Standing alone and the spasm of creativity [recent work]

21 May

It’s been a while since I’ve given an update on recent work so here’s what I’ve been working on along with my traditional ramble about what it’s like to work as a constantly impoverished writer:

Secret footballer reveals all about what the AFL teaches on sex, women and social media – The Age
Cost of Tony Abbott’s PPL scheme is just too damn high – Canberra Times
Mothers to pay more in student debt: that’s Australia’s sexism for you – the Guardian
Melbourne may be the first smoke-free city but at what price? – the Guardian
Sherlock Holmes and the case of the missing plot – Junkee
Five ads that prove Thai Life Insurance commercials are the saddest commercials ever – Junkee
Godzilla film review – Junkee
Finding the woman inside the mother – Essential Baby

There’s a piece in upcoming Good Weekend, for which the lass and I were photographed, and another in an upcoming edition of the Victorian Women’s Trust. There’s also an article in Elle floating around and another piece in the Lifted Brow’s Sex edition where I muse upon bondage and the true nature of pain.

I also had the extreme good fortune to attend the Byron Bay Film Festival as a “troublemaker”, according to Festival Director J’aimee Skippon-Volke. As the palest white girl wearing black clothes in the village, I had a fantastic time watching an amazing array of films and making friends such as club kid icon and thereminist Armen Ra, film director Hattie Dalton (Third Star, the Banker) and producer/screenwriter impresario Ross Grayson Bell (Fight Club) who were inspirational, amazing and most were amenable for cuddles, coffee and cigarettes. The festival also gave me the chance to debate masculinity with Jack Thompson and yell “I DON’T MAKE LOVE, I FUCK” to an audience question. So, you know, meeting people, making friends, yelling at random folk about my sex life.

I came back completely recharged and curious about the world. It also got me thinking about adversity. Armen Ra in particular has had a helluva ride and yet retains more drive and indestructibility than anyone I’ve met. Hattie Dalton too, pushes through with a silent, graceful resilience that is awe-inspiring. Many creatives go through periods when doors are closed, emails unreplied, you struggle to be heard above the cacophony of life and your projects just don’t work. Sometimes it’s easily fixed, a question of rearranging your thoughts or technique, an improvement sought. It can take as little as a minute or many days, but you can still rectify things.

But other times, things just fuck up and the stain of adversity lingers. You don’t know why. A lesser person would scent a conspiracy – swathes of editors, the collective intellect of readers, all against you, the noble creative, in hostility. This approach rarely works because we are inevitably never important enough to merit such notice and organised activity.

Depressingly, the answer is far more mundane than the megalomania of conspiracy: our work just isn’t hitting the right notes and neither are we. People aren’t obligated to follow anyone’s work for any reason other than interest and sometimes you’re just not interesting. This is where adversity strikes a particularly low note because it requires the creative to unpack two different streams: what they want to do and what people want to see. These are entirely different motivations and require masses of work . The platitude to “do what you love and others will follow” is bullshit because it suggests a serene path rather than the Sisyphean toil  required, plus it assumes success will follow just as long as you love what you do.

I’m not sure about anyone else but I’m highly dubious about ‘loving’ work and it’s associated assumption of happiness. I’m not a happy person – my daughter enjoys telling me regularly I am melancholy as though it is an endearing burden she carries – and writing is not a happy task for me. I fidget, I scratch, I think of all the people I dislike and all who I imagine dislike me, I fret about reading well, about appearing intelligent and having all my facts against the ticking clock of a deadline and a desperate rush to be accepted by editors.

The only happy moment in my writing life is the brief 60 seconds after a piece has been published. There’s a frisson of excitement, like the anticipation of Christmas. Yet it all melts against the heated  drudgery of filtering past disagreement or disinterest until you realise the reason most people take a nap on Christmas Day is out of boredom.

Then there’s the time away from that deadline – the time when you get revisit  that work and see it as a whole. Or holes. I re-edit my work as I re-read and wish to god I could let these pieces set aside so we can both breathe; expand, inhale and take on a change of air. We don’t have that time, however, an utter luxury for the majority of work where a deadline is whiplash for many writers. In the review of work, you see all the areas you need to improve not only in the finished piece but in yourself. Sometimes you can’t see them, fumble for the right diagnosis and that is where adversity rots inside you as you spasm in an eternal struggle to improve.

Spasm is the only applicable word because creativity is less art than it is labor. Your appreciation is a talent, an art, but its application is pure sweat, muscles that need constant nourishment and training. Your muscles spasm because they’re not working properly and contract against you. This is the agony of adversity where frustration and improvement have the same behaviour: violent, distracting pain – standing between you and the written page.

But from adversity comes something alltogether more surprising, something more powerful than a strong muscle. Sometimes the promise of a strong muscle can take you further than already the taut sinews of accomplishment. This is the self belief that keeps Armen and Hattie going – this is the knowledge that propels other creatives forward. A simple yet potent recognition that you have the ability to train your muscles to become stronger. Not only do you know you will become stronger but  that it’s worthwhile doing so.

