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Demystifying Helen Garner: Part One

November 7, 2012

By Alice Robinson

Dear readers, I have broken this post into two parts for the sake of your time and patience. What I set out to write about here was the one burning question I have always wanted to ask Helen Garner about her writing, and finally got the chance to ask a few weeks ago. But, as often happens, I’ve veered off track a little here. In this post I talk about what it was like to meet Helen Garner and what she had to say. Stay tuned for Part Two where I get to ask my question, and am floored by Garner’s response…

A few weeks ago I was given a rare and daunting gift. I got to meet the great Helen Garner face to face. This precious opportunity came through the wonderful postgraduate writing program at Victoria University, the institution where I am completing my PhD (to be submitted this week!) Eight postgrad writing students and lecturers were offered the chance to attend an intimate workshop with Garner, where we would learn about writing creative nonfiction. I was lucky enough to be among the chosen few. The idea was that Garner would read our work in advance and come ready to critique it. A plan in equal parts thrilling and horrifying. The mood in the room when I arrived was tense, bordering on hysteria. Actually, that was just me. I felt like I was being set up on a date with someone I had already known and loved in abstract for years. The desire to impress, to be deemed acceptable, was palpable. All that writerly anxiety. When I took my seat and could bring myself to glance shyly at the real Helen Garner, sitting quite solidly, corporeally, at the head of the table, I saw to my surprise that she was indeed a real woman, with skin and hands and face. She was funny and irreverent and smart. Somehow it surprised me, her actuality. That she was not made of words, but flesh.

I wonder, does this fact – that writers are real people too – make our literary idols more or less impressive? Does it make the task ahead of the emerging writer seem more or less possible? I don’t know. Something is traded in when we come face to face with the actual manifestation of what has previously been only fantasy. I remember seeing Paris for the first time, walking its streets. How aggrieved I was to find that, though Paris is as beautiful as is promised, now that I had seen the actual city, the imagined Paris I had cherished for years would be forever superseded, lost. Meeting Garner was a bit like that. She was in no way disappointing, only… soreal. Therefore irrefutable. There was no room any longer for the daydream I had, for years, relied on her to be.

How was Garner different or the same to my long harboured daydream? It is hard to say now that I’ve met the real woman. What I can say for sure is that I was deeply charmed and gratified to find that, in person, Garner is straightforward and honest. There is something very human and up front about her. No bullshit. “But is it creative nonfiction?” I asked about my work as Garner went at her critique with no apparent desire to preserve any precious writerly feelings I might be mollycoddling. She was focused purely on measuring out considered, honest advice that might actually help me to improve my work. “Oh, who gives a shit” she replied, moving on to expose the next glaring flaw in my piece. This seemed exactly the right answer, indicative of her general attitude, particularly where analysing and categorising writing is concerned.

Garner’s fame and success seemed to her to be – if I imagine her to consider them at all – mildly troubling and irrelevant, if not distasteful. Certainly, any writerly glamour she might engender seemed beside some more solid, pressing point to the woman herself. Any vague hint we students made in the direction of admiration for – or awe in – her work seemed to provoke only impatience. I haven’t had many dealings with public figures or celebrities, but I imagine they fall into two camps: those who buy into and milk their situations, and those for whom their renown is perplexing and performative, a flimsy thin thing that in no way speaks to their every day experience or inner selves. Garner certainly seemed to fall into the latter camp, which I found delightfully refreshing; as a person I really liked her a great deal. “Let’s take it for granted that we’re all quivering wrecks,” she declared in opening the workshop. Laughter and relief ripped through the room.

At times Garner spoke about the difficulties she is experiencing in tackling her current project. So, it never ends, I thought.The agony and self doubt. I found this comforting, that a writer of Garner’s standing and accolades experiences all the same anxieties that I do (and perhaps a few more, given the weight of her career) when she sits down at her desk. She told us to write what we wanted to write and not wait for permission, not to sit at our computers thinking, I can’t say that. She said, “there’s some works of art that give energy to you and some that drain it out. You want your work to be in the first category.” She told us that we could take as long as we wanted over our work and not to worry about the quality or content while we were getting the material down. “After all, no one is going to rush out and publish your work against your will.”And for God’s sake, Garner urged us, distill what our subjects have said when we’re writing up interviews, “so that your readers don’t die of boredom.” And don’t ask anyone in an interview how they feel about this or that event; “that’s a pervy question.” Instead, we should be specific and personal and show the characters – real or imagined – that we’re writing about. All good advice, I think. In fact, Garner made no craft-based suggestion that I did not scribble furiously in my little notebook, nodding in agreement all the while.

I admit that it was difficult to take the kind of furious, unadulterated constructive criticism Garner dolled out over the course of the workshop in relation to my work, and it was hard to watch it being dolled out to my colleagues as well. There was some collective squirming as the event progressed (I have heard that the workshop culture in nations like America is much more serious – that is, harsh – than it is here, so perhaps I’m just being soft). Yet with the balm of several weeks distance from the experience, I can see that the feedback Garner provided was astute, and will be invaluable when I sit down to rework my piece, or write another. Mostly, it was not the content of the criticism that stung, but rather, the fact that it was coming Helen Garner that made it a little more daunting than it would have otherwise would have been to receive. The bit of advice that I’ve taken most to heart, probably because I sense that it will be the hardest thing for me to implement – given my natural, ponderous style and academic training – was Garner’s insistence that creative nonfiction writers should “tell us what happened, rather than what they think about it.”

In the coming post, I will tell you what happened next, though whether I can stop myself from also telling you what I think about it is another matter entirely. Sorry Helen.

Helen Garner is giving a keynote speech on the 22nd of November as part of NonfictioNow. You can purchase stand alone tickets for her event through The Wheeler Centre, or attend one or all three days of the conference if you’re keen to soak up the wisdom of the other exciting and esteemed panelists as well.

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