Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The I in Memoir

One of the good things about not working on my book is that I've been able to catch up on my reading. My current object of attention is Island, Tasmania's excellent literary journal. I always find its nonfiction strong and this issue (115), which came out in the summer and which has sat on my bedside table since then, is no exception. I'm especially enjoying the essays on memoir and autobiograpy writing. I suppose because this is what is on my mind at the moment.

Robert Dessaix in conversation with Danielle Wood says:
Anyone who talks to you - especially husbands and relatives - knows that you're a writer. They're going to pop up in your books and there you go. If feelings get dented from time to time, you're not responsible. Or only a bit. So long as you don't write out of malice, obviously. I admit there's a grey area - parents, people you knew before you began to write - but you're immortalising them, after all, and that should be worth something.
Now that my book is nearing publication (although not fast enough for my liking), I'm beginning to get nervous about the reactions of people who appear in it. Will my father find my depiction of my mother's behaviour too difficult to bear? Will the aunt with whom my mother feuded take offence at my account of their differences? Will my brothers feel I have misrepresented their roles?

I have done my best to be as honest as I can, but as Elisabeth Hanscome writes in another article in the same issue of Island:
The truth, the real, is fluid not static, though once written it can become static, and in this sense it can distort what really happened.
Hanscome also quotes Paul John Eakin, who has written extensively on memoir and autobiography:
The 'I' of the first person...papers over the fact that we are no longer who we were. Each day we wake up a different person. We constantly remodel the past to accommodate the needs of the person we become in the present.
The back story may well be the true story but its telling almost always involves a degree of interpretation and therefore to some extent the fictional uses of imagination.
Well, notwithstanding the difficulties of honesty and memory and of the writing process itself, I hope I have managed to tell a story that illuminates something true and real and that will resonate for the reader.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Writing as Therapy

When people learn that I have written a memoir about dealing with my mother's Alzheimer's they often ask me if the writing was therapeutic. It probably shouldn't, but the question makes me angry. I find it insulting. For me writing is both a creative endeavour and work; it certainly is not therapy.

Maybe it's the semantics I object to. If you say something is therapeutic, don't you mean it makes you better? Cures you of some symptom? Maybe all these people want to know is whether writing my memoir helped me cope with my mother's illness and death. And yes, it did, but not for the reason they think.

I recently read an interview with a writer who did say that writing her memoir about her mother's death was therapeutic for her. She even went on to add that she didn't need to see a counsellor because she'd written her book. Good for her.

For me, the writing process was engrossing and technically difficult, so it helped me in the way that work is often helpful: doing it kept me engaged and transported me to the place where I am most myself. But as far as being therapeutic, that is helping me to come to terms with losing my mother to Alzheimer's, it wasn't at all. I still found the journey heart breaking and it still hurts now three months after her death. It was an awful way to go and that's all there is to it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stage Fright

Late last Thursday night I finally hit the key to send my manuscript to my editor. What a scary, scary moment. It was such a hard thing to do.

Since then I've been reading reviews of other books on similar themes. Some of the reviews are not so favourable and now, although I'm desperate for my book to be published, I'm also dreading its reception. Will it get poor reviews or, worse still really, no reviews at all? Will it sink unnoticed into what's increasingly looking like an overcrowded field? What's so special about my book anyway? Isn't it sentimental and self indulgent? Why would anyone want to read about my specific experience? The publisher accepted the manuscript on the basis of the first ten chapters, which were all I'd written at that time. That was exciting then. Now I worry that they'll hate the rest of the book.

All this has taken me by surprise. I stupidly believed all my self doubt would be gone by now. First there's the worry that you can actually finish your project, then the worry that it'll be accepted for publication. I thought that those would be the big ones and that afterwards I'd be full of confidence, but it's not like that at all. And still to come, I'm sure, are concerns I haven't even thought of yet.

I don't know how long it will be till I receive the marked up manuscript. Meanwhile I remain in limbo, worrying.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Shepherds' Lunch

Since we've been sheep and goat farmers we've stopped buying meat. We used to swap lamb for beef with a local farmer, but these days we don't even do that. We know our animals graze on grass, that we don't overstock and that they live good lives. They have the run of several large paddocks - and sometimes, as in the case of the lost goats, they range far and wide.

The main reason we keep animals is weed control. Goats relish the weed species we have here - blackberry and sycamore especially. And thanks to the sheep we have no ragwort.

When the time comes we kill them ourselves as quickly and humanely as possible. We do our own butchering too. I can't say I love that part, but if we're going to eat meat at least we shouldn't be in denial about it.

Today for lunch I made a shepherd's pie, using minced goat meat and our own potatoes.

