Smarter Than Your Average Bogan: On Being a Regional Writer
Kelly-Lee Hickey has often felt insecure about her status as a regional writer. For her, success has meant taking advantage of opportunities to network with like-minded writers from around Australia (both on social media and in real life) - and, most importantly, being herself.
In this extract from The Emerging Writer, she traces her journey as a regional writer making it on the national (and international) stage.
Catching my breath between tech runs for the 2010 Australian Poetry Slam Finals, I was approached by one of the other finalists, a middle-aged woman with mousy brown hair. As I introduced myself she looked me up, down and through.
‘You’re one of the NT finalists.’
‘I wouldn’t be disappointed,’ she said. I looked at her quizzically, but had a hunch where this was going.
‘If you don’t win,’ she explained. ‘I mean, most of us have had to go through a number of heats to get this far. Heats with LOTS of people in them.’ She strung out the word for effect. ‘How many did you have up there?’
I cleared my throat. ‘Just two. One in Darwin, one in Alice. I won the Alice heat.’
She went on, ‘And how many people competed in that one?’
‘I dunno,’ I said, ‘About ten.’
‘There you go then,’ she shot me a look of smug pity, ‘Just don’t get your hopes up love.’
The truth was I wasn’t there to win. Watching YouTube clips of finalists from the other states, I was intimidated by their hip-hop stylings and comic repertoires. I’d been ‘doing’ spoken word off and on for the best part of ten years. After a decade of experimentation with spoken word and performance I’d found my niche telling the only truth I knew. I decided to make the most of my two minutes alone with a few hundred Sydneysiders and a microphone to give a personal perspective on one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in contemporary Australia – the Emergency Intervention into Aboriginal communities.
After I won, she came up to me and apologised, ‘I never realised. I just assumed that you wouldn’t be any good without the competition and opportunities we have in Sydney.’
Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with most of our population huddling along a thin strip of the East Coast. Pop cultural iconography pedalled for tourists still paints the rest of the country as a barren expanse filled with derogatory stereotypes about beer guts and native savages. Urban-centric assumptions about the quality of work in the regions are a hangover from a colonial mindset that fears the ‘savage frontiers’ and equates the urban centres with civilisation. This cultural narrow-mindedness doesn’t just exist in the arts; it pervades every aspect of Australian culture, from our systems of political representation to patterns of employment. It’s frustrating, but easier to handle if you remember that it’s not personal.
The road from country to city is well worn; Australia has some of the world’s highest rates of rural youth migration. I think it’s important to link up with the urban centres, and technology now affords us regional folk a number of ways to do this. Facebook groups, blogs and Twitter fests are all important inroads, but nothing beats actually rocking up to a writers’ festival in the big smoke and meeting as many other young and emerging writers as you can. Sure it can take a few deep breaths to still your anxiety before you can actually talk to other writers, particularly if you’re like me and wear your insecurities on your sleeve. It’s totally worth it though – through the National Young Writers Festival and Emerging Writers Festival I’ve made friends and allies who’ve believed in me, and given me the heads-up on opportunities and feedback on my work. Most states have quick response and travel grant schemes which can help finance your way to these events. Grant applications are a style of writing essential to the regional author’s repertoire.
As a dear friend and mentor of mine once said, ‘Contrary to popular belief, writing is not a lonely game.’ Social networks are pivotal to sustaining you; they encourage you when you’re doubting yourself, and give you new perceptions on your work through feedback. Giving feedback sharpens your critical eye, and teaches you what you like, which in turn helps you when you go to self-edit your work.
In my hometown, music and visual arts reigned supreme; as a young writer, I was somewhat of an anomaly. The middle-aged women at the writers’ centre had kindly passed on some Voiceworks magazines, so I knew that somewhere out there were other young people who were like me. But it wasn’t until I went to the This is Not Art festival in 2001 that I realised I wasn’t a freak and that writing could be cool in the way that playing in bands was back home. That year I met some of the crew who have stayed with me on the writing journey, like the long-haired angel Daniel Watson, from Paroxysm Press, who aside from publishing my work, let me sleep on his couch for weeks. I went home drunk on zines and spoken word, convinced that I’d found my path and that it burned straight down the Stuart Highway.
Moving to Melbourne in 2003 I felt like every caricature of a country bumpkin; being from the tropics I didn’t know how to layer my clothes until I read about it in a zine, I didn’t know how to find the good bars, or strike up a conversation with the hipsters at a warehouse party. Coupled with that I’d gone from being a big fish in a small pond to being a minnow thrown to and fro in the ocean. My ego transformed from a bulbous helium balloon into a pair of lead shoes; I was drowning in my own preconceptions of how important and unique I was.
Sitting on the editorial committee for Voiceworks magazine for a year was one of the best things I ever did for my writing; I made some great friends who continue to inspire me to this day and got hands-on learning about the editorial process. I learnt what made a submission stand out from the pile, how close acceptance and rejection can be, and just how many knockbacks a writer can get before they are published. It was also one of my first pathways into advocating for other regional writers; I was able to fight for others whose voice I recognised as important, just as previous members of the editorial committee had fought for me when I was starting out.
Despite all the networks, support, and publication and performance opportunities I still harbour an insecurity about being different from what I perceive as a ‘real writer’. Sitting in a cafe in Ubud for the 2011 Readers’ and Writers’ Festival I shared my doubts with an author friend.
‘But I’m not really a writer,’ I whined, fiddling with my drink.
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘I mean, I’m not educated. I don’t have a Masters in Literature from Melbourne Uni. I haven’t read half the books that most other writers rave about. Postmodern prose poetry makes no sense to me.’
He scoffed. ‘It’s not qualifications that make your work interesting. It’s you and your unique experiences. That’s what makes the work engaging and makes you compelling to watch when you perform. Own it.’
And that is some of the best advice I’ve ever received. Own it. Let the work speak through you. Don’t try to be something you’re not. One of the most powerful illustrations of this happened when I was working on the National Young Writers’ Festival. My co-director had recruited a number of big names to the festival, including Anna Funder and Shaun Tan. I took a punt and programmed a panel called ‘Smarter than Your Average Bogan’; writers from working-class backgrounds talking about how their cultural perspective informed their art. We all wore fake handlebar moustachios and drank cans of bourbon and Coke on the stage. To my surprise the Sunday afternoon session in the festival club was packed. Even more surprising was the glowing review of the panel published in The Monthly.
There is a market for regional writing; a trade publisher with decades of experience told me that books about the outback are one of her house’s biggest sellers. That’s not to say that you should back yourself into a corner and mimic the iconoclast, but it does demonstrate that there is an audience in Australia interested in something beyond the urban sprawl. One of the most powerful aspects of any creative practice is that it can illuminate the unseen by creating connections between disparate ideas. Regional writers therefore have a special role in the creation of Australian culture; to peel back the layers of cultural stereotypes and illuminate the complexities of life outside the city limits.