29 March 2017

Why write?

The Creative Non-Fiction Festival

An amazing array of writers spoke today at the NSW Writers’ Centre in the expansive old hospital grounds at Rozelle in Sydney. I arrived when registration opened, an hour before the first session, and sat with coffee watching joggers go by in the gentle sun, a rare sight of late.

I opened the magazine, The Lifted Brow, free with registration, and within the first couple of pages my writing cogs moved into action. A new event was added to my novel, still merely in the planning stage. I then wrote a half-formed poem. I don’t write poetry. Writerly air was wrapping around me.

The people drifting into the grounds gradually increased and moved inside. I took a breath and nestled into a corner seat, thinking I should just go home and write, instead of forking out money to be depressed by the successes of people who have already managed to do just that.

WHY WRITE?

This is a question I have been asking myself during my ‘Year of Investigating an Alternative Future’. I’m not working full-time this year so I can help my son through his HSC but also taking the opportunity to play with other projects, including writing projects. Although the Creative Non-Fiction Festival addressed many facets of writing non-fiction, the main purpose of my attendance was to answer this question.

ANSWER:

1. Adrenalin 

2. Rewrite history 

3. New discoveries 

4. The money 

5. Fame, glory and power


Adrenalin

When Lenore Taylor (The Guardian) and Osman Faruqi (Junkee Media) spoke, they were a little heightened, edgier, faster, frenetic than the other writers at the festival. I’m not saying that they were highly stressed people, just not as chilled as the other writers. This is the effect of politics and the fast pace reporting of it. There seems to be an extra sense of urgency due to new political parties disrupting the old guard and new media disrupting the old printed word. There is also a sense of urgency because time has sped up. The historian, Clare Wright, also on this panel, pointed out that in the Ballarat goldfield days (1850s) letters to England would have a six month turnaround. Political journalists are now often expected to file a story every half hour.

Even under pressure, the better journalists avoid ‘race call journalism’ (Lenore) or ‘stenography’ (Osman). They look for issues to investigate further, although the resources available for this to occur are not as they once were. That said, live blogs of political events are very popular with The Guardian readers. According to Osman, the difference between The Guardian’s live blogs and ‘race calling’ is the context and analysis that the The Guardian journalists provide. According to the chair of the panel, Judith Whelan, the live blogs are also entertaining because they include jibes and humour. Personally, one of my favourite political moments was being able to watch the #spill of Kevin Rudd live on Twitter, joining the smoking crowd huddled on the street outside a formal restaurant dinner to keep up with the blow by blow events.

This craving for immediacy dispels the idea that politics is boring and that the public has lost interest, agreed all the commentators on this panel. When Junkee Media was established with a target audience of young adults they deliberately steered clear of politics due to the assumption that young people weren’t interested. Junkee concentrated on other news and pop culture instead. However, they soon discovered when they touched upon politics they garnered interest. It is said around the Junkee office that Tony Abbott saved Junkee due to his polarising effect. Judith asked who else made ‘box office gold’ and the names Dutton, Morrison, Gillard, Trump and Hanson quickly came back. Lenore pointed out that The Guardian isn’t just about the hits. For instance, they deliberately avoided the white shirt bitchy battle between two Channel 9 female anchors despite the hits it would generate. I share with Judith the guilty fascination with this leaked tape. I could justify my interest with a sociological analysis of how women behave towards each other but that wouldn’t be the entire truth.

To achieve the ever elusive breaking story, it can be tempting for many political writers to fall into ‘client journalism’, another new phrase I learnt from Lenore as a result of this discussion. However, there needs to be some sort of genuine relationship, not friendship, between pollies and journos to avoid polarised reporting. Instead, journos need to know the politicians and the reasons behind their political positions. A story was told of a journalist being friendly with a politician to the extent of sharing dinners together and then one day the journo called the pollie for a chat, not realising the pollie had indulged in several drinks at lunch and consequently said something he shouldn’t have. The journo had a breaking story she considered to be in the public interest and reported it. The pollie was in trouble with his party and a couple of days later denied ever saying it and threatened legal action against the journo. Lenore also lamented that sometimes a journalist will uncover a story that they will know will have a terrible impact on someone but as a journalist the truth and the public interest has to be paramount.

