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Catching ire, or how to write a daily column

26 Sep

I have a daily column over at the Vine. It’s the Ten Things roundup. Here’s what the first week looks like:

Monday: Welcome to the Terrordome
Tuesday: Your Frights at Work
Wednesday: Airstrikes for everyone!
Thursday: It was the best of things, it was the blurst of things.

Ten Things was previously ‘the’ thing of Andrew P Street, a man I got to know over a hungover breakfast in Sydney one morning while debating science, sex and satire and who later became on of my most dearest friends. He’s the sort of awesome friend you can text at an unreasonable hour (5am, in my case) and get a reply 10 seconds later. He’s one of the best examples of why writers make the best friends in the world.

When Andrew and his editor Anna Horan offered me the gig, I spent a week thinking about it, dramatically telling everyone I wouldn’t, etc. I knew how much effort APS put into the column and it’s a scary amount of work. Also, because the column is news and politics based, I naturally reacted with BUT I DON’T KNOW NEWS OR POLITICS WHAT? WHO ARE YOU? WOMEN DON’T DOWNPLAY THEIR KNOWLEDGE EVER WHAT? I then spent a week writing mock versions and thought they were ok.

I’m glad I changed my mind.

Here’s how you write one: 

  • Go to all your favourite news sites and apps (Al-Jazeera,, Guardian, Fairfax outlets and Reddit) and watch your half-built computer shit itself from the amount of tabs open.
  • You’ll be looking for articles with certain themes – I aim for local news, world news (US/Europe/Middle East/Africa), science news, Indigenous issues, feminism and science – but the stories need to be 1-2 hours old or be sufficiently interesting/stupid to merit something different/amusing said.
  • Arrange them and the appropriate links for further reading
  • Try to write them quickly and fail – I can’t even admit how long it takes at the moment but I’m aiming to get it down to 1.5-2 hours.
  • Write it in your natural voice – the voice you would use to bitch with your best friend? Use that.
  • Find some funny – the more out there it seems, generally the better it will be.
  • Trust your voice and the reader – writers are notorious second guessers but the more we trust our first instinct, the better our writing can be. Listen to that little voice that says “oh, that reminds me….” and follow it, because connecting information is the most compelling thing a writer can do for readers.
  • But make that trust work for it – you’ve written an item, now push it. Is it funny enough? Does it say something different? Does it capture the situation? Push it until it does.
  • It’s now 2am and you hate the world. Take a selfie, go to bed.
  • Holy fuck it’s 6:30am and the world sucks. Get up, see what news has come in in the four hours you slept, revise if necessary.
  • Reread your work again and edit because you have a shitty habit of typing like an excited cocker spaniel who’s all “LOOK AT ME I AM TYPING BASH BOSH BISH BASH” and forgetting basic grammar, punctuation and sometimes entire clauses.
  • Copy into the CMS while swearing frantically (you’ll be on your 4th smoke for the morning at this point and will have drunk 1 litre of filtered coffee)
  • Post live, share to social media
  • Reread and immediately correct 79% of the mistakes you missed before you hit publish and then republish another 7 times
  • Sleep for an hour, get up and work on other shit
  • Probs take another selfie
  • Reread the piece and work out if you need to do anything differently.
  • Rinse and repeat, motherfuckers

Speaking of, here’s some other work I’ve done recently:

Eric Abetz’s abortion backtrack: an opportunity to study Liberal spin in its natural habitat

The Age:
Sexting: it all comes back to religion

Kings Tribune:
Lewis’ Law and online misogyny,
Quarantining depression,
My 40th job application,
Australia’s useless rage and calm brutality,
Why do we hate the poor?,
St Vitus Dance and modern hysteria

And a bunch of other stuff I’ve forgotten.

Other stuff: 
Books: I have been working on two books of late which are wildly different, impossibly hard to write, all consuming in their focus, challenging to research and have me hopelessly besotted.

Talky: I have a guest lecture session coming up at RMIT soon and continue mentoring sessions with a young group of writers who are supremely wonderful. This all taps into my obsession with talking about writing with other people because I’ve become a complete fanatic in learning how others work, how I work and if there are general lessons available.

NYWF/TiNA: I’m heading up to Newcastle for the writer’s festival and will share a sneak peek at one of the books in  a reading and then do a bunch of panels to talk about writing (see above) and sit in various gutters dodging cockroaches while hanging out with friends. Here’s a list of where I will be when not in the gutter.  If you’re going to be in Recent-castle, please come up and say hi.

How to write a news editorial, opinion piece or op-ed

5 Aug

This is the quick and simple formula for writing a news editorial.

