I just came across this terrible artwork of Thom Yorke that I did when I was 16 and it cheered me up no end.
I just came across this terrible artwork of Thom Yorke that I did when I was 16 and it cheered me up no end.
tūī vaunting themselves through the tree
their song drawing
fear off me like steam
making my heart dazzle
like a windscreen
being spattered with bugs
a memory of riding fast down the hill
with purple light streaming into my mouth
and out of my injuries
if I can just watch enough birds it will drown me out
if I can just be overwhelmed by birds . . .
my regrets are beautifully made
and unlike many others we are seeing at this time
I’ll go down
trying to embrace everyone
overwhelmed by the hill I’m regretting my way up again
growing uglier – but fitter, but fitter – all the time
and if I can’t continue
then I can’t walk either
a sparrow pins a smaller sparrow down
to drop food into its beak. Give over, be sat on, be fed,
a song vaunts itself through the smaller sparrow,
it isn’t any use
Would I have to carry the inflatable Spider-Man around with me at home, or only when in public?
Both. You must carry it around at all times.
As a kid – like many other kids – I didn’t learn what to do when I was angry or how to talk to someone who was angry. People who were angry exploded suddenly and then went quiet. Or they would wreck something, cut something or someone down. Or they would just be silent, with something huge and unfathomable pressing out from behind their eyes. When I started getting bad mood swings as a teenager I was at a loss for what to do with anger. What was it for? Sadness was easy. You could write it, play it. Even numbness was something you could work with. Numbness could be used like a kind of hovercraft, letting you float through the day. But anger gave you nowhere to go. It was like a nut allergy or crooked teeth or all the new daffodils in someone’s garden with their heads pulled off.
I remember reading The BFG and thinking that Quentin Blake’s illustrations of the bad dreams – dark and quivering inside glass jars – looked like my anger.
Anger felt like carrying something very unwieldy around for no good reason other than you had entered into a contract that required it. Like in this FAQ by Dan Carney about entering an agreement whereby you will be paid $5000 per month for life in exchange for carrying around an 8-foot inflatable Spider-Man at all times. (‘Would I be able to carry the Spider-Man around in a specially designed rucksack?’ ‘No. You will carry the Spider-Man underarm at all times, like you would a surfboard.’) Anger didn’t just feel unwieldy, it felt undignified. Look at Huey Morgan, the Fun Lovin’ Criminals frontman, smashing his mug to smithereens in an episode of Never Mind the Buzzcocks and then saying mildly, ‘You’re not upsetting me, it’s fine.’ It’s like he’s been possessed by a geyser.
As a teenager if I was very angry and I did try to speak, I would start shouting or screaming and then I would embarrass myself. I once had too much to drink at a party. A friend and I were standing by the pie cart, eating chips, in a deserted main street of our town at midnight when she made fun of me about something – or I thought she had – and I lost control. I really lost control. I was like Huey Morgan but instead of throwing a mug I threw hot chips. I heard myself screaming, but more than that I felt the anger, white hot and ferocious. It felt like the anger was tearing strips off me, like a hawk tearing roadkill off a road. Then I ran. At school the next week, mortified, I told my friend I couldn’t remember any of it. ‘I was just drunk,’ I said. This was when people would regularly drink to the point of black-out, so I hoped it wasn’t too much of a stretch. I wanted to keep that night buried.
I didn’t know who or what this anger was for. If I felt around it really carefully, I could find predictable things stuck to its sides like barnacles, like self-loathing, boredom, self-consciousness, physical discomfort, maybe a feeling of not being heard but also an inability to say what I meant. But all of it was wildly out of proportion to any real-world situation, which made the anger even uglier and potentially more damaging if I ever tried to voice it, so when I felt it building I drew back into myself and waited.
I am struggling again with anger. One of the things you encounter when you taper off an SSRI medication, which I am doing, is anger. The other set of symptoms I’ve become most familiar with are the ‘brain zap’ sort, as described in Harvard Health: ‘a feeling that resembles an electric shock to your head—or a sensation that some people describe as “brain shivers”.’ A shivering brain. It sounds like like something off Ren and Stimpy. Discontinuing this drug feels a bit like being homesick. I keep thinking back to my warm, lumpen, medicated state as if it’s home and wondering what I’m doing out here with my head being zapped like an idiot and why I haven’t just gone back inside like a sensible person would. I remind myself about the side effects of the medication, like violent nightmares that left me reeling and night sweats that left me drenched and the sense of my emotions being somehow muffled, like drums stuffed with pillows. I remind myself that this is just my brain figuring out how to manage its serotonin for itself. But it doesn’t help to know. In the moment of anger, all reasonable thinking is vaporised. It is shameful to have an anger that exists in a vacuum and is sparked by trivial things, when there is so much to be justifiably angry about in the world right now. My anger is like a kind of nonsense blimp bumbling along, impractical and uncool and piloted by an old man with heartburn who’s refusing to take his antacids today.
