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The hard part

by Stephanie on December 22, 2015

I spend a lot of time trying to remember how to write. I fiddle about at my desk, cleaning the keyboard or attempting to neaten the piles of paper that started off in some kind of order (tax receipts; to read; to shred) and are now somehow comprised of books and art supplies and paper bags and receipts. I used to worry that I never had any ideas, and any that I did have were essentially derivative. It was a symptom of fatigue, I think. Sure, everyone leans on those who have come before to some extent, and more so, probably, when you are pushing yourself (or being pushed) in every other aspect of your life. The brain is not sequestered in a glass case away from the trials and tumbles of the body. But sometimes the ideas are there, it’s just the writing that’s the problem.

I took on a large arts administration contract over October and November, which was necessary to keep the wolf from the door but ate up all my writing time. When I tried to start writing again, the Christmas mania was already descending upon Melbourne and the forces driving me away from my desk were persistent and often time sensitive. I tried to pick up my project again. It was hard. I got depressed. The ideas were battering against the walls of my brain—I have the lists of them to prove it!—but the execution just was not happening.

Writing is a process, and I’ve made an effort over the past 18 months to map the cycles that make up this process for me. The things I have learnt about myself could, if I thought that would be useful, be chopped up into snackable chunks: I work best in 90-minute sessions; the good stuff only comes after the first half-hour; turning off social media and email notifications on one’s phone is a revelation; sitting with your work is almost as important as getting the words down; a regular journal-writing habit will only happen if you give yourself permission to be messy and write about trivia. But it’s surface-level stuff. The real struggle is in how these processes are bound to my emotional cycles, and how they interact with each other.

If I am finding writing hard and progress too slow, I get depressed. Every project, even the small ones, involves difficulty. Sometimes, like now, it’s about getting started again when the wheels are rusty. More often than not though it’s about a third of the way in, when I have to start pulling together disparate ideas in some sort of logical order. (I have, in my thirties, finally learnt the value of an essay plan.) Sometimes it’s simply because the subject matter is tough and the learning curve is steep and I am getting tired of it. I have all sorts of other tendencies to bound up in this, too: perfectionism and a predisposition towards having unrealistic expectations of oneself; fear of failure; old bad habits—fairly run-of-the-mill stuff, but the interplay between them is as individual as a fingerprint. Still, I have come to accept that depression, of a kind, is built into this process, and at this point, all the writing tips in the world won’t help: what’s necessary is managing the funk.

Everyone has their own strategies for managing mild to moderate depression (more snackables: avoid alcohol; get enough sleep; get enough exercise; eat your vegetables; have a treat every now and then; cuddle the cat). They come with a caveat, though: if I leave my work at this point—if I try to make things easier on myself by giving myself a break until the funk has passed (and I don’t mean fifteen minutes for a cup of tea or going out for the evening, I mean whole days together where I do no actual writing on the project)—it actually makes things worse. The real anxiety starts to build then, coupled with a particular kind of self-loathing that comes from a history of starting projects and leaving them unfinished. No, the key is managing the funk while at the same time writing through it.

I do think there is something to be said for journalistic training here—being taught to write to deadline, quickly, simply; filing copy even when you think it might be rubbish; pushing through the hard stuff and the boring stuff to get to the good stuff: these are all things that become easier with practice and take the unnecessary ethereal bullshit out of the creative process. Actually, writing is repetition. Writing is habit. Writing is routine. Writing is boring. Writing is a job. But while it’s easy enough to say ‘just write’, it’s rarely that easy in practice, particularly when not writing will actually make it easier to make ends meet.

One of the most important things I’ve learnt about my own process, I think, is that when I do all the right things—when I stick with the work no matter how awful I think it is or how terrible I feel about it (and myself), I get through it. I resolve the problems. I get the momentum back. Sometimes unexpectedly, I finish.

The funk is necessary, but more importantly, it’s temporary. This too shall pass. The way out is through.

