MY PAST HAS not quite perished, nor would I want it to. The events described in my second memoir, The Romantic (Text, 2010), took place years ago and in another country – but the wench is not dead, only changed. There is a woman in that book called Kate, who I once was. There is a woman writing this reflection on it, who I am now. This is the moment when they – we – converge.
But as I write a memoir, though I am pulling together past and present selves, I find that I am no more unified. There's the person, me, who had the experiences being described. There's the I who wrote it down at the time in a diary, or bears the story in my memory. Then there is the writer, the memoirist, who puts it on the page; her successor, the critical writer who looks at that page and shapes the text to be read by others. The book is published, then I become the author, who does interviews and talks. Later I will be the person who once had the experience, once wrote it down, once used to talk about it to audiences – and I have come full circle, back into the realm of experience. Throughout, I am still the person with the original memory, who originally 'did'; but who, curiously, may come to remember the story not as it truly happened but as I wrote it. In the search for authenticity and resurrection, we deal in contrivance and entombment.
And last, there is the character in the book, who is me, but not quite. She is the most mysterious, the most elusive and ghostly, but also the most real, at least for the readers. We bear a resemblance to each other. We inhabit the same mind. We are all called Kate.
In The Romantic I wrote about myself in the present tense and in the third person. I could see 'her' better than I see myself, with less pity, and more mercy. 'She' says things that I said, and like the other characters, she behaves as we really did. It is a cheat, of a kind, and I probably sound psychotic when I talk about 'her'in relation to the book, but the girl in my memory is so distant, now, that she may as well be another person. 'How much sweeter it is to forgive weakness, than despise it,' I write in the book. But how interesting it is to write about weakness, as well as forgiveness.
My first book, In My Skin (Text, 2005), told of the five years I spent in my late twenties as a heroin addict and a sex worker in Melbourne. I found myself stronger, more terrible, more mysterious than I had ever imagined I could be. It was a time in my life I had never anticipated and its aftermath left me exhausted. In the last months of my addiction I discovered the Romantic poets and when I saved enough money to flee for my recuperation to a year in romantic Italy, it was those bright, bold spirits I wanted to follow.
From the wreck of my past, which hath perish'd,
That much I at least may recall,
It hath taught me that what I most cherish'd
Deserved to be dearest of all:
In the Desert a fountain is springing,
In the wide waste there is still a tree,
And a bird in the solitude is singing...
– Byron, Stanzas [to Augusta], 1817
It was a time when I searched. For sex, because it had become a familiar, useful currency. And through sex, for love, because I had not loved myself sufficiently in those five years, and now I so much needed tenderness. Finally, I was searching for the bright flame of wonder I had almost extinguished.
The story of this search burned in me for years after the events, and yet I resisted it. I succumbed to temptation and wrote the first part of my experiences as In My Skin. I wrote that book in the blessed innocence of the unpublished author – 'You only get the first book for free,' as Helen Garner remarked to me on its publication. The public attention that greeted that book was wholly unexpected, at least by me; dizzied by its reception, spinning further tales for numberless interviews, moved beyond capacity by readers' letters, I was swept up in a thrilling, frightening, fast-moving wave of unnerving celebrity as I blundered into the author industry that attends publication. I learned to give succinct, quotable answers in interviews, and to stand on stages and speak of terrible private things. I posed for photographs and worried over my archives of this heady moment; I learned to deal graciously with the public and to phrase my own biography for bylines. My book had found readers and critical acclaim: disorientated as well as grateful, shy Kate took refuge in imposture, and I became her representative in public, and her custodian in private. The splitting was apparent now, if only to myself.
It is a peculiar experience, to write a memoir about being ordinary and find yourself regarded as extraordinary; to resist the enticing persuasion that, indeed, you are special. You have to believe you're a little special in order to write a memoir, after all; and yet I remain quite ordinary, even embarrassed by the presumption held in writing the book. I was aware that there might be mutterings: best-selling debut sexual memoirs are an easy target for resentment. Then there was public opinion: for every ten letters or blogs praising my book, there would be one calling me spiteful names, aiming personal insults and offering unsolicited judgement on the life I'd lived – the obverse privilege of reader-memoirist intimacy.
I received letters that said my book had changed someone's attitude, or life. Overwhelmed by all else, I was unprepared for the momentousness of this effect, or the role of counsellor to the drug addicts, mothers of addicts, and sex workers who responded to the book's candour so movingly with their own. I grew used to parents of friends meeting me and exclaiming that they'd read my book, and its brutal descriptions of my naked body, sex and humiliation; and making light of this strangeness even as secretly I was mortified.
For a long time I announced loudly that I was grateful for what In My Skin gave me – a career in writing –but that I would never do another memoir. The other half of my story remained mine. I intended to write it, if ever, as a novel, keeping only the basic trajectories of the story and transforming all the characters. But when I tried that, it faltered: to change one part of the story skewed the whole thing; it lost its integrity and purpose. Yet what would I do with these memories?
THE MORE I have thought about memoir, the more delinquent and unreliable the form seems. Sometimes I would describe memoir as repulsive, in its self-absorption, its violations and its conceit. It takes ruthlessness to write one; it requires a calibrating of conscience. Memoir is perhaps the most conflicted of literary genres.
In the first place, it is necromancy. Its characters come out of the grave, squashed and pale, speaking in the croaky ventriloquist's voice of the author. What right does a writer have to take people's lives and reanimate them for her own purposes? Does that right alter if, for example, the other person is asked for permission, if the writer no longer knows him, if she only describes what happened in her presence, if she doesn't think he'll ever read the book, if she only means to say nice things about him? Or if she doesn't? What about the truth? There are no easy answers to these questions. I have never settled them for myself. They bring home to me the difficulty of separating myself from the world in which I exist, and there is no calculus for that line.
Then, memoir is supposed to be 'the true story'. It cannot be. A voluminous life has to be compressed into a narrative: it is deceptive. The writing needs to focus on certain events that are significant in retrospect but perhaps, in the real life, were just part of a continuum of confusion: it is distorting. And it is shaped by a writer who is no longer the same as the character she's impersonating: it is disingenuous. It is a 'true story'because it describes something that happened, though our eyes glaze at the disclaimer in the opening pages; yet we must remember that the writer is working hard to make sure it all appears 'nothing but the truth', and to beguile us into believing her.
Memoir elides, it skips over tedious things, like meals and haircuts, and in its forensic focus it has no time for what won't fit its determined narrative. In The Romantic I left out a crucial visit from my sister, which meant the world to me as the girl at that time but didn't fit the narrative the woman now was writing. I know that gap is there, but the book has its own logic, and no reader will notice the caesura. The art of memoir is about forgetting as much as it about remembering.
Then, memoir is narcissistic, sometimes monstrously so. There comes a point for a memoirist when she is nauseated by the I, by the focus on herself. How can anyone be so arrogant to imagine their story is worth someone else's money and time and interest? If you don't question this, you can't write a memoir.
In moments of doubt I wonder if my addiction to memoir is a failure of imagination, of the ability to move beyond my own solipsism. But how could I be authorised to write from the perspective anyone other than myself? And surely we write memoir because we believe our specific experience also fingers the universal.
Finally but paradoxically, it is a trespass against the privacy of the writer. My first memoir gave me a great deal, and not the least of its bounty was the trust my readers put in me. I am humbled by such generosity, and could never regret writing that book. But part of me wonders if I cannibalised my own life, made it into a product; whether I didn't violate some trust I placed in myself; whether I gave something away that I can never reclaim.
So, my misgivings. But I wrote another memoir. Why? Because for all its faults, it is a beautiful form: generous, intimate, powerful; the start of storytelling.
It is impossible to write a memoir without describing other people – or it would be a very boring piece of work if you did. Other people make our stories; they are our life. And though I am always nervous about exposing those I've known in the cold white light of the printed page, I tried to do them justice. It would be a boring piece of work, too, if all the characters were incorrigibly well-behaved. I loved all the men in The Romantic, and tried to put that love on the page. If I was harsh on them at times, I believe I was harder on myself.
Some say it doesn't matter if a memoir is 'true' if the emotions in it are. But The Romantic is a true story – I really did live in Italy for a tumultuous nine months, and returned to it in the terrible heatwave of 2003. My diaries are witness and many of the conversations are taken virtually verbatim from my notes of the time. Besides, I am too feeble to invent – or resist – a story as convoluted as that. I chose to write The Romanticin a style that in some ways seems closer to fiction than traditional memoir, because it allowed more critical distance from the coercive I, and so I could borrow some of the ampleness of fiction to fill out the literality of autobiography. Though, as I say, there are elisions, I could only try to make up in sincerity what the tale must necessarily lack in perfect representation.
Memoir is self-absorbed, but I write to see myself more clearly, and (at the risk of arrogance) in the hope that others can relate to my experiences. This sharing can be exhilarating, and disconcerting. There was a moment, during the editing process, when my publisher said, 'Of course, you were a pretty disturbed young woman in those days' – almost exactly echoing the opinion of Jack, a fairly pompous older lover, in the book. I bridled for a moment: how dare he? What did he mean, 'of course'? But I am no longer that defensive young woman; exposing this book to others helps me evaluate who I am now as much as writing it in solitude has helped me see who I was ten years ago. I was surprised, with the publication of In My Skin, by how many young women (and even men) could see themselves in my story. We have all travelled in our lives, through relationships and through confusion. I am keenly aware of my privilege in sharing my journey with readers.
To write a confession you must feel you have sinned. But I don't believe in sin, only in conscience and learning. The yearning to love and be loved – the theme of The Romantic – is one of the most courageous and terrifying gambits of our lives. But it is how life is made. Long before the Romantic era, the poet Thomas Traherne said, 'Never was any thing in this world loved too much.' It is what I insisted on believing in Italy. But, Traherne continued, 'many things have been loved in a false way, and all in too short a measure.' One of these statements is the lesson of memoir.