Sixth in line

Elisabeth Hanscombe

Elisabeth Hanscombe is a psychologist and writer who completed her doctorate in 2011 on the topic ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’. She has published a number of short stories and essays in the areas of autobiography, psychoanalysis, testimony, trauma and creative non-fiction in Meanjin, Island, Tirra Lirra, Quadrant and Griffith Review as well as in the journals, Life Writing and Life Writing Annual: Biographical and autobiographical studies and in psychotherapy journals and magazines throughout Australia and in the United States. She is winner of the 2014 Lane Cove Literary awards for her short memoir, ‘A trip to the beach’ and was short listed for the Australian Book Review’s 2009 Calibre essay prize, long listed in 2011 and 2014, with book chapters in Stories of Complicated grief: a critical anthology, edited by Eric Miller PhD and published by NASW press in 2014, and in Eavesdropping: the psychotherapist in film and television, edited by Lucy Husskinson and Terrie Waddell and published by Routledge in 2015. She has pieces accepted for publication in the forthcoming Anthology of Loss, edited by Gina Mercer and Terry Whitebeach, a letter in 100 Love Letters from Women to Women, edited by Francesca Rendle-Short and Laurel Fantauzzo, and an essay in Sharon Farber’s edited book, Celebrate the Wounded Healer to be published by Routledge. Elisabeth Hanscombe is an adjunct research associate at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research and blogs at

Describe yourself in 3 words?

Passionate, sensitive and flawed.

What is your life motto?

Give it a go.

When did you know you wanted to write?

As a child I wrote reams of poetry, the exaggerated, highly romanticised, stylised poetry we learned at school, often with religious underpinnings.

Appalling poetry, it never took off. I sent several poems to the Age newspaper, and got my first rejection slips in the form of merit certificates. They never published any but I collected the certificates anyhow with the fantasy one day I’d have enough to be recognised.

I stopped writing for many years throughout my adolescence and young adulthood to concentrate on becoming the psychologist/psychotherapist and mother I am today, and then, over twenty years ago, a series of difficult events led me back into writing, no longer poetry this time but prose, in the form of essays, short stories and mostly memoir.

How does being a psychologist intersect with your writing?

My interest in matters psychological goes back to my childhood when I found myself curious about why it is that one person behaves in this way and another in that. In other words, what is it that motivates us? Given that life and our experience cause us all to adopt different routes along the way, to make different decisions, what is it about our psyches and personalities that informs those decisions?

I wanted first and foremost to make sense of myself and not just my inner world but also the ways in which my inner world is affected by and affects others. I therefore appreciate the past and how it impacts on the present.

I reckon if we don’t attend to the past in thoughtful ways, reflecting back on it, trying to make sense of it and in so doing in some ways re-shaping it – so that it can be thought about more and sometimes quite differently from the way we first experienced it – then I don’t think we grow much. You ignore your past at your peril, as the saying goes, your past and your unconscious. This is a tricky one because our unconscious motivations, needs and desires are so unknown and only ever partially known or sort of known, and again only when we attend to them through thinking about and exploring our dreams, or in reflecting on the strange things we find ourselves doing. For instance, why is one of my daughters phobic about the sight of anyone pushing back their nose with a finger to make them look pig-like with an upturned snout? Why does a friend go berserk if she sees anyone touching their navels and why do I startle whenever I hear a sudden loud noise?

I have some clues about my own experience but these other two fascinate me. There must be a reason but we could only ever find out with their cooperation and interest.

You grew up in a large family, how has your upbringing affected your writing?

I have lived my life in a crowd, always in the company of other people. I was rarely if ever alone growing up and when I was little I considered it a good thing. I had a ready-made group of friends, my siblings.

My siblings were also my first audience and my harshest critics, motivated as I was/still am, by competitive strivings and jealousies. I reckon chronological position in families has some bearing as well, despite recent evidence that refutes this. As a middle born child, sixth in line in that crowd of nine, I became sensitive not only to what went on for me, but also what I imagined went on for them.

When I was little I looked for patterns in our existence. I still Today, I consider myself a witness to childhood events.

My parents migrated from Holland after the Second World War. They faced the difficulties of migration after the horrors of that war and there was also the trauma of my alcoholic father who was unable to cope with family responsibilities, his memories and his sorrow, after a history of sexual abuse across generations. He became both perpetrator and victim. These events, among others, pointed me in the direction of wanting to bear witness to the events of my life through my writing.

When and why did you start Blogging?

I started blogging in May 2006, almost ten years ago now. I was in the early stages of writing up my PhD thesis on ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’, and I imagined that people might have ideas about my explorations that might be helpful during the process of writing the thesis.

How do you keep a consistent blog schedule when life gets busy?

