Moving Among Strangers – Gabrielle Carey

 Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family,  is a family memoir. It is  a wonderful glimpse into the life of Randolph Stow, one of  Western Australia’s most revered writers. It also about the area where my grandmother’s family settled in the nineteenth century, and where my mother grew up.

Cover, Moving Among Strangers

Cover, Moving Among Strangers

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Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look, by Helen Garner, enthralled me.

This book is purported to be ‘a collection of essays, diary entries and true stories’ which, of course, it is. But on another, deeper level, it is much more. The stories, snippets and longer essays can be read as a memoir of the life of an older writer. It spans about fifteen recent years of Helen Garner’s life.

Everywhere I Look, by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look, by Helen Garner

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Watershed for manuscript

A watershed moment has happened for my writing. It’s time for cautious celebration. There is still a long way to go.

But it did feel good yesterday when I wrote, ‘The End’ on the last page of the manuscript of my new memoir. Then I printed it, for no reason except that I could. Three hundred pages, 70 000 words. Six years.

        Old and new books

Old and new books

At last an end is in sight. I can begin to imagine my new book next to my first memoir, Other People’s Country. It’s fun to think whether it will end up with the working title I’ve lived with for six years. It’s exciting to imagine what the cover might look like.

The memoir tells the story of my elopement with John in the year I turned seventy.

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Writing about vulnerable people in memoir

 Ethics for writing about vulnerable people (Image from ohmyhandmade.com) (Image from ohmyhandmade.com)


Ethics for writing about vulnerable people
(Image from ohmyhandmade.com)
(Image from ohmyhandmade.com)

Writing about vulnerable people in memoir is tricky. There are no absolute guidelines. Compassionate writing boils down to the writer’s personal moral and ethical codes.  For me, these are based on my Catholic faith and the Australian Code of professional conduct for nurses. Moral and ethical codes differ for everyone.

People become vulnerable when others assume a position of power. Everyone is vulnerable at least some of the time. This means all relationships have elements of power and vulnerability. Having power means it is possible to inflict harm, suffering or damage. The more dependent one party is on the other, the greater their vulnerability. The act of writing itself may make a subject vulnerable.

A memoir is a story from one’s own life. Almost all of our stories involve other people. Because of this, we can’t write about ourselves without also writing about vulnerable people. Some of our subjects may be vulnerable people.

Disadvantaged people are always at risk of harm. They cannot access the benefits available to other people in the wider society. This means they are rendered voiceless. Writing about vulnerable people demands great care and compassion.

Infants are always dependent on others

Infants are always dependent on others

The frail aged and those disabled are vulnerable people

The frail aged and those disabled are vulnerable people

Many conditions render individuals powerless and vulnerable. For example,

  • Infants and young children are defenceless.
  • Frail old age can render people helpless.
  • Physical, intellectual or emotional disabilities usually mean increased dependence.
  • People who are financially reliant on others have less power than those who control the money.
  • Gender can also be a factor – for example, women are more likely to be victims of familial violence than men.
  • The poor, the oppressed and asylum seekers are always vulnerable.

The lovely Hebrew word ‘Anawim’ is used in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, to describe vulnerable people – the poor, the humble and the powerless.

Through depiction by writers, powerless people and their lives are in danger of falsification. They are unable to examine, respond to, or resist, misrepresentation. They cannot recognise themselves in the way they have been presented. This is an abusive situation which can be both painful and disorientating.

Writing about vulnerable people

Australian journalists have a code of ethics. But in the end, the editorial policy of their publisher determines what is published. Finding an ethical code for general writers is also a problem.

Ethical and moral decision-making are not always straightforward. Ethics are complex. They may differ across cultures and even from one individual to another. Often an ethical decision depends on the circumstances of a particular case.

A simple approach to writing ethically about others might be to start from the four main principles on which systems of duty ethics are based in our culture. These are

  • respect for the autonomy of the other person and a recognition of his or her unconditional worth;
  • the intention to do no harm;
  • beneficience, or the intention to bring about good; and
  • justice, which implies responsibility, agency, accountability and intentionality.

In other words, the first aim of moral writing about vulnerable people is, at the very least, to do no harm to those one writes about. The second is to bring about some of the benefits for individuals and groups that can result from story-telling. At the same time, the writer must minimise the costs to everyone involved.

Some life-writers accept the idea of harm that is so broad that any life writing that causes others to feel humiliation or annoyance is unethical. In my view, that is an inappropriately restrictive standard. As part of ethical decision-making, writers need to ask ourselves if the harm is trivial or serious. We also need to consider if such harm is justified in the context of what we are trying to achieve.