The short version:

  1. Intro: your main argument (if stuck, write two paragraphs naturally and delete the first one as it will often be weaker and waste the reader’s time)
  2. Example point X 3 (minimum): Each point should show an example of a problem or trend within 1-2 sentences with additional sentence to show the impact of specific example that proves your argument
  3. Overall trend: what the trend means, summing up the problem again, this time incorporating previous points. Sometimes you can move this ahead of the example points depending on how they read.
  4. Prediction of impact: highlight potential impact on subject that hopefully shows importance of this as an issue. You should start to wind up the piece here.
  5. Solution: optional but it is ideal as it can encourage more conversation
  6. Conclusion: sum up your argument and its importance (if stuck, write two paragraphs naturally and delete the first para).


Now all you have to do is deal with the comments.


Note this is not a universal formula. This is an ideal for those moments when you have 40 minutes to write something and, if you’re anything like me, have a fag hanging out of your mouth, screeching expletives and driving the keyboard like a pilot about to crash land. I actually do that. Also while burbling “but what are you trying to say?”, a question I am sure is also asked by editors and readers alike when reading my work.


The long version:

Notes taken from notes prepared for youth group I mentor.

When people ask me how to write an opinion piece, I tell them to write to their worst enemy. Here’s how it can be done…

Starting out

1. Work out what you’re trying to write
Is this a personal essay? A persuasive analysis? A rant? A fisk?

  • Personal essay: a personal take on a popular issue
  • Persuasive analysis: using facts and/or rhetoric to persuade the reader to your point of view
  • Rant: enough said? It’s emotional, topic-based and exists to provide catharsis for writer and reader alike
  • Fisk: a point by point factual response highlighting the errors in a speech, interview or article

2. What do you want to say?
Can you define your argument in one sentence? This may not happen when you begin to write but you should be able to summarise your article in one statement once it’s been written. If you can’t describe it, you can’t pitch it and odds are we probably won’t be able to read it.

3. Research
If you’re writing a fact-based piece, have your research on hand – links, quotes, statistics, etc.

4. What can you offer?
Ideally, it should be different – a different take, a different fact, take it deeper and into uncharted (or at least unpublished) territory.

The basic structure

You need to take them on a journey towards agreement and you need to goddamn hold their hand to cross the road. Each point needs to lead them to your destination.

  1. Introduction of argument: what is it I think?
  2. Inform: what happened?
  3. Introduction of argument: what do I think?
  4. Explain impact: why should you care?
  5. Conclusion: why and how you should act, what I want you to walk away with.

Connect with current events, connect with history, connect with theories. The best opinion pieces place an event in context for readers and gives them a better view of an event or topic than they previously held. That is your job – you are there to educate and inform.

Funny or not?
You can be funny, you can be factual, you can be funny and factual – just do it consistently.

Don’t assume
Never assume people know the things you know or see and read the things you see and read. Explain things briefly to include more readers.

Use YOUR voice
No one else. Just you. Always read your work aloud to hear how it flows as it will bring up more areas for editing and let you get a better feel of the piece. Talking aloud while typing even helps because it allows your work to sound more fluid and natural which can result in a better (hopefully persuasive) reading experience.

….but use it sparingly

At best you will have 800 words, at worst 300. You have to make those words count and, in the battle between expression and argument, argument has greater importance. People are there to understand your argument and, should you choose expression over argument, you show people you have nothing to say which will leave them with nothing to read. Expression is still important but never at the expense of argument.

In the first draft, write however much you want but be prepared to go back and edit harshly. Zinsser (On Writing Well) suggests removing any word that is not crucial to a sentence. It will help you reach word count and ensure a more enjoyable read for the audience.


I don’t always follow my own advice and am still refining my style. Different topics will always vary according to subject, publisher and writer. This is just a guide for when times are tight – you will develop your own style the more you write.


This post was spurred by a conversation with Craig Hildebrand-Burke about how to write op-ed introductions, I was reminded of Jessica Reed‘s (Editor of The Guardian’s Comment Is Free) advice on the matter: write the first two paras as you normally would and delete the first. She also has the same advice for conclusions. 

Standing alone and the spasm of creativity [recent work]

21 May

It’s been a while since I’ve given an update on recent work so here’s what I’ve been working on along with my traditional ramble about what it’s like to work as a constantly impoverished writer:

Secret footballer reveals all about what the AFL teaches on sex, women and social media – The Age
Cost of Tony Abbott’s PPL scheme is just too damn high – Canberra Times
Mothers to pay more in student debt: that’s Australia’s sexism for you – the Guardian
Melbourne may be the first smoke-free city but at what price? – the Guardian
Sherlock Holmes and the case of the missing plot – Junkee
Five ads that prove Thai Life Insurance commercials are the saddest commercials ever – Junkee
Godzilla film review – Junkee
Finding the woman inside the mother – Essential Baby

There’s a piece in upcoming Good Weekend, for which the lass and I were photographed, and another in an upcoming edition of the Victorian Women’s Trust. There’s also an article in Elle floating around and another piece in the Lifted Brow’s Sex edition where I muse upon bondage and the true nature of pain.

