Broadside 2019 – Helen Garner

What a day! The inaugural Broadside Festival opened with Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein.

It was the first time I’d heard Helen speak (despite trying to get to her rare speaking engagements in the past). My immediate impression was that she was much warmer and funnier than I had expected (I guess my expectations were unthinkingly based on her subject matter and her spare, pared-back prose).

The conversation began with talking about publishing a diary, something that by nature is intended to be private. On rereading her diaries, Helen said, “There was a lot of boring stuff in there, which naturally I found fascinating. To sort out what others would find interesting about you is actually quite a challenging process.”

She spoke of the practice of keeping a diary (she writes daily) – “Writing a diary is a technical practice. I’m always interested in writing proper sentences.” She later reflected that maybe the need to record her day was because “…writers are frightened of losing things.”

There were challenges in deciding to what to include in Yellow Notebook Diaries Volume 1 – she cut a lot and didn’t rewrite anything, although realised that one of the problems with publishing a diary as opposed to a memoir is that there is no opportunity for a voice-over (memoir allows some narration, some reflection, some justification for behaviour). Ultimately, she came to the “…realisation that I’m not unique. We all hurt and go around hurting each other.”

She spoke at length on the discipline of writing, rejecting the idea that inspiration would “…sweep over you and a manuscript would pour out.”

“I threw out the idea of inspiration years ago. I just collect what’s interesting.”

Regarding the discipline and technical aspect of writing, she lamented the loss of teaching grammar in the classroom – “If you don’t understand grammar, it’s very difficult to criticise your own work. You don’t have the tools to know that fourteen adverbs in a sentence is shit.”

There was more – on her introduction to feminism in the 1970s she said, “It was like I’d been underwater and I finally put my head up and took a breath.”

On the solitude found in writing – “I think writers are lonely anxious people. Yes we can put on the act of being sociable but really we’re dying to get away and write down what you just said.”

Sarah, reflecting that Helen is such a ‘talented observer’, asked how she gathers her information. In my favourite part of the whole hour, Helen replied –

“The great thing about getting older is you can strike up conversations with strangers. Strangers tell me things on trams. I just love public transport for that reason. I’m shameless now… actually, they’re not conversations because I just listen. It reminds me how rare it is to be listened to.”

The Wheeler Centre had artist Sarah Firth drawing the Broadside sessions in real-time. These are the things that make me love the internet, social media and its immediacy. The result of the Helen Garner session is wonderful and accurate.

Sue of Whispering Gums was also at the event – find her excellent (and far more detailed than mine) summary here.

15 responses

  1. I’d read that Garner was publishing her diaries (after throwing out some early ones – perhaps even she has limits to what she’ll say about others) and I think they’ll be a must read. Lucky you to see her speak. I took some older rellos from the bush on a tram once, to Princes Park to see one of Leigh Matthews’ last games, and had to hide my head as they chatted to all the other passengers, told them who they were, and how pleased they were that Bill – pointing – was taking them to the footy.

    • I must be getting old because I frequently chat to people on the tram!

      I have tried so many times to see Garner (obviously I’m not catching the right tram!) but something always got in the way. As I mentioned, she was quite different to what I expected but so open and thoughtful, which I noted because sometimes the ‘in conversation’ format can seem so rehearsed (eg. love hearing Jeanette Winterson speak but she is so slick it feels as if she has been asked the same question a hundred times).

    • I think with The First Stone, which might be particularly interesting given #MeToo has happened since its publication in the nineties. I guess it is important to read it through a nineties lens it caused a stir when it was published. It also caused a stir amongst people I knew, simply because the incident she writes about occurred when I was at Melbourne Uni.

      • I really need a reread of Monkey Grip (I had a Garner binge after First Stone so it’s been a long time – I wonder if my opinions have changed with age?).

      • Yes, I’m with Bill. I’m not sure I’d start recommend The first stone to someone not a Garner fan because of its controversial nature. I think in her case it probably would be good to start with her first novel. Or, a book of her essays if you wanted to go non-fiction.

  2. I’d not heard of Garner, but what she has to say about diary writing and publishing reminded me of American writer May Sarton, who heavily edited her own diaries to produce several wonderful published works called journals. And I was amused by her remark that getting older allows her to strike up conversations with people she doesn’t know. It’s true!

  3. Thanks for the link Kate. I meant to link yours too. I ended up cutting out the bit about talking to the old women in mine because you covered it, and then forgot to link it in my rush to finally post it!

  4. Pingback: Helen Garner in conversation with Sarah Krasnostein | Whispering Gums

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