Essay

Pretence, sincerity, convention

RECENTLY I HAD an eyelash transplant. Hairs were taken from the back of my neck and placed across the edge of my otherwise bald eyelids. Since adolescence I have suffered from a condition known as trichotillomania. It is a compulsive-behaviour disorder involving pulling hair out from certain parts of the body. It is akin to nail-biting (which is also part of my compulsive-behaviour repertoire) but less socially acceptable, and more rare. As one step in a cognitive-behavioural program I had this transplant, and I am still getting used to the new feel of my eyelids – which, for example, causes me to blink more than most people.

I am telling you this because I feel compelled to begin each new piece of writing with what is happening to me in the present – what is important in my life now. It is a way of connecting myself to what I write, and hopefully a way of making a connection with an audience.

I have researched trichotillomania, and even written about it from time to time, though until recently I had never confessed that it is a condition I have endured. I have discovered that there are more severe hair-pulling conditions, such as the Rapunzel Syndrome. In these cases people can die from bowel obstructions after eating their own hair. I am both fascinated and dismayed by what we are capable of doing to ourselves.

In my work, my paid work, the work I do to support a family and pay for medical expenses and a house to live in, I teach fiction writing to university students. I have two aims when I am doing this. One is to prompt a habit of writing to enter these students' lives and the other is to get them talking to each other about books, writers and writing. This is how I learned – by doing it, and by finding people who would talk with me about it.

In the first class of a new semester we exchange names and then I ask the students to turn to the person next to them and tell that person two facts or short anecdotes about themselves. One must be true and one must be made up, but the facts or anecdotes must be delivered to the listener as though both are true.

I tell them we are not interested in discovering which ‘fact' was true and which was invented. What we are interested in is how the person listening comes to decide which element they will believe and which they will consider is made up. From this exercise, and the discussion surrounding it, much can be learned about the writing of fiction. For instance, we are more likely to believe something we are told if it fits with the general impression we have formed of that person; if it is spoken with seeming spontaneity and some, but not too many, particular details; and if the person can answer one or two questions with a seemingly intimate knowledge of the events or facts. Some enthusiasm and commitment in the telling must be present if the listener is to go along with the tale.

This discussion can lead to a consideration of plausibility and how it works differently in different circumstances. What, for example is the justification for, and the purpose of, that small item on the front page of the daily Age newspaper in Melbourne, the Odd Spot? How does it work? A recent Odd Spot reported, ‘A British cosmetic surgery clinic has conducted an eyelash transplant on a nineteen-year-old with the hair-pulling disorder trichotillomania' (Wednesday, 12 August 2009). These Odd Spot items are possible because of the positioning of the reader in relation to them. A newspaper supposedly reports facts, and it is in the business of reporting the most outlandish, dismaying and bizarre facts journalists can uncover. It is not even a situation where we approach it as a series of ‘strange but true' episodes (the title of a series of comics I was addicted to reading in my boyhood), but rather we accept the various reports we read as strange and true. We feel cheated and ethically superior to the ruck of journalists when we discover on ABC TV's Media Watch how much they actually make up or steal or take from unreliable sources. Little work needs to be done to achieve plausibility if the audience assumes that what is put before them is the straightforward truth.

WITH FICTION WRITING, on the other hand, all the processes, tricks, all the eye contact that words are capable of, must come into play if the reader is to be taken, plausibly, into the strange places fiction likes to explore. We want salient detail, expert knowledge, shapeliness to the narrative, some complexity to the characters, and so it goes. In this way, we come to see how far apart the genres of fiction and factual reporting can be.

We are also interested in how the storyteller struck upon the fiction they told about themselves. We find that more often than not there are two sources of fiction. The first is that the fiction finds it beginning in an exaggeration or a warping of the speaker's own experience. The second is that the storyteller has adopted something that happened to someone else, or something they read about, making it for the time their own. These accounts impress on us the closeness of fiction to fact, of autobiography to lie, of memory to imagination, of one genre to another. Even the achievement of plausibility in a piece of fiction means, I think, that the reader more than half believes in what they know is meant to be fiction (though might not be).

I am one of those writers who have trouble settling within one kind of writing. For me it is all writing, and it is all reading. If there is not pleasure and imaginative freefall involved, then it is hardly worth the effort; but equally if there is not some hard thinking, some probing of a question, some attempt to grapple with what others have found, have thought or have written, then again it is hardly worth doing. My weakness as a writer is this restless movement between genres or modes. I have met poets who say that they cannot or will not write prose. I am in awe of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1595), who spent the last twenty-four years of his life at home writing essays. Such focus is beyond me. But even Montaigne's essays are crammed full of stories, reminiscences, descriptions and exercises in the brief poetic form of the aphorism. It seems to me that it is not possible to consign yourself to a single genre even when that genre is recognisable and perhaps even fundamental. When Edgar Allen Poe writes, in the first person as was his insistent habit, in his story to a dead lover, ‘Ligeia', that in beauty ‘no maid ever equalled her' and spends a full page detailing her beauty, including ‘the magnificent turn of the short upper lip – the soft, voluptuous slumber of the under – the dimples which sported and the colour which spoke', and on the same page quotes an essay by Bacon on the importance of strangeness to true beauty, we know we are crossing from fiction to essay to Poe's experience of the loss of his own young wife to tuberculosis.

In his recent memoir of depression, Unparalleled Sorrow (Hardie Grant, 2009), Barry Dickins writes from an asylum: ‘The whole system is full of fantastic contradictions. On the one hand they are to bring you back to life; on the other they are to drug you and give you shock therapy that no one in Australia and possibly the world still believes goes on in clinics for mental health. And yet it is on the rise. Thousands swear by it. Anne the stunted, humped-over witch with the mop of wispy, stiff grey shoulder-length hair holds the square metallic torch on me again at exactly two in the morning and I have swallowed a palm full of strong antidepressants and am groggy. "Just doing a head count," she shrieks as she always does, in a very curt manner.' The writing swings from recollection to reflection to the construction of a character in a madly ironic gothic tale of insanity. The first-person voice straddles essay, autobiography and fiction. It is never safely within any of these genres once it is taken out onto the page.

The further point we sometimes reach in our discussions after the getting-to-know-you-and-your-lies exercise in the first fiction class of semester is that while fiction requires the application of conventions, it cannot work unless the reader is convinced that the writer is trying to get at some kind of urgent truth or difficult but important question. Sincerity must stroll arm in arm with insincerity, artifice with spontaneity, naivety with cunning, care with carelessness. This is the trick riding we do. Though I know nothing of horses or trick riding, what I remember from rare experiences of the circus is that the act is conducted under the force of distraction. The rider is a girl with long legs or a man with a whip and hat, the horses might have feathers, and music makes it all a thrilling scene. Are they actually riding three horses at once; what exactly is going on? Surely what we see is impossible to achieve. How are you supposed to take it all in sensibly? Not sensibly at all, the writer hopes, but happily enough to be both disturbed and pleased, and unsure exactly what it is you're reading.

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