So how does a political journo break a story? Persistence, says Lenore. “Get onto a story and dig your teeth in”.  At this point, Clare pointed out how much adrenalin it takes to report politics, that the stakes are so much higher for a political reporter than for her as a writer historian since Lenore and Osman write about live people and have such immediacy in what they are reporting and the consequences of what they report. In contrast, Clare writes in quiet libraries.

“Can we swap jobs?” asked Lenore.

“Yours is exciting,” Clare responded.

“Yours is nice,” says Lenore.

So what is Clare’s job?


Rewriting History

Dr Clare Wright’s love of history and writing, combined with an immense ability to achieve academically, has taken her down a path of university life that funds her book writing. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but it makes a great one sentence summary.

When Clare commenced research into female publicans for her PhD and the subsequent book, Beyond the Ladies Lounge, she did so with the premise that the ladies’ lounge was gender apartheid and fired up to argue this case. However, from the oral history she gathered, Clare soon felt like a “right idiot” for asking “naive questions” and actually found quite a different story. The women looked upon the Ladies’ Lounge as a place of belonging and empowerment. After all, why would they want to drink with the men when they had to live with them every day? The Ladies’ Lounge provided a room of one’s own, as it were, and the older women mourned its loss as younger women came in and demanded equality in the form of drinking with the men.

It could be argued that it’s a matter of perspective but particularly as a historian, Clare is interested in truth. Yes, she is a revisionist who is rewriting women back into history, deemed a political act since it inherently claims women to be of importance. This is not looking at history through feminist eyes but looking at history for greater accuracy, without the blinkers of elitist white men. It is not a female lens but a lens on the females not previously seen.

The festival’s director, Mark Dapin, a name I recognised from Good Weekend magazine, launched the day by interviewing Clare. He was obviously in awe of her achievements, having just finished his own PhD thesis this week. Mark remarked about Clare’s talent to provide through her words a sense of place, not just by sight, but also sound. Clare stated that it was important to listen. For instance, during the gold rush, people would arrive in Melbourne and take a week to walk to Ballarat with one prospector’s diary declaring you could hear the township (40,000 people living in tents) before you could see it. Clare equated her role as a writer to being a conductor of a choir of voices that rise from the archival material.

When Clare first ventured on her research into the Eureka Stockade, the old guard of Eureka’s history mocked the possibility of her finding anything new to say, since so much had been researched and written before. She steeled herself, and set out to ask the much examined archival material new questions. One of the most valued archival pieces held by the State Library of Victoria connected to the Eureka Stockade was known as The Lazarus Diary, named after its presumed author. In the pages of this diary Clare discovered a reference to a dead woman in a coffin the morning after the stockade with the writer remarking about the shame she had died defending her husband and his right to mine, or something along those lines. It had previously been claimed that no women had died at the Eureka Stockade battle. Further to this discovery, Clare also found from digging down a rabbit hole for six months, that Lazarus had actually not written this diary. A man named Charles Evans wrote it. 

Read all about the diary research in Desperately Seeking Samuel: a diary lost and found. The women of the Eureka Stockade are recognised in The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka.


New Discoveries

Clare’s revelations of the role of women in history previously overlooked were not the only ‘Eureka!’ moments revealed at the Creative Non-Fiction Festival. Writers on a panel specifically focused on research were asked by Mark about their favourite moments. After enjoying Jane Gleeson-White’s account of day after day entering between two statues of naked men into the beautiful Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice, attention shifted to artifacts. Jane has written a comprehensive history of accounting, Double Entry, and a book, Six Capitals, about the role accounting could play in potentially solving environmental destruction of our Earth. The ‘father of accounting’, Luca Pacioli, a monk and mathematician from 500 or so years ago, wrote several books, including one about chess and its newly developed rules, or so he claimed. Scholars doubted this assertion but in 2006 the book was discovered amongst thousands of others in a private collection. The greater surprise, however, was the beautiful illustrations of chess pieces by Leonardo da Vinci, who was Luca Pacioli’s friend. Although this wasn’t Jane’s own discovery it created immense satisfaction and added to the deep knowledge and respect she had already gained for these men.