I also had the extreme good fortune to attend the Byron Bay Film Festival as a “troublemaker”, according to Festival Director J’aimee Skippon-Volke. As the palest white girl wearing black clothes in the village, I had a fantastic time watching an amazing array of films and making friends such as club kid icon and thereminist Armen Ra, film director Hattie Dalton (Third Star, the Banker) and producer/screenwriter impresario Ross Grayson Bell (Fight Club) who were inspirational, amazing and most were amenable for cuddles, coffee and cigarettes. The festival also gave me the chance to debate masculinity with Jack Thompson and yell “I DON’T MAKE LOVE, I FUCK” to an audience question. So, you know, meeting people, making friends, yelling at random folk about my sex life.

I came back completely recharged and curious about the world. It also got me thinking about adversity. Armen Ra in particular has had a helluva ride and yet retains more drive and indestructibility than anyone I’ve met. Hattie Dalton too, pushes through with a silent, graceful resilience that is awe-inspiring. Many creatives go through periods when doors are closed, emails unreplied, you struggle to be heard above the cacophony of life and your projects just don’t work. Sometimes it’s easily fixed, a question of rearranging your thoughts or technique, an improvement sought. It can take as little as a minute or many days, but you can still rectify things.

But other times, things just fuck up and the stain of adversity lingers. You don’t know why. A lesser person would scent a conspiracy – swathes of editors, the collective intellect of readers, all against you, the noble creative, in hostility. This approach rarely works because we are inevitably never important enough to merit such notice and organised activity.

Depressingly, the answer is far more mundane than the megalomania of conspiracy: our work just isn’t hitting the right notes and neither are we. People aren’t obligated to follow anyone’s work for any reason other than interest and sometimes you’re just not interesting. This is where adversity strikes a particularly low note because it requires the creative to unpack two different streams: what they want to do and what people want to see. These are entirely different motivations and require masses of work . The platitude to “do what you love and others will follow” is bullshit because it suggests a serene path rather than the Sisyphean toil  required, plus it assumes success will follow just as long as you love what you do.

I’m not sure about anyone else but I’m highly dubious about ‘loving’ work and it’s associated assumption of happiness. I’m not a happy person – my daughter enjoys telling me regularly I am melancholy as though it is an endearing burden she carries – and writing is not a happy task for me. I fidget, I scratch, I think of all the people I dislike and all who I imagine dislike me, I fret about reading well, about appearing intelligent and having all my facts against the ticking clock of a deadline and a desperate rush to be accepted by editors.

The only happy moment in my writing life is the brief 60 seconds after a piece has been published. There’s a frisson of excitement, like the anticipation of Christmas. Yet it all melts against the heated  drudgery of filtering past disagreement or disinterest until you realise the reason most people take a nap on Christmas Day is out of boredom.

Then there’s the time away from that deadline – the time when you get revisit  that work and see it as a whole. Or holes. I re-edit my work as I re-read and wish to god I could let these pieces set aside so we can both breathe; expand, inhale and take on a change of air. We don’t have that time, however, an utter luxury for the majority of work where a deadline is whiplash for many writers. In the review of work, you see all the areas you need to improve not only in the finished piece but in yourself. Sometimes you can’t see them, fumble for the right diagnosis and that is where adversity rots inside you as you spasm in an eternal struggle to improve.

Spasm is the only applicable word because creativity is less art than it is labor. Your appreciation is a talent, an art, but its application is pure sweat, muscles that need constant nourishment and training. Your muscles spasm because they’re not working properly and contract against you. This is the agony of adversity where frustration and improvement have the same behaviour: violent, distracting pain – standing between you and the written page.

But from adversity comes something alltogether more surprising, something more powerful than a strong muscle. Sometimes the promise of a strong muscle can take you further than already the taut sinews of accomplishment. This is the self belief that keeps Armen and Hattie going – this is the knowledge that propels other creatives forward. A simple yet potent recognition that you have the ability to train your muscles to become stronger. Not only do you know you will become stronger but  that it’s worthwhile doing so.

This is the belief that carries you forward into the fog and helps in other ways. It illuminates that clouded path you choose for yourself and what help you don’t need to reach your destination. There are times when I am offered advice I choose to ignore – it’s often great advice but it’s meant for a different writer with different aims. It’s in this slightly cold realisation that comes the added strand of solitude to the muscle of creativity. Standing alone, knowing the path you’re on. That quiet resolution you can’t follow every speck of advice because it will change that path, change the sincerity of your voice, your expression. You stand alone and it’s scary and you think the cliff face will appear and crumble under your feet. It probably will. A creative’s life is defined far more by failure than success. But it’s that strength to resolutely stand alone that will also define you.

