Life writing knows no boundaries — age, gender, class, race, nationality, income, occupation, education, beliefs — all the social and cultural categories that divide and classify us are irrelevant to life writing, except as material for transformation into words on the page or on screen and images. It is a great big melting pot, and the more we write about our differences, the more we can connect with others, through empathy and understanding.
I was reminded of this truth this week, when I found a lull in my paid work made me face what I’ve been putting off. As I wrote in the blog ‘Shattered Lives’, I’ve been working for the past year on a collective biography about a group of British migrants who came to Western Australia in the post-war period under the Fairbridge One Parent scheme. I received a grant from the Department of Culture and the Arts last year, and with a friend, Joy Scott, who was one of those migrants, we held a series of focus group meetings with other Fairbridge parents. Most of them were connected, not only by their shared experience of being migrants at that time, but by years of friendship formed when they met each other through Fairbridge. As well as the group meetings, I interviewed a number of other Fairbridge parents and children, a woman who had been a senior administrator at Fairbridge Farm School, Pinjarra, in that period, and some other Fairbridge associates, and Joy interviewed and collected stories from some of the children who’d come out under that scheme.
With some help from Joy, I had transcribed all the interviews and group meetings, and written up most of the individual stories, but I was stuck on the next step. I knew I had to get this into a book: it was my promise to the subjects and to myself, and I know that this untold story will enrich the literature of migration and the cultural and social history of the twentieth century. And these people want their story to be told. But how to tell it? I started off doing a publishing proposal in which I took each story separately, framed by a historical introduction. This didn’t work; some of the stories are full of lively detail and others are less intimate, scrappier, drier. I kept putting it on the back burner.
Then, two mornings ago, I woke with the realisation I should organise it thematically, into stories of leaving England — what were they escaping from, what were they seeking —stories of arriving, of finding work and somewhere to live, of separation from the children and the children’s experience of Fairbridge, and finally, a holistic look at the losses and gains, the regrets and triumphs. Since I started to do that, the outline of the book and the first chapter have flowed easily, and I am so glad I’ve broken through that self-imposed barrier of approaching it literally and individually. This is a collective biography, and the voices need to be woven together in a polyphonic symphony of migrant stories.
And today, after I’d sent the draft off to Joy to comment on, I lay down to rest. Unable to doze off, I remembered a verse from a lovely poem by George Herbert, the 17th century English poet I studied when I did my English Literature degree. It’s from a poem called The Flower, in which he gives thanks for the return of inspiration, which he sees in holy terms. This is the verse that inspires me:
And now in age I bud again,
after so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
and relish versing: O my only light,
it cannot be
that I am he
on whom thy tempests fell all night.
Do you have periods of drought, when you wither and die creatively, and then breaks in the drought, when the juices flow again and you are renewed? What do you do when you can’t find any inspiration? Where do you look?
I find that if I stay quiet, make myself face the block, try ways of overcoming it, usually something comes up in my consciousness and I find a way of breaking through, and then it is easy again.
Fittingly, tomorrow is the first day of spring here in the Southern Hemisphere!