A Blogging Birthday

 

 

Ten years ago, on October 15th 2016, I wrote my first blog post on Blogger. I sat in the kitchen of my housing commission apartment in East London with my flatmate, who’d suggested to me, ‘Perhaps you should think about starting a blog.’

‘Why?’

‘If you’re a writer, it’s a good way to express your thoughts and create a presence.’

‘Okay.’

She showed me how to put together a template, then I had a look at her blog, & poked around on the internet, and slowly, hesitantly, I began to write.

Mostly, it seems, I wrote a litany of complaints about London, where I was constantly unhappy. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t complained so much and that I'd appreciated my time there more – a lecture with Donna Harraway & Rosi Braidotti, after all, is amazing – I use them both in my research now. But there were mitigating circumstances: a broken heart, debilitating homesickness, the constant craving for sunlight.

I wrote lightly about books, and not with the intent that I do now; these were more musings, whereas now I write reviews so that I can contemplate the craft and structure of a work. And for the past five years while I’ve worked with the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I’ve reviewed books by Australian women. It’s given me a good feel for the market and for the issues which women writers face, but I’ve been so pressed for time this year I’m not sure if I can commit toreviewing next year. I also want to broaden my consumption; I miss my 19th century literature and I want to read more globally.

I wrote about my travels around Britain with H, and when I returned to Australia I stopped complaining and wrote about the gorgeousness of running and swimming again. I made an effort to learn about and become part of the Brisbane literary community, which was difficult at first, but I got there in the end. Thank god for Avid Reader’s literary salons; that bookshop was my intellectual home for a long time.

These past few years my posts have thinned out, due to my incessant busyness, and have alternated between reviews, politics and descriptions of my trips (which are handy for working out where I was & when!). However, my book on Rosa & Maud Praed is largely done, and now that my weekends and evenings are my own again I’d like to return to my earlier style, with whimsical descriptions of things that I notice, rather than banging on about politics all the time, though that is important too. I also want to review books for pleasure; I have pushed myself with the Australian Women Writers Challenge, & that can make it a chore, at least this year when I've been flattened by work.

When I began blogging, I leapt into an online community, largely care of a friend, Heidi, who now blogs for Strictly Come Dancing and The Great British Bake Off in England. I found it strange, negotiating the manners of an online world, but it was also lovely to chat to random folk & quietly find out about them. I didn’t sustain it though, & I’ve noticedI’m not very good with commenting in general on other people’s blogs, or even with interacting on Twitter; I remain insular in that regard. It used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore; I love writing for the heck of it, & am not particularly interested in using my blog for any other reason. It’s mostly a place of brain dumps.

I began with a red room & finish with a red building: the exterior of the Powerhouse, lit up by red lights on the night I gave a reading from my story published in the sport edition of Griffith Review. It’s a nice way of showing continuity: I remained captivated by ideas & am drawn to the institutions that deliver them, even as I remain ambivalent about that. And of course, there’s writing itself – still so hard but so satisfying, even despite poor pecuniary returns & the government’s abhorrence of the literary arts. With a pen, a pad of blank paper, a café with good coffee on the corner and the jacarandas blazing along the river, the next ten years promise much.

 

On Swimming and Writing

 

 

A story on which I’ve been working since 1999, ‘Unfurling’, has been published in Our Sporting Life, an edition of Griffith Review about sport. Needless to say, I’m excited!

I wrote the first incarnation of the story when I was on exchange at The University of California, Berkeley. When I workshopped it in my prose class, my teacher Clark Blaise described it as a representation of ‘unadulterated adolescent lust’. Then, it was a story about a podgy girl named Eva who falls for a boy, decides she needs to lose weight to get his attention, becomes obsessed with running and runs until she becomes ill. She doesn’t get the boy. Luckily, it wasn’t published.

But Eva always loved swimming, because in the pool she couldn’t feel her body. A few years ago, I trimmed the story, emphasised her love of swimming and showed it to my short story group. There was a disconnection, I was told, between the girl’s body and mind. I looked at the story again. My writing group was right. What kind of girl didn’t want to feel her body? I got distracted by the usual mania of my life and left if for another year or two.

When I took it out again, I realised it was a hopeless story for a woman to write. Girl changes her body to please boy? Ugh. What I liked about it – and what I like about women athletes in general – is the sense of power and capability that comes from having a strong, healthy body. I changed the story again to illuminate this. All of a sudden, it pinged and it was published.

