To be frank

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If you’ve been following me on Twitter or listening to my podcast, you have probably gleaned that I’ve been having a severely rough time for the past few months. As I mention often, I live with ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), which is difficult at the best of times, and over the past 18 months it has been steadily getting worse. It means I can’t do things as perfectly as I would like, for example finishing The Other Movie Project with 12 shiny monthly instalments sitting in my archives. Instead, the blog posts kind of tapered away while my health got worse. This annoys me. This annoys me a lot.

I like to do things well. No – I need to do things well. It’s a personality trait that gets me good things and also bad things. The same people who tell me to take it easy on myself are also the ones usually telling me how “naturally good” I am at something. “You’re just a natural!” It sets my teeth on edge: I’m good at stuff because of how hard I’ve worked at it. If I stop putting pressure on myself, surely the praise will stop, too.

This is a thing I am working on within myself. I’m trying to do everything at 80% instead of my usual 120%. I would tattoo “TAKE IT EASY” on my forearm if that wasn’t a rather extreme tactic and a bit counterintuitive.

As a chronically ill person, I’ve had to adjust my personal standards, to be pleased that I managed to take a shower today instead of taking that as a given. I still get frustrated, comparing where I’m at now with the ideal, healthy life I thought I’d be living. When I became disabled it felt like I was transitioning out of “the world” and into “sick person land”. It still feels that way sometimes, but now I try to lean into it.

Actually, I still live in the world.

I’m telling you all this so you’ll understand what this means to me:

IMG_3412.JPG

In the new Frankie magazine that came out on Monday, they feature me in a showcase of young creatives doing interesting things in 2016. I did the photo shoot and interview for the Frankie feature when I was at one of my very lowest points, physically and mentally. The acknowledgement of my career and my work gave me a huge lift. And I wasn’t being singled out as a “disabled person to watch” or even a “woman to watch” (which is always nice but kind of feels back-handed) – I was recognised just for being creative. For what I do!

Look what sick people can do!

We do things!

Flipping through the magazine, or being on ABC Radio lately, I’ve been having moments I wish I could send back to my teenaged self while she grappled with her new diagnosis. She’s hoping that she’ll be a writer and be in magazines and talk on the radio one day, and she can’t see a way to doing any of that while she has ME/CFS. She’s desperate for the illness to go away forever. I daydream about going back in time and telling her it won’t, it will come back and stay, her worst fear will come true. I’d also tell her that while she is disabled by illness, she will: perform poetry at the Sydney Theatre Company; be invited to teach workshops at a university (she’s a real nerd, she’ll love that); see her writing published in a book; be interviewed on triple j (she’s 16 and triple j is everything, this will freak her out); get PAID to tell jokes; and do a photo shoot for a fashion magazine. And sometimes these cool fun things will coincide with the absolute worst dips in her health, or will even happen because she’s sick.

But she probably wouldn’t believe me tbh.

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Take me to your money

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Being an artist in Australia feels a lot like that time I was a tourist in Pompeii: none of the fucking maps look alike. Seriously, there’s a road marked here on this one, but it’s not on any of the others. And I’m standing in a courtyard that eight out of the ten maps claim does not exist. Where the hell am I? How do I get back to the food court? (I swear I remember a food court in Pompeii. In Pompeii. Under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, among one of the most remarkable archeological finds ever, I ate a dodgy parma.)

ABOVE: Pompeii postcard, made thanks to art

Pompeii postcard, made thanks to art

Aside from the fact that I rarely get heckled in Italian during tech rehearsal, the Pompeii metaphor stands up pretty well. I entered the creative industries the same way I entered that ancient Roman city: in awe, seeking culture and history and something bigger than myself. Then two street dogs started fighting near my leg and I got scared. But this is not a rant against life as an artist, or Pompeii (one of the coolest historical sites ever). This is more of a generalised puzzling. I’m that lost idiot wearing a bathers top as clothes because my campsite doesn’t include a laundromat, gesturing emphatically at my street map and saying “HELP? WHERE GO?”

Basically, in artist, all of this translates to: my project didn’t get funded.

Bummer.

