Essay: Maggie MacKellaron not writing

Going To The Silences

A long time ago, after the publicity had finished for my first memoir When It Rains and while I was still brimming with writing confidence and no real direction I dreamed what my next book was to be. Woken by a willie wagtail calling outside my window I reached for the notebook on the bedside table. With eyes still sticky with sleep I scrawled down the details of the extraordinary walk I had just taken with Miles Franklin.

Yes, that’s right. Miles had appeared, out of nowhere and we’d taken a walk. It was as real as real. The ground was hard and the stars sent down their glinting blessings. Miles had on a long skirt and stout boots. I was envious as I had only a thin pair of socks and running shoes with holes in the toes. As we walked we started talking about this and that, the amount of rain we’d had, the importance of a daily routine and regular habits though for the most part, unfortunately, I was obsessed with thinking about what I was wearing and not really listening to what Miles had to say.

In some dreams you have lots of time, in other dreams there is never enough. This was one of the former and time stretched, a comfort instead of an urgency. So comforting was it that I wasn’t even nervous about walking with a literary heroine such as Miles Franklin. Instead I let myself fantasize about why she was in my dream. I decided it was because she’d read my new book and had dropped by to encourage me. As we walked I tried to work the conversation around to this topic, but when I finally asked her opinion she dismissed me with a flick of her hand. ‘I don’t want to talk about your new book.’

Ahead of us a mopoke called, low and mournful, like a whisper from another country.

I felt squashed.

‘I’ve been misrepresented, Maggie.’

‘Oh’, I say, diverted from the disappointment of her not caring about my new book by the thought she knew my name.

‘They make me sound like a proud, lonely, bitter old woman.’

‘Hmmm’, I murmur, not really listening as I’m back to obsessing about my outfit. Why hadn’t I chosen something more writerly? Something less suburban mum who’d just been to the gym, something more elegant? I remind myself I hadn’t known Miles Franklin was going to join me in my dream, but nevertheless I still feel uncomfortably underdressed.

I managed to say, ‘Who’s they?’

She replies with some exasperation, ‘All the people who have written about me.’ And then she glares.

I point out that this isn’t really the historians’ fault. They only have her diaries, letters and novels to help them reconstruct her life. And, then just in case she didn’t realise, I remind her I’m an historian.

She laughs at me. ‘Oh, you’re not an historian.’

She tells me I’m confused, that I’d left this career behind when I left the university and started writing memoir, flirting with the edges of fiction. I, equally indignant, argue with her and say once an historian, always an historian. She shushes me and tells me it is her wish I write her story as a novel. I splutter and a list of reasons why this is impossible flood to the front of my mouth.

I can feel you all rolling your eyes at the arrogance of my subconscious but there it is and all I can do is promise I’m cringing a little as I relay our conversation.

It’s six years since that dream and in that time I’ve fallen in love, left my family farm in NSW and moved my kids and our animal menagerie (think horses, dogs, birds, chickens, guinea pigs) to the east coast of Tasmania. I’ve written a second memoir about this move, and a complete draft of a shadow novel to My Brilliant Career? I’d had no intention of writing the second memoir, but the novel manuscript was proving so difficult I turned back to a familiar genre to revive my confidence. After the memoir came out I returned to Miles but after much work I’ve put that manuscript back in a drawer with a lock on it and I won’t look at it again for a long time. I mourned for a little while, because, despite some good bits, there is something not quite right about it. It’s not ready, or perhaps more accurately I’m not ready to finish writing it. So, I tell myself to trust my judgment and let it be. But I’ve also asked myself, why can’t I write it?

I think the answer lies in what David Shields identifies as the ‘wobble’ between fiction and non-fiction. By this he means that the boundaries between the two should wobble. My background as historian and then memoirist means I’ve only written on one side of that boundary. Sure, memoir draws you in closer to the definitions of fiction, but still your feet are firmly placed on the actual, even if the arrangement of that actual moves closer to fiction. I realise now (six years on) I needed to be a lot clearer about the place I was standing in order to write fiction around Miles Franklin’s life and perhaps too I needed a greater awareness of how much Miles had fictionalized her own life in her writing.

Over the previous six years Miles herself has undergone something of a resurgence. She was always ‘there’ with the Miles Franklin Award, but in 2013 a group of forward-thinking women got together and came up with the Stella Prize, awarded to the best book written by a woman in Australia. The Stella is modeled on the Bailey Prize in the UK, but differs because it’s open to all forms of writing (something I love and fully support). The Stella has dramatically raised the profile of women writers in Australia. Naming the prize the Stella was a stroke of genius and installs Miles firmly back in the forefront of a discussion on gender politics, especially in the arts, and that’s the place she always wanted to occupy.

