Acts of Avoidance
It is midday on the first day of Lockdown and I’m at the desk. I have an essay and article to write while awaiting edits of my novel (working title Iris 1) from my publisher. Keen to clear the decks, I knock off some correspondence, check invoices then put through two loads of washing as rain is due. I tend to an orchid which has a bacterial infection.
I was supposed to be on holidays at friends’ olive farm in Wonarua country. Reading in the morning, bit of work for the fellas in the afternoon. Cooking. Bliss. But I had to come home after three days to do a marking job. It took about 60 hours even though I could only log 47 according to the papers-per-hour of my allotted pay. The university IT system has changed since I last taught there and the new one took hours to figure out.
I earnt just over $1900. That’s huge for me. If I earnt that much every week, I’d be in the second highest income bracket. But I wouldn’t be able to write.
I sign up for Mubi and find to my delight a ream of Kiarostami films. My housemate and I watch The Wind Will Carry Us, a sparse, meditative, absurd story set in a remote Kurdish village. The landscape looks incredible: stripes of yellow, ochre, green as though applied by a painting knife. The main character’s jeep is constantly hooning in and out of these stripes as he heads uphill for phone reception to have frantic elliptical conversations about a dying woman we never see. I go to bed so stimulated I can’t sleep.
Awake at 6am, I speed-read for my Zoom bookclub later that morning. It’s a contemporary Australian novel that has won and been shortlisted for lots of prizes. Most people hate it though one of our best readers loves it. I don’t say much: I’m still only halfway through. One member who works in public health reckons the lockdown will go for a while. ‘We’re going to have a big spike,’ she says.
I spend the afternoon doing a Profit and Loss statement for Centrelink. I am keen to get off Jobseeker. I’ve been on it for a year as I haven’t been able to get any part-time tutoring work. A lot of casuals lost work due to the drop in international students caused by Covid, but the real reason in Humanities departments is that the government cut funding. Enrolments are also down locally now an Arts degree costs around $30,000. The disastrous effects of Covid-19 on capitalism’s casualised workforce are well known in hospitality, frontline health, border regulation, transport. The university teaching precariat is not at risk of contracting the virus, only of unemployment, poverty and depression.
I’m an autodidact, from choice rather than necessity. I’m not sure I believe in Creative Writing even though it’s the only thing I’m qualified to teach apart from English as a Second Language. Covid and government funding cuts also stopped work in that sector. So in a way, being on Jobseeker is the government giving back what it took, but half as much, with bureaucratic surveillance.
I end the day with a perusal of the website of the artist I’m commissioned to write about. I’m excited about her work, we had an excellent interview. She’s over 70 and there is so much material I can’t get across it all. It’s Sunday evening and I want a break.
Like almost every other artist and writer in this nation, I work around 60 hours a week. This doesn’t include the hours of rumination off-desk, so to speak, necessary to creation. My basic routine for ten months was: Work on the novel Monday to Friday, 8/9 til 3/4 (I eat my meals at the desk). Then admin, chores, exercise. Saturdays are for ancillary work – pitches, reviews, articles, essays, commissions, applications. As I decided to apply for everything this year, the workload extended to nights.
I finished a draft of the novel at the end of May. I was so burnt out I did all the dumb things like leave my keys in the front door while I was out all day; wash blacks in hot water; start the wrong side of the HRT tray, ending up with a three-day migraine and night sweats. So I went on a holiday. For three days.
I dated a workaholic for a few months which was serendipitous. She’s a scientist, also obligated to do grant applications. But she’s an Associate Professor on a six-figure salary, the applications mostly done in working hours. There is nothing heroic about our white-collar workaholism; at worst it’s a form of self-indulgence.
I get out for a walk. Leftovers for dinner. I had friends over on Lockdown Eve. I cooked rabbit with red wine and mushrooms: a feral shot by a friend on Gundungurra country. We sat around until after midnight when Lockdown officially began. Our fear of getting busted was only half jocular. The social contact of that night sustains me like the leftovers.
My housemate and I watch two episodes of The Queen’s Gambit. I love the Jane Eyre orphanage, the giant chess games she watches on the ceiling as she lies in bed drugged. But how does she do that on downers? Are the green pills Ritalin?? I can’t follow any of the games even though I can play chess. I like that too.
I sleep in, which discombobulates me. (I used to meditate every morning at 6 for an hour.) Then to the vet in a mask. I hate morning appointments. I’m a vampire who never goes out before 3. Back home I look at the artist’s photos and make notes. I write a few opening paragraphs, none of which work. Impostor Syndrome makes its obligatory entrance. You didn’t go to art school, you dropped out of uni, you’ve hardly read any theory. The essay is for an art magazine. You won’t have enough citations!!
