Letter from Lisbon


In Marseille my heart opened like a large red poppy and in Lisbon it's been slowly curling in on itself again. There have been many nourishing things about these past two weeks; rich conversations, new friendships, fado, writing. But each day, it feels, I wake up to something new and brutal, and wish I weren’t so far from home.

In the time I have been in Lisbon, an airport has been bombed, with my friends flying towards it, only hours from landing. I have watched a black American poet read from her epic poem, line after beautiful line about hip hop and God, her voice steady but her hand trembling a little as news of two murdered black men took social media by the throat. Another writer blanched when she heard about Nice, and for a short while she couldn’t get on to her sister; in her reading she magically suspended time, but she had nothing on the weight of hours until her phone call was answered.

On some days it feels facile to write and craven not to write. I think that’s what it boils down to, when the wider world is feeling devastating beyond reason. I am lucky to be here with writers who can tell it better than me:

I want children, children stronger than me. I’m afraid we’re all too weak. [...] I want Massachusetts and the woman I love. I want my family everywhere. I want to know when I’m going crazy, like now, right now. I want to feel the world and all its twisted girth, its knotted and strained heart.

I want Canberra and the man that I love and the child who make my arms feel so empty when I am away. I want my arms to be full again, and my mind to not be seized so equally with beauty and pleasure and horror. I think in part it's just that I am lonely to be held. The work of taking care of my brain is starting to become more noticeable. I feel like, in writing this book, these things in the past, I can sometimes kid myself about an invisible footnote reading and they all lived happily every after. But I need to check that the stove is really off, even if I haven't been using the stove.  

Today I went down to the ocean and stuck my feet in the Atlantic until they were numb, and that worked for a while. I tucked the hem of my skirt into my knickers like I was a child, and let the green water drag sand out from beneath my feet and take it back out somewhere else. I love that feeling of being two places at once, in the ocean and on the shore, and I would love to take my tired body home and take with me the entire ocean and the hills and the churches and the miradouros and the pateis de nata. At least, though, I think, when my plane takes off tomorrow, it will be good to be part of the sky.


Radiant City

In Marseille I took a day off from running around visiting sites and interviewing people, and spent an afternoon at Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse, a structure I fell in love with almost immediately. Built between 1947 and 1952, it is arguably the birthplace of Brutalism, and beautiful and welcoming in that uniquely Corbusier way.

The museum on the roof, MaMo, was closed for installation of a new show, so I just wandered, bumping into a couple of other stragglers, as waiters set up for a wedding reception and a couple of painters refreshed the designs on the side of a ventilation stack. Marseille lay spread below, with the mountains to one side and the ocean to another.


It wasn't just the building. "You either love Marseille or you hate it," one of my interviewees told me, and I felt at home here immediately. I can imagine myself living in this city, and one day I hope to. For one thing, I suddenly shed my self-consciousness over how imperfect my French is, gasbagging in French and English with a couple of artists at a gallery opening. Later we went dancing, and walking through Le Panier. I wore my shoes out walking all over the city. There is something so alluringly physical about the place; its narrow lanes, its high buildings, the scouring wind off the ocean, the baking sun. It is a city you can walk from one end of to another. One day soon I will learn to drive, but it was so good to be somewhere that I absolutely didn't have to. 

I had fantasies of somehow picking Mike and Owen up and bringing them to me, whisking them over the ocean. After the push-pull of my anxiety in Greece, it has been easy, easier than I thought; Owen blurted out "I love you, Mummy!" the first time he saw me on the phone, but since then he's become increasingly less interested, giving me a kiss and a wave before going on with whatever game he was already playing. It is clear that he has adjusted to my being away, and so I have let myself give in to daydreams of his adjusting to something bigger, life in a French schoolyard, a small apartment in a city where the sun shines 300 days a year.

That is the danger of travelling, I suppose. That you might find something utterly perfect somewhere unexpected. It makes the returning harder, but at the very least I am trying to console myself with the beauty of La Cité Radieuse as a defence against living somewhere that was also meticulously planned.


In Athens

This afternoon I woke from the longest sleep I’ve had in years, and looked out onto mountains that are cliff-faced and chalkily white. For the past few days I’ve been in transit; now I am in Athens, at the beginning of a six-week jaunt across Europe, making my way west through Budapest and Marseille on the way to the Disquiet Program in Lisbon.

