My Philosophy on Life Writing

In Wijingarra bard bard, a remote area of The Kimberley in Western Australia, I sit around a bush ‘art gallery’, gazing up at cave paintings of the Wandjinas, the monsoon spirit or beings in the clouds that created everything in Lai Lai, Dreamtime - the animals, the laws of the land and the people. The Worrorra people are passing on stories of their deified ancestors. I watch the faces of the western tourists absorb the cultural nuances of the tales – how men dream about the spirits of their unborn children after eating turtles or crocodiles from the waterholes, and the women are then impregnated with that spirit; how women are forbidden to mix with others when their husbands die, aside from immediate family, until three rains have passed. Sitting under the impenetrable gaze from the Wandjinas who have eyes that resemble the eye of the cyclone, it is easy to see why the crowd is captivated.


Like the Worrorra people, people have been telling stories of their lives for tens of thousands of years before Adam was a boy –and Eve was a girl. One of the first recognized autobiographical works in the written form was from St Augustine in the late fourth century BC. In the 15th century, Margery Kempe gave us insight into being a middle class woman in the Middle Ages. There are many examples of famous people writing about their lives such as Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler and Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Until cyberspace publishers warned aspiring writers on submission guidelines not to submit ‘family history’. Memoirs or autobiographies remained the terrain of the famous. Not any more. Genealogy or family history research is reportedly the second most popular use of the internet with many people putting pen to paper to reclaim their past. Publishers are actively courting what they perceive as the lucrative market of the memoir of the ordinary person and there is plenty of material. The internet’s plurality of voices clamouring to be heard range from tweets of 140 characters to self-published ebookers and blogsters. Tweets allow for the minutiae of life to be recorded with a band of followers waiting for every heartbeat in the day-in-the-life of their favourite followee. Our ready access to a publishing platform with a global audience has fanned this introspection and preoccupation with our identities. As a cadet journalist in the ‘80s for The Sydney Morning Herald, we were continually admonished: ‘No first person. No one cares what you think.’ Today, a journalist’s success is measured on how many people respond to their blogs. Autobiographies often follow and journalists are celebrities in their own right. To think that only ten years ago, I had to define the word ‘blog’ during a conference presentation as nobody knew what it was.


When I reported pre cyberspace in the mid 90s, the publishers’ slush pile was around 1000 manuscripts a week for each publishing house. If you did not have the right connections, or shared your royalties with a literary agent, your chances of being published were slim.

Today, life writers can access a publishing platform often without the middle person, the literary agent. Their work, so the hype goes, can be picked up from cyberspace and they are ‘stories from ordinary people’ which often grew out of a blog such as Torre de Roche’s memoir, Love With a Chance of Drowning. Other recent publishing successes in the genre include Clint Gregan (‘Reservoir Dad’) who blogs about his life as a stay at home Dad and who was recently picked up by Random House and Lisa Venables who wrote A Day at a Time to be published by Pan MacMillan next year.


Life writing, which includes autobiography, memoirs, letters, diaries, journals, anthropological data, oral testimony, and eyewitness accounts must be based on the real, or, as closely resembling the real as the writer can muster. Memory, we all know, is always a ‘reconstruction of the past’ using fictional and poetic techniques such as description, scene setting and recreating dialogues that the author could not possibly remember verbatim. There is inevitably a suspension of disbelief, then, from the reader that these life stories are a continually documented account of the past. How can the writer be sure that recollections are accurate? I once interviewed a creative nonfiction writer who had written about an event at a family dinner. Later, checking with those who attended the dinner, not one person could recall what he had remembered.


