A week ago I wrote a blog post in order to help me answer the question ‘What is my novel about?’ I had a plot response (it’s about the worlds that Harriet Henderson experiences and creates) and a theme response (it’s about useful and less useful ways of going about the business of teaching). Today I want to come at it from a different direction. I guess it’s a theoretical response, though (given that I’m a storyteller rather than a theoretician) I’ll do this through telling four stories. These are four stories about different bodies.
Story 1: My body in 2015
I retired in June 2015 and pretty much from the day I retired I started to write the first draft of Harriet. I spent a week or so in Melbourne, walking around Coburg or sitting in cafes writing, and then returned home to Canberra, where each morning I’d spend a couple of hours at my desk playing with ideas.
I was aware, as I wrote during the middle of 2015, that my body (not just the physical thing called the body, but the complicated amalgam of physical attributes, accumulated thoughts & feelings, and mixture of conscious and unconscious impulses and aspirations) was both tired and animated. Forty-five years of professional teaching had had its bruising phases, but had also been immensely stimulating. Writing a novel felt like an opportunity to collect together some thoughts, perhaps even to see some of my experiences from a slightly different vantage point.
One morning I found myself trying to summarise what I’d come to believe about teaching. I wrote:
There are ways of conceiving a classroom that lead to life being squeezed out (or at least suppressed so that it needs to express itself in deviant forms). Conversely there are ways of conceiving a classroom that allow for flow and becomings. I hadn’t thought, until writing that sentence, of using those two words - flow and becomings - for my story, though they’ve been increasingly interesting to me over the past couple of years as I’ve been reading Deleuze (1977, 1987) and Massey (2005). I think this is why I’m so drawn to the word ‘lifeworlds’. Who coined it, I wonder? The phenomenologists, I’m guessing. Anyway, if we can conceive of a classroom as a lifeworld where flows and becomings happen, rather than as a space where something is done to students, then the experience of that space is transformed - for students and teacher. Lifeworlds - messy, exceeding, tangled, interconnected, full of the unconscious, unpredictable, rich, tappable - has to be a kind of organising (ironic?) idea for my story.
I had just articulated a thought that was now, through the writing, a bit closer to the surface of my consciousness. In writing it, the thought assumed a slightly more concrete form in my body. It was more consciously present. It had a bit more weight, perhaps, or energy. It had the potential to contribute more forcefully to a becoming.
Story 2: My body in my book
When I was about nine and my parents were out (father at work, mother out doing the work of a diplomat’s wife), I rearranged the furniture in our main room, put on some favourite music, and danced. It was an ecstatic experience, or at least it was until I was suddenly aware of my mother standing at the door looking appalled at the mess I had made.
This event is described in the Prologue of my novel, as an early memory of Molly, the teacher. It is one of a thousand ways in which my body is in my book.
My body is present in each of the four main characters - Harriet, Max, Molly and Zeph. I’ve put into Harriet my yearning to write well and the thrill I get from learning from a mentor. Max has those parts of me that are about a love of solitude and a haven. I’ve put into Molly my passion for teaching, and my impatience with certain routines. And into Zeph I’ve put my bouts of debilitating introversion and my sense that truth and beauty exist beyond words. Each of the four is a part of me. My body is in my book.
Story 3: The bodies in the book
The characters (Elliot, Gillian, Rhonda, Tran as well as the main four) may be, as I’ve suggested, parts of me, but they’re also bodies in their own right. By this I mean that they exist as virtual realities which have somehow in the writing become actual. Perhaps only those who have written fiction can understand this, though I suspect that it’s something most creative artists feel, no matter what the medium. The creation assumes an actual life. Authors mourn the death of their creations, whether that’s a death in a story or the death that comes from finishing a novel. While Molly might have begun (as she remembers the dancing incident from her childhood) as an aspect of me, she soon becomes a separate being, a body that receives impressions from other bodies in the book and a body who affects the lives of the other characters. She’s infuriated and persecuted by Elliot; she inspires Harriet. Her life is affected by others, she changes the lives of others. Her body is entangled with, and changed by, its interplay with the bodies of Max, Harriet and Zeph. The story arc of the novel is shaped less by the way my body is in the book and more by the way the bodies in the book find and affect each other.
Story 4: The bodies of the readers of the book
It’s clear, from the feedback I’ve already got, that the novel has got into the bodies of many of its early readers. Their molecules have been agitated, in one way or another, as described in these extracts from the feedback I’ve been getting.