This is the belief that carries you forward into the fog and helps in other ways. It illuminates that clouded path you choose for yourself and what help you don’t need to reach your destination. There are times when I am offered advice I choose to ignore – it’s often great advice but it’s meant for a different writer with different aims. It’s in this slightly cold realisation that comes the added strand of solitude to the muscle of creativity. Standing alone, knowing the path you’re on. That quiet resolution you can’t follow every speck of advice because it will change that path, change the sincerity of your voice, your expression. You stand alone and it’s scary and you think the cliff face will appear and crumble under your feet. It probably will. A creative’s life is defined far more by failure than success. But it’s that strength to resolutely stand alone that will also define you.

Even then, this strength isn’t enough. Strength isn’t muscle alone, it is also energy and can be difficult to maintain over the long distances required from us. Curiosity – vital for creatives – is notoriously fragile and depleting, and something I’ve written about before. Pure energy for me comes from the realisation there is literally no other job, no other task, I would rather do. I’m useless at them. This doesn’t mean I am naturally gifted at this need to write – it just means it’s the only thing upon which I choose to focus, it’s the only task I cannot live without, it both clouds and illuminates my brain and path.  It’s not happy work, but it brings something better – contentment and the energy to press on in the face of silent adversity.

This is what keeps people going – not one of gossamered self-love, but a battle-weary gaze that sees further ahead and gets on with the fucking job at hand.

 

Post script: I was discussing this recently with Antonia Hayes, a fantastic novelist who I once met in the gutter, our friendship forged in drunken conversations and cigarettes. She’s recently finished an amazing manuscript which is a revelation to read. While measuring our perceived failures against the work we love (a regular topic of discussion for writers), both referenced our love for this quote by Ira Glass:

Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?

On Mother’s Day

11 May

It’s Mother’s Day today and I sit in an empty apartment. My daughter’s with her paternal grandparents before her father will pick her up and spend the rest of the week with her as per our custody agreement of week-on/week-off. I have no mother to call thanks to a mutual disowning.

Though all of this sounds incredibly bleak but, to be honest, I’m actually thankful. There’s no crowded cafes to contend with on enforced outings. There’s something about cafes filled with families celebrating Mother’s Day with breakfast, like the addition of 20 prams and soggy French toast casts a warlike pall over proceedings. Conversations always feel taut with tension. So too do I get to avoid the presents, being the disagreeable sort who is hard to buy for and so bad at housekeeping I will stand on torn giftwrapping paper for weeks afterwards.

I take this mindset as a souvenir of being raised Catholic. Spend one Easter avoiding meat and you come to accept that some holidays or special occasions are marked for quiet reflection.

So here is mine: I am sick of the canonisation of motherhood. The soft, dewy filter of servitude and sacrifice we layer over women, a day of enforcing pastel stereotypes that have less to do with actual mothering experience and more to do with cultural expectations of women.

Part of it is the fact when we think of motherhood we cast out so much of the woman inside the mother. That swirling complexity, that morass of origins and intent. So often when we think of women it becomes a filing of ‘before motherhood’ and ‘motherhood’. Before motherhood is presented as a race of experience and adventure, with that slight tinge of anxious doubt you will be able to reach that grand destination, to become a mother. Once you do, people assume things slow down, you slow down, you stand in a single place, easily defined and easily bought off with a single day of celebration.

I craved having children. My biological urge to reproduce was a wave that threatened to drown me; the desperate impatience, missing a stranger I already knew I loved. I worked hard to overcome my fertility issues, knowing there was someone special at the end.

But coming to know the gorgeous and complex child that emerged didn’t slow me down, it didn’t make me stand in a single place. Having that child – cut straight from me and dumped onto my chest, her face a blur of confused anger at being born – brought fire and complexity. There would be no slow pace, no avoiding risk.

Because the minute she arrived I felt brave. I realised in an instant all that I hadn’t achieved and just how much I had to do. The miraculous act of her existence didn’t simplify life the way society tells us, it brought complexity and challenge. You become wholly unconcerned by society’s expectations of you as a mother when you realise your every move is being scrutinised and absorbed by the child you made and raise. If someone was going to watch me live my life, I had better make it an interesting one.

Thanks to her, I take risks. Massive risks. Stupid risks. I refuse to show a growing girl that motherhood will halve me the way society expects. I show her instead it is one aspect to a life that teems with complexity and challenge and where big leaps will always be needed in a crowded world. That we can ignore our personal and social boundaries and just take a running jump at everything that interests us.

So we go to protest marches, we travel, we chase our interest, we lie about in torpor with our books, we chat and beg for silence, we succeed and sometimes sit in the dark and wonder if we will fail. She sees the failure as often as she sees the triumph because I refuse to believe motherhood or childhood are cocooned from reality and life’s inevitable currents.

In attempting to show to show my daughter she can design her own life without reference to rules or social expectation, I’ve managed to redesign mine. Because she was watching, I started living the life I actually wanted. Thanks to her presence, life is a rich, confusing labyrinth of needs, responses and impulses. Together, we’ve built our own world and we’ve built our own family who, though not related, give love, inspiration and support.

