Writing Lives

You can read the title of this blog in at least two ways:

  • with lives as a verb, I am saying that writing is a living art, which survives all the changes in civilisation, since it was first invented as marks scratched on pieces of stone. Now we are into e-books and apps, a world I’ve only dabbled my toes in. I’m a print baby, and will die a print elder, but I am about to introduce e-books and readers onto my online bookstore (bookhaven.net), which is still in construction. I am also considering publishing my memoir of childhood as an e-book, because getting published in print these days is close enough to impossible if you haven’t got  a name that is known, or get lucky.
  • with lives as a noun, I am flagging that my special interest — no, my passion — is writing life … my life, your life, his life, her life, their lives; and reading about other people’s lives. So this is what this blog is about. If you want to write your life, but don’t know where to start, or if you are already are writing your life, this blog will share some ideas and create a forum where you can post comments and link to other friendly sites.

So who am I? And what gives me licence to invite you to join my group?

I have always loved writing, and been told I could write well. But it was only about 12 years ago that I decided to start writing my life. I had had a very difficult life, and at a certain age found myself without a career or a fortune, wondering where to go next. That was when I decided to go back to uni and write my story. So I did a Master of Creative Arts degree, and after that I did a PhD in life writing, blending memoir and theory to rewrite desire from a feminine point of view. And when I say desire, I mean more than sexual desire: I mean desire for freedom, for self-expression, for community, for life itself.

I am a hybrid, an amphibian happily swimming in the waters of theory and of creative writing. But this blog is not about theory. It’s about practical, embodied writing, down-to-earth writing that expresses the self and reaches out to others.

I write book reviews for a couple of national newspapers, and I edit other people’s writing, as well as doing my own. On this site, I’ll post my latest thoughts about life writing, and share what books I’m reading.

So here are some questions for you:

  • do you want to write your life, or someone else’s?
  • have you made a start? How is it going?
  • if you haven’t, would you like some suggestions?
  • what are the best books you have read recently?

I look forward to your comments!

What I’m reading this week:
Graveminder by Melissa Marr
An improbable story in which the dead inhabit an underworld, rather like a 19th century American frontier town, and those who haven’t been properly buried return to haunt and — you’ve guessed it — feed on the living. Mostly it’s told from the point of view of the living, who have the usual attachments, losses and desires. It is well written, over the top, and keeps you guessing.
The Ghost Road by Pat Barker.
Barker won the 1995 Booker prize for this superb story of officers in the British army, psychologically damaged by their experiences in the First World War, being treated by the army psychiatrist Rivers. Three very different men have their secrets, which are gradually revealed as their lives entangle and fall apart.



Filed under autobiography, biography, Graveminder, memoir, The Ghost Road, writing lives

14 responses to “Writing Lives

  1. Elisabeth

    Hi Christina

    This sounds such a wonderful idea. A great place to turn our memories into readable writing. The weather here calls for socks as I sit at the computer. Murder your darlings, I hear the voice in my head. Murder them all.

    I write too much, become too attached and now it is time to go through with a scythe and cut away the excess. Not that I own a scythe, or have ever wielded one. Not that I can even imagine wielding, one though I have seen the movement in movies. The sickle shaped blade diagonal against the tall wheat. The man – it is always a man who cuts the wheat, the women and children collect it – takes the blade through a wide arc before threshing it against the long strands of wheat, slash after slash until the wheat lies flattened on the ground.

    Suzette Henke – you’ve heard of her I expect – coined the term ‘scriptotherapy’ to cover the notion that writers write to heal themselves. She explores the writing of Anais Nin, Janet Frame, Sylvia Fraser Coleette and various other women writers to highlight her argument that writers write to reintegrate the shattered aspects of themselves and their lives. She uses the image of the mirror – from a Lacanian perspective – a mirror that is shattered through trauma and how gazing into the mirror through the writing the writer is able to bring some coherence back to a state than would otherwise remain fragmented.

    I look forward to reading more here and shall put a link to Writing Lives on my blog.

    • Christina Houen

      HI Elisabeth

      Welcome to my shared space, at which you are an honoured visitor. Your blog is a wonderful example of a place where you write your memories, and others share them and are stimulated to think and feel fresh things.

