This essay from the Meanjin archives was first published in 2010.
For me, writing has never been easy. Like most writers I know, my life as a storyteller is characterised by rejection. It is a path riddled with uncertainty. When I was eighteen I studied creative writing at university. My marks were average. In fact, most of my life back then was average. Three days a week I packed shelves in the suburban cocoon of a Franklins supermarket. At night and on weekends I played bass guitar badly in a half-arsed pop-rock band. We had a few monster amps, some Fender Stratocaster guitars and a motley crew of distortion pedals, but little real talent. When I wasn’t being booed off stage I spent my time recovering from hangovers and knocking out whiny and contrived prose with a multitude of grammatical sins. My lecturers marked my writing assignments accordingly.
I sucked at being a rock star, but I read widely: Kafka, Joyce, Dickens, Mishima and others from the canon. The reading lists at university were an eye opener for a bloke like me. My single-sex Catholic school education wasn’t particularly open-minded; it just bred an unhealthy obsession with guilt and apologies. I turned up to my first writing lecture a teenage worrywart. Writers such as Peter Carey, John Birmingham, Irvine Welsh, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe blew my mind. Their stories introduced me to the fantastic, the absurd, and the prickly satire of bent and anarchic humour. I was hooked. Growing up religious had left me with way too much faith in authority and the powers that be. I needed a reality check. The punch and verve of those writers, the warts-and-all, take-no-prisoners approach to their work was intoxicating. It helped me to sharpen the critical edge in my own writing, take heart in the personal and subjective, and to craft my own work with a sense of swagger and style. And to articulate my distrust of institutions.
The problem is that inspiration will only take you so far as a writer. As a student, I struggled with sentimentality. My stories were flaky and went nowhere. They seemed written on the surface rather than from a place deep down where I understood the motivations of my characters and their actions. The images I used were pretty but hung disconnected from the dramatic core of my stories. I found the words ‘limp’ and ‘passive’ appearing regularly in my assessment reports. I needed to change the way I went about it. To improve my writing and take it to the next level, I embarked on an experiment in the hyperbole of extremity on the suburban road and, in the words of And Justice For All–era Metallica, at the frayed ends of sanity: post-party car-surfing in the leafy backstreets of Melbourne’s middle-class Eltham. Like most of my writing projects, it seemed to make sense at the time.
We tumbled into the old Ford sedan, planted the accelerator pedal to the metal, and the car bolted out of the driveway. The front end bounced unsteadily as we hit the street, its worn tyres screeching like TIE Fighters launching into space from the Death Star. My mate had been working as a clown at a kid’s party that night. He was sober but looked maniacal with white, blue and red make-up streaked across his face. We hung our heads out of the windows as the car veered across the road, screaming along to the groove-heavy fuzz of Spiderbait’s ‘Chest Hair’, which belted out from the cracked stereo speakers. I stood on the door handle, pulled myself through the window, and up onto the rusted and flaking metal of the car’s roof. My copycat Kurt Cobain hair whipped about in the fierce wind. I crouched low, a drunken goofy foot stance, and as the car slid left and right across the road, weaving its way dangerously through the dark streets, lights flicked on in houses, dogs barked, the engine roared and crackled, and we howled and bayed and careened our way through the night high on adrenaline. We were stupid space monkeys let loose after being held too tightly on that heavy Catholic leash.
When the police car finally pulled us over, we were almost out of petrol and I was hoarse from screaming. ‘In the clowning-around mood tonight are we, gentlemen?’ the police officer said slowly, leaning into the driver’s window. ‘I bet you’ll find this real funny.’ The copper gave us a blast and handed over our fines. We drove home in silence.
At the post office the following day, a woman with grey hair and a drab Australia Post shirt processed my payment. As she stamped my money order, she peered down her nose at me, like she was some kind of telepathic Judge Judy, and I could feel my face burning. I felt shitty about what had happened. The copper had played the guilt-trip card on us, and I found myself thinking about the other people on the road or in their houses who could have been hurt by our crazy late-night driving antics. It sucked. What really freaked me out though—I was afraid to admit this even to myself—was how much I loved riding the top of that speeding car, the pure fuck-off-ness in taking that risk. I’d never felt that way before and it was addictive.