I can’t imagine anything more life-affirming … Honestly, once I started reading, I could not put the book down … I read this when I was needing some inspiration - it gave me that … I wanted to swoop on and know more, but at the same time I wanted to slow down and savour the story … I finished the book at 2am - read in two straight settings with a meal and meeting in-between!! I haven’t done that for years… I just loved it. Found it fascinating, thought provoking reread sections to mull over. .. I felt the ache when [Max] stands at his granddaughter’s room, remembering how he used to make her bed for her, the bitter-sweetness of her outgrowing that ritual. … I got shivers reading that very first paragraph of part C … I stayed up after my three-month-old son’s 2am feed to finish this novel, not a choice a sleep-deprived mother would make for a lesser book! It spoke to me as both a reader and (English) teacher. … [The book] sparked my imagination and will continue to enlighten my teaching practice…. This is a marvellous book which I found hard to put down, even when I was reading it late at night and had determined I must go to sleep immediately… Molly the English teacher is a luminous figure for me. … I really really enjoyed Part 4 and the resolution of all the threads. I think I want to be Molly!!! …
One way of saying all this is: my body in 2015, constituted as it was by a complex amalgam of current and historical events and interactions with other bodies, found its way into the body of my book, it created a number of fictional bodies whose bodies took on a direction and character of their own and this became the body which is a novel, and this novel-body then got into the bodies of some readers and created particular affects in them.
But why might this unusual way of talking about writing and reading be of any particular significance?
Well, I think it nudges me closer to a theoretical response to the question I asked in my first blog post: ’What is my novel about?’ My novel is about the ways in which bodies interact and affect, the ways in which they create (and block) flows and becomings. It is also itself an example of the same thing. The book tells the story of flows and becomings, and the book itself creates (or has the potential to create) flows and becomings.
It was a paper called Thinking Bodies: Practice Theory, Deleuze, and Professional Education that helped me to see this. In the paper, Bill Green makes the following points:
A body is never singular. The body is inevitably pluralised, it needs to be thought of as a multiplicity.
Bodies are continually in the process of trying to become-other. That’s what learning is. This is done through interaction with other bodies, through affect.
Theory is as much (or even more) about what it can do in the world, what useful flows it creates, as it is about how accurately it represents or explains what exists. It’s trying to do something useful rather than describe something accurately. Philosophy brings forth events.
The bodies that create affect are not just human bodies. We need to pay attention to the socio-materiality of the extra-human world.
Bodies proceed without, or perhaps exceed, volition on the practitioner’s part.
We need to pay attention to the materiality of language; it is in and of the body, always issuing from the body or being impeded by the body, affecting other bodies.
A mythopoetic methodology
This is the human body [Bill says in this article] as both material and cultural, but also the interplay of bodies in situ. As such, it is readily available for research, whether that be phenomenological or ethnographic.
I want to suggest that fiction, or the mythopoetic, has the potential to add something that neither the phenomenological or the ethnographic can so easily address, whether our aim as researchers is to describe more fully a phenomenon (such as learning, or the classroom), or if (as Deleuze and Bill suggest) the aim is to affect flows and becomings. The mythopoetic can legitimately draw on the imagination and intuition in ways that phenomenology or ethnography cannot (consciously) do. The mythopoetic can gesture towards the existence of the unconscious in ways less easily done in other forms of scholarly research.
In an email to me, Bill Green suggested this himself. He quoted Garth Boomer as follows:
'... a micro-analysis of the moment-by-moment dance between, say, teacher and student will show fascinating fluctuations in the balance of power, a shifting drama of point and counterpoint, changing patterns of initiation and response. If ethnographers could develop a kind of x-ray lens to probe the psyche, I am sure they would uncover quite amazing flows and ebbs of affect and primal resistance in teachers and taught from moment to moment.’
‘How would one capture something of this?’ Bill asked in his email. ‘In a realist account? More poetically? Or perhaps something a la Deleuze/Guattari... It's an intriguing challenge.’
Perhaps ‘capture’ is not quite right. Perhaps all we can do is try to create useful affects.
It’s happened before, many many times in my professional life.
I become possessed by a project. By a vision of what’s possible. I become obsessed with nailing down every possible detail that will help me make it happen. As I’m eating my breakfast I jot down thoughts, or add to my ToDo list. When I’m chatting to a friend, colleague or student, I find myself only half-listening, distracted by some new idea that’s popped into my head or by an urge to get off on my own to continue the planning. I gobble lunch, rush off to my desk after dinner. I don’t sleep well. It’s exhausting but fun, both draining and energising by turns. I’m all a-buzz, restless except when on my own and lost in the ordering of tasks, the research, the ways in which I’m going to cultivate the enthusiasm of others.
I’m in the midst of it again now.
Today’s pleasurable obsession is the marketing of my novel, The Worlds of Harriet Henderson, due to be released on 26 March.
Why this particular challenge to my occasionally debilitating introversion should be so pleasurable, I’m not entirely sure. I was initially repelled by the idea of having to spruik my book.
Perhaps it’s because the early response to my novel has been such a surprise. For most of the three years since I began writing it, I honestly thought it likely that I would be its only reader. But then at the end of 2017 I showed it to a friend, which led me to share instalments with 50 others, and then the responses and reviews came in, and suddenly I found myself keen to get it out into the world.
Self-publishing seemed the logical way to go. I’d had a wonderful experience with McPhee-Gribble Penguin back in the late 1980s with my first book, School Portrait, but my other books were not well edited or marketed. This time, retired and with time to spare, I’d do it myself.