Helen O’Neill has written a wide variety of heavily researched books. Her book about Harry Seidler, A Singular Vision, involved the reading of Seidler’s prolific output of words. One day she was swimming at Clovelly when it struck her that colour had only been mentioned a couple of times. She then thought, “I wonder if he was colourblind?”. Helen asked his widow and found her hunch was true. Sometimes research just sinks in and makes completely unexpected revelations.

While researching the return of Vietnam War soldiers to Australia, Mark Dapin was constantly frustrated by being unable to track the specific flights arriving back from Saigon. He finished his thesis without this information but then found them while fossicking around the Noel Butlin Archives Centre, a collection of trade union material amongst other business and labour records. The government commissioned Qantas to conduct these flights. Qantas supplied a civilian crew. Each individual crew member needed to be insured for each flight they were on, thus the records. He accidentally smashed his phone in the excitement of trying to photograph them but thankfully a friend was able to lend him a replacement. The flights might not have made it into the thesis but I bet they’ll be part of his subsequent book.


Money

Research obviously involves a lot of time and time is money. Some of the writers mentioned so far were able to obtain funding through grants and scholarships. Jane Gleeson-White interned at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum.

It is also possible to make money as a freelance writer with shorter forms of writing. Angela Saurine mainly makes a living as a travel writer and has a friend that specialises in writing about cruises. Mark Abernathy and Chris Sheedy write on a wide variety of topics and in a wide range of formats, including newspaper and magazine articles, speeches and ghostwriting opinion editorials (op-eds). Mark estimates around 80-90% of op-eds purportedly written by famous people, such as politicians and sports stars, are actually ghost-written. Chris noted that he is trying to cut down from writing 14 hours a day and Mark supported this statement, describing his routine of writing weekly pieces during the day and books at night. He also said his personality means he embraces doing many things at once (sounds like me) but recommends emerging writers focus on one thing and let the ball roll on from there (I’ll try).

An audience member dared to ask for a specific figure per word. An amount of 75c-$1/word was floated but renounced by publishers and publicists sitting in the front row, stating a more realistic fee is 50c/word. Now I know why Benjamin Law was so happy when his newspaper column was increased from 300 words to 500 words. Apparently 500 words is the perfect length for a Saturday morning bowel movement. My only writing gig for money is for an extremely small publication, BusiDate, aimed at Business Studies students and teachers. I write 2500 words for $500 once or twice a year, which equates to 20 cents per word. It’s good to know I may improve on that in the future.

Last year I attended a session at the Sydney Writers’ Festival where Rosalie Ham said that having The Dressmaker made into a film meant that she was able to buy a brand new car for the first time. It’s looking like a career in writing is more likely to be a lifestyle choice rather than a financial one.

So if not for money…


Fame, Glory and Power

Before attending the Creative Non-Fiction Festival I recognised about half of the names of the writers appearing. Unfortunately choices had to be made and I’m sorry I missed seeing James Bradley, Paul Daley, Malcolm Knox and Susan Wyndham. I’m ecstatic to have been introduced to Jane Gleeson-White, Helen O’Neill and Clare Wright. I have already ordered or purchased multiple books by all three. It shows me just how many fabulous writers and books with which I am unfamiliar.

Lenore Taylor often appears on ABC’s Insiders so is probably the most recognisable of the writers featured at the festival but outside political nerds like myself I imagine her name doesn’t mean that much.  Political writers may feel some glory in breaking stories and rubbing shoulders with politicians but I guess the more familiar it becomes the less glorious the job.

Most of the writers I heard speak wield some power. Clare Wright is successfully bringing women into the historical light, Benjamin Law is possibly changing perceptions of gay Asians and Jack Latimore of indigenous writers, but it is usually the people and topics they write about that gain the fame and glory.

