Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wrestling with mental blocks

Yesterday instead of finishing Sunday Essay - Farming, green house gases and the importance of practical experiments- Part One, I found myself wrestling with something that has been greatly worrying me to the point that I have been throwing time at it to the exclusion of all my other writing.

In April I said that I would finish a first draft of my history of Australia's New England by next April. This has lagged and lagged, with me stuck solidly in the world of Aboriginal New England. Yes, I needed to do the research, to process ideas, but I was becomingly bogged down. Then came the break-through.

The trigger was simple enough. I showed my next Armidale Express column, this deals with Kamilaroi social structures, to my Aboriginal mentee. She liked the way I had ended by linking modern Aboriginal usage of terms such as sister, brother, aunty, uncle back to traditional usage. In discussion I commented, as I had before, that I was trying to bring the Aborigines alive as people. Then the penny dropped.

The written sources that I am working with, primary and secondary, are all necessarily post settlement. For every one word written on Aboriginal life as Aboriginal life, there are probably ten written on post settlement impacts. I try to take notes because the material is important, but the earlier story is lost in later events. What is to come is distorting what is now, so to speak.

I have decided to draw an earlier line in the Aboriginal material, moving all the post settlement stuff to the colonial period. Now I have a controllable block, between 25% and 33% of the book, that deals with Aboriginal life and history up to the time of European settlement. Later material is only relevant to the degree that it affects the sources.

This is liberating. Better still, my past work all those years ago covers a fairly large slab of what I need to fill the remaining gaps. However, there is bit of a sad irony here. When we left Armidale I actually threw out my original notes including copies of source material because needed to save space and thought that I would no longer need it! Still, that's not fatal.

On the bus home last night I sketched out a revised structure.

Geography is central to the New England story. As now, the introductory chapter to the book will discuss this, as well as providing an overview of what is to come. I have a chopping block in place for the introduction, as well as a supporting chopping block that deals just with geography. The story of Aboriginal New England then follows.

One of the technical problems I face in writing is simply making the story intelligible. Even in the later periods, there is very little reader familiarity with the events I am describing. Many things that are central to the story of New England are, at best, relegated to brief passing comments in current historical writing.

The problem is more intense in the earlier Aboriginal period because here we are dealing with such a different world. It is very easy to become lost.

Consider, for example, the apparently simple question of language. Leaving aside complexities such as problems with the historical evidence and the multiplicity of names attached to languages, the very question of when a language is a language, I am still expecting people to remember or at least recognise a dozen or so main language groups and the geographic areas to which they belonged.

There is a difference here between the general reader reading out of interest and the more professional historian. The first needs to understand the broader story, the second is more likely to be interested in the detail. The challenge is to find a way of bridging the gap between the two.

I am using three main linked techniques to try to bridge this gap. The first is the use of introductory material to give the reader a framework; what will come, why it's important. The second is the use of examples, in part illustrating, but also introducing things that will come later in more detail. The third is progressive build up of detail.

In writing about the geography of New England in the introductory chapter I will need to provide an overview of the links between it and New England history and life, including the Aboriginal period. However, I don't need to burden the reader with detail because geography is going to return again and again. The aim is to give the reader base understanding that can later be refreshed and extended. The writing needs to be kept clear and simple, the themes and examples used interesting.

The next section on Aboriginal New England will begin with an introduction providing an overview of the chapter(s). From this we move to pre-historic New England, New England in the Pleistocene and Holocene eras.

In this type of discussion, there is always an issue of how much to use the ethnographic evidence to inform interpretation of the archaeological evidence. In my view, as little as possible. We are going to be discussing the ethnographic evidence later, while the changes that have taken place in Aboriginal society over time create great uncertainties in any inference back.

From this point we move to a discussion of Aboriginal society as it was at the time of European colonisation. This might begin with an overview of social structure, patterns of life and people/land relationships. This could then lead into a more detailed discussion of language and language groups and then into a detailed discussion of patterns of life including variations across New England.

We all build on the work of others. Just as Malcolm Treadgold's masterly handling of the complexities of Byzantium influenced my overall approach to structure and approach, so Geoffrey Blainey and Michael O'Rourke with their focus on domestic life as well as social structures have influenced me here. I want to try to bring Aboriginal life alive as a functioning society. I now believe that this is far more possible than certainly I had once realised.

Pretty obviously, what I am talking about could become a major book in its own right. However, I am writing a general history. The most that I can hope to do in the time and space I have available is to write a distilled story. If I can achieve this, then others can follow later.

No comments: