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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration



Greg Dening

‘Non-fiction’ is a word that bugs me. I don’t write ‘non’ anything. And I don’t like the company I am forced to keep on the ‘non-fiction’ shelves in the bookstores, or on the best-sellers lists (in my dreams!)—cookbooks, personality disorders, do-it-yourselves, ghost-written autobiographies of sporting stars.

Maybe I don’t have a word to replace ‘non-fiction’. These days I tend to describe myself as a writer of true stories. I’d settle for having my books on a shelf called ‘Creative Writing’, though. I should, of course, buy my own bookstore and label my shelves for myself. Virtual Reality and Reality? Fantasy and Fiction? No, for this exercise, I’ll settle for Creative Writing. Let’s talk about writing our true stories with creative imagination.

Imagination scares many scholars. They equate it with fantasy. But imagination is not really fantasy. Imagination is catching a glimpse of the end of the trail before we make the first step. Imagination is finding a word that someone else will hear, a metaphor that someone else will see. Imagination is seeing what’s absent, hearing the silence as well as the noise. Imagination is taking the cliché out of what has been said over and over again. Imagination is taking the purpose of the rules that confine us and running with it. Imagination is working the fictions in our non-fiction the better to do what we want to do with our writing.

One of the things that I want to do with my writing is to change the world in some way—little ways, politically, culturally, socially, intellectually. I can’t change the past. I can’t give life to the dead. I can’t give justice to the victims. But I can change the world with my true stories. Well, I can try!

I’m a story-teller. I can’t force people to read my stories. I have to persuade them first to open my book, then to read the first sentence, and the next. No one is paid to read my stories. Ah, now, there’s a point. For most of us beginning a writing career by ‘doing’ history, by ‘doing’ a PhD, our readers—our examiners, our supervisors—are paid to read what we write. For the most part, these paid readers don’t have to be persuaded that what we write is important or worth reading. For most of them, their reading is determined by their own expertise and their relationship to us.

Real writing is different. No one is paid to read it. Let’s talk about creative imagination and real writing. Let’s make a resolution not to ‘do’ a thesis, but to write a book. This won’t be a book that will certainly be published. Not many of us have that assurance. Let’s write a book in the sense that our readers will be more than three in number, and won’t be as expert as we are in our topic. Let’s decide that we are writers, story-tellers, not ‘doers’ of theses.

Many of us will feel uncomfortable with that decision. Many will think that there is a contradiction between creative imagination and ‘doing’ a thesis. That is, ‘doing’ a thesis has many explicit rules that have to be obeyed and many more implicit rules that we disobey only at great risk. Many will feel that the time to be creative is after the thesis has been done.

It would be irresponsible for me to ride roughshod over such concerns. So let me make some serious statements.

1. You have the freedom to let your creativity work so long as you explicitly and consciously display why you are extending the rules or apparently breaking them. You have freedom so long as you display the advantages and disadvantages of doing something different. The rules are your protection. Part of your examination is knowing how and when the rules are applicable. Your freedom is dependent on your being your own examiner and showing that you do or don’t do things with purpose, and not out of ignorance.

2. The greatest freedom that you have is in the creative structure with which you present the whole of your book. There is no need to follow slavishly such customs as an Introduction, six Chapters and a Conclusion, so long as you fulfil all the functions that such customs are meant to perform. The more you signpost the whole with its internal continuities, its parts, its clusters of significant chapters, its different voices, its different functions, the better.

3. Whatever way you conceive of your readers as more than examiners, you will have much to learn from novelists, playwrights, film-makers, poets, about writing directly, experientially and reflectively.

4. You won’t have creative freedom unless you have an effective note-taking system that leaves you in control of the vast amount of data you will have accumulated. Experience tells me that you will require two note-taking systems. One will let you retrieve the discursive elements of what you read—its structure of presentation, its relationships to other texts, its bibliographic detail, your reactions to what you read. The other will allow you to re-shape these discursive notes into their significance for you. For a major project I would normally have a pile of discursive notes half a metre high and more. At frequent intervals as I stock that pile, I reconstruct it into notes that tell me the significance of every note that I have taken. I return to the whole pile more than once. I don’t begrudge the three or four weeks it takes to re-structure it all together. I work better with A4 pages than with small cards. Each page has a category or subject title and I pull out from all over my discursive notes the information relevant to that title, being very careful to have a secure and accurate referencing system. I aim to have the whole pile of discursive notes in my head in a memorable way.

