1. ?It?s not about me.?
On July 1 in South Australia, new laws come into force which will allow the attorney-general to declare any group of people a criminal gang and prohibit them from associating with each other. If they communicate more than six times within a year, they face 5 years imprisonment. I presented this information to my housemate today, who said, ?So? Since when do ordinary people get affected by stuff like this??
Her nonchalance surprised me. She?d previously become quite heated about other issues in the media – the Bill Henson thing, for instance. I followed up by explaining that the police would also be able to ban the wearing of an insignia in public if they thought it compromised public safety – not beyond reasonable doubt, but on the ?balance of probability.?
?Yeah, but this is all for bikie gangs who make drugs and stuff,? she said. ?Nothing to do with the rest of the population.?
In 1972, ASIO put tabs on Helen Garner. Not for the influence of her writing – Monkey Grip, her first novel, wasn?t published until 1978 – but because she put her name on a phone list for a feminist group. I can?t help but wonder what the implications might have been for the feminist movement if the SA laws had been enacted then.
When I was in Year 11, the first English assignment for first semester was ?personal? non-fiction. When asked what she expected from us, Mrs G suggested we write about our family, our friends, our social lives, our plans for the future – that sort of ?personal?. We had a couple of weeks to complete the essay, but I waited until the last minute to do it. The redundancy of it repelled me. The way I saw it, Mrs G was just trying to get an idea of what she might expect from us without having to go through the rigmarole of actually talking to us. When I finally put words on the page, it was a minor act of rebellion. ?I don?t know what you expect me to say,? I wrote. ?I could tell you about my family and my friends and what I do on the weekends, but that won?t tell you anything about how I see the world or what I think it means.?
I tried to explain that it wasn?t that these things didn?t have a significance in my life; they just didn?t fit in the category of what I considered ?personal?, and regardless of what my teacher might have wanted, making those things the focus would be skirting the point. If my teacher had wanted a truly personal piece, I thought, she would ask me to write about the ripples I get up my spine when I hear a major-minor chord cadence, or the colour of C#, or why I read in the dark, or how and when I had my first orgasm, or what I think about on the train, or why I can stomach fingernails down a blackboard but the sound of hot water being poured makes me want to scream. But these subjects aren?t the expected focus of a Year 11 assessment task, nor are you supposed to conclude a VCE English essay with a triumphant ?So there.?
There?s this feeling I get when I?ve decided to break the rules a little. I?ve come to identify it as the intersection between frustration, fear, conviction and euphoria. The fear usually manifests itself after the fact: I had strong pangs of doubt after I submitted the aforementioned assignment. The wave of rebellion I rode the previous night in front of my computer seemed tacky in retrospect. I felt like I?d exposed too much of myself and that my arguments were ill-considered.
A couple of days later, as I was waiting for the final bell to ring, Mrs G pulled me aside with a pressed forehead and handed me my essay. There were no comments on it, no marks ? no teacher scribble of any kind. ?I read this last night,? she said. ?I don’t know what to say.?
My belly did a backflip.
?I was blown away. There?s nothing I would change in it. It?s wonderful.?
3. The political is personal.
The first writing prize I won came from a story that quite bluntly attacked the pro-life campaign, organised religion, traditional concepts of femininity and, depending on your interpretation, bordered on sympathising with infanticide. The fiction component of my Honours thesis nearly lost me a couple of friends, but won me a scholarship. The ?personal? essay wasn?t the first time I?d issued an open challenge to the reader, but it was the first time I can remember where the provoked reaction was solely one of praise. Since then, it seems that the times I?ve walked that line have been the times I?ve produced my best work.
But there is a danger to it. While I think that every piece of art should be considered in isolation from the artist, it is also true that every time I write, I write a piece of myself. My most successful work is also the work I have felt the closest to. As someone who intends to make a living out of the creative arts, I need to walk on edge of what is socially acceptable: to challenge what people think, to push the boundaries, to dive head-first into those grey areas and reflect them back in vivid colour. Those grey areas are parts of me, just as much as they are parts of everyone else. One of hardest things for me to confront lately is that at some point, I might push it too far. At some point it may be my turn to stand up and get thrown around by the storm.
I wonder what people will think of me then.