Writers are often subjected to backlash and trolling. One of the authors was subjected to periodical phone calls in the middle of the night calling her a slut and whore because she asked him to be polite towards a fellow writer. It only stopped two years later when she went to court for a protection order. Unanimously, the writers on the ‘Opinions’ panel agreed that you shouldn’t read below the line of an online article due to the vile and vitriol hurled. Kerri Sackville has written about this in her blog, A Comment About Comments. Jack Latimore warned of Pepe the Frog acting as a symbol of Naziism in the USA and of #dingotwitter in Australia, a racist AltRight movement. Typically the haters were men, but one writer said the commentators on Mamamia were mainly women being vicious to one another.

So basically, don’t become a writer for fame, glory and power then.


Why should I write?

I enjoy writing.

I don’t like my life to be constantly filled with adrenalin, I don’t want to constantly concentrate on history either. I’m certainly not into writing for the money, glory or power.

I like to make the complicated appear clearer. I like the solitude of writing but I also like talking to people and discovering who they really are. One of my favourite times ever was hanging around the 9/11 Memorial in New York and chatting with people about why they were there (blog). I think my Aussie accent helped them feel comfortable with opening up to me. It made me feel better about the world.

I think I write to discover and reveal humanity.

08 March 2017

My Feminist Failures: 28 failures (and 15 successful feminists)

'Failure' by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0

As a teacher I have tried to make students aware of the gender bias and lead students into being strong vibrant people, no matter their gender, despite existing gender bias. However, in the rest of my life, sometimes I feel like I have failed as a feminist. Even though I make tentative steps in small ways, I feel like a failure, which is hardly behaving like a feminist but such a female thing to do. I am trying to make changes with some of these failures. Others I have listed have good reasons behind them and/or I don't really see them as failures in the logical sense, yet still, at times, they make me feel like I have failed. So much of being a woman is tied up with guilt that we are never good enough. Well, here is my guilt laid bare.

  1. I fail as a feminist because I left the male dominated industry of finance to have children and then joined the female dominated industry of teaching.
  2. I fail as a feminist because I took four years off work when I had my two children
  3. I fail as a feminist because I didn’t fight when I was bullied in the workplace. It happens more in teaching than in finance.
  4. I fail as a feminist because I leave workplaces rather than fight for my rights under patriarchal management.
  5. I fail as a feminist because I have taken a year out of the workforce, relying on my husband’s income, to help our son through the HSC.
  6. I fail as a feminist because I make my 17 year old son breakfast and lunch every school day.
  7. I fail as a feminist because I can’t leave home without makeup. I hate my appearance without it.
  8. I fail as a feminist because I dye my hair.
  9. I fail as a feminist because I am sucked into buying expensive designer clothes and accessories.
  10. I fail as a feminist because I don’t like being assertive.
  11. I fail as a feminist because I don’t like dealing with conflict, even though I’m good at it.
  12. I fail as a feminist because I went to the Geena Davis talk as part of the All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House because I like Geena Davis, the feminist slant being just a bonus.
  13. I fail as a feminist because I mainly read books by white male authors.
  14. I fail as a feminist because in a review I wrote of Jasper Jones I forgot to look at it with a feminist lens, and there are issues with it (book and film) in this regard.
  15. I fail as a feminist because I expect my husband to take out the garbage.
  16. I fail as a feminist because I let it slide that our Telstra account is in my husband’s name so he has to deal with the issues, even though I feel I would deal with them much more effectively.
  17. I fail as a feminist because I take on most of the housecleaning responsibilities, justifying that it’s my desire to want the house clean and tidy, therefore I have to do it.
  18. I fail as a feminist because I didn’t work the system to be entitled to maternity leave.
  19. I fail as a feminist because I worry that all the rights women feel entitled to in the workplace, particularly regarding maternity leave, are actually detrimental to the cause since much of it puts a cost burden on organisations
  20. I fail as a feminist because I drive a hatchback, such a chick car. Google chick cars to find yet another horrifying realm of gender stereotyping.
  21. I fail as a feminist because I took my husband’s surname when we married.
  22. I fail as a feminist because I feel fat and ugly.
  23. I fail as a feminist because I felt I had no choice the night I lost my virginity. Speaking of which, I wholeheartedly agree with Zoe on My Year 12 Life who said the first time a woman has sex it shouldn’t be about losing something but gaining something, particularly if it is by choice.
  24. I fail as a feminist because I believe there is an extra bond, whether it is called nurturing or something else, between mothers and their children which means it’s usually better if mums are the ones who stay home with children.
  25. I fail as a feminist because I am an emotional person and thus cry easily at movies, TV and when ambulances have their sirens on.
  26. I fail as a feminist because I don’t often enough point out cases of mansplaining or manspreading.
  27. I fail as a feminist because I have tried to keep my writing and education blogs separate because I’m scared I’d lack credibility in education for my attempts at writing on non-education topics (as if there are any).
  28. I fail as a feminist because I haven’t ever joined a protest march.

