A lot of my writing, over the last few years, has involved playing with fragments. The style appeals to me as holding the capacity to embed uncertainty, a sort of tongue-in-cheek response to that old Realist assumption that writing ever could describe anything with certainty anyway. The philosophical (or perhaps self-absorbed) part of me likes to imagine that I can feel things move fragments that I couldn’t hope to bring alive when writing in a traditional linear structure. Fragments offer an immediate possibility in writing for a piece to contradict itself, to overlap and develop, to thread ideas through multiple images and moments. Tensions can become productive. The reader is forced to work, to assimilate the part into the whole.
It is idealistic, in some ways. But it is also, in others, easier writing than conventional linear structures can be. (Perhaps I am just lazy.) Fragments bring with them a scope for encompassing shifts of perspective and time, they enact the irresolvable. They create a paradox in the piece—the connection between each fragment is somehow that they are also simultaneously disconnected.
I realise, partway through drafting, that I am writing a blog post about fragmentation… I begin to introduce fragments to my draft, and it becomes an exercise in things breaking, things wandering off in different directions.
Kevin Brophy has written on fragments and how they operate in his creative practice. The fragment, he argues, ‘offers both an endless suspension of closure and a series of minor closures and minor beginnings’ (72). This concept, the endless suspension of closure, is one that excites me. All good writing, I think, does this—it opens us to the sense that the universe will always hold more. But the fragment, as an aspect of style, embeds this sensation on a textual level. This writing, according to Brophy, demands that the reader follow through with the same suspension of closure in reading: ‘Fragments are like city maps across which our gaze can move, making decisions about a possible journey at each crossroad while all the time we know that each decision we make increases the number of other journeys we could have taken. The fragment always suggests there is more that might have been said. It declares the impossibility of saying everything’ (72).
If saying everything has been declared impossible, saying nothing becomes impossible too. Language and structure are decisive, deliberate acts. Fragments let the possibility of meaning rest with the reader. As a style of writing, it abdicates responsibility for directing interpretation—it throws open the page, provides space for the reader to ponder, reflect, to think: yes, I can see myself in this gap here.
Paul Hetherington and Rachel Robertson make a slightly different point in responding to fragmented forms. Their discussion is centred on lyric essay, and a comparison is made to the practice of mosaic. They expand on a sense of fragmentation as provocation—the unfinished and indeterminate qualities of the form emerge ‘precisely because [the fragmented text] is made of material which will not be subdued’ (5). The fragments they play with and reference in their work seem to be understood as less coherent than Brophy’s. They can be productively divergent, unruly and unexpected. Hetherington and Robertson describe Antonio Gaudí’s architecture, his practice of smashing bottles and tiles, using stone and ceramics to create mosaics that had no set or preordained pattern, but instead were (and still are) joyfully riotous, disruptive, and based in happenstance. Written fragments, then, they suggest, can function in the same way—they can introduce a proliferation of ideas which move outward, uncontained and unconstrained by the structure of the text. This, they argue, is one way in which writing can ‘map and understand human subjectivity’ (6). I am completely in love with this idea.
My broken voice. When I go home, (when I go home home, back to my childhood and the space in which I grew up), I speak as someone utterly different. It is not a radical concept, that identity is not fixed but fluid, constantly in negotiation according to the moment, the context, the relationships at play. But my voice always shocks me. I speak differently. I use different words, different grammatical structures. Partly, this is lexicon, yes. But there is something more to it as well. It is as though I am speaking into an echo chamber, a void which distorts the utterances at the core of me, and sends them back in strange ways. My voice is broken into pieces, and remade by the world around me. Do I have a ‘true’ voice? (Is such a thing possible?) Or are fragments at the centre of how I express myself? Perhaps this is the compulsion: I feel most myself when I write.
My horses don’t seem to notice that my voice has changed. They ignore all that is performative in my mode of expression. They meet me the same way, regardless of where I am, where they are: Izzy in Perth, Dessi and Winston in Victoria. They speak a more universal language, one which is perhaps more conscious of the way things break apart, the way languages can fail, the tenuousness of making meaning. Izzy headbutts me as I leave her. It is affectionate, but I still have a fat lip.
I cannot think of a suitable final fragment for this piece. But then, if you’re Brophy, that isn’t possible. Every fragment is a start, every fragment is its own end.
Catherine Noske is a lecturer in Creative Writing and editor of Westerly at the University of Western Australia. Her research focuses on contemporary Australian place-making. She has been awarded the A.D. Hope Prize, twice received the Elyne Mitchell Prize for Rural Women Writers, and was shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award (2015). Her first novel is forthcoming with Picador.
Read Catherine’s first blog post with us, ‘Riding, and the Feel of Writing’.
Brophy, K. 2001., ‘Poetry: What kind of behaviour is that?’. Overland, 162. 67–75.
Hetherington, P. & Robertson, R. 2017. ‘Both broken and joined: subjectivity and the lyric essay’. TEXT Special Issue 39. 1–14. Sourced (open access) at: http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue39/Hetherington&Robertson.pdf