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.

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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

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Post image for Eulogy for youth

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

by Stephanie on 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 buses trundle, swinging precariously around the road’s hairpin turns, while half the tourists inside press their noses to the windows and the other half throw up in their handbags. But the coastline out there is rugged and brooding, more temperamental than tropical, and while those Gold Coast-style beaches are beautiful in their own way, I can’t help but think they are rather flat and unremarkable. This coast, on the other hand, has personality.

It also has wildlife. There are koalas and wallabies and lush birdlife: bower birds and splendid wrens and flocks of squawking parrots. Every piece of conventional wisdom says we shouldn’t feed the parrots, but they are so bright and cheery that it’s hard not to go outside in the afternoon and look for the flashes of red and green in the trees that indicate their presence. It is kind of a tradition now, inherited by anyone who visits the house, and has been going on so long that, for better or for worse, the parrots expect it when the house is occupied.

They are king parrots, mainly: bold, curious creatures. They squabble like small children and eat sunflower seeds like candy. When I hold out a handful towards them they cock their heads, look me in the eye and make little inquisitive noises in their throats, as if to ask, ‘Is that really for me?’ They are so accustomed to humans that they will not only eat from your hand if you are patient, but hop right up onto your arm — or in my case, jump onto my bare shoulders and once or twice land on my head — in their effort to out-do each other in their pursuit of food. I didn’t notice the scratches until some time later, at which point I hastily bathed my arms in Dettol from an ancient bottle bearing a use by date of 1994 and tried not to think about avian flu.

I’ve tried a lot harder to take time off in the last 12 months or so. My first psychologist was adamant about it. I was burnt out, he said. I needed to learn to rest — to properly rest. My first proper holiday in years, a three-week break in November 2013, was revelatory for me. For that period of time, I had a single rule: I wasn’t going to do anything out of a sense of obligation. Because if there is one thing that characterised the entire period in which I wrote my PhD — indeed, has characterised an extraordinary part of my life so far — it is an ever-present, all-encompassing, crippling sense of obligation. Whether that obligation was mandated by a contract or enforced by social conventions and relationship structures, its current pulled me along channels I would have preferred to avoid. It gave me anxiety attacks. It kept me in destructive relationships well past their due date. It made me ashamed to act in my own interests, for my own welfare. It swamped me.

Obligation alone is not a bad thing. Part of having a social conscience necessarily rests on the understanding that relationships of any kind are built on exchange, and that fairness requires upholding those shared understandings. An enormous part of my political sensibility is built on the idea that the way the world is currently organised is inequitable, partly because the vast majority of power-brokers within it do not recognise that they have obligations to anyone other than themselves. So it’s is not obligation in and of itself that has been causing me trouble; it’s proportion.

I could glibly attribute the guilt I have felt about these real or imagined slights to my Catholic upbringing, but the reality of the feeling is disproportionate to the role that religion played in my childhood. Perhaps, and I suspect more accurately, it is the consequence of an incredibly fertile imagination. The same traits that had me conjuring up worlds beyond the one in which I was currently existing would, from my teenage years onward, also conjure up imagined social mishaps and misdemeanours, a web of apologies and private grudges, and a sense that if I didn’t do all the things I said I wanted to do, I would not only be failing myself but everybody else who had invested in those dreams and plans with me. But not every misspoken word requires daily atonement. Not every rejected invitation will be taken personally. If I need to change plans, plans can change. And perhaps more importantly than all that, I should be writing because I want to, not because I think my loved ones or my friends or my supervisor or anyone else wants me to. And when I do write, the direction of my work should not be mandated by the self-interested opinions of others.

This pervasive sense of obligation and accompanying guilt has had a profound impact on my writing process, but becoming heavily involved in sport has helped me to think about the discipline of it differently. I do not have to write all the time. Rest is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. Bodies can’t function at optimum if they are run ragged without respite. Neither can the creative brain.

Placing a discipline around a process requires an understanding of the process itself. Creativity is not linear. The mental space that is necessary for creativity to flourish simply can’t occur if the brain is forced to pump out matter relentlessly, if it is too focused on the outcome, or simply feeling tremendous pressure. When I think about it now — about how anxiety has clamped around me for years whenever I sat down to work — it’s no wonder I’ve been unable to write. That fight or flight response we feel when staring down a deadline triggers only a very narrow set of associations; for new ideas to sprout and new connections to be made we need breathing space, time to allow ideas to slip off and make their own unexpected associations, when we feel as if we are only half-focused, only half-aware of the pattern of our thoughts.

Part of learning how to rest, for me, has also been about learning how to tell the difference between time off and what I’ve come to understand as ‘loose construing’ time (after Sue Woolfe’s analysis of precisely this phenomenon in The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady): the lull in my writing process that allows ideas to percolate. It is different to avoiding the project altogether — just like learning to respond to obligation and guilt proportionally is different to freaking out about every perceived slight, real and imagined. The key is not to force those lulls out of the way, to deplete them, or to see them as dead time, but to incorporate them into the very structure of the discipline itself. This means accepting that it may take me longer than I think to write an article of any given length. It means accounting for the fact that even when facing deadline, I may spend significant periods of time staring at the screen without typing, and possibly even daydreaming. It is understanding that some days I may only write a sentence or two, in spite of all the time spent with my project open in front of me, and that this is not a wasted day.

But it is not time off, either. Time off is meals with friends, reading trashy crime novels, and playing with the cat. Time off is travelling halfway round the world to have a spending spree in New York. Time off is feeding parrots and taking afternoon naps and walks along slippery shoreline rocks after rain. Time off is resting, and not feeling guilty about it.

Sea shell sketch

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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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Muse

May 1, 2014

  Hollowed out, I am scraped clean with a steel spoon, seeds and pulpy excess in jars and these little monsters, sitting neatly in a row. Here: tentacles and spongy parts, crocodile eyes and a soft belly. There: a gelatinous membrane covers writhing organs and a quiet, beating heart. I learn anew each time: that […]

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