An exegesis concerning the novel
Section 2 - The Process
History - fiction and myth
I had written a crime novel and thought I knew something about the prose process. This perhaps was my first mistake.
I knew, for whatever reason, that I wanted to write a 'non-genre' novel, a 'woman's' novel, a 'straight' novel. I didn't have the words to describe it. And worse, I knew I didn't know what such a thing was. Wanting to write what I had never written before I felt lost and confused. I mistakenly searched for boundaries and formats, so that before I began the first draft, I would know exactly what it was I was going to write. This was another mistake.
I was not so much interested in the interface between the writer and the reader, but naively, more in the essence, the very nature of what a novel was. My questions were not framed in what a novel could be but rather in terms of what constituted a novel, what it already was. I believed such a description existed, and as if it was a rare and beautiful butterfly, it became my task to find it.
In my search to discover exactly what a novel was I joined the debate at the point of collision between myth, history and fiction. Berthoff worked this territory noting the relationship between modern fiction and historical narrative (Berthoff, 1970). He claimed that while much of history obscures its author under a veil of fact or truth, fiction promotes its author flaunting the veil of contrivance. Berthoff elevated the author of fiction and the role of contrivance over the historian, and for that matter the storyteller. For Berthoff the storyteller was the keeper of myths.
He also claimed that myth differs from fiction and history because it is not composed but told and re-told until its origins are obscure. Berthoff saw the act of re-telling as a passive one where the storyteller is slave to the myth. I could not agree with him. Surely the act of retelling, the stressing of one point, the reorganisation of material, the cadences and tension of the storyteller are no less a contrivance than those displayed by the novelist.
While I had problems with his notion of myth, Berthoff's metaphor, 'history trapped into competition with fiction', excited me. Much of Fragments of a Map can be viewed as an exploration of this tension between fiction and history. This aspect of the novel is explored in Section 3.
But there was still the issue of myth. How, if at all, does it relate to this struggle?
Berthoff held a Levi-Straussean view of myth which saw them as functioning as social classificatory schemes, not so much for explanation but rather for 'recovery, preservation, organization, continuance' (Berthoff, 1970: 281). But I had just read Estes' Women Who Run With The Wolves, a text where story after story was retold in order to offer explanation (Estes 1991). So dominant was this intent that Estes spent considerably longer on the explanation than she did on re-telling the stories. Clearly if we are to view the stories as myths, and she certainly did, then for her explanation and commentary became the role of myth (note 6).
Further, I could not bundle myth into the same home team as fiction. I knew, for example, that while on my better days I could claim to write fiction, I could not claim to write myth. Myth was somehow sacred, older, and almost religious. It, like the Ten Commandments, had the air of being handed-down, a precious heirloom. It came in the form of catechisms or chants or shared and known stories. I did not write this stuff, I couldn't, I wasn't initiated.
And I could not couple myth with history either. History's contrivances and obligations had other perimeters.
I moved my reading towards Joseph Campbell and since I was interested in the classical references employed by Greyer-Ryan, Cixous and others, I turned to Bolen's work on the classical Greek gods, the myths and their relationships to us as archetypes (Campbell, 1949; 1973; 1988; Greyer-Ryan, 1991; Cixous, 1991; Bolen, 1989).
I found this reading of myth more comfortable. It allowed me to see myth as the story of the game played out between history and fiction. To explain: imagine a game of cricket where the opposing sides are history and fiction. Myth provides the ashes, myth is the Long Room in the M.C.G., myth is the preservation of the old score board. Myth then became the explanation, the backdrop, the basis on which my entire novel could be built. It was for me the essence of explanation, of what was behind the novel and what underpinned it.
Here I am being careful to speak of the novel and not of the narrative or of the themes, of the style or the genre, the plot or the characters. I want to address the whole work, the novel itself, for wholeness seems important here. Myth sat underpinning it all, not the individual parts, but the thing as a complete unit. And it did so shyly, almost without being noticed. The novelist does not need to say, "Here I am including a myth", for the process to function, for the myth to be there deep in the tangle of words, deep in the shadows of the text.
Viewing myth in this way allowed me to see the novel as more than the sum of its parts. Some caution is needed here for the simplicity of this sentence in no way indicates the magnitude of the recognition. It was a little like finally having words to put to the mystery of the Trinity.