Six weeks: that’s how long I told Owen that I would be gone, trying to gently habituate him to the idea of my absence. It didn't take, though. Up until Mike carried him away crying at the airport, he was trying to negotiate.

“I’m going to be away for six weeks, darling, and you can put a sticker on the calendar you made for every day that I am gone.”

“One minute.”

“No, darling. Six weeks.”

“Okay, six minutes.”

“Weeks, honey, not minutes.”

“How about… six days?”

When my flight was called he picked up his few possessions, confidently, said goodbye to Mike, and took my hand. When the truth finally sank in—that he and Mike would be going home together, that I would be leaving him behind—his little face crumpled, and guilt stabbed me deep in the guts. Not the usual mother-guilt, the deep-seated kind.

After all, I do not need to go right now. When Mike left for long stretches last year, it was a matter of necessity, and that is how we got through it. During those stretches, when I myself felt stretched out and stretched thin, overwhelmed at the task of being functionally a single parent, this is the thing I used to fantasise about—a hot country where I could move freely, unencumbered by pusher and nappy bag and child, going wherever my feet would carry me. When a grant came up I put my name in, never expecting to get it. And then I got it. And then I really had to go.

Checking Facebook during my stopover in Dubai, my feed was lit up with Fiona Wrights latest, ‘A World of Bald White Days’. I put aside The Hothouse By The East River, which was already making me cry, because I will read anything Fiona writes. I feel in a way as though she is a literary big sister, or fairy godmother, presaging my book with her book. She was also one of the first people to know of Owen’s impending existence, entirely by accident, when we pulled aside our friends at their wedding to tell them and Fiona came too, face radiant with happiness, expecting to take part in more congratulations and love. That moment feels telescoped with this moment, in a way that she writes about so beautifully; like her friend Lucy, I have lost my grip on time.

I was lucky to never have it so bad that I lost years, and I never had to resort to electroshock, either, but there are chunks of my life, particularly around Owen’s infancy, that are simply missing. I can call up the physical sensations of this time precisely, but the actual events and conversations that made it up are mostly gone. And they are not gone in a way that makes me feel their absence, but just not there; as though a record has skipped smoothly enough to make sense of the missing grooves.

My memory is shot as though instead of being depressed, I spent Owen’s early years in a bout of hard drinking. It has made the work of reconstructing these years for the book difficult. I try to hold the threads of things together, but I am no longer good at chronological time; cause and effect, illness and recovery, everything seems jumbled in a perpetual, continuous mash. Writing the essays for this book has been an ongoing exercise in trying to excavate the things that, even after intensive therapy and the right medication, my mind still believes should be jumbled and told in code. I'm in the reworking phase now, carrying my manuscript with my in my suitcase, putting little red interrogation marks next to things that could be construed as facts. I am acting as though somehow physical distance will give me critical distance.

When I fantasised about coming to Europe, that of course was the endpoint of the fantasy. Just an escape; just a daydream about a place where I was no longer a mother or bonded to the chores of motherhood. When Fiona mentions the metaphor of the fig tree, that is a metaphor for the childless woman only. When there is a child cradled in the fork of the tree, you cannot reach for any particular fruit without limiting your armspan, or you risk being split in two. The truth is I will never ‘just’ be myself again, and I am learning to sit with that and accept it and move with it in the same way as I have learned to live with and sit with the various symptoms that still rise up and snake me around the throat.

Mike rang this morning, waking me up, and I talked to him and Owen for a while before I fell asleep again. Owen was in a good mood; he has learned to bounce back quickly, he is breathtakingly resilient. The fact that he has become so through necessity will always cause me grief. I think what got me the most, sitting in the airport, was this: that I have lost so much time with him already, that the things Fiona writes about as meaningful, moving moments in Lucy's life--her pregnancy, her child's infancy--that many of these things for me are ghosted over. And that is the source of my guilt, I think; that for so much of Owen's early life I wasn't present, and now that I am, I have vanished, to pretend to be myself only, autonomous, to work on my book, to write travel stories, to pursue the things that I might have felt defined me before he came along.

A child's concept of time is pretty elastic--ten minutes, six weeks--all of it is pretty much of a piece. The things I fantasied about--bodily independence, creative freedom, professional development--are important, and I don't plan to fritter them away, now that I have them and have worked so hard to retain them, in missing him desperately. But sitting in the airport I felt a sadness for the things I can't remember, and that was unexpected. And I don't know if there is any amount of time that will shake that sadness away.