A few weeks later I pitched my first story. It was about the sporting lives of young men on the edge. I tried the Age, the Herald Sun, the Australian and a bunch of other newspapers and magazines. I was pumped: the first piece I thought I’d really nailed. No-one was interested. ‘Not right for our audience,’ said one editor. ‘Too blokey,’ said another. The rest didn’t bother to reply. I stared blankly at their emails for hours trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong. That story was my first rejection. I’ll never forget how much time I invested writing and then pitching the story and still getting nowhere. It took me three solid years of writing crap pieces and being rejected before I was published. My car-surfing piece was just the wrong timing and the wrong newspaper sections. Perhaps if I’d had a digital video camera that night and a YouTube account, things may have been different.
When I finally concocted a more publishable idea for editors, I was in the right place at the right time. The Big Issue paid me 30 cents a word for a feature article about the emergence of online video-gaming. In the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, every dodgy commentator and their dog was having a go at those crazy young people and their interwebs. Apparently, if you played games online you were a gun-toting, trench-coat-wearing psychokiller just waiting for the right opportunity to unload on your family, friends and co-workers. My story was an attempt to balance and problematise media representation of young people. Peter Davis, my non-fiction lecturer, had suggested we weave into our stories the flesh and colour of fiction through personal narrative, but to embed this creative subjectivity with topical issues, and keep our writing tight. Every word counted. Somehow that tidbit of writing advice seeped into my brain: I could be a Diablo fanatic and a writer at the same time.
Davis gave me a measly credit for my piece, but the Big Issue ran the story and it was my first publication. I still remember jumping on the tram at Swanston Street and peering over the shoulder of a bloke in a suit reading my story in his copy of the magazine. Of all the submissions the Big Issue received, they decided mine was worth printing. I’d finally crossed that chasm between unpublished hack to (semi) professional writer. Of course, many factors influence publication. The space, the target audience of the publication, the topical nature of the idea, or just whether the editor is having a good day, all play their part in the publication process. Some journalists I know say it’s more about the content than whether the piece is particularly polished. This is why I’ve found Matthew Ricketson’s Writing Feature Stories (2004) to be an excellent resource for writers. It doesn’t lessen the pain of rejection, but it does give a good introduction to the range of stories writers can attempt as features, and thorough practical advice on finding the best way to tell stories, manage time and work with editors. Publishing is a tough gig. A solid mixture of advice about craft and theory for writing does wonders for increasing the chances of a story making it to print.
Being published always makes me feel bulletproof. I get a buzz when I receive that tantalising first email from an editor expressing interest in one of my pieces. Of all the submissions an editor receives, they’re willing to take a punt on my story, to back my ideas with their resources, time and energy, to crank the gears of publishing machinery and get my words onto that printed page or website. I reckon that’s pretty cool. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t self-publish. When I pitched a book idea to a publisher he told me, ‘Think about it. Would you put your house on the line for your book? Would you spend all that money and effort? That’s how I feel as a publisher.’ I make it a priority to ensure my stories are well drafted, that I consider the space I’m writing for, and that the work is infused with ideas, values and attitudes that I feel are important. Working towards publication in a range of media, from newspapers and magazines to literary journals and books, demonstrates a rigour and attention to detail that I believe encourages quality storytelling. Of course, I still write a hell of a lot of pieces that never see the light of day. And lots of stuff that’s published is plain crap. Just because someone can string a few words together and get it in print doesn’t make it a great or interesting story. There’s a hell of a difference between New Weekly and the New York Times.
Nailing a few publications doesn’t pay the bills, however. Living in Melbourne isn’t cheap. ‘You’re highly creative, Ben, and I can see you are quite capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of this job,’ a manager told me in one of my many job interviews. She was well dressed, well mannered and strangely well versed in dealing with writer-artist types looking for a day job. ‘But I think your energies would be better spent elsewhere rather than on room-booking management.’