I would not have this contentment without her presence reminding me she was watching. My life would be halved had I kept my eyes on what society expected from me as a mother-woman and not on what my daughter would need to get through life. So I don’t need my daughter’s thanks or anyone else’s. They can keep the tepid tea, the ill-bought presents, the fraught cafes, the declaration “motherhood is the hardest job in the world” and the whole damn act of celebrating the narrowest slice of femininity women can offer the world.

I have something much better instead. I have a life and I have her, a whole world.

 

Postscript
Received this response from my friend Sahra Stolz and wanted to share because it’s so beautifully expressed: “The Better Homes and Gardens mother, the Hallmark Card mother, all of these sit like a giant marshmallow weight on my prickly shoulders and I want to cast them off forever, without offending the eggy fingered expectant family standing around offering me poorly wrapped scented candles and kisses for pretending to the stereotype between 9am and 11am on one day of the year.

Shit I learned about media, writing and me in 2013

31 Dec

We’ve spent the past few days eating rich food, so why not enjoy this extra slice of self-indulgence as I look back onto 2013 and figure out what I’ve learnt?

Ultimately, 2013 taught me that learning never stops and curiosity is an endless marathon requiring masses of energy.

It’s one of the few truths I can hold to like a mast; curiosity brings untold opportunity and but it is more tiring than any physical activity I can think of. It’s unrelenting exercise, the marathon that tells you to dig a little deeper, to go a little further, get a little better.

There are people who are indefatigable in this respect. Clem Ford, whose friendship, generosity and unstinting challenge and loyalty I’m honoured to know, is endlessly curious. She’s a bower bird on the hunt for links, for stories, for experiences and lives in the ever-present, constantly filtering and connecting.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering when I can have a lie down and a cheeky cigarette so I can sort everything in my mind or let it simmer into a gentle daydream. Having made the shift from desk job to freelance, I’ve had extra time to hang out with my daughter, think about things, enjoy a rather long period of depression and face truths and experiences I’ve long held off.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned from the chaos and calm.

Freelance: It was a move that felt like impulse but was a slow cresting wave, a thought that I wasn’t enjoying being in offices and wanted quiet, wanted a space away from obligation so I could write and think, though I realise now I just wanted to hide. I started writing more when I kicked out my ex so I could cover half the rent and it got to the point where I realised I could make an income.

Freelance writing, specifically editorial and opinion, is an endeavour that requires far more energy and extraversion than its solitary application suggests because it requires an accelerated sprint to connect random data to impacts for others, the race to pitch, research and deliver before others. This requires curiosity not only for yourself but on behalf of others, spending a life almost constantly switched on and open to an unrelenting stream of emotions and facts all mashed together. Asher Wolf, whom I often describe as Twitter’s sentinel, handles this energy with adept precision and prescience. Also, gathering from the odd hours I’ve checked my phone, blinking groggily at the light wrought from tweets, Asher never sleeps. Seriously, I will pay good money for someone to show me a photo of her sleeping because I’m quite sure it has never happened because Asher is the singularity as activist curator manifest.

There has been constant criticism that modern editorial is an ouroboros of growing manipulable irrelevance, inciting emotion but rarely thought or true exploration, and a major contributor to lack of public thought.

Much of this is blamed on editorial strategies, bad and cynical writing rushed to unreasonable time frames by writers who shouldn’t be trusted as they give their opinion away for money (actual criticism I once read about myself).

Instead, I’d venture that we’re still trying to work out how to cope with the detritus of data that gluts our screens. There is little doubt to me that this overstimulation (the original name of this blog, btw) overwhelms the mind to numbness, breeding apathy and concerted ignorance. We are so overwhelmed with data that not only is the call coming from inside the house, it’s coming from every damn item with a plug.

Modern media, with an emphasis on online, feels like a continual experiment in how to shift and present that data in ways that will move or educate the reader. There’s a heavier reliance on moving readers along subjective lines because that breeds loyalty, something you can rarely get from someone who prefers (however improbably) objective reporting. I feel what is happening in online reporting is less an exercise in writing adapting than humans adapting to how they receive and respond to the data deluge.

To me, that’s been the most interesting thing of all.

Writing: The one thing that has helped my writing this year was curiosity in all its applications: the curiosity to actually write, the curiosity that comes from pushing it through another draft, the curiosity to test your thoughts through research, the curiosity to read and see what others are saying on topics you know either a lot or a little.

Reading widely should be the preserve of both writer and reader alike. There are early traps we all fall for, like the contrarian cosplay some writers employ in an attempt to appear superior or different, without realising how predictably they present themselves as rote peddlers. The wide read means actively exploring the thoughts of others who aren’t necessarily mainstream (i.e. white, generally male and, more often than not, straight) but have different experiences and different resources, making different connections with data to produce results that explain their world. Reading widely will make you a better writer, but it will also make you a better reader and thinker while you actively work at developing your own thoughts, approach and style.

