“How little we change! How much we change!” – Thoughts on new edition of A Handwritten Modern Classic – Finola Moorhead

Finola Moorhead at the (re)launch of A Handwritten Modern Classic - Collected Works Bookshop Melbourne.
Finola Moorhead at the (re)launch of A Handwritten Modern Classic – Collected Works Bookshop Melbourne.

Notebooks with mock leather covers, looking like a Reader’s Digest edition of the Complete Works of, say, Thomas Hardy, called, I think, “modern classics”, were sold in newsagents. There were neither lines nor words within. Di Wilson gave me one. She had suffered me writing my first novel, Lots Of Potential. I have an elusive memory-feeling that this notebook was an ironic present. Di shared with my mother a rich vein of sarcasm. I play those curly balls with a straight bat. I do, and being a sportswoman, I know what I mean. Being a sportswoman never ever sat with the full package of “being a writer”. Being a writer meant that you were an indoorsy person who read well and didn’t mind the sound of your own voice. My voice does not have a particularly pleasant timbre. Like the disappointing image in the mirror, the sound of my voice on radio makes me recoil blushing and rushing outside to hit a ball. Hitting a ball with a straight bat means, when metaphorically referring to a response to sarcasm addressed to myself, is nodding and seriously doing what is sardonically suggested, that is, stepping to the pitch (for those ignorant of cricket = where the ball bounces) to disempower the spin, not aggressively trying to whack it for runs. But whack it for runs, it seems, is what I have done. Ania Walwicz said to Kris Hemensley some time between 1972 and 1977 about me, “Who can believe a writer in a tracksuit?”, a little thing I have remembered all these years because she nailed my problem. What the f*ck am I doing pretending to be a writer when I don’t look/act/seem like one? .Forty years on I reckon I know what would have ensued had I been believable in the sense that Ania meant. I don’t think I have to explain that to readers of the Rochford Street Review, but I really don’t mind not being invited to speak and read at Writer’s Weeks or Festivals, judge literary prizes, give my opinion on the best books written in a given year, teach creative writing, hunger for residencies, grants and so on. So much of that is what you seem, not what you are, or what you wrote exactly. It drove me mad and it does drive me crazy when I am interviewed by someone who has not taken the time to read what I’ve written enough to understand or appreciate what I did.

What I did in terms of literature is important to me; the how, where, why of the what. What my sportswomen-friends read is not what I write, though, dear literary folk, they do read, a lot; an amazing amount. Their opinions are fierce on who is best, better and good; they are talking about plot. Plot is what I am not good at, though I do try. What I love is how a story, or feeling, or insight, or record unfolds, how the writer explains and describes. I love structure, form, philosophy subtley embedded in metaphor, symbol and action. What literary writers like is language, and I love them for that, but English for me is like a second tongue even though I have no other. That, ironically, is why I am a writer.

Kris Hemensley, forty years ago, like he is now in owning Collected Works, was a person as place. He was where we who wanted to explore the possibilities of writing gravitated as villagers might gather and chat at the well; outside the establishment, the houses and offices of standards where stamps of approval were given in relation to accepted, tried and true values of literature as taught in universities and schools. He gave Melbourne its avante garde in the literary genre by being open and versed in what was being done in England, America and Europe in the moment of the 60s and 70s, and publishing new work in any way he could. I was lucky enough to visit that well and drink from its licence.

So freed from being a short-story writer, or playwright, — my poetry was always over-blown and declamatory – I could set about writing “writing”, as we called it at the well. What was verse? What was prose? Was it grammatical? Did punctuation matter? These were good questions. But I don’t think I ever really “got it”, which means I had a fundamental problem with post-modernism. Women’s Liberation had thrown a spanner in the works in that, suddenly, the track-suit (even though I didn’t own one) made sense to other people, women. So by 1975 my image fitted in with a mob while my writing could develop in another intellectual direction. By 1980 I had worked out that I could write fiction with a female aesthetic using the allowances afforded me by being for a short while in the company of men who were writing great stuff which changed literature for the rest of the century.

In between these two was the serendipitous gift of a notebook and the writing in 3 weeks in 1977 of A Handwritten Modern Classic whose first edition has a print-run of one. For all those apparently sane people who collect things, especially rare books this one is the very definition of unique. Start bidding. In 1985 it was published by Pete Spence, who opted in his concrete-poetic way to keep the hand-writing. When Spinifex Press brought out the hard copy for their e-book publication of it this year, I read my “classic” again and it’s cute, it’s crazy, it’s readable; it is the picture of a thirty-year old’s mind, which I recognise as mine.

How little we change! How much we change! We can never have that opinionated energy again; a certain sort of poetry is ever youthful. By poetry I mean a delightful marriage of words, fresh, like the first taste of an avocado; an experience of literature which feels like teenage love. Maybe the wearing down of the sandstone, aging, can result in something sculpturally nice; the sharp edges of criticism smoothed by the wisdom that one must accept that people need their illusions, their ideals now not much more than words spoken, that tolerance is a part of the caution we have learnt to survive, we are more circumspect with what we commit to paper. The re-issue of A Handwritten Modern Classic has brought home to me the importance of being true to your age, when putting thoughts into words for others to read.

– Finola Moorhead


A Handwritten Modern Classic is available from Spinifex Press http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=219/

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