A New Yorker in Melbourne: On Creative Nonfiction, a Conference, a Hired Bicycle
December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments
A guest post from Elizabeth Kadetsky:
Day One—in which I rent a bicycle for the week.
The bike shop guy, like bike shop guys everywhere, is tattooed, scruffy. In an offhand in gesture, he flicks a tress of hair from his face. Then he says: “Now don’t forget a light if you’re riding at night.” He speaks in a Melbourne accent, which proves to be not Crocodile Dundee so much as evening news in London spoken with an upturned smile. I think, what an orderly city. He winks, changing shape in my imagination from bike shop guy to upstanding citizen, a man wielding rules.
But I’m a New Yorker. I don’t follow rules. “Nice tattoos,” I comment as I skulk out with my municipal-government sanctioned helmet strapped to my handlebars.
“Don’t forget the helmet!” he adds cheerily.
I learn several facts about the city of Melbourne during my first hours from the vantage of two wheels:
• the government subsidizes bicycle helmets
• subsidized helmets can be bought for five dollars at 7-Eleven
• nobody doesn’t wear a helmet (on a bike)
• bikes, between the white lines in bike lanes, act like cars, whereas in America we act like pedestrians on wheels, aka like adolescents tripping on acid at a rock concert
• this is not New York
• no one plays squirrel with pedestrians
• cyclists wait patiently at traffic lights—between the white lines of the bike lanes, before the white lines of the crosswalks. No one hops to the sidewalk to cut a corner.
Perhaps it’s my being a New Yorker that caused me to notice, first, about Melbourne, its rules.
Caveat: I understand that there’s nothing more irritating than a New Yorker writing in a condescending manner about other, presumably lesser, cities. Please permit me my malingering. By essay’s end, the author is sure to meet her comeuppance.
Confession: In New York, I often ride the wrong way down a separated bike path on First Avenue from my apartment—on East Twelfth Street—to Houston Street—twelve blocks south. Here, the path becomes two-way. I do this in order to avoid going an extra block out of my way to ride down Second and then return all the way back to First, but in fact I’m never alone in this scofflaw activity. There is always a whole pack of us, pushing against traffic.
And yet: every time—every time—someone shouts at me. Of course, they’re right—it’s annoying, but this is New York. I’ve gotten yelled at so often I can tell from a block’s distance who will do it. It’s always a white guy. Always. “Go back to Brooklyn!” I mutter under my breath. “This is Manhattan.” If it happens in Brooklyn, I mutter, “Go back to Minnesota!” I’ve been riding like this since I was a messenger at age fifteen—when the dispatcher instructed me to lie about my age to get the job. “Sweetie, it’s how we do things,” he said. There were many open secrets in our city: underage drinking, smoking pot on the street, hopping the subway turnstiles after the 7pm cutoff for the free schools pass.
I grew up in a New York City of chaos. Isn’t it that innate chaos, at least in part, that makes New York the most artistic city in the world? Just sayin’.
And yet. Melbourne was so pleasant. The slang was so welcoming and cheerful. New York slang, its accent is noxious. Then there’s rhyming Cockney, which is a sort of mean joke on anyone who’s not gritty enough to be Cockney—totally impenetrable. Melbourne slang seemed to be about evoking childhood, eating brekky and playing footie and wearing bluey jackets. A local told me that in general the language followed the rule of shortening—Mels for Melbourne, totes for totally, uni for University. I wondered if in this young nation—founded as a Commonwealth only little over a century ago, in 1901—it was the language of children that was celebrated.
Day Three—in which a New Yorker ponders issues of entitlement
For her opening address at the NonfictioNow Melbourne conference, Cheryl Strayed read her magnificent “Write Like a MotherFucker” Dear Sugar column, which is about entitlement:
Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
After, I coasted down the pleasant slope along the western edge of the Melbourne Museum grounds down from Gertrude Street (Did people call it “Gertie”? I asked myself). Sunshine angled across the path at its customary 10 degree-angle, casting that alluring, Southern Hemisphere gleam on the tarmac. Humbled by possible repercussions from rule-breaking—fear of fines, arrest, the uncertain rights of a foreigner on alien soil—I’d begun following them.