Having distanced actual editorial/reporting from data, there has been no greater indulgence than being able to write for a living and get a good, close up view of the beast.

As someone who views writing as a trade or craft rather than an art, I cannot shake the notion that for me, writing is akin to tetris where the objective is to quickly sort all the clauses and thoughts to unlock the next level. I spend more time focused on arguments and research than I do on expression.

That focus affects the final copy, which often results in dense and sometimes boring writing. On the other side of the spectrum is beautifully euphonic copy which ends up saying or doing little at all than say “I’m a writer”, which will usually impress some but impact readers, and rarely convert anyone of influence. Instead of “look at all the pretty colours”, it’s “look at all the shiny words”. There’s a market for both but their impact can be negligible unless pressed under the fingers of a true master (and, let’s face it, those who think they are most likely aren’t).

Others focus on a smaller aspect of the argument and mix it with beautifully expressed rhetoric. This is the style that resonates most with readers and lends themselves to, that most horrid of goals, going viral.

Personally, I’m rarely able to achieve that because it never gives me the protein I’m after. Like my on-off relationship with philosophy, I have the impatient whine of “really? I had to read all that for a basic truth? Oh for fuck’s sake, I could have made a cup of tea instead of reading this shite.” It all hits the right note marked on our hymn books but it doesn’t truly clamber up the scale.

Though this lays a very despairing wreath at the foot of media, we should also look to readers who are increasingly not looking to challenge themselves. They read from the same hymn book, only seeking opposing views for the aerobic opprobrium it brings.

So, how do you make money as a writer in a market where the most popular articles are the ones you don’t want to work towards (remembering that you are not a master)?

Money:
When I read this year I shouldn’t be trusted as I give my opinion away for money, I snickered and wondered if they knew just how poorly writers are paid or what kind of cruelly ascetic servitude is expected of writers so they can maintain a sheen of integrity.

It’s an astoundingly facile criticism that displays superficial thought and expectations: we pay writers shit and damn them if they ask for more. The effort involved in drawing anything close to a wage is draining and comes with huge sacrifice for most.

While I freely admit to days of torpor or days where I’ve made $800 for 12 hours of work, I will also admit I’ve spent 24 hours awake writing one article which was then spiked, leaving me $174 dollars or $7.25 per hour. I’ve spent three days interviewing, 4 researching and 5 days writing for which I was paid approximately $0.33 per hour for another article.

For most writers, the latter and not the former is more likely. Work as a full-time writer – which I would argue is imperative if you really want to focus on improving your skill – and you can expect to live relatively close to the poverty line as possible within an urbanised area.

As an adult woman who was earning a six figure salary at certain points in my career, this new existence close to the poverty line is possibly the most demoralising I’ve ever experienced. It’s a place where every dollar is sweated, every call ignored in case it is about a bill, every item in your home up for sale, every trip to the shop tightly tabulated, where $20 becomes an unfathomable fortune and your purchases are judged by people you consider friends.

And when you consider this experience, consider the editors who offer less than $150 for an article or those who tell you that they don’t have the budget but it will provide great exposure for your career or lead to more work (it never does).

It’s at that point you realise you sell your opinion because it’s one of the few renewable resources you have that will continue to feed yourself and your daughter more than an unattainable desk job or callous social welfare ever could.

Haters:
One of the great unpaid labour achievements of modern media has been accessible writers. Though never fully articulated, we are expected to spruik our work and thoughts, our bylines linked to Twitter and email accounts. In a sense, it works in our favour because we’re able to reach people who enjoy what we do and travel those same avenues in the interest of research.

However, it also leaves us open to an audience who believe we should be instantly available for their every thought and criticism. This can run from the stock sexualised threat of violence, the guttural jeering to a barrage of questions (all preceded by a “.” so others can sit like voyeurs as they attempt to collect you as their troll trophy).

It’s in this culture of expectation and immediacy where the energy drain lies and you begin to sense writers are expected to be badly paid and obligated dancing bears. Clem Ford is called upon by people to immediately denounce every event like some Feminist Metatron and castigated when she doesn’t respond as a dancing Feminist Metatron Bear should.

But conversely, this culture of online hating and trollery raises another area: victimisation as branding strategy. When writers present themselves as hated, contrarian, dangerous, victimised by the ‘bad’ guys and broadcast their scalping efforts, it not only promotes the activity of vicitimisation, it also conflates the ability to outrage people they dislike with being right.

Thankfully, I’m far too irrelevant to generate much blowback and tend to view most online criticism as an opportunity to learn (a piece I did for the Guardian got some incredibly valid feedback about being colour-blind and reminded me to get better with research and another made me realise I need to get better at crafting sentences). Ultimately though, if people are going to hate you or your work, there’s little you can do to change their opinion and giving over energy to them is a waste for everyone.

My greatest fear aren’t the haters, trolls, or conspicuously compassionate over-activists with their mourning sickness and outrage.

My greatest fear is someone who can dismantle my arguments.