{ 3 comments }

Reading Villette

Reading Villette

by Stephanie on August 22, 2015

Some books bother me for reasons I struggle to articulate, and I sit there poised between turning the page or throwing the thing away entirely so as to avoid having to undergo the restlessness it inspires.

Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is one of those books. I am currently halfway through, almost to the page, and yet I can’t for the life of me understand why such a character had to be committed to so many pages (all five hundred and forty-six of them) or where the depressing, tedious minutae of her life could possibly lead, other than to a depressing, tedious end. I can see what is coming for Polly and Graham. I can see what is coming for Ginevra. I feel if I dare to hope that what is coming for Lucy Snowe is anything other than what she has endured so far, then I will end up feeling like I had been tricked into spending energy on a lost cause (I am convinced that what’s coming is simply more of the same).

I suppose, in a political sense, the narratives of women were not so commonly told back then, and that there is some objective value in having them available now, even in fictional form. Perhaps in one way I’m being uncharitable — my discomfort in the reading comprises only a fraction of the time that would have been spent living such a life. Perhaps I should give her the space to tell her story, however she wants to tell it. These books are still read for a reason. Still, Lucy is not a character I’m disposed to like, or get excited by, or warm towards, or feel particularly sorry for, even as she becomes less reserved as the story goes on.

If this is a political book, even unconsciously, about the terrible lot of the solitary woman, then it is undermined repeatedly by Lucy’s fabrications — or rather, deliberate non-disclosures, as they have been so far — partly because as the book plods (drags) along and her narrative becomes more and more unreliable, that narrative and the entire experience of it becomes increasingly frustrating and unsettling. Are her circumstances really as bad as she has been making out? Why doesn’t she tell us where she came from and who she is? And why is it, given she is so independent, she does not attempt to make more of her situation?

Perhaps this says more about me than it says about her. There are two ways to deal with adverse circumstances: buck up or buckle. She, frustratingly, does neither: she lets the tide carry her along like a passive piece of driftwood, doing only just enough to stop herself from sliding under completely, after which she seems content to let her head sit just above the water until the next wave comes along. No wonder she’s so fucking depressed.

So, she bothers me. This story bothers me.

{ 1 comment }

16 July 2015

I am writing in response to the Senate Inquiry into the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts and related matters.

I am a writer, in that this is how I define myself and it is the focus of my individual arts practice, but my involvement in the Australian arts sector is multifaceted: I write and have published fiction, non-fiction, criticism, commentary and review for numerous Australian and international publications, including Overland, Meanjin, The Big Issue, harvest, Voiceworks, The Guardian, the ABC and more. I have featured on panels at the Melbourne Writers Festival, Adelaide Writers Week, Emerging Writers’ Festival and at The Wheeler Centre. I have also undertaken paid writing roles for many of these organisations. I am represented by Jenny Darling and Associates literary agency. I have written a novel and am currently working on long-form narrative non-fiction, for which I have received state-based project support. After a 5-year publishing relationship with Overland literary magazine, I was recently engaged as its Deputy Editor. Prior to this, I worked for nearly 4 years full time as the Executive Administrator and, subsequently, Philanthropy Coordinator at Melbourne Theatre Company. I thus have a keen, first-hand understanding of the internal mechanisms of a major performing arts organisation, insight into the ecology and efficiency of the small-to-medium arts sector, and direct experience of the realities of life as an individual emerging and career artist.

I received my PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University on a scholarship in 2012 at the age of 26. In 2013, I was lucky enough to be the recipient of an Australia Council ArtStart grant. The purpose of this grant is to assist creative postgraduates to obtain skills which allow them to better engage in the marketplace. For example, this grant allowed me to take up a marketing and business-planning mentorship, to attend and appear at local and international literary festivals, and to network and to grow my industry connections. As an emerging artist, these tools are crucial. They are not taught in Creative Writing or Fine Arts courses, nor do they come naturally to most artists. ArtStart gave me training and opportunities that I am still drawing on two years later, and expect I will be drawing on for many years into the future. ArtStart was also an unequivocal success story for the Australia Council: a longitudinal study of ArtStart recipients found that the program yielded dedicated career artists who spent a higher proportion of their time on their art and received a higher percentage of their income from it, too. Yet ArtStart is one of the programs that have been cut as a result of the funding reappropriation from Australia Council to the Ministry of the Arts, with no replacement career development programs offered to emerging artists.