There was something further here. I knew I wanted to write a novel that dealt with the silencing of women. I knew I wanted to tell two women's stories, and I knew that I wanted their stories to be both unique and general. I wanted the stories to be open enough for other women to relate to, and identify with. I wanted women to be able to find part of their own story in the novel.
Myth gave me a way of addressing this problem. For me, myth became the vehicle that took a particular story and drove it to the universal, letting it slide effortlessly in and out of the particular. It was the relationship between myth and fiction that allowed the novel to move from the individual to the general. It was the underpinning of myth that carried one story about one woman into one story about many women.
What I had found in this reading was not so much a framework or a structure for the novel but rather a playing field where the game could be contested. Exactly what kind of game I still needed to discover.
A chronicle or a quest?
The next part of my journey was the internal debate on the novel's role as a chronicle or a quest. Should I document these women's journeys, recording the steps and places and events that transpired, or should I set them off on a quest, giving them a task to perform, a riddle to solve?
Like a muse she had imposed herself on the text. I simply wasn't brave enough to ask her to leave.
At this time I had begun to write fragments, odd snippets that didn't connect to each other. My drawer filled with them. There were times when I felt like an archaeologist trying to piece together shards of a smashed pot. Similarly my reading was becoming erratic. Tuesday was the day new books were displayed in the library. I didn't miss a Tuesday. I'd sort through the piles of books from a range of disciplines and taking them out, I'd read snippets, chapters, paragraphs, anything that caught my eye. The lack of order was worrying me and the fragments concerned me greatly.
Foolishly, I applied for a writing grant from the South Australian Department of Arts and Cultural Heritage, offering as support material a few of the fragments. The grant was successful, which ironically made matters worse. It was now official, I was writing a novel. Occasionally when I had to give a public reading I'd read one or two of the fragments and avoided any conversations about the progress of the book.
Grace Nicholls, the English novelist, came to town and gave master classes. I showed her my fragments. I told her about the Crone who'd invaded my computer screen. She wasn't fussed by either the fragments or the Crone and talked of tarot cards. She reminded me that the cards are complete and tell their own story, but when they are put in this or that way they tell another, or a different story - they can be read. She moved my fragments around like cards.
I liked her metaphor and went out and found a very beautiful women's tarot deck, the Shining Woman's Tarot Guide and Cards (Pollack, 1992). I spent some time looking at the cards, moving my eyes from my writing fragments to the cards and back again. I'm not sure how I think about the tarot but I like the symbols of this pack. There were cards called 'Knower of Stones', 'Speaker of Rivers', 'Place of Birds'. I began to move the fragments around juxtaposing them in different ways.
I noticed two things about the fragments. Firstly I was exploring a voice I had developed and used in the radio dramas I had written, particularly Anthony, a play for three women and A Woman in the Key of A Minor (Brady, 1979, 1983). This surprised me because I had abandoned that voice when I began writing crime novels. It was a delicate fragile voice that at the same time was not frail. There was the trace of the survivor hidden in it somewhere. An example is the fragment On seeing an almond tree blossoming, after a class on metaphor. I had recently been to the 1994 Third International Women Playwrights Conference and had been impressed by how women working in other cultures seem to play much more easily with metaphor. I like their play and their bright colours.
Such pieces were embarrassing and yet there was something I wanted to keep working with, the metaphor perhaps, the delicateness? But I had a lot of work to do; I was still too shy. I needed to engage with the fragile blossom and at the same time show the tiny worm making a nest in the nectar.
The second thing I noticed about the fragments was an exploration and experimentation with balance: the foregrounding or backgounding of perception. This became a major concern in the novel. I was constantly asking myself what in the women's lives will I focus on, what should I leave behind, what needs to slip almost out of sight? I discovered in this following fragment, as elsewhere, the oddity of foregrounding the wrong event. I liked its quirkiness.
As I have mentioned, the problem of foregrounding and backgrounding material remained a dominant issue. I have spoken in Section 1 about the importance of these decisions when writing the domestic violence sequence. Other sections of the novel equally owe much to these early experiments. In hindsight, what is fascinating for me is to see just how much of these early fragments did make its way into the final draft of the novel. There isn't a scene about a ladder or a bookshop, but the two women relate as Crete and Meridian relate. Further, in Chapter 15 there is an important sequence on cartography which was developed from the above fragment and formed the essence of the tenth mandala, The Centre.