Are we then creating someone who didn’t really exist? Cecily Hunt, an academic writes, that ‘an autobiographical self’ arises as memories accumulate but does that self resemble the real person or the person we perceive us to be? Carl Jung suggests that self-image is constructed in three ways: how the individual sees himself/herself; how others see you and thirdly, your own perception of how others see you. How much do we resolve these conflicting ways of seeing ourselves? Apart from our conscious mind, we all have what Jung calls ‘ a personal unconscious’ with repressed or forgotten memories and a collective unconscious shaped by our cultural backgrounds. Jung suggests that we experience the unconscious through symbols we encounter in life – in dreams, art and religion and the symbolic dramas we enact in our relationships and life pursuits. Allowing these unconscious elements to surface means we can integrate them into consciousness so becoming our ‘true selves’. In Life Writing workshops, I work with spontaneous exercises and sensory recollections to provoke memory. Marcel Proust is our most famous literary scribewho relied upon the sense of smell - the olefactory - to evoke memory. In Remembrance of Things Past, he writes of the smell of the varnish from the hated staircase that he reluctantly climbed each evening to go to bed which meant leaving his mother. He used taste for the same purpose: a tea-soaked madeleine biscuit to transport him to his childhood. Spontaneity is vital in these writing exercises counteracting the blank page when our thoughts are often wrought with self-censorship. Where do we begin? What will we write about? How do we construct that sentence? Sensory recollections are often embedded in childhood experiences or our distant pasts so it is not surprising that this spontaneous writing is often vivid and compelling. Life writing can be a therapeutic experience and result in a shift in personal thinking and a greater understanding of self.


Retelling stories and capturing significant episodes from our past encourages us to confront memories we may never have shared even with those closest to us. Teaching Life Writing, I continually hear my students marvel at their created words with the same incredulity of a new mother when first looking at her newborn. ‘I never planned to write about this,’ is often the remark. Jung writes about the ‘attainment of self through individuation’. In layman’s speak this is the process by which we identify how we are different. The writing process aids that process. My students have written about everything from bringing up a daughter in a lesbian relationship to confronting blindness in their thirties to giving birth to a stillborn child.

Philip Lejeune states that in life writing, the writer is making a pact with the reader that the writer is telling the truth of his experience as far as possible. Truth and honesty are one of the most vital tools for the life writer. Without truth there is a falsity to the telling. One of my students manufactured a character in his memoir. It was his first girlfriend – let’s call her Julia – who he claimed had fallen off a tree while swinging on a rope over a billabong while he and several others watched her fall.  She died in his arms with ‘clovers in her hair’. Further probing based on his apparent indifference to Julia’s fate later in the story led me to question this character, given that the rest of the story resonated as heartfelt. Julia, he admitted, was an invention based on another real character from his past who had suffered the same fate. He replaced Julia with the real character and that jarring falsehood disappeared.

Most of my experience of writing others’ lives has been working with people who have experienced great trauma, such as Walter Mikac whose wife and two daughters were killed in the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 and Bruce and Denise Morcombe (the book I am currently writing) whose son Daniel disappeared in December 2003. They are ordinary people first and foremost who have experienced extraordinary events. Nevertheless, I strive in retelling their accounts to be truthful. There is tendency is to put people who have confronted tragedy on a pedestal incapable of human foibles, but they are human after all. The pact with the reader remains – that this is a true story.

Recording life’s experiences through journaling is a productive way of reflecting on your life. Journaling may be a little more random than, for example, keeping a diary which implies regular entries of events. Making notes of an experience immediately afterwards will help evoke it on the page. In this digital age, we have voice recorders on our mobile phones for immediate recall. In the process of writing the book on Daniel Morcombe I have used the phone to record my own thoughts on the writing process, knowing, as I progressed with the story, that I would not be able to recapture the essence of the first time, for example, I drove down Steve Irwin Way and tried to imagine the terror Daniel must have felt when he was abducted.

A dream log can further capture the subconscious using a notebook next to the bed, or a digital recorder, before it fades from memory. All of these methods of recording your thoughts, from keeping a diary to jotting down coincidences you might encounter - another key factor for Jung in communicating with your unconscious - helps the writer to trust their inner voice which can only strengthen the writer’s potential to write.