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Counting down to zero

16 Mar

I’ve been up in Byron Bay for about two weeks now for the film festival and part of the fun has been sitting on a balcony every morning writing the column as the sun slowly exploded near me in its rise to char my vampire complexion. 

But last Friday my editor called to tell me that 10 Things was closing as the Vine moves away from political coverage to focus on entertainment. 

I will still be around at the Vine – we are working out what I want to shout about – but it won’t be every day and it won’t be about politics. 

It’s sad there’s one less platform for a woman to discuss politics (with or without humour). I remember when Andrew P Street first approached me with the idea of taking over 10 Things, I baulked, unsure I could do it. I thought I didn’t know enough about news and politics. I realise now I was just downplaying what I knew and felt comfortable enough giving my thoughts and chasing stories I thought had impact. 

It may sound conceited to have confidence about your work, but my friend Maxine Beneba Clark has taught me that a woman being confident about her skills and work is a radical act. So, with that said, I think my coverage of violence against women, terrorism, islamophobia, Indigenous Australia and, of course, SPACE! raised points early and well. And the process of writing every single day has made me leaner and more confident as a writer. 

But it’s nothing without others. Like Anna Horan, Vine’s editor in chief. Like P Street who made 10 Things what it was. And Chuck Kolyvas my 10 Things partner and confidante. Or the people who helped me learn more, like good friend Greg Jericho or all the readers who clicked every morning and shared without fail. You fuckers are alright. 

We were planning on extending the 10 Things swan song but as I am in the process of traveling as I type – a long bus ride followed by a long flight followed by far too little sleep – it became apparent I wouldn’t be able to do today’s column or tomorrow’s so I pushed to end the column immediately so I could have a fresh start on my return home. 

This morning I went walking with some film makers and went to the beach. We watched the sun rise. It’s a new day, yesterday behind us and new things to celebrate and fight. 

Let’s continue on with that. 



How the internet has become a battleground for women’s rights [Transcript: International Women’s Day speech]

6 Mar

Thank you – I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of this land and recognise their contribution to Australia even though it has come at and continues to extract a brutal cost.

Thank you for having me here. This is truly an honour, not only because I get to indulge in my love of talking but to be here in the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre… there are buildings for women these days?

Has anyone told the LNP in Queensland? Or Tony? The Prime Minister said that holding the LNP International Women’s Day lunch in a Men’s only club was crashing through the ceiling and winning for gender equality. Imagine how he’d feel if he knew that in Victoria we had a WHOLE building for women. Well, he’d be a bit threatened.

Now, just quickly and in the spirit of fairness, I kinda understand why they did it. The Vice President of the LNP Women’s group Peta Simpson said that the men’s only venue offered best value for money which us women really value, because women don’t get paid as much as men so we really count our coins.

But enough of that…

On to more important matters: you.

I want to talk to you about the internet. We’re told that it’s just like the men’s only club up in Queensland in that women aren’t really allowed but on special occasions (just like a Q and A special) they will rent it out to the women’s.

But the internet is better than that. I don’t want you to fear it. I want you to walk out of here and stake your claim online. Find your space, find your voice and own it.

Because we’re often told to fear the internet. And yes, it’s true.

It can be horrible.

It’s filled with men who don’t want you there.  They want you to do what every society expects of you: to remain invisible until they have need of you. And if you annoy them, they can shout you down, drown you out, make you run in fear of intimidation, threatened violence and the public exposure of private details.

But I can’t hate it. I have a special spot in what remains of my heart for the internet. I say remain because, as all grim humourless feminists know, we have the majority of our heart removed in secret feminist initiation rites. We also have an extra rib placed in there to stick it to the man, or god, but I’ve said too much.

The internet has been one of the most generous benefactors to me and it’s a love affair that’s never gonna quit. My heart would lurch at the beeping song of a modem. Without the internet, I would not be able to know the friends I love so dearly, learn what I have about feminism and politics or get the dream writing job I wanted but couldn’t find a way into the industry. Without the internet, I wouldn’t be here talking with you tonight (you may want to burn down the internet after this speech though).