      I love the cry ‘Murder your darlings!’ Some of us write too much, some have trouble writing at all, or can’t find ‘the words to say it’. James Joyce said ‘Write, damn you, write!’ I think it is better to write than not to write, and the beauty of blogs is that they are ephemeral spaces where you can keep adding new posts without cost, and others can come and go as they please. No publishers (other than the blog host), no booksellers, no barriers — beyond those of decency and respect — to writing what you want to write.

      Wheat must die to create new life, and so must we. When a person dies, there are no more words. Michel de Foucault says that writing is the gesture of a dying man [or woman], and to write ‘is to be forced to march through enemy territory, in the very area where loss prevails….The writer is a dying man who is trying to speak.’ His, or her, desire is to survive beyond death through the attention of those who read the story.

      I have more work to do on my blog, including putting links in, of which sixthinline will be one.

  2. Hi Christina. I have subscribed to your blog and added a link to my blog. I’m looking forward to learning from your perspective.

    • Christina Houen

      HI Wayne

      I’ve had a look at your blog. It’s good to see someone who is making a professional job out of life writing and helping others write their lives. I believe that in this very complex globalised technologically speedy world, we need to connect with each other in ways that weren’t available in the age I was born into. Communities are more fluid and may not be physically available, but can give meaningful frames to our daily lives. And to write our lives is to make sense of them and to share them with others.

  3. Frances Kendall

    I think that Janet Frame’s are the perfect memoirs. All about her, except for her Iother’s simple loving statements to her “kiddies”. We fill in the spaces.
    I ponder about this, as does RR in her blogspot:
    When we leave these blog imprints – arguably longer lasting than paper – we are altering our children’s, grandchildren’s perception of who they are and what their genetic inheritance means. I think that it behooves us to take great care.

    • Christina Houen

      I like Janet Frame’s memoirs too. They are in my small selection on my bookshelf. And I like the idea of filling in the spaces. So much writing (especially the fiction I’ve been reviewing lately) fills in the spaces for the reader, leaving no room for imagination. And I agree we need to take great care in what we say in our blogs. Though they are ephemeral in one sense, in another they are there for ever, or as long as the world lasts. But then, people used to write diaries, journals and letters, and some still do. I”m lazy that way, and though I’m a techno dummy, I prefer writing with a keyboard than with pen and paper. And the thing about blogs is that everyone can access them, whereas paper records are more private, unless they are published.

  4. Do you want to write your life, or someone else’s?

    I don’t think I’m capable of writing anyone else’s life. That said I shy away from straight autobiographical fiction. All my characters are me, aspects of me. In my first novel I aged myself about twenty years and basically turned me into the sorriest version of me that I thought I could reasonably have become by that time and then had the personification of the truth knock on his door, literally.

    Have you made a start? How is it going?

    I’ve been writing for about forty years if you include the juvenilia. First poems, then novels (five to date), then short stories. An odd way to go about it I know. There were a couple of plays and a children’s book along the way too.

    What are the best books you have read recently?

    I get sent a lot of books to review and so these days my time is taken up with books I might not necessarily have chosen myself. This has led to some surprising discoveries but mostly I’m not overly impressed with what I get sent. I’m not a big fan of stories. There really has to be more for me. That said I did enjoy Bed by David Whitehouse more than I expected. Of the books I picked myself, Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov was quite the delight. I’ve written a review but it’s not been posted yet.

    • Christina Houen

      Hello Jim; good to meet you. I”ve had a look at your blog; it is very interesting. You seem to have eclectic tastes, and some of your favourites are mine too — Waiting for Godot and The Caretaker, to name a couple. I notice you publish your books electronically, something I haven’t done yet, and I’m wondering whether you find it works well?
      I like your comment about autobiographical fiction. I think fiction is life writing too, some more than others; for instance, Tolstoy wrote about his marriage in the characters of Levin and Kitty. An Australian author, Elizabeth Jolley, rewrote her life again and again in her novels. Craig Sherborne, a new Australian author, has saId that poetry, memoir and fiction give you the chance to ‘live life out a second time, and make sense of it.’

      Like you, I do reviews, and spend a lot of time reading books I wouldn’t have chosen. But I do come across gems; a recent one was Wolfram: the Boy who Went to War, by Giles Milton. It is a memoir of his father-in-law, who was an artistic youth conscripted into the Nazi army, captured and imprisoned, to survive and return to his shattered homeland. It tells how the war was experienced from the other side.

