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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Barbara Brooks: Writing a Life

Barbara Brooks: Writing a LifeInterview

Barbara Brooks has published short stories, Leaving Queensland, as well as essays, and a biography, Eleanor Dark: a Writer's Life. Her work has been published in the UK, USA, Asia and Europe. This week, Barbara reflects on the process of writing her first full-length creative non-fiction work: her biography of Eleanor Dark.

Eleanor DarkWriters love notebooks, a friend said, giving me one with a William Morris cover for my birthday. I've given up on journals, but I keep notebooks, workbooks, for my non-fiction based projects. A series of them, different sizes and colours, handmade, spiral bound or stitched, sitting in a bookcase. When I started writing the Eleanor Dark biography, I already had a bulging workbook. It was a large red and black Chinese notebook, and inside I'd written lists of people we had talked to and people we wanted to talk to, lists of books to read, pages of notes and quotes, and ideas for an application for a Literature Board grant. Inside the cover I had tucked in a folded piece of paper Judith had written on. Judith Clark worked on the biography with me, initially as a researcher, but she made a substantial contribution to the ideas and content of the book. We had been doing interviews - with Eleanor's husband Eric Dark (he was 97), their son Michael and his wife Jill, as well as friends from Katoomba like John Apthorpe, and writer colleagues like Kylie Tennant. And we were reading Eleanor's books and the papers in the Mitchell Library. We had collected a mass of information, and there was much more to come.

That piece of folded paper was a crucial one. We needed to start thinking of ways to organise the information. For a biography, you need a chronology, a timeline, even if you don't write a strictly chronological account. We needed to understand the relationships between events in Eleanor Dark's life, the context and possible causes. We needed a way in. So Judith began to sketch out a rough list of different stages of Eleanor Dark's life - childhood, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and so on. I added topics like starting writing, the novels of the 30s, the war, going bush, the Queensland years.

So we created a timeline, and in this case it was a lifeline. Judith created a kind of database of dates, quotes and information, one we could access by date and by subject. As I wrote, I created other smaller and more detailed chronologies for different sections of the book, or even individual chapters. Later I sat in the Mitchell looking at the manuscript of Sun Across the Sky, the novel Eleanor Dark published in 1937. It was a story about a doctor in a coastal town in NSW in the 1930s who falls in love with an artist, and the conflict between a life that values the imagination, the lives of the Christopher Brennan poet figure and the woman artist, and the life of the developer Gormley who wants progress and profit. The events of the novel take place in one day.

Barbara Brooks
Barbara Brooks
In March 1993, after a day in the Mitchell Library, one of many, sitting at the long wooden table, surrounded by boxes of Eleanor Dark's letters and manuscripts, diaries and book contracts, I wrote in my notebook:

Sitting in the Mitchell looking at the original ms of Sun Across the Sky and her double page charts - chronology of the day, hour by hour from dawn to 7pm, with all the characters listed in columns, what they're doing and thinking. Then another chart that's a chronology of the character's lives.

My notebook was full of lists and small chronologies, scribbled diagrams and crazy paving paths, with connecting arrows shooting across the pages, where I tried to nut out structure and flow. Now I'd found that Eleanor Dark had done something similar, in order to keep track of her characters.

That piece of paper with Judith's notes and my scribbles had been the beginning of the way in to my starting writing. In order to write the biography, I had to learn how to get on top of a large mass of material, and shape it. I wanted to shape it into something like a story. Not something with a chapter on her life and one on each of her books. That first rough division of the life into stages gave us a way in. But the next question was: how could I find the thread to follow, how could I create a narrative? Doris Lessing reflects in her memoir, Under My Skin, about writing a life story: a novel is a plot, she says, a life is not a plot, a life is just a sprawl of incidents. That was the next challenge.

Barbara Brooks will teach a six-week course on Writing Creative Non-Fiction at the NSW Writers' Centre starting Sunday 8 May.
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