Most interested readers have heard of Miles Franklin and can often link the name with her most famous book – My Brilliant Career? Delve a little deeper and there is a lot of confusion over whether Miles was actually a man or a woman – and perhaps My Brilliant Career? was a movie and didn’t she write just one book? (She published sixteen.) And let’s not even get into the whole leaving the question mark off the end of her most famous title. For these reasons alone a novel on Miles would be a valuable addition to our culture. But even more than this Miles lived through so many significant moments in Australian history: the rise of nationalism, the birth of Australian art and literature, Federation, war, woman’s suffrage and the Depression – as well as the more universal human emotions of passion, love, loneliness and loss.  It’s something of a miracle it hasn’t been attempted before. Such a book would be ambitious, but it could also be fabulously inventive.

Dreams and royal visitations aside I thought we’d be a good match, Miles and I. We share a background – we’re both writers, both country girls, both have the love of silence and horses and a tendency to romanticize these things. I recognize her ambition and I relate to her disappointments and her isolation. I thought the idea of fictionalizing her fictional autobiography, to fictionalize her historical self had merit. Random House agreed and so I’d gone off to bury myself in Miles.

Fast forward to this time last year and you would have found me sitting in front of my computer muttering like Sybylla as I circled the mess of a manuscript. ‘Weariness! Weariness!’ Miles had bled me dry. I dreaded the work, the words I eked out were mostly lifeless. The plot plodded. It was the worst sort of writing, earnest, try hard, clever … false – it was neither fiction nor history. It was just boring.

When I first started researching the novel I’d felt liberated, free from Inga Clendinnin’s idea that as an historian you have to make a moral contract with the past. For Clendinnin the largest difference between history and fiction is the moral relationship each establishes between writer and subject and writer and reader. I’d assumed writing fiction would give me a different position to write about Miles. I had the facts. Courtesy of Jill Roe’s impeccably researched biography I knew practically everything one could know about Stella Miles Franklin, but what I didn’t have was a creative licence I’d assumed fiction would grant me. Real Miles inhabited me too strongly.

For those of you who are less familiar with her story: Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was born in 1879 in the Brindabella Ranges outside of present day Canberra to loving parents, Sarah Lampe (who despite having a bush childhood had been ‘stiffly governessed’ and grounded in domestic arts and feminine accomplishments) and a merry Irish father, John Franklin who had a philosophical and poetic cast of mind and bought a sense of wonder to the world around him.

I know that Miles was a precocious, perhaps spoilt child who, Jill tells me, had her first tooth at five months (I did say this was a meticulously researched biography), had six teeth at eight months, was standing alone at twelve months, walked at fourteen months and talked at twenty months and had all her teeth through at two and a half. She rode horses, cracked a stock whip, was loved by dogs and bullockies alike. She wrote My Brilliant Career? at the age of nineteen and became the darling of the Sydney literary scene. She had an affair of some sort with Banjo Paterson at the age of 22, and extricated herself somehow from collaborating with him and then wrote a sensational follow up, My Career Goes Bung, which wasn’t published until 1946. By the age of 24 she had spent a year in domestic service, disguised as Sarah Frankling and then wrote about the experience to politicize the powerless position of female domestic servants. No one would publish it. There was another fiction manuscript too – making four manuscripts written in five years.

She refused to cave to the pressure from family (her grandmother was a formidable matchmaker) to marry the lonely pastoralist Edwin Bridle, who wrote her beautiful letters and instead moved to America in 1906. Arriving in earthquake ruined San Francisco she then travelled overland to Chicago where she met the divorced owner of the Chicago Tribune and had some sort of affair with him too. She also wrote and wrote and worked as the secretary for the National Women’s Trade Union League of America. Then when the war was not contained she left America and went to England where she worked as a nurse in Croatia. She travelled through the UK and Europe and with an exception of 12 months in Chicago where there is no record (but we know she spent time in a sanitarium), she wrote prodigiously of her experiences in letters to her friends and contemporaries and in her diaries and in the manuscripts she continued to churn out (of which only two were published, the first The Net of Circumstance in 1915 under her pseudonym ‘Mr and Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau’ and the second On Dearborn Street was finally published in 1981 twenty seven years after her death). You can practically see this novel writing itself!