I recently hurt my hand punching a wall because I was upset at all the noise from my upstairs neighbour. On my bike I screamed at a truck driver who’d revved as they passed me. I found myself emailing a vegetable grower because the carrots I’d bought were slimy. ‘SLIMY CARROTS’ I typed into the subject line, stabbing each key. I sat in the gym and typed a furious email to an electronics company because my sports headphones kept falling out of my ears. ‘THESE EAR BUDS ARE NOT SWEAT RESISTANT AS ADVERTISED’ I typed, still sweating. These are stupid, privileged things to be angry about. They are things that have become snagged on something bigger that I don’t know how to control, other than forcing myself to wear boxing gloves, which might lead to the wrong outcome. And none of those reactions have acted as an adequate pressure valve for the anger, and they’ve almost definitely made things worse (except for my carrot complaint, which led to the happy outcome of being sent a big bag of potatoes, carrots, and onions). One afternoon last week, I was trying to work at home and there was a lot of yelling and thumping upstairs from my neighbour. After trying to ignore it for a while, I felt something flame up inside me. In a split second I knew I was going to go up and complain about it – something I had never done before. I didn’t truly want to do it and I imagined several people telling me it wasn’t a good idea but there’s something about irrational anger that freezes you inside a moment of great, clear-cut intention, as if you are taking back control of the world and are going to right everything that is wrong with it. I thumped up the steps and knocked on my neighbour’s door, pacing to and fro like a gif until she opened the door. And behind her there were four tiny toddlers running around happily and immediately my anger curdled and I was mumbling, ‘I’m so sorry to ask but . . . the noise . . . it’s very noisy . . .’ My neighbour said, ‘I’m sorry. But there’s nothing I can do.’ They were just little kids. I felt like I’d turned into a literal troll under a bridge.
My anger will likely get worse before it subsides, as I still have a way to go. The best I can hope for is that in a few months’ time I will be struggling to surface from a hearty pile of veg. I will eat my way out like Groundskeeper Willie eating his way out of the creamed corn explosion and this will solve two problems: my veg surfeit and my bad temper.
I hope I come back to myself. I hope if the anger comes too I will get better at turning to face it.
I can talk for a long time only when it’s about something boring.—Lydia Davis.
Years ago I was rushing to work on a rainy day. I was in the first few weeks of a new job. I wasn’t used to having more money than just enough to scrape through, so on pay day I’d gone out and bought some new sneakers. They were green Onitsuka Tigers. As I rushed along in my Tigers I suddenly slipped on the wet paving stones and both my legs shot out in front of me and I cannonballed backwards onto my arse. I’d fallen over loads of times before so I thought this was just one of those times. I picked myself up and continued striding along professionally. A few metres up the road I fucking fell over again. This one was more dramatic – I went sideways and onto my knees, with my bag sprawling and stuff falling out of it across the wet stones. This time someone stopped and helped me get up. I managed to walk another ten minutes down the road without falling over, but right outside the building where I worked, one of my feet skated out dramatically sideways and I literally strained my groin. At this point I was angry. I went into my new job and told everyone all about it. ‘It’s these shoes,’ I said. I spent all day brooding and then after work I took the sneakers back into the shop where I’d bought them. ‘I have a problem,’ I said to the sales assistant. ‘These shoes keep making me fall over.’ After a stilted exchange it became clear she couldn’t help me, so I just went away again with the Onitsuka Tigers and proceeded to fall over in them whenever it rained.
Last weekend I was in an event at the Melbourne Festival called the Menagerie of the Imagination, held at the Animal Church – a chilly but beautiful space at the bottom of Flinders Street, designed by festival director Marieke Hardy, with candles, flowers, and photographs of people’s pets (some of them dogs in cones) lining the walls. Two women walked slowly between the rows of seats, banging drums and chanting. But despite this beautiful setting, the event didn’t take flight and I flailed. Was it too early, too cold, was it that no one seemed to know what the event was about? I didn’t help by reading, badly, something I’d tried to write about Nigel the gannet – in fact something I’d started writing months ago that I’d hoped I could make work for The Spinoff. I was about halfway through when I realised I’d written something incomprehensible. As I went on I became aware that I was retreating further and further behind my hair, as if a lift’s doors were closing, and in my last couple of lines a noisy street sweeper started up outside and drowned me out. I spent the rest of the session marinating in an amazing hot shame. Was it Nigel’s fault? Just like it had (obviously) been the shoes’ fault? But no, it was just that I had given another really average performance at a writers’ festival.
Nigel was the first gannet to live on Mana Island in about forty years. He arrived in 2015 and lived there on the western cliffs for around three years, all the while attempting to court one of the eighty concrete decoys whose purpose, as part of Mana’s seabird attraction project, was to lure other gannets to the island. In January this year, Nigel was found dead, alone, in the nest he had built for his concrete mate.
I wanted to talk about why this story had moved so many people around the world – why the headlines had been things like ‘Six Lessons About Love From Nigel the Lonely Gannet’ and ‘Nigel, the world’s loneliest bird, was no victim. He was a hero’. The thing that the international media focussed on was, of course, the love story. It was pure. Nigel’s devotion was depicted as somehow eternal. There was the occasional cynical commentary, like one commentator who said Nigel had been way out of line by continuing to pursue a woman who clearly wasn’t interested: ‘I hope the autopsy turns up that Nigel died of syphilis.’ But on the whole, when this story broke it was as if the internet were collectively keening into its own eerie sound system that wobbled in the wind as it reached out over the planet, and others were answering with their sorrow too.
I wanted to ask what it is that makes an animal story popular on the internet. I said that all it seems to be, sometimes, is seeing an embrace between the species. We want to see the lion embracing a man in a field. We want to see the condor embracing the man in a remote village. We want to see the chicken surging forward to embrace the little boy and we want to be able to make that into a gif and use it whenever the time is right, and the time is always right to see a chicken embracing a boy. Of course we all crave the hits of sweetness that can be siphoned out of the news cycle. And maybe there is something to do with our longing, despite how catastrophic our human business has been for so many species, to be loved by animals and to have them, no matter how wild, available to us to – clumsily, insistently – love back.
There’s another kind of widely shared animal story that is not warming in this way (Nigel’s falls into this category). Like the recent story of a grieving orca who carried her dead calf with her through the sea for weeks, refusing to let go. Or the robotic spy monkey, with cameras for eyes, embedded by behavioural researchers with a family of real monkeys. When the spy monkey one day fell from its high branch and lay motionless in the dust, the other monkeys – who seemed to have accepted the spy monkey into their family – appeared consumed by grief. I tried to say that stories like this, of the grieving orca and the spy monkey, stir something different in us. It may be irrational but they touch our private griefs and heartaches and things we can’t let go.
