‘Life Isn’t Structured’: Anna Goldsworthy on Memoir
Anna Goldsworthy has published two memoirs. Her debut was the elegant, insightful ‘vocational memoir’ Piano Lessons, about her creative journey towards being a concert pianist, the challenges and sacrifices she made along the way, and her relationship with her idiosyncratic piano teacher, Eleanora Sivan. This year, she released a candid, funny and loving memoir about her pregnancy and the first months of first-time motherhood, Welcome to Your New Life.
The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case spoke to Anna about the craft of writing memoir – including how she crafted herself as a character, how she decided on a structure for her books, her approach to self-revelation (and revealing the lives of others) and writing about motherhood.
When writing your memoirs, how did you make decisions about the version of yourself you presented on the page? What guided your decisions about which personal details or actions to put in and what to leave out?
With Piano Lessons, what helped me was when my publisher said it was a memoir of a vocation. As you know, you write a version of your past — but a thousand different versions are possible, really. The whole craft of it is that self-editorialising process. I thought, does it actually speak to the story of my vocation or not? If it didn’t, I usually didn’t include it, unless I thought it was sufficiently colourful or provided some sort of respite for the reader.
Even though you had that central theme of vocation, you had sub-themes, too.
Yeah, definitely. The nice thing about that first memoir is that there was that ready-built structure: a coming-of-age. When I worked out the structure of how to write it – which was naming every chapter after a composer – it was a kind of coathanger, I guess, which I could hang the story on.
Structure is an issue. Life isn’t structured, except in the way we retell it to ourselves. And I think we all construct our own kinds of histories. Writing a memoir just takes it that extra step further. I think a lot of these questions about how you present yourself are possibly also tied up with how you structure a memoir — in terms of what you leave out and what you leave in.
Did you have considerations in terms of protecting the people you were writing about, or aspects of yourself you felt were too revealing when you were writing?
Piano Lessons was a nice way to enter into memoir, because I started with my childhood self. I felt no compunction about exposing that child self in all of its self-mythologising and narcissism — which I make no apology for. But because I started there, it got a bit more painful for me when the child grew up and became an adolescent and it became more difficult for me to be completely candid about myself.
I didn’t put everything in that I’d ever done, but I hope that I was reasonably transparent about who I was, looking back at it with a lightly ironic eye on some of my excesses. Self-glorifying, but also self-dramatising and everything else.
Starting as a child allowed me to be candid and then I was in this habit of candour. That carried me through adolescence. And I more or less stopped there and then jumped forward in time.
With the more recent book, I probably couldn’t have written that if I hadn’t already trained myself up in self-revelation.
Did you find it more challenging writing about motherhood? Because it is such a contested territory and there are so many ideas about how you can be a mother. Did you have any of that in your mind when you were writing?
I had a bit of a sense that even by talking about something like a birth plan, I was likely to make enemies. Not to the extent that I censored myself, though. It’s a personal experience — it’s not really a manifesto. I don’t think I’m stating a position; I’m just saying this is what happened to me and these are some of the extremes that were represented to me.
So in terms of motherhood being fiercely contested, I was more interested in that with the reception of the book. I did feel that one reviewer viewed it with suspicion for the sense that I enjoyed motherhood too much. Ambivalence is now really celebrated in motherhood memoirs, perhaps more than glorifying – or rather, glorying in — it. Which is not to say there’s no ambivalence in my book; I think there is. At the end of the day, I just love being a mum.
Some of that is about tone, isn’t it? Especially with writing about motherhood. If your tone is smug – which I don’t think yours is – readers might react against that. Or if your experience doesn’t reflect theirs.
Yes, if your experience doesn’t reflect their experience and they were expecting it to. One thing that struck me in the response to Welcome is the notion that there’s too much art in it – and that somehow that disqualifies it from authenticity.