Trouble was, every time I attempted to flesh out Miles my words were wooden. I had early on decided the narrative tension would be created by the relationship Miles had with her sister. Two sisters. Two very different choices. Linda chose to marry and led a conventional life until her early death in 1907 of pneumonia. Miles chose freedom, and a lifetime of work, which gave her independence, a career, travel, politics and many nights worrying about money – rather than marriage, which she called a ‘death in life experience’.

I had the voice of Linda, Miles’ sister. She hummed along. Something about her position of silenced younger sibling made writing her easy. I loved reimagining Miles’ story from Linda’s perspective. The details of her childhood, her foundation story conjured up by Miles in her wonderful memoir Childhood at Brindabella, seemed to glow more deeply when heard from Linda.

Here’s Linda describing their parents meeting:

Shortly after Grandfather died, my father, so the story goes rode across the Monaro plain on his way to visit his brother who lived higher in the mountains. Amongst the eerie granite boulders in the swirling mist he saw a vision, a girl with golden hair falling to her waist riding a big bay horse, both so fine as to make his heart grab with want. He claims he called out, but his voice was lost in the thin air. She disappeared into the mist and he was left with a hole in his chest where the girl and the horse had fitted perfectly. He turned his horse’s head from the thin track, which led to his brother’s fire and made his way to where he’d last seen the bay horse. There on the bare ground was a single imprint of a shod hoof. If not for this sign my father claims he would have believed he’d conjured the vision from the depth of his beauty hungry soul. My father was an Irishman and the romance of horses and women ran strongly in his veins. He tracked my mother down off the ridgeline through bush so thick a dog would not hear himself bark. He came to cleared paddocks filled with grazing horses and bullocks. Across a creek on a rise looking back towards the mountains from where he had just ridden was a house.

My father pressed his horse forward to court my mother.

I imagine her walking back through the garden gate, beneath the spreading magnolia tree, she would brush against the thick hedge of daphne, reach out her hand and squeeze its foliage to rub on the pulses of her wrists, the sound of dogs barking and raised voices would cause her to pause on the threshold of the garden proper. Into the stable yard rode my father, a vision of freedom and youth mounted on a black horse. My father sat on a horse in a way that turned people’s heads. It was a gift, a stillness in him. He looked at my mother from beneath the brim of his hat and laughed his merry Irish laugh at having found the girl he was going to marry.

My mother’s hand caught at the tweak in her chest. Her heart raced for she was afraid. Too old, too serious, too marked by death to feel attractive to a man. Her eyes were weak, unused to youth and beauty.

Perhaps if my father had walked up to my mother instead of ridden she might not have been bewitched. If he had stood before her on his own two legs, she might have seen him as a mortal, a dreamer, a man ill suited to the ordinariness of the earth. Without the splendid horse beneath him she might have recognized his capacity to fail, for she was an intuitive woman. Instead the black horse danced in the dust and with an invisible touch to the beast’s hide he had it bow deeply while sweeping off his hat and gifting her the flowers he’d gathered on his way down the mountain. My mother lost her heart to a man who had only a horse and a restless charisma to his name.

I loved writing in Linda’s voice. But the novel itself still wasn’t working. The problem was me. I lacked the skills to write Miles out of the silences I’d found in her archive. Every time I wrote from Miles’ perspective I would run smack-bang into my historian self and have to down tools and reconsider the story that was emerging. I’d rushed into fiction, assumed the skills I had gained writing memoir would transfer. But they didn’t. My training as an historian kept stopping me from getting into Miles’s head. Her words, both published and unpublished, the rhythm of her thinking, her lived presence was a check on my imagination. It was at this point I put the manuscript in a drawer for the first time and wrote the next memoir, a memoir I’d had no intention of writing. (As Anne Enright says, ‘much of my writing gets done as a way of avoiding writing’.)

And then I pulled Miles out of the drawer –  again. I found the fresh scenes, worked on them. Recast the story so it was tighter, a shorter time frame. But still it didn’t work. It was earnest. Oh so earnest. And writerly, and even as I worked at it I could feel the deadness of my prose.

Janet Malcom, whose biographical essays I admire, warns, ‘Biographical research leads to a kind of insufferable familiarity. Beware the one-way relationship between the silenced subject and “the all-too-alive biographer”.’ But awareness was exactly my problem, and my subject was not silenced. I wasn’t writing biography but I was creating another version of my subject, an alternate reality to the historical Miles, the ‘real’ Miles. I was doing that thing historians and biographers hate, I was fictionalizing history and for the most part it felt like I was pushing an unwieldy wheelbarrow uphill.

