Emily Perkins – Candour v Confession: on reading Robyn Davidson’s Tracks

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in Tracks (2014)

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in Tracks (2014)

At the Byron Bay Writers Festival this month I met Robyn Davidson, and have since been immersed in her book Tracks. As you might know from the recently released movie of the same name, it’s about her odyssey on foot and camel from the centre of Australia to the coast in the 1970s. I haven’t seen the film but have gone online to search images of various characters who feature in the book, mostly to discover that the real people (‘the originals’) have been usurped by screen-stills of their movie-star avatars. Take only photographs, leave only footprints, or something.

This memoir has got me thinking about the literary difference between confession and candour. There is intimacy to a confession that draws you in, makes you lean closer. I often admire softly spoken people for the effect of their modest pitch. But speaking up and speaking clearly doesn’t have to mean shouting. (I have a theory that this is something women, particularly, worry about, for various obvious reasons.) Tracks reads like a direct, honest book, and involves transformation and soul-searching, but has none of the tinge of confession that we often find in personal stories. Davidson does not position the reader as more or less powerful than her narrating self. She’s not in search of absolution and she accepts there are limits to understanding, even as she tries to expand her own – and ours. If she moves us, that is an effect of the work, not the primary goal, which seems like something simpler, such as exploring, if that’s not too reductive.

If the book were being written now it’s easy to imagine a different and possibly diminished version – even, in our documented age, the self-consciousness of a journey undertaken in order to tell the tale. Back-story, confession, analysis, struggle, revelation, growth. The book as it stands resists that order, refusing to psychoanalyse itself in any simplistic way, and spares the author nothing, good or bad, in all of her incarnations through the desert. It’s beautifully shaped: expansions and digressions are made and much is elided. The shifting tone is anecdotal, lyrical, pragmatic, bewildered, funny and angry, and in leaving questions unresolved the memoir chooses honesty over comfort.

Robyn Davidson

Robyn Davidson

There’s more that I’m thinking through about this, and if anyone has responses I’d love to hear them. In the meantime here is a distinction between candour and confession I plan to take into my writing and teaching: confessional work asks to be forgiven, or to be liked, whether ingratiatingly or confrontationally; candid work has other motives. In candid writing the writer and reader are equal, with cost and reward to both in the investment. No one is showing her pain to elicit sympathy, and no one is falsely comforted by a sense of superiority or ‘there but for the grace of God’. Candid writing generates more clear-eyed recognition than misty sympathy. A book like Tracks is interested in exploring the larger nature of the story it is telling, leaving an open space for the reader to enter. Before the 18th Century, when ‘candour’ came to mean ‘freedom from reserve in one’s statements; openness, frankness, outspokenness’, its meanings included ‘openness of mind’ and ‘freedom from malice’. Its root cand also belongs in candle, and accendere: to kindle, to set alight.

Emily Perkins teaches the MA Fiction Workshop at the IIML. Her most recent novel is The Forrests.


Best and worst things . . .

Photo credit: Jeremy Meyer

Back in August 2003, over 200 Year 12 and 13 students from around New Zealand gathered in Wellington for the Bell Gully National Schools’ Writing Festival, which we initiated and hosted.  Plenty of writers came, too – to give presentations, to take part in panels, to lead workshops. We made a little booklet to give to participants, in which we asked each writer to tell us their “best and worst thing” about being a writer.  Here’s what they said.

Tusiata Avia

“The best thing about being a writer is not having to get up early in the morning! The worst thing is having things rejected.”

Hinemoana Baker

“The best thing about being a writer is the moments just after you’ve finished a poem and just before you’ve shown it to anybody. The worst thing is me worrying about my mother and father worrying about the state of my finances.”

Paula Boock

“The best thing about being a writer is that there is no boss. The worst thing is having no colleagues – most of the time. TV writing allows for more social interaction and a collaborative approach, but ultimately it’s just you and the screen.”

Jenny Bornholdt

“The best thing about being a writer is that feeling you get when you know a poem is ‘working’. The worst thing is the difficulty of fitting it in with the rest of your life.”

