The Writing Life

Information, inspiration and insights into the writing life

To read Maria Tumarkin is to embark on an intellectual journey, one that covers diverse terrain – the personal and the political via philosophy, history and memoir – taking paths that seem at first to deviate, but then interweave, taking you even deeper into the subject. I spoke to Maria about her practice, her processes and the convergences of her compelling new non-fiction work, ‘Axiomatic’.

In our previous issue, Michelle Scott Tucker invited non-fiction writers to submit 200 words of a work in progress. Here are the finalists.

One of the first questions I ask myself when I begin a new creative non-fiction work, short- or long-form, is existential in nature (and stolen from Shakespeare). To be or not to be? Am I going to appear in my work or not? Or, to what degree am I going to be present? Because in creative non-fiction, the author is always there, if not as an explicit ‘I’ then as the organising consciousness hovering over the work, palpable in thematic, structural and stylistic choices, with all their implicit assumptions.

With the pace of journalism increasing, it can be tempting to rush the writing process. But for Michael Green, journalist and producer of ‘Behind the Wire’ and the multi-awardwinning ‘The Messenger’ podcast, the most compelling stories come from taking a careful, considered approach to interviewing and writing, empowering your subjects and putting ethics at the heart of your work.

The tendency to look overseas for great literary works is hardly new. The notion of ‘cultural cringe’ (coined by AA Phillips¹ in 1950) describes an Australian assumption that ‘the domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article’. We suppose it’s being done better internationally, and look to international markets as arbiters of taste. We measure our own successes against international works – both in terms of sales and reception – and maintain the baseline assumption that international work represents the highest level of achievement.

Professor Megan Davis recently presented the 2018 Human Rights Oration, ‘Towards a Treaty’, organised by the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

The distinguished English biographer Richard Holmes once described biography as ‘a handshake across time’. He was trying to draw out the degree to which writing a biography is ‘an act of human solidarity, and in its own way an act of recognition and of love’. This is surely true, but his analogy strikes me as somehow too cool. For me, writing a biography has been more like a big warm bear-hug across time, or maybe a wild, nose-in-the air, nose-to-the-ground fox-hunt across time.

It’s the opening night of the poetry festival in Heidelberg in Germany, one of the International Cities of Literature. Onstage stand a poet and musician who’ve travelled from Ballarat in regional Victoria. Nathan Curnow introduces his first poem, ‘Student Kiss’, about a famous Heidelberg chocolate. He’s googled those things that make Heidelberg unique and written poems to deliver. But he’s taking a risk; like saying ‘put another shrimp on the barbie’, it might not sit quite right. He gauges his audience as he shapes the delivery.

Five bells toll at 4.45am. The world is humid darkness and my mind, a sleep deprived fog. I’m supposed to jump out of bed in fervent prayer but my body shakes from the shock of waking up too early, even after two years practice.

Lost and naïve, traipsing through the wards

I listened to a chest and heard

A harsh rasping whisper

Blowing between beats and breaths

All but intangible from the outside

Yet I hear rumbling beneath my steth.

Behind all this was a person

Patiently waiting while I fumble.