Welcome back to Writers in the Attic for 2017! This series was one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of my 2016 blog year, so it’s my absolute pleasure to invite writers into this little space again. I have some wonderful writers and essays lined up—an eclectic mix of people and styles and stories for you to read and savour.
My first guest for 2017 is Christina Houen.
Christina was born with writing and reading in her genes, but it took her almost 60 years to find her voice. The turning point was going back to university, where she did a Masters degree in Creative Arts, and later a PhD in Life Writing. In 2006 she published, with a co-editor, an anthology of contemporary Australian women’s writing: Hidden Desires: Australian Women Writing. She edits academic and literary works through her business, Perfect Words Editing. In 2002, she won the Hall Porter short story prize and has published several memoir pieces and essays/articles. Memoir is her specialty, and her own memoir is an unfolding story.
You can also find Christina at her blog, Memory and You.
What follows is a beautiful piece about Christina’s struggle to get published and her refusal to ‘let this one wither up and die unborn’. She also writes about the ethical issues she’s faced in writing her memoir and how she discovered ‘the power of place’.
The Evolution of a Story
Several years ago, I read a statement by Peter Bishop, the founding Director of Varuna Writers Centre: “Every story has a question behind it, desiring to be answered.” In relation to my memoir, which was going through one of its revisions at that time, I wasn’t clear what he meant, or what the question behind my story was. For me, it had a theme which was multi-faceted, and I saw it in those terms. Now, years later, I understand, and I feel I have answered the question, at least for my childhood memoir.
Every story has a question behind it, desiring to be answered.
I began the journey of writing in earnest back in about 1996, when my eldest daughter asked me to write my story. She told me I was her mentor, I had inspired her on her path as a writer, and she was frustrated that I hadn’t written anything much. So I began writing in a school exercise book. I remember one stormy night, when I had a very sore throat, lying in bed and letting raw emotions loose on the page.
When my son was 19, I went back to uni and started a Master of Creative Arts degree at Curtin University. I graduated in 2002 with an MCA, a dissertation on the bourgeois family, and an autobiographical novel. I naively expected to get it published! Now, 15 years later, I have published several short memoir pieces and articles, but still don’t have a full length work published. I also have a PhD which combines theory and literary interpretation with my own life writing. I have published, with a co-editor, a collection of contemporary Australian women’s writing, short fiction and poems.
After splitting my autobiographical novel in two, a childhood memoir and one of my early adult life, I have revised it many times. I have had a Varuna mentorship, and the childhood memoir was short-listed for the Finch memoir prize in 2012. Still I couldn’t get through that narrow door into the world of mainstream literary publishing. I nearly gave up, and focused on my editing practice, which supports me and enables me to help a lot of people get their work published.
Last year, I decided to have one last try. I didn’t want to e-publish, as I feel it is very easy to get lost in the crowd. So I sent my childhood memoir to a couple of small literary publishers, and had very encouraging feedback. In fact, for about a week, I thought one of them was going to accept it. Until the publisher wrote back and said they had decided it needed too much work, and they couldn’t take it. The critique she offered was constructive, but I rejected it at first, especially irritated by her words, that she didn’t ‘have time to fix it’. When I came out of my black cloud, I decided it is time to find a good literary editor. I refuse to let this one wither up and die unborn. So I have contracted with one, who will review it and edit it at the end of February. And guess what — I have made the changes the publisher suggested! And I think it is much better for it.
The main change was bringing in my mother’s voice, in the first person and often in the present tense. I took a week away from my editing work, went to a little fishing port town on the coast near here, and wrote every day. By the end of the week, I had 20,000 words in my mother’s voice. It was hard, very challenging, as I had little primary material to use. My mother did hand write her memories, when she was in her late 70s/early 80s; but there is not much personal material in them. She was a very private, reserved person, and in fact she wrote a caveat at the beginning: “I think I should ask you not to show, to anyone but our family, parts which contain any implied judgement of older members.” So I am breaking that caveat, doubly, in using some of her stories, and in presuming to enter her internal world and project onto the page what she thought and felt as she lived through those years of my childhood. But I am happy that I have honoured her in doing so, and though my truth cannot be her truth of her life, it is as close as I can get. The advantage of having her voice in my story is that it gives an adult perspective to a child’s world, but more than that, it tells the story of a remarkable woman who survived and triumphed in circumstances that would defeat many.