Accomplishment & failure: It’s been a spotty year for the ledger. For every success there have been some notable and larger failures which makes everything look like a red mess.

With almost a year spent freelancing, I’ve had the incalculable joy of challenging myself on topics and writing styles I possibly would not have tried. I gained some writing gigs and I lost some writing gigs but feel happy that I kept my integrity along the way.

Thanks to depression and money issues, I subjectively feel burnt out and unable to see all the positive achievement.These are poison for a freelancer, not only because the presence of both will heighten their collected toxicity, but also because they ultimately work against productivity.

Objectively, I should feel happy with about 50% of my work and I know my writing style has improved, I have greater confidence in being able to write with authority, coupled with that diagnostic ability to see what’s wrong with a piece that only comes from working up against your words every day. But I’m burnt out and broke and am struggling to retain that curiosity in my fatigue. I will continue writing (if only to pay those bills) but will also continue my Sisyphean hobby of trying to find a desk job if only to recuperate for a spell.

As a postscript, 2013 would have been utterly bereft were it not for the people I am lucky enough to call friends. With no family of my own bar my daughter, this family of writers and others have shown me greater generosity, loyalty and love than any person I’ve known before.

Breaking through the prison of our skin [transcript of speech]

6 Dec

I was invited to attend the VATE conference and speak to the topic of “To what extent are all writers confined to what Violette Leduc called ‘the prison of [our] skin?”.

Here’s a transcript. Apologies in advance for a speech that was written very quickly at short notice:

Just the other day my timeline on Facebook was overrun with people sharing an article from the Onion. Perhaps you shared it as well.

Titled “Deformed Freak Born Without Penis”, the satirical article went on to list the terrible future set to await this scorned and blighted child. “According to reports, the sadly disfigured 26-year-old’s quality of life has been greatly diminished due to such a condition. Sources said the abnormal, visibly blemished creature has been repeatedly passed over for employment opportunities, frequently gawked at and harassed on the street by total strangers, and has faced near constant discrimination for over two decades, all due to the horrific and debilitating birth defect.”

Yup, as with most things in the Onion, the humour is at its best when it uses savage humour to throw a social truth at its readership.

This is one of the many prisons of our skin that locks women away from the same opportunities and benefits men enjoy.

There are a few mechanisms to dismantle these prisons because – from an academic perspective at least – we understand the need to create an equal society.

We pass laws to take apart what we call structural sexism – these are the institutional expressions of sexism that either prevent woman from participating in society or place her as its victim. Sexual harassment, bodily autonomy, discrimination, workplace equality – these are the things that are covered.

There’s a temptation to think “well, these laws have passed so everything is ok…now it’s all on MERIT. THE BEST WILL NOW RISE TO THE TOP IN EVERY SPHERE AND INDUSTRY.”

But merit is an interesting argument because merit assumes there is no prison. There is – the bars are just set a fraction wider. Firstly because when it comes to ending sexism you have to campaign hard to get the basic laws passed and keep them safe (because apparently some rights and protection are always up for negotiation) but also because any attempt to fully redress some laws and press further incites criticism of women taking it too far, of seeking more power than men not realizing their perception that society won’t share the full meal with an equal serve for all, but rather give table scraps.

Women are still prevented from fully participating in society but told this is their fault for not rising to the challenge or presenting a better choice. This is where we have political parties talk about d “merit” to explain the lack of women in their cabinet rather than address the sexism inherent in their existing structures.

The merit argument also assumes that once one barrier is removed that suddenly the field is not only open but equal with everyone enjoying the same benefits.

Defenses such as these ignore the central issue: if they believe women are just as able as men, why don’t we greater representation? If the steps to the front stage are unlocked, why aren’t more women up there? Let’s press that logic further – if there are still fewer women than men, is it because we’re choosing men over women? Why? Do we honestly believe that men are more able than women? Is there are a part of us that refuses to recognize that our part in perpetuating sexism and disadvantage?

Though there are coordinated campaigns to address the imbalance expressed through structural sexism, the challenge lies in dismantling the social conditioning that buttresses, nurtures and possibly even surpasses it – in essence, a whole ecosystem that still carries on as if the original structure exists.

Think of it another way. Think of a building overgrown with ivy. Both the building and the ivy have been there a long time. It crawls up and covers every brick, wends around every door and window and its vines grow thick and woody. Now take away the bricks,  floors, panes of glass and every pipe and vent. The ivy still stands, still retains the shape of a building, still offers a view of windows and doors. There is still a structure even though the building materials have been removed – the ivy will continue to grow, continue to strengthen, continue to look as it did before.

This is the ecosystem that persists despite the lack of the original structure.

Let’s think of this in terms of publishing – in an equal society there should be close to if not equal representation because as we all technically agree men and women are born with the same intellectual and creative ability and  have the same access to education and employment. We destroyed that building long ago, right?

