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Working with Words: Dan Bledwich

Read Wednesday, 21 May 2014

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Dan Bledwich is a 29-year-old sex worker and writer who lives in Melbourne. Dan dropped out of University of Wollongong’s Creative Writing degree, and now divides his time between writing his memoir, poetry, punk, and being an agitator for social change. He is currently a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.

We spoke to Dan about the instability of both his careers (writing and sex work), being (badly) advised by a friend not to write anything queer or explicit, and why it’s immensely helpful for new and emerging writers to keep track of what they’ve accomplished.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

There’s been other work (I tried plagiarising C.J. Dennis at the age of four), but the piece I consider to be my real ‘first’ was quite recently, coming out last November via Overland’s website. ‘Sex work and gentrification’ explores violence against street-based sex workers in suburbs facing gentrification, and examines sex work and ‘clean up’ campaigns in the US and Australia more broadly. It was a really emotional piece for me, very personal.

There’s actually a hilarious story about the Overland piece, and I’m hoping it comes up during the EWF thing I’m doing with Jeff Sparrow and Maxine Beneba Clarke, on mentorships. It’s one of those situations in which I put both feet in my mouth, then try and eat my hat. (Yeah, I just mixed metaphors.)

What’s the best part of your job?

As a sex worker and writer, I have met some amazing, gutsy people. Of these, sex worker activists are by far the standouts, having dedicated their lives to helping their peers in any way they can, wherever they are. They put everything on the line.

The sex worker community is like nothing I’ve ever been a part of elsewhere, it’s just amazing. It’s global.

Sex worker activists are predominantly — but not exclusively — women, and they kick arse; there’s a je nais se quoi, but I think it’s encapsulated in the phrase, ‘Fuck you, pay me.’ I draw a lot of strength and inspiration from that combination of professionalism and defiance.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Two things:

One) I’d have to say the amount I make as a writer; I might be lucky to make $250 for a piece of work that can take me 40 hours to complete, but as a sex worker I can earn $250 an ‘hour’. The latter might sound like an amazing rate, but when you factor in prep time before and after a booking and everything else (advertising, bills, Cialis etc.), that amount probably halves. Unfortunately, for both careers, there’s very little stability: you never know when the next amount of money will come in.

Two) I’d say that as a writer, one of the worst things is cabin fever. As a sex worker, it’s cabin fever all over again! In either job there’s lots of sitting around, and if you spend a lot of time working alone as a writer, you go nuts. As a sex worker, if you work alongside others, it’s the opposite: you get oversaturated with talk, TV, and the complexities of workplace relationships. Brothels can be real ‘pot boilers’. In both environments, taking breaks is really important; I need to be able to drop something and walk away for a while.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship. It might seem like I’m licking the hand that feeds, but I’ve been so bowled over that people are interested in my memoir and want to support me as I work on it; I’m just a country boy that’s sucked a lot of … hardships.

I keep joking about being a ‘fraud’ writer, and dreading when people will find out they’ve been ‘conned’, but I’m really just dumbfounded. When you’ve only ever had crumbs, being offered a place at the table is so immensely validating.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I think the best advice I’ve received was from a friend, and it was something her Mum used to say to her as a kid: start like you intend to finish.

I don’t think I always honour that aphorism (Twitter/alcohol), but I’m learning to (paid writing/critical thinking).

The worst advice was from someone I held in high regard, and it was not to write anything ‘queer’ or ‘explicit’, because it wouldn’t do me any favours in future. I think that’s real bad advice (and slightly homophobic), because human lives are complex and messy, and queer lives are made even more so by stigma. I mean, this is the age of enlightenment: if people can’t write their stories, then what is the point in writing at all? ‘Art’? Ugh! I don’t think art should exist for its own sake.

