Review: If You Can’t Take the Heat

Press Room Contributor Georgia Symons reviews Friday’s event, ‘If You Can’t Take the Heat’ , featuring Samantha Prendergrast, Adam Curley, Louise Wallace, and Emily Meller

I thought I was gonna do a clever thing where I wrote it in the style of a memoir, applying the lessons I learned in the panel as I went, seamlessly integrating form with content. Turns out it’s 1AM and I’m tired as balls. So just imagine that I’m telling you about my day and stuff.

Sam Prendergrast was a particularly great host for this panel, keeping the conversation flowing and the tone relaxed. She was joined by musician and writer Adam Curley; editor, writer and law student Emily Meller; and New Zealander poet and journal editor Louise Wallace. Sam signposted three main topics of conversation at the beginning of the panel: memoir, memoir regret, and “oversharing”.

Panelists began by talking about a time where they may have overshared. Two of the panelists brought up discomfort with the term ‘oversharing’, and the ways in which it’s used to exclude narratives that the mainstream may find uncomfortable. But all went on to talking about stories where ‘oversharing’ involved bringing someone else into their writing – often a past or present lover. They pointed out that you ultimately can’t write memoir without talking about other people in your life.

One big difference between experiences that panelists had had in this area had to do with the sensitivity (or lack thereof) that their editors showed to the potential future ramifications of publishing deeply personal work. There seemed to be a consensus amongst the panel that the onus of identifying work that may be problematic to publish was shared by both the editor and the writer.

The panel did, however, have mixed views on consulting with real-life people who might be featured in their writing in some form. Emily cited common decency and not wanting to get sued as reasons why she would more often than not ask permission to include someone in her work. Adam seemed ambivalent on the issue, preferring to be courteous but not seeing the need to always ask permission. Louise was freest in her opinions on this issue, and said that asking people’s permission to include their likeness in her work would interfere with her process of seeking and expressing truth. She made the interesting point that she thought poets got away with borrowing from life more than prose writers, and spoke about being able to submerge her renderings of other people in metaphor, or meld aspects of different people together to create characters in her poems.

One point that resonated with me was a discussion started by Emily around the idea that anything we write will be in some way crafted. She cited the example of Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, which was criticised for essentially being Garner’s diaries, but Emily said that if her diaries were that well expressed and structured, she’d want to publish them too. In questions throughout the rest of the panel around people mis-interpreting work, or having personal reactions because they know it comes from a place of truth, this point stayed with me: any written work, no matter how heavily it draws upon reality, is crafted in some way, making it both skillful and subjective in a way that will always necessarily blur the already faint line between fiction and non-fiction.

As the conversation turned to the huge potential for regret as a memoir writer, Louise mentioned advice from a friend that I thought was really well put. Whether talking about the quality or the content of past work, Louise suggested that past works should never be a source of regret, because they were the best you could do at the time, something you could look at and say; ‘that was me, then.’