Most life-writers believe they have a responsibility to tell the truth about the world as they see it. There is a need for caution in relation to censorship by others, in case  the truth is a casualty. Memoir writers also have a responsibility to be trustworthy story-tellers. To allow censorship is to damage trust.

Ethics simplified (image from ohmyhandmade.com-)

Ethics simplified
(image from ohmyhandmade.com-)

Accepting censorship might also mean that memoirs about child abuse, domestic violence or harm caused by institutions and governments, for example, would not be written. Justice for victims overrides any discomfort or annoyance that may be experienced by perpetrators of abuse and harm.

To do no harm to those who are vulnerable forms the basis of most codes of ethics. This means writers must not deliberately hurt anyone through what they publish. Many writers, including me, subscribe to the idea that we must try also to do good with our writing.

If we edit our work with compassion, our writing about vulnerable people and everyone else will be ethical. I believe such writing will sing.

Risky business

For the past few years, I’ve been writing my second memoir. It’s about falling in love and marrying in old age.

John was married to my life-long friend Marcia for almost fifty years. Some time after her death, their children invited me to his seventieth birthday. Exactly a year after the birthday celebration, we married.

We didn’t just marry like a good conforming aged couple should, surrounded by our children and grandchildren. On a Monday morning in May, 2007, we eloped. We celebrated our wedding in spectacular fashion with Nuptial Mass, complete with music, flowers and candles, in my parish church – empty except for us and our four witnesses.

Signing the register with Fr Simons

Signing the register with Fr Simons

 

In honour of our wedding day, Father Trevor Simons, my parish priest and the celebrant of our Mass and marriage, wore the gold-fabric vestments he usually reserved for high feast-days . He acted as if John and I were starry-eyed twenty-some-things, embarking on our first marriage.

At the airport that evening, before we flew to Paris at the beginning of our honeymoon in France, we posted a pile of carefully-crafted cards to our families and friends. The cards announced that John and I had married that morning and we would see them again in a couple of months’ time.

Place de Voges, Paris, two days later

Place de Voges, Paris, two days later

Little did we dream of the storm that would erupt in some quarters when those letters arrived.

My new memoir is about our courtship and marriage in the last third of life, and about the aftermath of our decision, complicated by family and the reality that he had experienced a long and happy previous marriage and I had lived alone and celibate for the previous thirty years following a divorce.

Four months ago, after working on my story for some years, I decided, as one does, that it was finished. At any rate, I was finished with it and wanted to move on. I bundled it off to a publisher.

As anyone who has done it will well understand, sending a tender new manuscript out into the world is laden with the terrible twin emotions of fear and hope.

There is fear because of the high possibility of rejection of one’s baby.  Like new parents, writers find it difficult to admit their babies aren’t perfect. Parents quickly discover that the infant for whom they had so longed and hoped has a tendency to leak at both ends, and to sing out of tune, especially at three o’clock in the morning, when the parents might prefer to sleep rather than attend to the needs of the small, demanding person who has taken up residence with them.

Writers also often discover that their manuscript is not perfect; no one loves their baby as much as they do.

On the other hand there is hope because there is also the possibility, however slim, that some discerning reader will love the manuscript so much they will convince a publisher that it is a must-buy, destined for the best-seller lists in the near future.

I sent my manuscript to a publisher I know and trust, who had recently taken up a position with a different publishing company from the one she had worked with previously. She said she liked my writing and the story. But she added,

‘It doesn’t fit with our list. Perhaps you could try…’

The second publisher liked the first 5000 words I sent him well enough to ask to see the complete manuscript. He has had my baby for a couple of months and he let me know me last week that it is still under consideration.

If writing a story is the gestation period, waiting to hear about its fate it is like a long, long labour. Little wonder I am anxious and impatient – an understatement if you listen to my husband.

Meanwhile, I haven’t settled down to write anything new. A writer who is waiting to hear from a publisher would be bad enough. But a writer who is waiting, and at the same time not writing, is decidedly – messy. Writers write. That’s what they do. When they stop, the consequences can be dire. They clean the pantry, bathroom cupboards and the top shelves of the wardrobe in the guest room. They fidget. Moan. Complain. Find fault. Start arguments.

Now it’s definitely time for me to engage with a new writing project. Dusting off old, half-forgotten, unpublished novels won’t do – I’ve tried that. A blog is good – I’ve tried that too – but it isn’t enough. The next project needs to be meaty, research-based and satisfying.

As the author Natasha Lester pointed out in a blog post recently, at 500 words a day it takes just under six months to write a book of 80 000 words. I can probably write 500 words most days if I put my mind to it.

Please stay tuned for the next instalment of my writing journey. You will read it here.

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