Welcome back to Writers in the Attic for 2017! This series was one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of my 2016 blog year, so it’s my absolute pleasure to invite writers into this little space again. I have some wonderful writers and essays lined up—an eclectic mix of people and styles and stories for you to read and savour.
My first guest for 2017 is Christina Houen.
Christina was born with writing and reading in her genes, but it took her almost 60 years to find her voice. The turning point was going back to university, where she did a Masters degree in Creative Arts, and later a PhD in Life Writing. In 2006 she published, with a co-editor, an anthology of contemporary Australian women’s writing: Hidden Desires: Australian Women Writing. She edits academic and literary works through her business, Perfect Words Editing. In 2002, she won the Hall Porter short story prize and has published several memoir pieces and essays/articles. Memoir is her specialty, and her own memoir is an unfolding story.
You can also find Christina at her blog, Memory and You.
What follows is a beautiful piece about Christina’s struggle to get published and her refusal to ‘let this one wither up and die unborn’. She also writes about the ethical issues she’s faced in writing her memoir and how she discovered ‘the power of place’.
The Evolution of a Story
Several years ago, I read a statement by Peter Bishop, the founding Director of Varuna Writers Centre: “Every story has a question behind it, desiring to be answered.” In relation to my memoir, which was going through one of its revisions at that time, I wasn’t clear what he meant, or what the question behind my story was. For me, it had a theme which was multi-faceted, and I saw it in those terms. Now, years later, I understand, and I feel I have answered the question, at least for my childhood memoir.
Every story has a question behind it, desiring to be answered.
I began the journey of writing in earnest back in about 1996, when my eldest daughter asked me to write my story. She told me I was her mentor, I had inspired her on her path as a writer, and she was frustrated that I hadn’t written anything much. So I began writing in a school exercise book. I remember one stormy night, when I had a very sore throat, lying in bed and letting raw emotions loose on the page.
When my son was 19, I went back to uni and started a Master of Creative Arts degree at Curtin University. I graduated in 2002 with an MCA, a dissertation on the bourgeois family, and an autobiographical novel. I naively expected to get it published! Now, 15 years later, I have published several short memoir pieces and articles, but still don’t have a full length work published. I also have a PhD which combines theory and literary interpretation with my own life writing. I have published, with a co-editor, a collection of contemporary Australian women’s writing, short fiction and poems.
After splitting my autobiographical novel in two, a childhood memoir and one of my early adult life, I have revised it many times. I have had a Varuna mentorship, and the childhood memoir was short-listed for the Finch memoir prize in 2012. Still I couldn’t get through that narrow door into the world of mainstream literary publishing. I nearly gave up, and focused on my editing practice, which supports me and enables me to help a lot of people get their work published.
Last year, I decided to have one last try. I didn’t want to e-publish, as I feel it is very easy to get lost in the crowd. So I sent my childhood memoir to a couple of small literary publishers, and had very encouraging feedback. In fact, for about a week, I thought one of them was going to accept it. Until the publisher wrote back and said they had decided it needed too much work, and they couldn’t take it. The critique she offered was constructive, but I rejected it at first, especially irritated by her words, that she didn’t ‘have time to fix it’. When I came out of my black cloud, I decided it is time to find a good literary editor. I refuse to let this one wither up and die unborn. So I have contracted with one, who will review it and edit it at the end of February. And guess what — I have made the changes the publisher suggested! And I think it is much better for it.
The main change was bringing in my mother’s voice, in the first person and often in the present tense. I took a week away from my editing work, went to a little fishing port town on the coast near here, and wrote every day. By the end of the week, I had 20,000 words in my mother’s voice. It was hard, very challenging, as I had little primary material to use. My mother did hand write her memories, when she was in her late 70s/early 80s; but there is not much personal material in them. She was a very private, reserved person, and in fact she wrote a caveat at the beginning: “I think I should ask you not to show, to anyone but our family, parts which contain any implied judgement of older members.” So I am breaking that caveat, doubly, in using some of her stories, and in presuming to enter her internal world and project onto the page what she thought and felt as she lived through those years of my childhood. But I am happy that I have honoured her in doing so, and though my truth cannot be her truth of her life, it is as close as I can get. The advantage of having her voice in my story is that it gives an adult perspective to a child’s world, but more than that, it tells the story of a remarkable woman who survived and triumphed in circumstances that would defeat many.
But more than that, it tells the story of a remarkable woman who survived and triumphed in circumstances that would defeat many.
What was the question my story desired to be answered? It was why she, an intellectual and one of the early women graduates from Sydney University, would choose to marry a grazier and settle down on a small, marginal sheep property, isolated and without power, sometimes without a vehicle, struggle though years of drought and the Depression, and when my father abandoned the farm and his family, why she chose to stay on there, to run the farm mostly on her own, with my help (I was seven when my father left) and intermittent help from my brothers when they came home on holidays. Until my father returned, resumed ownership and forced her to leave, so he could sell the farm to support his second wife and family.
My answer is one I knew in my own bones and memory cells. It was the power of the place, which, for all its harshness and isolation, captivated her. Our spirits are connected, not just by my birth and our shared story, but by the place. It haunts me still, and I understand how she came to embrace it as home. It is home to me as well, a home I have lost and can never return to, except through my writing. And so I write this place, our place, this place we know.
I look forward to publishing This Place You Know at last after a long gestation of 20 years. Never give up, is my first lesson. The second is, find a good literary editor.
If you’d like to take part in Writers in the Attic in 2017, please let me know. 600-1000 words is a good length, and the topic is fairly broad, so long as it touches on writing. For example—your writing life, why you write, the things you love about writing, the things you struggle with, or anything at all to do with writing.
Readers (including myself) seem drawn towards personal stories about things all of us humans struggle with.
The structural edits for my novel arrived from my publisher last Thursday. They’re quite extensive—so extensive, my agent kindly rang to check I was okay and not feeling too overwhelmed. I only have until March 2nd to return them, so I’ve been head down and bum up for the past few days.
This means I won’t be reading, commenting, and posting on social media as often, or replying to emails as quickly, for which I’m sorry. I also apologise because it will take me longer than I planned to finish the blog post I mentioned in my newsletter (about the three things I need before I can begin a first draft).
Please bear with me—it’s only for a few weeks, and at the end of it, I will (hopefully) have a much better book.
Publication date is getting closer, and if you’d like to sign up for my monthly newsletter (I promise I won’t bombard you with emails!) and be the first to hear all my news and events, please click here.
As a thank you, on confirmation I’ll send you a link to my short story, ‘Metaplasia’, which I wrote in 2012 (when only a beginner!) and which was published in the anthology, ‘Jukebox’ (OOTA, 2013).