Yet, if you’re a female writer in publishing you are less likely to submit a manuscript, less likely to get published. When you do get through that ceiling, you’re less likely to get reviewed. Your work is often relegated to gendered genres for which there is no male equivalent (romance, chick lit). When you’re not reviewed or shunted into a gendered genre that immediately confers suburban rather than artistic appeal, people are less likely to buy your book. You’re definitely less likely to win an award for your work. And then the structure loops around and thickens its vines, with publishers reluctant thinking “books by female writers are less likely to sell”.

You may want some stats to wash all that down and bear with me. It’s still difficult to get statistics on this.

Submitting: according to TOR UK’s Julie Crisp, the submission rate is 70/30 in favour of men. This varies quite a bit by genre.

Publishing:  According to Laura Miller at Salon in a piece – Over at the Atlantic, “Franklin and her colleagues Eliza Gray and Laura Stampler examined the fall 2010 catalogs from an assortment of book publishers, large and small. They eliminated genres not likely to be reviewed by such publications as the New York Times or the New Yorker in the first place (that is, self-help, cookbooks, art, etc.) and found that one publishing house (Riverhead) could boast that women authors were responsible for 45 percent of its fall list. For most of the rest, women accounted for around 30 percent of the list, with small independent presses turning out to be even more male-heavy than a behemoth like Random House.” A piece on sexism in literature published by the SMH states it’s closer to half but cited no sources.

Reviewing: The US-based Vida suggest that a rough average of 25% books by female writers are reviewed. In addition to this, most reviewers are male. In Australia, the Stella Prize (a literary award for female writers) viewed this from a local lens and determined the review rates vary from a national 59-80% in favour of men. Interestingly, state-based titles are better able to claim near-parity with 58-62% in favour of men.

Purchasing and reading: It’s damn hard to find access to statistics based on this. According to Laura Miller at Salon in a piece – “A couple of researchers at Queen Mary College in London did something along these lines in 2005. They asked “100 academics, critics and writers” to discuss the books they’d read most recently. According to the Guardian, “four out of five men said the last novel they read was by a man, whereas women were almost as likely to have read a book by a male author as a female. When asked what novel by a woman they had read most recently, a majority of men found it hard to recall or could not answer.” When it comes to gender, women do seem to read more omnivorously than men. Publishers can assume that a book written by a man will sell to both men and women, but a book by a woman is a less reliable bet.”

Let’s just take a moment to think about the last five books we read. Hands up if that list contains one woman. Keep it up if it’s two. What about three? Now four. How about five? No?

Awards:  women are traditionally underrepresented with literary awards though I will automatically concede the past year has brought some wonderful acclaim for worthy writers. The Miles Franklin, has been awarded to a woman 13 times out of 50 and the Man Booker Prize has been won by 16 women since beginning in in 1969.

As playright and novelist Alison Croggan says “The woman who begins with talent but who finds herself struggling to gain notice simply because she is a woman, can find her ambitions dwindling, her possibilities shrunken, in a continually amplifying feedback loop. Just as success breeds confidence, so the lack of it breeds uncertainty. If millions of reinforcing signals say a woman’s work is less significant, something will eventually begin to stick. This kind of intensifying feedback, which begins at birth, is very difficult to track and even more difficult to combat.”

And then, we come back to this notion of the level playing field – women just have to submit more, write more, review more…and yet when we tell women to do more, to show more merit, we get upset women would create their own literary prizes, claiming it takes away from men unaware of ever having to share in the past, always confident in opportunity and deference by both men and women.

Back to Alison’s point – we assume everyone is just waiting to be a fully able, fully participating person on the field without seeing the prisons that hold them back. Without seeing the conditioning that prevents them from taking action or the conditioning that actively seeks to hold them back.

If we are to remove the prisons of our skin, it requires a rethink and challenge to all.

Education plays a huge part in this.

Often it is said that girls will read about boys and girls but boys will only want to read about boys. In fact, even more we’re told “boys don’t read”.

I’m really tempted here to just direct you to a wonderful article by teacher Craig Hildenbrand-Burke on the topic. He notes the curious assumption on display that girls are readers but boys become writers. That somehow gender determines the content producer and content consumer and reinforces the ecosystem referred to earlier.

I’ve been asked how we should get men and women to write as people and not gendered voices and I’m not particularly interested in doing that. A voice is a voice and should be presented as untarnished and unfiltered as possible – voices are built by experience, by error, by happiness, by frustration and exaltation. Note that this is different from pandering to gender – where we assume boys will need more action and less women in order to read and girls will just be happy with whatever we give them.

In addition to that, it feels dishonest to remove gender as a “voice” because it avoids the fact that gender needs a voice because gender is still a huge issue in society.

Of greater concern to me that voices get published, get supported and get recognized without being stripped and constrained by the ecosystem surrounding them.

Bad and unlikable girls [Audio of me & others blabbering on]

31 Oct

I’ve been really lucky of late to do some public speaking for different groups. There’s an art to it that I’ve still not mastered but I’m enjoying the process and learning more.

Here are some recordings taken from ACMI, discussing both the need for unlikable women re Enlightenment (transcript) and cultural appropriation in music video. I heartily recommend attending one of ACMI’s ‘In The Studio’ sessions.

