Fiona Wright: On Helen Garner

Festival blogger Fiona Wright recaps Helen Garner’s discussion with Matthew Condon on her career in writing, her savage self-scrutiny, and how she strikes an honourable balance between tact and honesty when telling other people’s stories.



My friend and I clink glasses in a city bar before the event, and say, “Happy Helen Day!” More precisely: I clink my glass against the small wooden box in which her drink has inexplicably been served. She has to take bird-like sips from its corner in order to not spill it on her dress and I think, what a perfectly Garnerian detail.

Helen Garner walks on stage wearing a linen shirt and slacks, has a habit of leaning forward in her chair to grasp her calves, and because of this, from here, Row W, she looks just like my mother. (Although my mother has never had a billboard celebrate her birthday.)

The resemblance isn’t strong, I know, but I’ve been thinking of my mother, worrying over my mother, all week. I’ve been finishing off a manuscript, for another book of essays, and they’re personal and drawn from life and so they’re full of little interactions and encounters with the people in my life, and I’m suddenly, now that the book feels more real, terrified of hurting the people whom I love.

In ‘The Art of the Dumb Question’, Garner writes about this problem, of how to ‘figure out an honourable balance between tact and honesty.’ She writes:

I used to think that … I’d be ethically in the clear as long as I wrote in ‘good faith’ – that is, if I laid myself on the line as well, applied to myself the same degree of analysis and revelation that I did to other people concerned. I still happen to think this attitude is legitimate, as far as it goes – but it’s based on an assumption of consciousness … which is over-optimistic to the point of being blind.

Writers ‘have a voice, and sometimes the people who we’ve shared our lives with don’t’

Helen Garner

When I read this last year I realised that this was the ethical system that I’d been using, justifying making objects of other people by also making one of my self. But it’s a fallible system, as Garner says here, because you cannot know the particular sensitivities or sore points of any other person, and I think you’re especially blind to those of the people – especially family, especially parents – with whom you are most closely entangled.

In this same essay, Garner writes, ‘you are accountable for the pain you can cause.’

On stage, when Garner talks about this ethical problem, she says the crux of the matter is that writers ‘have a voice, and sometimes the people who we’ve shared our lives with don’t’, that in her youth she ‘crashed through people’s lives’ – but this kind of carelessness was very much the spirit of the times. She says that some people appreciate their appearances in her work, because it means that there’s ‘one little part’ of their lives ‘that hasn’t been lost’, and that this makes her not happier, but less guilty. 

Yes, I think. I’m feeling guilty. Not because I’ve done anything wrong or unkind, but because no one in my life ever asked for this. Garner says, maybe it’s delusion that you could be and artist and a nice person and this once, just this once, I hope that what she’s saying isn’t true.