Even then, this strength isn’t enough. Strength isn’t muscle alone, it is also energy and can be difficult to maintain over the long distances required from us. Curiosity – vital for creatives – is notoriously fragile and depleting, and something I’ve written about before. Pure energy for me comes from the realisation there is literally no other job, no other task, I would rather do. I’m useless at them. This doesn’t mean I am naturally gifted at this need to write – it just means it’s the only thing upon which I choose to focus, it’s the only task I cannot live without, it both clouds and illuminates my brain and path.  It’s not happy work, but it brings something better – contentment and the energy to press on in the face of silent adversity.

This is what keeps people going – not one of gossamered self-love, but a battle-weary gaze that sees further ahead and gets on with the fucking job at hand.


Post script: I was discussing this recently with Antonia Hayes, a fantastic novelist who I once met in the gutter, our friendship forged in drunken conversations and cigarettes. She’s recently finished an amazing manuscript which is a revelation to read. While measuring our perceived failures against the work we love (a regular topic of discussion for writers), both referenced our love for this quote by Ira Glass:

Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?

On Mother’s Day

11 May

It’s Mother’s Day today and I sit in an empty apartment. My daughter’s with her paternal grandparents before her father will pick her up and spend the rest of the week with her as per our custody agreement of week-on/week-off. I have no mother to call thanks to a mutual disowning.

Though all of this sounds incredibly bleak but, to be honest, I’m actually thankful. There’s no crowded cafes to contend with on enforced outings. There’s something about cafes filled with families celebrating Mother’s Day with breakfast, like the addition of 20 prams and soggy French toast casts a warlike pall over proceedings. Conversations always feel taut with tension. So too do I get to avoid the presents, being the disagreeable sort who is hard to buy for and so bad at housekeeping I will stand on torn giftwrapping paper for weeks afterwards.

I take this mindset as a souvenir of being raised Catholic. Spend one Easter avoiding meat and you come to accept that some holidays or special occasions are marked for quiet reflection.

So here is mine: I am sick of the canonisation of motherhood. The soft, dewy filter of servitude and sacrifice we layer over women, a day of enforcing pastel stereotypes that have less to do with actual mothering experience and more to do with cultural expectations of women.

Part of it is the fact when we think of motherhood we cast out so much of the woman inside the mother. That swirling complexity, that morass of origins and intent. So often when we think of women it becomes a filing of ‘before motherhood’ and ‘motherhood’. Before motherhood is presented as a race of experience and adventure, with that slight tinge of anxious doubt you will be able to reach that grand destination, to become a mother. Once you do, people assume things slow down, you slow down, you stand in a single place, easily defined and easily bought off with a single day of celebration.

I craved having children. My biological urge to reproduce was a wave that threatened to drown me; the desperate impatience, missing a stranger I already knew I loved. I worked hard to overcome my fertility issues, knowing there was someone special at the end.

But coming to know the gorgeous and complex child that emerged didn’t slow me down, it didn’t make me stand in a single place. Having that child – cut straight from me and dumped onto my chest, her face a blur of confused anger at being born – brought fire and complexity. There would be no slow pace, no avoiding risk.

Because the minute she arrived I felt brave. I realised in an instant all that I hadn’t achieved and just how much I had to do. The miraculous act of her existence didn’t simplify life the way society tells us, it brought complexity and challenge. You become wholly unconcerned by society’s expectations of you as a mother when you realise your every move is being scrutinised and absorbed by the child you made and raise. If someone was going to watch me live my life, I had better make it an interesting one.

Thanks to her, I take risks. Massive risks. Stupid risks. I refuse to show a growing girl that motherhood will halve me the way society expects. I show her instead it is one aspect to a life that teems with complexity and challenge and where big leaps will always be needed in a crowded world. That we can ignore our personal and social boundaries and just take a running jump at everything that interests us.

So we go to protest marches, we travel, we chase our interest, we lie about in torpor with our books, we chat and beg for silence, we succeed and sometimes sit in the dark and wonder if we will fail. She sees the failure as often as she sees the triumph because I refuse to believe motherhood or childhood are cocooned from reality and life’s inevitable currents.

In attempting to show to show my daughter she can design her own life without reference to rules or social expectation, I’ve managed to redesign mine. Because she was watching, I started living the life I actually wanted. Thanks to her presence, life is a rich, confusing labyrinth of needs, responses and impulses. Together, we’ve built our own world and we’ve built our own family who, though not related, give love, inspiration and support.

I would not have this contentment without her presence reminding me she was watching. My life would be halved had I kept my eyes on what society expected from me as a mother-woman and not on what my daughter would need to get through life. So I don’t need my daughter’s thanks or anyone else’s. They can keep the tepid tea, the ill-bought presents, the fraught cafes, the declaration “motherhood is the hardest job in the world” and the whole damn act of celebrating the narrowest slice of femininity women can offer the world.

I have something much better instead. I have a life and I have her, a whole world.