So yes we’re going to pick apart the Internet – we’ll talk about how it is a place where we can zoom in on misogyny, sexism and privilege. But the internet isn’t just a place where we are attacked. It isn’t just a place where we see the daily war on women that exposes us, makes us cower, makes us silent or maimed or even killed.

The internet is a place to have so much fun and waste so much time by yourself or with your newest, greatest friends that you’ll forget the damn place was actually created with a military purpose.

And let’s focus on that if only briefly because I am not a fan of military terms.

Origins

The internet was created ostensibly by the US Department of Defense. It was a bunch of packet networking systems and what become known as internetworking, which I’m led to believe is where multiple separate networks can form a network of networks (or one network), whereas I just thought internetworking was a polite if snarky euphemism for the fact I barely work when I’m on the internet.

But from those early days of Defense, the internet existed to share information quickly between agencies, universities and research orgnisations. A network to build on collective knowledge and share that knowledge quickly.

Then Tim Berners-Lee came along and created the World Wide Web. He wanted it to be royalty and patent free. An open space where people could gather, share ideas openly.

And let’s think about that – a place where defence and knowledge are shared at once. The Department of Defence had no idea what battles would be fought on it, just like Tim Berners-Lee had no idea the concepts we’d use it to share.

And that’s what I’m going to talk about tonight. Because the internet is one of the best ways to see the struggle for gender equality. It’s a stateless land with an ongoing battle for territory and we are always in the front line.

Research tells us that this because men may be engaged in an exaggerated attempt to enforce their offline culture, perhaps a retreat from the ever encroaching rights of women.

Here are three online communities’ approach to gender equality (and spoiler, it’s all pretty bad). I’ve selected these because they’re either at the forefront of dramatic hate campaigns, I tend to frequent them a lot, plus they’ve been the subject of some academic attention. There are more social platforms and communities out there – Facebook and Tumblr being two notable additions – we can talk about them at the end.

4chan

Imagine 4chan as the snot-filled kid that lives around the corner. You’re nice to this kid but every interaction leaves you muttering to anyone who will listen they’re quite possibly the antichrist and who wants to split the cost on holy water and crosses. It’s antisocial, it claims a hacker ethic (as origin for the radical hacking group Anonymous) and despite professing a desire to never be mentioned in the news, continually pulls stunts that ensures it will be covered.

A research paper entitled “Tits or GTFO: the logics of misogyny on 4chan’s Random – /b/ 4chan” argued that the mostly male members would shout down any woman who made reference to being female, perceived attention seeking or displaying an identity.

Now this paper also shared that they held similar animosity for anyone who gave themselves an identity as it is counter to the 4chan anonymous culture. New members were routinely called “newfags”, women who approached and engaged in what is perceived to be feminine online behaviour (like posting a selfie, etc) were told they were “cumdumpsters” and to show their “tits or get the fuck out”.

Now, the paper argues this is because 4chan relies on a place where identity is not held in high regard. In fact, identity is the enemy as a reaction against the hyper-identification of other communities like Tumblr, etc. The author says that the misogyny 4chan uses is actually crucial in site-specific context because it keeps the site true to its shock/hacker routes.

And though it arguably attempts to provide a distraction free environment to keep the focus where they think it should be –  with the LOLs, trade cat pics, porn and planning campaigns against people who haven’t forsaken their identity, and not on a hierarchy of indentities tiring them with self expression, relationships, potential power plays or a reminder they are actual real people.

To my way of thinking, that’s because it literally washes everyone down to the desired, default model: a presumably white, straight male (coincidentally, the main demographic for 4chan). And that’s an expectation in mainstream media, as well as most online communities – so really? Not that rare. Not that radical.

The author claims this isn’t sexism, rather a strategic use of offense for “subcultural preservation” which can be used in tandem with technological ability of modifying images, creating word filters that will change whatever a user types on screen. The assumed barrier is two-fold – a woman will disappear if she’s called a whore and a woman won’t stick around on 4chan because she doesn’t have the technical smarts anyway.

Women: vain AND techno-luddites apparently.

But women are apparently allowed on 4chan, if they play by the rules of hiding their identity under the default straight/white/dude mantle. We’re expected to believe 4chan is really so impressively trickster-level smart it can use a theory of behaviour control and cultural defence where misogyny is used as a weapon…that they don’t really believe in (and, for a site that prides itself on lack of identity, it’s something only the reconised old timers will “get”).

