Growing up, ours was a typical post-eighties Western Sydney household: instant cuppas, Wonder White, three channels and the Daily Tele. We were Blackfellas on my mother’s side and working class migrant Italian farmers on my father’s. We survived, just, but the arts were as foreign to me as the city was.
I remember the day we got dial-up internet. I was fourteen. By then, my brother had been shafted to a caravan out the back, with mum claiming the third bedroom as her office where she ran a small cleaning supplies business. She studied bookkeeping and built herself a website. Her then-husband bailed her out financially more than once; even so her efforts to harness late-nineties innovation were a feat for a suburban mum.
By the time I was seventeen, I had been kicked out of school and home. I went to TAFE and studied business management, surviving through clerical work and progressing from friend’s couches to a granny flat rental of my own. Later, well into my twenties, I put myself through design school where I learned to think, an experience that would eventually compel me to write.
At night, I would study, pushing through exhaustion before rising for a client services job in Surry Hills. My role was to funnel design briefs from clients into our creative team, then back to clients again. The agency was different to the corporate world I was used to and the job seemed promising at first. The office had tall ceilings and plants that hung and draped over wide desks. This suggested it was an environment where a worker could cultivate creativity. Despite the aesthetics, I quickly gathered that the company had accumulated a team of the industry’s most mediocre and miserable. I’d filter the work through to my colleagues, the designers, who would shrug and snarl, filling out their days by turning the smallest of client requests into ordeals – just for kicks. The agency director took a professional liking to me, taking me on pitch meetings which riled up my co-workers further. I’d overhear whispers: Why does she get to go? She’s a junior.
Lunch breaks were spent alone in the park off Goulburn Street where I fell in love with the work of Rainer Maria Rilke. Reading Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of letters written to an aspiring writer over a century ago, I was fascinated by the generosity of this great poet, whose ethos centred on solitude. Rilke was hesitant to give a critique of the young writer’s poetry, instead guiding him to go into himself and ignore all external validation. ‘This above all: ask yourself in your night’s quietest hour: must I write?’
The self-reflection Rilke encouraged does not resemble the pseudo-enlightened discourse of neoliberal self-help gurus, but rather calls for one to stay with an uncomfortable solitude long enough for something honest to emerge – something truthful and beautiful. I knew I craved solitude. I knew there was a reason I was always the first to leave the party, but it was Rilke’s letters that gave me permission. It was his words and their conviction that instilled the mandate to go inwards in order to produce better work. To serve myself, my practice, and by extension my loved ones, all the better. Rilke wrote:
What else should I say to you? I think everything has been emphasised as it should be; and all I wanted to do in the end was advise you to go through your development quietly and seriously; you cannot disrupt it more than by looking outwards and expecting answers from without to questions that only your innermost instinct in your quietest moments will perhaps be able to answer.
While studying and working for the agency, I was learning to put words together and growing to love them, but I was too distracted to call myself a writer. It was not until my early thirties that I would adopt a consistent practice. By then, the world had changed significantly: Trump was in power, women around the world marched in the streets in protest, and the corporate world had blatantly wrapped itself around and commodified a large strand of feminist activism and discourse. It was enraging and compelling and I believed I had something to say. And so I pitched, and to my surprise I was consistently published.
I don’t, and probably never will, write compulsively, not in the way Rilke did. But there are always a handful of pieces and ideas bubbling away at a focused pace. There is no one way that I approach writing: there is the writing when an essay emerges as a matter of urgency; or the notes I scribble down or email to myself, almost always to come back to; and there’s the daily writing practice which I rarely sustain, but when I do, produces some of my best work.
It is an old stereotype, but I need order to function in life and this extends to my writing. Everything must be in its place. Order and tidiness – both inside and outside my work – have long been innate mechanisms of survival for me. Having structures and parameters in place, visibly or otherwise, allows fluidity and beauty to be cultivated in my work. When life begins chaotically and foundations are turbulent, perceived control is of high value. Without this, all focus and desire to write is lost, only returning when order is restored.
Then there’s the kind of writing that happens out of desperation, in moments of low health. In early January, I was on the brink. If my life were an HBO series, this would have been the pre-climax, coming on the back of a series of ugly crises that pulled at old scars. The country was burning and both grief and trauma had reared around Christmas time following a series of stressful events and family volatility. I had plummeted under the weight of despair and exhaustion. On a train and with a heavy throat, I sat with my pen frantically tearing across pages through eyes that burnt and watered from the smoke. All I could muster was the sickly comfort that if I did not have my sanity, there was always art. I knew this feeling well.
In the carriage, a woman around my age with dirty-blonde hair sat metres away from me with the word Beloved tattooed across her bony ankle. I traced the elaborate B over and over again, following the stem that curved into one of those cursive fonts. One row in front, a man with a long grey beard and sun-blotched skin taught his son to meditate. The young boy’s demeanour was studious and trusting, his eyes shut as he surrendered to his father’s gentle hand.
Just behind them, a young, twenty-something white man in office attire stood holding the rails. His raised armpits signalled an entitled air of ordinance while other passengers huddled in order to occupy less space. The father and son’s quirky ease, the woman’s choice of font, the twenty-something’s apathy, each tormented me in my heightened state. Why the fuck do they all seem ok?
These were irrational thoughts brought on by own anguish. I soon calmed myself, finding refuge in knowing I had been here before and a resolution would soon follow. It had been a big year prior and I was spent. While writing is an act that communicates a message, often the labour lies largely in everything that happens around it. I was on the back of two solid years of agitating a particular problem within Australia’s white feminist landscape. #MeToo had reached Australia and prominent media figures and organisations had blatantly used it to build capital in the guise of change. This is no new concept as far as the history of white feminist ‘liberation’ goes, but it took a great deal of collective disruption to shut it down.
While words made up part of this archive, the unseen work involved remains more significant to me. I’d check in with peers and fellow survivors again and again, each of us held up by which ever one of us felt stronger that day. This kind of work sits alongside the work of writing. Whether it’s writing or disrupting, there is also the constant self-critique of one’s ethics, as well as a continual dialogue of strategising and the mustering of the emotional discipline required to block out unnecessary noise. What’s left behind for others to digest or marvel over is only a small part of the process.
As a writer, I often wrestle with the economy that I am contributing to, with a cultural and social landscape that writers perpetuate and some benefit from. The literary industry increasingly mines accounts of trauma and trades in hot takes in ways that leave little room for self-reflection. As a reader and writer, I’m always asking myself what makes good writing. Is it when it cuts through with bleeding honesty and sharp prose? Or when it feels like the author is speaking to you? Or is it when you can envisage how the subject might walk and talk and feel? Or when what’s executed is unknown and familiar, all at once? For me, it is all of these things – and likely more.
Design school imparted a critical eye and taught me about pushing for resolution in my creative practice, be it through graphics or literature. I’m rarely able to see my work for what it is until I digest it later – long after it has been published or filed away. Only then will I have some sense of how others may read it and what value it might have. I now know that if you think the work is good too soon, it’s almost definitely still on its way. I have also learned that half the merit lies in the outcome, with the other half in the thinking. And if you’re still thinking then you’re still pushing, resolving, and ultimately serving your practice. In a way, this can only be done by going into yourself.
Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if it should be affirmative, if it is given to you to respond to this serious question with a loud and simple “I must”, then construct your life according to this necessity.– Rainer Maria Rilke