I have taught and mentored young and emerging writers, and not so long ago I was one. One of the most fundamental dilemmas that young and emerging artists face is how to support themselves while simultaneously improving their artistic practice. This is because for art to become ‘excellent’, one needs to treat it like a job: it must come first, and a lot of time, energy and money must be invested in it for an artist to develop to their full potential. And yet even highly acclaimed and influential artists in Australia struggle to make ends meet, and are forced to spend much of their time and creative energy on work that has little to do with their creative ambitions.

Perhaps there are some people who believe this is as it should be, as if the creation of art is not a means to an ‘honest living’ – except that the majority of artists, regardless of whether or not they supplement their artistic practice with other jobs, live at or below the poverty line. The Australia Council itself commissioned a number of reports (e.g. Don’t Give Up Your Day Job: An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia, D Throsby and V Hollister) which detail this reality. In my own case, I did not work for MTC because my ambition was to become an arts administrator (although I certainly found the experience incredibly valuable); I worked in those roles because I needed to support myself financially while I developed my creative practice. If I must work a day job to support myself, at the very least I want to be able to do so within the sector in which my skills and passions lie. Many other artists come to similar conclusions – I know this because I worked with them: lighting designers by night are ticketing officers by day; writers are also editors and publishing assistants; dancers are also marketers and administrators. But this lifestyle also takes a toll. When you are working the equivalent of two full time jobs on below-average pay, burnout, fatigue, acute anxiety and severe depression are not simply likely, but common. It is even more difficult for women, particularly parents, and particularly those who live alone, whether by choice or circumstance. Many exceptional young and emerging writers I know (and many that I taught) gave up their creative practice not by choice, but because the physical and emotional strain of attempting to work to make ends meet and work to make art was simply too much.

Project grants for individual artists are one of the primary ways in which artists can afford to spend time actually working on their art. A $10,000 project grant may allow an artist (who would otherwise need to work full time) one full day a week for a year to devote to her creative practice. This is at the smaller end of the scale, but it can and often does make the difference between an artist retaining her practice or giving it up entirely.

The new National Program for Excellence in the Arts guidelines state that it will not fund individual artists. The funds with which it has been created have been cut directly from programs in the Australia Council that did. This is a direct loss to individual artists at all stages of their careers, and will result in the creation of less art, less accomplished art, and less representative art from across the community. It will mean that the only people who can afford to make art are those who are already wealthy, or who have a partner who is willing to carry the burden of breadwinning while the other works on her creative practice. This is a deeply divisive, discriminatory way to fund arts practice.

But even if the NPEA did fund individuals, it is deeply concerning to me, as a writer who is not only committed to the development of her art form as an aesthetic and communicative tool, but whose work is also often deeply political, that an arts funding scheme be directly administered by Ministry appointees. Such a scheme makes me and those like me incredibly vulnerable to direct political intervention preventing my work from receiving financial support, even as increasing numbers of my peers, numerous publications, and the sector in general have and continue to encourage and support my artistic development. Arms length, peer-reviewed assessment processes mean democratic, community-driven funding that benefits artists across the sector. In the NPEA, the Ministry appears to be establishing a bureaucracy that is precisely the opposite.

Furthermore, a large proportion of the funds appropriated to establish the NPEA has come from Australia Council programs that provided operational funding for the small-to-medium sector. In literature, this means operational costs for literary journals and small festivals. The NPEA will not, however, fund ongoing operational costs for organisations, only ‘projects’. This means that even those of us who have attempted to maintain some semblance of financial stability in a permanent part-time administrative role in the sector now have our livelihoods directly threatened on two accounts.