A rejection in my inbox. My strike rate used to be one in ten, now it’s about one in twenty. Could be reduced funding. Or age. Some applications have been under par and deservedly rejected. Others, like today’s, are predictable. But one was unfair and I’m still mad about it. I fantasise about being important enough to snub the schmuck administrator one day. But I wouldn’t know what she looks like and it would only give grist to her mill.
The important thing is to prevail.
In compensation, out of the blue I was asked to be Writer-in-Residence at Carriageworks; the outgoing was for visual art, I’m in for performance. I’m thrilled. But what will I write, now the venue is closed?
I am writing the art essay, and this one, to earn money. The external apron below my kitchen window is about to fall off; there are holes in my kitchen wall and it’s twelve degrees down there in the morning. Sydney Review of Books pays well. This is what I’ve been paid by publications I’ve written for over the past years:
The Monthly – Print: $1 per word. Digital: $200 (flexible word count).
The Saturday Paper – 80c per word (profiles generally 2000 words, reviews 1100).
Sydney Review of Books – $750-1500 (dependent on length and essay type).
Artlink – 60c per word (usual length 1000-2000 words).
Meanjin – Digital: $200 (flexible word count; I haven’t made it into print for years).
Runway – Digital: $200 (flexible word count).
Running Dog – Digital: $180 (flexible word count; now increased to $250).
Overland – Digital: $150 (flexible word count; I haven’t made it into print for years).
Audrey Journal – Digital: $100-200 (around 1000 words).
These rates have remained the same since 2017, with Overland coming up from $120. The award nominated by Australian Society of Authors is 85c per word. It is worth noting that the list spans publications from private enterprises run by a multimillionaire, through to publications funded by universities, to young individuals and collectives scraping by on minimal funding. I don’t know what the Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian pay as they never reply to my emails.
Other jobs of the past year:
$200 for appearance on writers’ festival panels. For a Sydney Writers Festival Gala Event I wrote a new piece which took a few days.
$500 for two appearances at Liveworks, a performance art festival. I wrote a new piece which took a few days.
Grant assessment – $750 for about 25 hours work.
Prize judging – $900 for reading 13 books, emailing and Zoom meetings.
I could live off this if I had two of these jobs per week. But that’s impossible as the publications are mostly quarterly and essays and articles take about a week to write; besides which, I wouldn’t have time to write my novel.
I am in the median earning bracket for Australian writers: $12,900 pa, down from $20,000 pa ten years ago. I’ll earn more this year, as I finish my novel, a once in a decade occurrence. Only the top 1-5% of Australian writers earn their living from writing. They are asked to work for free all the time – blurbing books, giving talks. I am too, and it’s hard to say No because I am so desperate for work, and I risk offending people. Recently I was asked to appear for free at a seminar at a sandstone university. Three years ago, I appeared at a seminar at the same university. There was no fee offered then either but one of the other panellists was a media star, and his agent demanded $5000. The university suddenly found money; they bargained him down to $1500 and extended the fee to myself and the third panellist. But I’m not a media star and my agent this time advises me to say No; she is also often asked to appear for free by this university. ‘They’re the worst!’
I have published seven books, most selling only in the hundreds and difficult to contract. For my one bestseller, Indelible Ink, I have been on a royalty rate of 7.5% for more than five years due to a dodgy contract. The standard percentage is 10%; it should rise to 12% after a certain amount of sales have paid for editing and publicity. Rising royalties are advised by the ASA but they are rare and have to be fought for. From that 10% your agent takes 12-15%. My current agent deserves this and more.
I make dahl for dinner. I overcook it. Bad cooking for me often means good writing. Burnt pots mean the novel is humming along, especially if the fire alarm goes off and they have to be rushed outside pluming smoke then left to soak with bicarb of soda for days. I had a friend who used to bury his burnt pots in the backyard. But he’s a lawyer.
The TV loses internet reception so I read. I race through the last hundred pages of the Australian novel and decide it’s a brilliant idea — topical, apposite — but badly executed. I lie awake wondering if I’m harder on my fellow writers than my fellow artists. Wondering if I should write more novels and less essays. I’m longing for Iris 1.
Meditation, then a morning of procrastination which includes deciding to write this essay in order to avoid the art essay.