And the resolution as to whether my novel is a chronicle or a quest? Like the tarot cards, it is both. We lay the cards out in patterns, they speak of our journey, of the choices we can make, the obstacles and delays we will encounter. They also speak of the challenges we face, of the problems we need to solve, of our goal, our private quest. I shuffled the pack and laid the cards down. I wrote a novel that was a chronicle of a quest and a quest for a chronicle.
The first draft
Probably because it was New Year and because I couldn't think of any further reasons for delay, on the fourth of January 1994 I went to my desk and began to write. I didn't at that stage have a plot. I had a theme, a handful of character-archetypes, a notion of myth, the idea of the collision between history and fiction, a playfulness with perception and a crone who wouldn't go away.
I expected to throw away at least the first week's work as I struggled to find both my characters and their story, but to my enormous surprise by the second day I had discovered the character's names, and within the week, their story.
I will deal with the discovery of the Vinland Map story in Section 3. It will be enough here to recall my first introduction to the map. Knowing that Meridian was an historical cartographer I went to the library to see if I could find out something about her work. I expected such details to remain peripheral to the narrative. The original Yale University publication on the Vinland Map literally fell out of the shelves onto my foot. It was a large and weighty tome so I couldn't ignore it! I sat on the library floor, nursed my aching foot, and opened a book that contained the essence of my plot.
My characters, Crete and Meridian began to fill my life. I spoke to them over breakfast, in the shower, as I drove to my office, while I was doing my shopping. I spoke to others about them. They were becoming real to me.
I worked every day pushing out the first draft. I met characters along the way and I still am surprised at finding Francisco. When I initially wrote him into the narrative I had no idea that Meridian would have an affair with the man. I'm not at all sure where that came from. Like the Crone, it just happened one day. I became very fond of Francisco although he was often difficult and tiring to be with for any length of time. I can still recall the day I wrote his death.
Coming to my university office that morning I knew I had to write his death and I felt sadness, like rain, all over my body. I wrote the scene and then roamed about the summer-break-campus looking for someone I could sit and talk to. I wanted to cry. I wanted to mourn his death, but how could I say I'm upset my character's just died, to someone who hardly knew me?
During this period of the first draft I wasn't safe to be near. I was living in my own private world populated with people nobody else had met. My friend, the novelist Caroline Macdonald, took it on herself to look after me. I still recall the evening I absent-mindedly stepped out in front of oncoming traffic in one of Adelaide's busiest streets. There was a screech of brakes and I stood on the road frozen, surprised at the presence of the car. "Come on." She grabbed my arm and pulled me off the road. "I need a brandy after that one!"
It was a period when I suspended disbelief. Perhaps it is like being in a theatre as the lights go down and you settle back in your chair and wait to begin a time of 'let's pretend'. For me, writing the first draft is like a very long game of 'let's pretend'. The removal of disbelief lasts for as long as the draft takes to write. In my case, well over a month. Odd things can happen when you suspend disbelief for that long.
Annie Dillard writes of the need to suspend disbelief.
Friends, children, lovers and pets can become very agitated during this
time. But as a writer I don't think I can claim special privilege. This
time of distraction is akin, I suggest, to a student completing a thesis,
to a businesswoman thinking through a restructuring of her business or
to a teacher planning how she will teach reading this year. We all have
times in our employment where we need to retreat from the daily responsibilities
and immerse ourselves in the finer details of the task ahead of us. Writing
a first draft, for me, is one of those times. Thus, while I admit that
at such a time I am distracted and do not function safely in the real
world, I do not think this constitutes a plea that the creative act accompanies
temperamental or indulgent behaviour.
The problem of duality
Possibly because of my process, the first draft was very rough. There were passages where the characters were well worked and other times when I rushed at the narrative or the setting, leaving the characters as sketches. I knew there was a lot of re-writing ahead of me.
While there was a plot of sorts, a quest to discover the truth about the Vinland map, the novel's structure was fundamentally not driven by it. Other concerns over and above the plot needed to operate on any solutions I might find to structural questions.