As a developing writer I hope to limit the amount of gender bias I present in what I write and have hope that I can contribute to social discourse on gender issues in a positive way. I don’t plan to make a mark as a feminist writer but to be a writer who is also a feminist.

For International Women’s Day in 2015, I wrote a blog post called Voice. In my micro-world, my day-to-day life, it feels like nothing has changed in the last two years.  In the macro-world of government and media there have been changes. Some changes have been for the better and some for the worse.

I was glad to see Tony Abbott ousted as prime minister and hoped Malcolm Turnbull would be able to lead with a much more reasonable approach. I am immensely disappointed. After reading Annabel Crabb’s book, ‘Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull’, I wonder how much he actually holds onto principles and how much principles are up for negotiation depending on what will achieve a ‘win’. He may have won the title of prime minister but he hasn’t won at being a prime minister. The condescending, obnoxious, bullying, belittling, pompous, misogynist voices within the coalition seem to be louder than ever.

And then we have Donald Trump.

However, perhaps partly due to the painful parliamentary patriarchy, I feel that there is a stronger discourse of feminism within the media, with some strong feminist voices finding a presence, a space. These voices have to fight like hell to counteract the vile and vitriol that is flung at them. I admire them immensely for their stance, their fortitude and determination. So to finish this post here’s a shout-out to the voices I have loved hearing and reading over recent times:
  • Rosie Waterland for fighting for herself and what she believes in. My review in GoodReads for her book ‘The Anti-Cool Girl’ says: I laughed. I cried. My heart ached throughout. Yet, an enjoyable read. The writing flows beautifully in all its frank glory. I couldn't put it down, finishing at 3am.
  • Yassmin Abdel-Magied for her passion and vibrancy - I first adored Yassmin as an ABC presenter on ‘Australia Wide’ and then was privileged to be in the live audience when she appeared on Q&A.
  • Tracey Spicer, Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales as proud feminists reporting on the masculine world of politics and fighting the mud flung at them just because they are women with voices.
  • Jane Caro for writing and speaking passionately about feminism and education.
  • Rosie Batty and many others for speaking up about Domestic Violence.
  • A friend from school days, Jenny Rolfe, who is one of the numerous people fighting for feminist causes at a grassroots level, including greater representation in Wagga Wagga City Council, and faces phenomenal backlash as a result.
  • The Renaissance Women Leaders' Network - Wenona (a private girls’ school in North Sydney led by the amazing Briony Scott) gives back to the community in many ways and this group helps to encourage female leaders in education which is sorely needed since despite more women being in teaching, men dominate the leadership roles in education.
  • Emily's List Australia - I first became aware of Emily’s List Australia when a good friend gave me a tea towel with Julia Gillard's misogyny speech written on it. They are championing and funding feminist causes such as research into the gender pay gap.
  • Geena Davis as the only non-Australian on this list because I attended her talk at the Sydney Opera House last Sunday. She was brilliant. I already knew about the work of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (@GDIGM) through media reports. The research reveals alarming statistics of women representation in film and TV, particularly in family films.

I wish I could be more like them.

02 March 2017

Jasper Jones - a quick review of the book and film

Oh the good ol’ days when country towns were based on a pecking order with the shire president at the top and the foreigners and indigenous people at the bottom, where sport was valued infinitely more than brains. Jasper Jones, book and film, sets up Corrigan, a fictitious town in 1960’s WA, as being all that, and then rolls it over, exposing its belly to the sun.

