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In Real Life

This essay is part of a new Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to the labour of writing called Writers at Work. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists, and scholars to reflect on how writers get made and how writing gets made in the twenty-first century.

When I am not writing my novel, In Real Life, I edit tender documents for firms in the construction industry. I am seconded to skyscrapers across the country, writing copy for road pavers, train station constructers, and level crossing removalists. I activate passive sentences and remove dangling infinitives and double spaces left at the ends of sentences. I wear monochrome shirts and a single pair of Versace suit pants that I found, miraculously, for $24 at the Southern Cross TK Maxx.

‘Your clothes don’t have to be expensive’, the head of my agency told me at my interview last year. ‘They just have to look expensive.’

It’s easy work for the most part, though piecemeal, atomised. I encounter new faces and spaces, new projects which I pour myself into for a set amount of time, and never hear about again. I use the same cheerily vague language I deployed for the unsuccessful grant applications I submitted for In Real Life. I write about paradigm shifts and wide-reaching benefits for the transport network of the great state of Victoria, instead of the novel. I have savings for the first time in my life.

I have gotten better at not getting drunk with or without my wife, Ellena (another writer), when I return home from work, though it’s all I want to do. But when I’m hungover in the office it feels like every second is being seared into my skin, a line I used many years ago, in a short story about a woman who had suffered a great bereavement.

I used to feel more confident entering the heads of other people, or to use a less loaded term, characters. I flexed my empathetic dexterity, I spun worlds out of thin air. I wrote by the maxim: Write what you know, but if you write what you don’t know, make sure it sings. But eventually it all began to feel forced and phony. It began to feel like a trick. When I’d first read my stories to Ellena, back in Berlin where we met, she’d said my prose was clean enough to eat off. But she said that there was nothing of me in the stories, they could have been written by anyone.

I swim at the Collingwood Leisure Centre after work – 60, 80, 100 laps of freestyle. I do my best writing when I’m swimming, if that makes sense. My novel seems suddenly accessible, a vista of possibilities. I am so excited to get back to my desk that I often forget to dry my hair. But when I walk through the front door, cold and sodden, I can barely bring myself to open the Word document. I am lucky to get the odd hundred words down during the week. This is all temporary, I tell myself, but it feels less temporary every day. Deep down I am afraid of my novel, afraid that it will never get written, that I am kidding myself that it’s any good.

Home has been fourteen different houses in the three years that Ellena and I have been together. Home has been a palatial apartment in Schöneberg, the back room of a mate’s Footscray weatherboard, and the flat in Exarchia, which Ellena and I will be returning to soon, hopefully with enough money that we can stay in Athens for the rest of the year. It seems impossible to make it work as an artist in Australia, to dedicate oneself to writing and to also pay rent, let alone a mortgage, let alone a child’s school uniform. Living in a sharehouse with black mould and holed ceilings is one option, but not as appealing a choice as it was in our twenties. We want to be working writers, so we left, so we’re leaving again. Not many people get to make that choice, even if it’s a hard one to make.

Of course there’s more to it than that. If it was up to me, we’d never come back, save for births, deaths and the Geelong Cats’ next premiership. Is Australia done for? Is that too glib? Is it more done for than anywhere else?

Since I started writing this piece, Syriza, the nominally-leftist Greek government, has been booted out for the not-nominally right-wing one. And the new mayor of Athens ran on a platform of ‘cleaning up the streets’ and ‘Athens for Athenians’. And the Athenians we know have grown accustomed to living with little and then even less. But though many of our friends struggle to find work, or pay their bills, they have a deep and profound connection to politics, one which is street level and material, one I barely knew existed in real life.

The last time we left Athens we hosted a dinner party which, unbeknownst to us, fell on the anniversary of the death of a 15-year-old boy who was murdered by police in 2008 in Exarchia. To dissuade the anarchists from rioting on this anniversary (though riot they did), the cops pre-emptively teargassed the neighbourhood. Our friends arrived to our flat with red cheeks and wet eyes, carrying cakes and salads. We handed out milk-soaked cotton buds which they rubbed on their faces. Over dinner, a friend told us about the riots after the boy’s death that lasted for more than three weeks: the torched cop cars and broken windows; the thousands of people putting their bodies on the line. Since then, the cops stopped coming to Exarchia. Since then, the ATMs have been removed, lest someone smash them to bits. And the cop who did the killing got a life sentence.

Home for now is a friend’s apartment on Easey Street, green walls and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves packed so tightly that we need a ruler to prise a volume out. I like to run a bath and read his books – Zama by Antonio di Benedetto, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Diane Williams’ Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine – reading late into the night, stopping only to refresh my cup of tea, or to check on Ellena who is usually in bed by that point, reading or marking students’ work.

People take me more seriously when I wear my wedding ring in the office. They like it when I drawl my vowels and clip my diction: ‘No worries mate.’ ‘You betcha.’ ‘Cheers for that.’ I’ve slipped into corporate life like a slipper that fits me, surprisingly just so. I used to worry that I wasn’t cut out for full time work. Now I worry that I’m too cut out for it. Ellena thinks that I haven’t worked enough humiliating jobs to know how good I have it, and no doubt she is right.

I am interning at Meanjin where I edit a weekly blog called What I’m Reading, a space where Australian writers can discuss the books that have most recently moved them. I’ve been able to commission minor heroes of mine, and friends and acquaintances whose work deserves more attention.

I was surprised to find that many writers sent in pieces framed around the fact that they didn’t, or couldn’t, read as much as they’d like to. ADHD, PTSD, second jobs, dependents. Many Australian writers are too sick too tired too poor too overworked too angry to read, let alone write. I can’t decide whether it’s comforting, or sad, (or both) that writers more brilliant and accomplished than I are also feeling the pinch.

In Real Life is about work and writing. A simple idea: time-poor, cash-rich professionals pay young people to live out parts of their lives for them. The boring and unpleasant parts: early morning meetings, awkward first dates, work parties, the works. A world where embodied experience is transferred, outsourced, mediated, where people can cordon off parts of their lives to be lived by other people. At least that’s how I described it in one of my unsuccessful grant applications.

It’s coming along slowly, if it’s coming along at all. Life keeps getting in the way. Money and deadlines and study and getting my driver’s license and haircuts and birthdays and politics and meals and trying to be the best husband I know how to be. But there is a clean, well-lit space in the future where I’ll be able to sit at my desk and work, if everything goes according to plan.

And though my novel is not about the real world, the I inside it is more or less me. The person who’s emerged on the page isn’t like the characters I’d made in the past. He’s messier, less relatable, shot through with shame and ambition. He wants to work hard and love well and make something true and lasting.

Like me, he’s living on Easey Street.

This Writers at Work essay has been funded by Creative Victoria. This stage of the series has also been funded by Arts Queensland and Arts Tasmania.