I also wanted to say what I had learned from visiting Mana Island, the scientific reserve where Nigel lived and died – the island he’s made famous. Earlier this year on a hot Sunday morning I took a boat to the island. Because it is so carefully protected you can only go there as part of a guided tour that goes out at specified times each year. In the piece I would write I had decided that going to the island would show me the bigger picture of Nigel’s life and remove it totally from the anthropomorphised portrayals that had popped up during the week his story broke. I wondered, too, whether going there would help me to view my own sorry situation with a colder eye, ideally like a wildlife documentary-maker slowly freezing to death in the snow while waiting for a snow leopard to show itself.
After walking up several steep hills our group came to the exposed cliff where the gannet colony is. There were no real gannets that day – only the decoys: painted yellow and white, with a white slick of paint beneath them to suggest guano, and near the decoy birds was the speaker system in the long grass: a single loudspeaker that shook furiously in the wind and sent huge ghostly cries out to sea.
Cheryl Strayed has a piece of advice I often think about: ‘Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore.’ It’s hard advice because it means you need to come up with some whole new idea that is true, and for a while you flail. It applies to writing too. It’s partly why I’d botched my talk. I’d surrendered to an idea I’d had at the beginning: that going to the island would make me look at the story through a more rational lens. In this version I was able to view Nigel as simply a quirk of nature, a random old seabird who’d washed up there and who had no real idea what was going on; i.e. he was a bird whose circumstances were … birdy, and we would honour him better by understanding this. But as I wrote on, I remembered, inconveniently, that in fact going to the island and seeing where he had lived amongst the decoys had actually just made me feel sadder about his life and even feel a bit lost, stumping around on my own while everyone else was in twos and threes. ‘Are there any wasps on this island?’ I’d practically screamed at a man who seemed to know a lot about the island’s biodiversity. ‘I don’t know anything about the wasp situation,’ he said. But what was new about any of this? It was too late to change tack. I’m a disorganised person and I had to read my piece aloud at the festival the next day. (‘Like a tropical storm, I, too, may one day become “better organized”.’ – Lydia Davis.) So I kept going.
As we walked up a steep hill, a tiny drone came buzzing over our heads. It bobbled along above us, bucking about like a neighing mechanical horse, then wandered off. Further ahead, we saw a green gecko sporting a tiny radio transmitter on its back. In many places there were little corrugated iron roofs tucked into the ground; these were homes for geckos and skinks. There were areas of weirdly lush native forest from a massive replanting programme. And there were takahē – slow-moving in the grass, like careful gardeners in blue woolly jerseys, surveying the work yet to do; they’d been flown in. Something about Mana Island feels faintly dystopian. But all of its careful measures are needed in order to keep it alive, like a tiny child kept swaddled.
By chance, the journalist who was first to write about Nigel, Virginia Fallon, was on the trip too. She visits the island often, and in fact had reported on Nigel back whenhe’d first arrived and had started wooing the decoy. There’s a certain kind of person who is alert to small but crucial stories and Virginia is one of these people. A few weeks after our trip she wrote a story on Thomas, a blind bisexual goose who died at age 40 and was buried next to his partner of 30 years, Henry; the township in which he’d lived held a funeral for him, including a procession with a bagpiper and a speech by the mayor. I asked Virginia what it had been like to follow Nigel’s story for those years and she shook her head and said, ‘I’ve got no emotions left.’ She told me she’d cried while writing about his death and hadn’t really stopped since.
As we walked around the island in the hot sun I kept hearing people in our group say his name. ‘Nigel. Nigel. Nigel.’ Our patron saint.
At the end of 2017, he was still the only gannet on the island. And he was still trying to woo the decoy. Around this time, the sound system at the colony was adjusted, sending the recorded calls into a more opportune direction over the sea. And soon after that, three new gannets flew in. Unbelievably, Nigel, the curmudgeon, didn’t take any notice of them. The others set themselves up at the opposite end of the colony from him, and, perhaps because he’d already spent so much time with his concrete friend, he stayed where he was. (‘Concrete friend’ is how the tour guide described Nigel’s mate. ‘Friend’! I love that a gannet’s unconventional relationship has the power to strike coyness in the heart.) The other gannets didn’t seek out Nigel either, but the conservationists kept waiting and hoping that something would happen.
There’s a part in Barry Lopez’s book Crossing Open Ground where he talks about how we perceive relationships in the natural world. ‘Relationships in the exterior landscape include those that are named and discernible, such as the nitrogen cycle, or a vertical sequence of Ordovician limestone, and others that are uncodified or ineffable, such as winter light falling on a particular kind of granite, or the effect of humidity on the frequency of a blackpool warbler’s burst of song . . . the shape and character of these relationships in a person’s thinking, I believe, are deeply influenced by where on this earth one goes’. Although a gannet’s affection for a decoy is readily discernible to us, shaped by our thinking about love and romance – i.e. the places we’ve been – there is also something ineffable in it too, like winter light falling on granite.
In January this year, Chris Bell was out walking along the steep track near the decoys. Like Nigel, he lives alone on the island. The other three gannets weren’t around that afternoon, but amongst the decoys, he noticed something fluttering in the wind. He walked closer. And he saw it was Nigel. Nigel was lying dead in the nest he had built for the decoy he had been trying to woo.
