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.


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.


1. Adrenalin 

2. Rewrite history 

3. New discoveries 

4. The money 

5. Fame, glory and power


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.


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.


Popular Posts