The dog of fiction and the wolf of memory

by Miriam Zolin

I remember leaving that place, looking over my shoulder and with my ears alert for the sound of the car. I carried a stick, determined that when he caught me I'd get a few blows in before he beat me to a pulp, as he had threatened to do. 'You even think about leaving,' he'd said, 'and I will beat you to a pulp.'

 

THIS IS NOT fiction. Nor is it merely fact. It is, however, the truth. It is one of the moments that defined me as a person and it happened nearly thirty years ago. When I left home at eighteen years of age, I really did carry a big stick and I really was listening for the sound of my father chasing after me in the car. I assumed he would check my bedroom, find me missing and come after me to keep his promise. It was a defining coming-of-age moment of choice; I knew that I would rather die than stay there one day longer.

It took me years (looking back, I'd estimate around ten) to get to the point where my heart rate didn't pick up a little when I remembered this moment. Shadows of it have appeared in drafts of many of my stories. Yet I have also red-inked and deleted it more times than I can remember. Something compels me to write it. Something also compels me to remove it. It's a pivotal memory for me – and for that reason seems private. Yet it's also complex and has raised questions for me all my life, about my relationship with my father, about when it's better to stay and face a situation and when I should run away. You know. The big things. The things that make me who I am. The things that I try to resolve by writing.

The unspoken (until now) question I've been grappling with is this: what will happen to this pivotal memory if I use it or a variation of it in my fiction? Will the 'real' memory be changed by the fictive one? And if the fiction did leak into the memory, would it matter? I know that happens. We rewrite our personal narratives constantly, reinventing who we are in the light of new or better-understood information. A strongly written piece of fiction has the capacity to modify the true memory on which it draws. There's a kind of energy that flows between the fictional version and its source.

I'm writing a novel now that includes a scene not a million miles from this memory of leaving my home at eighteen. More than that, the scene is germane to the story. So I can't delete it. I can't ignore it and stop writing (tried that, didn't work). The need to finish the novel and move on is becoming an insistent nagging imperative. I tried putting the manuscript aside but that only worked for a little while. I submitted it (before it was ready), hoping that someone would take it off my hands. Boomerang! 'It's not ready,' from the publisher who had accepted my first novel's manuscript without hesitation. The other publisher sent me a photocopied rejection. 'Okay,' I remember sighing. 'I get the message.'

So despite the courage I'd discovered in that important moment as an eighteen-year-old, I decided to hide from the manuscript. It took me three years of publishing other people's writing to face my novel-in-draft again.

 

ONE OF THE events that got me halfway back onto the path of this novel took place at Clunes Booktown in 2009. At a panel event, Frank Moorhouse spoke about his idea of a 'mother novel' and a 'father novel'. Implicit in his wry descriptions (he said his 'mother novel' was so far three volumes and still not complete) was an admission that he, like many of us, uses writing to 'work things out'. It struck me then that my first novel was my own 'mother novel'. It's a slim volume. I'd instinctively dedicated it to Mum, and the questions I was trying to answer (via Theney, the novel's main character) were about feeling motherless – something I only discovered after I'd finished writing. In the process of writing the book, I had made peace with my strangely absent mother, who was completely committed to, yet scared of, my father and who told me, in the weeks before she died, that she was scared of me too.

My 'father novel' is this one, where the memory of leaving my father insists on implanting itself; this difficult, heart-breaking, exciting, demanding manuscript. I kill the father off fairly early but he's a presence all the way through the story – just as my own dead father is a presence in my life, I suppose. My father died in 1997 and I remember being surprised when I realised that death did not remove him. In some ways it made him stronger, creating a subjective myth of my own design that could no longer be tested against the frail –and inevitably ageing – flesh and blood of a real, complex human being. He would be seventy-four now and an old man, while I'm in my forties and feeling stronger every year. Instead, I remember him as he was just prior to his death, a week before his sixtieth birthday: a charismatic, driven, powerful man.

So, you can see what I'm up against. A strong, compelling, pivotal memory. Some unresolved issues. A pen, and the urge to use it. A modicum of bravery. A novel I want to finish.

