On writing and social justice: a reflection

I used to dream of being a professional writer. Now I know writing alone has never been enough. Like all writers I use my life experiences and explorations as the wellspring of colour, vision, vigour, the force behind the words I put together on the page.  My life experience has been characterised by a working life.  To not work has always been for me, unacceptable.  More accurately, being connected to the proletariat is in my blood, and this is what I mean when I use the term ‘work’.  I am not saying for one instant that writing itself isn’t work, or isn’t a noble profession.  In human history, writers have been at the forefront of change, innovation, creation, sacrifice, and their importance cannot be underestimated.

But when compared with the worry-injected responsibility of supporting families, children falling apart, and babies whose mums are babies themselves, (the welfare world), there is a therapy, and a different kind of joy and hum in writing, a stronger sense of satisfaction in creation.

My writing and my social work inform each other.  I don’t endure writer’s block.  This is a bourgeois problem.  I would be ashamed of myself if I ever woke up one day feeling like there was nothing worth writing about.  I use the creative process too often and value it too much for this to happen.

My working life informs my elocution, my advocacy, my instincts, my writing. It is a performance of English to articulate a difficult conversation that cuts through to families, medical, welfare and mental health professionals around the advocacy table.  Everyone needs to have an investment and find themselves in the story, otherwise the story is without energy, and about someone else.  Hence, I am in art, collecting, gathering the scaffold of stories, and the ‘modes of story’ when I am working.  Writing and working with people who exist in the margins of my community links me to a powerful source in a way that is unending and meaningful.

I am privileged.  In my work I hear stories all day long.  I work within family homes that survive on depression, in abuse, crime, intergenerational trauma: a learned loneliness that shows the system we exist within can’t realistically care for everyone.  For some reason clothes are the carpet, resting on spilt birdseed; the crows that the kids kept in boxes long dead, starved; holes in walls papered over with soft porn; stolen traffic signs; filthy teddy bears; junk mail in piles; doesn’t matter, walk on anything.  The images are filtered through constant self-talk, an omnipresent inner creative dialogue around writing and text, allowing me to absorb the intricacies of the social world, and of human existence in my community.  My work experience offers understanding that penetrates the barriers and constructs that hinder social justice, as well as insights into human motivation, and the conditional relationships of class and culture.

As a person who was born into state care myself, I am keenly interested in my own identity and how my attachment to the world occurred.  Here, for me, writing has a personal and therapeutic lens that has allowed me to explore and map my mental landscape simultaneously training me to reflect, and learn that world can be harsh, as well as kind.

Unless you work in welfare, it’s invisible.  When I saw the Australian film Snowtown, I was impressed, as I felt, so accurate were the settings, that it was a documentary on modern poverty and its consequences in Australia. In that world, love makes way for food and protection, loyal economic units. (I was also watching it at an old beach house where, as on the soundtrack, the ancient refrigerator rattled, making for interesting short term mental health).  Many of the families I work with are stuck, and have been stuck ever since they can remember.  There’s a generation of kids coming through our world without maths, only being able to read road signs, their sense of control coming through violence or aggression, or in some cases extreme-passivity in league with predators. My line of work has been profound for me, as it shown me the words, theories, tools, to describe my own life.  It meets the need I have for people-contact, the salt of living, the need I have to push for constant revision and social change. My work and my writing interlock beautifully.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Neil Boyack is a social worker, poet, writer, and creator of the Newstead Short Story Tattoo (3–5 May in Newstead). Check www.newsteadtattoo.org for full details.

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  1. Beautifully put. Reminiscent for me of George Orwell’s ‘Why I write’. But also a quote I discovered the other day from John Steinbeck’s journal: ‘In every bit of honest writing in the world, there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other.’

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