I think the secret is in long slow cooking of the mince. Yesterday I chopped an onion and some garlic into a splash of olive oil, and then added the meat, a handful of chopped herbs, some water and a dollop each of Worcestershire sauce and tomato sauce. I thickened it with a little flour and then simmered it for hours. This morning I mashed some potato and spread it on top and cooked it some more. Deelicious!

Add some share farmers, some guests who'd travelled an hour to be with us, sunny autumn weather after a day of rain, and you have the recipe for a perfect shepherds' lunch.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Desperately Seeking Goats

Well, we still haven't found the lost goats though we have seen evidence of where they've been - walking in single file along the outside of the Truck Paddock fence and wandering down our driveway to the front gate.

Yesterday morning we walked our share farmer neighbour's boundary to see how the goats escaped in the first place. The fence between her and her neighbour on the other side is in pretty poor shape so that's the answer.

We'll get them sometime in the next couple of weeks and meanwhile we've seen some pretty autumn sights.
Cobwebs shimmering in the sun on the grass of the Truck Paddock,

unusual fungi,

and vistas that after more than six years living here still bring me joy each time I see them:

After the search Farmdoc and I continued on down to the village to the post office and to the Laurel Berry for fish and chips. Ho hum, another hard day's work in Mole Creek.

Monday, April 20, 2009

In Search of Lost Goats

Goats are such escape artists. They find all the weak spots in your fences, or simply jump them, and then look surprised when they land on the other side. How did I get here? they say.
And when they've gone missing and you find them - or they find you - they look so innocent. Who me? they say.

Yesterday we went in search of a mob of fifteen that had breached the fence between our share-farmer neighbour and her neighbour, and then made their way via another neighbour's property in a long loop back into our sycamore forest.

We haven't really been panicked about them; this time of year when the leaves turn and fall there's plenty of feed in the forest for goats.

We didn't find them, but there can't be too many nicer ways to spend an autumn afternoon than tramping through paddocks, bush and forest with your fellow farmers. And we didn't come home empty handed: one of our neighbours has a laden pear tree he was happy to share with us. As for the goats, they're holidaying somewhere on our land and we'll look for them again later in the week.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

One potato, two

When I get back to Mole Creek the first thing I do after I've kissed Farmdoc and dumped my backpack is to check out what's growing on the farm.

When we built this house an important requirement for me was a herb garden right outside the kitchen; now all day I'm in and out of the kitchen door, tipping water, tea leaves or coffee grounds onto the herbs, or cutting fragrant leaves for vases or cooking. Because everything here has to be fenced off to protect it from wallabies, possums and wombats, the herbs have their own little house inside which they grow like crazy and need to be constantly pruned.

Yesterday I picked lemon balm for the house. It makes a delicious tea but I love the look of it too.

Second stop was the vegetable garden inside its own enclosure at the side of the house. I pushed open the gate, carrying secateurs and a container and wondering what would be ripe. Yesterday afternoon I dug up a bed of potatoes. We grow mostly Dutch Creams, which are delicious boiled, roasted, baked or mashed.

Last night we ate sweet corn and mashed potato sprinkled with chives for dinner. Ahh, home sweet home.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Gefilte fishing

I’ve never developed a taste for gefilte fish. It’s always looked so unappetising to me: anaemic slabs of cold reconstituted fish topped with skull caps of sliced cooked carrot, swimming in a sea of clear jelly. Eccchhh.

I only remember my mother making this delicacy once and I didn’t see her do it. But this year’s was our first Seder since my mother died so maybe I was trying to capture my inner matriarch.

Fortunately I had as my guide my friend Barry who is a professional chef.

We began at the Prahran market, where we bought 2 kilograms of mixed white fish, skinned and boned. (Some people add the skin and bones to the sauce, but we didn’t.)

For the sauce, Barry sliced 3 onions and 2 carrots into about 4 cups of water seasoned with 3 tablespoons of sugar and ½ teaspoon of white pepper. He brought that to the boil and then let it simmer.

Meanwhile, I minced the fish and added it to 3 raw eggs, 3 minced hard-boiled eggs, 3 white onions, salt, sugar and pepper. Lastly I poured in about ½ a cup of fine matzah meal. I sloshed all this around with my hands, adding more matzah meal until the mixture held together.

Barry said we had to taste it. I didn’t want to – it looked yucky – but it was actually pretty tasty. I didn’t want it too sweet so we added a little more salt and pepper.

We rolled the mixture into balls and lowered these gently into the sauce. But although we poured in more water we still thought there wasn’t enough to cover all those fish balls, so we hurriedly whipped up another saucepan of sauce.

These needed to simmer for one and a half to two hours so we walked down to The Tyranny of Distance for a cup of coffee while we waited.

When we returned we scooped the balls from the saucepans and arranged the cooked carrot slices onto their dear little heads. Then we strained the sauce.