Received this response from my friend Sahra Stolz and wanted to share because it’s so beautifully expressed: “The Better Homes and Gardens mother, the Hallmark Card mother, all of these sit like a giant marshmallow weight on my prickly shoulders and I want to cast them off forever, without offending the eggy fingered expectant family standing around offering me poorly wrapped scented candles and kisses for pretending to the stereotype between 9am and 11am on one day of the year.

Shit I learned about media, writing and me in 2013

31 Dec

We’ve spent the past few days eating rich food, so why not enjoy this extra slice of self-indulgence as I look back onto 2013 and figure out what I’ve learnt?

Ultimately, 2013 taught me that learning never stops and curiosity is an endless marathon requiring masses of energy.

It’s one of the few truths I can hold to like a mast; curiosity brings untold opportunity and but it is more tiring than any physical activity I can think of. It’s unrelenting exercise, the marathon that tells you to dig a little deeper, to go a little further, get a little better.

There are people who are indefatigable in this respect. Clem Ford, whose friendship, generosity and unstinting challenge and loyalty I’m honoured to know, is endlessly curious. She’s a bower bird on the hunt for links, for stories, for experiences and lives in the ever-present, constantly filtering and connecting.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering when I can have a lie down and a cheeky cigarette so I can sort everything in my mind or let it simmer into a gentle daydream. Having made the shift from desk job to freelance, I’ve had extra time to hang out with my daughter, think about things, enjoy a rather long period of depression and face truths and experiences I’ve long held off.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned from the chaos and calm.

Freelance: It was a move that felt like impulse but was a slow cresting wave, a thought that I wasn’t enjoying being in offices and wanted quiet, wanted a space away from obligation so I could write and think, though I realise now I just wanted to hide. I started writing more when I kicked out my ex so I could cover half the rent and it got to the point where I realised I could make an income.

Freelance writing, specifically editorial and opinion, is an endeavour that requires far more energy and extraversion than its solitary application suggests because it requires an accelerated sprint to connect random data to impacts for others, the race to pitch, research and deliver before others. This requires curiosity not only for yourself but on behalf of others, spending a life almost constantly switched on and open to an unrelenting stream of emotions and facts all mashed together. Asher Wolf, whom I often describe as Twitter’s sentinel, handles this energy with adept precision and prescience. Also, gathering from the odd hours I’ve checked my phone, blinking groggily at the light wrought from tweets, Asher never sleeps. Seriously, I will pay good money for someone to show me a photo of her sleeping because I’m quite sure it has never happened because Asher is the singularity as activist curator manifest.

There has been constant criticism that modern editorial is an ouroboros of growing manipulable irrelevance, inciting emotion but rarely thought or true exploration, and a major contributor to lack of public thought.

Much of this is blamed on editorial strategies, bad and cynical writing rushed to unreasonable time frames by writers who shouldn’t be trusted as they give their opinion away for money (actual criticism I once read about myself).

Instead, I’d venture that we’re still trying to work out how to cope with the detritus of data that gluts our screens. There is little doubt to me that this overstimulation (the original name of this blog, btw) overwhelms the mind to numbness, breeding apathy and concerted ignorance. We are so overwhelmed with data that not only is the call coming from inside the house, it’s coming from every damn item with a plug.

Modern media, with an emphasis on online, feels like a continual experiment in how to shift and present that data in ways that will move or educate the reader. There’s a heavier reliance on moving readers along subjective lines because that breeds loyalty, something you can rarely get from someone who prefers (however improbably) objective reporting. I feel what is happening in online reporting is less an exercise in writing adapting than humans adapting to how they receive and respond to the data deluge.

To me, that’s been the most interesting thing of all.

Writing: The one thing that has helped my writing this year was curiosity in all its applications: the curiosity to actually write, the curiosity that comes from pushing it through another draft, the curiosity to test your thoughts through research, the curiosity to read and see what others are saying on topics you know either a lot or a little.

Reading widely should be the preserve of both writer and reader alike. There are early traps we all fall for, like the contrarian cosplay some writers employ in an attempt to appear superior or different, without realising how predictably they present themselves as rote peddlers. The wide read means actively exploring the thoughts of others who aren’t necessarily mainstream (i.e. white, generally male and, more often than not, straight) but have different experiences and different resources, making different connections with data to produce results that explain their world. Reading widely will make you a better writer, but it will also make you a better reader and thinker while you actively work at developing your own thoughts, approach and style.

Having distanced actual editorial/reporting from data, there has been no greater indulgence than being able to write for a living and get a good, close up view of the beast.

As someone who views writing as a trade or craft rather than an art, I cannot shake the notion that for me, writing is akin to tetris where the objective is to quickly sort all the clauses and thoughts to unlock the next level. I spend more time focused on arguments and research than I do on expression.

That focus affects the final copy, which often results in dense and sometimes boring writing. On the other side of the spectrum is beautifully euphonic copy which ends up saying or doing little at all than say “I’m a writer”, which will usually impress some but impact readers, and rarely convert anyone of influence. Instead of “look at all the pretty colours”, it’s “look at all the shiny words”. There’s a market for both but their impact can be negligible unless pressed under the fingers of a true master (and, let’s face it, those who think they are most likely aren’t).

