Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 10, 2020

2020 Yarra Valley (online) Writers Festival Sunday Sessions: Getting On, The Griffith Review

You may have thought that yesterday’s posts from the inaugural Yarra Valley (online) Writers Festival was all there is, but no, the organisers have also set up Sunday Sessions for May and June featuring all kinds of interesting speakers.  If you want to purchase a ticket for the remaining sessions, click here and scroll down past yesterday’s program.  Future sessions include:

3pm Sun 17 May          The Politics of Our Words | Guy Rundle (Crikey, Meanjin), Rick Morton (The Saturday Paper) with Kerry O’Brien (Walkley Award for outstanding leadership in journalism)  with Peter Wilmoth

3pm Sun 24 May          Why Short Stories Have Big Impact | Sean O’Beirne (A Couple of Things Before the End), Josephine Rowe (Here Until August), Alice Bishop (A Constant Hum) & Alice Cottrell (Kill Your Darlings)

3pm un 31 May          Charcoal Sketches | Sean Dooley & Michael Veitch

Today, May 10th, is about ageing.  It’s titled Getting On: The Griffith Review and it features Donna Ward  (She I Dare Not Name), Charlotte Wood (The Weekend), Ailsa Piper (THE ATTACHMENT: Letters From A Most Unlikely Friendship) & Ashley Hay (Editor – Griffith Review).

So here I am, set up and ready to go, with a cup of tea and a Tim Tam to sustain me…


This is the blurb for the Griffith Review:

In a world where seventy is the new fifty, old age isn’t what it used to be.

As the proportion of older Australians continues to rise, the lived experience of everyone, be they in care or looking after an aged relative, will be intertwined intimately with the phenomenon of longer lives. But longevity brings with it urgent issues: postponement of retirement, the question of financing extended life, how to forge a society that can accommodate the needs of a majority older population with the dynamism of the young.

Edited by Ashley HayGriffith Review 68: Getting On takes a timely look at the question of how we age successfully – as individuals, as a society, as a population.


Ashley Hay, editor of the review, introduced the session and the speakers.  She began by asking what drew the panel to this topic.  Charlotte Wood wanted to write a ‘funny book’ after The Natural Way of Things, and she (as she said in yesterday’s session) wanted to imagine what it would be like to be a woman older than she is now.  The characters have to face up to things about themselves and one of the themes is self-delusion.   Ashley picked up on this idea of not being able/willing to imagine what it would be like to be older, which is a kind of magical thinking.  Wood says that all the women in her book are aspects of herself, not of friends around her.  She thinks we’re afraid of the ‘mirror.’  

Ashley then asked Donna Ward about her piece structured as a medieval book of hours, how life is a little like a prayer. She talked about the structure of a book of hours over the course of a day, and she wanted to take a day in her life and look at it in terms of the book of hours, invoking the grand circle of life, a reminder that in every day there is an entire circle of time.  You can think large or small within that framework.  So her essay follows a day in her life starting at dawn and progressing into a major event which was the  death of her parents.  She says that it’s very common for people not to know how to handle it when both their parents have died, they then don’t have a real close model of how to live.  If they die young you have to wing it, and even when they die in old age, it’s still a jolt.  Ward’s new book, She I Dare Not Name, is also a meditation on life.  She discussed how there are taboo words.  Words are important: spinsters who had been regarded as young and desirable prior to the 16th century, but then dictionaries made ‘spinster’ into a word that meant past marriageable age.  The word spinster is apt for her own life, an uncoupled life, because the word ‘single’ often means that one has once been married or coupled at some stage.

Ailsa Ward talked about widowhood… it’s a ‘hard’ word but she’s claimed it.  Maybe it’s a desire to ‘own the truth’.  A single word like ‘isolation’ which she used in her essay to say ‘we can’t grow in isolation’, can change in meaning, as it has during COVID_19.  She finds the metaphor of a tree useful because of the different stages of life and the changing relationships which mean a word might need to be taken out of vocabulary.  Ashley asked about ageing as a process of epiphany.  Ailsa talked about her role model of widowhood: a woman called Isla (sp?) who was feisty and energetic even into her 90s, and she would like to be like that.

Charlotte Wood was interested in why so many people are frightened of ageing.  Pain, maybe living alone, and being seen as not their full self, being diminished. She doesn’t think she’s afraid of death.  But she thinks that we are afraid of being robbed of the richness of who we are. But that’s not about being old, that’s what the culture confers on the ageing.  We aren’t disgusted by the dependence of babies, but we fear dependence in old age. She reminds us that psychologists say it’s not what happens to you, it’s what you make of it.  She thinks we are really deluded by the idea that everything is so great for the young, when many of us are happier and healthier and wealthier than we were then.

Ashley asked Donna about She I Dare Not Name,  could it have been written any earlier?  Donna said the book is about confronting herself in the mirror and a photo shoot brought home to her how much her face, skin and hair had changed in 15 years since the previous shoot.  She’d tried to write a book praising the single life when she was 40, but it didn’t work because she tried to spin a feminist slant on it, and she was afraid of fierce feminist friends who would disapprove of it.  She now thinks that her uncoupled life is as rich and as challenging as any other kind of life, but back then she was so intimidated by their response.  Their lives were different: they were single but had lovers and children and they were quite cruel, she says, in her response to her.  She found that sociological research comparing married people with single people lumped all kinds of single people together, makes no sense.