OK, so, if you’ve seen my bio, you may know that I am one of the three Hack Residents at The Edge, State Library of Queensland. I started my residency in January and I have to say, The Edge is awesome. One of Brisbane’s better kept secrets. I actually resent telling people about my residency because then I’ll have to tell them about The Edge, and I want to keep all of its wonderful resources for MYSELF, ME, JUST MEEEE HAHAHAARR. Other Brisbane artists I’ve spoken to have expressed a similar annoyance that people are starting to know where that cave-like corridor between the Art Gallery and SLQ leads. It’s like Fight Club: it’s an open secret now. We used to just find each other by chanting “His name is Daniel Flood”* until someone else knew what you were talking about. (*That is a very specific Fight Club reference that only makes sense if you’re familiar with The Edge’s programming staff, so sorry to everyone except the three people who laughed at that.)

ABOVE: Yes, this is that concrete hallway you’ve been avoiding because you weren’t sure if you were allowed down there. YOU ARE. DON’T TELL ANYONE.

My residency project is a live event where people can interact with stories from marginalised communities. At the moment, I’m recording interviews with women who work in male-dominated industries – people who have ‘hacked’ (eh?) into workplaces where they would traditionally be excluded. It is fascinating work. I am a nerd for analysing work practices and gender studies and storytelling, so this is pretty great. But I have a problem: not enough funding.

The Edge is supporting my project with in-kind support, for which I am grateful and stoked. One of the wonderful things about the team there is their understanding that creative practice needs space and time for experimentation. The thing is, it also needs money. I was counting on additional streams of funding to make this project go. When two grant applications came back ‘negatory’, it was a blow. I’m not proud of how sad I got. Failing doesn’t come easy to me, as I’m sure it doesn’t to most. Plus, I had no idea what to do next. No map. Without funding, the project was stalled.

I am continuing anyway, because I love this project and I’m crazy-passionate about it, but I cannot afford all the hours of work, the resources, or the fees for additional artists without being paid for them. I will keep applying for further grants and funding avenues, but sometimes it seems like most of my life as an artist is spent writing applications rather than working on my art. And those applications need me to have already spent a lot of time figuring out the art part and getting really good at it and justifying why I should get the money to work on it further. I had hoped that this was just a symptom of me not managing my time properly, but from reading Justin Heazlewood‘s memoir/self-help book Funemployed: Life as an Artist in Australia, I gather that it’s not just me:

“Being an artist means running a business; a tiny one, sure, but as valid and high-maintenance as any other. Only when you are a few years into your practice does this dry reality begin to dawn. Like an extended practical joke, you look around from your desk to see if the cameras are rolling. All this time you’ve been a contestant on Admin Idol, duped into your own temping job by the faceless men at Officeworks.”
— From Funemployed (2014), p. 75. Seriously, buy it, read it, it’s good.

If I’m sounding a bit strident and self-justifying, it’s because I’m fighting against a lifelong conditioning that the arts are inessential. You don’t think about artists doing piles of admin for their art, because you don’t think of art as a job. Like, that sounds fun, but what do you really do?

This isn’t a hobby; this isn’t hanging out after work on the weekends. This is my career and I need to be paid at some point. It’s no coincidence that this period of reflection on my career path comes immediately after I filed my latest tax return. I’m barely treading water here. As a society, we can’t expect to benefit from everything that art brings to our culture and make artists pay for it all out of their own pockets. I was extremely gratified by Charlie Pickering getting shouty on The Project tonight, half-jokingly telling news outlets to stop covering art. Because, Pickering said, the news covers art and they talk about how much it will cost and then people get all “What’s the point of it” and – he yelled – “It’s ART! What’s the point of it? IT’S ART!” Cheering studio applause, echoed by my spraying of nachos at the TV: “Go Charlie!”

So, I’ve had my sulk, nailed my rejection letters to the wall and pulled myself up by my bootstraps. This project has hit a speed-bump but we’re still going to get there eventually. I don’t have a reliable map but I have the same things I had in Pompeii all those years ago: blind optimism and an unshakeable belief that I look awesome in this tankini swim top, no I don’t care that we’re standing in a museum, gimme another parma per favore.

Dawn of the patriarchy of the apes

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Yesterday I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and presumed prequel to Day of the Dawn of the Consolidation of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I have some thoughts. If you are avoiding spoilers, please look away now.

Here be spoilers.