William Brandt

“The best thing about being a writer is the amazing happiness you feel when whatever you’re working on magically starts to fit together and make sense. And you feel like you’re making sense of the whole world! The worst thing is the feeling of worthlessness that comes when you don’t have confidence in your own work.”

James Brown

“The best thing about being a writer? I think I like the freedom. I spend most of my life doing what other people tell me to, so I like being in charge for once! That doesn’t mean that anything goes; poems create their own rules and the more you get into one the more constraints emerge. But you still have some control over the rules – if you don’t like the way a poem is going, for example, you can ditch it and start again – and constraints are the imagination’s opportunities.

“The worst thing about being a writer is not writing. And writing stuff that you know isn’t very good – that doesn’t do much for your sense of self. The solitariness and lack of feedback – it can be a very isolated existence. The fact that you can’t make a living from being a poet; not that I think you should be able to, but it would be nice because I enjoy it and seem to be OK at it. The jealousy of other poets: this has only started to bug me recently as I’ve come to realise that the reason some people aren’t very pleasant toward me is because I’m published by VUP and am, in their eyes, too successful.”

Kate Camp

“The best thing about being a writer is that those little funny observations, feelings and experiences in life don’t just disappear: they end up in a poem, and they end up meaning something, and being valuable, for me and for other people. The worst thing is feeling scared that one day I won’t be able to do it anymore.”

Kate De Goldi

“The best thing about being a writer is the surprises that occur when you’re deep in (writing) a book – the way words beget words and ideas you weren’t necessarily intending; the interesting mix writing is of conscious intention and organisation and unexpected developments – the surprise is in the unexpected. The worst thing is the frustrating gap between the book or story you gestate – then marinate for a long while – and the one that finally appears on the page (otherwise known as the gap between brilliant intention and actual capacity).”

Stephanie de Montalk

“The best thing about being a writer is living in other worlds. The worst thing is making so little money.”

Ken Duncum

“The best thing about being a writer is seeing my work performed, experiencing people reacting to it, being able to fool around with characters and stories and call it work. The worst thing is always having deadlines to meet (or not) – it’s like being at school and having essays due, but for the rest of your life!”

Briar Grace Smith

“The best thing about being a writer is the freedom to research and explore your own ideas and these can be many and wide-ranging. Writing can be incredibly exciting and interesting. The worst thing about being a writer is when you run out of inspiration and feel brain dead. The best thing to do then is to take some time out from the computer, go for a walk or visit someone who inspires you.”

Eirlys Hunter

“The best thing about being a writer is inventing people. You give them their personalities, their motivation and their relationships and then they start interacting. When it works it’s a huge buzz. The worst thing about being a writer is that you’re on your own. It’s lonely.”

Bill Manhire

“The best thing about being a writer is that, though you work alone, you discover you’re part of an astonishing community – not just the friends you have who are writers, but also all the writers you read and love (even the ones who live somewhere else; even the ones, like Emily Bronte or John Keats, who are ‘no longer with us’). The worst thing about being a writer in New Zealand is that there are still lots of people who don’t take you seriously. ‘What do you do?’ they say – and if you say, ‘I’m a writer,’ they reply, ‘Well, yes, but what do you really do?’”

Victoria McHalick

“The best thing about being a writer is the freedom. The worst thing is the pay.”

Gregory O’Brien

“The best thing about being a writer is writing well. What else could there be? The worst thing is writing badly. And, at times, the ruinous financial aspect.”

Susan Pearce

“The best thing about being a writer is that after I’ve written, I’m happy. The worst thing is obsessing over whether what I’ve written is any good.”

Chris Price

“The best thing about being a writer is that when it’s going well, there’s nothing to beat it. The worst thing is there’s no money in being a poet.”

Brian Turner

“The best thing about being a writer is the occasional emergence of something that comes as a pleasant surprise and seems well shaped and nicely put. The worst thing is having to start all over again and again and again . . .”

Damien Wilkins

“Best thing about being a writer: You’re your own boss.”

“Worst thing about being a writer: You’re your own boss.”