For New Zealand Book Month, March 2012, authors at Auckland University Press were asked to write about “The book that got me started.”
There was no one special book that got me started. Instead there is a collection that has inspired the individual projects. I discovered Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame on a New Zealand literature paper at Canterbury University in the late ‘seventies. These writers indicated it was possible to be a New Zealander and a writer - my school education had implied that great writing occurred elsewhere - and that a woman could write and that her writing might be poetical, courageous and feminine. At that time I also read The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and was introduced to feminism. I was immediately interested but also unsettled. Like the woman protagonist, I was emotionally attached to a medical professional and it seemed the two couldn’t mix and certainly my feminist politics would lead to fireworks when my husband veered towards the cosmetic side of plastic surgery. I have never been able to read The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.
When I wrote Reframing Women: a history of New Zealand film I was constructing a history from slender archival resources and searched widely for models. The Australian book and documentary, Don’t Call Me Girlie by Andree Wright and the American, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present by Ally Acker provided encouragement but not an approach, so I devised my own, using oral history interviews with film makers as a major source and component of the text.
For the edited collection Between the Lives; Partners in Art, a study of the art partnerships between nine New Zealand painters, six poets, two filmmakers and a photographer I was inspired by a European book, Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership by the art historians Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron with chapters on international partnerships such as; Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst, Anais Nin and Henry Miller, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. This book encouraged me to reject the more familiar but disempowering theme of artist and his muse and select relationships where both members of the couple were practising artists during the best of times in their shared lives.
Her Life’s Work: Conversations with Five New Zealand Women, a feminist enquiry into the life and work of artist, Jacqueline Fahey, educator, Merimeri Penfold, anthropologist Anne Salmond, film director Gaylene Preston and author Margaret Mahy was influenced by the writing of Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of anthropologist Margaret Mead. In Composing a Life she explored the constantly evolving trajectories of women’s careers and the myriad and chameleon nature of the roles they perform over a lifetime via a study of her own life and that of four women friends. Initially I wrote Her Life’s Work as chapters with extensive quoting but then decided to let the women speak in their own words as a way of representing their remarkable thinking and storytelling abilities and also the richness of the conversations I was privileged to record.
I am now at work on two books. “Writing Your Heart Out: The Art and Craft of Memoir” is a summation of all I have learned as a teacher of memoir. The writing of a new book is an uncertain and sometimes lonely process and it helps to have a few books that act like friends and lead the way. I was thrilled to discover in Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, by Judith Barrington, a model for the approach I was tentatively striving for. She combines advice and encouragement along with excerpts from her own life writing.
The second book “Chronic Pain Journal,” is about my own unpleasant but salutary experience living with pain and the consequences of failed operations. It combines a self-help narrative, that is hopefully soothing, along with passages of literary memoir. The friends on this journey are The Broken Body: a Memoir by New York poetry professor Lynne Greenberg who describes, in eloquent prose, the physical agony of living with the aftermath of a broken neck following a car accident. I also return again and again to the great journalist May Sarton and draw strength and inspiration from the courage and honesty of memoirs by Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights) and Isabel Allende (Paula and The Sum of Our Days.)