      I haven’t read Pnin, will look at your review of it.

      • I am a huge fan of Beckett – I have copies of everything he every wrote including DVDs of all his stage plays and CDs of all his radio plays. You might like my new novel Milligan and Murphy when it comes out. It owes a lot to Beckett. I was never very crazy about Mercier and Camier as prototypes of Didi and Gogo although I’m happier to admit Hamm and Clov as their stereotypes (in that they have lost their originality and because postype isn’t a real word). I was, nevertheless, curious to imagine a kind of Didi and Gogo: The Early Years and this is what I ended up with, another pseudocouple, two ‘brothers’ who end up running away from home (albeit at the age of forty) and spend most of the book trying to work out why they have. I actually have released any of my books yet as e-books, Christina, although I plan to very shortly.

        I have to say the book reviews are becoming just a wee bit of a burden. It’s great to have all this free stuff to read but I’m finding it hard to keep up. Just this morning I’ve been offered another four books and I’m already booked to the end of September. I used to do one a week but since I’ve cut back on blogging to (supposedly) give me more time for other writing – I now only post every 5 days – it’s hard to keep up with what I’m sent. It’s not so bad when you get asked but every now and then a few unsolicited ARCs will drop through my door and I hate to say no.

        I have a book review coming out on the 19th in which I talk to the author about the difference between ‘factual accuracy’ and ‘honesty’. It’s something that fascinates me. I feel incapable of writing accurately about my own life – I simply cannot remember the details – but I can take the feelings that the past has left me with and construct fictions around them so I get a little what Craig Sherborne is on about.

      • Christina Houen

        You are steeped in Beckett, whereas I have only skimmed the surface. I am a bit of dilettante, and have not gone into many things deeply. It sounds like you tackle everything in front of you with sincerity and intensity. I do reviewing too, as I said, but not as much as you; I review a few books for a couple of national newspapers, and I do get paid a small fee for it. I don’t think I would do it if I weren’t paid, as I live from hand to mouth, so couldn’t spare the time.

        I look forward to reading your new book!

  5. I would like to write my life but haven’t started. I would definitely like suggestions. My first experience with writing, other than school essays, is my blog and I’ve found I really enjoy it and learn much about myself while writing.
    I haven’t read anything really good lately, but am enjoying Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”. I have a hard time finding anything great to read nowadays. Books I’ve devoured in the past have been Doris Lessing’s and Henry Miller’s.

    • Christina Houen

      Hello there. I had a look at your blog. I think it’s great you’re writing your self and sharing with others. It certainly helps one feel less alone, and may connect us with others who share some of our experiences. Of course one does this when one writes for publication, too, but it’s a delayed process (sometimes delayed indefinitely, given how hard it is to get published these days!) so blogging is a great way to start, to shape new ways of self-expression, and to share your space with other people. So my suggestion is to keep blogging, and when you feel inclined, you could turn one of the situations you describe, perhaps, into a short story. For instance, your story of the people in the supermarket who tried to get you to take action against an old lady they said had hit your car; it would make a great story, if you can write it as it happened, remembering back to what you were doing at the time you were called to the front desk, what the people who spoke to you were like — how they looked and acted and spoke — how you felt, what you said etc. Use sensuous detail to fill the spaces in the story out, to turn reporting into lived thoughts and actions, with sensuous detail.

      Keep writing!

  6. hello christina, i just signed up to receive notifications of new postings from this blog. i am a follower of elisabeth’s blog. i have written autobiographical essays and short pieces off and on for quite a few years, and have worked with teenaged girls in a autobiography workshop, focusing on self-portraiture as both a written and photographic art. i have also taught a course for adults, called word & image, which essentially did the same thing. i am an editor by trade; i occasionally write poetry. i have a blog myself that encompasses all and none of these things! (if youre interested i’ll pass along the link to my blog). I am very intrigued with the premise of your blog, and curious to se where this will lead us!


    • Christina Houen

      Hello Susan; lovely to meet you here. I’ve looked at your blog site, and signed up. You sound a bit like me, only much more adventurous! I love the way you use images as autobiographical media. It is not my forte, I’m a wordy woman, but I love using images, and am lucky to have a friend who is a fine art photographer. I think images are a great way to work with people who are primarily visually oriented, to get their words flowing. I imagine that is what you do in your workshops. I look forward to more conversations!

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