From a great height

Since moving from Melbourne to Canberra, one of the things I've missed the most has been the quiet, ongoing kindness and support of a physically present writing community. Yesterday I was taken aback, and frankly baffled, to see many in this community assassinated in character (I think) in Luke Carman's essay for Meanjin, 'Getting Square in a Jerking Circle'. I say 'I think' because this 10-page screed is so shrouded in coyness and obtuse language that I can only guess, not know, that it was they that Carmen was talking about.

The essay purports to give an 'insider's view' of an industry in crisis; in it, Carman goes in on the unnamed shadow figures that prop up Melbourne's arts infrastructure, arguing that most if not all of these are power-hungry 'anti-artists', failed writers or no writers at all, looking for power in their own dissemination of opinion and critique. He also takes a swing at universities - "Much of the blame for creating the chasm in our culture from which these deluded demi-gods of arts management must have arisen must lie within our universities," - and perpetuates the myth of the creative writing course as predatory, which I have already rebutted, in a cranky mood, here.

I won't recapitulate Carman's arguments, because frankly I don't understand them. The essay seems to be a veiled hit piece aimed at two or three particular people in the Melbourne arts administration ecosystem, dragging in everyone around them as a class, but names are never broached. I do think he feints at one in particular; if I am correct, Carmen's dig at arts admins for allegedly performing and exploiting mental illness is breathtakingly callous, and utterly gratuitous to any argument he might otherwise be making. 

This is an industry in crisis not because of the presence of one or two 'anti-artist' dickheads, but because it is highly-skilled, underpaid, and utterly fucked by federal and politics; it requires incessant unpaid overtime, fluctuating contact hours, and periods of intense stress. It is also an industry in which mental health, and access to adequate healthcare, are pressing concerns. We lost someone important last year; it's not hypothetical. Becoming more open about and inclusive of mental health issues is not an indulgence, but a necessity. 

Likewise - and it may not be evident to Carman, who can publish a book with 'Man' in the title and not worry about where it will be shelved - arts administration is predominantly women's work. Like teaching and nursing, it is 'support' work in which an enormous amount of emotional labour is required, unremunerated, and mostly taken for granted. The work of these women is largely invisible; it is often the grant-writing that writers don't know how to do, the advocacy they cannot engage in singly, the access issues resolved. This liaison work is crucial to the existence of writers as a professional class, and we could not function without it. Our utter dependence on them risks burning them out completely.

I'm sure in the next few days a number of pieces will come out defending Carmen's piece as a 'necessary provocation' - but from where I sit, it looks a lot like pissing on women and the mentally ill from a great height. If Carman had actually named names - if he were able to point to issues that were structurally wrong, or identify actors who were genuinely going against writers' best interests, or provide evidence of any of the issues he alludes to - I would have some respect for the decision to publish this. As it is, I have no time for someone who gestures towards the presence of a boil, but lacks the integrity or guts to name and lance it.

In the midst of his kvetching, Carmen makes mention of the publication of Ivor Indyk's article in the Sydney Review of Books exoriating the middlebrow, and its ongoing critiques and correspondences; Indyk is Carman's publisher, by the way. It's hard not to be cynical and suggest that Carmen is trying to place himself at the centre of a similar storm in a teapot. I know that I am being drawn into such a storm, but I hate to think of the women I know who work themselves to the bone, for and on behalf of other people, being accused of power-mongering when their work is most often completely unrecognised. 

As for the complaint that arts admins are failed or errant artists, I can only think of the Tuesday morning writing group that met before work at the Wheeler, where the self-same admins took the time to support and critique each other's creative work so that it would not be neglected in the face of their enormous workloads. The participants of this group, again, were mostly women, and they had grown adept at balancing their necessary creative openness and vulnerability with the hardheadedness needed for their work. Because of this skill, I know that most of them can roll with the punches. But they shouldn't have to, and they deserve a lot better than to be made collateral damage in the service of someone else's shadowboxing. 


A Monkey Year

I was trying to get a shot of these two gorgeous kids clowning around on the steps of the National Library of Australia when a small shape detached itself from Mike's leg, and hurtled towards me shrieking. "Watch out! Watch out, Mummy!" it sobbed, and so began my Year of the Monkey, with a terrified child trying to protect me from lion-shaped dangers.

We've been in Canberra for two months now, enough time to have dug in a herb garden and made plans for some container vegetable plots. Now that the rain has come down solidly for a week, the streets are green and quiet, not arid and dry and dusty as when we arrived here. Mike goes to work in the morning, Owen goes to daycare, and I tidy the kitchen and then get to work on the book.