OK. So. HOW AWESOME WAS THAT?? Caesar totally rode a horse. He rode a horse and he totally told the humans off. He and the other apes built their own society. They taught each other sign language and spoken language and written language! Most humans don’t bother with all three. I loved the graphics (aside from one awkward establishing shot in a final battle scene where the apes look embarrassingly CGI, and my disbelief was entirely un-suspended). I particularly loved Caesar. What a babe. Hunkiest ape this side of the rise of the planet. And Caesar has a team of pretty cool, complex ape characters with which to interact. Overall, an impressive film.

I just, I have a little note. A small thing, really. You’ll probably laugh. But WHERE THE HELL were all the female characters? Female apes, female humans – missing! In the ape colony, we only meet one female ape – Caesar’s wife – who, I found out from the credits, was named Cornelia, although we are never given her name during the movie. In her brief on-screen time, Cornelia fulfills the female-movie-character trifecta of giving birth, providing motive for her man, and looking pretty while dying. Apparently she was played by Judy Greer. You wouldn’t know, since she doesn’t have any spoken lines and she mainly lays there looking ill. A waste of the vocal talent that brings us the unforgettable Cheryl Tunt on Archer. And yet I have read entertainment blogs actually heralding Greer as a “leading lady” in this film. Really? Silent, absent, and mostly uninvolved in the plot? But then, I guess this is what leading roles often look like for women.

There is one other female character in Dawn of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Dark of the Moon. She is a human woman, who – you guessed it – is the wife of the other leading man. The man who isn’t an ape. Good, so we’ve got one woman on each side of the human-ape war, and they each exist to show that the lead male has ‘something to fight for’. The human female (played by the way-underused Keri Russell – here you can see this leading lady describe her role in the film as “miniscule”) is named Ellie, and is listed on Wikipedia as a “former nurse” even though I had the impression she was a doctor, and she definitely performs surgery during the movie. During some staid exposition at the beginning of the film, we are casually informed that, before society crumbled, she worked at the Center for Disease Control. Sounds like Dr Disease-Expert Ellie would be pretty essential to establishing a new society in a post-Simian-Flu world. But instead we only see her administering hugs to Malcolm – the true leader – and asking him for permission to do things. (He denies her permission, by the way, because “I need you here” to care for his son from a previous marriage.) Why is Malcolm the preferential authority in the struggle to save humanity? Well, he’s an architect. And … tall? Have you heard how deep his voice is?

“Get behind me, Doctor, I have a degree in architecture.”

Yes, the gender imbalance in this movie greatly annoyed me. It is part of a larger problem with this film, where the human characters are not satisfactorily fleshed out (thus Malcolm’s role as leader of the humans is never adequately explained, while Caesar’s leadership status is easily established by his superior intellect, wisdom and physical strength). It annoyed me beyond all reason that the female apes were all wearing pretty, spangly, beaded headdresses that practically blinded them. I know this was probably intended as an aesthetic link to the 2001 reboot Planet of the Apes, but in that movie the male apes wore adornments as well. Giving only the female apes impractical jewelry just seemed to reinforce their status as decoration.

I don’t even know where the human females were. Apparently the human population had been thinned to near-extinction by the Simian Flu, while survivors of that were killed in post-apocalyptic wars. Surely, if we assume that men are usually responsible for wars and for fighting them (given all we know about history), there would be more women left than men. Even now, women represent a slight majority in the population. I’ve never understood why dystopian films have so much trouble imagining a landscape with women in it. Or why, with civilisation apparently dismantled and society being rebuilt, patriarchal structures have survived with ease. In the recent past, global wars have accidentally resulted in liberation for women, because with the dominant male class off killing each other, women have had to step into new roles. This is the kind of stuff that I find interesting about stories set in post-conflict societies: how new interpersonal dynamics emerge under unfamiliar circumstances.

We don’t get any such insights into the human world of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but the ape society has evolved beyond recognition. They have chopped down trees, built a permanent home, even set up literacy classes. However, they haven’t socially gone any further than “Get all the females and young to safety”. OK, in a battle situation, I could understand “Get all the mothers and their young to safety”. But all the females? I mean, the apes were off to fight humans, right? And as a human, I find female chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans pants-wettingly terrifying. Any one of them could rip my arm out of my socket – I know it, they know it. Why weren’t there female apes in the battle? You could tell me that, in real-life chimp society, it is the males who fight the wars. You could tell me that ape society appears to follow a patriarchal hierarchy. This is all true. But this is a science-fiction film in which chimps are living alongside gorillas and orangutans, have domesticated the horse, and can talk. Even though chimps do not have a vocal tract. They also fire assault rifles. You telling me we can’t stretch the imagination to a female second-in-command for Caesar?