The bad advice, I’ve had to write against that, and at times I’ve found that hard: why is my story less valid than the next person’s? I realised recently: ‘It ain’t’.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I was really surprised, 1 January 2014, to learn that Melissa Gira Grant had listed my Overland piece on ‘Sex work and gentrification’ as one of the best pieces of sex work writing in 2013. As I read through the list of names and pieces she considered worthy, I saw my name among that of many writers and sex workers whom I admire, and maybe it had been a long NYE, maybe I was tired and hungover, but I burst into tears and I couldn’t talk for five minutes.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

To be brutally honest I don’t make a living as a writer (or even a sex worker), but if I wasn’t crushingly unemployed, I might be working in the community health sector, probably for a LGBT or HIV org? That’s what I care about, and where I have some previous work experience. I’m sure there’s still plenty of time for my career to head down that path, but it isn’t what I want for myself exclusively. I need a creative outlet, and sex work/writing provides that.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I don’t think writing can be taught, per se, but there’s a lot to be said for throwing writers into a room together. I studied creative writing at the University of Wollongong, and while I did learn from having other writers pick my work apart, I think I learned the most in those hours outside the classroom: the friendships, the romances, running around the Student Representative Council, the political activism, the arrests (including my own), and the amazing texts I read as part of my coursework, or that I discovered outside of it. That’s what has stuck with me.

UOW has a bit of a reputation for producing troublemaker writers, actually, and I couldn’t oversell that aspect if I tried.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

It sounds banal, but just do it, write! When you’re not writing, absorb what is going on around you in the industry, and plan a trajectory. I’m nowhere near as calculating as I’d like to be (that sounds awful, but it’s true), but if you’re gonna play the game, and you want to play long term, then I think you have to recognise opportunities when you see them, and seize them. I’ve seen so many stories of people entering lucrative literary prizes at the very last minute and then winning, so I’d also say that writers have to back themselves, even if they find that hard: you have nothing unless you try, and arts organisations have money that they’re obligated to distribute. So why not you?

In January I felt like I wasn’t doing enough writing, so I started a ‘progress diary’ to keep track of goings-on and accomplishments, and that’s when I realised how busy I was. I think for new/emerging writers, keeping track of the work you’re doing is immensely helpful.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I read this brilliant piece on Mother Jones by Mac McClelland regarding the conditions that workers face at online stores like Amazon, and every time I hover over ‘Add to cart’ anywhere now, I resist that urge. I love bookshops, particularly second-hands, so I’ll always choose the physical over digital if I have the option. I haunt Readings Carlton pretty often too, rattling my chains and pressing up against the windows.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

The protagonist of Émile Zola’s eponymously titled Nana. I fucking love Nana Coupeau, I love that she’s a sex worker and a social climber, and that she’s both tender AND calculating. Nana’s opportunism reminds me a lot of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (anyone they touch is doomed to ruin), Emma Bovary, and Stendhal’s Julien Sorel. I love each of those characters because of their flaws, not in spite of them. I think that together, we’d make the perfect dinner party!

I have to say, I absolutely hated what Zola did to Nana in the end; she was punished for being a woman, a sex worker, and daring to ask for more.

I’d talk to Nana about our lives as sex workers, the people in our lives, and about the role that class and gender play both then, and now. Finally, I’d warn Nana about what Zola has in store for her, if she hasn’t experienced it already. I’d pass the book to her, and say ‘Now run! Your life depends on it!’

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I want to name check Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse, Nabakov’s Lolita, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, John Scott’s What I Have Written, Winton’s Cloudstreet, Woolf’s The Waves, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. In non-fiction, Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, and Melissa Lucashenko’s Walkley-winning long-form feature ‘Sinking below sight: Down and out in Brisbane and Logan’. Just thinking about Melissa’s piece makes me cry!

In poetry there’s Frank O’Hara, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and John Tranter; the plays of Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible … these are just some of the texts that get a look in.

But one book? One? I think Someone is Flying Balloons: Australian Poems for Children, selected by Jill Heylen and Celia Jellett (1983). My mother and sister would read it to me, and the diversity of the poetry, the humour, sadness, wit and sound all got stuck in my ear. If I turned to my sister today and said ‘Th ma-an will come, th ma-an will come,’ she’d know the reference immediately. She reads our copy to her kids.

I read somewhere (not that long ago) that poetry collections for children always bomb, and publishers just aren’t interested in them, but for a lonely kid living on 750,000 acres in the desert, that book of poems was a window to another world, and it was so dogged about it that I climbed through. I’d love to meet Jill and Celia and thank them for that collection. My copy is a bit worn now, but it belongs in the pantheon.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.