I’m no athlete, although I ran plenty when I was an adolescent. Every afternoon, when I came home from high school, I’d swap my school shoes for running shoes and head out into the paddocks. On the weekends I’d head into the bush in the hills. Running was a respite from the stress and isolation of school. It made me feel like I had control over my body when everything else was out of control, as it generally is when you’re a teenager.

My routine died when we moved into town, which was just as well because like the girl in the story I was dangerously thin. I tried hockey for a while, but I was hopeless at team sports because meningitis had ruined my balance and I couldn’t hear my teammates on the field, nor the instructor during lessons. I was good at swimming, though, as my mother had been when she was young. I passed my bronze medallion test, but I didn’t return to the sport until I came home from London in 2009. I was ecstatic to be in the sunshine again and swam at Stones Corner pool two or three times a week. I toned and went brown, except for two curved white lines on my back from my straps.

I've found swimming to be immensely meditative. If I have a writing problem I take it into the pool, and by the time I’ve finished my laps I’ve usually solved it. I like that it’s so easy an exercise and that it’s safe. I’m not likely to drown in a town pool and I don’t have to be constantly alert, as I do when I’m running, for random nutters I can’t hear who might come up behind me and stab me with a fork. Novelists tend to have active imaginations, yes.

And earlier this year, I and a bunch of other literati swam laps at Musgrave Park Pool to raise money for the Great Barrier Reef, which has been one of the highlights of my year.

So I was chuffed to be in an issue about sport. It made me think of English author Louise Doughty, who wrote a column in the Telegraph about the nuts and bolts of writing which turned into A Novel in One Year. People complained to her that there were already too many writers in the world, so why was she encouraging more? She replied, ‘At the age of forty, I started learning the piano. I am fully aware that I will never have a solo concert at the Barbican, but I have got hours of pleasure from plinky-ponking away in my own ham-fisted fashion … Just as importantly, I listen to piano compositions now with an immeasurably enriched understanding of the skills of those who compose and perform them’. Not everyone picks up a pen intending to get published, and I certainly don’t dive into a pool wanting to swim in the Olympics. There is a pleasure in simply doing it, and this was something I tried to convey in my story. In so intense a focus on winning, the pleasure of an activity seems to be lost. I also wanted to write against representations of sport as heavily masculinised, and to bring the pleasure of the body - that thing which had been missing - back into the story. It's not accidental, after all, that Eva experiences orgasms as she swims.

On things literary and athletic, I’ll be giving a reading at the Brisbane Powerhouse on Thursday 25th August at 7pm, which will be followed by an invigorating conversation between sports tragics, writers & ex-Olympians. You can find out more about it here.

And if writing is to be considered an endurance sport, well, that’s one in which we authors are clutching medals to our chests!

 

Read. Think. Speak. Vote.

 
Show us your arts!

Show us your arts!

You’ve had a long and tiring day at work. You catch the train home and take out your phone to watch a movie, but they killed off the script writers and set designers so it’s like watching charades when you’re drunk. You get home. You switch the kettle on for a cuppa and load up your laptop to play a game, but the coders have been sent home. On the TV, there’s only the news. The newsreader is monotonous because the speechwriters were sacked. You flick through a magazine. The photos look like something you might have taken when you were eight and the page layout reminds you of your gran’s scrapbook. You think about picking up a novel, but the writers were the first to go, because they were the most outspoken. There are no longer any novels. You sigh, sit on the floor with your tea and pick at the carpet.

Welcome to a world without creativity. The one which our Liberal government is engineering.

Those of you who follow happenings in the arts might have realised that things have been kind of awful over the past few years. The fact that I’ve had to write two submissions to public inquiries in under twelve months signals that artists and writers are under siege.

Last year I protested against the savage cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts, the national funding body for artists, and the establishment of the National Program for Excellent in the Arts, which wasted money by duplicating administration and has definitely not made its decisions with transparency, as with the Australia Council. The effects of these cuts have meant that many arts organisations, particularly those that are small, are struggling to remain viable. From little things, big things grow, but we’re never going to have the next Cate Blanchett or Patrick White if there are no fertile plots of earth from which to spring.

And this time I have written a submission on the Productivity Commission’s draft report on copyright.

The Productivity Commission is arguing that we should remove Parallel Import Restrictions. Currently, books are published in Australia by Australian publishing houses. If this restriction is removed, this means that cheaper editions by international publishers can be imported and sold alongside the Australian editions.

