On art, the premier and RMIT TAFE

[A] a clearer, more transparent rendering of what demands to be revealed … involves increasing mastery of all the principles and skills inherent in the art form through which we seek expression. The commitment to such mastery distinguishes the artist from those who are content simply to express themselves.
— Dawn Langman, The Art of Acting

The words ‘art’ and ‘culture’ go together. Much historical account, the shaping of world views and socio/political ideology can be identified by a study of the history of art, and artists have long reflected not only the events of the world, but the questions, emotions and aspirations surrounding those events. Sometimes a celebration and sometimes a lament, warning or condemnation.

Artists are driven, and privileged (though sometimes in the face of great poverty) to concern themselves with thinking and feeling about the questions of their age (or ‘the ages’) and our shifting (or is it eternal?) relationship with the divine, the profane and the mundane, and of translating those thoughts and feelings into action, into events, into things – creations – with which the soul of any witnessing human being can resonate and conceivably find comfort, catharsis, awakening, provocation, solidarity, beauty and, perhaps, enlightenment.

Wealthy folk throughout history have understood the importance of art to culture, possibly because their privilege brings education which has, mostly, valued the arts as edifying for a healthy intellect and rounded sensibility, as an expression of ‘civilisation’ and sophistication. The secular and religious aristocracy have used patronage to influence culture, control the artists and align themselves with particular points of view.

On 28 September, I attended a prestigious awards dinner presenting Australian writers with cash prizes in recognition of the excellence of their writing and the contribution of their art to the culture of our continent (and presumably, the wider world). This particular patronage is the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, which was inaugurated by Premier John Cain in 1985. In 2012 it was presided over by Premier Ted Baillieu. Personally, I was honoured to attend, and thrilled to be chosen to review the excellent drama shortlist, won on the night by Lally Katz for her gothic masterpiece, The Golem.

However, it was not without misgivings that I attended an event presided over by the ‘economic vandal’, Baillieu. The last time I directly concerned myself with the doings of our elected premier was when I attended the Save our Tafe rally in Treasury Gardens. I may have concerns about the state of Victorian TAFE under this conservative government, but much more concerned are RMIT TAFE Professional Writing and Editing’s program manager, writer and teacher Clare Renner and editor extraordinaire, Penny Johnson, who were also there on the night to celebrate the achievements of Australian writers.

Writers and writing and their companion editorial expertise are what these hard working and talented women are about – and they’re not alone, with excellent colleagues in the professional writing and editing department at RMIT. They remain passionate about the development of Australian writing and the Australian literary scene. In response to a challenge to the course earlier this year, Renner wrote:

Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT is thriving and continuing to do what it does best – training writers and editors for a challenging and rapidly changing industry. Many of us working in education share … concerns regarding changes to government funding and the effect this has on access to education and training. The high standard of training provided is endorsed by the numbers of current students and graduates who work as freelance writers and editors, and who are employed, not only in the publishing industry, but across a range of organisations in both the government and private sectors.

Fees for TAFE students vary according to individual circumstance and students coming to study a Cert IV have to pay fees up front with no government loan scheme to help them. Enrolling in an Associate Degree, however, allows all students access to HECS.

I am one of those graduates, now working as a freelance editor and with a publishing contract for my debut novel in the works. It’s the training I received there that inspired me to apply for an internship at Overland and gave me the skills to become the anthology editor of Overland’s first short story collection, Women’s Work.

Perhaps this is a contentious standpoint, but I believe one can’t confer the organisational qualities, imagination, dedication and perseverance required to become ‘a writer’ or, for that matter, a good editor on someone for whom writing and/or editing is not a vocation. Being a great writer isn’t necessarily enough to get published and go on to sell your published work, just like every fast runner isn’t going to automatically become a competitive champion. Having said that, I believe that RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing teachers and fellow students encouraged and trained me to lift my writing and my writing practice to a more ‘professional’ standard; they made me aware of writing for the reader, helped me to understand the value of feedback (and of holding on to artistic vision in the face of a work’s many difficulties) and to come to grips with the demands of a competitive industry.

Becoming part of a literary community is an essential element in surviving (and thriving) as a writer and an editor. It not only generates work (sometimes) but keeps the heart alive, the spirit willing. Hearing the stories of those who have achieved professionalism in the industry is inspirational for those of us who are aspirational. I was inspired by the writers and editors I met through the course, and continue to call them friends and colleagues today. RMIT Professional Writing and Editing also allowed me to benefit from the vitality and generosity of teachers like Clare Renner, Penny Johnson, Sally Rippin, Olga Lorenzo and our national treasure, Ania Walwicz: and the inspiring editors and writers they brought into the students’ sphere – Jodie Webster (Allen & Unwin), Maryann Ballantyne (Black Dog/Walker), Aviva Tuffield (Scribe), Alison Arnold (Text) and writers Cath Crowley, Lili Wilkinson, Markus Zusak, Lee Fox, to name a few.

Despite the many difficulties they now face due to the short-sighted neoliberal classism of the Baillieu government’s TAFE cuts – and the previous Labor government’s ‘marketisation’ of TAFE and subsequent fee restructure – the staff at RMIT PWE remain dedicated to the quality of the course and to their students, and are more determined than ever to support and promote Australian writing and the importance of quality writing, editing and screenwriting to Australian culture.

RMIT Professional Writing and Editing evolved from community classes to a professional industry-based course of high standard and excellent reputation. TAFE meets a diverse range of needs in a multitude of industries, busy skilling Australia. If, as a wealthy patron, Premier Baillieu truly valued the ‘civilising’ effects of arts and culture, he would rethink the hobbling of RMIT PWE’s contribution to Melbourne’s literary scene, his slashing of arts funding more generally,åç and his withholding of grassroots TAFE education for so many – and in particular from the most vulnerable in society. His unconscionable investment in Victorian prisons indicates a much darker and fruitless vision.

Research shows education helps to reduce crime. Yet in Victoria, the TAFE system faces cuts of at least $300 million on the back of earlier cuts to the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning. Meanwhile the State is set to spend over $1 billion on prison expansion to cater for its harsher sentencing policies. We need to get our priorities right.
Michelle McDonnell, Smart Justice spokesperson

Join the Save our TAFE campaign and check out the TAFE4ALL site to keep abreast of pro-education actions.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

More by Clare Strahan ›

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