an interview with Patti Miller
Our bookseller, Mischa, met up with prolific Australian memoir writer, Patti Miller to discuss her most recent works and her upcoming memoir writing course in Paris as part of Better Read Literary Tours. The Fountain Café in Kings Cross was the perfect Parisian backdrop for their meeting.
Patti writes about her experiences of writing in Paris for a year in her travel memoir Ransacking Paris, which explores self-knowledge, identity, family and cultures. Her previous memoir, The Mind of a Thief looks at the interconnections between Indigenous and European relationships to the landscape through Patti’s own journey back to her birthplace on Wiradjuri land. Her latest book, Writing True Stories is a complete guide to writing autobiography, memoir, personal essay, biography, travel and creative nonfiction.
What does the genre of ‘life writing’ encompass for you?
I view it as a kind of umbrella term for true stories with a first person narrator. I wouldn’t really include straight non-fiction, like history or politics. Life writing can be simply memoir itself or it can use a first person narrator to explore an idea. For example, in The Mind of a Thief, I explore my relationship to landscape through my experience of returning to Wiradjuri land where I was born. When I wrote Ransacking Paris, I was writing about how you make a self, an idea that goes back at least as far as Montaigne , a 16th century French writer - he is one of writing heroes. So really, life writing can explore an issue of any kind, but always in relation to the narrator – for example, Robert McFarlane, a contemporary British writer, writes about landscape, history, and literature in relation to himself. I’m interested in this construction of self and how the self relates to the world.
Did you formally study life writing yourself or have these ideas all been formed through your own experiences?
I studied writing at university, but not life writing. I developed a passionate interest in memoir through my own experience and reading and desire to explore how a ‘self’ is made. I also clarified a lot of these ideas through teaching. My interests were already ideas based, which was an aspect developed further by university studies. I already had an intellectual approach and so I wanted to develop the senses and feeling in my writing to bring together the three components of life writing - of any writing - that I value: the intellectual, physical, and emotional worlds. I want to be able to do all of this in my writing, to recreate the lived texture of being, to reveal the extraordinariness of being here. I really admire the way Annie Ernaux, another French writer - but contemporary this time - tries to simply recreate the complexity of being in her writing – her writing is an inspiration for me.
Patti also animatedly recounts the time she accidently met Annie Ernaux in a café in Paris after writing about their imaginary meeting in a café in Ransacking Paris!
Do you see a disparity between the ways in which memoir writing is treated as opposed to the ways other genres of writing are treated?
What is considered of literary value changes over time. During the 18th and 19th centuries poetry was valued over the novel, now in the 20th century, the novel is at the top of the hierarchy. Memoir, I have observed, tends to be treated as a lesser genre, although It does seem to be changing now. Many fiction writers are releasing memoirs and reforming the genre. Still, I have heard memoir likened disparagingly to reality TV, which I think is comparing the worst of memoir writing to the worst of Reality TV - it’s dismissing a whole genre based on the lowest form of it. Such a judgement ignores writers like Joan Didion, Helen Garner, and Robert Dessaix all of whom write with clarity and beauty, recreating of real worlds through engaging the reader’s senses and emotions, creating a world that the reader can inhabit - as does fiction.
But I do object to that hierarchy. There should be no kind of battle. That polarising or pitting against each other is pointless. I read both genres, although I admit I currently read more non-fiction than fiction. At the moment I’m obsessed with non-fiction about walking!
If you would like to read more about critiques of the status of memoir writing, Patti recommends the essay A Brief History of Memoir Bashing by Ben Yagoda, which can be found here: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/memoir_week/2007/03/a_brief_history_of_memoirbashing.html
When you’re writing true stories, how are you able to access memories in as much detail as you want to write about them?
Good memoir writing comes from memories not topics, which helps you access your creativity. The way memory works is in layered patterns. Research has shown the structure of memory is actually a lot like a poem – working by association of images and symbols - I find it helps to rely on this poetic association. Writing memories down often helps to trigger more associated memories, and if you follow the thread along you may find you can recall long forgotten experiences. For example, if you wanted to access a memory from childhood, draw a floor plan of your childhood house, then step into it in imagination and see what you bump into. The physicality of drawing allows you to access memory and to follow a thread.
But memory is tricky - I agree with American essayist, David Shields, who said ‘Everything that is a processed by memory is a fiction.’ It starts with observation. Different people notice different things. The thing that you think is reality is actually a construction in each person’s mind. For example, I watched a clip of people dancing and the presenter asked viewers to count how many times they danced into a circle drawn on the stage, but afterwards, instead of answering this question, the presenter said ‘Did you see the giant penguin on the stage?” When he replayed the clip, there was indeed someone dressed up as a giant penguin on the stage, but I was so focused on observing the dancers, I hadn’t even noticed it. My observation, and therefore my memory, was selective.
As you say, there are interesting borderlands between the genre of life writing and fiction - how much do you think a writer can play with the details of a true story before it becomes fiction?
I have a chapter on this in Writing True Stories - about making up dialogue, recreating a scene or altering the chronological order of things to create more of a narrative structure… These are all attributes of fiction. I thought I would never do any of that in my memoir writing and then I realised I had done all of these things without really noticing it. In terms of using the techniques of fiction, you need to consider what your story is about and what its purpose is. Perhaps you can you consolidate 30 nurses who took care of you in the hospital into two to avoid the clutter of so many characters on the page. You need to be ruthlessly honest about your motivation though - are you changing the meaning of the story by doing that? Look at your motives - does it change the emotional truth of the story?
In memoir writing the relationship between the reader and writer is similar to that of a friend. It all comes back to intent – do fictional elements break the trust between reader and writer?
I believe there needs to be a distinction made between memoir and the novel for a number of reasons, in particular the temptation to exploit emotion and prejudice. For example in Forbidden Love by Norma Khouri, I think she exploited readers willingness to believe ill of Moslems in her ‘memoir’ about a friend who was honour-killed in Jordan. It turned out, of course, that none of it was true – she had grown up in Chicago. I actually met her on a panel before the revelation. I felt willing to go along with the story because she was such a charming person, but afterwards I felt ‘conned’. Whatever you’re doing you need to ask what your motivations are. My aim is to try and be as truthful as I can about the reality of my being as I perceive it. It is a hopeless task, but an important one.
What are the origins of the Memoir Writing in Paris course that you are running with Better Read Tours?
I began teaching narrative writing in 1984 at UTS before I had books published. In 1991 I started life writing workshops at Varuna Writers’ Centre that filled immediately. As they say, the rest is history! This year marks the 15th year the Memoir Writing in Paris course. I think I know how to make that time productive for writers because I often take writing sojourns myself. Each person works on their own story, but I also set a particular writing exercise that asks how them to find a new angle or perspective on Paris. To do that, they have to find what it is that connects them to Paris, what distinctive knowledge or insight they bring to a much-inscribed city. The sojourn in Paris is rather intense because the actual workshop is condensed into ten days – or rather, ten mornings, but I find that intensity produces good writing. That aspect of being at home and managing daily life is gone and you’re somewhere far away from all your safety nets. It is challenging - in a thrilling and rewarding way.