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. That can be different each time, in fact it is bound to be, so 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 first consciousness, or after you get a job and become famous or later on when you find life is horribly disappointing? I thought to divide my life into neatly equivalent 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 seem to start memoirs with the death of a parent. There is a sense in which a parent’s death is the beginning of your life because there is no-one left to know you as you were, to criticise you or be disappointed in you. Or for that matter to praise you uncritically and behave inappropriately at parties. And I realised, without knowing it, 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 then, 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!
A Dying Year (Volume One) is about the year my mother and my first husband both died, 2008. I wrote a little of it while my mother was in the final throes of her difficult exit, aged 93. I’m so glad I didn’t try to publish this first volume quickly because the next few years served to bring the awfulness of my own behaviour into ever more powerful focus and now I know I must re-edit the story and make it even more – what? – vivid? scary? cringeworthy? – than it is now.
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 (Volume 3) 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 psychoanalytic novella at the end of the book, an extended meditation on the role of one of the book’s seemingly minor characters in my life.
What’s missing? I need to find a way to write the two (or three) 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 and had two children, and did field work in remote Arnhem Land.
After Arnhem Land, I went to Central Australia and lived in a remote community from 1970-1971 with my husband and children. 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 third partner which is where Volume Three takes off. As I have written it here, it would make more sense to release them sequentially after all, although I had hoped it wouldn’t matter and I could follow Knausgaard’s model and write and publish them in random order. It’s all about the narrative arc, baby! So we will wait and see.
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 the project First Half First, apologies to Drusilla.