The NPEA also does not make any mention of literature as an eligible art form for funding. As a result, with the cuts to the Australia Council affecting both operational funds and individual artists, the literary sector in Australia has been completely defunded on a federal level. And yet our reach is enormous: at Overland, for example, where we publish a daily online literary magazine as well as quarterly print issue, we have had over 426,635 unique visitors to our website alone in the past 12 months. For comparison, that is nearly double Melbourne Theatre Company’s paid attendance for its entire 2014 season (236,835), and at a fraction of the cost.

I do not believe that the private sector can fill this funding gap. In my role in the Development Department of MTC, I was responsible for grants application and administration, as well as the solicitation of funds from private individual donors. I spent considerable time researching the overall funding landscape, and in particular, opportunities to secure core operational funding for arts organisations, i.e. funds that were not tied to particular projects, but which assisted the core purpose of an organisation, such as producing a magazine, or putting on a regular season of theatre. While there is a modest appetite within the private sector to fund the arts, operational funding grants for arts organisations of the scale provided by the Australia Council simply do not exist. Arts organisations cannot continue to exist on a project-to-project basis. We, like every other industry, require stability in order to thrive.

I believe that art matters beyond its capacity to sell: it helps us remember our humanity; it reflects the world back to us anew and to allows us to explore the possibilities for different and better ways of living. It reminds us of who we are and who we want to be. That the cultural ecology which allows us to do that in Australia could be at stake at the whim of a single bureaucratic decision is terrifying, but no less true for that.

Sincerely,
Stephanie Honor Convery

{ 6 comments }

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Eulogy for youth

by Stephanie on June 10, 2015

I caught the last tram home. It rattled past the racecourse, ten minutes ahead of schedule, an icy draught needling in through the cracks at the top of the scuffed and smudged windows where the clasp wouldn’t catch. The cheap beer and pub food sat heavy in my belly—one pot too many, five mouthfuls too much—and my gloved hands lumbered against the pages of that old novel about men and their over-confidence in ideas, men and their hasty, unrequited loves, men and their wars with each other and the (female) casualties they sustained as they blustered their way towards meaning. Is it power? Is it sex? Is it an idea made bloody-manifest across an unwilling world? Did any of those men really understand love at all, as they grappled over the possession of people they had no right to claim? It was, in my fumbling hands under the fluorescent light of the speeding tram, a strange coda to dinner and drinks.

We were talking about our adventures in Europe, when we were adults in name only, flown halfway around the world to pretend we were useful—to pretend we weren’t just after our own adventures. Sophie reminisced about how she used to go hiking through the Tatras on her own for days, a loaf of bread and block of cheese in her pack, sleeping out wherever she ended up at the time. ‘I could never do that now!’ she said, shaking her head at the brash naivety of it. But I had always envied her. It was a kind of bravery that I, at the time at least, could not fathom—a willingness to reach out and grasp the world in way that I would only learn the benefits of much later, in the wide rivers of the tropics of my own country, when perhaps the serious adult woman was too close to really give the naive girl much slack. ‘We were so lucky,’ said Emma. ‘So many things could have gone wrong.’ She meant, I suppose, rape or murder or accident or misadventure. But those things are just as likely to happen at home in the comfort of one’s living room that it seems absurd to fear the unexpected or wonder how we made it through—we’d just as well wonder how we were ever born at all.

The next day I was told that an old friend had committed suicide. His death was a surprise in the way that any such news is not what you expect to greet you at the door when you wake up of a morning, but it was also the end of a very specific road that, for this friend at least, had begun years earlier. Perhaps it began even before we were knocking back Smirnoff double-blacks at parties; packing into cars and driving almost an hour to clubs that didn’t really get going until midnight; passing out under pool tables and playing beats at each other over eggs and bacon the next morning.

