by Alison Whittaker
The writer and the writing life, two off-cut conversations that have planted themselves anew in 2017.
On the Southerly blog last month, Roanna Gonsalves breathed The Double Lives of Writers, a sobering bulletin that etched out the invisible financial and labour roots that give water to even prolific writers. Katerina Bryant in Overland wrote Have You Thought About Law?, on the tensions between practice and prestige and the ‘day job’ in writing. Both are relatable; I bring in most of my money through working in law and legal research. While this continent descends into another round of posturing about underemployment, and as we quiver waiting for annual arts funding culls, the pressure on the writing double life escalates. With it, other tensions about writers. Writers and whatever else waits for them on Sylvia Plath’s ripe ultimatum of practice and the self:
“From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked…I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
The writing fig clings to its own identity politic. Doing writing tethers us closer to being a writer like a guiding lattice might coax a plant. Each writing act is commonly attached to a writer and strung together to essentialise a ‘voice’. Every platform, journal and publishing house clings close to their ethos. In the late-capitalist tradition, let’s call either a brand.
In this context ‘a bio of no more than 50 words’ is at once the most horrifying and the most galvanising request I get. I took three hours to write my first bio as a new writer. All but fifteen minutes of them were spent staring at ‘Alison Whittaker is…’ and hoping that itself, at least true and sincere, would be enough. The last fifteen minutes, I wrote a joke about how I kill all my plants. The submission was declined, that bio euthanised.
Those who write are subject to an aspirational upward tug that often turns up in the author bio: make a creative professional identity that is at once aloof, sparse and accomplished. The catch? It can’t be seen to try to be these things. The balance is rarely struck.
Introducing myself as a writer is buoyed by my cultural obligations. They situate my creative self in a place and give it a standpoint and a name. I live on Wangal lands. I am a Gomeroi woman.
From there, the thing dissolves. Poet and essayist are my next go-tos.
They’re true enough. I write poems and essays. But the doing of writing hasn’t yet taken me to being a writer, at least not how I’ve been taught to think of writing, being a deliberate and disciplined trade that straddles inspiration. Am I a poet or essayist? I read, but not as much as I should. I should research more. My spare time in front of a keyboard per day is usually brief. I don’t know huge words, or various contemporary literary figures, and I can’t talk about either at great length without humiliating myself. It’s not that I’m I opposed to these things; I aspire to the romance and the actual sincere hard sweat of writerliness as much as the next, but I don’t see it in me.
All of this comes off as the very worst genre of author bio – the humblebrag – but it’s a genuine, open fear of mine. I am embarrassed by my writer’s brand – wary of imposter syndrome. Am I an ‘anti-artist’, an ‘anti-intellectual’, a fraud?
Probably. I can’t be a writer. But can I do writing in a way that gets me to a writer’s brand? Nothing about the act of writing felt purposeful or deliberate to me when it was at its most pivotal. While I had written most of my first book over many years here and there, Lemons in the Chicken Wire in the end came together as a full collection because I was selling my belongings to eat and I was a fortnight from not having a home. The mirage of fellowship money was just as alluring as Gumtree proceeds as I ate microwaved damper for the third week in a row. Does this add a romantic raggedy backstory to the book, or taint it? Rather than a purposeful stride, my formal entry into writing was no more than a lucky fall from one foot to the other. It’s hardly a coherent way to do, let alone a coherent way to be.
Now we’re onto the second worst genre of author bio – the masochist confessional.
Do I draw on my day job for my brand? Now that I am freed of what my partner gently names the ‘mug-damper year’, I spend a great deal more time researching law and critical Indigenous studies than I do poet-ing or essay-ing, but it seems bizarre to silo the three practices as if one only enables the others or as if one held my true self. The three, for me, reflect a practice that both mirrors my cultural mandate and the need, personal and community-wide, of the time we live in. They reflect the end of the discipline.
Duality of discipline or practice is a given in an arts sector that, on the fiscal level, is both underpaid and irregularly paid. We wait for publications to roll around, royalties to appear, invoices to be honoured, prizes to be announced. Rent is regular and expensive. Meals are regular and expensive. Many writers bring in bucks some other way. Australian literary twitter was ablaze last month with the ethics of the work that creatives do to rake money. They made me think of Enrique Ferrari and Henry Darger, both eminent writers who clean(ed). When Ferrari was documented with such fervour by journalists who lamented and were shocked at his ‘double-life’ (as if either form of work was secret or shameful to his other), he remarked that cultural and creative practice are the norm among his subway-working peers. Ferrari’s razor tongue also delivered this now semi-famed treat:
“It is a peculiarity of capitalists and the bourgeoisie to think that we workers have no culture.”
And beyond dollars? Duality of practice, as Katerina Bryant noted last week in Overland, might also emerge from the social capital needed to impress upon those at the periphery or outside of the arts sector, for whom doing writing is hobbyist and being writer is indulgent or weird. Few places is this better demonstrated than in universities or workplaces. Creative writing courses, for all their fraughtness, are often pressed as co-degrees at an undergraduate level. They are commonly studied alongside law or international studies or other new media degrees, and viewed as the complement or supplement to a ‘real’ profession. Creative writing courses themselves are viewed as false hope, unable to be lived on as a sustaining income alone. Rarely do the practices braid. Only one, whichever one, is the real job. The rest is chaff, is texture.
Yet interdisciplinarity among writers, and cross-field experimentation, is more prominent than ever. Poetry melds with game development. Court advocacy is storytelling. Storytelling is therapy. Storytelling is activism, even lobbying. Treating writing either as a hobby, or as the true work only enabled by other work, disguises the potential for writing in all work and workers and vice versa.
Interdisciplinarity is hardly a salve for all the working concerns of writers. For one thing, writing takes time. It’s a tricky squeeze to fit a sustained writing practice in with other work, and like many side-gigs in the sharing economy writing eats into precious recreation and rest time with minimal recompense. The cache of most literary prizes, and their considerable size, is not only their social prestige, but what they purchase in terms of reprieve from the other forms of work that writers unwillingly engage to sustain themselves. Weaving the two together like Plath’s damn fig tree’s branches, even, from the perspective of a non-writing discipline, is not without its rotten dropped figs.
Academics and researchers, for instance, are faced with an increasingly hostile and predatory academic publishing industry which seldom pays (and often charges) its contributors, upon whom their promotions and prestige rely. They struggle to engage the public in their work, especially when the key to academic publication, the peer reviewed journal, is so tightly locked away from public access. A number of academics now look to creative writing as the new face of disseminating academic knowledge to the public, or at least to build a source of income.
Other academics, often those on the margins of the knowledge the West has scooped and chipped at, reject the disciplinary plait altogether. They suggest the post-discipline in its place – abandoning Western and professional constraints and the walls it erects for outsiders.
Indigenous lawmaking eases this tension, just like it eases introducing myself: by forging a cultural, rather than disciplinary, self. As I mentioned in my first blog for Southerly, the strength of all manner of works done from an Indigenous perspective by Indigenous people comes from our sustenance by fused knowledge. This is no more prominent than in our use of story and word to build more than superficial, narrative or didactic knowledge. When story and words are law and vice versa, those who work with them are less committed to a profession or practice than we are falling into the footsteps of those before us, squishing old figs as we go.
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (Heinemann, 1963)