Others focus on a smaller aspect of the argument and mix it with beautifully expressed rhetoric. This is the style that resonates most with readers and lends themselves to, that most horrid of goals, going viral.

Personally, I’m rarely able to achieve that because it never gives me the protein I’m after. Like my on-off relationship with philosophy, I have the impatient whine of “really? I had to read all that for a basic truth? Oh for fuck’s sake, I could have made a cup of tea instead of reading this shite.” It all hits the right note marked on our hymn books but it doesn’t truly clamber up the scale.

Though this lays a very despairing wreath at the foot of media, we should also look to readers who are increasingly not looking to challenge themselves. They read from the same hymn book, only seeking opposing views for the aerobic opprobrium it brings.

So, how do you make money as a writer in a market where the most popular articles are the ones you don’t want to work towards (remembering that you are not a master)?

When I read this year I shouldn’t be trusted as I give my opinion away for money, I snickered and wondered if they knew just how poorly writers are paid or what kind of cruelly ascetic servitude is expected of writers so they can maintain a sheen of integrity.

It’s an astoundingly facile criticism that displays superficial thought and expectations: we pay writers shit and damn them if they ask for more. The effort involved in drawing anything close to a wage is draining and comes with huge sacrifice for most.

While I freely admit to days of torpor or days where I’ve made $800 for 12 hours of work, I will also admit I’ve spent 24 hours awake writing one article which was then spiked, leaving me $174 dollars or $7.25 per hour. I’ve spent three days interviewing, 4 researching and 5 days writing for which I was paid approximately $0.33 per hour for another article.

For most writers, the latter and not the former is more likely. Work as a full-time writer – which I would argue is imperative if you really want to focus on improving your skill – and you can expect to live relatively close to the poverty line as possible within an urbanised area.

As an adult woman who was earning a six figure salary at certain points in my career, this new existence close to the poverty line is possibly the most demoralising I’ve ever experienced. It’s a place where every dollar is sweated, every call ignored in case it is about a bill, every item in your home up for sale, every trip to the shop tightly tabulated, where $20 becomes an unfathomable fortune and your purchases are judged by people you consider friends.

And when you consider this experience, consider the editors who offer less than $150 for an article or those who tell you that they don’t have the budget but it will provide great exposure for your career or lead to more work (it never does).

It’s at that point you realise you sell your opinion because it’s one of the few renewable resources you have that will continue to feed yourself and your daughter more than an unattainable desk job or callous social welfare ever could.

One of the great unpaid labour achievements of modern media has been accessible writers. Though never fully articulated, we are expected to spruik our work and thoughts, our bylines linked to Twitter and email accounts. In a sense, it works in our favour because we’re able to reach people who enjoy what we do and travel those same avenues in the interest of research.

However, it also leaves us open to an audience who believe we should be instantly available for their every thought and criticism. This can run from the stock sexualised threat of violence, the guttural jeering to a barrage of questions (all preceded by a “.” so others can sit like voyeurs as they attempt to collect you as their troll trophy).

It’s in this culture of expectation and immediacy where the energy drain lies and you begin to sense writers are expected to be badly paid and obligated dancing bears. Clem Ford is called upon by people to immediately denounce every event like some Feminist Metatron and castigated when she doesn’t respond as a dancing Feminist Metatron Bear should.

But conversely, this culture of online hating and trollery raises another area: victimisation as branding strategy. When writers present themselves as hated, contrarian, dangerous, victimised by the ‘bad’ guys and broadcast their scalping efforts, it not only promotes the activity of vicitimisation, it also conflates the ability to outrage people they dislike with being right.

Thankfully, I’m far too irrelevant to generate much blowback and tend to view most online criticism as an opportunity to learn (a piece I did for the Guardian got some incredibly valid feedback about being colour-blind and reminded me to get better with research and another made me realise I need to get better at crafting sentences). Ultimately though, if people are going to hate you or your work, there’s little you can do to change their opinion and giving over energy to them is a waste for everyone.

My greatest fear aren’t the haters, trolls, or conspicuously compassionate over-activists with their mourning sickness and outrage.

My greatest fear is someone who can dismantle my arguments.

Accomplishment & failure: It’s been a spotty year for the ledger. For every success there have been some notable and larger failures which makes everything look like a red mess.

With almost a year spent freelancing, I’ve had the incalculable joy of challenging myself on topics and writing styles I possibly would not have tried. I gained some writing gigs and I lost some writing gigs but feel happy that I kept my integrity along the way.

Thanks to depression and money issues, I subjectively feel burnt out and unable to see all the positive achievement.These are poison for a freelancer, not only because the presence of both will heighten their collected toxicity, but also because they ultimately work against productivity.