After a series of similar rejections, and a few Centrelink training seminars, I excluded my creative writing university credentials from my CV. In my experience, most employers don’t take kindly to arts degrees. I learned that being a writer meant I often had to hide being a writer. Wait, let me rephrase that: I had to ‘repackage’ my skills for the dynamic, innovative and street-smart workplaces of the new millennium. It seemed odd that all my friends, family and teachers encouraged me to write and to devote so much of my study to creative writing through high school and university, and yet suddenly I was on my arse without a job and being told I was just ‘another arts graduate’ who needed a crash course in reality.
Yet writers do have an ace up their sleeve. I took a perverse delight in pitching my career history in creative ways to potential employers. Once it was clear that there were obvious synergies in my ability to improve organisational capability through my capacity-building and productivity-enhancement work in my past projects (read: years spent ‘managing’ a writing career and working the odd clerical job), employers suddenly started listening to me. Their imagination was pricked by those slippery words of corporate speak. I started getting job offers. The real world never seemed so full of fictional embellishment.
Working in administration was my saviour. When I finally found a job, the pay was average but regular and I managed to buy myself a little two-bedroom flat in West Footscray. I developed a steady writing rhythm: two hours every night after work and one full day on the weekend. The publications began to flow. I even had a few magazines approach me without having to sell them an idea. I was stoked. I lived on coffee, hamburgers and midnight slurpees as I wrote and wrote and wrote. It was bliss. Leaving work at work is healthy for anyone, but particularly for writers, who have to expend so much time and energy crafting those troublesome words to fill that blank and frightening page or screen.
Nothing is stable in workplaces today, though. Uncertainty is the rule. When my department was restructured, I switched jobs, and my writing time disappeared. For long periods I was working twelve-hour days and weekends. I stopped seeing family and friends. It really sucked. My manager never really understood the impact. ‘I know that you’re being published. You’re highly talented. But there’s no money in creative writing.’ She wasn’t trying to be mean—and she was right. I tried to survive freelance but became a regular guest at the Centrelink offices. My manager was one of those high-flying successful types who worked extreme hours and whom nothing seemed to faze. She could take the worst situations and turn them on their heads. But for her, and many of my workmates, writing made no sense. It was a waste of time in a world of priorities, spreadsheets, smartphones and late-night work meetings because socialising was just easier with workmates, key stakeholders and potential funding bodies. The message I received was that writing was a sign that I needed to work out ‘some emotional issues’.
‘Maybe you need to meet regularly with a group of friends to help you deal with your passion?’ my manager said with the best of intentions. Writing isn’t something you do a few times a month like model trains or collecting stamps, I thought to myself. You punch out that prose day in, day out, with writer’s block or without. Is surgery just a passion? Would you go under the knife with someone who only operates when they feel like it? I shrugged my shoulders at her, remained silent, and went back to work.
My accountant was worse. He is a nice guy, successful. He doesn’t look much older than me, but has a wife, children, a nice home in an attractive Melbourne suburb, and a relaxed, easygoing demeanour that belies the years he has spent crunching numbers. Many finance people I’ve worked with can be quite uptight. But when he tried to list my freelance writing work as ‘just a hobby’ on my tax return, I almost punched him in the face. In the true spirit of artistic wankery, I thrust my ABN at him, announced myself as a professional writer, proudly declared the two thousand dollars I’d made in articles (which paled in comparison with my staff salary), and demanded we find more tax deductions for all my hard writing work. He sheepishly obliged.
It didn’t take long for me to hit rock bottom. My workload continued to increase and my writing dried up. I started drinking heavily. Women wouldn’t come near me and I stopped answering the phone at home. When my counsellor told me I was clinically depressed, she suggested I try medication, but I refused. I knew I could fix things if I kept writing. She thought I needed a new job. She likened my experience to the bumbling secret agent from the television show Get Smart. Like Maxwell Smart, I was operating undercover, but had finally been caught. The walls of the torture chamber were closing in and I had no way out. For years I’d been bluffing my way through the workforce as I wrote at nights and on weekends, but now there was nowhere left to run. There was no super-sexy agent in a mini skirt to help me out either.