Generating from my reading of Irigaray (1981) I was interested in writing a feminist novel where the notion of 'not oneness' was maintained. I wanted to avoid the phallocentric single. Specifically, I wanted to avoid using a single protagonist and instead set up a duality where the two characters Crete and Meridian had equal weight and gained equal attention from the narrator, and thus the reader.
I was aware that I could have told the same story through two different sets of eyes in some kind of sequence. But I wanted the duality to be more than this. I wanted it to be embedded in the structure.
I spent a lot of time and energy on this but eventually had to accept defeat and revert to a single protagonist, Meridian. The problem occurred at each test reading. The convention that the narration, in a third person novel, views the world through a single character was too strong to overcome. Unconsciously my readers searched for the protagonist and struggled discontentedly with what was becoming a conflict between the two women. The two women jostled for dominance, not only in the text but also in my dreams. I was having nightmares over this issue.
My characters became demanding. Crete got stroppy when I tried to write about her via Meridian's eyes and thoughts. She claimed that she was a senior scholar to Meridian and did not want her work interpreted by someone significantly junior to her. I thought her a bit of a prat at this stage. Meridian on the other hand couldn't really cope with Crete's scattiness, the continual saga of love affairs, and her belief in the esoteric. Meridian was a much more serious sort of woman and didn't want to be viewed through Crete's lens.
The women were arguing with me and with each other. This was complicated by another associated problem - there were several minor characters that I was becoming tired of.
I took control of the situation by re-claiming authorship. I wrote my characters a long letter, telling some why they could immediately leave my book and others, such as the two women, to settle down and trust me. The letter heralded the end of the 'let's pretend' space and I reclaimed the novel as my work. It also helped me to foreground the thematic concerns of the novel and to avoid being lost in any one character's problems.
In the culling of the characters I removed the Crone and greatly reduced Gabbett's role. Both of these two characters were, in later drafts, retrieved. The Crone as she provided the depth of the myth and haunted the background of the novel, and Gabbett because his presence saturated Crete with doubt, something I thought she sorely needed. He also became useful in other ways, chiefly to lead us to Francisco, but also to illustrate Meridian's concern for Crete.
I re-drafted the text letting Meridian carry the narrative and, in all but the small section in Chapter 6, Crete whose fears, dreams and hopes, are always seen through Meridian's gaze. Giving Crete that one scene of her own, where she accepts that she will live with Gabbett, highlighted her vulnerability. She took him to her cloisters, which was, as we discover later, the very thing that had been violated by domestic violence. Juxtaposing this scene against Meridian's intimacy with the manuscripts and libraries allowed the reader to reflect on the different notions the two women carried of intimacy. It also set up Meridian's encounters with Francisco in his library.
To this day I am saddened that the duality did not work and perhaps I will at another time try other experiments. Was it all a case, I wonder, of letting my ideology dictate to my creativity? Perhaps in further novels I might find scope to explore the relationship between ideology and creativity. This novel, however, had other mountains to climb.
In the course of collecting women's personal stories, and in my own reflection, I noticed how important personal stories are often told and retold almost word for word. It is as if some event has formed itself in words in our heads and when we recall that event what we are recalling are the words, the telling of it. Let me call them word-stories.
These word-stories had other attributes. Any one of us carries around a handful of such word-stories and, unlike jokes or yarns, they are intimate and private stories. We probably only retell the set of them to our most intimate companions and that might take a lifetime.
If I focus on a negative for a short time I can illustrate their power. We have all had to endure, with a great deal of discomfort or embarrassment, someone who is not an intimate but who has undergone some personal crisis, retelling their word-stories to us. We feel uncomfortable, not so much because we are bored, but because we feel the intimacy is misplaced or unwanted. We are embarrassed because it is inappropriate for that acquaintance to be telling us their word-stories.
In addition, the word-stories seem to be event focussed and although they may not recount the central or major events in our lives they somehow grab at the essence of those times. For example, Crete's domestic violence story is, in this sense, a word-story. It may not have been the biggest, or most excessive, or conclusive event in that part of her life, but it was a story that summed it up for her, that focussed it all for her. The word-stories become like hooks to hang whole sections of our lives on.