You could ask me why any of this matters, if it’s just a work of fiction. I’m tired of fielding that question. It matters. I’m over watching films where there are hardly any people who look like me, and all they do is hug the men and tell them they’re brave. There’s more to my life than that, and I’d like to see women in movies have more to their lives than that, too. Even the ape ones.

On dream jobs

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I have been sitting at my laptop for the last few hours, staring at a script, calculating syllables and syntax and subtexts. I savour every word changed, every minute I spend thinking about the craft of saying things. Sometimes it seems crazy that I get to do the same thing my heroes have done for years. This work somehow brings me closer to them.

I keep thinking about how it is a pleasure and a privilege to work on something you love. I feel very lucky indeed, but I do hesitate over the word “privileged”: it feels like a dangerous allowance, a concession to those who look upon creative careers as a luxury. In an Australia where our Prime Minister says that if you do not currently have a job, you have “no right to hold out for the job of [your] dreams“, yeah, I feel nervous about doing work I love. Enjoying my work somehow makes it feel illegitimate, unless I were making heaps of money from it (… I’m not).

Privilege is a peculiar benefit which is given to some people and not others. I feel privileged to be working as a writer and performer because I know that some people are not able to do this. Sometimes I am one of those people. When I’ve been too poor and sick to buy groceries or to get down the stairs, I’ve asked myself: “Who do you think you are, to want to make art? What gives you the right? You’re struggling to make ends meet and you want to write poetry?”

ABOVE: Pro-tip – having the State Library as your office is free and gets you dream views.

The Prime Minister is purportedly only targeting unemployed and underemployed Australians with his exhortations to stop “holding out” for a dream job, but we’re all only one piece of bad news away from unemployment, right? One dismissal letter, one crisis, one Budget axing our funding, and it could be us queuing at Centrelink. Then we, too, would have to stop “holding out” – holding out, as if we’re in a negotiation. Is Abbott saying that we don’t have the right to negotiate the terms of our own employment?

The problem with the phrase “dream job” is that its meaning is negligible. I would guess that Abbott means it as “one’s most ideal job”. But most of us know that we have to do many other jobs on the way up to the ideal. In the creative industries, it’s generally accepted that you’ll have to put in hours of study, training, practice, unpaid internships, portfolio-building, work experience – none of which pays the bills. If we, as a culture, only value the hours for which you’re being paid, then we dismiss all those hours you have to put in to become skilled. And research shows that these hours are definitely not wasted, as an article published at The Conversation yesterday demonstrated – although people in the creative industries struggle initially to find employment post-graduation, they go on to earn very comfortably later in their careers and report high levels of career satisfaction.

When the Government talks about unemployment, it sounds like it is imagining the worst possible version of un(der)employed people – spoiled, entitled brats. People who will avoid lifting a finger wherever possible (perhaps preferring to be “leaners”). The Government’s paradigm seems to be, “It’s easy to tell if what you’re doing is worthwhile: if it is, someone will be paying you a living wage for it.” By this mode of thinking, I was contributing more to society when I was handing out Haribo samples in the Woolies confectionery aisle than when I was writing a show about gender and identity in Australia. Lollies are an important part of a balanced diet (the very top of the pyramid, indeed), but the people ignoring me and going over to the Lindt lady instead didn’t seem to appreciate my civic duty.

What is my ideal job, anyway? Am I doing it now? I don’t know. In high school I told people my dream job was to “somehow monetize blinking”, whether in a salaried position or paid blink-by-blink. Now that I’m 28 and (only slightly) less of a smart-aleck, I would say that my ideal job is one that gives me opportunities for autonomy, mastery and purpose. (This Dan Pink talk really had an impact on me.) I would like enough income to be comfortable and to do the things I enjoy. I would like to feel that I am contributing to society in a way for which I am particularly equipped. That is, I would like to make full use of my strengths. You could put me in a field picking strawberries, and I guess I’d be superficially contributing to our nation’s agricultural industry, but I’d be freaking horrible at it. First of all, I’m over six feet tall, and I understand that the strawberries are quite close to the ground. But most of all, I’m physically the equivalent of a sentient noodle. There are other things that I’m much better at, and I think I could be put to better use than being shoved into any job going.