But more than that, it tells the story of a remarkable woman who survived and triumphed in circumstances that would defeat many.
What was the question my story desired to be answered? It was why she, an intellectual and one of the early women graduates from Sydney University, would choose to marry a grazier and settle down on a small, marginal sheep property, isolated and without power, sometimes without a vehicle, struggle though years of drought and the Depression, and when my father abandoned the farm and his family, why she chose to stay on there, to run the farm mostly on her own, with my help (I was seven when my father left) and intermittent help from my brothers when they came home on holidays. Until my father returned, resumed ownership and forced her to leave, so he could sell the farm to support his second wife and family.
My answer is one I knew in my own bones and memory cells. It was the power of the place, which, for all its harshness and isolation, captivated her. Our spirits are connected, not just by my birth and our shared story, but by the place. It haunts me still, and I understand how she came to embrace it as home. It is home to me as well, a home I have lost and can never return to, except through my writing. And so I write this place, our place, this place we know.
I look forward to publishing This Place You Know at last after a long gestation of 20 years. Never give up, is my first lesson. The second is, find a good literary editor.
If you’d like to take part in Writers in the Attic in 2017, please let me know. 600-1000 words is a good length, and the topic is fairly broad, so long as it touches on writing. For example—your writing life, why you write, the things you love about writing, the things you struggle with, or anything at all to do with writing.
Readers (including myself) seem drawn towards personal stories about things all of us humans struggle with.
The structural edits for my novel arrived from my publisher last Thursday. They’re quite extensive—so extensive, my agent kindly rang to check I was okay and not feeling too overwhelmed. I only have until March 2nd to return them, so I’ve been head down and bum up for the past few days.
This means I won’t be reading, commenting, and posting on social media as often, or replying to emails as quickly, for which I’m sorry. I also apologise because it will take me longer than I planned to finish the blog post I mentioned in my newsletter (about the three things I need before I can begin a first draft).
Please bear with me—it’s only for a few weeks, and at the end of it, I will (hopefully) have a much better book.
Publication date is getting closer, and if you’d like to sign up for my monthly newsletter (I promise I won’t bombard you with emails!) and be the first to hear all my news and events, please click here.
As a thank you, on confirmation I’ll send you a link to my short story, ‘Metaplasia’, which I wrote in 2012 (when only a beginner!) and which was published in the anthology, ‘Jukebox’ (OOTA, 2013).
I’m not generally keen on memoir, but this one interests me because (already!) I want to throttle that father!
Louise, do not worry about life online until those edits are done. I’m sure I speak for all your readers when I say we can – in fact would rather – wait.
Thanks, Lisa. Yes, I want to read Christina’s memoir, too—her writing is exquisite, and the story has captivated me already, too.
As far as the edits go—thank you for your understanding. At the moment, I’m plagued by self-doubt, feeling as if I’ll never get it up to standard. But I’m trying to tamp that down and plod on … x
Dear Louise, thank you so much for giving me this space. I love the way you have presented it.
I’m imagining what a task you have, to complete all those edits. I do hope you are happy with their suggestions, and that the result will make your novel the best it can be.
You do a great service to writers by creating this blog space. And thank you and LIsa for your appreciation in your comments above!
It’s my pleasure to have been able to provide the space for such a beautiful piece of writing, Christina. I’m the one who should be thanking you! 🙂 x
“and though my truth cannot be her truth of her life, it is as close as I can get.” What an inspiring, hope-filled post. Thank you, Christina. And thank you, Louise, for giving us the opportunity to read it. I’m thrilled that Writers in the Attic is back for 2017, and I wish you all the best with your edits, Louise. xx
Thank you, Maureen! I hope my story when published will inspire hope and empathy too!
I loved that line, too, Maureen. It’s exquisite! In fact, there are many exquisite lines in this piece. I’m sure Christina’s memoir will be published.
And thanks for the good wishes for my edits! I need as many as I can get! 🙂 x
It’s lovely to read about your journey here, Christina. And the thought of your memoir finally coming out is very cheering. Yours is such a rich story and you didn’t even mention your painting here. Such a woman of so many talents. And your mother’s story, the cruelty handed out to her under the patriarchal push is really distressing. Her story begs to be told. And I look forward to reading it in full soon enough.