One of the things that affected me so much about the story was the way in which Nigel was portrayed as a bit thick. To me this portrayal, as well as being a bit disrespectful, showed that Nigel, like so many birds (as the old slur ‘bird brain’ attests), was just misunderstood – and obviously he was helpless now to persuade anyone otherwise. There’s a notion, proposed in the eighties by Jane Goodall and Hans Kummer (and described in Jennifer Ackerman’s fantastic book The Genius of Birds), that a wild animal’s cognitive abilities should be measured by the ways the animal finds solutions to problems in its natural home; we should seek an ecological measure of intelligence, rather than a laboratory one. They proposed that intelligence can be more fully seen in the ability to innovate, to ‘find a solution to a novel problem, or a novel solution to an old one.’ Like when a great skua in the Antarctic snuggles in with a bunch of baby seals to steal their mother’s milk, or a heron uses insects as bait to attract fish. Maybe Nigel had simply found a solution to the novel problem of being the only real gannet on the island? And a novel solution to the old, old problem of finding a mate.
When our group reached the gannet colony, we sat down above the decoys – they’re incongruous, freaky-looking things, almost garden gnomey – and I thought of Nigel living for so long in this ghost town. And, even though I tried to stop it, really tried to tamp it down, like trying to stem a river of garbage bursting up out of the golf course in Springfield, I thought of The English Patient. In this analogy, and it doesn’t work but hear me out, Nigel the gannet is Katharine Clifton played by Kristin Scott Thomas at the end of the film. She’s waiting in the lonely cave, in the dark, not giving up hope. And maybe the international news media is Count Almásy, played by Ralph Fiennes, sobbing open-mouthed as he finally carries her dead body out of the cave into the desert. But then . . . the concrete decoy is clearly also Almásy? So it doesn’t work. But, still, as soon as I started thinking about The English Patient, the floodgates opened. Soon I was imagining Nigel as a glittering, powerful, enfolding angel, like Xas from The Vintner’s Luck. He was like Sam Rockwell’s character in Moon, who thinks he’s been talking to his wife back on Earth but she’s been gone the whole time, or something. He was like the victim of a long-running practical joke that has got out of hand. As Chris the ranger had concluded in Virginia’s story, ‘This just feels like the wrong ending to the story. He died right at the beginning of something great.’
I’d gone to the island to know more about the animal reality of Nigel’s life and death. Of course there is ample room for both emotional and intellectual understandings. But I couldn’t get a handle on my sentimental response to the framing of the story as one of unrequited love. I just wanted to see the chicken embrace the boy.
There’s that cliché, when you’re embarrassed, of wishing that the ground would open up and swallow you, but the wish I always have when embarrassed is to be dramatically airlifted out. As I sat back down on the stage in front of the small crowd gathered on Saturday morning, who I’m sure have all by now completely forgotten this event, I wanted a huge bird to plunge down and pick me up in its comfy beak and carry me to some remote outcrop and – important to note that the bird would not eat me – we would live out our days there together, and eventually I would turn to stone and never have to stand on a stage again, although somehow I would still be able to write.
It’s been the longest time since I’ve posted anything on my blog, and I’m feeling guilty about it, but I guess not guilty enough to do anything properly about it. I now think about this blog in the same way I’d think about a gun – I wouldn’t know how to pick it up, and if I do pick it up it’ll be the wrong way, and it’ll accidentally go off and I’ll shoot one of my fingers off and the instructor will be like, ‘I tried to tell you! You wouldn’t listen.’ And he’s right, I didn’t listen.
Things have got busy somehow, and I’ve found myself overwhelmed, to the point where I’m groaning and sighing and lightly sobbing a lot more than usual and am way, way, way worse at replying to emails and messages than I am ordinarily. (If I haven’t replied to you about something, I am really sorry and I will reply soon; unless – and this is the ONE SOLE exception and I am so sorry, oh God this is a bad point to have reached – UNLESS your email was to ask for some writing advice or publishing advice. I’m sorry! But I cannot give you the advice anymore. I CANNOT. I can’t even give myself any advice. I’ve tried and I don’t listen.)
I wish I could spread out all of the writing opportunities that have suddenly come rolling in, because I want to do them all. But I can’t do them all. ‘You could if you were a bit less useless,’ I say to myself, in the same reasonable tone as the gun instructor who told me off earlier.
I’m also slowly, cautiously tapering off an antidepressant medication at the moment. I’ve been taking this medication for about 15 years. It’s early days and I feel jangly but also really curious. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and for a long time there’s never been a right time to do it, and there still isn’t, and I don’t think there ever will be. So why not now? One nice thing that’s happening is my dreams are becoming much less frightening, which was one big side effect of this medication. The other night all I dreamt was that lots of friendly people in wheelchairs kept trying to come into the elevator I was in, but there wasn’t enough room for all of us, so I said, ‘Perhaps some of you could wait till the next one?’ (I’m not sure what happened next, but I woke up yelling.)
Here’s a piece I recently wrote, up on The Cut.
Some things I’ve been looking at and listening to and reading lately:
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
Ear Hustle, a podcast recorded at San Quentin State Prison
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
Cat Sense by John Bradshaw
People from the Pit Stand Up by Sam Duckor-Jones (published this week by VUP!)
Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble (published this week by VUP!)
Peach by Emma Glass
This article about Mimicry, the journal run by Holly Hunter
These photographs of animals by Pentti Sammallahti
‘Another Beautiful Bike Lane’ by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks (not on YouTube in full, but they play it around 2:30 in this clip)
I can’t stop listening to Let’s Eat Grandma.
They tell me any idiot can do it and I tell them
I’m not just any idiot, I am specific. Even when my lungs
are bursting – properly bursting
like things dragged up by that Russian deep-sea fisherman
I keep riding. I get tired. I just keep riding!
People who drive talk about how great it is
to get out of the city. They drive to new cities
so they can get out of those cities.
Cities coagulate around drivers to try to stem the wound,
stop them leaving. I could become a valued member
of the resistance. I could drive aggressively at the city
to make it move down, like a conductor yelling into a packed carriage.
I ride along the street outside your house
with my heart flapping loose and getting chain grease on it.