5. Enjoy the freedom of writing titles and sub-titles for your work and all its parts. Avoid ‘what’ and topic titles—’Settlement at Botany Bay’, ‘Causes of Pacific Exploration’. Write dynamic titles that really indicate what it is that you are trying to say or want the reader to understand. Try the present participle, ‘-ing’ words. ‘Settling Botany Bay’, ‘The Greed and Glory of Going Further’.

6. Nothing is written until it is read. Get a reader. Don’t get possessive of what you have written. If your reader doesn’t understand what you have written or takes it in the wrong way, it’s you who have to change, not them.

Writing fills the hours of my days and the years of my life. It is a privileged time for me. I am more writer than professor, I would say, except that being a professor, professing who I am and how I want to change the world, is, in my mind, being a writer. But these days I am just as likely to be asked to read what I have written as much as lecture. I enjoy reading aloud and in public what I have written. In any case, I read aloud what I have written to myself, and encourage every young writer to do the same. I discover the awkwardnesses of my expression in reading aloud. I catch the rhythm of my style, or the lack of it. I periodise what I have written with silences the better for hearing them. I develop theatre in the abrupt phrases and epigrammatic signing-offs.

Reading aloud, even privately, is something of an indulgence, I know. And it is not the way that most people will read my writing. But you have to be an honest reader to be a writer, I like to say. You have to know your own modes of reading, when you skim, how you skim. I know for myself that my eye very likely will skim to the bottom of an indented, single spaced, smaller font quotation. As a writer, I avoid indented paragraphs like the plague. I either make the quotation in full with the same style as all the other paragraphs, or I break it up and incorporate its images and phrases into my own narrative.

Honesty tells me that I rarely read a book in one sitting. Even when I am lucky it can take three weeks. As a reader, remembering what I’ve read and keeping the continuities going is a problem. As a writer, I need tricks to keep the reader’s attention. I know that in a large manuscript I don’t easily remember what I have written. It takes a reader to see immediately some phrase that I have repeated. Broken reading of large manuscripts means that the reader needs memory stations. I find that encapsulating my narrative in a metaphor that surfaces at crucial points acts as memory stations for the reader, takes them back to what they have read.

Honesty tells me that the white spaces on a page affect my responses to what I read. The aesthetics of my page is part of my writing, the length of a line, the size of a paragraph. Honesty tells me that mostly my eyes are well ahead of my mind in reading, or that I read not one word at a time but in gulps of sentences and paragraphs and even of pages. Honesty tells me that I rarely read every sentence in a book. Honesty tells me that I will reduce the tens of thousands of words in a book to twenty or thirty or a hundred to say what it means. As a writer, my strategy is to control those few words.

Honesty tells me that I find most captions to illustrations a bore. I want my visual imaging to work with my text. I want my images to be another sort of narrative. So I wrap them around with discursive texts. I’m sceptical about the effectiveness of boxed images with bare captions. So I try to make image essays. Really I would like to forego the concept of ‘illustration’ altogether. I want my images to be another sort of text.

These days I’m shaping a book that I’m calling Beach Crossings. I can’t read it aloud for you. Maybe you can read it aloud for yourself. It is an unusual invitation, I know. But I am talking Praxis and Performance. The days are gone, I think, when writers can hide behind their nervousness at public performance. Words aren’t just things on paper, or in the mind. We are writers in all parts of our bodies. In any case, ‘just do it’. I dare you to read me aloud.


