Our Corroboree: Emerging Writers Festival Keynote Address

By Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor published her first book, Au Pair (which was shortlisted for the Vogel) in 1993. Since then, she has published four more books. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the Age Book of the Year in 2011 and will be published by Atlantic in the UK this year. She gave this year’s Emerging Writer’s Festival Keynote Address last week. Here is a slightly edited version of that address.

Fiona McGregor: 'Writing is a job. Let’s demystify it. You have to get up and go to work whether you like it or not.'

Fiona McGregor: 'Writing is a job. Let’s demystify it. You have to get up and go to work whether you like it or not.'

Thanks for having me here tonight: it’s an honour. Almost 20 years ago I gave a reading at what I think was the precursor to this festival. It was the literary component of The Next Wave Festival. I was so nervous I could hardly speak. I never would have thought I’d be standing here 20 years later.

At the time I was tagged a Young Writer; nearly all my gigs for the next few years had this label. In fact, it stuck until I was in my 40s, and as recently as February this year I was introduced as a ‘new, young writer’. Now we use the term Emerging. This is preferable because it opens out the field to anyone beginning to get published, regardless of age. But I want to invite you all to discard these adjectives – are they imposed? Do they restrict you? Or are they chosen? For access? Let’s just think of ourselves as writers. Better still, just think of writing, of the doing; not of the noun, just the verb.

One reason I didn’t think I’d be here today is that I didn’t think in terms of festivals. I hated public appearances due to that aforementioned stage fright, and I thought I could get away with avoiding them. Writing was done in private, and its transmission – reading – was as well. I thought that all I needed to do was write. I was right, and wrong.

Among the many things that have changed over the past two decades is the increase in writers festivals. Arts festivals in general, I suppose. At the same time, a whole virtual world has sprung up in the form of the net. So many new possibilities for communication and exchange. So many new forms of writing, like blogging. The internet has also changed the tempo of writing. But we still have the urge – apparently even more so – for gathering in the flesh. For the embodied presence of our fellow writers. It’s as primitive as the search for a mate, food and shelter. It is the communal instinct; these are our corroborees.

Festivals are exciting – especially for writers, because our work is so solitary. I still get a thrill when I touch down in a foreign city for a festival: I always look forward to meeting writers, and the promise of long conversations about writing. Even if we identify our work in the communal, even if we work in forms attuned to oral expression, writing – verbal composition – necessitates retreat. The written word is the tip of an iceberg of thinking. I call this special space – psychological as much as physical – The Pod.

Maybe more than talent or hard work, what we need in the long term is resilience. How do we remain relevant and keep going? How, in such distracting times, do we maintain The Pod?

Many decades ago George Orwell wrote an essay called ‘Why I Write’. He breaks it down to four reasons:

sheer egoism

the aesthetic impulse

the historical impulse

political purpose

I think Orwell is a fine touchstone because his manner of working across a variety of forms would have suited this digital age very well. So his reasons for writing are timeless, and transcend genres. A novelist, a rapper, a poet, a blogger, a journalist: all are fuelled by these reasons. The best of them are the ones who keep those four things in balance.

Consider ego the nub – it will give you voice and vision all your own; it’s a form of madness that will keep you going through all the rejections and disregard that afflict even successful writers. Only you can tell this story – you have been chosen. But then, back out. Consider your ego an essence best distilled, like a ham hock in stock.

Remember the importance of craft, at the level of the sentence, but also in a bigger sense, at how you arrange life into art. Even if you’re a journalist. Knowing when arrangements reveal truths; or obfuscate, and lie. We’re here because we love language … how to use it, not exploit it; let it find its form, like matter into sculpture.

We are all products of our time, and place; even forms drawing on fantasy or history must be plugged into the here and now to speak to us. The immediate and local are where the timeless and universal are located … We have a responsibility as storytellers, cultural custodians, to keep ferreting out the truth, no matter how uncomfortable; to question everything, everyone.