I’d just like to be able to pick you up from the airport
or drive a medium-sized dog around.
I’d like to buy some small trees and drive them home
in companionable fragrance.
What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people
and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing
asked Kerouac. That’s your conscience
telling you that you’re yet another problematic single-driver
automobile on the road
and you should turn around and let those people carpool with you.
Jack, let me attach a bike rack to your boot.
Fears coagulate around me to try to stop me driving.
A man flicks on his windscreen wipers at their most aggressive speed
to deter the squeegee bandits at the intersection.
I keep riding. I’m tired. I have to find
a good pole to lock this to.
Years coagulate around me to try to stop me leaving.
The world flicks on its high-speed windscreen wipers to deter me.
The only good ride was when you were on your bike too,
and we passed each other
and yelled ‘Hey!’ at the exact same time.
When I walk I imagine throwing myself in front of buses
to punish them for being late. When I ride I brace myself
for drivers to barge right into the shoulder
and plaster me into the leaves like a chip packet.
Why don’t I just cycle directly into my coffin and be buried
with my learner licence, which expired in 2011?
I yell that. I see drivers expand and shrivel and expand
like octopuses in motion and I envy them
being able to shapeshift deep inside their personal oceans.
I’d like to be able to pick you up from your new place
or take you there sometimes.
You can always make your own way from the airport
but I’d like to transport some small trees, a marrow, a table.
I’d like to have a table to stand on, to stretch up into a tree.
The small trees will grow into trees that overhang public footpaths
and slap my head good-humouredly as I ride under them.
A dog will hang its head out your window as you go by
its slow mouth saying something important to me in a dream, but I
It will be great to get out of the city.
Get to another city, pull ourselves free, get out of that city
and the city is watching us go, shaking its fist; but we’re just specks dispersing.
I wrote this speech for an event at the Michael King Writers Centre in November. The event was called ‘The Business of Writing: Making a Living Through Words’. I was super scared to say my speech, partly because it was 40 minutes long and I knew I’d probably die up there, and partly because this speech doesn’t really have any practical ideas for making a living out of writing. Afterwards, someone kindly suggested I should do Toastmasters. So here it is!
The question of how to make a living as a writer is at its surface very simple. The answer is: you write whenever you’re not doing your real, proper job. The proper job, where you earn your proper living. The answer is: you feel grateful to have a job at all. The answer is: you tuck your writing away, like a cyclist rolling up one trouser leg so the cuff doesn’t get caught up in the chain. The answer is: you have reasons to write other than to make any money – some of them banal and maybe even embarrassing, like wanting to be seen, wanting to be someone. Some of them grander and easier to own up to, like trying to understand what it means to be in this world when so many of us feel we are outside of it. To be part of a community that can provide solace, challenge, and escape. To advocate for the voices we hear less often than other voices in this community. Whatever your reasons, they push you forward.
But simple answers become less satisfying the more they are repeated. For weeks now, probably more than a month, while trying to write something about how to make a living as a writer, I’ve sat at my desk and slowly slid down my chair and onto the floor into a puddle. I’ve sat at desks and slid down onto floors in three different countries. Ann Lamott has said something along the lines of how writing is a process of repeatedly hypnotising then unhypnotising yourself, again and again. That’s what it’s like for me when I am writing. I hypnotise myself so that I can believe in what I am saying, I unhypnotise myself so that I can go over it all with a cold eye. And when I unhypnotise myself I realise that I’m the worst person to address the question of how to make a living, because the only reason I was able to travel to those different countries at all was because I had just been given an impossible sum of money for writing a book. Part of me still believes I’ve fallen into an alternate universe, and that you’re all in here with me, or at least very good holographic images of you are here, which I am now imagining to be holographically naked. And because of the immense privilege of winning such a prize, it doesn’t feel quite right to me to address even these naked holographic versions of you. I don’t know where I am in the system anymore, other than that I am speaking from an impossible place, and I’m no longer sure whether my opinions should have any bearing. And that is why those simple answers are no longer satisfying to me: because this system is so unpredictable, so unfair, so mercurial in its giving and withholding of affections. Affections, by which I mean money.
A literary prize isn’t really something a person can put into their career plan as a sensible milestone. ‘I’ll flounder for a number of years and then I’ll win a large sum of money from a prize committee that I haven’t even heard of.’ It would be like planning to buy the perfect pair of pants during a visit to a wig factory. It would be like planning to run your fastest time in a walking race that will disqualify you as soon as both your feet leave the ground. The idea of making money from writing seems possible only through the most unlikely combination of luck, sheer trickery, and the good humour of some official. That’s why prizes mean so much to writers: you cannot plan them, or, at least, I don’t believe you can if you have integrity. Instead, you can hope. Writers are good at hoping. Writers specialise in that long gap between how they wish the world to be, and what the world actually is. Sometimes I think it’s unfair, this expectation that writers should be above cold-blooded schemes to win something, when real estate agents and lawyers and presidents get to talk about winning all the time. Who among us hasn’t been tempted to write a book that just implores the reader to send them wads of cash? But no. You’ve got to tell a proper story. You’ve got to do ‘the art’.
When I think of the question of how to make a living, I find that the first thing I think of is a second-year commerce student who, after I had bought him a large orange and vodka for $5 one Saturday night at the Fat Lady’s Arms in 2002, wanted to know how writing would ever get me a decent job. He asked me: ‘What are you gonna do with that?’, almost as if I’d just pulled some indescribable item out of my pocket and was demanding that he look at it. I remember, in that moment, looking at the university students dancing all around us to ‘I’m Gonna Be’ by the Proclaimers, the worst song in the world and yet also the song that people most often shouted into one another’s faces. I said to the commerce student that I didn’t know what I would do with the writing. A hot shame came over me then for not having a reasonable plan. I remember having a strong urge to join the dancers. I wanted to fall into oblivion, thrusting about unthinkingly to a song I hated, and to emerge reeking of other people’s Lynx. The commerce student told me his career plan. I forget all the details other than that it was long, and it ended with him making a heap of money, and probably the two of us sailing around on some super-yacht and letting off fireworks.
