The young widow and the academy

by | May 9, 2012 | Blog, Memoir | 3 comments

I was honoured and delighted to learn that my memoir The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement is now the subject of a long article in academic journal TEXT. Senior Lecturer Bernadette Brennan, of the University of Sydney’s English Department, has just published ‘Frameworks of grief: Narrative as an act of healing in contemporary memoir’, a close reading of my book and Maggie MacKellar’s When it Rains. How convenient that such articles are available online, so radically unlike my years of dust-inhaling in research library stacks in the early 1990s.

Last year I discovered that Bernadette teaches my memoir to her Masters students as part of course about contemporary Australian women’s memoir. Other works studied in the course include When it Rains and the award-winning Reading by Moonlight by Brenda Walker.

In response to Andrew Reimer’s review of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, ‘Frameworks of grief’ investigates the question of whether private sorrow should remain private, whether there is really no way language can be employed to articulate the experience of grief, and – reflecting a question raised by Julian Barnes’s review of Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story – whether ‘autobiographical accounts of grief are unfalsifiable, and therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria’. To do justice to all these questions, the article runs to 12,000 words – or about one-fifth as long as my entire book.

It’s a funny thing to read someone else writing academically about your own work. I was relieved that Bernadette found little trace of sentimentality in my book, and that she saw a connection my love of jazz music to the way I structured the book. She writes:

The dialectic of inside/outside recurs in various guises throughout the text. The damage to the inside of the house is more pronounced than that to the outside. So too, Lloyd suffers deep, psychic pain while presenting a competent public exterior. Less obvious perhaps is the way the narrative, in its dance between intimacy and distance, demonstrates the gulf which exists between the private experience, and the public expression, of loss. Lloyd’s description of her beloved jazz hints at her narrative strategy:

My head and my heart have always found equal refuge in its combination of improvisation and harmonic structure. The music expresses freedom and constraint simultaneously; the freedom to improvise is in fact only created through the structures of melody and harmony that provide choices for the improvisation. (p13)

In narrative terms Lloyd’s ‘melody and harmony’ are structure and metaphor. By controlling them she is able to articulate something for which she has no training and for which there seems to be no guidance.

Something for which I had no training and for which there was no guidance. That sentence could describe grieving a spouse, or writing a book. Despite the tsunami of writing guides and how-to manuals and online courses and ebook downloads pinging my inbox with daily intensity, I do believe that you learn to write only by writing (and reading). But you don’t learn to grieve. You just grieve, and you breathe, and at some point you find that you have survived.

All those years ago, when I was an unhappy PhD candidate, not once in my wildest imaginings did I suspect that I would one day write a book that would be taught at Masters level or be the subject of thoughtful academic analysis. But I never thought I’d be a widow, either.

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