The young widow and the academy

I was honoured and delighted to learn that my memoir The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement is now the subject of a long article in academic journal TEXT. Senior Lecturer Bernadette Brennan, of the University of Sydney’s English Department, has just published ‘Frameworks of grief: Narrative as an act of healing in contemporary memoir’, a close reading of my book and Maggie MacKellar’s When it Rains. How convenient that such articles are available online, so radically unlike my years of dust-inhaling in research library stacks in the early 1990s.

Last year I discovered that Bernadette teaches my memoir to her Masters students as part of course about contemporary Australian women’s memoir. Other works studied in the course include When it Rains and the award-winning Reading by Moonlight by Brenda Walker.

In response to Andrew Reimer’s review of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, ‘Frameworks of grief’ investigates the question of whether private sorrow should remain private, whether there is really no way language can be employed to articulate the experience of grief, and – reflecting a question raised by Julian Barnes’s review of Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story – whether ‘autobiographical accounts of grief are unfalsifiable, and therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria’. To do justice to all these questions, the article runs to 12,000 words – or about one-fifth as long as my entire book.

It’s a funny thing to read someone else writing academically about your own work. I was relieved that Bernadette found little trace of sentimentality in my book, and that she saw a connection my love of jazz music to the way I structured the book. She writes:

The dialectic of inside/outside recurs in various guises throughout the text. The damage to the inside of the house is more pronounced than that to the outside. So too, Lloyd suffers deep, psychic pain while presenting a competent public exterior. Less obvious perhaps is the way the narrative, in its dance between intimacy and distance, demonstrates the gulf which exists between the private experience, and the public expression, of loss. Lloyd’s description of her beloved jazz hints at her narrative strategy:

My head and my heart have always found equal refuge in its combination of improvisation and harmonic structure. The music expresses freedom and constraint simultaneously; the freedom to improvise is in fact only created through the structures of melody and harmony that provide choices for the improvisation. (p13)

In narrative terms Lloyd’s ‘melody and harmony’ are structure and metaphor. By controlling them she is able to articulate something for which she has no training and for which there seems to be no guidance.

Something for which I had no training and for which there was no guidance. That sentence could describe grieving a spouse, or writing a book. Despite the tsunami of writing guides and how-to manuals and online courses and ebook downloads pinging my inbox with daily intensity, I do believe that you learn to write only by writing (and reading). But you don’t learn to grieve. You just grieve, and you breathe, and at some point you find that you have survived.

All those years ago, when I was an unhappy PhD candidate, not once in my wildest imaginings did I suspect that I would one day write a book that would be taught at Masters level or be the subject of thoughtful academic analysis. But I never thought I’d be a widow, either.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Hi Virginia, congrats on the above, and thank you for the best blog I’ve seen about publishing! I’m hooked and reading the entire blog in one go. (Partly because I’m procrastinating, but mostly because it’s so helpful.) I have two questions that perhaps you won’t mind answering.

    The first one feels stupid, but you said elsewhere that there are no stupid questions… About choosing the subject for your memoir: A lot of memoir writers seem fairly certain about the subject or time frame that they want to write about next. But I have about 8 subjects/ time frames that seem equally worthwhile, and I’m having trouble choosing. I’ve spent some time writing in all of them, but still none stood out more than the other. I’m thinking I should just choose one and run with it, and then it may naturally change to whatever it needs to be further down the line. Also, it’s not as if one person can only write one memoir – it’s ok to choose one area, and the rest can hopefully come later. But if you have any questions that I can ask myself, or methods I can use, to pin-point the passion that is closest to my writing heart, I’d be grateful.

    My second question is about memory and notes. Good memoirs contain an astonishing and impressive level of detail, that I imagine can’t possibly have been recalled so clearly and consistently without notes made at the time. But lots of memoirs must have been written without notes made at the time? Do these writers have superpower-level memories?… I’ve read that the more you write the more you recall, and I can only hope that that happens to me.

    Thanks in advance for any answers. Mia

    1. Hi Mia,
      Thanks for your detailed comments and questions. I’m glad the blog is proving useful to you. Soon I’ll be writing a monthly newsletter that will go into more detail about aspects of writing and publishing, so keep an eye out for my newsletter signup form.
      I’m a little stumped as to how to respond to your multiple subjects. Many writers would love to have such a dilemma! My feeling is that you would do well to develop a personal essay on two or three of the subjects you have in mind, and see where that exercise leads you. In a way I’m also wondering if you have really decided what your memoir is about. What emotion is at its core, what value is at stake? What is the story that only you can tell? I once had a writing teacher who used to say of each person in her class that ‘there is news that only you can bring’. I found that encouraging and liberating, even if the path of figuring out how to tell that news is neither an easy or straight one. I hope that’s a start in terms of questions to ask yourself, though it’s a great topic for a future blog post.
      As for memory and note-keeping, you will find that when you are truly immersed in your material, you will be very surprised at what floats up from your unconscious. I recently read Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up The Ghost, a brilliant memoir, which astonished me with its level of recall but was also very deft about the vagaries of memory and how memory inevitably alters with time. — Virginia

  2. This is fantastically helpful; thank you 🙂

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