A lot of our Government’s rhetoric is underpinned by the idea that work is inherently moral. I’m not necessarily refuting that – it is an idea I’m still unpacking – and the American blood in me fervently believes in the value of hard work. But what type of work – that is what interests me. The harsh unemployment policies and their supporters are saying that any work is better than “no work”. (By the way, anyone who has been unemployed (and unpaid) for an extended period knows that it is not “no work”.) But what do we want for Australia? Do we just want a country where every single citizen (abled or otherwise) is toiling somewhere, anywhere? Personally, I want more for my country. I dream bigger for us. And I think the Government does, too, since they’ve proposed to invest billions of dollars in a Medical Research Future Fund, to make sure that Australia will “advance world leading medical research projects“. They want Australia to achieve autonomy and mastery in the medical research field, and all this in the midst of a “budget emergency“. Clearly it’s not enough for Australia’s medical bodies just to work – they must be globally competitive.

If more people in Australia were able to work towards their “dream job” (read: dream lifestyle), I have little doubt that we would have the kind of culture that other countries hold up as an example. We could be one of those smug Scandinavian countries! Do we want work satisfaction to be a peculiar benefit only afforded to a few? Or could we all dream of a job where we are employed to the best of our abilities?

I will continue to feel lucky doing work that I love. But I wonder whether it should be considered a privilege rather than a right.

BELOW: Following some dreams.

 

 

Betting all the chips on you

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Yowza. Today marks exactly one month before I step onstage at The Blue Room Theatre, for the first time as a ticket-selling solo artist. I’ve finally twigged that my parents and my friends and my friends’ friends and my parents’ friends will be coming to see this show (bless them). Nerves? What nerves? HA HA HA I’M TOTALLY FINE.

Okay, so the caps-lock suggests that I’m a bit nervous. Well, dur. This show is intensely personal and I’ve spent the past year pulling out of myself as much feels and honesty as I could handle, before sifting through the raw materials and moulding it into something an audience could enjoy. It’s been a process of painful personal growth and self-doubt and pushing through roadblocks that seemed insurmountable. It’s been REALLY HARD. And clearly it has also been really important to me, otherwise I wouldn’t have kept pushing.

But there was a moment, shortly before I previewed the show at Metro Arts during its creative development stage, when I became very worried that I was changing – for the worse.

I was sitting in a coffee house, at a meeting with a couple of friends, talking about a  project entirely separate to my show. Before the meeting, I had been staring at pictures of myself for a good hour, sorting out publicity material, and writing copy about how great my show was and why everyone should come and see it. That stuff will mess with your head. After a few hours’ writing about yourself, your creative practice, which is your best side, why you’re this generation’s Bertolt Brecht – holy wow, you won’t know which way is up. (This goes for writing funding applications, too.) I had come to hate my face. I thought if I had to spend another minute figuring out how to work in quotes about my “genius”, I’d puke. But I also felt disproportionately large, like my own image was filling my vision and I couldn’t see around it. I couldn’t remember what it was like not to think about me. I was miserable.

Anyway, so I go into this meeting at the coffee house with this mindset, trying to yank myself back into the present and pull me out of myself. You know, to get back that feeling where you’re “just a pair of eyes” (as Tavi Gevinson would say) and you’re engaging with the people around you. I fail horribly. I’m tetchy, sharp-tongued, restless and easily offended by the lovely people I’m sitting with. Things ain’t right. I’m out of my groove. After the meeting I walk away, settle down, send apology messages, and reflect. What is this knot of terror sitting in my gut? Why am I so out of balance?

I realised that, after years of dancing around the edges of my dreams, I was finally plunging in head-first. After a long time of joining other people’s projects, working on other people’s visions, and reviewing other people’s creations (all of which I can’t wait to do again), I was now working on a project whose success depended entirely on my abilities. If I can self-aggrandise for a moment, I was like James Bond in Casino Royale: I had bet the whole endeavour on me. And that terror – that lizard-like feeling that makes you selfish and jumpy and defensive and small – it was crawling up my throat.

I didn’t feel ready. I’d gotten in too deep. I was going to fail.