The End of Enlightenment – full audio

Bad Girls – full audio

Update: this great piece on Paul Simon, Steven van Zandt and South African apartheid makes me feel better about banging on about how much I dislike him and didn’t need to give any grudging support.

Feelpinions [speech]

17 Oct

There’s a suggestion from my friends on the negative side that feelpinions are inferior in quality to fact-based hard news and that feelpioneers have managed some MK Ultra level of mind control to keep getting published. As someone who is currently flange-deep writing about my sex life for the Guardian, Its hard to agree with them even though its hurts in my feefees.

First up, It’s important to note that the quality is wobbly everywhere: there is no doubt there are just as many bad feelpioneers as there are fact-based journalists. Everyone, however, hates Listicle-writers. And so they should. Absolute abomination (I lie. I went too far. I love them too.)

But there’s an unasked question here: if feelpinions are so bad, why are they so popular?

If feelpinions area so bad, why aren’t we turning towards these fact-based, hard news articles that are just waiting – apparently fully formed – for our education and enlightenment?

Are they really there? Are readers turning a blind eye to quality?

They’re not.

People don’t trust the news industries’ fact-based writing.

The Walkey Foundation along with Syd & NSW universities surveyed 100 editors and senior staff of major metropolitan and national newspapers who said 62% of newspaper journalism was “average” to “poor”.

Last year in June, Bernard Keane reported on Essential research polling and found only 52% of people trusted Australian newspapers. According to Keane, this makes “newspapers the most trusted form of commercial media.” At 52%.

There are good reasons for us to distrust fact-based media when we see how little facts matter:  phone hacking, bribery, actual churnalism (basically republishing media releases as articles), bias and deliberate political strategy. To cover these deficiencies we have two fact checking sites plus the Conversation, which seeks to give authoritative coverage by actual subject matter experts which apparently can’t be found in the media elsewhere.

So, we’re a bit wobbly on trusting the media when it comes to factual reporting.

The best thing about this argument is that it automatically implies there was once a golden age of reasoned and august debate. Oh, they were salad days. Days when all we cared about was the truth and sharing ideas equal……OH NO, THAT NEVER HAPPENED.

For every ejaculatory dialogue from Aaron Sorkin where people walk in corridors debating the ideology of A RETURN TO THE SIDE OF TRUTH GODDAMNIT, you have Peter Preston, former Guardian editor, stating “there was never a golden age of journalism in which journalists were not subject to pressure, crap compromises and not hitting the heights expected. Preston says such an assumption “is a dream and a confection. It is also chock-full of self-deception.” And that “One inescapable point about journalism is that, base or lofty, ruthless or idealistic, it is a mess, and always has been.”

Even then and speaking as a writer – when you do provide the facts – they’re not entirely convincing or thought-changing to readers as you would think.

Hello reporting on climate change.

If engagement is a reasonable indication (and for the purposes of someone madly typing this up 20 minutes ago, it is), fact-based articles dont resonate as much with readers. People will seek out a personal take on the news – one that no matter how subjective – one that places the news in a more understandable intimate context.

This is where feelpinions comes in.

Often this is because a narrative piece actually fires up a different part of the brain. It is often more engaging and memorable for the reader.

Also, due to a natural tendency to trust people over organisations, people will trust or seek out a feelpioneer’s view on current events. It’s not that they don’t care about the news, it is because sometimes people place interpretation of an event higher than a description of an actual event. And if it comes from a writer (not masthead) they trust and whose worldview echoes their own, they feel slightly more engaged and less alone.

One look at Andrew Bolt’s blog and there are the most contented people of all, united in their outrage,– the happiest of pigs, rolling in self-validating shit. To paraphrase Barbara Streisand, fuckheads who need fuckheads are the luckiest fuckheads in the world. But, they feel less alone – they are engaged with an opinion writer who reflects their world view at a time when they feel unable to trust the majority of media.

Why does opinion and personal writing matter to readers?  Because we’ve had 30 years of consciousness raising – where people shared their personal stories to make a larger point about and sense of social and political structures in order to feel more connected to others. Combine consciousness raising with Gonzo journalism on a one night stand and the resulting crack-baby up for adoption is feelpinion writing.

When I wrote about donating my eggs and the struggle of going through IVF for two strangers, I was inundated with emails from women relieved to see someone publicly say that how awful IVF is because  if you go through it, you’re supposed to shut the hell up and just be grateful. It was recognition of a private experience they were unable to share publicly.

When I wrote about my sexual abuse as part of a larger conversation around the topic of victim blaming, I was able to give a personal response that put the issue in easily understandable context and showed the impact in real terms. I also heard first hand from many people who changed their views based on what I wrote. The use of narrative, my personal story, helped further a conversation on an often taboo topic.

When I screamed and yelled about John Hirst’s contempt for teen and single mothers, I took him down with logic (and stats) but also my personal experience as a single mother. The response was one of gratitude, because people were hurt by his article and wanted someone to defend them. It wasn’t my intent – I just wanted to yell – but it helped others to know someone else saw and defended them.