I think I believed, when I set up this blog, that it would instill a discipline in me, and force me to work in the face of a crushing lack of creativity. The timestamp on this post and others should point to the failure there. Recently, though, my lack of engagement here has been because I've been writing like a fury; working on a series of essays that will hopefully come together to describe, loosely, my life over the past three years. It's exciting to have a deadline and a rationale for my daily life, given how disorienting the move has been. And, though tricky, lovely in a way to mine something from days that I felt wasted at the time.

The creative work is a blessing, and also a shield against loneliness. Our life here is very quiet, in a way that I am still adjusting to. We live in an old Navy house in one of the leafier suburbs, with a mountain on one side and a small set of shops on the other. Mike runs on the mountain and flocks of galahs streak out in the face of small mobs of Eastern Grey kangaroos. Used to living squashed up against the thick of it, I find the stillness of the suburb at night both soothing and a little eerie.

Today I did and do feel homesick, and I doubt that there will be a New Year in Canberra where I don't long for the streets of Footscray. I think of the pots of marigolds that must be dotting shop doorways, and the lucky bamboos sold cheap at the odds-and-ends stores. I miss the noise and the colour and the feeling of being pressed between a thousand resolutions. But it's comforting to know that wherever we are, the same patterns of the year will play out, unspooling goats into monkeys into roosters into dogs. And hopefully next time the lion won't cause so many tears.

Concerning the Book Council of Australia

George Brandis Botticelli

Things move slowly, and then everything happens in a rush. In December, the newly-formed Book Council of Australia was announced; last Thursday, a group of respected literary organisations published an open letter, concerned to have heard no movement from the BCA since its inception. In the time since, Louise Adler published an op-ed advocating Australian literature; Adler was named as inaugural Chair of the BCA; and the BCA's guidelines were released, a scant two pages long and attached to a list of consulting bodies who would inform the BCA's direction.

To anyone outside the industry, the week's events must have seemed to have unfolded with lightening speed. But to writers, as well as small-to-medium literary organisations, arts administrators, translators, etc., the BCA's rapid self-determination as an advisory body to the government is not just dismaying—although it is incredibly dismaying. It is part of a clear pattern this past year of Literature, as a category, being carefully filleted from any funding opportunity that would allow its long-term survival.

The revelation of the terms of reference for the BCA has come at a time of anxiety and uncertainty for most of our writing bodies, with $110 million this year hijacked from the Australia Council for the Arts, our arms-length, peer-reviewed funding body, to fund George Brandis' new initiative, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts. The 28 major performing arts organisations were quarantined from these cuts; Literature was offered no such protection. And there is no compensation to be found in the NPEA; individuals will not be funded, which means no writing grants, and no sustained investment in the creation of new literary work. (Stuart Glover, writing in July, provides an excellent overview of why this reallocation of funds is disastrous for those in the industry.)

I have written a bit recently about some of the hardships in my writing life. They are personal, but there are many issues that are structural. Support for writers used to come in the form of publishing advances, but these have capitulated to downward pressure as the industry struggles to find its feet in a rapidly changing media landscape. A writer would be lucky to earn $10-25k to support themselves throughout the writing of a book; many authors settle for much less, sometimes nothing, in the hope of garnering royalties through sales. More and more, emerging writers are turning to publication in Australia's brilliant literary journals—The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging etc.—as de facto showcases, hoping to be noticed by increasingly constrained major publishers. These literary journals, too, are now out in the funding cold.

I have never been the recipient of a grant for my writing, which I don't attribute to the quality of my grant-writing skills—having successfully secured grants for multiple not-for-profits—or to the quality of my work. Competition for grant funding is extraordinarily fierce in Australia, with virtually all writers struggling to earn a living wage through their work. Reducing the funding available will either cause a feeding frenzy or induce emerging writers to just give up, justified in the assumption that it is only more established, later-career writers—a safe investment, in funding terms—who will be successful in these rounds.

It is also dismaying to see how little outreach has been undertaken by the BCA, evident in its list of consulting partners. The inclusion of SPN is a step in the right direction, but SPN, like so many, is severely under-resourced; it has only two part-time staff members, representing over 100 constituent members. The ASA has been bold in expressing its concerns, and I am heartened by its advocacy; but the ASA is also culpable of publishing a rate sheet that few in the industry have ever complied with, perhaps providing a rose-tinted view of what writers' lives actually look like.

