On not having a career

The internet has seen an explosion of advice for aspiring writers on how to develop an ‘author platform’, or how to focus your ‘brand’. A typical how-to website advises that ‘branding is connection’: ‘When you consider your identity as an author, consider framing your own story, of [sic] using elements of branding to help communicate this more effectively to potential readers.’

I often find it mildly hilarious when I read articles that talk of writing creatively as a ‘career’. This is purely personal: after three decades of making a precarious living through various kinds of writing, it’s impossible for me to look back over my own ‘career’ with anything but rueful amusement. But exhortations for the ‘author’ to become a ‘brand’ don’t make me laugh. They fill me with revulsion.

A career, at least, is a clear concept, however problematised by the massive changes of globalisation. A career is a profession that’s pursued within some kind of institutional structure, measured by qualifications and promotions. The closest I got to a career was at the beginning of my adult life when my father insisted that ‘being a poet’ didn’t count as a job description and that I had to get some kind of qualification.

At a loss, I plumped for journalism (that involved writing, no?) and became a copygirl on the long vanished afternoon daily, the Melbourne Herald. Once I had the qualification my father insisted was necessary, I resigned so I could write poetry. I remember a senior journalist was very angry about my decision. He accused me of being an idealistic romantic and gave a long lecture on how irresponsible it was to throw away a mass media audience, where my work could perhaps make a difference, for the almost non-existent readership of a poet. I couldn’t explain to him – I think I couldn’t explain to myself – why what looked to him like negligent and self-indulgent recklessness was actually a profound, irresistible necessity.

Twenty-five years later, I can see that handing in that resignation letter was one of those rare moments I can isolate as life-defining, however instinctive my decision was at the time. If I threw away a career, it was for a good reason: the last thing I have ever wanted since was to chain myself to another, for my work to be conditioned by the expectations of a ‘career path’. As a result I have often been very poor, but I have never, not for one second, regretted the decision.

Nothing in life is clear-cut, and the fact is that I never quite left journalism. Life as an idealistic romantic has made me very pragmatic indeed – one has to eat. But for me writing remains, at a profound level, significantly about not having a career. In the older sense of the word, it is a vocation, a calling. There’s a romance around the notion of vocation that lingers even now in the noisy marketplace of late capitalism, but this is often a sentimental and exploitative fraud. Worse, the sentiment masks an aggressive commodification that extends to the writer herself.

It’s this commodification, presented as the very core of writerly identity, that disturbs me most. It strikes me as significantly different from the idea of pursuing a profession. Instead, it seeks to reconfigure the very DNA of the writerly self, and in doing so throttles its possibilities. Why, I wonder, are so many writers so keen to embrace the idea that they must be a ‘brand’?

Yes, writing can be a product that is bought and sold. This is clear to me in the most direct of ways, because it’s how I pay my rent. But that’s not why writing matters, and it certainly is not why it’s worth doing. The ghost of that mattering stirs powerfully in the deepest levels of human consciousness and, like all our desires, it is ripe for exploitation. Our hunger for story, for the making and remaking of meaning, is distorted into a seductive hook that pulls us into the vortex of consumerism. It’s a neat trick: that hunger can never be satisfied by what is offered, only stimulated. And so we buy and buy.

In a world of digital communications, story is a highly sellable commodity. Facebook urges its users to ‘tell their story’, which can then be onsold to advertisers. Writing is ‘information’; writers are ‘content providers’. This relentless impoverishment of meaning is presented as an expansion of the self, although in reality it’s a narrowing, wherein the self only exists as a product, and meaning is measured in economic units.

The subtext of these notions of writing is data mining. The marketplace treats story exactly as a strip-miner treats an Indigenous sacred site and with the same ugly outcome. Revulsion isn’t too strong a word for my response to that. In fact, it’s only a shadow of what I feel.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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