It happened months ago and I had not heard—the funeral had been and gone—and I was struck by a terrifying kind of vertigo: that I am so far removed from my previous life that I no longer matter to it, in spite of hours spent daily on social media, submitting myself willingly to updates about Friday night drinks, look-how-in-love-we-are-selfies, fuzzy animals doing cute things, concerts of bands I never liked. I could have told you what an old backpacker-dorm acquaintance in England had for breakfast that morning but not that a person with whom I had shared uncountable drinks, smokes, cars, music, ideas, weekends, good times, had found life so unbearable that he struck it violently from himself. Another friend gave birth only weeks ago and I had not even known she was expecting. A similar pang struck me then—it is as we all know it is, but do not allow ourselves to feel until these moments: that this medium is the mere illusion of connection, a balm that momentarily numbs the feeling of loss that would otherwise induce us to reach out and make contact, that would prevent life and death from passing us by as if it never mattered at all. And perhaps it doesn’t, in a way—the universe is, after all, indifferent—but we are not. We feel death because we infuse our own lives with meaning, and meaning, for better or worse, is up to us.

There is a loneliness that comes with real adulthood—a realisation that we can’t always understand one another, in spite of the passions that burn blistering hot on the heels of adolescence, that propel us down roads we are not quite sure of and still plunge along anyway, half-blind, captivated by the whir of colour and noise and self-induced blur. That first taste of euphoria—those indefinable transcendent moments that begin on the cusp of adulthood and chase us into our twenties—is a drug of its own. An elusive, essentially transient glimpse at what could anchor our world—the promise of fantastic possibility with no instruction on how to make that real, no map for the grunt work to follow. Without that, there is nothing underneath but indifference and we chase it at our peril, scrabbling, digging, and finding nothing but dirt, dirt all the way down. The world in pieces, ground so fine it is unfathomable that these were ever things once meaningful to anyone, and despair at the knowledge that out of them a new, and altogether different world might grow.

{ 24 comments }

On writing and guilt

October 19, 2014

I spent last weekend by the ocean, reading books, drinking wine, taking long walks along the shoreline and listening to the moody waves rumble against the rocks. We often think of the Great Ocean Road in terms of its beach towns — Torquay, Lorne, Apollo Bay — or by the natural sculptures towards which the tourist […]

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Gone Girl

October 6, 2014

Gone Girl is an MRA’s wet dream. Look, I enjoyed much of the novel. Gillian Flynn writes a highly readable sentence, and the text is a masterclass in the use of the unreliable narrator. I enjoyed David Fincher’s film interpretation of it, too, even though I already knew where its plot twists would lead. Watching it on the […]

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On the rise of Scott Morrison

October 5, 2014

The signing of the new refugee resettlement contract between Australia and Cambodia last week had all the makings of a political farce. Before the gathered dignitaries were able to toast the new arrangements, a full tray of champagne flutes crashed to the floor. Morrison and Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng clinked lonely glasses amid growing […]

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Fixing

September 20, 2014

Some nights I lie in bed half asleep, listening to the chattering in my own head. Different sets of voices overlap one another, as if I’m standing in line at the bank or the supermarket checkout queue as crowds of people bustle around me, relaying to each other their anecdotes and grievances and the details […]

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Late night

August 25, 2014

I remember: The sharp stink of campfires and the tang of eucalyptus and pine. The crunch of shoes on gravel in the dark. Rain on a canvas roof. The sound of nearby water, and the way it changed the feel of the air. I was taller than the boys, mostly. Taller, heavier, thighs and hips […]

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The Chicken Project

July 5, 2014

I have to come clean about something. Not because I think it’s unique, or exciting or brave to fess up. I don’t think the result will make particularly good reading, and I certainly don’t think any of it needs to be public knowledge. If anything, I’m writing about it simply because I’m sick of sleeping […]

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