Beyond the fact that writers will not be directly supported by the BCA, the make-up of its consulting panel is also cause for concern. The organisations involved are respected and worthy of inclusion, but they could also have been scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin five minutes after that first meeting in December. Where is the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, or indeed, a representative of any of the approximately 250 Indigenous dialects currently spoken? Where is the representation for disabled or non-neurotypical writers; writers of colour; writers whose first language is other than English, or the young or disadvantaged or experimental? It is a remarkably staid collection of voices, one that does not represent Australian letters in their diverse and exciting entirety.

The word 'Australian' seems to have been part of the selection critieria; so why not, for example, Australian Poetry? I admit that I am partisan—I worked at Australian Poetry for eighteen months until my health took a tumble. In that time I saw the organisation not only publish the excellent Australian Poetry Journal, but send Indigenous and non-Indigenous poets to a remote community near Lake Tyers; sponsor writing workshops in South Australia for the teenage carers of ill parents; and embed two poets in the most multilingual primary school in Victoria for a full semester, working on themes of identity. None of these activity would fall under the purview of a Book Council, but they get at the living, breathing heart of what we use writing and language for, in all its wondrous, expansive, and therapeutic glory.

It is this type of activity that has been gutted by the cuts to the Australia Council, and this kind of writing that will not survive the NPEA. It is hard to imagine Melbourne's UNESCO City of Literature status existing past the desertion of resident organisations from the Wheeler Centre, but I imagine that those resident organisations are nearly all on the back foot at the moment, scrabbling to secure funding as the six-year grant round was suspended, then reintroduced in much-reduced form. These organisations and others in the small-to-medium category hit well above their weight, providing much-needed space for emerging and disadvantaged writers to hone their craft and access to the mentorships and guidance they may need to break into the industry.

Instead, the BCA purports to spend its $6m—and it is still unknown whether this money is already within Brandis' ministry, or if it will be provided from elsewhere to be used at the BCA's discretion—on fostering a reading culture withing Australia. This is wonderful, except this reading culture already exists. In the recent 'Arts in Daily Life: Australian Participation in the Arts' report, Australia Council discovered that 87% of Australians read Literature regularly, with 26% reading poetry and 16% engaging in creative writing pursuits. This is not an issue that needs a task force.

What is most disappointing is that the BCA could have been genuinely exciting, an agent for advocacy and for change. Emmet Stinson, writer and former head of SPN, wrote on Facebook: "As someone who was at the early, informal BCA meetings, my frustration is that this version of the BCA is not what we discussed at all. The BCA was meant to be a whole-of-industry independent body similar in nature to the Children's Book Council of Australia; there was never a discussion of it advising the ministry or taking Australia Council funding, and I suspect very few of those involved would have signed off on that (as David Day and others have already stated). Frankly, I think the whole committee should resign in protest."

Whether that last step is taken up or not, it seems obvious that Louise Adler, respected as she is in the Australian literary community, should not be Chair: MUP's political memoir list is stellar, but compromises her as a disinterested party. At the National Writers Congress yesterday, George Brandis took the floor, holding forth about politicians who wrote. But I feel as though it goes without saying; politicking should be explicitly separate from the creation of publicly-funded art. The results are not only a kind of totalitarianism, but totally sycophantic—and therefore, worthless.

Louise Adler, in her Sydney Morning Herald op-ed, advocated a distinctly Australian writing. I am sympathetic; this is what I most wish to produce. I am lucky, at the age of 28, to finally be in a position to settle down and write a book, lucky because this endeavour is subsidised by a loving husband who is able to support me for the period of my book's creation. Few are in my position, nor should they need to be, which is why I am writing this: as a plea to the BCA to reconsider its stance against individual writer's grants; to broaden its inclusivity, so that those of us having trouble may feel that we're in with a shot; to listen to a much broader range of voices than it currently does, and to take stock of the industry as a whole, devastated as it is, and examine what a 'book' is when so many words are living, spoken, technology-based, etc.

What I would like to see is a BCA that considers the quality of literature first, the form second; a Council that is genuinely engaged in nourishing Australia's writers, so that they don't, as is so tempting, go and live in Berlin for a year where the cost of living is low; so that they don't give up before their first manuscript is complete; so that they don't feel fleeced by possessing an abiding interest in the beauty and variability of existence. I almost want to laugh, because I just wrote about not wanting to be an activist; not wanting to need to advocate. But this is just ridiculous, and I will happily say so because, as a writer, having so little, I have virtually nothing to lose. I hope George Brandis considers the irony next time he buys a $134,200 paperweight.