 

RECENTLY I CAME back to the novel, calmly accepting that this is a job I have to do. Luckily, with the passing of time, my perspective has become more realistic. Finishing the manuscript – properly – is like having a pot to wash, a garden bed to dig over. I just have to face it and do it. In the past, I've tried everything to sidestep using this memory, for which a whole novel seems to have become a vehicle. I deleted it, softened it up, shifted it around, gave it to inappropriate characters. Nope. It belongs with a daughter. She has to be scared of her father, and leaving a place she loves. In leaving, she has to grow up a little and discover courage she did not know she had. However I write it, it has to have all the guts of the real memory, in some form. Not word for word, not an exact duplicate, but the essence.

Having figured that much out, I decided to unpack the memory, figure out what it really means, and then use it my way, on my terms. The way things stand, I feel like the memory is telling me what to do, and that doesn't feel like the right way around. I'm the writer here, right? I'm in charge, right?

Right?

I know the unpacking is a kind of therapy but that doesn't scare me. I've been through worse. I start by making a list of what this memory is made of. What it feels like and looks like and smells like:

– blue sky, warm afternoon

– crossing out of the forest and into the open paddocks, away from shadow and into light

– a barbed wire fence dividing a bush block from open paddocks

– a wide metal farm gate in the fence, with a sign saying Keep out, trespassers will be shot

– the sweet and frightened smell of my sweat

– hot eucalyptus in the air, from the forest behind me

– the smell of fine dust raised by my feet from the dry late-summer earth

– Queen's 'We are the champions', which I hum beneath my panting to keep my courage up

– the feel of the stick in my hand, and the digging into my palm from where a twiglet has broken off

– the need to shit, the clammy palms, dry throat

– the way my heart beats almost out of my chest

– sharp shale rocks and reddish soil on the track

– feeling the points of the rocks through the soles of my running shoes

– runners, not my usual Blundstones

The unpacking must go beyond this simple list, however, and answer the question: Why? Why are these items on the list? Why the sharp rocks and the feel of them through the soles of my shoes? Why the broken stick cutting into my palm? Why that Queen song? Why these things above any other things?

 

IF I HAD been someone else, the memory would have been different; I believe that truth is subjective. My brother and I have enough mismatched recollections of our childhood for me to know that memory is reliably selective. Who knows what my father would say happened on that day in February 1982? If he were still alive today he would have been refining his own version for as long as I have.

We protect ourselves from the harshest aspects of the memory of our own sins. My version paints me as being unjustly victimised, while his version would probably portray his threats to me as warranted. His memory may well be harsher in its judgement of my own actions leading up to my escape from home – from my childhood – on what became an enormously important day for me. Or maybe he would have forgotten it entirely, as a day that carried absolutely no weight at all.

But for me, the memory is so strong that at critical times in my life, I dream it. And in my dreams animals carry it, which makes it stronger, somehow.

While I'm unpacking the memory, I dream of a dog and a wolf. The story I'm writing takes the form of a dog that runs close alongside a flimsy barbed wire fence that separates me (and it) from the time and place of its origin. On the other side of the fence, in the dark forest I escaped from, runs the grey wolf of real memory; red-eyed, ferocious, still carrying the whiff of childhood terror. On my side of the fence, where the world is light and open and I am free, my grey dog lopes. This grey dog of wolfish ancestry is friendlier, tame, in my service, though still inclined to run free of its own will. The dog is based on a template of the wolf.

These two are not in conflict. They are two shapes of the same thing, each running on its own side of the barbed wire fence, each eyeing the other as they lope along. The wolf is kept in check as it matches its stride to the dog. The dog is exuberant and fierce and brave, perhaps because it draws something from its wild companion. They are brothers, each alive because of the other.

A memory such as this is full of meaning. There are deep, significant aspects to it and the dream world is a good place to find them. A fence, a forest, a dog and a wolf. They'd all be at home in any writer's reference book of symbols. As I unpack this memory of leaving home, with the fear of death at my shoulder, giving wings to my feet, I gain an insight, suddenly, into what is happening here. I don't know how I missed it before. It shouldn't be a revelation because I've read it in textbooks and learned it in writing classes. Simply put, the writing starts with the first 'dump' of raw material – a very personal process – and from there, I can create something new, something suitable for public consumption arising from a history too raw for me to share.