We are often unaware of politics unless we’re marginalised; this is a real stumbling block in Australia as we ascend into the dubious position of the richest country on earth. Comfort can blind us – but nothing is simple – what is beneath? The writer, no matter their background, class, colour or sexuality, will only remain relevant if politically aware – beyond their own position. Maybe the enemy isn’t the straight white male; maybe it is this stifling comfort, the middle-class decorum that seems to creep into even the most supposedly robust debates. I don’t mean we need to be idealogically motivated, let alone didactic. I mean to be attuned to the vicissitudes of power in society as much as in the home, and heart. I think, like Anthony Burgess, that we have a duty to dissent.

There are so many paradoxes in the writing life. It’s such a privilege to be flown interstate to speak at festivals. In Sydney (as a local I don’t receive this) you’d be put up in a hotel on the harbour. Your five star room would be cleaned by a housemaid who earns barely 20 dollars an hour. What a great job, you think, as you pass her in the corridor, somewhat guiltily – or smugly – is this writing caper! But that housemaid is paid a wage. And stretched over the years it took to write your novel or book of poetry, even if it’s lucky enough to win a prize or sell, her wage is better than yours. Don’t gloat too soon, you writers on a roll. It ain’t likely to last …

Writing is a job. Let’s demystify it. You have to get up and go to work whether you like it or not. As Flannery O’Connor, lifelong devout Catholic, said, You can’t sit around waiting for the Holy Spirit to descend; you have to be at your desk, ready for it. O’Connor also spoke of the nausea she sometimes felt, anticipating her day’s work writing. You have to put up with days where you don’t know what you’re doing. Weeks, months, years, in fact! And worse – with days where you undo good work.

This is the writer’s despair. More than coruscating reviews (what would they know anyway?), worse than any outer critic is the inner one who knows you’re bullshitting – so you’d better chuck it. But that inner critic can get carried away, and kneecap you. So you need to listen to your inner critic’s critic too … so many voices … a babel …

So it’s not just a job. It is also a vocation. Let’s face it: nobody gives a shit whether you write or not. So what are you doing here?? You must be crazy!

But wait – something falls into place. You hear music in your sentences; you nail a moment of rare intimacy and understand something crucial about yourself and the world that you’ve been trying to figure out for ages. You – your words – reveal a rare and difficult problem, a conundrum of the human heart. You have the sense of yourself as cipher, transmitter, of a people, a place; you sing to it, then you have it there, in the palm of your hand, a prism, clear as glass, that you can share, and when you do, it chimes …

So the festival finishes. You might be disappointed. What you thought was going to be a risky, incisive discussion turned out to be as intellectually flaccid as the Murdoch press. That chair, those panellists were lazy, and arrogant. They took you for a mug. All that stuff about Managing Your Career and How To Get Published was just a shallow schmoozefest. And god, you wanked on too, didn’t you? Ugh. This wasn’t a community of writers; this was just a bunch of insecure egos prickling each other into oblivion!

Or maybe you’re disappointed because the festival was great, and you don’t want it to finish. You came out of a session so pumped you couldn’t eat. You sat up talking and drinking all night. You heard someone read who really touched you, someone genuine, talented, right on the nail. You stuck your neck out and it paid off: you learnt something, and you were acknowledged, and heard. You can’t bear the thought of going home again to that solitude and the blank page. The loneliness of The Pod terrifies you. That is, if you can find the time for The Pod after your other job, your studies, your family obligations and blah-di-blah …

But cherish this space. The loneliness and doubt and discomfort will never go away. So don’t shirk it. Stay in it. Admit your vulnerability, and your fear. Give yourself time. The Pod is where you will do your real work. It’s where you will build resilience, hone your talent, and bring something to fruition. If you stick at this job you’ll also have to get over your stagefright like I did, and perform. You might end up on the festival circuit, and not just like it, but maybe prefer it, relieving you as it does from the lonely Pod. But guard this difficult, discomfiting solitude: it is your real place. Turn your prison into a refuge. Exult in being unknown: nobody is looking over your shoulder: you can do what the hell you like. There is freedom here. And real freedom is scary.

Cherish it.

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