biography, if anyone is still interested. I suppose I could call it so far First Half First, apologies to Drusilla.

Isabelle May Sproule (Arnold), c. 1932