But, as my spirit animal Amy Poehler says, “Great people do things before they’re ready”. You can only find out that you’re ready by trying. I mean, I guess that’s true – I’m about to find out! The ego thing is pretty hard to get around, and I’m not going to further self-aggrandise by pretending that I’m the only one struggling with this. That lizardy ego can crawl into the mouths of any person in any field, and my greatest dream is to live free of it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t chase my other dreams as well. For a long time, I think I unconsciously skirted around my ambitions because I was afraid of what a little success would do to my head. What if my dreams came true? What if I became insufferable? (The latter is a real danger in the arts.)

But making myself small and holding myself down and only allowing myself a fraction of the joy I wish for in life – all of that is an ego-trip in itself. It’s the ego that says “Look how much I sacrificed”, “I am strong for holding myself down”, “It takes incredible willpower to walk away from your dreams”. I predict that eventually these thoughts alone would not be enough solace for the adventures you denied yourself, so you would start trying to impress upon other people how difficult your struggle has been. Then you become that person in the bar, slurring “I coulda done it, y’know, I coulda bin a STAR”.

So, in one month I’ll step onstage and try something. I’m nervous, of course, but I’m also thrilled to be trying something I’ve been dying to try my whole life.

And if I keep working hard at it, and trying and pushing at these dreams, maybe one day I’ll be able to pay someone to do my publicity material for me. YES.

Surrounded by sub-tropical plant life

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I’m sure by now you’re getting a little burnt-out on all the ‘end of year’ posts happening at the moment – the ones that look back over 2013 with piercing eyes, or gaze mistily into the wonder that could be 2014. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I like those posts. It’s satisfying to reflect on the year that was, and to remind yourself what’s important to you going forward. That’s fine. I was tempted to write a retrospective blog post myself, but I couldn’t think of any way to make it feel original or fresh.

So I’m doing the compete opposite.

I’m going to write to you about what’s happening right now.

Not what happened over the last twelve months (although this year has been AWESOME) or what I hope will happen next year (although it’s looking like it might be AWESOME), but what is happening at this time.

I’m sitting in a library (surprising no one), typing on my laptop while somewhere a toddler burbles at his mother. There is a row of tropical-looking pot plants sitting directly in front of me, quite at odds with the pristine white tables and frosty air conditioning. I’m in here because (a) it’s stinking hot outside, and (b) libraries are my natural habitat anyway. The books! The air-con! The free wi-fi! Truly this is some kind of modern-day Eden. (Except, with the knowledge? I haven’t properly thought this analogy through.)

It’s softly sunny outside, silver light filtering down through the cloud haze. I imagine the heaviness of the heat waiting to drop on me when I step outside later. Through the corner of a window I can see the Brisbane Wheel circling quietly in South Bank. A lot of the light in this library is artificial, fluorescent and glaring, but I notice that there’s a weird kind of skylight in the ceiling, partially blocked by what I can only imagine someone else once imagined was modern art.

This whole library is a testament to modern art. Its aesthetics are … unique. I wouldn’t say they entirely work for my tastes, but I love the way the slant of the irregular windows mirror the ‘chopstick bridge’ outside. And, from almost every window, the river – the river, the river, the river. I have to say it many times in my head because it is such a presence in this town. I love the way Brisbane lives on its river, and not just next to it. I’ve written many poems on this and maybe soon some of them will be published.

I check my word count: 417. I usually write about a 1,000, but I’m not sure how long I can keep this conceit interesting. It may already be boring my readers. I think an apology to them all, and begin to wrap up the blog post. My stomach is blotted with that pointed pain that comes with hunger. Or, to put it in a less wanky poetic way, I needs lunch. Now.

This is Monday the 30th of December, 2013, and this is what’s happening at almost exactly midday in Brisbane. The sun is at its zenith. (You don’t get nearly enough opportunities to use the word ‘zenith’ in everyday conversation. Excellent word. Zenith.) I am grateful for my followers and readers and friendly supporters. I am determined to keep working and creating and writing. I am also determined to get some burrito in me ASAP.

I hope your day is going well.

An open letter to teenaged writers (and the people who teach them)

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“How do we avoid all the teen angst?”

I heard this question from a high school teacher last week, while sitting on a panel at the National Young Writers’ Festival. The panel was entitled ‘What Makes A Story’ and it had an audience of mostly teenaged writers. The teacher was asking us how they could keep their students from handing in creative writing filled with angsty teenage emotion.