The novel's town and its characters, written with a deft hand by Craig Silvey, is morphed into an extraordinary visual delight by the film. All scenes were beautifully shot with the lavishness of a cinematic viewing in mind. Whether it be entering dark woods in the middle of the night, or in the glaring sun of a local cricket match, the audience was invited in. The intricacies of removable glass slats in Charlie's window and the dust of the library made the locations seem touchable, real. The cars of the 1960s appearing shiny and new made it like a picture book. Corrigan's environment was clear and present, without taking on a lead role of its own, yet vital for the story to be told.

The narrator of the story, Charlie, is a quintessential teenager nerd, due to his love of reading, lack of sporting ability and fear of insects. This is reinforced with his glasses and “pansy sandals”. Derogatory gay terms, such as this, flow freely, mainly between friends as they take the piss out of each other, ‘queer’ being the main word of choice between Charlie and his best friend, Jeffrey. I grew up in a country town much larger than the one in Jasper Jones; the term ‘poofter’ was used in a similar manner, an insult for fun or to be hurled with venom. The film seemed to give this friendship a lighter touch than the book but the few interactions shown provided the main moments of comic relief. In the book, the beautiful dialogue between Charlie and Jeffrey was one of the many highlights for me but yet I cringed at the use of these terms.

Jeffrey and his family are Vietnamese Australians with young Jeffrey excluded from and bullied by the team of cricket whites, despite his outstanding talent. They called him ‘Cong’ in a demeaning and degrading way until he saved the team from a humiliating loss, having accidentally scraped into the team due to the illness of a team member, and then suddenly ‘Cong’ was used with affection. It doesn’t stop it being a derogatory term though. It is interesting to note that I had trouble finding the name of the actor playing Jeffrey, Kevin Long, just as the producers had trouble finding him.

Words are important to young Charlie and his father, both secretly harbouring ambitions of being authors. They understand the importance of words and terms and labels and try to understand the people beneath them. As for our titular character, Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), he couldn’t read, plus he had an Aboriginal mother and a drunkard father and was thus excluded from society. His only saving grace was his football talent, which excused him from being a school truant. However, it did not save him from being one of the first names on gossipers’ lips when something went wrong.

And, of course, something did go wrong. The shire president’s daughter disappeared one night. If it couldn’t be blamed on Jasper Jones, it must have been the fault of the other scapegoat, Mad Jack Lionel, who had killed before, rumour had it. Not believing either outcast did anything wrong, Charlie earnestly investigates the truth of Laura Wishart’s disappearance. It’s complicated by his love interest being Laura’s younger sister, Eliza, beautifully played by Angourie Rice. Her death stare is something to behold. Charlie is also beautifully played, by Levi Miller. Yet, in appearance alone, they are a little too attractive to be the school oddballs.

The one character that drifted too far from the book portrayal, in my view, was Charlie’s Mum, acted by Toni Collette. The author, Craig Silvey, has said he fleshed her out a bit more for the movie version but instead she became unconvincing as a character. She was too nice and typically Mumsy in the beginning, and then quite suddenly started flipping out, whereas the book had a darker undertone in her from the start. I was particularly annoyed with the movie having her buy a new car out of the blue. It didn’t seem to fit with the time or place. The only other whinge I have about the adaptation is the little extra bravery given to Charlie during the course of the film.

Jasper Jones is a coming of age story but it’s about all of us. It’s a strong Australian story with prejudices and secrets laid bare, without shoving them down your throat. The heart of the tale lies with the young characters, in both the novel and the film. They are exquisitely written characters brought to life by seriously talented actors. It is disappointing that a film simply can’t capture all the detailed nuances, thoughts and motivations of the book’s characters but it’s a superb film anyway. Watch the film. Read the book. It doesn’t matter what order you do it in. They’re both brilliant.


Thanks to The Monthly for my tickets to see the film at the Palace Verona, Paddington and my local bookstore, Novella, for selling me the book.