I felt like a proper balabosta at the Seder when I announced that I had made the gefilte fish. And actually they were delicious, especially when served with horseradish. But I personally couldn’t come at the sauce. Too much like eating jellyfish. Eccchhh.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Great balls of matzah!

The story goes that when Marilyn Monroe was married to Arthur Miller she said to him, ‘Matzah balls? Isn’t there any other part of the matzah you can eat?’

I don't know if the story's true; I only know that when Passover approaches it's time for me to get out the matzah meal and get cracking. This year for me, yesterday was the day.

There's no real recipe. Or rather there are endless variations. For one packet of matzah meal I used four eggs, a tablespoon or so of margarine, salt and pepper, and enough vegetable stock to make the mixture not too firm and not too sloshy. (I use vegetable stock, not chicken, so my vegetarian daughters can eat them too.)

I rolled the mixture into balls and left them to rest for about half an hour before dropping them carefully into boiling vegetable stock for around 40 minutes.
At this point in the process I always hear my mother's voice in my head.
‘Make sure the water’s properly boiling,' I hear her say. And, 'When they’re cooked, take them out one at a time. Don’t tip them into a colander, or you’ll end up with a heap of sludge.’

I did that once. Mum and I laughed about it together. I had to throw the mess out and start again. These days I'm patient.

Anyway, Marilyn, I don't know what you were complaining about. Is there any other part of the matzah worth eating?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Quince Jelly

We weren’t planning to gather quinces.
We were on our way down to the market garden to pick a lettuce and some rocket for dinner when we detoured to see if there were any quinces on the tree in the top orchard. There were so we stayed to pick them. This was at my daughter K’s place. A couple of quinces were too high for me to reach so I had the bright idea that if I lifted my granddaughter J up she’d be able to pick the fruit. That didn't work: although she’s slightly built she was still way too heavy for me to lift very high. In the end K clambered up into the fork of the tree and got them that way.

The next day I began the process of making quince jelly.
After wiping them down, I cut 2 kilograms of the quinces into pieces, including the skin and cores, and put them into a pot with 2 litres of water.
I brought this slowly to the boil, and then simmered it, covered, for about an hour until the fruit was tender.

Then I needed a potato masher but couldn’t find one anywhere.
‘Try the sandpit,’ K said. It took me a few minutes of searching among all the buckets and spades, pots and pans, toy cars and Barbies, but eventually there it was.
I had to boil the kettle to pour boiling water over a muslin square for the next step so I poured some over the potato masher when I’d washed that too. While I mashed the fruit, K pegged the cloth over a pot and I poured the pulpy mixture into that.

Then we covered it with a tea towel and left it to drain over night.

That was the end of my involvement. Farmdoc and I left the next day so K finished making the quince jelly on her own.
She first added ¼ cup of lemon juice, and then a cup of warmed sugar for each cup of liquid, and after that she used her normal jam making method.
The only difference she found was that when she skimmed the scum off the top, the jelly was less forgiving than jam as there’s nowhere to hide anything.

The result was jewel like. Bottled autumn.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Dear Diary

Journal keeping is such a weird practice when you examine it. I mean, who cares what I did today or how I felt about it?

Actually, I met with my editor for the first time this morning. I was nervous about it; she was lovely. She gave me the publishing schedule for my book. I gave her a jar of my End of Draft jam.

I recorded all this in my journal.

Why did I do this? No one else will read it. Mostly I can’t even bear to reread it myself.

It’s a habit: I’ve been keeping a journal for over twenty years now.

It’s a way of catching my thoughts, or capturing story ideas or dreams before they disappear. Sometimes, like when I can’t sleep at night, I use my journal to get rid of the kind of thoughts that buzz around my head like wasps trapped in a bottle.

I use it to make sense of whatever’s happening in my world. To let off steam. To practise writing when I don’t have an ongoing project, or as a safe place to try out things that I may end up using in a current project. Even to record events.

They say there’s a chip of ice in every writer’s heart. Sixteen months ago, in July 2007, my mother looked as though she was going to die. I sat every day for hours in her hospital room and wept as she refused food and struggled for breath. And I recorded it all in my notebook. Sometimes I sat by her side and took down her words like dictation as she spoke them.

It’s as though there are two parts of me that co-exist: the doer and the recorder. I watch myself as much as I watch everyone else (What’s she doing now? Why is she doing that?), only with myself I have access to my inner life – feelings, thoughts, dreams and memories – whereas with others I have only the externals. It's no wonder I was drawn to writing a memoir.

When would-be writers ask me for advice, I tell them to keep a journal. It’s not always what they want to hear and I often can’t explain what journal keeping gives you that’s so important to a writer, but I know I could never have written either of my novels without that habit of mine. And of course Alzheimer’s: A Love Story owes its entire existence to that pile of spiral-bound notebooks that document it all – my mother’s decline and my ongoing reactions to it, every painful, happy, sad, funny moment.