Distilling life into story
By Amy Walters
In September Amy attended the 2018 Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library. Richard Fidler, host of Conversations on ABC Radio, gave the lecture and focused on the challenge of distilling a life into a narrative arc.
When I was ten, I started writing my autobiography. Soon afterwards, I gave up because nothing much had happened yet.
But what makes a life is not necessarily what makes a biography. There are the obvious culprits, such as the self-aggrandising political or celebrity memoir that glosses over the pain and suffering the author may have caused to other people. But to make a coherent narrative, every story is ultimately edited. Not everything can make that final cut, so how do you choose what to keep and what to throw on the scrapheap?
It is the craft of biographical narrative that Fidler focused on in his lecture, illuminating the different approaches required by radio and the written word.
First to radio. According to Fidler, it is an intimate medium, but requires more narrative discipline than a book. With a book, the reader is able to go back and forth, clarify earlier details, and reacquaint themselves with the key players in the story. With radio, the listener should only be carried forward. Even though a podcast can be rewound, the listener experience shouldn’t involve the inconvenience of a replay.
So, given that, as Fidler points out, “life is not a curated museum of memory,” how does he prepare to present someone’s life story on his program? Firstly, the producer will conduct a lengthy pre-interview, to help distil the key facts and experiences from the interviewee’s cauldron of memories. It is partly for this reason that the program relies heavily on the publishing circuit, as interviewees who have written a book have already done their “narrative organisation”.
Fidler feels it is important to underline the subjective nature of the story that is being told. To achieve this, he will often ask “what do you remember?” rather than simply “what happened?” It is also about nurturing and protecting the candour of the interviewee, instead of trying to ask complicated questions that demonstrate his own knowledge. Consequently, his favourite questions are, “what happened next?” and “really?” His advice to budding interviewers is to respect the answer given by the interviewee. He laments that by trying to catch someone out—particularly in political interviews—you can see the subject visibly shrink from the candour that they had displayed until that point.
However, not all stories are suited to radio, as Fidler discovered while making a podcast series with Kári Gislason about the Icelandic sagas. As these sagas were originally passed down through an oral tradition, Fidler thought they would be perfectly suited to radio. However, the intricacies and interconnected webs of characters featured in some sagas meant not all translated coherently to a foreign audience through the linear medium of radio.
Because of this, Fidler co-authored the book Sagaland with Gislason. These stories also highlight the complexities of biography. It is difficult to know which of their aspects constitute mythology, and which actually happened. But Fidler says, “If the sagas fall short of modern standards of biographical rigour, they do succeed in illustrating larger truths of what it meant to be alive and walking around that impossible island in the middle ages.” It is the immersion in a historical period, Fidler reminds us, that contributes to our enjoyment of biography as a genre.
What is interesting to think about in light of Fidler’s talk is the way we narrate our own lives. What do we privilege in the stories we tell about ourselves? And what contradictory positions do we take towards this act? After resisting requests for many years, Claire Tomalin, critically acclaimed biographer of Dickens, Pepys and other literary figures, released her autobiography A Life of My Own in late 2017. In his foreword to the Text Classics edition of The Women In Black, Bruce Beresford stated that Australian author, Madeleine St John, had never gotten over the suicide of her mother. The event occurred when she was twelve, and subsequently “created a cast of evil relations who had accepted her father’s re-marriage.” Life experiences rarely emerge free from emotional entanglement, leaving everyone’s story vulnerable to the vicissitudes of memory.
Nadja Spiegelman has an interesting take on memory and narration in her memoir I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This. She recounts a dinner conversation she observed between husband and wife authors Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster. Hustvedt had shared a moment with Sophie, her young daughter, watching a majestic heron while Auster was asleep. Hustvedt revealed that later she had heard her husband re-telling the story, but this time “he had seen the heron … He had held Sophie.”
But to Hustvedt, this did not matter. She emphasised, “The point is, the heron was seen.” In response, Spiegelman remarked, “How blissful to be able to find that kind of peace with the past.”
Fidler is in the privileged position of being able to nudge people towards an understanding of their life experiences. He describes the moment when “a memory suddenly seems to flicker in front of the guest’s eyes like a movie and the guest falls into a kind of reverie.”
Even so, life itself doesn’t fit into a narrative arc, and it keeps going after Fidler’s guests have finished their formal narration. It’s good to remember, as Fidler said in his lecture, “the portrait is not the person, it’s just a portrait.” Humans are, ultimately, messy, complicated, and elusive.
As for my life story? Well at the not-so-ripe age of 28, I’ve accumulated a few interesting experiences that are worth sharing. I’ve been wondering lately whether the personal essay is making a comeback, with noteworthy recent contributions from authors such as Australia’s Fiona Wright and Ireland’s Emilie Pine. I think the personal essay is an underrated form, and would be keen to explore the genre in my own creative writing. But one thing is for sure: any biographical work from me will be in print rather than on the airwaves. I’ll leave that side of things to Richard Fidler.
2018 SEYMOUR BIOGRAPHY LECTURE
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA
28 SEPTEMBER 2018