You Imagine What You Desire. That was the slogan of this year’s Sydney Biennale.
I was a guest of the Sydney Writers Festival (which coincided with the Biennale) this May, fulfilling one of the myriad small ambitions I’d always had as a writer. I was on a panel at the Town Hall with world-famous authors I admired; I stayed at a hotel on the harbour, with a view of the bridge from my window. Each morning, I ate my complimentary breakfast overlooking the water, my table adjacent to ‘peers’ like Christos Tsiolkas, A.M. Homes or Tara Moss. It felt like a school camp for writers, and I was there.
As the dark faded into light each morning, I walked along the spectacular curve of the harbour, under the bridge and towards the Opera House. As I rounded Circular Quay, I passed the Museum for Contemporary Art, where the slogan, You Imagine What You Desire, lit up the entrance. Each time I passed it, I reflected that my imagination had conjured my great desire—this career success—into life, but also what I had most feared. I would have relinquished all this, in an instant, if I could banish my fear-come-true as part of the deal.
My husband had left me, six months before, and that loss was still the phantom mirror of my every gain, his absence a whisper below the surface of my coping self.
Now it’s September. I am in Sydney again, and the slogan is gone from the museum. But it—and its shadow (You Imagine What You Fear)—haunts me as I round Circular Quay.
I have been reading about grief, loss and resilience. About rebuilding, renewal, and writing new life narratives.
Maggie Mackellar lost more than most of us could imagine in the space of eighteen months, over ten years ago, when her husband committed suicide while she was pregnant with their second child, and then her mother died of cancer. She wrote exquisitely, heartbreakingly, about the experience in her first memoir, When it Rains, about moving with her children to her family farm in rural New South Wales and slowly reconstituting herself, building a life nurtured by family and by place. It is a beautiful book that I’ve read and re-read, both to learn the craft of memoir and for other reasons.
When I lost my husband, I immersed myself in books on grief and loss. I am not, of course, comparing my statistically commonplace experience of divorce with Maggie’s great grief, or with the writers in the anthology My Mother, My Father: On Losing a Parent (edited by Susan Wyndham), or Anne Deveson, who lost her son to schizophrenia after years of chaos, heartbreak and ferocious love as she struggled to fix him, protect her family (and herself), and keep her life going. (She wrote memorably about it in her memoir Tell Me I’m Here.)
But when you are reading for emotional sustenance, it’s not so much about seeing your life circumstances mirrored in the author’s, but fleeting moments of recognition. These can be reactions to trauma that resonate with your own, patterns of behaviour rendered suddenly familiar, or—most often, I think—emotional texture that penetrates to the bone with a shiver of truth. Yes! That’s exactly how it feels. I read about grief and loss because that was the company I wanted to be in; I wanted to feel less alone in being submerged by it.
I wanted to feel like I would eventually emerge, stronger—or, at least, okay. Like Nora Ephron, whose husband Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) carried on a consuming affair while she was pregnant, and who thinly disguised the experience as her blackly comic first novel, Heartburn. (Which was then filmed with Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, completing the tragedy-to-triumph story.) When I still couldn’t get out of bed, I lay there with The Most of Nora Ephron and devoured the ‘Heartburn’ section, not quite laughing yet, but keeping afloat.
Later, I sat on the couch with the When Harry Met Sally script—from the same book—with my son, a film buff, and we acted out whole sections together. Looked at one way (the way I privately did), it’s a film about two people who bond after going through terrible break-ups at the same time. It makes heartbreak both palpable and absurd. (Just think of the scene where Harry runs into his ex-wife and her new partner while singing a karaoke version of ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’ in an electronics store.)
I reviewed Mandy Sayer’s memoir, The Poet’s Wife, about her marriage and divorce from her first husband: about how the marriage shaped her in ways good and bad, how she shaped herself not just in reaction to her ex-husband’s criticism, but eventually in anticipation of it. As I tried to decode my own just-collapsed marriage, too close still to really make sense of how and why it failed, I admired her deft dissection from the perspective of distance—and in the shape of it, thought I glimpsed some universal insights that doubled as clues.
Sian Prior’s memoir, Shy, twins the narratives of her social anxiety and the devastating, sudden loss of her ten-year relationship to a famous partner, her safe anchor in a world where she often feels uncertain. Shyness is, at its core, she says, a fear of rejection—and her break-up was relevant to her topic because it was rejection on a grand scale; the realisation of her greatest fear. Her explanation cut to the core of my own experience. It was a book that made me feel mysteriously understood.
You Imagine What You Fear.
I revisited Anne Deveson’s Resilience both for the promise of the title and the idea that if anyone might have insight into what resilience is, it would be this survivor of so much more than I could imagine coping with. She blends research, reportage and lived experience, using the overarching framework of her love affair with a resilience expert who she nursed through cancer until his death. Deveson defines resilience as ‘an ability to confront adversity and still find hope and meaning in life’.
Which brings me back to Maggie Mackellar, and her second memoir, How to Get There. It feels, to me, like a roadmap out of grief. She builds a relationship with a man who writes to her from rural Tasmania after seeing her on Australian Story, transplanting her family there in a second renewal. In this, she does what I most fear. She makes herself vulnerable again. She behaves in a way that is the opposite of cynical and closed. And she opens to us as readers too: she shows that this is no easy thing, that she is scarred by the memory of her great grief, but she does it anyway.
Her book helped me imagine what I fear, by so generously taking us inside the complexities of her experience. Showing that yes, being vulnerable is as terrifying and risky and knife-edge anxious as I imagine it would be. But it’s also exhilarating and rewarding and real.
She offers hope that maybe, one day soon, I might dare to imagine what I desire, as well as what I fear.
Jo Case is the author of Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s. She is also senior writer and editor at the Wheeler Centre.
01 Oct 14 at 19:06
Beautiful, Jo. Thank you.
02 Oct 14 at 22:04
“I read about grief and loss because that was the company I wanted to be in; I wanted to feel less alone in being submerged by it.”
What a beautiful piece, Jo. Thanks for sharing this.
27 Oct 14 at 10:10
Thanks for a heartfelt and thoughtful piece, and a reading list I’ve bookmarked for when I’ll doubtless need it next.
27 Oct 14 at 12:12
Chanced upon your interview with the Grapevine crew on RRR this morning and grateful I did as I navigate my own way through grief and loss. Thank you for sharing and your honesty.
27 Oct 14 at 16:53
I also read this after hearing the RRR interview and thought it beautiful – thanks Jo. It’s a strange yet wonderful thing to read about another’s loss and grief. Two memoirs that have completely blown me away are Marion Coutts’s The Iceberg and Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave. I cannot recommend them highly enough, they turned me completely inside out.
27 Oct 14 at 22:41
Thanks so much for the kind comments, all. This was a daunting piece to share, so it’s wonderful to know it resonated.
Dianne, it’s especially good to know that you’ve found it useful in the midst of your own grief (though of course not that you’re grieving). I hope these books might keep you company as they did me.
And Melanie, thanks for the recommendations! Will follow up.