‘This is not a book’, Paul Gauguin protests in the first sentence of Avant et Après. In the last months of his life, he had turned to words rather than paint. But he struggles with words, doesn’t want to be judged by them. ‘This is not a book’, he repeats mantra-like at each moment he expects his reader to be exacerbated by his discontinuities, whenever he presents himself brazenly as he is, without persuasion, without style, without art. Not a book, ‘scattered notes, unconnected, like dreams, like life, made of bits and pieces’. But the bits and pieces of his life as he sees it now at the end of it are framed by the Before and After of his beach crossings on the margins of the civilised world.

Gauguin is writing this ‘naked, fearless, shameless’ self-portrait in the top floor of his Maison du Plaisir, his ‘House of Orgasm’. His ‘House of Orgasm’ is an island on an island. Cyclone and flood have divided it off from the little village of Atuona on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas. It is January 1903. Gauguin had used this top-storey room as his studio for eighteen months. It is cluttered and disordered, a lumber room of special woods, a museum of finished and unfinished carvings and sculptures. There is a harmonium in the centre, an easel by the open window at the northern end. Padlocked chests and sets of drawers filled with prints and drawings. The walls are hung with eclectic reproductions of art—Hans Holbein, Albrecht Dürer, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Edgar Degas. Photographs of Parthenon friezes and Asian temples are hung there too. Gauguin always believed that the history of art and of cultures flowed through his fingers to his canvasses.

His bedroom, accessed by a ladder he can now barely climb, was the threshold to his studio. There the walls were hung with photographs of his family, and a collection of lewd photographs he had purchased in Port Said. Gauguin would fondle and caress the women of the island as they ogled and laughed at the postures and contortions. It was a House of Orgasm after all.

In these last days he set his painting of a Breton snow scene on an easel at the foot of his bed. It would have been the last thing he saw before he died. The snow scene was an icon of his Before, a reminder of how twenty years before he had challenged the virtuosity of Monet and Courbet with his colours. He loved the edgelessness that colour gave to lines. Colour gave a dreamlike quality to shapes. When colours merged, sharpness had no space of its own. Defining lines were a trick of the eye. The trickster in the painter made it so. That is what Gauguin knew in the Before of his career. In the After of his beach, Gauguin now knew that edgelessness was not just a trick of the eye. On his beach, Gauguin had experienced a different order of things. The defining lines of the Before of his civilised world were gone in the wildness of his savage After. His older divisions between human and divine, living and dead, male and female, child and adult, landscape and person were blurred now. There was a clutter of paintings in his studio, and packages of them in transport at sea to show it.

Gauguin cannot stand at his easel any more. The pain in his ulcerated legs is too great even with the morphine. He is breathless with angina. His syphilis is taking away his eyesight. His eyes look piggy behind the steel rimmed circles of his spectacles. He knows he will not paint for much longer. He knows he is dying. His last painting has a realism his others don’t possess. He paints himself as dead man looking. He throws away all the disguises of his other self-portraits and sets himself drawn with pain, dried-up with discontents. ‘Koke’, ‘Wattle-Daub’, the islanders called him. Koke was his patiki, the shit name of a first tattoo. Gauguin’s suppurating skin peeled away like grey rendering on a wall. The sight and smell of it had driven the sex out of his life, had driven everyone away, everyone save one who was bound to him in a special way on his beach.

That one was Tioka, ‘Scooped-Out’. ‘Wattle-Daub’ and ‘Scooped-Out’ had a special relationship. They had exchanged names. Exchanging names like Wattle-Daub and Scooped-Out might not seem to have much aesthetic appeal. The exchange was a social grace nonetheless. The mutual gift of names embraced the whole person, all the person’s rights and obligations, the property. It was never given lightly. It was given between equals but not necessarily between identicals. There was barter in it. Different advantages were exchanged. It was empowering, though. It was political, an alliance in the grassroots of life. It was an alliance steeped as well in all the cultural memories of how things used to be. Exchanging names was a very proper sacrament of beach crossings.

Tioka it was who found Koke dead in his bed, the body still warm, an empty morphine syringe beside it. It was 11.00 am, 8 May 1903. The Church with graceless haste performed all the proprieties for Koke’s launch into eternity. There would have been no great confidence that holy water, oil and prayer would do their work. Koke would have been happier with Tioka’s last rite. It had a savage, even cannibal, feel. Tioka bit Koke’s skull in hope of some resurrection, in release of a troubled and troubling spirit.