I’m not the only one struggling with a complete lack of work–lifestyle balance. In 2007, the Hawke Research Institute at the University of South Australia conducted the ‘Work, Life and Time: The Australian Work and Life Index’ study. They found that while Australians included in the research were generally happy with their work–lifestyle balance, there was a high degree of spillover of work into personal life. They also discovered that ‘negative’ work spillover is associated with poor health, and in turn imposes high costs on individuals, families and the broader community. Their 2009 research found a slight decrease in average working hours, which could be attributed to the economic downturn, but that there had been little change in the overall work–life situation of Australian workers between 2007 and 2009. As a writer I was in trouble. All I could see was the hours and hours of my personal time vanishing for nothing. I was languishing in shit creek without the proverbial paddle.
‘We didn’t know what we were doing,’ Kevin Brophy explained to me on a cold autumn morning at Melbourne University. I had come to ask Brophy about his experiences and how he and his generation had survived as writers. He didn’t have any easy answers. ‘We were learning as we went along.’ Brophy is scarily accomplished. He has had eleven books published and is the head of creative writing at Melbourne University. He is a prolific novelist, poet, essayist and academic. His book Creativity: Psychoanalysis, Surrealism and Creative Writing (1998), a study in the contested theoretical and practical ground of creativity and creative writing, is well known in academic circles. The work provides an important and unusual approach to creative writing: a celebration of uncertainty and complexity in the study and processes for creative writing. Brophy is more interested in unsettling fixed notions of creativity than in repeating the status quo. But I needed to know how I could keep writing, pay the bills and not go insane. ‘The desire to write often can’t be controlled,’ Brophy said, calmly sipping his coffee, a wry smile on his lips. ‘What can be controlled is how you manage that desire.’
Judith Rodriguez knows all about the pitfalls of managing a day job and being a writer. She was my first writing lecturer. As a poet working in academia, Rodriguez paid her dues in the squeeze on higher education when class sizes increased and funding for arts-based courses disappeared. I remember her often being late for classes, but I always admired her sharp eye for detail, her lectures delivered with impeccable literary flourish, her spry energy and a willingness to encourage her students that was coupled with infectious flights of imagination.
‘You are an artist, Ben. I know what it means to be continually dragged away from your real work. But you are not,’ Rodriguez said, buttoning up her thick and bright red coat, her voice steely and determined, ‘… a woman in the workplace.’
Rodriguez had a point. As a single white guy I was in a position of particular privilege compared with many women in the workforce, let alone female artists trying to earn their keep while writing or fulfilling family responsibilities. The Hawke Research Institute also found that women were regularly more disadvantaged than men in relation to work–lifestyle balance. Additionally, Melbourne’s rich and diverse population is rarely supported by decent working conditions. People from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds are often not valued, and are discriminated against in the workplace. I left Rodriguez feeling better about my predicament, counted my blessings, but felt confused about what changes I needed to make in order to keep writing. I had a relatively luxurious problem, but this didn’t solve my dilemma.
Rodriguez and Brophy devoted themselves to their writing despite the inherent risk, uncertainty and lack of clear economically measurable career outcomes. For example, it doesn’t make much sense to apply for a writing grant in Australia with so much competition for such a small amount of money, and more likelihood of success in a ‘normal’ career. Like the act of creativity itself, life as a writer can be a haphazard affair. Tom Cho, author of the recent and very cool book Look Who’s Morphing, aptly describes his anxiety at beginning a new book. On his blog and in his PhD thesis, Cho explores Donald Barthelme’s view of the writing process, which is one of ‘dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how’. Cho wisely identifies the problem in defining the writer as some kind of ‘virtuoso’. ‘To admit to this particular form of not-knowing is to challenge the ideal of the artist as a virtuoso who holds or comes to hold knowledge of a pre-existing subject and then displays rare talent and skill in describing it. Barthelme’s admission of not-knowing acknowledges a level of doubt, improvisation, even desperation, that is incongruent with such an ideal.’ Cho is amazed that he commits to a major writing project, given that uncertainty is an essential part of the process, but seems to find some kind of faith in the pure craziness of attempting this kind of work. ‘Can I complete my next book? I honestly don’t know and of course, at present, there is no decisive evidence to say that I will. (In fact, it is a crazily ambitious project—which is part of its charm.)’