Thank you, Elisabeth. Yes, it was a cruel blow to her, to leave what she had struggled so hard to hold onto for us all. It’s taken my most of my lifetime to fully acknowledge her courage and strength and feel able to put myself in her shoes and imagine what took her to that place and what kept her there. Her story does deserve to be told, though she would have demurred!
Yes, it must have been a daunting decision to make, Christina—knowing you were going against your mother’s wishes, but also wanting to honour her, the truth, and the story. She sounds like one courageous lady! (Plus, daughters are meant to disobey their mothers! 😉 ) x
She was a powerful woman. It took me many years to realise how much she had given me. And yes, I was a sad disappointment to her, but she never abandoned me. So I have come full circle. XX
Can you imagine thinking one of your children is a ‘sad disappointment’? I get cross when I read things like that—it’s so damaging. Some mothers have a lot to answer for. I’m glad you’ve been able to come full circle and see the good, but I’m still heartbroken for you. xx
She never actually told me that, but of course she was heartbroken when I lost my children and I certainly disappointed her ideals of a good woman, wife and mother. It wasn’t her fault, it was her upbringing, and I had to find my own way, and she had to accept that and keep loving me, which she did.
I see. I misunderstood. I’m glad you felt loved by her. 🙂
My goodness Christina, what a story! Boy does that deserve to be told. I’m so glad you’re persevering. Good luck!
Thank you, Lily! I really appreciate your support.
Many people would have gone the self-publishing route already, but I’m like you—I’d rather be traditionally published. I’m glad you’re persevering, too.
What a joy to read this wonderful story of Christina’s in your blog, Louise. I can’t wait to read This Place You Know,
Christina. please invite me to the launch, wherever it is, and I’ll come. I want to be there to welcome your beautiful creation of into the world after such a long and often painful gestation.
Your quote from Peter Bishop, ‘Every story has a question behind it, desiring to be answered,’ and your questioning of your story are amazing Having been privileged to read early drafts of your memoir, I can see that your answer to the question is, in retrospect, blindingly obvious. I have put that quote on my noticeboard. And may even emblazon it on the wall.
Thank you both again. Have fun with the edits, Louise!
Dear Maureen, thank you so much for these lovely responses. Of course I will invite you! You were one of my early mentors. Yes, you are right, the answer is blindingly obvious; interesting it has taken me so long to realise it! I now have to find the question behind the story of my early adult life, but I think I already know what it is; as for the answer, that is more complicated!
What happened the Crone who embodied the power of place in your earlier drafts?
I don’t know that I’d call these edits ‘fun’, Maureen, but I will have a sense of great satisfaction when they’re done!
And I like thinking of our life stories in terms of questions and answers—it will give me a lot of food for thought! 🙂
Maureen, the Crone’s place is in my adult memoir. She reconnects me with that place when I am lost and my life is in pieces. She is the guardian spirit of the place, if you like, and a metaphor for the healer/writer, who calls the place back into being, restores cover to the eroded earth, and restores hope to the one who has lost her place and herself. I had to grow up to find her and reconnect with the place.
She is powerful, beautiful, determined. She’ s a character from literature who has influenced my life and ageing.
Thank you so much for sharing Christina. I am looking forward to seeing more of you via your blog. I too will be there to support you when you are published xxxx
There you go, Christina, you’ve got two people for your launch already! Actually, make that three! 🙂
Thank you, Raehilhorst! I love these connections. Louise’s Writer’s Attic is a place of love and sharing, in virtual space. I feel at home here.
That’s nice to hear! 🙂
I am deeply moved to think of my grandmother’s story finally being told – not just the surface details – but the deeply personal story. I remember Nana as almost regal in her ‘proper’ way of speaking and behaving. And yet, beneath the conventional mask, such kindness, wisdom and strength. I always felt loved and cherished when I was with her; and I stand in awe of the challenges she faced and overcame and ultimately transcended. I will also be at your launch, Mum, and look forward to reading the published book. I know it will happen.
Thank you, Nicola-jane. I think I have done her justice. I know it will happen too!
Hi Nicola! How enriching it must be to have such a library of personal stories from your grandmother and mother. And now you and your sister are adding to them. I hope we get to see many of them in print! x