I began to see them like the small round objects I collect and store. Sometimes I misplace or forget them and can be quite surprised when I stumble over them again. I have a collection of small stones that sit by my computer. From time to time I take one out and touch it, play with it. At other times I forget the stones, they fall behind papers or books and when I see them again months later, they are dusty, somehow in disarray. The word-stories for me are like these stones. They are almost physical and yet of course they are entirely conceptual. I navigate myself around them, finding them, remembering them, forgetting them.
Perhaps I could have called the word-stories stones, but I felt that word carried too many difficult connotations. They were not like the ancient stones or runes, nor did I want to evoke the notion of "casting the first stone". But I did want to indicate that there was something very precious, very important, very central and core about these word-stories.
I decided to call the word-stories mandalas, a term coming from the Sanskrit word for 'circle'. I use the word 'mandala' in a general rather than specific sense referring to the patterns which explore the collision between the circle and the square. Implicit in this notion of the mandala is the same paradox Western philosophy explores in P, the uncalculable relationship between the circle and the square. Since the novel makes use of P the relationship between it and the mandala was useful to me.
To further understand why I used the term 'mandala' it might be helpful to pause for a moment and reflect upon a more specific meaning. Within the bounds of Buddhism and Hinduism the mandala explores the relationship between the circle and the square as a tool to meditation. Much like the labyrinth it is used as a guide for the novice seeking initiation and the sacred. For example, in the Tantra tradition the Navapadma Mandala, (the mandala of the nine lotus flowers), pictured below, is used in meditation as a projection of the cosmos.
Navapadma Mandala (Elaide, 1987: 154)
This mandala 'contains the whole world and is the exalted home of all gods, which encompasses all other loci and is the paramount abode.' (Elaide, 1987: 154). By meditation the initiate journeys towards the centre of the mandala and towards a unity with the central deity. While the novel does not express its concerns in this way, I felt that the quest for unity with the central deity could be seen in another way, as a quest for completeness or wholeness. This latter expression of the quest is core to the over riding thematic concerns of the novel. Once again then, calling the word-stories mandalas supports much of the novel's concerns.
My use of the term 'mandala' also owes a debt to Patrick White's The Solid Mandala (1969). In his novel White depicts the mandala as a solid object and gives Arthur, one of the twin brothers, a collection of glass taws:
This use of mandalas to act as windows into, and also symbols of the person, is further developed by White in the earlier passage when Arthur is encouraging his twin brother Waldo to write.
I found echoes in this passage and I felt comfortable with acknowledging, through my use of mandalas, Patrick White's heritage. The acknowledgement is exaggerated in the opening section where I refer to the mandalas as if they were solid objects:
This is the only place in the text where the mandalas are referred to
as objects and it is easy to imagine them as Arthur's glass taws.
I also like the hidden notion that as Meridian progressed she acquired more and more mandala - as if they were the gifts of life.
Fear of completion
I had written several drafts and was fairly advanced. I still had quite a lot of structural problems to work out but I had developed the characters and fully researched the information I needed for the narrative. The university awarded me six months off on full pay in an equity scheme to complete the novel and other works associated with my PhD. This was an extremely generous offer and, like the winning of a writing grant earlier, it terrified me.
I was frightened because there were no more excuses, no more delays, no more smoke screens. I could no longer offer promise; I now had to deliver.
I went to Melbourne for Christmas and recall sitting in a restaurant in China Town, Little Bourke Street. It was crowded and my daughter and I were eventually given a table to the side. We ordered a vegetarian meal, which isn't hard in such a place, and then suddenly I began to weep. Great uncontrollable tears fell down my face. I wept because I was afraid of what lay ahead of me. I wept because I didn't know how to structure the novel and I wept because I knew I had to journey into places in my own head that terrified me. I wept with fear that I was not up to the task ahead of me. Who would have thought that a small restaurant in Little Bourke Street could have been my Garden of Gethsemane?
After Christmas I came back to the Gold Coast and, for the fun of it, joined a group of my mature age students who were getting together once a week to play with clay. We called it a pottery class but there wasn't anything structured about the time. It was all hand building and I began to work with coils. We gave ourselves permission to make truly awful pots which we praised excessively. Complements such as 'it's so organic' were often used for our wobbly drooping shapes. We were writers and it didn't matter if we made bad pots.