Bull. Shit.

But it does provide an interesting model of culture defence. And, you know, when I’m talking about misogyny as a tool of defending a culture, I mean a massively deluded, entitled one.

Admittedly in the case of 4chan, it’s a hyper vigilant, hyper aggressive one. But it can be argued that it’s a similar model employed by groups on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter albeit on a lower-tech level.

But it has failings.

Aggressively preserving a monocultural, monoidentity culture doesn’t actually retain previous cultures and even if you didn’t start out as a misogynist on 4chan, you’d sure as shit end up as one.

REDDIT

Reddit on the other hand can offer oases of solidarity. Sub-reddits, which are sections of the site arranged by theme, can offer solace, uneasy grounds of ceasefire, all out warfare or a wall.

I’ve visited Reddit for years and while it’s true there are the scourge of subreddits today expressly designed as spaces for men to spit hatred of women and dress it up in the invisible robes of a men’s rights philosophy, it would be remiss to not acknowledge it was previously far worse. There were sub-reddits that shared rape porn, where the provenance of authenticity wasn’t really cared about, or one literally called “beating women” which left little to the imagination of what was discussed and how the members felt about women.

But still, Reddit does exhibit the same gender problems as other online communities. Men will shout down women, they will patronise them and try to silence them or distract them from their work and enjoyment because of some perceived entitlement.

However, it must be said that women are better able to build their own spaces, get in on others and

TWITTER

Twitter can be one of the nastiest places for hostility towards women.

The most potent example is GamerGate.

Just quickly, if you don’t know about GamerGate – it’s where mostly men scream invective at women for daring to work in or critique the games industry. These noble defenders of pixellated justice say their threats, their abuse, their orchestrated campaigns to disrupt women’s work is not about sexism. No. Not at all. It’s about ethics in games journalism. And these gamergaters call anyone who disagrees with them SJWs or Social Justice Warriors which is meant to be an insult. You can tell its an insult because to these men fighting for ethics’ in games journalism and screaming rape threats at women is far more noble than the struggle to create a socially just environment.

At one point, Robinson Meyer described GamerGate as a ‘an existential crisis for Twitter’. I think that gives them far too much intellectual credibility for what is in effect a prolonged and increasingly destructive temper tantrum.

The loosely structured but organised group meet online to discuss how to silence, intimidate and discredit women who have invoked their ire. They send death threats, increasingly detailed and hateful. They’ll publish where a woman lives in the hopes a) she feels intimidated and b) that others will join in intimidating her.

But it’s not just about the hate. Twitter of all places may be one of the more destructive but it’s also one of the most instructive.

It’s where you can learn that the dominant female experience isn’t white, cis-gendered and straight. That there are new experiences which don’t require your voice – but require your attention.   I spend my days trying to reading Ayesha Siddiqi, Not All Bhas, Lauren Chief Elk, transfeminist sociologist Katherine Cross and many others. There are amazing groups that give voice, training and exposure – like Black Girls Coding, who are helping young girls learn about technology and break into one of the most monosexual, monocultural and richest industries in the world.

And when you want to share their thoughts? Retweet them without addition, without cutting and pasting. Make the platform larger and don’t just read notes from the crowd.

This is my oasis in the desert of derp.

WHY ARE WOMEN ATTACKED?

But it’s important here to look at the main reason why women are attached for being online – for embracing their identity and opinion.

It’s seen as an act of independence, a freedom many resent possibly because they thought that was a milestone for them to award.

This is no different to what happens in every day life away from a wifi connection. Women will be shamed for how they dress or what choices they make in their lives, they will be talked down to at work or at home or by random member of the dudebrorati on the street who really thinks that telling a woman how she looks is actually all she ever wanted to learn. It’s no different to when a woman is told to calm down or when she’s told she was somehow responsible for being attacked.

There is nothing more dangerous in this world than an independent woman. Actually, strike that. There is nothing more dangerous in this world than a woman. An independent woman is the stuff of legend, and quite possibly rides on a unicorn on the shores of Atlantis because we are certain neither 3 things exist.