The historian Tom Griffith is excellent on the relationship between fiction and history. One of my Miles notebooks has a quote from him scrawled across the first page and it’s been darkened and underlined as I’ve pondered the truth of it. It says, ‘history and fiction are not so easily teased apart, in life or in art’. Griffith’s latest book, The Art of Time Travel, dives deeper into how narrative history has shaped the way we think about ourselves. His opening study is not an historian but a writer, the wonderful Eleanor Dark and her historical novel trilogy The Timeless Land. In choosing to open his book with a novelist, Griffith is flipping the bird to reductive arguments about what is history and what is fiction. Dark is writing fiction, but it gives us a rich history, an imaginative space set out within the known facts to step into the past. The two are not mutually exclusive.

From Tom Griffith I turn to an essay written by Lydia Davis. Davis recently set herself the task of reading the Norwegian writer Dag Solsted’s Telemark. Not so remarkable you might say, however she decided she would read it in Norwegian, which she doesn’t speak nor read. The essay she writes out of this experience is called ‘On Learning Norwegian’. And though the essay is worth reading for all sorts of reasons the thing that has stayed with me, along with the apparently meditative nature of the task and Davis’s intellectual determination to read such a book in a foreign language, is Solsted’s aim to write a ‘novel’, which was entirely non-fiction. The book is basically a list of his ancestors, their occupations, life spans and deaths. He claims the fiction lies in the arrangement of the information. Such a claim brings me hard up against the task I have set myself in fictionalising autobiographical fiction. I would have little hesitancy to label Solsted’s book non-fiction. But he has a point and he is occupying precisely Shields’ wobbly terrain between facts and fancy.

Another day I read an interview with Eileen Myles in The Paris Review. She tells Ben Lerner, ‘What’s fictional is arrangement – what follows what. If somebody is lying to you, part of what they’re doing is hiding things, omitting stuff, changing the order of things. And that’s fiction.’

This arrangement is the pointy end of my problem with writing a shadow novel to My Brilliant Career? I must take the historical Miles and the fictional Sybylla and create a third layer. I constantly try and simplify this in the writing. Reimagine Sybylla, I tell myself and off I go and knock off a scene as Sybylla. (I’ve written a fun scene where Sybylla actually marries Hal.) But it’s to no avail and will never see the light of day because the historical Miles comes knocking and the scene makes no sense in her presence. Ok, I think, leave Sybylla out of it and just imagine Miles as Stella, but as I do this I find the vaporous and feisty Sybylla sneaking over the fence, distracting me, insisting I show Miles as a different sort of woman.  Did I mention that this manuscript, and even writing about the process of writing this manuscript has sent me a little mad?

My notebooks on the manuscript are lined up on a shelf, alongside of Jill Roe’s biography and copies of Miles’ novels and her memoir Childhood at Brindabella, (which is probably my favourite of all Miles’ books). I’d chosen siren red for them and they constantly catch my eye. When I pulled them down to study them for this essay they bulged satisfactorily. Flicking through them I’m struck by the notes on the side of my careful reconstructions of Miles’ state of mind at various points in her history. For instance on the opposite page to my transcriptions of her letters to Joseph Furphy explaining her decision not to marry, I have written snippets of my own state of mind as I struggle through the decision to move to Tasmania for love. Next to the transcriptions of letters written to her from Edwin Bridle (who was desperately in love with her), and who she basically ran away to America to avoid marrying, I’ve jotted down a recollection of my first visit to the house I now call home.

Here in my notebook are juxtaposed our two non-fictional selves; all that is lacking is their arrangement – and they become fiction. Of course I’ve already fictionalized myself. My fictional self is the ‘I’ in my memoir, me but not me, a layer of construction, an ‘arrangement’ – of facts (fiction in Eileen Myles or Dag Solsted’s definitions), places and people that creates a distance, an extension of control –  that creates, hopefully, at its best art. If I’m vulnerable to the reader in my memoirs it’s a studied, arranged vulnerability – but it must have a truth to it, I have to be honest to the experience, otherwise it does not ring true.

Likewise for Miles. When she wishes to make a statement on marriage and work and her opinions on it as a precocious nineteen-year old she creates Sybylla to deliver the message. The other Miles, Stella, as she signs most of her letters, is a more changeable, more complex figure. Of course, you say, self-evident. But the two speak to each other. And though it is a matter of tact and literary sophistication not to conflate the author with her fictional characters, or the events of a novel with the events of an author’s life the recent growth in fictional autobiography – Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Dag Solsted’s Telemark Novel, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Geoff Dyer’s work, and the republishing of Chris Kraus’s I love Dick (which didn’t sell twenty years ago but is now a bestseller) – suggests there’s a hunger for fictionalized autobiography. It appears that readers want their fiction ‘real’. These books are popular in Australia too, but with the exception of Garner’s The Spare Room and perhaps Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy, Australian writers have been more hesitant to play in this form.

