Another day of Writers Week, another gorgeous combination of interesting people and fascinating ideas.
The second session I attended today was Writing a Life Less Ordinary, featuring three women whose work is based in autobiography: Monica Dux (who chaired the event, right), Rayya Elias and Ursula Martinez. Dux is an Australian columnist, Elias is a Syrian-American musician (and former hairdresser to fellow Writers Week guest Elizabeth Gilbert), and Martinez is a British “cult cabaret diva”.
Although initially appearing to have little in common, the three women soon relaxed in each other’s company and conversation flowed freely. They spoke candidly about using difficult and painful aspects of their lives to fuel their work: Dux has written an explicit book about her pregnancy, Things I Didn’t Expect (When I Was Expecting); Elias has penned her autobiography, Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair and Post-Punk from the Middle East to the Lower East Side, which tells of her battle with drug addiction; and Martinez has created a one-woman show My Stories Your Emails based on the frightening attention she received after unauthorised recordings of her strip-tease/magic show Hanky Panky went viral online.
As with other women in Writers Week sessions I have attended, Dux, Elias (left) and Martinez were very concerned with the nature of autobiography, the act of turning one’s own personal history into art, and balancing the urge towards truth with the urge towards story. Dux said that, to be interesting, autobiography has to be about something bigger than just the self; which reminded me of Terry Castle, in Reviewing the Reviewer, calling biography a “lifeline”, a guide for how to be human.
As a publisher, it’s always gratifying to hear authors speak about how helpful the process of being edited can be. I loved hearing Elias – whose autobiography is her first book – saying that “working with an editor is like getting a PhD in writing”. Speaking about publishing online, Elias’s remarks reminded me of Robyn Kenealy’s in Comicsville; how digital feedback can give you a rush, like performance, and how you have to be careful not to become addicted to it. What a contrast to Martinez’s negative experience of having her work uploaded to the internet and then being hounded.
Overall, another excellent and stimulating session. I particularly liked Martinez’s parting advice: “keep everything that inspires you”. More words to live by.
Ursula Martinez is performing My Stories Your Emails nightly at the Hannah Playhouse until Saturday 15 March
by Elizabeth Heritage, on behalf of Booksellers NZ