The Inside Story: Writers, Manuscripts and the Creative Process. Public seminar at the National Libray of Australia, Canberra 2005
Last Saturday at the National Library a remarkable celebration took place - The Inside Story: Writers, Manuscripts and the Creative Process.
"It's too close for me, too small and too big ... I need to go away." These were the prophetic lines spoken by Peter, the new schoolteacher in a small country town in A Spring Song, the most successful play by Sydney writer Ray Mathew, presented by Twelfth Night Theatre Company in Brisbane in 1958.
Mathew really meant Australia. And leave he did, in 1960 - never to return. After a brief sojourn in Italy and some years in London (where A Spring Song appeared at The Mermaid in 1964), Mathew moved to New York with a friend's introduction to wealthy engineer and businessman Paul Kollsman and his wife, Eva, who became firm friends and literary patrons. Though he continued to write with a distinctive Australian voice (poetry, plays, novels, art criticisms) without ever becoming a household name, his body of work was significant enough for the National Library to begin archiving his papers in 1977. After his death in 2002, Eva Kollsman donated more of Mathew's papers, will make a generous bequest to the Library and has begun already with a major donation for this symposium to discuss the cultural heritage value of original manuscripts and the need to collect and preserve writers' original works - the reason for celebration.
But there was also reason for sadness, for among the prominent writers invited to talk to a full house about their fears and delights in having their manuscripts, diaries, notebooks, hard disks and CDs collected by the Library, Alex Buzo's serious ill health prevented him travelling to Canberra. We wish him well.
John Kinsella has a poem archived which is notable for a mysteriously overlaid policeman's boot print. Chris Mansell explained how preserving her drafts "keeps the writer honest because you can't deny who you are". Jack Hibberd's manuscripts are the result of mental fermentation. He claimed he could put them in order from the tea, coffee, wine and port stains, while guaranteeing there were no stains of self-abuse on his writing. Discussion before morning tea went to "metatextualising" (which none claimed to be guilty of) - that is, the "really unhealthy" practice of writing for the archivist, with only an eye on posterity.
At the other end of the day, scholar-archivist Susan Woodburn walked us through the Library's 13 kilometres of manuscripts and history since the Commonwealth Literary Fund of 1940, when grants were made by a parliamentary committee on which sat both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Henry Handel Richardson's was the first individual collection in 1946. Woodburn concluded that the archive can "convey immortality - your corpus, if not your hand, will be resurrected." This referred to her gruesome discovery in a cardboard box behind a curtain on a window ledge in the manuscript room of a cast of the hand of Henry Lawson.
Other writers, researchers and biographers like Michael McGirr, Nadia Wheatley, Tom Shapcott, Adrian Caesar and Lenore Coltheart agonised over ethical issues, sometimes feeling they were invading the privacy of the people whose papers they studied. But they noted that the discoveries of "who wrote what and when" (in the case of George Johnston and Charmian Clift), how "voice creates character, then character creates plot" (in the changes Mark Twain made as he wrote the first words spoken by Aunt Polly in Tom Sawyer), or how only her letters and diaries can tell us not who Jessie Street was but who she is ("the only Jessie Street I - Coltheart - will ever know") keep the public debate and the people from the past alive.
All speakers were received enthusiastically throughout the day, leading to Philip Mead's talking of the manuscript room as "the book of revelations" and Robyn Holmes' demonstrating on screen how original music scores can not only be seen but heard online. But the grandest applause of the day went to old stager Bob Ellis, whose speech was a great example of the writer's art, taking the day's theme into a piece of writing well worthy of archiving.
Ellis told a story starting from Dickens who "believed a writer was also a citizen, with a citizen's obligations to report social evils to the authorities, to make corruption known, and bureaucratic folly lampooned and so reduced".
He proposed that the True Life of John Howard is an Australian story that needs to be told, since "despite 30 years of fame we know almost nothing about him". Did he approve the sending of an envelope containing white powder to the Indonesian Embassy? "He, the Prime Minister, and Alexander Downer were beating the story up when nobody else was too fussed about it ... and for a few crucial days the Wood kidnapping, the Corby sentence, the Leong injustice, the Rau injustice, the Chinese defectors, the coming massacres of whales by Japan, the Georgiou uprising, the Vanstone tailspin, the desecrated heroes' bones dug up to build a carpark on Gallipoli, and all the other instances of his cowardice were, as they say, 'overshadowed' by six or seven ounces of skilfully targeted Johnson & Johnson's talcum powder... If I'm wrong, let him take the lie detector test, or say why he won't."
The story ended "It is only by telling all without flinching ... can you illuminate an epoch, or portray a man ... Only by putting yourself, and him, and what Shakespeare called the very age and body of the time at risk, in peril, can you ever find, and know, and tell, the one thing that it is our obligation to tell: the truth."
This was truly a celebration of writers, manuscripts and the creative process, for which we must thank Eva Kollsman and her friendship for Ray Mathew, home at last in the archives at NLA.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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