It feels like forever since I last wrote a post here. I’ve been to Perth and back, as writer in residence for a month at Peter Cowan Writers Centre. It was a wonderful experience, which took me out of my comfort zone some of the time. We all need to do that, to step out of the ruts we make for our little selves, and expand into wider possibilities.
First, I was back in the city that I left after 32 years; there, most of the time, although I had a good life, I felt as though I was in exile. My restless, creative self yearned to leave, but love kept me there. Now I live back in NSW, which was my home state, as much as anywhere can be called my home in a long and wandering life. Perth is hard place to connect with; it’s at the edge of the continent, separated by a vast interior, much of which is desert, from the more densely populated eastern seaboard. When I first went there I found it parochial and very materialistic. I still think that it is materialistic — flat (though there are some hills), thin, spread out, suburb after suburb, sandy, and without a real cultural centre. Yes, there is culture, there are hubs of creative activity, there are lots of creative people, but they are sparsely settled and you have to look for them. Some of the regional centres have more intense community and cultural life. The light is different, the vegetation is different, the air is different, and the sea is a different colour — a lovely shade of turquoise, perhaps because of the very white sand. The sea is one of the loveliest things about Perth, and Rottnest Island is a jewel; and beyond Perth metropolis, the hills, and further still, the wheatbelt and the southwest hold many secrets and special places.
This time, I was there without a home for a month, staying with friends/family, without a car. So I felt disoriented and more than usually limbo-ish. But I was warmly welcomed, both by friends and family and by the writers I came into contact with, and made some rich new connections.
I had a busy time giving workshops in creative writing and life writing; I gave 4 of these, as well as a seminar and dialogues with creative writing students and staff at Edith Cowan University, and other networking and public appearances. I also did one on one writing consults with members of the centre. In these, and in the workshops, I was impressed by the passion for writing, the diversity and the strength of the writing that is out there. And the culmination of the month was a writers retreat weekend at Milmeray, Gidgegannup, in the Perth hills. This is a lovely place, secluded, surrounded by bush, with a brook running through the property, and quiet places where you can wander among trees, past a dam, and great granite rocks. The house itself is large and furnished to make its visitors feel loved and welcome, and it’s surrounded by delightful gardens. Our small group talked and wrote about themes of wilderness, solitude, simplicity, inspiration, and each in our different ways, got in touch with our Muses, and made some surprising discoveries about ourselves.
I did some follow up research for my Fairbridge biography, though less than I would have liked to, and I touched a little bit of the big iceberg that is the underside, the dark side, of the Fairbridge story. More on that another time.
And I did some reading. A friend lent me Anne Patchett’s Truth and Beauty. “You can have it,” she said; “I didn’t like it. I thought she got into some very messy stuff about her friend, and went too far.” Truth and Beauty is about Anne’s passionate, devoted friendship with Lucy Grealy (author of Autobiography of a Face). Lucy had sarcoma of the jaw when she was a child, and was subjected to about 38 operations in her relatively short life, to try and restore her face to normality. Nearly all the ops failed in one way or another, and she was very damaged psychically and emotionally. Nonetheless, she was a brilliant writer, and had, in spite of everything, success as a writer and teacher of writing.
I haven’t read her autobiography, but it’s on my list. Anne has been much criticised for revealing the messy, disturbing truths about Lucy, not only what she suffered, but the distress and disruption she caused in the lives of those who loved her. Anne was her staunch friend through it all, though in the last phase, when Lucy was taking heroin and other drugs, she grew tired of it and detached herself to some extent. She wrote the memoir a year or so after Lucy’s death.
I haven’t time or space her to do a proper review of this book, and I’ve passed my copy on to another friend, but I will say this. I think Anne needed to write the truth of their friendship, and of Lucy’s fall, as she saw it. It was an act of healing for her, but more than that, it is a love story. Her love for Lucy, which was not sexual, but was passionately reciprocated, was not cowardly or abandoning. She did her best to save her friend from the demons that haunted her life and hounded her to death. This is Anne’s truth, as she lived it, and she has a right to tell it. That’s what memoir is about.
More on that next time, and on a classic Australian novel which has been largely overlooked: Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson, who wrote the great trilogy, The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, for which she is known and loved. I picked up Maurice Guest in a new edition brought out by Text Classics. It was at the airport, and I was in a hurry; I thought it was The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, which I don’t have a complete set of. I was mortified when I sat down to wait for my plane, and found it was not. I rushed back, thinking I had seen the book I wanted ont the shelf, and could swap it. But no. I had completely misread the title, seeing what I wanted to see. Anyway, I’ve nearly finished it, and it has infiltrated my daily thoughts, and I think it is a great book, though not as good as the one I thought I’d bought!
I’d love to hear from anyone who’s read Patchett or Richardson lately. One is a memoir, the Richardson ones are autobiographical novels; in these, the author drew heavily on her life experience, especially in the trilogy. And has anyone read Grealy’s memoir?