‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’
Looking inwards is inevitable, natural, expected, required for a writer – writing being an essentially meditative activity. But prolonged navel-gazing is a selfish waste of time if it doesn’t translate into actions that make the world a better place. However, that says more about what I value and the standards I set for myself than it does about how I expect the rest of the world to behave.
Sometimes I feel like art is standing on the in-between: realism / idealism. Reality / imagination. Tradition / experimentation. Art can make the world a better place simply by being beautiful, but I’d like at least some of that beauty to be accompanied by meaning.
I am in my third year of a PhD in Creative Writing by research at Monash University. I’m not in an academic institution because I thought having a PhD would make me better qualified to write fiction; I’m in one because I knew when I decided I wanted to write that new writers, young writers, ‘emerging’ writers, make very little money from their work. I am on an Australian Postgraduate Award, a living allowance paid in fortnightly instalments. I am effectively getting a salary from the Federal Government to write my first novel, even if in the end nobody wants to turn it into a commercial product – copy it, mass-produce it, sell it, profit financially from it. Even if nobody wants to read it.
I’d like both of those things to happen because I feel like I have important things to say, but there’s no guarantee of anything post-doctorate except the opportunity to wear a stupid hat and a gown for 15 seconds on a stage. But the institution, the scholarship and the degree itself are tools at my disposal. I can eat and pay rent, and I do my best to make what’s available work for me as I attempt to juggle the practicalities of living in this society while trying to critique it, change it, make it better – however clumsily.
That’s not to say that it isn’t a fight. I am frustrated by what I see as the dampening and anaesthetising of crackling-new ideas, energy and enthusiasm for change by bureaucracy and over-administration driven by concerns of money and power. I am angry that people’s lives are dismissed so easily in favour of trivialities.
Last night I dreamt of an apocalyptic tempest, rust-red storm clouds snaking down from the sky, sending feelers across the earth towards a bellowing ocean. We were stuck in a cage, halfway up a tower at the mouth of a river, surrounded by a raging torrent. The only way out, you said, was to jump in.
I had students for a while. I told them that their fiction ought to change the reader in some way. A shift in mood. An altered perspective. A better understanding. A different understanding. Growth. I told them that fiction should be transformative, because that’s what I believe.
I told them I wanted them to put feelers out into the world and let them snag the rough spots and the corners and the cracks and the sharp edges, because I think if you’re serious about fiction you have to be serious about living, and if you’re serious about living then you pay attention to the world and what’s going on in it. That means paying attention to politics – politics as your own understanding of the world manifests itself in morals and agendas, but also politics as the systems of negotiation and argument that result in changes to the social fabric.
But that doesn’t mean politics are the point of fiction. The point is, surely, to make life richer – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically – for as many people as possible. Isn’t it?