What’s wrong with that? I hear people asking. Surely cheaper books means more readers?

The problem is that it means less money for Australian publishers, which means they can’t afford to support as many Australian writers, which means fewer Australian stories. This has already happened in New Zealand – they removed PIR a few years ago and their literary industry has been decimated. The UK and the USA have, unsurprisingly, not gone down this route.

Fewer Australian stories also means less diversity. Over the twenty years that I’ve been writing, not only have I seen writers’ incomes dwindle (my own included), but publishers have become increasingly conservative and averse to risk. This often means that voices which are not mainstream are missing out.

Why should we care?

I have read time and time again how children love to see themselves reflected in books, particularly if they have a disability, are queer, or Indigenous, or have a migrant background. Melina Marchetta, author of Looking for Alibrandi and Saving Francesca explains this situation well (and her whole blog post on this issue is worth reading too):

If these copyright rules are changed, kids today are back in a world similar to the one I grew up in; reading fantastic novels about places over there, but needing something more. I wrote Looking For Alibrandi from a selfish place. I wanted to see me on the pages of a book, because I loved reading and I loved film, but I never felt that I counted outside my extended family and my high school friends. I wanted to be part of a bigger identity.

Imagine if this situation is replicated on a larger scale, and Australians can’t even see themselves in their books at all. If we want Australian stories, we need to nurture Australian authors.

And now I hear a people clamouring to ask: why should taxpayers pay for artists? To which I reply: give me an industry which is not supported by the government in some way – what of mining, farming and manufacturing, for example? The investment in artists is miniscule (the Australia Council granted approximately $200 million in 2013/14), but the payoffs are huge: the GDP of the creative sector was valued at $86 billion in 2014. I appreciate that artists and writers are not the whole of the creative sector, but they make a significant contribution, and their prizes, grants and training are taxed, unlike sportspeople who also contribute to the entertainment industry, but get a free ride.

These cuts are indicative of a wider contempt for freedom of speech and expression. As I watch the Liberal government in action, I keep returning to novelist Anna Funder’s words when she accepted the Miles Franklin award for All That I Am (a novel about the encroachment of Nazism) the same day that Queensland Premier Campbell Newman axed the state’s literary awards: ‘I have spent my professional life studying totalitarian regimes and the brave people who speak out against them, and the first thing that someone with dictatorial inclinations does is to silence the writers and the journalists.’

Tellingly, in the new National Program for Excellence in the Arts there was no mention of funding for writers, and the cuts to the Australia Council are already having ramifications. In the recent UNESCO report on climate change, every mention of Australia (and the appalling state of the Great Barrier Reef) was excised. Journalists are referred to the police, and doctors and teachers are gagged, for speaking about asylum seekers and detention centres.

It isn’t difficult to join up the dots. In this current political climate, writers and readers are threats. As Richard Flanagan said in his speech at the Australian Book Industry Awards on 19th May 2016, ‘Who benefits from ignorance and silence other than the most powerful and the richest?’

A person who reads is a person who is informed. A person who is informed is a person who can challenge and argue. A person who challenges is a person who participates in democracy. Quelle surprise, then, that Turnbull, who has retreated miserably from his bold pitch for ideas and innovation, is invested in killing off the people who provide differing viewpoints: Australia’s writers.

The answer, as Richard Flanagan said, is simple: ‘If you care at all about books don’t vote Liberal at this election. If you care at all about what books mean, don’t vote Liberal. If you value how books can enrich lives, don’t vote Liberal. If you think Australian books matter to an Australian society, don’t vote Liberal.’

I will be voting for the Arts Party, even though I usually vote Greens. The party was set up in 2013 to support the arts industry & has the endorsement of luminaries such as Bryan Brown. Australia's writers have also spoken out angrily against the threats to our industry, and have the support of huge international names such as Jonathon Franzen and Jeanette Winterson.

You can also make a submission to the Productivity Commission. Submissions close on Friday 3rd June. You can make a submission here. You can also register to attend a public hearing.

Above all, though, we need to continue to read and to buy Australian books and support Australia’s authors. As Charlotte Wood, author of The Natural Way of Things, said in her acceptance speech for the Stella Prize:

It often feels to me that we have entered a new dark age – an age in which science is rejected in favour of greed and superstition, in which our planet is in desperate need of rescue; an age in which bigotry and religion are inseparable, and presidential candidates promise to punish women for controlling their own bodies. I feel that in the midst of this gloom we need art more than ever. Art is a candle flame in the darkness: it urges us to imagine and inhabit lives other than our own, to be more thoughtful, to feel more deeply, to challenge what we think we already know.