My life then was filled with encounters like that. I’d buy somebody a drink, then they would find out I wanted to be a writer and they would ask how I would make any money. The answer, at least partly, was that I had to stop buying these people drinks. My bad dating decisions taught me that I had a knack for sitting in bars I didn’t want to be in, with people I didn’t like all that much if I’m honest, nodding along to the worst songs in the world. I had a knack for doing what seemed to be required. I wasn’t really any good at learning anything from situations back then, but these experiences keenly suggested to me that if I wanted something else, I would have to find the gumption to turn away, and to keep turning away. If I did not, then my eagerness to please, to be as least disruptive as possible, would lead me into situations and maybe even a life that I didn’t like very much. To try to be a writer is to disrupt. And to write well is to keep disrupting expectation. Anne Carson says: ‘You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.’ Never impede the movement harshly enough. Of course, Carson is speaking about writing. But I also think of the rush and the urge of society flowing over us like a bad music, telling us all the time what counts as a successful career and a successful life. You have to shield yourself from it, shield yourself harshly, to keep it from submerging you.
I was lucky. I did get jobs. And even in early jobs, like working in Lotto stores selling people Instant Kiwis that very occasionally won $5, I felt a thrill at being solely at work. I might have wanted to be a writer, but I was also learning how to be a person facing out into a world. Even though that ability must be learned over and over again as we get older, and especially now when the urge to turn away can be so compelling, I noticed that when I was out there working, each day I came back to my writing feeling like a slightly different person. I had listened, observed, eavesdropped, stored things away. There’s an idea I picked up somewhere that all work is the avoidance of harder work. There is some truth in that. ‘I’ll just remove these little balls of lint from my coat instead of doing a whole load of washing.’ ‘I’ll just revise this paragraph for an hour instead of writing the next one.’ At my current job as an editor at Victoria University Press, we sometimes talk about ‘constructive procrastination’, which usually means playing around with typefaces and looking at cover concepts, instead of writing a back-cover blurb or ringing up a poet you’re scared of. But that avoidant work, although it must always give way to the harder work, can be rich with spontaneity – with conversations you might otherwise not have joined or eavesdropped upon, thoughts you might not have had. So, yes, my day job is, in a sense, the avoidance of the harder work of trying to really make it as a writer and only a writer. The harder work of pushing and pushing against a system where the arts aren’t valued as much as boats or rugby or Briscoes sales are. And for now, so be it. Selfishly, I find myself wanting to save the energy that I would spend on fighting. I save it to write work that matters to me.
There are plenty of articles online about writers who rejected the traditional book publishing model, and subsequently became hugely successful using Amazon, and were able to give up their regular jobs. Maybe some of you have been profiled in such a way. ‘Morgan wrote her debut novel Forever Dreams in 2014. Underwhelmed by the returns from publishing, she penned two more books and listed them on the Amazon website. “I couldn’t believe the response from readers,” she says.’ I’m not sure whether these articles are meant to be inspiring, or chastising – why aren’t the rest of you doing this? Catch up! They remind me of the many, many articles profiling young couples who have committed to living miserably and now own their own homes. I find it interesting – and I’m not sure how significant it is – how writers tend to be described when they’re in the news. A writer in the news can’t just write something. You have to pen it. And you’re not just a writer. You’re a wordsmith. You’re having ‘a love affair with language’. And if you win anything, you ‘pocket’ it. That sly verb ‘pocket’ – because writers glide around in huge coats lined with pockets, in case the opportunity should arise to pinch something to which they feel entitled, like a scented candle, or another coat lined with pockets. But, mostly, writers come across as these slightly otherworldly desperate fairy creatures, and if they have any monetary success at all, it’s novel. It’s amusing. They’ve bucked the system – the traditional system of writers being poor. As I saw one online commenter say below an article about the Indigenous Australian poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, who won a Windham-Campbell Prize earlier this year: ‘Well isn’t that nice? $215,000 in poetry money is $8 million in regular money.’ I think this also means that a 30-year-old poet is roughly 90 years old in regular human years.
I’m digressing now, but before the Ockham Awards earlier this year, all of the finalists in the various categories were asked to answer the question, ‘If you win, what will you do with the money?’ Some of the finalists wanted to pay off their debts, or put some new lino on the floor, or buy their son a new pair of trousers. I remember Anthony Byrt wanted to buy some trees. These were fairly ordinary things that would make their lives a little easier and brighter. But I couldn’t help feeling that, by being asked the question, the writers were being framed a bit like hungry animals in a zoo, with someone holding out a bit of meat through the bars, taunting. ‘What about this, then? Wouldn’t you like to have a bit of this?’
To be clear: media attention is really important to writers. It’s an essential road towards new readers, maybe even towards funding and residencies. I’m happy and grateful whenever I see a writer, especially a young writer or a Māori or Pasifika writer, profiled in the media. But we know, perhaps have always known, that it’s out of the ordinary for writers to make much money. According to a survey earlier this year, the ‘average writer’ in NZ makes less than a quarter of their income through writing. When you visit the government’s Careers website, there is a special page to describe Writer, and there is a sign like one of those Fire Danger Today indicators that you see on hot country roads. Only in this sign it’s an indicator for good jobs, as in, ‘Probability of a Good Job Today’, and the arrow is pointing decidedly to Poor. I don’t know why they had to make a whole sign out of it, and I resent it.