What was meant to be a discussion about “how to write well” had turned into “how to write like you’re not a teenager”. I had to call shenanigans on this.

The thing is, I don’t buy into this idea of “teen angst”. I don’t think angst is arbitrated by your age.

From 'Perks of Being A Wallflower'. Credit: Summit

From ‘Perks of Being A Wallflower’ / Summit

“Teen angst” is a term generally used to dismiss the fears and anxieties of people aged thirteen to twenty. It suggests that their emotional reactions are overblown and ridiculous, less valid than the feelings of people outside this age bracket. Among writers, “teen angst” refers to writing produced by teenagers that is characteristically overly descriptive, unsubtle and rife with cliché. In other words, poor writing.

For older writers, “teen angst” is shorthand for the unsophisticated prose we wrote at school. It is a way of laughing into our sleeves at the earnest poetry we wrote when we were fifteen and totally in love. I don’t use the word “totally” to mock the stereotypical syntax of teenagers. I mean totally in love. When I was seventeen and I heard the warm voice of a young man who would torture my dreams for years, every part of me fell into love. There was nothing else left.

Was I angsty? Yes. Did I write pages of embarrassing poetry about it? You bet I did. But should I have stopped myself from writing this “teen angst”, stopped exploring my feelings and experiences, and instead written as if I were some imagined other person?

What would have been the point?

If I tried to ignore the bent of my feelings and write as if I were someone else, to please someone else, I would inevitably write something mundane and stupid. In fact, I often write mundane and stupid things even when I am being most true to myself. But at least then I have spent time with the subjects that most occupy my thoughts; I may have exorcised some demons. If you’re going to write something mundane and stupid, it might as well be on the subject of something you care about.

Credit: Rubin Starset / Flickr

Credit: Rubin Starset / Flickr

I understand that high school English teachers are sick of reading extended metaphors comparing love to a roller-coaster. I couldn’t be more sympathetic. And since they mainly read writing submitted by teenagers, they can be excused for thinking this lack of sophistication comes down to age. But listen, I attend poetry open mic’s. It is not just teenagers. When you’ve heard fifty-year-old men read out long, meandering poems about their heart being “torn apart” (“in the dark”, “from the start”), you tend to stop thinking angst ends with youth.

I’m not claiming that the teens are not a turbulent time, or that fourteen-year-olds are not more prone to emotional highs and lows than most other age groups. I’m saying, let’s stop shaming them for this. They are reacting to a legitimately difficult period of life. When I look back on my teens and my “crazy emotions”, I now notice that those years coincided with a crazy amount of new responsibilities and pressures, coupled with being trapped in environments I wasn’t allowed to leave (school, home). As soon as I graduated high school and had the freedom to choose where I spent most of my time, and with whom, it’s amazing how quickly I perked up. To paraphrase Steven Winterburn: before you diagnose your student with “teen angst”, first make sure that they’re not just actually having a really hard time. And please, let’s stop rolling our eyes at teenagers for being melancholy. People in younger age groups are more likely to experience depression and anxiety disorders. It really is life-or-death for them.

Anway, if your teenaged students are submitting poor writing, it is probably because they are inexperienced writers. It’s not because they are writing about teenage experiences, or because their youth renders them senseless. Writers who’ve had many decades to work on their craft are more likely to write better. But someone who picks up a pen to write their first poem or story about heartbreak at fifty-three is just as likely to write something terrible as a fifteen-year-old. Prodigies aside, we all need to work at writing, no matter our age.

So, teenaged writers, it’s not about how old you are. It’s about how much you’ve read, how much you’ve informed yourself, how many hours you’ve put into writing. Older people have had more time to learn their craft, but that doesn’t mean they’ve used it. You have as many hours in the day as everyone else. If you want to be a great writer, work at it. And don’t let anyone tell you that your feelings are just “teen angst”. Your feelings aren’t clichéd; your experiences aren’t clichéd. Your metaphors, however, might be.

 

The panel was a part of NYWF’s Younger Young Writers Program, organised by teacher/tour-de-force Geoff Orton.

If you or someone you know is having a hard time, YouthBeyondBlue has information and advice for getting through it.

Twelve glorious hours

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So, last Wednesday was epic. It kicked off with a seven-hour film shoot, and ended with a glorious night of storytelling.