Read. Think. Speak. Vote. 

 

 

 

Notes from the Field (i)

 

It’s been two months since I began my postdoc at UQ and I have loved getting up each morning to go into work. My office is on the eighth floor, but I have many visitors, particularly those of the non-human kind. A gecko made an appearance not long after I moved all my books in, but hasn’t been seen since. I hope he hasn’t perished, or been squashed by a door (his tail is a little bent; he may have already had a door encounter). Cockatoos and crows also perch outside my windows. My zanzibar, ever slow-growing, has graced me with a new shoot.

When I found out that my DECRA application was successful last year, I contacted Miles Noel, a graphic artist in Western Australia. The year before, when searching the internet for images for a presentation on Georgiana Molloy, I came across his portrait of her, which he created in 2013 for his SCI-POP portraits exhibition of Western Australian scientists. I’d long wanted to buy a copy, and now I finally had some cash. Conversations were had, art was made, and soon after I started work, the print was installed in my office. I like looking at it when I walk in, or drift away from my screen, musing.

I’ve been reading up on the history of south-west WA (and wished I was a robot with automatic uploads), and almost completed an essay on ecobiography, analysing Kim Scott’s Kayang and Me and Annamaria Weldon’s The Lake’s Apprentice. Following a conference at which I presented in early Feb, I found some new information on Georgiana’s husband (which I wrote about in this post), which has made me think much about extinction and massacres – topics on which ethnographer Deborah Bird Rose writes with clarity and urgency (such as in this one). I’m also helping to organise a work-in-progress conference for postgrads, which is enjoyable because I’m meeting new people and generating new ideas.

While it is mostly roses working at UQ, the coffee on campus is a great disappointment to me. There is only one decent outlet at which to forage, and that necessitates a long walk, which isn’t convenient on busy days, or hot ones, of which there have been many (climate change is afoot, the Reef has bleached and the pollies fiddle as we burn).

I have also struggled enormously with the lack of time to do my creative writing, and have been writing on evenings and weekends, which is wearing me down. I often worked six days a week before I began this job, but the pace wasn’t quite as intense. I’m hoping that I will adjust soon, and get into a rhythm.

For the next few months I'll be researching affect, and how stories and reading can shape our thinking – which is important when it comes to capturing people's attention and educating them about environmental degradation. I also have a trip planned to WA to do some research and to meet people involved in my project. So much to look forward to!

 

 

Twelve things I’ve learned over twenty years of writing

 

 

In March 1996, I started my creative writing course at the University of Wollongong (illuminated above). My parents weren’t entirely sure what they were doing in sending me there (‘We did wonder,’ my father once said to me), but the careers advisor had recommended it, and I liked his recommendation and so, marvellously, it came to be.

I was a young and naïve deaf girl from the country. I found university so stressful that I stopped eating and lost six kilos in six weeks, but I adored my course. Writing rapidly became my raison d'être: it was a balm for the isolation of deafness; crafting beautiful lines pleased my sense of aesthetics; and puzzling over the structure of a novel, essay or poem was immensely satisfying.

But the life of a writer is very difficult – I don’t think many understand just how hard it is when they set out (I sure didn’t). So below I’ve cobbled together a few things I’ve learnt over the last two decades, not as a road map to publication, but more as lamps in the darkness on the road.

*

1.     Writing take a long, long, long time. You’ll need patience, patience and more patience. It’s not just the writing itself, but finding the agent and publisher, then working with the editor. Even then it’s usually not until you’re a few books in that you even gain any traction.

2.     Find yourself a writing group. You'll feel less lonely and your writing will improve tremendously through constructive criticism and feedback.

3.     If you want to get published, you need a track record, which you can establish through publications in litmags and by winning competitions. Find every opportunity you can – write and submit and repeat. The litmag market in Australia is small, but not impossible. Try overseas as well. There are many competitions around - Aerogramme Writers' Studio have good listings of these.

4.     Subscribe to litmags (see #3). These are the life blood of Australian publishing and they are often how you get your foot in the door. If you can’t afford it, band together with some friends and get one subscription each, then share your copies.

