Conclusion of essay, “Literary (creative nonfiction) docu-memoir: a different way of writing a life.” Published in the  EJLW Vol. 3, 29 October 2014.

It is my belief that literary docu-memoir occupies a territory that has immediate access to the real human story. It takes the emotional field to access the facts—history is to each of us what we experience at a personal and affective level. At the core of the literary docu-memoir is the myth that carries the meaning of what it is to be human. In this instance, the myth is the essential learning from the past. It is the way we each make sense of our experience and which is never just an experience, rather “truth”—a mixture of our lived life (the actual or factual experience), and our myth life (our memories and  the way in which we each choose to interpret our story). All any of us really have that is truly our own is our story.

In Parker’s Lighthouse, the people in the lighthouse community have similar experiences, and their myths are also fairly similar—they have a shared story in relation to life in the lighthouse community. In my study, I found that despite the similarities of my subjects’ lived lives, the subjects’ myths differed markedly one from the other. In this scenario, myth does not mean that in their stories the subjects’ are telling lies, only that each person sees things differently to others. Truth is not an absolute, it is not a given, for each person it is different because truth is a relationship; it is relative to your circumstance. In a way, as does any other human being, each subject fictionalises their own story. Fictionalisation arises from a number of factors including how the subjects each remember and interpret their lived experience, and their actual words about that experience. As I see it, inherent in this mixture and intrinsic to it, is how the writer interprets the subjects’ stories, and employs creative empathy in documenting the raw experience of others.[i]

For all that the subjects’ personal myths differ there is a peculiarly strong thread of sameness in all the stories. This creates a space, wherein lies a myth of a different proportion—national mythology: that our Anglo–Australian society, that our Western societies, took care of their own, the children who were abandoned or neglected by their families.  Underlying this myth is an undeniable fact that rises up to shatter the national mythologies: all the subjects’ stories speak of cruelty to innocent children at the hands of adults, significant others, and in especial their “carers.” As children, the care-leavers were not looked after by our Western societies in any way. Any childhood betrayed by their own society explodes the national mythologies—that of a society looking after its own. I feel that this is revealed not only at the factual level in the stories, but also on a deeper level to show the bones of the matter. This is the footprint that connects the care-leavers’ stories to us as readers.

In my work of literary docu-memoir, I have tried to tell the subject’s stories “true” as they would have me do. But I am still haunted by the thought that I have not done full justice to the subjects and their stories. I fear I may have missed something important in my crafting, and wonder if in trying to avoid certain dangers and pitfalls I may have created some new problems. I also am haunted by ethical questions: did I approach the task ethically, and did I manage to stay true to the facts to honour my contract with the reader, and also with the subjects to show their “truths”? In a fictionalised documentary, did I make it clear where the boundary lies between fiction and fact, and verbatim and edited testimony? There are also literary questions: As the researcher, how much should I appear as myself in the narrative? Did I use the powerful raw material to effect and write the work in such a way that the subjects came into vivid three-dimensional life for the reader?

My primary aim in writing is similar to that of Parker: to create a literary space where the subjects could gain a literary voice, to show the reader lives about which little is known and help dispel possible misconceptions.  As far as I know, in writing my literary docu-memoir, I have evolved a new way of writing lives, even though adapted from the form pioneered by Parker. It is my belief that such writing can show, as perhaps no other form can do, a complex picture of the care-leaver experience and the scars that these people carry, and what it means to be human. I also see that such writing can be applied to other lives that are little understood, to show the reader what it feels like to have lived an unusual life.


[i] See Margulies on the subjective nature of what, for want of a better term, we call empathy: “Empathy is by its very nature projective [….] Our own experience, even if powerfully and incontrovertibly in resonance with the other, must remain our own experience of the other’s experience. We can share with, but can never be, the other [.…] We can only approximate another’s experience from within the framework of our own” (Margulies 183).

Works cited

Margulies, Alfred. “Empathy, Virtuality, and the Birth of Complex Emotional States.” In Human Feelings: Explorations in Affect Development and Meaning. Eds. Ablon, Steven L. and Daniel Brown, Edward J. Khantzian, John E. Mack.  Hillsdale, New Jersey USA: Analytic Press, 1993. 181-202. Print.

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