One of the joys and also the cruelties of writing, and maybe of all art forms, is that success can come in such myriad, surprising, and often economically immeasurable forms. A kind word from someone you admire, or when people besides your family come to a reading you’re doing. When people pay attention to your work, it can remind you how people are often ready to reach back to you, after you’ve done so much reaching out at them. These kinds of successes show us what it feels like to be thrilled. They lift you up and, to be a bit saccharine about it, help you to keep your heart.
Back to the successful Amazon author. This is an author who is writing on average
eight novels a year, typesetting and designing them herself, and using her social media profile to promote her work. When I think about writing books as a business, this is what I think of. Setting a target for output and sales, diligently producing and marketing the books. What is rarely mentioned in the success stories is that, along with needing to be good at editing and designing your book, you must be a very savvy businessperson. You must pay close attention to what sells, what doesn’t, which books are in the Top 10, what the correlation is between star rating and current ranking. You should research your ideal buyer – figure out their average age and income and what they’re looking for, and what websites they like best. One popular thriller writer has this advice to give about writing e-books that sell: ‘I’m tempted to say: pick a niche you actually enjoy reading. But this may not always be the best advice. I enjoy reading complicated literary novels and obscure texts in linguistics, but they’re hardly the stuff best sellers are made of. Your niche selection should be in line with market demands. This is why spending time in the Amazon marketplace is important: it will tell you which niches are popular and which are not.’ As for the writing itself, he notes: ‘Writing an eBook yourself can be incredibly fun if you enjoy the creative process, or a mind-numbing chore if you don’t.’
As I write now, picking myself up off the floor once again, I feel an overwhelming sense of risk, almost certainly doom, descending, because I am going to need to say what I think about the e-book business. Because this is one of the viable ways to make a living as a writer. And I’m afraid of talking about it. I’m afraid of coming across as out of touch: as cynical, joyless, pretentious. Also, as someone who works in publishing and gets to see the business side of it, where we have to think strategically about getting books into people’s hands, I understand these are crucial, underpinning concerns, and that it would be naïve to imagine that once a book is written it just takes care of itself. At Victoria University Press we sometimes do find ourselves talking about ‘how to create a buzz’, and sometimes we coach writers in things like, ‘how to do a good reading so that people might pick up your book. Tip one: Do speak directly into the microphone.’ But, well, with ebooks, this is what I think of: when I read any book, I read to escape the world. I read to freefall out of this life and into some other one. This is how I have always read, from the beginning. There is something innately childlike about that escape. I am alone, but my sense of isolation becomes less acute. And when I think of the e-book author who is writing books specifically to appeal to a certain market demographic, I think: You’re no good at escaping. You’re too inside the world to help me. I need a writer who is outside of the world enough to really see it. I want you to be outside of the world with me. If your singular interest is in getting me to buy this book, and then you abandon me as you go through the mind-numbing chore of writing it, then I don’t think you’re writing for readers. Maybe you’re writing for skimmers, or for users of that app that summarises books for you so you don’t have to read them. I want to be able to tell that a writer has been moved to write. I want them to have risked something by telling the truth as they understand it. I believe that a writer has a moral obligation to do this.
I also believe that the writing that holds real value for us very seldom comes into this world in a planned, tidy, rational way, as in a business plan, without disarray and confusion along the way. I really believe that people who are writing anything truly of value will make some amount of mess as they are figuring out the necessity of their work, as they are clawing towards what is most difficult to say. I like the way Ann Lamott puts it: ‘You assume that the rational mind gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but rationality squeezes out much that is rich and fascinating.’ As Sarah Bakewell records in her extraordinary portrait of Montaigne, How to Live, there are some classical stories that the 16th-century essayist Montaigne retells in his Essais, one about a man named Lycas, who went about his ordinary life and held down an ordinary job, all the while believing that everything he saw and experienced was taking place on a stage in a theatre. But then he was treated by a physician, which cured him of his delusion, and he became utterly miserable. And similarly, a man named Thrasylaus believed that every single ship that came into the port where he lived was carrying a wonderful cargo especially for him. Every time a ship came in, he rejoiced, and ‘welcomed them with great gladnesse’. Bakewell notes that he didn’t seem bothered that he never actually got to open any of these cargoes. But anyway, his delusion was cured too, and that was that.
For a writer, working with what’s irrational is in most ways unquantifiable, even though it’s really hard work. No one sees all of the pushing and pulling, except perhaps for other writers. We carry this work around with us, and in turn it pushes and pulls on us. This is partly why it is so awkward when we’re asked – as I’m sure many of you have been asked – to write something without being paid. We want to say, ‘But you don’t understand. I have to make this thing that wrings sense out of all of this!’ It feels like the work of writing has not been seen; it goes unacknowledged. But that work is where a writer lives.
Recently, I met the indigenous Australian poet Ali Cobby Eckermann, who I mentioned earlier. I’m not sure how to describe Ali in a way that would do her and her work justice, but to my mind she is an essential voice. She writes about her experience as part of the Stolen Generations, which refers to the roughly 100,000 Aboriginal children who were taken from their birth families by the Australian government and sent to boarding schools and church-run missions. When she was a baby, she was forcibly taken from her mother and given to a white family to raise. Ali’s mother, too, had been taken from her parents as a child. When she became pregnant at 18, Ali was pressured to give her son up for adoption, in turn. It was only when she was in her mid-thirties that she was able to meet her son, and to meet her birth mother. When Ali heard that she had won a Windham-Campbell Prize from Yale University, she was unemployed and living in a caravan in the desert, caring for her adoptive mother. In articles about her success, much was made of the caravan – here was this poet, unemployed, living in a lonely caravan, receiving a life-changing phone call to tell her she’d won a vast prize in literature. I admit I thought it was an incredible story, too. She’d been saved from a terrible caravan life. When I talked to Ali about that at Yale in New Haven, where we both were in September, she was bemused by how her caravan had been described. ‘I love my caravan,’ she said. ‘It’s a good caravan. I love where I live. It’s just a simple life.’ I guess that one detail just shows how eager we tend to be for absolutes, in stories about writers’ success – a caravan equals poor, probably miserable – rather than more complex realities. There was something else she said too, that the unconventional way in which she’d chosen to live was important in itself. It had helped her to recover. It gave her time. She actually didn’t want to follow any conventional path for the sake of fitting in with a society that had been so cruel to her and that still, she felt, hadn’t welcomed her and didn’t know what to make of her. She said she was going to use her winnings on her own terms – to build a place where more of her family could be together, rather than needing to travel all the time. And she would continue with her work of voicing the stories of a people who for so long had been unheard. I guess I just tell that story because Ali’s making a living was about confronting and helping to heal at least some of the damage of the past. It was having enough money to continue living on the edges where she had always lived, and to continue doing that work of healing, only now she had the gift of the validation and support of an institution like Yale.
