It’s no secret to anyone who has me as their Facebook friend, but I’ve been suffering from a fair bit of darkness and despair recently. My writing has been non-existent. The editorial process for the children’s book now known as Magrit has been a bizarre combination of slow-slow-NOW. My day job has somehow managed to increase its level of complexity while my organisation continues to make it clear how little my field of work is valued. My days were packed from beginning to end with obligations rather than pleasures, my health was up the shit, and my general gloominess and blackness of mood was affecting my wife, my kids, and pretty much anything I touched. I’d fired my agent, and couldn’t face the long, hard road ahead to try and find someone to represent the Father Muerte novel. When a higher-paying job in my field dropped into my inbox a week ago– one whose time commitment and travel commitment would have meant the death of my writing career without any shadow of a doubt– I read through the job criteria and, even though it was beyond me, went ahead with writing the application.
For the first time in over a decade, I faced the idea of ending my writing career and not only accepted it, I didn’t give a damn.
This is usually the sort of point where Luscious sits me down and gives a damn good talking-to. Only, this time, she didn’t. What she did do, was tell me three things:
- If I really wanted this new job, I had to apply for it for me, not because I felt I had an obligation to provide for my family. I already earn a decent wage. We do all right. What the family want from me is my time, not more money. If I had developed ambitions in arts administration, that was fine, but I needed to pursue this job for my own satisfaction, not theirs.
- If I really wanted to give up writing, that was fine, too. As long as I was giving it up because it no longer made me happy. If my unhappiness was coming from my inability to write, then perhaps I needed to examine that.
- The Perth Writers Festival was on this weekend, and I’d already booked leave to attend it. Why not do so, and see how I felt. If I still wanted to give it all away, then she’d support me in whatever I wanted to do. But I’d set myself up to attend, I’d highlighted a number of panels I wanted to see, and I had enjoyed last year. Why not go, anyway, and see what happened?
My wife, as you might have surmised, is much wiser than me. She also has better legs.
Suitably reinforced with love and support, I made my way to UWA, home of the world’s most expensive toilet paper, for the three days of this year’s Perth Writers Festival.
What I saw ignited my passion to write, but not in the way I had expected. I had hoped for an epiphany, or at the very least, a sign that passion and the creative drive that had once seemed so important to me was a living thing; had hoped to be surrounded by a conglomeration of fiery wordsmiths, consumed by the desire to create dancing words of joy, to preach like tent show revivalists to a tub-thumping, arm-waving crowd of screaming true believers. Or, at least, you know, a sign of fucking life. What I got was an endless procession of carefully-preserved, cautious, prim middle-class white people navigating a series of carefully stage-managed questions about their book and only their books, over and over and over and……
With two exceptions. Maxine Beneba Clarke and Ellen van Neerven are women of colour, and when they spoke at a panel on short stories (a panel I attended with Luscious and Doctor Stephen Dedman, 250+ short stories between us, there to see what we could be taught by… I don’t know. That’s what a festival does to you. It’s that or sit in the heat of the quadrangle drinking $5 bottles of water and listening to fatuous self-congratulation on the ABC radio) they were as well-coached and self-preservation obsessed as anybody else, except, EXCEPT: Maxine talked about culture, and cultural difference, and pointed out that no, the writing family isn’t one big, happy wonderful ball of love. Sometimes it’s fucking hard, and sometimes it’s fucking hard not to fit the facial template. A black woman, saying this, in yet another panel populated by the whitest, primmest people in the world. And after all the talk of legacy, and authorial reputation, and buy my book, make me special, this, from Ellen:
I don’t care about my legacy. I just want to make a difference to the here and now.
And if you think I was the only person relieved to hear someone not speaking from carefully cultivated self-interest, explain the round of fucking applause that burst out.
And then there was Omar. Omar Musa. Poet. Rapper. Novelist. Clearly Not From Here. Malaysian-Australian and very aware of what that means, especially in the arts. Omar swears. He reads in rap rhythms. He quotes the line from his novel, “I’m not here to fuck the white girl out of you” while the rest of his panel— whitey white girls all– freeze in such sudden “OMGOMG” handwaving panic that it’s all I can do not to bark in mad laughter. He’s full of fire, full of passion. He sets the tent ablaze, and suddenly it’s like I’ve been poked in the back of the neck, hard. Fuck. This is what it’s like. This is what I have, only somewhere along the way I’d forgotten I had it. Who cares about respect? Who cares about money? Who cares about spending an extra ninety minutes a fucking day on the train going to a job I don’t even want to do in a town I don’t give a shit about? Just like that, the job application dies in my thumb drive. I’d forgotten: I’m not an arts administrator who writes. I’m a writer with a day job. That’s not wordplay. It means something.
Jesus. Of all the things to forget. I’m not a panellist. I’m not someone who makes appearances. I’m not interested in your approval. I’m a fucking writer, and I say things that other people can’t say because they don’t have the words, or the courage, or the torpedoes to damn. By the time Omar, in answer to a typically bland and innocuous question about reaching out to the mainstream demographic, answers with the beautifully atomic bomb-like “Fuck the Average Joe. I’m not here to create art by referendum.” I don’t know whether to have his babies, get it tattooed on my chest, or just run screaming for the nearest laptop.
Jesus. All that time spent banging on about fucking the demographic, about drowning the washed-out, diluted, pissant shadows of Tolkein down the toilet where they belong. All that chest-beating about vision, and voice, and forcing them to read what I write and not the other way round, and I forgot it all.
And after that, two days of the Festival was like a fucking purgatory I had to wade through to get that message beaten right back to the rear of my eyeballs so I don’t damn well forget it ever again, as wave after wave of lily-white AM radio voices paraded before us to beg for our approval.
Day three of the festival was spent at home courtesy of day two of the festival. Writing.
I was lost, and now I’m fucking well back.