Image courtesy of the George Brandis Live Art Experience.

Life and work: slow growth in every direction

Flowers 'foraged' from St Kilda's backstreets: RUOK, 2010, Rose Nolan, edition 314/1000.

Today is #RUOK day, a day that I—and many people I know—have complex feelings about. To be able to answer the question, "Are you okay?" one must first be able to answer the question, "Are you?" and for a long time—not least, but especially directly following Owen's birth—I have found it very difficult to answer, directly and coherently, "I am".

I have written about my depression before, tangentially, but am writing about it properly at the moment, honestly and at length. Little seeds of a book that have been sown over the last few years are growing into a collection of essays, each touching on an object or totem—a bowl of soup, a movie, a song—that helped in my recovery from postpartum depression. I've recently signed with Grace Heifetz at Curtis Brown, which is exciting, and have my nose to the grindstone trying to put enough together to start shopping the proposal out.

Most amazingly, I am enjoying writing again. After Owen's birth, my relationship with language really devolved, and it feels like a minor miracle that three short years later words are coming together again, that there is joy in this, that I am stumbling over little revelations and able to pursue research again, if not nimbly then at least doggedly. It feels like a small Spring in my brain, and I can understand how one could easily become religious in a country where the coming of Spring coincided with the birth of a saviour.

Of course, it is still not easy. Each writing day starts with a spike of nausea and anxiety when Owen realises that I am taking him to daycare, away from me, and the tears and tantrums begin. He loves daycare. But five months of separation from his father earlier in the year have given him a deep fear of departure, and my heart rate only slows when we get to care and he runs off happily, leaving me on his own terms, and leaving my body a wreck. It takes a full hour for my somatic system to calm down on these days. I picked a bunch of flowers on the walk home today, trying to hold my heart steady, trying to calm my breathing and not let his anxiety spiral me off into my own.

It can be lonely, too. Melbourne has a robust literary community but I have often felt myself standing outside of it, too tired for book launches, too tied down to family, too broke to pay for tickets to a festival event and the babysitter I would need to be able to attend it. I applied to be part of a conference the other day, and the convener couldn't tell me whether there would be childcare on site, despite an expected two hundred people in attendance. Childcare is the bane of my life, and alongside therapy, the only thing holding me to any ability to actually write.

It's why I feel so tired, on a day like today, when we pretend that checking in on a friend, one day a year, can make the kind of difference that is needed. I am mostly okay. Thanks for asking. Here is a list of things that I want:

I want a dedicated mental health hospital in every state, with roaming rural units picking up the slack. I want a depression or postpartum psychosis bed in every maternity ward. I want to not pay $220 per session with my psychologist because my Medicare rebates have run out. I want a fully funded CAT team; in-home care; for my husband to have many more compassionate leave days in his contract that currently he has. I want for my child always to feel safe and secure in my presence. I want to be treated like this disease could kill me, because at times in my life, I have truly wanted it to.

I want to put this all down so that somebody else can pick it up, and I can go back to the small scope of my small life without guilt.

As a writer, as a writer with seriously impaired mental health, I often feel as though I should be more strident, more visible, a serious advocate for myself and others. But the truth is I don't want to write petitions or call my government leaders; I am not an activist, not in that way. I have to hope that my writing will be enough, and that I can turn from quiet advocacy towards the things that I want to write about without feeling as though I am abandoning my community, or a part of myself. I know that it is up to me to raise my voice but Christ, I wish I didn't have to.

Today the spring breeze wafts through my apartment, alongside the sound of construction from next door, and my child is in care and happy and safe and I am happy and safe and able to write and all of these things are good things. I am okay enough to work towards being better, and there is slow growth in every direction. And I school myself not to sprint, lest I fall on my silly face, but to keep pace with my blossoming, beautiful child.

Extraordinary Routines x DWF

As part of this year's Digital Writers' Festival, I'm taking part in a project run by Madeleine Dore of Extraordinary Routines in which twelve writers share their daily routine on Instagram, one a day over the duration of the festival. It's a really lovely project to have been asked to take part in, and one that has kickstarted parts of my brain in which ideas around representation and the self, photography, secondary artistic pratices and microblogging have been swimming around sluggishly for some time now.