The pandemic had seemed like familiar territory because she was used to being alone.  At first friends rang her four and five times a day and she was touched by that, but it seemed as if her world had become ‘noisy’ because everyone else was doing ‘backyard projects’ like she was.  She got caught up in the panic a bit, but she finally felt settled when the world around her became quiet in the way that her life was.  It feels too soon to make sense of it all,  but she thinks that there has been a global readjustment in the way that people live.

Ashley asked Ailsa about imagining things about ourselves and who we might be.  Often (as Wood said) we avoid thinking about these things.  What was it like when she exceeded the age when her mother died and she passed this temporal marker set up for ourselves?  Ailsa said that her first temporal marker was 28 (she doesn’t know where that came from) and she felt then as if she had agency in her life, and now when she has agency she feels as if she’s 28, and when she doesn’t feel that way she feels like an adolescent and she wants her mum.  She wants that reassurance that ‘everything will be all right.’  She doesn’t like the way older people were dismissed when the pandemic arose.  The initial response was that the virus was only affecting the old, so it didn’t matter.  But now we all know that only old people can do certain things for young children, so it’s very dangerous to think like that about a whole generation of people.  It was interesting to consider how her father, despite hardships, was resilient, thought everything was ok if you have love.  Our generation has not really experienced such hardships but his was able to transcend it with an insistence that he had a lucky life.

Ashley asked Charlotte about people being able to continue to do what they do in old age, which for an author, is writing.  Can that prevent us from seeing the reality of being in a different place and a different stage of life?  Wood is convinced that we edit out what we don’t want to think about.  When authors such as she is don’t want to think about not having superannuation, they just think, well, we’ll keep writing.  But what if no one wants to read what they’re writing?  She says that we need to stand outside ourselves to discover how we would respond to it.  She thinks ageing is a live creature, not a dead zone.  Ailsa suggested that it’s important to keep curiosity and she gave examples of older relations who have adapted to using technology to stay connected.  But you need to have that curiosity to start with?  Donna thinks that an urgency arises, that there’s only so much time left to be curious and do whatever it is you want to do.

And that was a cue for the windup- they were out of time.


This was a beaut discussion — thank you to everyone at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival for setting it up.

 


Responses

  1. Thanks for your blogs

    Talk on Wednesday

    C

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    • You’re welcome! Wednesday, with Skype, yes:)

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  2. It’s a hot topic in these times. Without sounding smug I am much happier than in my youth and have so much that interests and challenges me every day. There is too much cliched nonsense around ageing and women in particular contribute to the narrative which is most unfortunate. Glad to hear the different views and look forward to reading Charlotte Wood’s latest. She challenges these stereotypes that keep women fastened to an old model. Thanks again Lisa for keeping us in the loop.

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    • Well, I agree with you, but Charlotte Wood’s PoV is from the age of about 70, and I do think there is (for most people) a world of difference between 70 and 80, and an even greater different with 90. I have two good friends in their 90s, and their minds are sharper than mine, but only one of them is still gadding about. I also have friends and acquaintances in their 80s grappling with partners who have dementia or Alzheimer’s and that is a very difficult time. And apropos of the idea that writers can just keep writing to make up for not having any super, I am mindful of some Australian writers whose career I followed by buying every book as they wrote it, and then the books dried up although the author went on living for some time after that. In Elizabeth Jolley’s case it was dementia. I don’t know about Elizabeth Hazzard and Thea Astley…

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  3. Attending and writing prolifically, you’re an inspiration and clearly inspired by being in the midst of what must be heady joy!

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  4. Sounds like a fascinating discussion. My mother died at age 56 and I remember feeling quite strange when I turned 57 and realized I was older than my mother had ever been. It was quite discombobulating & took some time to get used to. My grandmother, however, lived to see both her children die young, and I cannot think of anything much worse than that actually. An odd thing to think about on Mother’s Day!

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    • This is our first Mother’s Day without any mothers, and it felt so weird not to be doing anything that I made a cake instead for the couple next door:)

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  5. Totally off topic (again) but did want to say I’m on my second read of Carmel Bird’s Field of Poppies and finding all the things I missed on my first read – it’s witty book isn’t it? A sheer delight, I find myself chortling at almost every page! I’ve treated myself to a copy of it from our wonderful bookstore which has now reopened as anything I’m prepared to read twice is a keeper! So glad you recommended it!

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    • I read a lot of debut fiction, and I enjoy it, but I think there is nothing to match a novel by a writer with life experience and years of writing experience as well.

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  6. I find the same thing Lisa – young novelists are often very clever, but I’ve often felt in my reading that nothing beats years of experience – of life and writing, as you say. Carmel’s own wide reading and interests really show in this book! I love the way she meanders slight off topic onto something of interest and then draws the novel back to the main story again – as I think you said, it’s like having a wonderfully interesting conversation! I must find more by her to read.

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    • I like her mastery of voice. Her character reminded me of a very dear friend of mine. All her people seem so real to me.

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