It is not for me to say what you see and feel in what I write. Let me give some advice on writing and you can see for yourself whether I take my own advice.

Be Mysterious. ‘Mystery’, ‘mysterious’, are words layered with thousands of years of meaning. At the heart of these meanings is an understanding that a mystery is the most complicated truth clothed in story or play or sacramental sign. Being mysterious means that there is work to be done—not just by the story-teller, not just by the author, not just by the priest, but by the audience, the reader, the believer as well. There is no closure to mysteries, only another story, another translation. I think that a writer should liberate the readers to go where they want. It is their conversation that we are joining. There is a certain abruptness or directness in being mysterious. We have to have the confidence that readers have instantaneous skills in being where we take them.

Be Experiential. We write with authority when we write as observers. Not as spectators, but as observers. Our own honesty is at stake as observers. As observers our cultural antennae are at their peak. Every trivial detail is larger than itself in an observation. We see the interconnectedness of things. We read the gestures with the same astuteness that we need to have to survive culturally in everyday life. We are seeing the multiple meanings in every word. We are catching meaning in the context of the occasion. Above all, as observers we are reflective. We see ourselves mirrored in our own observations. We know our honesty. We know our uncertainties. We know our tricks. Be experiential in your writing and the reader will come with you.

Be Compassionate. It is awfully easy for an historian not to be compassionate. I sometimes think that this is because we write in the past tense and with hindsight. Try writing what you have written in the past tense in the present tense and you will see what I mean. Suddenly you have to know so much more. Suddenly the perspective is forward and not backward. We don’t have to write in the present tense though to be compassionate. What we have to do is to give its own present tense back to the past we are writing about. We give back to the past its own possibilities, its own ambiguities, its own incapacity to see the consequences of its action. It is only then that we represent what actually happened.

Be Entertaining. I am using the word ‘entertaining’ in its etymological sense of ‘holding between’, enter tenere in the Latin. Think of all the tricks we use in the theatre to hold the gaze and attention of an audience—darkened theatre, stage curtains, the triangular perspective of the stage. We have to find ways to entertain our readers in the same way. I suspect that if we watch novelists, playwrights and film directors entertaining their audiences we will find that they have more courage to be direct than we usually do. We take a hundred steps back to make one jump and keep shouting ‘I’m coming! I’m coming!’ Readers can cope with a lot more directness and silence.

Be Performative. There is no such thing as a perfect performance. A performance is always limited in some way—by a stage-call, by a deadline, by a word limit. Performance is always heralded by a risk-taking. That is why it is different from practice. A performance is before somebody. We always know in a performance how we have gone. The whole family out there might say we were wonderful, but in performance we are our own critics. In performance, the risk-taking is often breaking through the formalism that limits us. In performance we can’t live by the formalities of the rules, we have to live by the meaning of the rules. We have to take the rules further to make them work. I’m thinking of referencing, footnoting and all the paraphernalia that surrounds academic writing. It is the function and purpose of the rule that needs to be obeyed, not their literal interpretation.

Most of us will become a world expert on our topic of research within three or four months of beginning it. After three or four months we will have more about our topic in our head than anyone else in the world. The only trouble is that no one else wants all that knowledge in their head too. What they want is for us to join a conversation that they are already having. We need to know where the conversations around us have been coming from. We need to have the desire to take them further.

An important part of writing is re-writing. The computer is a wonderful tool for a writer, but it doesn’t help re-writing. We sometimes can’t bear to cut a paragraph that we’ve put so much time in sculpting and typing. We try to find a place for it somewhere else. Believe me, you can see a replaced paragraph. Don Watson, Paul Keating’s speechwriter and a script-writer himself, says that the key to re-writing is reduction. What you put in ten lines, reduce to five; five to two. I do most of my re-writing as I write. I am always turning to the beginning of a sentence and asking myself, does it intrigue a reader to read on. On the larger scale, I doubt if I have ever finished a book in less than seven or eight major drafts.