This is a small digression. My father would sometimes have us film our own family versions of Mastermind or Sale of the Century in the lounge. Each contestant would be sat in an armchair with a torch shining directly into their face. And one of my brothers would have a camera over his shoulder to film the episode – we’d hired a video camera from the local electric goods store, Dalziels. I remember it being huge, about the size of R2D2. My father was the Quiz Master, so he would shout the questions, mostly questions about local geography, politics, rugby. If you got the right answer he would shout ‘That is correct.’ He was also in charge of the buzzer noise for when someone gave a wrong answer. It was this terrible nasal yell: Ehhhhh! My memory of being in the hot seat at Mastermind is muddled, because partly I remember being quizzed – the intensity, the pressure of it, the brightness of the torch in my eyes – and partly I just remember watching the video later on. One scene went like this.
‘What is the name of the RIVER that runs through TE KUITI?!’
‘Ehhhhh! The Mangaokewa! Who is the Prime Minister of NEW ZEALAND?!’
‘Ummmm … ‘
‘Ehhhhh! David LANGE! Name one NEW ZEALAND WRITER!’
I was about five years old at this time. I was sucking on the head of a teddy bear and rocking back and forth in the armchair, and squinting into the torchlight.
‘Stop shining that torch in her face! Come on, dear … famous New Zealand writer…. Janet…..? Margaret …?’ (This was mum, cheating.)
‘EHHHHH!’ At this point both of my brothers would be joining in on the buzzer noise, and adding farting noises.
My older brothers had been through the same Mastermind gauntlet – more successfully than me – so it wasn’t like I was being treated unfairly in this instance. Mastermind was a lesson in how the real world worked. You had to know facts. If you didn’t know the right thing almost immediately, then you got buzzed. But sitting there in the armchair, the torch shining in my face, I felt a blinding sense of injustice. It was as if all the right answers were there in front of me but somehow I wasn’t able to reach them. The name ‘David Lange’, for instance, was a group of meaningless sounds that ungrouped and dispersed as soon as they’d been uttered.
The thing is I really wanted to have all the answers, and to have them effortlessly. I dreamed of being asked questions not about the government, rugby, and famous authors but about my life and my special creative ways of doing things. It was only in these scenarios that I had answers. I remember out the front of the house I would bike around in ever-tightening circles, imagining I was being interviewed on live TV – ‘What advice would you give to viewers who want to do these tricks on their bikes?’ – and I was telling them all about the importance of swivelling this certain way or how you had to do this flourish as you dismounted. The same when hitting tennis balls against a concrete wall. ‘The important thing is,’ I’d whisper to my interviewer, ‘you can’t get angry when you miss the ball; you’ve just gotta pick it up and try again.’ I would pretend to be Alison Holst while adding chopped nuts and Milo to my bowl of ice cream, explaining my interesting techniques. ‘Sometimes a spoonful of jam can be very nice. The important thing is to mix it all up very thoroughly.’ It was performative, but it felt so satisfying to me to have all these interesting answers and to be able to imagine the interviewer nodding along, impressed.
I guess I’m telling this story partly because I’ve realised that I’m the kind of person
who only has answers for questions that are not being asked directly of me, and I think that’s why I’m a writer. Writing, and reading, doesn’t usually feel like having a torch shone expectantly in your face. So many other times in our lives, we do have torches shone into our faces. Instead you sit in the dark until your eyes adjust. A piece of writing, for me often an essay, tends to start with a question – sometimes as simple as ‘Why does this thing feel the way it feels?’ or ‘Who was that person anyway?’ or ‘Why were we like that?’ – and then, in your own time, you start trying for a response. This feels to me like being inside one of those weird whispered monologues when I was little, circling around on my bike or whacking tennis balls against a wall, muttering my explanations and imagining, or hoping for, someone listening and nodding. Writers are so often responding to questions that haven’t explicitly been asked, which perhaps is why our work is so difficult to measure and reward. The system in which we must live says to us, ‘What are you even for?’
When I started writing this piece, I knew it would not be business-like or even educational, and that this would likely be frustrating. My writing has always lacked a businesslike aspect: it tends towards disarray and clings towards what I find sustaining. But I find myself coming back to Montaigne. Sarah Bakewell details that he was so interested in the idea of what consciousness was, that he had someone regularly shake him awake in the middle of the night so that he could catch a glimpse of unconsciousness just as it was leaving him. Bakewell observes that it was like he wanted to be in a dream, a reverie, all the time; yet he also wanted to be firmly grounded in reality and to feel as much of it as possible. She concludes that, as a writer, Montaigne was able to be lost in himself as well as to hang on tightly to everything that happened in his life – so that he could pull it back when he needed it in his work. I find this idea an immense comfort: that living as a writer, living at all, means learning how to hang on.