A poor thing, but mine own

I have made a start on the memoir. Until now I have been talking about, researching, thinking about, and making notes for it – everything except actually writing it. Siblings have sent me lots of useful stuff that they have found about memoir writing. I appreciate it all. All the encouragement has been fabulous, as well! It has all helped me refine the concept, and get to grips with the actual doing of it.

One question I was asked was, is it going to be a memoir or an autobiography? These categories obviously overlap. I had always thought of memoir as something fairly contained in time. Those that I have most enjoyed have often been a record of an episode in the author’s life. (Peter Stothardt’s On the Spartacus road is an example.) Autobiography, on the other hand, has always seemed like more of a record of the author’s life; a biography written by the subject. Obviously no account of anyone’s life can be 100% complete. As a form, however, to me, autobiography aims to be comprehensive. Mine will be quite selective, and thus more of a memoir.

Over the years I have read quite a few memoirs and autobiographies, as well as straight out biographies and autobiographical novels: just about every permutation.  It is evidently a form capable of enormous variation. I have learned something from most of these. Whatever I produce will be informed by these examples, but mine as well.

I can see that I am proceeding about it in a rather subterranean way. I have made quite a few notes, including a list of episodes that seem worthy of inclusion. (This list is in tabular form, so that I can mark off the episodes that I have written, whether these have been revised, and so on.) I thought about possible structures, and even titles, and wrote all these down as well. Some time then passed, during which I didn’t write anything at all extended. On Friday, however, I felt it was time to start.

I read an article that included a useful tip from Hemingway: every time you finish, write down a pointer about where to start next time. (I’d discovered this myself when writing my minor thesis about forty years ago, but forgotten it.) I just have to keep adding bricks to the wall. I’ll be doing this on and off. When it is finished, or ready to show, I’ll tell you.

Little wins

I had a couple of little wins the other day. The issues that are trivial in themselves, but it is surprising how irritating they can still be.

The first and more trivial of the two was to find a refill for my notebook pen. I have a small Filofax that I am using as a notebook for ideas for the memoir and other things. This notebook has a very short pen that I bought years ago in Pen City, the wonderful shop on Swanston Street. (This pen is the perfect diameter for the pen loop in the Filofax. One that is too small just falls through the loop and gets lost; a bigger one would strain the loop or tear it off.) Much as I enjoy browsing through Pen City, I didn’t want to go into town just for a pen refill. So it was more in hope than expectation that I asked in a paper shop on Burke Road.

What do you call a shop that sells paper and pens nowadays? “Paper shop” sounds like a newsagent, but “stationer” to me means a shop with pens, inks, ledgers, notebooks, writing compendiums: every conceivable thing to write on and with. Brands like Churston Deckle, Osmiroid, Parker, Qink, and whoever made that onion-skin writing paper. Anyone who wanted to write anything went to a stationer’s. Whether it was an accounts ledger, a letter to Mum, a note on your desk calendar, a short story or a love poem, they had what you needed. After a visit there, countless words evolved from being inside someone’s head to written form, like salmon eggs morphing into fish.

The other one was working out why my new-ish tablet wasn’t connecting to public wifi (such as at shopping centres or the library). This was a puzzling problem, as the older tablet does this perfectly. I had rung Samsung tech support about it. Their first suggestion, which was to switch on automatic date and time in the settings, worked perfectly. Then the problem recurred. During a second phone call they suggested all sorts of unlikely things. You need to go home and see if you can connect to your home wifi. (I have been been using it all the time, most recently that morning.)  Maybe the wifi isn’t working at the shopping centre. (The tablet finds it and can tell me the signal strength.) Maybe the wifi is slow because there are lots of people using it. (It was ten-thirty in the morning on a weekday.) You need to do a factory reset on your tablet. (I’ll lose all my data.) Yes, but we can tell you how to back it up. (I need to be at home to do that.) Yes, you do. We’ll save your details so you don’t have to explain it all over again. (Yeah, right.)

Anyway, I figured it out myself. In the settings I could see that several apps had permissions. I guessed that one of these apps was interfering with the messages you get when you try to connect to public wifi.  No message getting through, you don’t get to accept the terms and conditions: no wifi. One of these apps was Twilight, something that gradually turns your screen less blue (i.e. more red) to reduce the amount of blue light getting through to your eyes in the evenings. I uninstalled the updates, then deleted the app. Now I can connect to wifi anywhere!

Sexing up the library

The title of this post might be taking it a bit far. However, libraries might just be getting a bit more frequently into the public eye of late. This article In The Guardian goes behind the scenes at the NSW State Library. The intrepid reporter is Caroline Baum, their first reader-in-residence. (Should the link not take you there, try a Google search on “Secrets of the library: ‘magic with livestock’ and Patrick White’s nanny’s trunk”.  “Secrets of the library” will probably do the trick; the longer your search string, the more chances to make a typo. You don’t need the quote marks.)

Does a library really need a reader-in-residence? That’s what librarians do all day, isn’t it – read? (You wouldn’t say that, of course! You know that’s a bit like saying “people working in supermarkets must eat a lot”.) Personally, I think it is a darn good idea of NSWSL to make someone reader-in-residence, particularly if that someone is Caroline Baum. Library lifers such as I used to be, until early release for good behaviour, can stop noticing the extraordinary things they work with. An outsider can come in and say “You’ve got what?”, and write about it, for the general public, in a readable way.

This is a particularly valuable thing to do when the library has archival materials. These can be a massive time and resources sink, requiring special treatment galore. If they are unbound, the boxes you put them in, need to be acid-free. The cataloguing is much more elaborate. And you can’t just slap a label on the spine and stamp the thing. But these documents are unimaginably precious. Imagine not having Cook’s journals from the Endeavour, or Watkin Tench’s narrative of the establishment of Botany Bay. Somebody, some day, will want to go through Patrick White’s nanny’s trunk, too.

There is an unstated conflict for those working with rare books, special collections, or whatever they are called this week. You want people to know you’ve got them, and you don’t really want people to know you’ve got them. After all, the people who need to know about these things, like researchers, will already know, right? No need to put it too widely about. Nowadays, however, I think rare books specialists really do want to tell people about all the great things they’ve got. (Put this down to a win/win  combination of professional ethics and needing continuing funding.) They certainly put a lot of effort into cataloguing and digitising them, for everyone who has a web browser to read.

Caroline Baum’s article takes in a few of the fabulous treasure troves in NSWSL, like the Robbins collection about stage magic. Some of the cookbooks sound familiar from my Special Collection days. There was an eighteenth century one all about puddings, jellies and confections; the jelly moulds looked exactly like the ones used today. There is something very touching about holding a cookbook that has notes scrawled in the margins.  The exercise books of handwritten recipes, or ones clipped from yellowing newspapers, are even more intimate. People in a hundred badly-lit kitchens actually scribbled on, peered at, and sweated over these things. All to feed those they loved.