The hardest part of the project turned out to be sitting on my hands - sending eight or nine photographs to Madeleine and then doing nothing about it. Back when you could still smoke in bars, I used to joke about taking up knitting, which people did for a while, to be hip; I envied the smokers their occupation, the gestural qualities of their waiting time which, instead of being physically dead, was made vivid by the gusts and curls of smoke and the constant movement of hand to mouth.

It surprised me to find an analogue in the way I often jitterishly play with the sliding controls for Instagram's light, shadow, saturation; in the way I take and retake images, export to third-party apps, crop, bleach, correct and style. Even though these little gestures are swift, only every taking up a few moments of the day, they are often sometimes the most physically satisfying of the day.

It was also strange to construct - God forbid 'curate' - an 'average' day from a half-dozen glimpses. Preparing work for a platform as attuned to spontaneity as Instagram felt counterintuitive and strangely dishonest. The cumulation of little square tiles on my profile page tells the story of my day, my many days, better than something I've had to think about - no matter how banal the images or cliched, they tell something true to the moment.

In the end I got out my proper camera and shot things digitally. No filters, no twiddling - although inevitably I found myself moving ratty bits of paper out of the way, wiping surfaces, arranging flowers, making my surroundings a little nicer to conform to dominant aesthetic paradigm of dreaminess and ease. It's funny how tropes get under your skin. Anyway I think there's an essay stirring here somewhere; in the meantime, here's my day on a plate, as sent to Madeleine.

01 / WAKE

My son wakes me up somewhere between 5.30am and 6am. Depending on how I’ve slept, I either jump up and make him breakfast, or pull him into bed with me and stick an episode of Play School on iView – usually the latter. I use my waking-up time to check social media and skim any emails that have come in overnight.

02 / READ

The café across the road from O’s daycare has a good soy latte and a decent range of local and Scandinavian indie mags. Even though I haven’t worked in magazines for a few years, I still like to see what various editors are doing, and make note of any writers I might like to commission down the track. I have a little notebook in which I scrawl down essay ideas and notes, but contact details are too important for my handwriting – they go straight into the phone.

03 / WORK

I try to balance commercial work (feature articles, shorts, manuscript assessment, copy editing etc.) with my own writing, which at the moment is a series of linked essays about totemic objects. Nothing Instagrammable happens for the next 4-6 hours. 

04 / WALK

Our apartment can only hold so many green things, so every day I try to go for a decent ramble, either to the local park or up to Rippon Lea or the St Kilda Botanical Gardens. I love the greenhouse at the Gardens – it’s a calm, steamy, meditative place to sit and slowly unfurl.


Okay, parenting is really interspersed throughout everything – on O’s non-daycare days, I often sneakily write emails on my phone or race through assignments while he sits in a cardboard box and pretends it’s a boat. Little intervals of time to work can be incredibly precious. But this time is good too – the post-daycare crazy whirl of overtired little boy. My husband is away at the moment, so after dinner and a romp and a bath, we snuggle in and I play him one of the videos we’ve made of Mike reading bedtime stories. I feel very blessed by technology sometimes – and O doesn’t question it. He thinks his LA grandparents live inside the iPad.

06 / EAT

Dinner for one is more or less always tofu and Chinese broccoli. Over dinner I comfort read. Tonight it’s Rumer Godden’s ‘A Candle for St Jude’, one of her perfect little ballet books.

07 / WEAVE

I took a weaving class as part of a story I wrote on the resurgence of craft tapestry, and I really enjoy it. Partly it’s the instant gratification; I can work for days on a non-commercial piece of writing and get absolutely nowhere, whereas tabby weave just appears beneath your fingers.  You don’t always know what you’re getting, though. I wove this thinking of the soft dusty greens and silvers of the bush, but taking a step back, I think I have made camouflage.


If I’ve already finished my dinner book, I usually read a few verses of poetry before going to bed. A beloved teacher gave me ‘Four Quartets’ when I was thirteen, and in the time since, I have always found something new and beautiful within them. Tonight it’s East Coker: ‘Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires / old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth / which is already flesh, fur and faeces / bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.’ What more could you ever, ever want?

Love, work, and conflict: thoughts on the Thiel Grant for Online Writing


There are things I do for love, and things I do for money.

Here are some of the things I do for love: cook, sketch, read stories to my child, change his nappy, bathe him, feed him, dance, weave, be constantly interrupted, write.

Here are some of the things I do for money: edit, publish, proofread, write.