And while the obsession has crept up slowly over the past six months, it now has me very much in its grip. I’ve lodged Harriet with both Amazon and IngramSpark. I now know about barcodes, bleeds and biblets, about ISBN, ONIX and POD, about Thorpe-Bowker, Bolinda and the Copyright Agency. I’ve bought ISBNs and a Book2Look widget (take a look! It’s really cool!). I’ve joined the Small Press Network, Netgalley, and discovered the Alliance of Independent Authors, and signed up again with Australian Society of Authors. I’ve been to a conference on Independent Publishing, and will soon be applying to ALIA to have my book put into public libraries and to ASO to have it put into school libraries. I’ve reactivated my blog and redone my website. I’ve made movies using Animoto and created graphics using Canva. I’ve learnt how to pack books for postage and how to get free postage through Amazon. I’ve planned a book launch and am learning how to do an Email Campaign through Squarespace. I’ve written an article for the journal Changing English;Studies in Culture and Education and I’m thinking of making an audiobook. I’ve been regularly posting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. I’m building a list of bookshops and print-media reviewers and radio programs to approach.
Who knows how effective any of this is or will be. I worry, occasionally, that I’m overdoing it. Or that I’m putting my energies into the wrong things.
But if I sell 200 books or 2000, does it really matter? It’s been suprisingly absorbing and fun.
My 25-year-old son Oliver recently wrote an email to his workmates, an email which included the following:
I wanted to drop by and brag about my Dad. He wrote a goddamn novel! I've read it and I loved it (and not just coz he's my Dad). Mum edited it, I proof read it and took his portrait for the back cover, and my little brother designed and did the art for the cover. A real family affair! … It's finally out on Amazon, and Taylor and I were gonna order copies together to save on shipping. If any of you would like to support a lovely old man with an incredible skill for storytelling, let me know and we can team up on a big ol' order.
Clearly this marketing strategy - linking a desire ‘to support a lovely old man’ with buying a book - works! Twenty two of his colleagues dug into their pockets and ordered the book. :-)
This morning, though, Oli told me how he struggled when asked what the book was about. ‘What do I say?’ he asked.
It’s a question I’ve been asking myself as I throw myself into ten weeks of publicity before the official launch on March 26th. I’m not happy with the ways I’ve described it on Goodreads or on my website or on Book2Look or Netgalley.
Writing helps me with questions like this. Hence this blog post.
What is my novel about?
The simplest way to answer the question is to repeat the title. ‘The Worlds of Harriet Henderson’. My book is the story of a fifteen-year-old girl and the complex intersecting worlds that she both experiences and creates.
When I started writing the first chapters in mid-2015, I thought this was exactly what my book was going to be about (and also about the complex and intersecting worlds of her grandfather, her teacher, and her friend Zeph). I wanted to write a story, not a treatise or essay or journal article. I’ve always loved telling stories. Here, newly retired, was my chance to tell a long one. I wasn’t setting out to explore a theme or to make a point or present an argument. I wanted to draw on moments from my own personal and professional life to make a story which a reader would enjoy reading.
As Tim Winton said in a recent interview
I don't set out to write a novel about anything … I don't do themes or issues, I just write about a place and the scum that bubbles up out of it, which is the humans. I just follow them and see what gives.
But now I realise that something happened in the writing of the book that meant that it wasn’t just me telling a story. The characters whose stories I was imagining (Harriet, Max, Molly, Zeph) were all aspects of me, and so inevitably what they felt, believed and said came to resemble things that I feel, believe and say.
All my teaching life I’ve felt a kind of semi-articulated frustration that the way our general culture talks about teaching, schools, students, learning and education is somehow two-dimensional, and that this narrowness of view affects our teaching practices and limits our institutional structures and procedures. It also pits us teachers against our deeper intuitions and loves. Where teachers (and especially English teachers perhaps) have what I’d call a mythopoetic sensibility, our society values something more functional, rational and blinkered.
I love the term ‘mythopoetic’. For me it speaks to the way our lives are made meaningful through the stories we live and feel and imagine, and through the way others’ stories or life-trajectories intersect with and affect our own. When we see a classroom through a mythopoetic lens, what is hidden or suppressed through being viewed through a functional lens becomes visible. What is potential but dormant becomes accessible and touched.
My novel is not just the telling of a story. It’s an attempt to describe a classroom – and the teachers and students who live so much of their waking lives in it - through a mythopoetic lens.
I’m not sure that this would help Oliver all that much next time he tries to explain what my book is about. I’m not sure that it gets me much closer to re-writing the unsatisfactory book summaries on Goodreads or my website either.
I’ve still got work to do before I’ve found the right words for my publicity blurbs.
I’d appreciate any comments that might help nudge me closer to a pithy expression of what my book is all about.
Postscript: In November 2018, the journal Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education published online a piece about the genesis of The Worlds of Harriet Henderson. It’s called “The Worlds of Harriet Henderson: Fiction as a Window into the English Classroom.”