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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Week 4 of the Philosophy Club: Writing Hidden Lives into Visibility

Fresh from our Easter break, the Philosophy Club reconvened Thursday evening with a better sense of who we are as researchers, and a desire to turn those recuperated fragments of forgotten female lives into something lasting and, if possible, reverential. As researchers, we discovered, we were challengers of conventional ways of doing geneology with its overriding attention to timelines and family lines; we were more drawn to the human side - the Hows and Whys - of our research subjects than the Whens and Wheres of their particular time and place; we were prepared to seek out and give credence to an oral account of a person's life, however fragmented and tentative the memories that constituted it might be; we were insecure whilst remaining curious; prone to proscrastination albeit thrilled by the chase once we got there; circumventive though not beyond a tad of the inventive; harried of mind yet dogged in approach. As researchers, we concluded, we were up to the task.

In considering our Invisible Matron grandmothers and great aunts and mystery household members from the standpoint of biographers and storytellers, however, we were faced with the equally daunting task of working out what kinds of narratives we wanted to create. Did we, for example, feel that it was enough to finally grant these women their place in the sun through writing texts that celebrated their hitherto overlooked lives and achievements? Or did we feel it necessary to turn their very absence from existing histories into the actual story we were telling: writing not so much pieces that celebrated these hidden lives as challenged and destabilized those accounts that had left them out in the first place.

This triggered a lively discussion around the nature of change in society, and how best to bring women's voices and experiences into the picture and even more important, make them count. Reflecting on Carolyn Heilbrun's definition of power - that is, "the ability to take one's place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one's part matter" - we questioned what kind of writing might lend itself most effectively to achieving this end. Drawing on fragments of text that addressed the very process and practice of writing as a social and political intervention, and piecing them together so as to create for ourselves a preliminary mapping of what our Philosophy Club writing project might look like, we threw those traditional ideals of female destiny - safety and closure - out with the proverbial bath water, and opted for experimentation and adventure instead. This direction echoed that taken by many of the "intrepid traveller" Victorian era female diarists whom we had encountered in Betty Jane Wylie's excellent account of women and diary-writing. It also spoke to Janet Wolff's idea of women's writing being akin to a "wild zone" where, in the absence of a script, we have the chance to create something new. As to the issue of filling in the many gaping holes that remain in the lives of the women we are attempting to bring to life through our writing, we grappled with Roland Barthes' suggestion that biography is nothing more than "a novel that dares not speak it's name." If our views on this quote differed substantially, so too did the amount of poetic license that each of us felt prepared to allow ourselves as we stepped into our roles as biographers.

And so to the wild zone...And a collective writing exercise to get the creative juices flowing. Breaking into small groups, we gave a voice to one of Vanessa Bell's nude models: writing a first person narrative for the woman in the painting who, judging by the pose captured by this early 20th century female artist, was doing a good job of subverting the traditional male gaze. Though we approached the exercise with trepidation, we were soon tapping into our collective inner poet. The poetry that came out of this experimental adventure was far from safe, and spoke to anything but closure. Rather, it took chances and opened doors - very similar, in fact, to the experience of aging that this Invisible Matron series is rendering visible to us. It certainly introduced a welcome twist into the birthday toast we raised, complete with cake and candles, to one of our Philosophy Club participants - turning another year older into a genuine cause for celebration.

From collective writing and cake eating, we moved on to an exercise in communal reading...Or at least, a dress rehearsal for the performative intervention that we will make next Thursday at the members' salon evening. Central to this intervention are written pieces that each of us is creating from the fragments that our individual research projects have brought to light: fading photographs, flashes of memory, inscriptions in books, yellowed newspaper clippings, time-worn obituary notices, moss-covered gravestones, a cherished brooch. Bringing these fragments into dialogue with the novels and poetry and works of art and architecture and fashions of the historical times our respective 'recuperated' women lived through is enabling us to evoke a "structure of feeling" around them. Bringing these structures of feeling into dialogue with our personal desires and wishes for our women is enabling our writing to speak both to their times and to our times. In so doing, we write both them, and our midlife selves, into a new kind of living text that scripts women's experiences in a voice that is our own.