Where there's an overlap is where things become tricky. A few days ago I clicked on the link for a new writing initiative - the Thiel Grant for Online Writing. Within a few seconds I had closed the window, disheartened. While one of my goals for the upcoming year has been to get back to writing for love, my small world at the moment is circumscribed by work; and it was clear that the Thiel Grant would not work for me.

Details on the grant page were, and at the time of writing, are, scanty. The main criteria seemed to be that for a stipend of $5000, writers would commit to the creation of 50 posts 'on an agreed concept' over twelve months. The posts would be written on the applicants own blog, "free from editorial intervention" (as Thiel put it later, on Facebook), and without the aid of marketing or publishing support. Each post must include a footer that reads, "this post was supported by a Thiel Grant for Online Writing."

Seven or eight years ago, when I was finding my feet as a writer, I may have jumped at this chance. Blogs were still an emerging platform then, and the idea of being paid for blogging would have been dazzling.

Back then, it wouldn't have bothered me that a private individual was effectively hiring me to write 50 sponsored blog posts for a rate of $100 each, without any editorial or publishing support. Money was very scant - rent, bills and food were all covered, but barely. I was studying, and writing a blog anyway. What harm could it do?

These days money is still tight, but I'm warier. After the birth of my son, my husband and I went into debt as he tried to juggle his Masters with part-time work and I struggled with postpartum depression. It took a long time to come out of that illness, an illness that I am still not fully recovered from, and which ate viciously into my earning ability. The kind of rapid, generative ability I had at nineteen, and twenty, is gone.

Having clawed out of debt, writing is now a zero-sum equation. To find the time to write, I need to put my child in care: simply put, the sum I am earning must outweigh the cost of making work. If it doesn't, I simply cannot work.

It has been beyond frustrating in conversations about this grant to see major industry figures characterise concerns that the pay per post is too low as 'elitism' or 'ego'. I do not think that I am worth more than the writers who may jump at this opportunity, or that I should be paid more than them due to the quality of my prose or my past experience (or whatever). What I am saying is that as I writer, I could not afford to win this grant - and that's a position many writers, particularly women, may find themselves in.

It's exhausting and heartbreaking to live with a chronic illness, or to be a primary carer, to have a sick relative, to work multiple jobs, to juggle work with study, or any of the other factors that make our lives as writers difficult. And yet we write, because we love it - it keeps us going, and it keeps us alive.

But our love of writing shouldn't be reason enough to apply for 'opportunities' that pay less than content-mill rates, and that bind us into working conditions that for many are simply unfeasible.

Many writers have asked Thiel if he will consider any flexibility in the post count; this amount of money could support one amazing net-based work, such as Oscar Schwartz's 'Bot or Not', or five or ten richer or deeper inventive online explorations. He remains firm that 50 posts should be the outcome.

I love to write. I write for work. And sometimes there is overlap; the volunteering with organisations I do, my past time on boards, the extra hours I have put into running literary journals or organising conferences, often for very low fees. I do this because I can write off my time on 'love jobs' - because volunteering for something is a decision I make. When somebody else offers me money and sets the terms, that's work.

I have argued, vehemently, in groups like Pay the Writers, that a grant that offers $100 per post is no prize to win. It undercuts the market, acting less like a stipend than a series of commissioned works at significantly less than MEAA or ASA rates, which, while aspirational, should be met in grants and prizes; it offers opportunity only to those who are desperate enough or driven enough to be making this opportunity for themselves already. I worry that love of writing, for many, may override horse sense; God knows that for me, in the past, it would have.

And what really breaks my heart is that so much good could come out of this. $5000, allocated across a smaller amount of posts or one flexible, innovative project, could support 'inventive' writing in a way that adequately values the writer's time, skill, and professionalism. It would be an inclusive gesture for those who for financial reasons cannot bring themselves to work their guts out on a shoestring.

To give your own money, as Thiel has done, to support the arts, is wonderfully generous and should be applauded. But that shouldn't exempt the conditions of such a gesture from the same sort of scrutiny we would give any grant or prize, and I don't believe this one stands up in its current iteration.

In a blog post purporting to respond to writers' concerns, Thiel reiterated the outlines of the grant, and compared his gesture to a very old school of artistic support. "I [will] be the virtual equivalent of a kneeling donor in a Renaissance painting," he wrote. But patronage can be a straitjacket, and writers do not benefit from a patron, kneeling or not, who closes his ears to the realities of their lives.