We accept, don't we, that writing carries a weight, just as the past carries a weight. When you draw on the past to inform your writing, the pen can get awfully heavy in the hand; weighed down by a sense of responsibility to a true history, to the people who were in it with you and to the pieces you carry around with you as points of reference. Is that responsibility real? How far does it extend? My novel-in-progress is not historical fiction, or even creative non-fiction. It is fiction; made-up people in a made-up situation. Yet I'm drawing on what I know; I can't deny that I place my characters in situations I have been in, writing to make sense of things that happened to me. And yes, I recognise bits of the story as being close to stuff that really happened. They are closest in the first draft, when I'm not writing for anybody other than me. Then I tweak, consolidate, amalgamate, concatenate, and split. Other readers become possible only after a few revisions and drafts. The whole process, from initial dump to final draft, becomes a way to make sense of memories that haunt me and always have.

 

I CAN'T HELP writing from memory. I've tried to resist, thinking that tapping into my own experience is kind of a cop-out. The writer girl praised for her imagination when she was in primary school has grown into a writer woman who creates fiction out of memories, feelings, overheard conversations and the flavours of personal experiences. I am not the only one who does this. Many have been criticised for it. W Somerset Maugham is a writer whose work I loved as a young woman – until I discovered that he had drawn so closely on his observations of real people in his life that he destroyed friendships, leaving the debris of real human relationships strewn behind him while he exposed them in his books. I didn't want to do that. But still I write from memory, tempered with respect and as much empathy as I can muster. After the first draft, where anything goes, I ask myself, 'What would it feel like if I were person X and I were reading this?'

Writing what I know can be heavy because it makes me revisit what I know, and how I came to know it. When I'm being honest, I have to reassess my subjectively-refined memories with some rigour. I put characters in positions I've been in and 'see what they do', allowing them to pursue paths I couldn't have seen, or simply did not choose. I'm twenty-nine years older now than the Miriam who left home carrying a stick in February 1982. I'm thirty-one years older than the Isobel who leaves home in the novel. If it were me there now, with what I know, everything would have been different. So I put my character Isobel in a similar position and give her the tools to stuff it up in her own unique ways. She does. Isobel and I find ourselves in similar situations, at a similar age. But honestly, her story is not my story. I draw on what I know, but I push the boundaries. Isobel is not me, her father is not my father, her brother is not my brother, her mother is not my mother and her cat is not the same as mine. What I've done by creating her is breathe life into an alternative 'me' who can help make sense of what happened, and what I did about it.

 

I RECENTLY READ a novel by a writer who has a lyrical turn of phrase and an eye for the details which give a moment texture. Yet her novel left me unsatisfied. The lyrical prose and the attention to detail were not enough. What I wanted, and didn't get, was a story that pushed beyond the safe and the known, into some other way of looking at things. Not fantasy or alternative universes. Just more, somehow. I wanted some deeper truths than her book was able to give me; the truths that are only accessible in the stories where characters are pushed further, further and still further.

I guess in a way I'm a lucky writer because I have real terror to draw on; in this case, an event I would not wish on anyone else can nevertheless help me better articulate a certain kind of fear and the corresponding discovery of a steely determination I hadn't known existed. I can dig into my memories as research, when I'm trying to describe what a similar situation might feel like for my characters. My question is whether it's wrong to use a real memory in this way. And if it isn't wrong, why does it feel a little bit wrong?

But in working through the question here I think I understand a little more. The choice is mine. I write my fiction drawing on the wolf of memory, and maybe the fiction I create helps me live a little easier with the wolf. I feel strongly that writing without courage is not worth my time and effort. So why should I expect it to be easy? I suspect that I just need to write fearlessly; write stories that really draw on what I know, even when I'm frightened. And maybe I must also let go of any sense that my memories define me. I own them. They do not own me. I'm a grownup now. I'm allowed to tame my own wolf.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 34: The Annual Fiction Edition © Copyright Griffith University & the author.