Recently, George Saunders wrote a novel that played with history and fiction in a new and wonderful way. I read Lincoln in the Bardo in almost one go. It was that best sort of reading experience where the domestic duties, the humdrum of work and the monotonous march of the day cease to register. Instead I was totally caught up with the voices of Saunders’ speaking dead. At the heart of the novel is the historically recorded moment of Abraham Lincoln visiting the crypt of his recently dead son. From this moment Saunders expands into a sweeping work of humanity and imagination. Into this space history is woven and the boundary between the real and imagined, between fiction and non-fiction is expanded.

A friend who is in the middle of his reading writes to me and says it feels like the novel has the elements of great allegorical tales like The Pilgrims Progress blended with the earthiness of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. When I get to the end I feel a sense of excitement at how George Saunders has has embraced the historical voices and used them to dissect the human condition; the same friend sends me another message in bold ‘the humour only intensifies the pathos’. Race, gender, class, sexuality are stripped back to reveal the heart of our shared humanity. The historical moment from which the story departs tightens the reading experience, makes it razor sharp, like we are walking a tightrope of human pain and grief. Saunders has not wobbled between fiction and non fiction, he’s pushed at the boundaries of them both and invited them to talk to each other in an expansive and satisfying way.

I wonder if my own hesitancy to embrace this space between fiction and non-fiction is because our national debate here in Australia still seems to be caught up on wanting an exact definition of where the boundary lies between fiction and non-fiction as if it were a fence not a space. The argument that raged after Kate Grenville’s claim way back in 2005 that fiction does history better than history has distracted us from the fact that all narrative is fiction. The wobble between the two is there precisely to unsettle us, to search for the authenticity of the story, the multiplicity of truths reading other people’s worlds offers.

Which brings me back (in a sort of a fashion) to the radicalism of My Brilliant Career?  This book worked in 1902 and continues to work 115 years later in 2017 – go and reread it or read it for the first time and be surprised by its relevance – because the power of fictionalized autobiography is that it both dips into the authenticity of an experience and combines this with the freedom to explore that experience beyond the individual. When I go back to Miles yet again – which I will at some stage, though it won’t be soon – I will be paying more attention to the wobble between what is known and what is not known, and perhaps when I can identify this space around Miles I’ll have her novel.

This is an edited version of Maggie MacKellar’s 2016 Patron’s Lecture, presented by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, the Copyright Agency and the University of Tasmania.

Works cited

Elaine Blair, “Note to Self: The Lyric Essay’s Convenient Fictions”, Harper’s Magazine, May 2016.

Inga Clendinnin, “Fellow Sufferers: History and Imagination” Australian Humanities Review, September, 1996.

Lydia Davis, “On Learning Norwegian”, Freeman’s Arrival, New York: Grove Press, 2015

Anne Enright,  My Writing Day, The Guardian, 23 April 2016.

Elena Ferrante, Neapolitan Novels, translated by Ann Goldstein, New York: Europa Editions, 2012-2015.

Miles Franklin,  My Brilliant Career? William Blackwood & Sons, London, 1901

— My Career Goes Bung: purporting to be the Autobiography of Sybylla Penelope Melvyn, Angus & Robertson, 1980, (1946)

— Childhood at Brindabella: my first ten years, London: Angus & Robertson, 1963.  

Helen Garner, The Spare Room, Melbourne: Text, 2008.

Tom Griffiths,  The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft, Black Inc, 2016.

Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be? Toronto: House of Anansi, 2010

Knausgaard, Karl Ove, My Struggle, (six novels) 2009-2011. Published in Australia by Penguin.

Kraus, Chris, I Love Dick, London: Tuskar Rock Press, 2015 (First published 1997 by Semiotext(e), LA, California)

Camilla Nelson, Faking It: History and Creative Writing, TEXT, October, 2007

Malcom, Janet ‘A House of One’s Own’, Forty-One False Starts: essays on artists and writers, Melbourne, Text, 2013

Drusilla Modjeska, Poppy, Ringwood, Vic: McPhee Gribble, 1990

Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography, Pymble, NSW: Fourth Estate, Harper & Collins, 2008.

David Shields, Reality Hunger, New York: Knopf, 2010.