Objectively, I should feel happy with about 50% of my work and I know my writing style has improved, I have greater confidence in being able to write with authority, coupled with that diagnostic ability to see what’s wrong with a piece that only comes from working up against your words every day. But I’m burnt out and broke and am struggling to retain that curiosity in my fatigue. I will continue writing (if only to pay those bills) but will also continue my Sisyphean hobby of trying to find a desk job if only to recuperate for a spell.

As a postscript, 2013 would have been utterly bereft were it not for the people I am lucky enough to call friends. With no family of my own bar my daughter, this family of writers and others have shown me greater generosity, loyalty and love than any person I’ve known before.

Breaking through the prison of our skin [transcript of speech]

6 Dec

I was invited to attend the VATE conference and speak to the topic of “To what extent are all writers confined to what Violette Leduc called ‘the prison of [our] skin?”.

Here’s a transcript. Apologies in advance for a speech that was written very quickly at short notice:

Just the other day my timeline on Facebook was overrun with people sharing an article from the Onion. Perhaps you shared it as well.

Titled “Deformed Freak Born Without Penis”, the satirical article went on to list the terrible future set to await this scorned and blighted child. “According to reports, the sadly disfigured 26-year-old’s quality of life has been greatly diminished due to such a condition. Sources said the abnormal, visibly blemished creature has been repeatedly passed over for employment opportunities, frequently gawked at and harassed on the street by total strangers, and has faced near constant discrimination for over two decades, all due to the horrific and debilitating birth defect.”

Yup, as with most things in the Onion, the humour is at its best when it uses savage humour to throw a social truth at its readership.

This is one of the many prisons of our skin that locks women away from the same opportunities and benefits men enjoy.

There are a few mechanisms to dismantle these prisons because – from an academic perspective at least – we understand the need to create an equal society.

We pass laws to take apart what we call structural sexism – these are the institutional expressions of sexism that either prevent woman from participating in society or place her as its victim. Sexual harassment, bodily autonomy, discrimination, workplace equality – these are the things that are covered.

There’s a temptation to think “well, these laws have passed so everything is ok…now it’s all on MERIT. THE BEST WILL NOW RISE TO THE TOP IN EVERY SPHERE AND INDUSTRY.”

But merit is an interesting argument because merit assumes there is no prison. There is – the bars are just set a fraction wider. Firstly because when it comes to ending sexism you have to campaign hard to get the basic laws passed and keep them safe (because apparently some rights and protection are always up for negotiation) but also because any attempt to fully redress some laws and press further incites criticism of women taking it too far, of seeking more power than men not realizing their perception that society won’t share the full meal with an equal serve for all, but rather give table scraps.

Women are still prevented from fully participating in society but told this is their fault for not rising to the challenge or presenting a better choice. This is where we have political parties talk about d “merit” to explain the lack of women in their cabinet rather than address the sexism inherent in their existing structures.

The merit argument also assumes that once one barrier is removed that suddenly the field is not only open but equal with everyone enjoying the same benefits.

Defenses such as these ignore the central issue: if they believe women are just as able as men, why don’t we greater representation? If the steps to the front stage are unlocked, why aren’t more women up there? Let’s press that logic further – if there are still fewer women than men, is it because we’re choosing men over women? Why? Do we honestly believe that men are more able than women? Is there are a part of us that refuses to recognize that our part in perpetuating sexism and disadvantage?

Though there are coordinated campaigns to address the imbalance expressed through structural sexism, the challenge lies in dismantling the social conditioning that buttresses, nurtures and possibly even surpasses it – in essence, a whole ecosystem that still carries on as if the original structure exists.

Think of it another way. Think of a building overgrown with ivy. Both the building and the ivy have been there a long time. It crawls up and covers every brick, wends around every door and window and its vines grow thick and woody. Now take away the bricks,  floors, panes of glass and every pipe and vent. The ivy still stands, still retains the shape of a building, still offers a view of windows and doors. There is still a structure even though the building materials have been removed – the ivy will continue to grow, continue to strengthen, continue to look as it did before.

This is the ecosystem that persists despite the lack of the original structure.

Let’s think of this in terms of publishing – in an equal society there should be close to if not equal representation because as we all technically agree men and women are born with the same intellectual and creative ability and  have the same access to education and employment. We destroyed that building long ago, right?

Yet, if you’re a female writer in publishing you are less likely to submit a manuscript, less likely to get published. When you do get through that ceiling, you’re less likely to get reviewed. Your work is often relegated to gendered genres for which there is no male equivalent (romance, chick lit). When you’re not reviewed or shunted into a gendered genre that immediately confers suburban rather than artistic appeal, people are less likely to buy your book. You’re definitely less likely to win an award for your work. And then the structure loops around and thickens its vines, with publishers reluctant thinking “books by female writers are less likely to sell”.

You may want some stats to wash all that down and bear with me. It’s still difficult to get statistics on this.