I’m not Oprah – though I have once danced to “I’m every woman”. I’m just a hermit with wifi, trakky daks with a dodgy crotch and a need to talk to people about Japanese dating sims. But it would be disingenuous to deny feelpinions often involves using your personal story and thoughts for the benefit of others. It can comfort, it can consolidate and it can change opinion.

It’s not just the personal experience for me – the best conjunction of feeling plus opinion is when we use our personal experiences and join them to current event or larger themes. We can debate whether that’s a sign of egotism or vulnerability but it ties back into the whole notion of feelpinions the resulting botch of gonzo journalism and consciousness raising. Our lives become props and in the best of cases it works well and might give meaning to others

Now, these may not be huge things on a collective scale. And they may not impact the entire community. But are we really saying that media only exists to cover structural organisations? That there is no room in modern media to discuss the issues that shape people’s lives?

And while you wait for the next Glen Greenwald, I’ll be over here bringing down the media because this morning I wrote about Miley Cyrus’ “vulva on cold concrete near the low-slung animated turdslick of Terry Richardson”.

This was a prepared speech for the National Young Writers Festival’s Feelpinions Debate.

Reading the Trolls [speech]

16 Oct

So about a month ago, I had to call the police. It turns out someone is stealing my mail and it took me about 7 months to work it out as I like to pretend mail, like deadlines and responsibility, don’t exist. It was only when my mail was getting ripped up and strewn across the apartment complex in increasingly complicated origami-like fashion that I begrudgingly called the cops.

The policeman took it all very seriously and asked questions. The only question that stumped me was when he asked “does anyone dislike you?”

“Well, I write opinion pieces on the Internet.”

He seemed incredibly confused on this point until I explained my job where I write on small, esoteric or larger issues and that, like a gift with purchase, I get hatemail. He was concerned a commenter might have been responsible for my stolen or destroyed mail. It’s unlikely, I said – the troll only wants to say something. That’s their only objective.

Here is what they say (they often parrot each other). Revel in the Oxfordesque debateyness of it all:

  • “Fat, ugly mole”
  • “You were only hired because you’re young and pretty and don’t have grey hair”
  • “You hate sex, you’re a fucking prude”
  • “You are just another bi polar whore who sluts and sucks dick for cash and free drinks, ugly pig”

As someone who has writer about her child I’ve received a new area of trolls. People trolling a nine year old who has no account on social media.

  • “You’re one of those losers who use their kids to fuel their career”
  • “I work in child protection and if I was in the same state as you, I’d make sure your child was taken away from you”
  • “You’re the worst fucking mother for trying to brainwash your child”
  • “Your daughter is ugly”
  • “I want to fuck your daughter” – multiple pedophile accounts on Twitter

I haven’t heard from the guy who emails feminist parenting writers and threatens to kill their daughters (it’s only ever the daughters) but I’m guessing its only a matter of time.

So, um, that’s a positive, right? Or not? I’ve not yet been contacted by the troll with homicidal fantasies. Am I really a proper feminist parenting writer if my daughter hasn’t received a death threat? Do I have troll KPIs still to smash?

I do get some special emails. One was from a guy who I had blocked when he became aggressive ape when discussing the gender pay gap. He railed against me – you’re so fucking bitchy for blocking me. Who the fuck do you think you are, you power tripper. Unblock me now, I have the RIGHT to read your twitter stream.

The rest are generalist trolls – the orange creams in the family biscuit barrel of insults – misandrist! Why do you hate men! I’ll show you what my cock can do! I wouldn’t put my cock in you, You hate men, are bitter about men, can’t find a man, men hate you, fat, slut, whore, hate sex, breaker of families and responsible for gender bias within Australian Family Law, know nothing writer whose recent piece on sexism within the digital industry was fueled by pleasure-hating feminism and not experience of 15 years in the industry. I murder babies!  Personally! It’s just me, Satan and a coat hanger of hope. (Guess who wrote about abortion?)

I’m waiting to hear why my words upset people so much. Maybe its because I have a vagina which people on the Internet tell me should be filled with various things. It could be that I’m a really bad writer – a distinct possibility, judging from the responses I’ve received which means I have become a pawn in a shadowy conspiracy to bring down Fairfax and the Guardian with crap editorial. Perhaps they aren’t trolls at all but glorious freedom fighters trying to talk to me in code, where “the resistance needs your help” is expressed as  “my cock will set you straight, you dumb bitch”

I didn’t explain it to the policeman but the trolls aren’t stealing my mail. It’s someone else who takes a particular degree of pleasure in tearing up party invites, stealing bank statements and my copy of the London Review of Books (to be fair, I’m a subscriber and have it coming). But still, I get to enjoy a new display of ripped paper every morning I step outside which is infinitely more creative than that time Andrew Bolt got all his followers to yell at me for using collective personal pronoun  “we” in an article.

This was a prepared speech for the National Young Writers Festival.

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