To avoid both of them, I fuck around on Words with Friends for nearly an hour. WWF is my digital addiction. I am fiercely competitive and only play high-scoring opponents. The endorphin rush is terrific. I’ve been known to punch the air when I score more than 100 for a word. I still remember Mary G from Wisconsin whom I was playing during the bushfires. She messaged me mid-game saying how sorry she was about the fires. Like a child given a lolly, I clustered to her, sending a teary rant about funding cuts to environmental programs, our Prime Minister being a climate change denier almost as bad as Trump, but a right-wing Christian to boot, etc etc. A gelid silence descended across the 16-hour time difference. I woke next morning in my smoke-filled house to a message from Mary G: Well, the troops have been dispatched to Iraq, and the firefighters from California to Australia. I will pray for you. It jolted me out of bed like a cattle prod. Then, Mary beat me. I was furious. I rematched. With cool precision, my extravagant vocabulary, a lot of luck and a pinch of cheating, I beat her. Then I beat her again, taking my tally to 5/4. I shouted and jumped for joy. Then I blocked her.
Fair to say, it has become a standard procedure of mine to block anyone I’ve won a majority against. It isn’t spite, it’s only to reduce my addiction, like deleting the dealer’s number. But in Words with Friends there is a dealer on every corner. An opponent I know personally once posted his bedside reading on Facebook, including a cheater’s book of words for Scrabble. So, I began to cheat against him. You know who you are.
It occurs to me that my entire working life has been made up of Acts of Avoidance. Performance art was done for years to avoid writing. Indelible Ink was written to avoid Iris 1. Strange Museums was written to avoid Indelible ink, as was A Novel Idea. Buried not Dead was written partly to avoid Iris 1.
Another marking job is offered. A 25,000 word Masters assignment for which I have to write a 2-4 page report. $274. The pay looks low but it’s the award. I accept immediately.
I see the line-up for a writers’ festival I’ve never been invited to and seethe with jealousy. Then shame. I read a terrific essay by Tristan Harwood, a young Indigenous critic and feel inspired. I create an Instagram post about a local performance I recently admired.
I work on the essay for about five hours and crack it. Then a long walk through Surry Hills, listening to Namila Benson interview Sudanese-Australian Atong Atem, whose photographs I saw years ago at Customs House. Bedroom self-portraits in sci-fi dress-ups and fluoro make-up; photos of teenage friends. They return to me in all their wondrous highly-coloured subversion as I walk through the drizzly early evening darkness. I am filled with love for my art community. All across this continent are diligent, talented, politically astute artists. Most struggle to make a living. This is why I write about them; this why I used to make performance. Out of love.
Which doesn’t mean you can ask me to work for free.
The TV still isn’t working. I fuck around on my phone, deleting and merging contacts. I hover over an old client’s number, then leave it. I read a couple of essays by Leslie Jamison, then Sontag’s penetrating take on Diane Arbus in On Photography, then 30 pages of poems by Harold Brodsky. I sleep the deep sleep of the well-nourished.
I am writing this essay out of frustration that few people understand the daily working lives of artists and writers and persist in dreamily thinking that our jobs are all dreamy thinking. It isn’t their fault: government policies erase or trivialise us. Australia’s mainstream media remains decades behind, foregrounding artists such as van Gogh and Marilyn Monroe. And can somebody do a search on how often Spectrum has featured Brett Whitely or Richard Neville in 1970s London as emblematic of bohemia? This is why, when we are on holiday, we always meet people whose eyes glaze over. The actor will get: Are you going to Hollywood? The artist: A painter! My mother likes painting. The musician: Are you a rock star? The writer: I’d write a novel if I had the time. All of us get: Would I have heard of you?
Removing our quotidian toil from public discourse entrenches elitism; the only visible thing is the end product, collapsed onto celebrity by hasty media. Lack of funding inflates prices, further reducing cultural access. But no artist who lasts into their forties is driven by delusions of fame: we just want to work.
Is this why it’s so hard to get a holiday? Barthes’s infamous claim that writing was as involuntary as shitting and holidays an invention of the bourgeoisie, compels me. Which takes us back to … If only I had the time.
I read Cherine Fahd’s monograph Apókrypha, with vignettes written by the artist and Daniel Mudie Cunningham. Inspired, I work all afternoon on the art essay. The body is down. I’m happy.
With spooky coincidence, my old client texts to see if I’m still working. I text back: Of course. See you after Lockdown! It’s a fisting session. I was always good at that as my hands are long and slim. He’s a sweet man, dribbly bum, small dick, gave me a beautiful corset. Bless. It’s been years since I did a session. I ring a colleague to check the rates.
$350-450 depending on the content, and your experience. Not much of a wage rise since the height of my BDSM career twenty years ago. I was taught by old-school Mistresses, as we were called then. Clients were barely allowed to touch you. Rates were hourly, but it wasn’t ‘a clock-watching hour’. For twice as much money, we worked as submissives which was when clients got to fuck you. At $1000 per hour, caning sessions as a submissive were the best, but rare. Take your lover to a posh restaurant, gaze into her eyes, your arse cheeks pleasantly warm.