In a curious case, Lindy West once started talking with one of her reformed trolls/abusers. He had sent her an email saying the following:

Hey Lindy, I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. It wasn’t because of your stance on rape jokes. I don’t find them funny either.

I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self.

I have e-mailed you through 2 other gmail accounts just to send you idiotic insults.

I apologize for that.

I created the PaulWestDunzo@gmail.com account & Twitter account. (I have deleted both.)

I can’t say sorry enough.

It was the lowest thing I had ever done. When you included it in your latest Jezebel article it finally hit me. There is a living, breathing human being who is reading this shit. I am attacking someone who never harmed me in any way. And for no reason whatsoever.

I’m done being a troll.

Again I apologize.

I made donation in memory to your dad.

I wish you the best.

In a subsequent exchange, West’s abuser confessed that:

“Women are being more forthright in their writing, they’re not — there isn’t a sense of timidity to when they speak. They’re saying it loud. And I think for me as well, it’s threatening at first …”

But he didn’t originally think he was sexist or misogynistic in trolling West, pretending to be her dead father and spewing hate over several twitter and email accounts.

“I work with women all day, and I don’t have an issue with anyone. I could have told you back then, if someone had said to me, “you’re a misogynist, you hate women,” I would have said, “Nuh-uh! I love my mum, I love my sisters, I’ve loved the girlfriends I’ve had in my life.” But you can’t claim to be ok with women and then go online and insult them, seek them out to harm them emotionally.”

What’s at heart here is both a challenge and opportunity for everyone.

The challenge for men is to reflect on their reactions before acting on them.

The opportunity for women is to move past them and damn well keep on talking.

So what are we looking at when it comes to online hate? 

The effect of online hate is pretty simple. The more people tell you in a multitude of ways they don’t want you to talk, you won’t. You’ll feel out numbered.

This becomes even worse when we view online abuse from an intersectional angle where ethnicity, gender spectrum, size and disability are included into the mix.

If your views and confidence threaten men, men will want to silence you and some will be incredibly inventive about the matter.

Helen Lewis, a reporter for the Guardian, came up with the most wonderful adage now known as Lewis’ Law: “any comment on an article about feminism justify feminism”.

For anyone who has ever put up a piece on the Guardian, it’s a reassuring and instructive comment. Put your views out there and people will tear at it.

But highlighting the abuse women writers receive can be taken too far, a curious conundrum where some women have mistaken online abuse for validation as a feminist or a status symbol.

I mean, sure, it can be funny and I’m certainly not averse to a well placed screen cap if I need support or if it’s hilarious in its immense derpitude. But it is not the only response to women available online or off.

Being a feminist isn’t about the hate you attract. It’s about the work you do. And holding up screencaps of what men say about you just show you are still deeply bound to male validation, no matter if its positive or negative. A woman’s experience is more than filtering her life through male expression.

I want more for us. When the Victorian Women’s Trust released an app to help educate teens about abusive relationships, that’s about the work they do for women.

When women like Canberra lawyer Louise Taylor works tirelessly in the courts defending women, that’s about the work she does for women.

When Ada Conroy advocates for women’s rights out in the West, that’s about the work she does for women.

Amy McQuire from New Matilda shared her speech today on racial inequality in the struggle to end violence against women and it was a revelation – that’s the work she does for women.

Today, Tara Moss was announced as the new ambassador for the Full Stop Foundation, providing programs to support  something she will juggle with her entry into academia and writing career and they’re all things she does for women.

When Clementine Ford spends days answering emails from women who need advice and support and writing articles explaining feminist culture, that’s about the work she does for women.

Same with Ruby Hamad.

Same with Celeste Liddle, who spends her days writing about feminist and indigenous issues while working on the front lines at the National Tertiary Education Union, it’s about the work she does for women.

When Jenna Price, a woman who I actually think has never slept a full hour in her life, spends countless hours advocating for women along with Destroy the Joint, it’s about the work she does for women, advocating, educating and building new networks.

And I think about my friend Stella Young, who went far too early and did so damn much and still had mountains to obliterate (and she totally would have), who spent every day in a passionate, fierce and tenacious campaign to educate the world about women’s rights, about how society and not our bodies create true disability and sought to make the world truly equal and she did that for women, she did that to educate and make changes for everyone.