I write every weekend morning, Saturday and Sunday, almost without fail. I work as a therapist during the week, but during holidays I make a point of also writing first thing in the day. I make my weekend writing a priority, and friends and family, those most likely to interrupt, know that it’s not on to ask me to do anything on a weekend morning before eleven am. Otherwise, I write in the ‘nooks and crannies’ of the day. I attend writing workshops that inspire me whenever I can, at least once a year. I’m part of two writing groups, who meet monthly to workshop each other’s writing and think about the process. My many writing friends help to keep me grounded.

How much do you typically write in a session? Do you have daily/Weekly word counts?

I don’t set myself word counts. I’m a fast writer when I have space. I can write 500 words in ten minutes but that’s not my intention. I’m much more spontaneous than that. Besides, it’s not the number of words written that counts, it’s the quality.

Any productivity tips?

As far as I’m concerned, my best writing advice comes out of many years as a freefall writer, following the guidance of Barbara Turner-Vesselago. She’s a writer and educator from Canada. She recommends writers adopt five precepts in relation to their writing:

  1. Write what comes up for you, simply because it occurs to you. Don’t plan. Trust your unconscious; trust that what comes up for you has meaning that may not be immediately apparent. When you write in this way, without deciding where the writing will take you, what form it will take, a poem, a novel a short story; much of what comes up for you will be autobiographical. It becomes a goldmine; a stepping-stone to other writing, or it can stand alone as memoir. Don’t necessarily write as fast as you can, stop and pause and think. We’re not talking here about free association, which has its merits but is different from freefall. Write meditatively with pauses but don’t interpret that as license to get up and answer the phone. Some use the vertical method, going over and over the same writing, while others use the horizontal, starting afresh each day in order to unearth new material.
  2. Don’t change anything; leave the writing as it is. Don’t correct spelling and typos and don’t read back over what you’ve written, leave it all. The reason for not changing anything, for staying with the writing only has to do with the fact that writing and reading are separate activities requiring different participation. The one can muck up the other. It’s like shifting gears every time you stop. Shifting gears too often and it can interfere with the flow. Don’t change anything; write for as long as you can without correcting, without reading back. Cover the screen or turn it off. Look at keyboard and remember to save.
  3. To me the most important of all precepts, you give all the sensuous detail, the smell, touch, taste and feel including the direct speech of dialogue, that which you hear. When we pay attention to the sensuous details surprising things can happen. It leads to new and unexpected associations, memories, images and ideas. They open up the world on the page. It is the associative quality of writing, the links between ideas and images that creates the life of the writing. Give specific sensuous detail.
  4. Go where the energy is for you. Go fear ward. If there are a number of things that occur to you at once, go with the one that has the most force for you, whether it’s positive or negative, or choose the one you’re most afraid of. Energy is that which absorbs you. It grips you and often it’s the thing you least want to follow. Go into the thing you want to avoid. The greatest tension comes with the expression of a taboo. Write what makes you sweat. Going fear ward fosters openness to the moment. Go with the thing you want to avoid.
  5. The ten-year rule, which is more a suggestion than a hard and fast rule. You wait till material is composted. The idea of waiting ten years is a suggestion only, especially for young people for whom ten years might be half your lifetime. The reason not to choose more recent material is that often it’s not composted. The writer is too close to it. The writing can read as though a traffic cop is directing traffic too much. Not letting readers decide for themselves, showing not telling enough.

Older material seems to be a world unto itself, untouched by present concerns, it becomes as Virginia Woolf says, ‘a globed, compacted thing, over which thought lingers and love plays.’

Keeping these five precepts in mind at the same time takes practice. As Barbara Turner-Vesselago suggests, it’s like ‘riding a bicycle’. At first you’ll overbalance too much to one side, with too much sensuous detail for instance, but in time you learn to right yourself. You learn to find your balance.

It’s not intended that you write furiously without stopping.

You can stop to pause and reflect, but don’t read back over what you’ve written and don’t get distracted by the impulse to get up and leave the writing when the going gets tough.

Stick with it. You’ll find in the beginning you might get your tenses confused you might lose your connections, still don’t change anything as you write, even if you change direction in the writing.

Leave a space on the page but keep going for at least a decent period of time, even if only thirty minutes. The longer the better. The more you’ll fall into it.

Then leave what you have written till later, a day, a week a month, till at least you’ve forgotten most of what you’ve written. You’ll be amazed.

You’ll find little gems amidst the rubble. Gems you can pluck out and use later elsewhere. Sometimes even whole pieces cohere as the makings of a memoir or the bedrock of a short story.

What books would you recommend for people who want to learn the craft?

Barbara Turner-Vesselago: Writing without a Parachute: The Art of Freefall Writing

Annie Dillard: The Writing Life

Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life

Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

Margaret Atwood: Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

Carmel Bird: Dear Writer.

You can find Elisabeth Hanscombe at