In ‘Jesus in a Tree’, Diana Powell describes transplanting details from her own life into her fiction. The inclusion of known life – her own – into unknown life – her fictional world – satisfies a need for personal connection: ‘this is me’, even though none of her readers may be aware that it is. Does it matter that the source of the image is her particular perception? Isn’t what matters the sheer evocative power of an image like ‘Jesus in a tree’? Isn’t that part of a writer’s gift, the ability to illuminate a perception through words: what, to adapt Alexander Pope, may have been apprehended but never so evocatively expressed? To acknowledge and find significance in the ephemera of our being? We perceive the world uniquely, yet that ability to perceive is also part of our shared humanity. No matter whether we write about what we know in a literal sense or not, we write about what we perceive, we write about how we imagine life has been, is, or might be.
Talcum powder puffs up from my baby brother’s bare bottom. He is lying across my mother’s lap in the bathroom at the Hill. She smiles at me: ‘What are we going to call him?’
I am only three years old, yet that sudden luminous sense of the power of words, hovering like the floating motes of talc, is with me still. Absurd, of course: I had no power, certainly not in any naming; my mother wouldn’t even have remembered what she said. But that’s where the writing starts.
Years later, I’m congratulating a student on his prize winning story. He grins and shrugs and asks
‘What’s with this writing thing anyhow, Miss? Like, I mean, why?’
What to say? Where to even start? My turn to shrug: ‘It’s an itch you’ve got to scratch, that’s all.’ An itch you’ve got to scratch: the personal sensation has an immediacy which philosophy can only dream of.
My own teachers were very different. Miss L mounted the dais when she talked about POETRY. She clasped her hands, gazed out the window… and snorted. Phlegmily.
Mrs. C’s academic gown was always off one shoulder, and she scrawled rather than printed on the blackboard; but she also scrawled in my margins.
What scored a high mark from one did not from the other. I wrote accordingly. The personal became pragmatic.
It took me a long time to admit that I ‘wrote’. The creed of grammar schools then was that you could never presume to be in the same league as Austen, Bronte, Eliot, Lessing… never mind the poets. Yours not to emulate, yours to appreciate. In the boarding house, I wrote compositions and kept my parents up to date every Letter Writing Sunday. The personal was too petty.
At school, essays were to show one’s appreciation of literature; at university, they were to expand it. My reading was changing my thinking; my writing was trying to understand how… and why.
In final year, there were no lectures or tutorials on James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. I decided I would ‘do’ it anyway. I made up an elaborate thesis about coalescence and consummation, which I’ve long since forgotten; what I do remember is my glee when the exam results came out. The personal had done it.
Ireland to Sydney: context pulled from under my feet. Aerogrammes: flimsy blue butterflies flitting from one hemisphere to the other. Newsletter for Darlinghurst Resident Action Group (DRAG). Lesson plans, teaching: ‘Are the stories true, you wonder, as you picture circling leers round the plump staccato rears’… My first story is published.
My partner and I decentralize: context sideswiped again. A regional theatre group sets up; I write a play about sexism and pyramid selling. The actors come for dinner in character. I hesitate about putting tomato sauce on the table; one character would take it with everything. I don’t. I serve up dinner. He asks for tomato sauce. I am over the moon.
The play is performed to applause. But I’m not in a city, there’s my partner and babies and the casual teaching list. I go to a ‘writing’ workshop. The others lean forward, notebooks quivering. By the time it’s my turn, I’ve decided nobody is really interested in any words but their own and I don’t care what they might think of mine anyway. The personal is on my own. Writing.
There is a new genre: Young Adult fiction. What voice do I know? The kids.
Like Atticus Finch, I start walking around inside somebody else’s skin. The personal is empathetic.
So it goes; so I juggle. My YA fiction is published… until my publisher is taken over by a bigger company and they change their list. Extension English, full time teaching, my own children finishing school; I don’t have time or energy. And how long can you continue writing YA fiction when you are now essentially a HA? (Historical Adult) I keep writing stories, like a spider, spinning webs out of myself, taking time to make time… Rejections feel personal. But so do successes.
Enough juggling. Time is running out. I sign up for a PhD in creative writing. The creative part becomes my first Historical Fiction. I imagine myself into a world I can’t possibly know except through research and discovery and personal whatiffering; like music, I’m transposing into another key. The key turns and it’s published. But that never means the next one will be. And there are all these new writers and new ways of writing for me to read and admire and… keep scratching that itch…
You can read Diana Powell’s essay ‘Jesus in the Tree’ here