This is the content of a talk I gave at a conference last Friday. The conference was co-hosted by the Centre for Life History and Life Writing at Sussex University and the Centre for Research in Memory, Narrative and Histories at Brighton University.
My name is Sue MacLaine and I am a writer, a performer and a sign language interpreter. In thinking about what has occurred since completing the MA in September 2011, I began to contemplate why I had undertaken it in the first place. There is no pat answer as it isn't a pat course. Completing the MA does not, in my experience, deliver one to the start of a clearly defined career path as an oral historian. I was looking to fold knowledge gained from the MA into my own practice as a writer and interpreter.
The life I have now, the person I am or trying to be is far removed from that of my childhood. There is a brilliant line in the film 'Jerry Maguire' where the characters played by Tom Cruise and Renee Zeilwegger go on a first date. Jerry begins to tell the Dorothy about his ex-girlfrend, she leans across the table and says 'let's not tell our sad stories'. I told my sad story for 20 years to the same therapist and have written it into my journal since 1978. Both of these activities have had a profound effect and influence on my work and led me towards undertaking the MA.
The therapeutic space gave me an acuity for listening, an ability to sustain in the quest for meaning and a tenacity to find expression for that meaning. Writing a journal is a way of meeting myself, of growing myself into a human being. Once I was a person, I could be an artist and my compulsion with 'unsaid saying' began to find creative rather than therapeutic expression. This compulsion about the space between the words, the meaning of silence, the said but not said, public and private faces; all of this found a natural home in the Life History and Life Writing MA.
This talk concentrates on my writing and performing life, in particular a performance entitled 'Still Life: An Audience with Henrietta Moraes'. My performance practice straddles between theatre and Live Art. Live Art has emerged from performance art practice where (loosely) there is quite simply the possibility of 'liveness' in art. Live Art works at the edges of more traditional art forms and breaks apart those traditions of representation. For further information go to the Live Art Development Agency website
Oral History and Life History work has, I think, some of the same intentions as Live Art. Both question assumptions about consitutes History or Art, who is allowed to make it and for who is it for.
Henriatta Moraes was the model and muse to Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. The performance takes place in life-drawing studios or within art galleries and those attending are encouraged to respond as both audience and artist. Last Friday (May 18th) the piece was performed at the National Portrait Gallery in London and previously at Wimbledon College of Art and the Phoenix Brighton Studios. (It will be at Edinburgh Fringe festival this year and then touring in Autumn).
Both of my current solo pieces were written while doing the MA. The academic rigour fired up and enhanced my creative process. When I begin to write, the piece and I satellite around each other, aware of being in each other's orbit but once cannot pull down the moon too soon. The MA provided a concrete focus fro my brain which enabled me to meet the material on both an academic and a creative level. I use a cloud storage system called Dropbox to store my documents. They are on my computer and also in cloud space; the same content existing in two different spaces. Writing creatively while undertaking the MA was a little like this.
The catalyst for my making work is often a personal psychic disturbance. I then interrogate that disturbance for a resonance beyond myself. If I find it I begin to noodle around the idea and I begin to read. One of the most useful pieces of advice I received from my studies was to use the research approach of 'read above, read around and then write'. During the research phase of a project I do this. I also fall asleep a lot and allow the material to work away in my sub-concious. Before thinking about script, I am looking to find the form and structure of the piece.
I draw on therapeutic notions of transference and try to listen to what the material is telling me. In the case of Henrietta's autobiography there were great gaps in the chronology of her story. The ommissions and choice of emphasis became important clues in guiding the narrative. We are back again to the 'unsaid saying'. After all this effort of reading and thinking and falling asleep and eating cake, I launch into a first draft but this can ONLY occur if I have a sense of the form of the piece. It is through form that I honour the source. If the form is respectful, compassionate and resonant of the subject then so too will the words.