There was a famous BDSM establishment nicknamed Salon Shitty’s because the Mistresses let clients fuck them. They also dropped their prices in the morning. It was one of the reasons the arse fell out of the industry. Later, my research for Iris 1, which is set in the 1930s, revealed that historically, kinky sex work often wove domination with getting fucked. My colleague tells me there is now another type of session called the Kinky Girlfriend experience, which I’m guessing is this and I’m glad it’s a separate category. Better than letting them fuck you when you’re Domming.
Nevertheless, once I subtract dungeon hire and calculate the time getting there, getting ready and cleaning up, it’s not good pay and reminds me why I decided late in life to get some post grad qualifications to teach. But I like to keep my hand in, so to speak.
By evening my back is sore from nine hours at the desk. I lie on the living-room floor groaning at the news. Covid ripping through Indonesia and India, the almighty vaccine fuck-up; $660 million for car parks, $125 million for live music, the thugs who rule us fortressing the country, when it isn’t even theirs. What a pack of deadshits. Australia has become so protected, privileged, naïve, sterile, timid. Has it always been?
I want to stay on the floor and drink whisky but I force myself out for a walk. I feel so lucky. I’m over fifty and healthy. My novel is contracted, I currently don’t have caring responsibilities. I own a fucking house. Am I doing the right thing with all these resources? I wonder, as I do every day of my life.
I wake at 4am again. Will I lose gigs like I did last year? Sales? All the sex workers out of work, never mentioned because they’re considered unworthy. The planet roils and seethes. I have to get this work done while I still can.
I tie up the loose ends on the art essay. I suddenly feel flat about it but it’s the best I can do. I have two pages of notes I couldn’t include. I want to write more about her; I also feel inadequate to the task.
I Zoom two friends in México. One just had Covid despite the Johnson vaccination which she had to travel to the USA to get; she suffered only a few days fever and fatigue despite her asthma. The other is a doctor who didn’t work for a year as the lack of PPE made it too dangerous. Now she is in Cancun, examining prison inmates to assess torture allegations. A third who had Covid last year, recently posted videos of a party: I goggle at the crowded dancefloor. The music is fantastic. Later, this friend will tell me a lot of people got infected after the June party season, but not her, probably due to her antibodies.
My old cat climbs onto my lap and looks up at me with her huge emerald green eyes. Her purr vibrates through my body; oxytocin flows between us, quenching me.
On Words with Friends, I beat Alan S, whose profile shows a dapper young black man in the UK. My tally against is now 12/11 so I block him. Sorry Alan, it’s not personal. I start a game with my most formidable opponent Peggy, whose avatar is a pelican (I’m a King parrot). Peggy has the strongest crack on the block. By evening I’m edging ahead. With only one move left, she can’t catch me now.
I go for a long walk with an artist friend who was due in Melbourne for a major exhibition of her work two days ago. She says she’s handling it but I can tell she’s upset. In contrast to my regularity, she worked a fifteen-hour day then a nothing day. The empty streets have lost their eerie allure and now just feel sad. She wears a mask the entire time.
Queen’s Gambit starts to lose me with the boozing. It feels like a man’s version of a woman: the vision mostly surface, the mind and heart binaries, the strength of the former occluding the latter because smart women are freakishly cold. Another B grade Netflix series.
I read another thirty pages of Harold Brodsky. It’s too stuffy. I will put the book on my front wall for the street faeries. He won the Nobel Prize for it.
As soon as I wake I open Words with Friends and find Peggy the Pelican has ended the game with ENHANCE over two triple-word tiles, scoring more the 100 points and totally wiping me out. I stumble out of bed bewildered.
I polish then file the art essay and send a copy to the artist for corrections. I do some work on this essay. Then on a third essay. I’m on fire, I’m delirious, it’s a compulsion addiction vocation, I’m a hyperactive workaholic in Lockdown. I know this bout of anxious overwork will only result in burnout. I need to stop writing and do more reading. I walk up to Gleebooks to buy A House for Mr Biswas and some Ann Carson.
We finish watching Queen’s Gambit and I remain disappointed. More mid-twentieth century style for the furniture lovers. What orphanage in segregated 1950s USA could foster this mixed-race friendship? Was the actor cast black while the original character in the 1983 novel was white, as happened in the adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale? It feels more like a palliation than repudiation of racism, our leading lady of course hip to the jive. The incidents of sexism are little hurdles to be skipped over with barely a ruffle of her couture skirts, rather than the impassable roadblocks of the time. Then, a nice gay character to tick that last box. But it’s had millions of viewers, intelligent viewers. It makes me think of the importance of not lying about history, not compromising for commercial gain, but also—
What can I get away with?