And I wondered, In New York, why was it always white men who sneered at me when I broke the rules?
Then I understood, in a flash: my rule-breaking on the bicycle annoyed people because it was an entitled behavior. I wasn’t afraid of retaliation from the cops—me: articulate, white, neither an immigrant nor paperless nor poor. What did I have to fear? Entitled rule-breaking annoys people who are following the rules themselves, who must ask, I’m following the rules, why doesn’t she?
I stopped for a light. Stopped—grounded to zero velocity, though there was not a single impediment racing along the cross-street. Not a pedestrian, not a car. I stayed between the lines. And a revelation came to me: my rule breaking rankled white men in particular because of their entitlement. They are working hard to overcome their own sense of privilege in order to not break rules, as I was here in Mels. It’s difficult, when you’re used to walking through the world in a different manner. What a slap in the face, to see someone flaunt a restriction brazenly. Enraging. To follow rules is to eat your entitlement.
In which I ponder, as a writer of nonfiction, how to balance a desire to break rules against the problems of entitlement?
At NonfictioNow, we celebrate the breaking of rules. Nonfiction is a genre that defies categories, embracing its the relative lack of them versus the older modes: fiction with its Freytag’s Pyramid, Poetry with its sestina.
The Australian writers in particular at NonfictioNow seemed adept at locating organic forms for content. Theresa Meads read a lyric essay in which visual content interplayed against repeated fragments of poetic prose. Panel titles referenced “The Margins,” “Picturing the Essay,” “Audio-Visual Experiments,” “Landscapes: Broken, Extreme, Constructed,” “Memory, Image, Trauma,” Nonfiction Poetry,” “Graphic Narratives”, “Fiction in Nonfiction”, “Lies Damn Lies.”
How was it that this celebration of manifold and perhaps not-yet-even-invented iterations of form should take place in a city of rules? The Australians seemed the conference’s more adept rule-breakers. Perhaps I was missing something.
Nonfiction is formless, boundless, a place to invent, explore.
“I no longer believe in great man thinks. I no longer believe in great man sits in a room alone and writes masterpiece.” —David Shields, in a talk on James Agee
“A significant component of the postmodern world is the collapse of perception between what is real and what we perceive to be real.” —Brandon Schrand, in a talk on lyric style
“We know not which to be charmed by, the author or the man” —Patrick Madden in a talk on “the faceblanket,” citing William Hazlitt citing Montaigne
“We don’t have enough crazy books anymore.” —Robin Hemley
“Theme of conference: Nonfiction is a medium that can and should—must, perhaps?—convey our postmodern reality. It must rewrite the contract with the reader. This is why (why?) nonfiction is the genre best poised to grapple with questions of truth, non-truth, irreality.” —me, in my notebook
It was night. I waited for the light at Gertie Street. The Australian author Helen Garner had just given a talk, in which she cheered our American Janet Malcolm for having been vindicated, back in 1994, in the famous libel suit brought against her by Jeffrey Masson. I remembered a headline about the trial from the time, reading, more or less, “Do Speakers Really Say What Is Between Quotation Marks?” Would that they could, I remembered the text, with its throwing-up-of-hands, its shrug. A sea change. “Just How Sacrosanct Are the Words Inside Quotation Marks?”—I remembered another headline. I heard, as, during the conference, David Shields had quoted Robin Hemley quoting Pico Iyer, “The indelible sound of a brain trying to make sense of something.” Perhaps that brain was my own.
The traffic light asserted its boorish red. I pushed the wheel toward the white line, but only the nose of the beast crossed to the liminal other side. I leaned forward. The base of the wheel touched the line, then crossed it. Streetlamps gleamed in the hemispheric mist. There was not a soul. My helmet chafed. I stood on the pedal, pushed. And I flew, headlong, into the unknown.
Elizabeth Kadetsky’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Santa Monica Review, Antioch Review and elsewhere. A 25-year practitioner of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga, she lived in India as a Fulbright scholar and wrote a memoir about her studies with the yogi BKS Iyengar, First There Is a Mountain, published in 2004 by Little, Brown, and forthcoming in rEprint from Dzanc Books.