Submitting: according to TOR UK’s Julie Crisp, the submission rate is 70/30 in favour of men. This varies quite a bit by genre.

Publishing:  According to Laura Miller at Salon in a piece – Over at the Atlantic, “Franklin and her colleagues Eliza Gray and Laura Stampler examined the fall 2010 catalogs from an assortment of book publishers, large and small. They eliminated genres not likely to be reviewed by such publications as the New York Times or the New Yorker in the first place (that is, self-help, cookbooks, art, etc.) and found that one publishing house (Riverhead) could boast that women authors were responsible for 45 percent of its fall list. For most of the rest, women accounted for around 30 percent of the list, with small independent presses turning out to be even more male-heavy than a behemoth like Random House.” A piece on sexism in literature published by the SMH states it’s closer to half but cited no sources.

Reviewing: The US-based Vida suggest that a rough average of 25% books by female writers are reviewed. In addition to this, most reviewers are male. In Australia, the Stella Prize (a literary award for female writers) viewed this from a local lens and determined the review rates vary from a national 59-80% in favour of men. Interestingly, state-based titles are better able to claim near-parity with 58-62% in favour of men.

Purchasing and reading: It’s damn hard to find access to statistics based on this. According to Laura Miller at Salon in a piece – “A couple of researchers at Queen Mary College in London did something along these lines in 2005. They asked “100 academics, critics and writers” to discuss the books they’d read most recently. According to the Guardian, “four out of five men said the last novel they read was by a man, whereas women were almost as likely to have read a book by a male author as a female. When asked what novel by a woman they had read most recently, a majority of men found it hard to recall or could not answer.” When it comes to gender, women do seem to read more omnivorously than men. Publishers can assume that a book written by a man will sell to both men and women, but a book by a woman is a less reliable bet.”

Let’s just take a moment to think about the last five books we read. Hands up if that list contains one woman. Keep it up if it’s two. What about three? Now four. How about five? No?

Awards:  women are traditionally underrepresented with literary awards though I will automatically concede the past year has brought some wonderful acclaim for worthy writers. The Miles Franklin, has been awarded to a woman 13 times out of 50 and the Man Booker Prize has been won by 16 women since beginning in in 1969.

As playright and novelist Alison Croggan says “The woman who begins with talent but who finds herself struggling to gain notice simply because she is a woman, can find her ambitions dwindling, her possibilities shrunken, in a continually amplifying feedback loop. Just as success breeds confidence, so the lack of it breeds uncertainty. If millions of reinforcing signals say a woman’s work is less significant, something will eventually begin to stick. This kind of intensifying feedback, which begins at birth, is very difficult to track and even more difficult to combat.”

And then, we come back to this notion of the level playing field – women just have to submit more, write more, review more…and yet when we tell women to do more, to show more merit, we get upset women would create their own literary prizes, claiming it takes away from men unaware of ever having to share in the past, always confident in opportunity and deference by both men and women.

Back to Alison’s point – we assume everyone is just waiting to be a fully able, fully participating person on the field without seeing the prisons that hold them back. Without seeing the conditioning that prevents them from taking action or the conditioning that actively seeks to hold them back.

If we are to remove the prisons of our skin, it requires a rethink and challenge to all.

Education plays a huge part in this.

Often it is said that girls will read about boys and girls but boys will only want to read about boys. In fact, even more we’re told “boys don’t read”.

I’m really tempted here to just direct you to a wonderful article by teacher Craig Hildenbrand-Burke on the topic. He notes the curious assumption on display that girls are readers but boys become writers. That somehow gender determines the content producer and content consumer and reinforces the ecosystem referred to earlier.

I’ve been asked how we should get men and women to write as people and not gendered voices and I’m not particularly interested in doing that. A voice is a voice and should be presented as untarnished and unfiltered as possible – voices are built by experience, by error, by happiness, by frustration and exaltation. Note that this is different from pandering to gender – where we assume boys will need more action and less women in order to read and girls will just be happy with whatever we give them.

In addition to that, it feels dishonest to remove gender as a “voice” because it avoids the fact that gender needs a voice because gender is still a huge issue in society.

Of greater concern to me that voices get published, get supported and get recognized without being stripped and constrained by the ecosystem surrounding them.

Bad and unlikable girls [Audio of me & others blabbering on]

31 Oct

I’ve been really lucky of late to do some public speaking for different groups. There’s an art to it that I’ve still not mastered but I’m enjoying the process and learning more.

Here are some recordings taken from ACMI, discussing both the need for unlikable women re Enlightenment (transcript) and cultural appropriation in music video. I heartily recommend attending one of ACMI’s ‘In The Studio’ sessions.

The End of Enlightenment – full audio

Bad Girls – full audio

Update: this great piece on Paul Simon, Steven van Zandt and South African apartheid makes me feel better about banging on about how much I dislike him and didn’t need to give any grudging support.


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