We have so many amazing women here in Australia that I could spend the entire speech telling you we have rolled gold goddesses that may never be called to appear on Q and A but are instrumental in building a better environment for women. I’m feeling annoyed I can’t because our incredibly valid scramble to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed we forget how many amazing women are working tirelessly in this country.

So spare me your constant screen caps and retweets. Yes, we need to understand the oppression and aggression we face. But a constant stream doesn’t define feminism. The work does and we have amazing feminists surrounding us and more are arriving every single day.

Who are you? 

I’m not going to stand here and tell you to raise your phone right now and swear an allegiance to raising hell, storming 4chan or your nearest DudeBrorati website.

I’m not even going to give you a single answer on how to deal with the internet as a woman and, hopefully, a feminist woman. Because to suggest one answer to cover all women means we’re not actually listening to all women.

I won’t tell you to lean into the online battle.

But I will tell you that you have ways to not only protect your space but grab some more for you and others.

Because it’s not just about finding a safe space for you alone or even just you and your friends – it’s about providing space for others. When we build space for others, we increase representation for all self-identifying women.

The bizarre choice offered to women is so often one or the other. I remember on election night there was discussion about whether it should be Leigh Sales or Annabel Crabb on the ABC panel. Their merits were debated. It could only be one or the other.

Well, to echo my constant life adviser, the taco kid: why not both?

It’s not about choosing one woman to meet diversity requirements. You are not a requirement to be met. You are a thinking, living, breathing, creating, experiencing, amazing and struggling human being.

Here are some different online types you can be. You can be one, you can be a lil of some, more of the other. But you’ll generally find yourself in here to some degree.

You can be a warrior you can be like Clementine Ford, one of the most tireless and quick debators who can annihilate any and most arguments I’ve ever seen. It is a high energy, time-intensive, brutal role.

Not only do warriors engage others in debate (and the tone will vary) but their work also acts as a shield to protect others from attack and can also exist as inspiration for an ever-watching, often silent marjority. (And – even before George Brandis came up with his legislation, lemme tell you that you are always being watched online. It’s just by your community and not the authorities.)

A warrior can also be called en masse to drown out gendered abuse. Imagine Apocalypse Now where the choppers fly overhead to Ride of the Valkyries but instead of increasingly fractured soldiers you get actual valkyries, looking over those in battle and swooping in to make their feminist noise and decide the victor.

You can be a builder – you can use the skills you have and you can build satefy network and resources that educate and inspire other women.

Zoe Quinn – a frequent target of online hate in increasingly orchestrated and planned campaigns – developed the Crash Override Network to help people (often women) who are victims and targets of online harassment. They help people lock down their information to block doxing attempts (where their personal details are uncovered and published), threat monitoring, advice and basically protecting people and weakening their attackers. All by using their skills and hard fought experience.

Another example of building is Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls – a network created to inspire growing women to feel good about themselves and give back to the community through volunteering, civic activism, cultural exchange and basically to find their inner Lesley Knope. Their motto is “Change the World By Being Yourself”, which is an amazing message for women maturing in cultures that expressly don’t want that to happen, because society loves telling women what to do.

A builder has skills, a builder has experience and knows how to make things better. A builder not only reclaims territory – like helping people back into social media so another female voice can be added to the chorus – a builder can actually create new territory.

You can be a talker/gatherer – they’re like hunter gatherers but without a fanciful diet Pete Evans approved diet attached. Talker-gatherers are natural community builders – they know what’s happening, to whom, and who can help.  talkers are excellent because they’re born to share information.

You can be a comforter – not everyone has to fight, not everyone has to sweat at building or gathering. You can be there, watching and learning, offering support when its needed.

But while we are all different, we are all in this together.

And on that point….

Women should recognise that the struggle for equality, especially online, brings us up close to the realisation that our experience is not necessarily the only female experience.

We don’t just support women we agree with politically.  We are not in a struggle for the rights of women from the left or right or progressive or conservative. Hell, we don’t just support women we like.

Sometimes you won’t need to speak. Just listen and read the experiences of other women and realise we don’t speak for all – once again, if we attempt to speak for all women, we simply prove we aren’t listening to women.