My friend Daniel Donahoo is a far more successful writer than I am. He’s the same age, has two young boys, a growing business as a consultant, a mortgage and tons of publications. I’ve always envied his plucky charm and ability to bounce back from any rejection. He writes that while some writers seem to have a preternatural gift for writing and achieving publication, his experiences as a writer have been more trying. ‘Some writers are naturally gifted, like Steve Waugh as captain of the Australian cricket team was a born cricketer and leader. Some write, send it to a publisher and find success. And good luck to them and cheers to their brilliance. But me, I’m being forged and I know it because I can feel it. It isn’t an easy process, but it is exhilarating, excruciating and inevitable.’ For Donahoo there is no escape from the hardships of the life of the writer, but I sense he wouldn’t have it any other way. He lives his life through his words.
Perhaps it is the presence of emotion, anarchy and humour that sets creative work apart. Maybe it is the threat of the subjective, the critical and the exhilarating-but-dangerous gonzo spirit of Hunter S. Thompson hovering over us all that distinguishes creative writing from the bread and butter writing work that pays the bills. I’m not sure any more. But I know that creative writing makes sense to me. It isn’t necessarily healthy, productive or a worthwhile pursuit. And it always comes at a cost. Storytelling is, however, an essential part of who I am, a way of knowing the world and contributing to an ever-changing and evolving body of knowledge. Where I stuffed up was measuring my creative pursuits against the values, assumptions and baggage of a ‘normal’ life. As I get older, I’ve noticed it’s not hard to do.
When the going gets weird, the weird get up earlier. I started writing again a few months ago. These days I rise at five-thirty every morning for a run. One of the few things I can appreciate from all those years of Catholic indoctrination is the power of discipline. It gives me a big engine for writing. I hit the pavement for a solid hour in the crisp air before sunrise and I lose myself in the tunes and the rhythmic pounding of feet on asphalt. Often, the dramatic logic of a story I’m working on falls into place, or an ending I’m struggling with arrives quietly and without fanfare. Then I write for a solid hour before work starts. I redraft on weekends. My girlfriend gets me and that makes a massive difference. Her patience is never ending. She’s a librarian who writes haiku and makes crochet zombie robots that sit at my desk and keep me company in the wee hours. I can tell she would prefer me to not be working so much, and the last thing a successful woman with a blossoming career needs is to be lumped with a struggling writer, but there’s nothing else I can do. There is no escaping my double life.
The good news is I’ve stopped working weekends for my day job. My department looks shaky and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes under. A strategic man living a normal life would be lobbying within the organisation, scanning for relevant employment opportunities online, getting his CV in order and reassessing his five-year plan. After all, time is money. The world waits for no-one. Me, I’m just writing. I’m not going to kill myself looking for the next job. I’d rather take a punt on a new story. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time.
As the threat of redundancy looms, interest rates rise and the pressures of employment increase, I’ve learned to enjoy the uncertainty of my writing life. Like those crazed car-surfing rides at midnight all those years ago, I will forever get a buzz from living my life through storytelling—for better or worse. Things will get tougher. Nights will be long. Editors will be fickle. Some months I’ll be short of money. Day-job managers will push for more. But my stories will always ebb and flow and keep my creative pistons firing, carrying me into that bubbling theatre of the imagination where I can see things critically, create different spaces to understand myself and the world, where I can have an edge, where I’m happier, and where I always like to be.
Meanjin Volume 69 Issue 2 2010
The full Meanjin archive can be accessed at www.informit.com.au/meanjinbackfiles