At first I tried to control the shape of the pot but then, admitting to my lack of skill, I stopped telling the clay what to do, and began to learn to listen to it. I began to realise when the clay needed to rest and when it was ready for working. I noticed I couldn't rush at it. The clay had a mind of its own, a life of its own.
I began to notice the colour purple. It was there in the tropical flowers of my garden and in the bright colours so many tourists wear. I wrote the last of the fragments. I wrote freely about the colour purple, about the clay, about my fear and about structure. I had been to the Assyrian exhibition while in Melbourne and I wanted to imitate that ancient culture, I wanted to write this fragment onto the clay pot. I became excited by this and busied myself with the various tasks more seriously than I had approached the clay before. I even experimented with oxide glazes, as I wanted this awkward pot to look as if it had been dug up from centuries in the earth.
This is the pot and the words I wrote on it:
This is the map of the pot. It contains the pot's co-ordinates and it remembers the place where the clay was dug.
By turning to an art form unrelated to writing, a form where I had quite audibly given myself permission to be inept, I discovered the secret of letting go. The pot made itself: I worked with the clay, listening to its song. So too with the novel, the worry and problems of structure were contained like secret songs within the pages of my drafts. I needed to let go, trust, listen to the words, and let the structure open out to me.
Using another art form as a way to solve creative problems is a device I am now committed to.
Weaving the fabric
Once I had allowed the structure to tell me its needs rather than impose upon it what I thought might have been ideal or clever, or in the case of the dualism, ideologically required, the novel began to take shape. With the colour purple in my eye, I allowed the Crone back into the text, eventually placing her at the very beginning. I tossed out events and passages and spent longer on others. I rearranged passages and sections, disturbing their order and resettling them in other places of the text.
It was not a text that demanded a sequential working through the chapters. It felt more like a very large mural rather than a sequence of paintings or a triptych. Attending to a section in Chapter 10 for example meant I needed to return to Chapter 2 and modify or balance something there. But it was an open structure and I allowed the seams and working to show.
An indication of how I opened out the structure allowing the seams to show was in the way I imparted knowledge about the Vinland Map. There was a lot of detail that the reader needed to know and it was slowing down the narrative. I decided to be overt and honest about this and to hand the information to the reader as directly as possible. This direct telling method can be seen in Chapter 5 when the reader is given the details relating to the rediscovery of the map. At other times however, I use the novelist's devices to pass on information. Eric's mandala in Chapter 2, for example, equally reveals to the reader aspects of Eric's personality as well as detail about the archaeological dig in Newfoundland.
Once I had closed the novel, once I had said to myself that with the exception of the odd corrections and editorial changes it was finished, and I handed it over for a full reading, I felt lost and confused. It wasn't simply that I suddenly had time on my hands, it was more than this. I no longer knew who I was. I did not know how to describe myself.
Up until that point I was someone who was writing a novel. Then suddenly I was someone who had written a novel. Quite suddenly I had to describe myself in the past tense. I felt completely emotionally and, surprisingly, physically disorientated. During this time I fell up a set of steps badly bruising myself and twisting my glasses out of shape. It was as if I didn't know where my feet were, I didn't know how my body occupied its space. I needed to get my land/reality legs back because I had been at sea in my imagination for so long.
I felt empty and silent. I found it difficult even ringing friends, it was as if I had nothing at all to say, I had said it all.
At the same time as I was facing this disorientation my old computer which had been reliable throughout the writing process chose that moment to crash. It did so in a spectacular way by inserting 350 pages of large pink swirls into a document.
It was also at this time that my friend Caroline Macdonald, someone who had been so helpful to me at the early draft stage, was losing her battle with cancer. She could no longer read but she enjoyed listening to audio books, so I read the novel onto cassette tapes for her. I flew to Adelaide to see her.
She lay in a hospital bed which had been moved into her study. A bunch of poppies I'd brought sat in a vase on the windowsill, and as we talked they gradually opened, dropping their green hairy husk. Bright colours unwrinkled into the afternoon, and for the first time she spoke of her coming death. Two weeks later she died.