And there are women who will react hostilely to that. Presume to know a woman of colour’s experience and be prepared to meet the full and incredibly justified fury of someone who is so worn down by (well meaning or not) advice or commentary that they will let you have it. And this is the important part of intersectionality – the recognition that some women have been so oppressed, so ignored and so invisible to the debate on women’s rights they feel excluded and justifiably angry.

I can’t speak for them, but I and I hope you too will work to make the platform larger so that there are more women’s voices showing the multitude of our experience and the full on riot of our potential.

We’re supporting everyone – supporting by listening, acting when asked and giving whatever skills we have to take extra space online, gain greater wins and make that platform, that visibility, wider and brighter for everyone.

We have the skills, we have the strength, we have the persistence and the momentum to make the internet as much ours.

We can do it.

From the archives: what to serve the creature from the Black Lagoon.

4 Jan

auroraFound an old interview I did with my daughter (6 at the time) that was in Dumbo Feather.

Amy: What are you going to do when you grow up?
Aurora: I’m going to have a band called The Painters. Does that sound like a good name?

Am: Why ‘The Painters’?
Au: I’m gonna have a band with people who are art smart like me.

Am: What are you going to sing about?
Au: Rock songs, pop, funk?

Am: Funk?
Au: Wait, what, not that one. I keep getting mixed up. Rock, all different types of songs. But not funk. Definitely not funk.

Am: My wrist hurts. How would you fix it?
Au: Well, what I would do is, you could rest it a lot. On your leg for a while.

Am: Could I take anything for it?
Au: You could take hayfever tablets.

Am: What do they do?
Au: Well, it helps your ankle if it’s really sore. Your nose if it’s really runny or your eye if it’s really red. And helps you if you’ve got the flu or cough or cold.

Am: What’s your favourite film?
Au: Godzilla.

Am: Why?
Au: It’s a really funny film. Remember that one where Godzilla fights Mecha Godzilla cause…. [trails off]

Am: What was funny?
Au: I don’t remember. YOU HAVE TO SPEAK UP, I AM WATCHING CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

Am: What would you do if you met the creature?
Au: I would just go [shrugs], “creature, please do not rip me up”.

Am: Would you make friends with him?
Au: Eh, not really because he really, really looks, you know, horrifying. Ghosts are real, you know.

Am: Really?
Au: I’ve seen them before.

Am: Where?
Au: When I was a little girl when I was four. I saw a black ghost in my bedroom.

Am: What did it do?
Au: It kept coming closer and closer and the ghost was going to close the door until I stepped in it and then it went “AAAAAH I HAVE TO GO AWAY!”. It’s cool that I’m a ghost horrifier. Are you a ghost horrifier?

Am: I must be, I haven’t seen one.
Au: Whoa. I just proved one of my goals to myself, which is cool, right?

Am: What’s that?
Au: Cutting up pancakes into a big tower. It’s pretty good, right? And there you have it: delicious hand made pancakes and this one you can make by hand.

Am: That sounds like an ad.
Au: It’s not. Just poke them finely with a fork.

Am: And then?
Au: Serve them on a plate and put maple syrup on them. Or not. But in my home I always sizzle the pancakes in maple syrup. Makes it tender.

Am: You sound like a cooking show. Perhaps you want to be a chef rather than be in a band.
Au: I’m going to be a chef IN a band. My cooking shows are only going to be on once a week.

Am: What will your show be called?
Au: But it is how to make breakfastses and it will be called Aurora’s Home-Made Breakfasteses.

Am: What would you cook for the creature?
Au: Maybe Seaweed Special. It’s made out of SEA and WEED. Then I tenderise the sea weed in sea water and then TA-DAAA seaweed special. But it’s not the one people eat. It’s the one that comes from the sea.

Am: But people eat seaweed that comes from the sea.
Au: The other that people don’t eat. It’s the one that gets in your way.

Am: That seems normal. Did you know there are deer in Phoenix Park?
Au: So? There are dead bodies in the desert, you know.

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, Circ.ca, 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.
  • WRITE FASTER STOP LOOKING AT THAT DON’T TEXT HIM, etc
  • 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:

Guardian:
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.

THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT OF ALL: MAKE CONNECTIONS
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.

 

Postscript
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.

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