When I wrote it, I thought: What genre is this? Is it comedy, or is it something else – because some of it is quite dark. Is it poetry? Some of it I think is a kind of prose poetry. I think these are all aspects of being a parent. But I just followed the threads to see where they’d take it.
I can’t complain about the reception of the book. It’s had great reviews and I’ve been pleased by the generosity of most of them. But there was a little niggle that it was too finished, or too polished, or too stylised. For me, something being stylised doesn’t necessarily disqualify it from being truthful. That’s maybe my own position – I’m an aesthete who believes in art and in music and literature, and its power.
For others, if they want a candid tell-all, spew my guts out on the page kind of memoir, maybe if it’s written in crafted sentences it starts to look a bit suss.
That is interesting – the idea that being crafted takes away from it being real. You would never want to read someone just sitting down and talking onto the page.
Maybe that’s what we’re losing. Maybe that’s where blog culture is taking us, to some extent. I have nothing against that type of unmediated expression of experience. I think it’s important. But with this particular book I also think it’s causing anxiety in some, because: what is it? Is it literature, does it have literary aspirations? Is it a motherhood self-help book? It’s definitely not that. My publicist was saying, No one’s quite sure where it sits. I knew it would have genre issues around it.
I wouldn’t have thought that. To me, it seems like a classic motherhood memoir –and there are different forms that can come in. Like the Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work, which is incredibly raw but incredibly crafted at the same time.
Did you feel you needed to protect others you were writing about?
In my first book, I was anxious about how Mrs Sivan would view her portrayal. What I kind of thought is: I just have to write it and then I can make changes later if necessary. I think it’s an inhibiting thing to write a book with people over your shoulder – thinking what are they going to think of this? Paralysing. But I did show it to them all.
In Piano Lessons, there are different degrees of characterisation. Eleanora is the central character and so am I. I realised, because I didn’t want to spend that much time on my grandparents, or even my parents, that their portrayals are more sketchy and more caricatured. I think there’s a range of depth in characterisation in Welcome too, for that same reason.
I loved your dad as a character in Piano Lessons. I especially loved the way you wrote about the development of his book Maestro – and how it began as being very close to your teacher Mrs Sivan and you were worried he was taking from your life, but in subsequent drafts it moved further and further from life. It was fascinating.
It would probably be quite interesting to look at those two books side by side – Maestro and Piano Lessons. If a high school student, for instance, was looking at the process of fictionalisation. But memoir’s a process of fictionalisation too, up to a point. It’s certainly a process of stylisation.
It’s interesting what you say about worrying that some of the characters were two-dimensional but then deciding that was okay because they weren’t going to be the focus.
It’s about perspective, isn’t it? It’s about depth of field. I flagged that with my editor early on in Piano Lessons. I said, ‘Are you concerned about this?’ And he said, ‘No, I actually really like that some of them have more dimensions than others, and some are more colourful or so on.’
Were any of the characters there less for themselves than for how they were able to reflect a different perspective on you or round you out as a character?
That’s a good question. I think in Welcome to Your New Life, I certainly used characters as mouthpieces, just to advance various positions on motherhood and childbirth that I could then respond to and be bewildered by. But that’s more about me reflecting back to them than them reflecting onto me.
Did you feel a responsibility to how your children might later read Welcome to Your New Life?
I decided to leave my eldest son’s name out of it – even though I acknowledge him in the acknowledgements. And I decided to do that partly to create the illusion of some kind of anonymity, but also I hoped to universalise it a bit. I didn’t really want it to be a story about this distinct baby: I wanted it to be a story about my experience of motherhood, or what it is to have a child.
I don’t think I’d be embarrassed by anything my parents wrote about me before the age of two. But then, maybe I’ve been brutalised by being the daughter of a writer for too many years.
I didn’t trouble myself too much about it. I think it’s a loving portrayal of a child. It’s a celebration of him and also a celebration of my love for him and I hope that doesn’t cause offence later in life … and if it does, oh that’s a shame, it’s out there now.