5.     Install an internet blocker such as Self Control. Use it.

6.     Get a job. Most writers work like a dog for peanuts for a long time and it’s not enough to live on. A recent study from Macquarie University found that writers in Australia on average make $12,900 from their writing – and these are the more successful ones. T.S. Eliot was a banker and Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. I've found stability and a flexible boss to be more important than my pay rate.

7.     Create an online presence through social media and/or a website. Not only will it help potential publishers work out who you are and what your writing is like, but social media can alleviate boredom, loneliness and shyness. Once you are published, it’s a good way to maintain contact with readers. If it gets out of control, resort to #5.

8.     Read everything. First for enjoyment, then for craft. Take the piece apart to work out how the writer has achieved certain effects. If you can’t afford to buy books or don’t have enough space, join your local or state library.

9.     Jealousy is okay and to be expected. What is not okay is when it stops you cheering for your fellow writers. Don’t be petty; they have worked as hard as you and they deserve buckets of good wishes.

10.  Agents are not essential, but they are handy if you hate finance and fine print.

11.  Conduct yourself with grace at all times, even if rejection feels like a slap in a face and you’re having a hard time managing #9. Publishing is a small and subjective business, and everyone in the industry wishes they could publish more.

12.  Persist. If you get knocked down, it’s okay to sit in a puddle of tears for a while. Then get up and keep on going. The writers who get into print those who never give up. And if you love what do you, and you’d rather not be doing anything else, then of course you’ll get there.

 

On Gratefulness

 

October is far and above my favourite month. The jacarandas are ablaze, lining the streets and cliffs in purple fires. The star jasmine is flowering too, staining the evening air as I walk to my boyfriend’s after French classes. There’s the joy of pulling on a summer frock and feeling it ripple against my bare calves, and of wrapping myself in a cashmere cardigan on still-chilly mornings.

And now there’s one more reason: after five years of unremitting hard work, of research in Australia and overseas, of writing and publishing, travelling to and presenting at conferences, and making applications (9 of them to 7 institutions in that time), I finally won a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award, one of 200 offered to scholars across Australia who have finished their PhD within the last five years. I’ll be based at the University of Queensland and I’ll be writing an ecobiography on 19th century botanist Georgiana Molloy. A biography is a work about a person, but an ecobiography is about a person and their environment – you can’t narrate the life of one without considering the other.

The relief that comes from the promise of financial stability is unparalleled. For five years I’ve survived on a part-time wage, supplemented with Australia Council grants and assistance from my parents. I’ve written one book and the drafts for two more (and a third will be done by Xmas), and I’ve worked so hard that I’ve relapsed repeatedly and tediously into illness.

‘Listen to your body,’ the psychologist said to me two years ago when I dipped down into depression. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t always heeded her advice, but I am at least aware of driving myself to exhaustion. The problem is that there's too much to write and too little time. The problem is also deafness – the concentration fatigue that comes from everyday interactions.

My deafness was responsible for pushing me into writing and research – it was a job that didn’t require too much listening, but which satisfied me immensely. I tried to be a fiction writer when I returned to Australia, but I missed the stimulation and the crisp exchange of ideas that comes with academia, and knew I had to find a way back into it. However, deafness and the strain of listening left me too depleted after teaching to be able to write, and so I resolved to find a postdoc. It’s been an arduous process, but the set backs that come with being a writer prepared me for that. A knock down is irrelevant - you just keep on going. I’m hoping that now, with a new role, I’ll have a better work-life balance.

I’ve just finished importing all of the blog posts I’ve ever written into my new(ish) website. I started them in 2006, when blogging was taking off in the UK. I was appalled, as I tidied them up, at how negative I was in London; so ground down by homesickness & the lack of light that I couldn’t appreciate what was before me.

The process of making oneself happy is one of deduction, and I know now that I can never be away from Australia for long, but it also takes resolve. A friend of mine, whom I took from her calm demeanour to be a naturally buoyant person, once corrected me, ‘No, I make a conscious effort every day to be positive.’ I wish I had known that while I was overseas, but perhaps we never understand how unhappy we are until we have climbed out of it.

There is so much to be grateful for: the scholars at the university who helped me pull my application into shape; Queensland’s abundant, glorious sunshine; my family, who have supported and protected me but still allowed me forge my stubborn, difficult way ahead; my smart and funny boyfriend, with whom I am never bored; and the smell of jasmine that wends through the window on these still, spring nights.