I tell my students that when they have finished a draft that they are reasonably happy with they should make an index. Just a name and place index itself will be helpful. They will find how inconsistent they have been in spelling and referencing. They will find important additions that they must make—in initials or first names before surnames, for example. More importantly they should make a subject index, a detailed analytic map of their thinking. An index of their thinking will give them confidence, because they will see how they embroider their concepts. They will make important discoveries about themselves and how they can re-adjust what they have written for more clarity or more persuasiveness.

The computer, as I have said, has given us an aesthetic for our writing. These days I do not give a manuscript to the publisher until I have made a mock-up of the book I want to see. I use some desktop publication software. Pagemaker has always suited me. I wouldn’t hand a thesis in these days without having done something similar.

I don’t like the word ‘theory’ when it is associated with the history we are writing. Too often ‘theory’ is seen as a sort of template to superimpose on historical events and circumstances. The irrelevance of ‘theory’ is seen most often in an introductory ‘theory’ chapter. Very often this is the last time enlarging concepts, contextualising perceptions and cross-disciplinary insights are displayed in an extended piece of writing. The ‘theory’ chapter may as well have not been written.

I’m more comfortable with the word ‘reflection’. Narrative and reflection are, for me, two sides of the same coin of historical writing. Reflection is a self-consciousness about what one is doing as a writer and observer. Reflection is joining the sentences of what I am saying to the conversation someone else is having. Reflection is, as I have written before, plumbing the depths of our own plagiarism.

Reflection is most effective when it is woven into the narrative, but we can pull it out of the narrative in all sorts of ways so long as its attachment to our narrative is clear, and readers don’t feel that they are being dragged off on some paper chase.

Sometimes the relation between narrative and reflection is an awkward one. We intrude on our narrative and say what our story means. This can be counter-productive. Our story-telling should be so skilful that we don’t have to say what it means.

I call this the theatre of our history-writing. If we go to the theatre, we don’t expect the playwright to appear on the stage and tell us what the play means. In a play, we hear the most trivial remarks about totally particularised things. We, the audience, have no difficulty in going out into the foyer and telling one another what the play meant. If we write well, the meaning that readers see in our writing will also be ours, signposted in all sorts of ways.

I want to change the world with my writing, I say. Well, maybe just to get the world to laugh or cry or be serious for a moment. A few years ago, as the HIV epidemic took hold, the Commonwealth government had an advertising campaign. Death, as Father Time, played ten-pin bowling with human lives. We saw men, women and children scattered randomly with his bowls. There was a great deal of critical comment at what was seen as scare-mongering propaganda. Surveys were taken as to its effectiveness. The only concrete effect that could be noted, however, was that membership of ten-pin bowling clubs dropped!

That is a depressing story for anyone wanting to change the world with their writing. I have to warn you that the pleasure of writing is more in the doing of it than in any grandiose sense of power. The pleasure of writing, for me, has always been the discovery of what is in my mind. I don’t like to talk about what I am writing at any particular time. Talking about it lessens the sense of surprise I like to have at any thought or phrase that is in my head. There are a few days after I have finished a piece of writing, when my mind is still racing, when I like to savour what I have written by reading it over again. But, I used to say to my students, that waiting for the effects of what one has written is like dropping a stone into a deep well and waiting for the splash. No, it’s not, said a friend. It is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and expecting a bang!

The greatest pleasure that we have as writers is to hear from someone who has read us. That’s my splash, at least. Knowing that, and knowing how short life is, I like to tell other writers of the splashes that they have made in my mind. That is the final praxis I would recommend to any young writer. Express your admiration for what others have done. That in itself is a performance.

Cite this chapter as: Dening, Greg. 2009. ‘Writing: praxis and performance’. Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration, edited by Curthoys, Ann; McGrath, Ann. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 6.1–6.10.

© Copyright 2009 Greg Dening
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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration

   by Ann Curthoys and Ann Mcgrath