The film shoot was with Brisbane filmmaker Ezz Wheadon, who I’d met only a couple of weeks earlier at Clare Bowditch’s Big Hearted Business morning tea. All Ezz and I knew was that we were both passionate about working on a creative film project. But on the shoot, we discovered we had more in common – GEEKDOM. Ezz’s surname corroborates her geek credentials. We talked Whedonverse and Wil Wheaton and all things in-between. This lady is cool. (Oh and her daughter is, too.)

Here's one of the stills Ms Wheadon took on the shoot. I heart you, Roost Coffee!

Here’s one of the stills Ms Wheadon took on the shoot. I heart you, Roost Coffee!

The film shoot was a grand adventure indeed; we traipsed through beautiful Kelvin Grove sharehouses and funky cafes and the alleyways of West End. (Ezz did a nice write-up of our adventure, you can see what Ezz said about it here.) As I set up for one of the shots, I had delicious flashbacks to my halcyon days as a film intern in Denver, Colorado, many years ago. (I was a nineteen-year-old backpacker and a family friend’s film company took me in; I worked as an unpaid intern at the company and babysat the director’s small daughter, and in return they let me live in their attic for a month. It was pretty awesome … Except for the ghost. But that’s another story.) On location, it was my job to rearrange ferns, adjust furniture, hold up reflectors and get releases signed. I loved it. It should have been boring, but it wasn’t. The company I was interning for was a not-for-profit, dedicated to representing marginalised voices in the Denver community. They were motivated by passion. It was an inspiration.

I felt that same inspiration yesterday, working with Ezz. I find it intrinsically satisfying to work on a project that is motivated by passion. Even the moments that might seem dull if you were working at a job you didn’t like – those times when the lights won’t change, or you have to do the washing up – are a pleasure. Or at least, that’s how I feel.

That’s how I felt last Wednesday night, at Yarn: Man vs Wild. It was the latest in the series of storytelling nights held by Yarn: Stories Spun In Brisbane. We were in a new venue this time – Black Bear Lodge, in the Valley. And what a night it was! The place was wall-to-wall with storytelling enthusiasts. There was even a Greens candidate telling a story in amongst the wilderness-themed decorations, even though she admitted to not being the outdoorsy type (“Worst Green ever – I haven’t even been to Tasmania”). I have to say, I love the audiences at storytelling nights. I’ve always found them to be warm and generous, supporting those poor bastards up on the stage with the shaky hands. Yarn brings this kind of a crowd in, and as an event it is going from strength to strength.

After a day and night like this, I felt a buoyancy that I couldn’t properly express. So I wrote a tweet:

Screen Shot 2013-09-05 at 10.32.51 PM

“Home, exhausted, after a 12 hour day – every minute of which was spent on work I’m wildly, madly passionate about. This is. Just.”

Yep. That’s all I can say.

… But I’ll say one more thing! You can see the first video in the poetry series I filmed with Ezz Wheadon, as it is now live on my YouTube channel! More to come. Stay tuned.

The kind of girl I want to be

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So, last night I watched Gangster Squad. It was alright. My housemate and I had grabbed the DVD from the shops and headed home with some burgers. It was a pretty sweet plan – we were both in the mood for action, and I loved the line-up of actors. Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling? Sean Penn being insane? Nice.

But by the second half of the film, I was wriggling around in my seat, grunting to myself. I sat forward, threw my hands up. Yelled some half-sentences at the screen. “But what is she–” … “But why doesn’t he–?” … “BUT YOUR WIFE IS–!!”

Something was really bugging me, and it wasn’t just the awkward direction or the under-developed characters. (All of those A-grade actors were working so hard to make something out of that script, but man, they didn’t have much to work with.)

I was getting seriously bugged by the female characters in the film. Emma Stone’s character – what are her motivations? Why does she hang off the arm of that psycho gangster? The only explanation we get – “I came to this town to be a star”. Come on. “I came here to be a star, but that didn’t work out, so now I’m dating the bloodthirstiest mob boss on the west coast”? What? It was hard to see such a paper-thin role inhabited by the gifted comedic actor of Easy A. I mean, she brought the world this:

The only other named female character in Gangster Squad was the sergeant’s pregnant wife. She was clever and tough as nails, but she still spends most of the film being abandoned by her husband.

The thing I was having trouble articulating to my housemate, a dude of the dudest order, is that movies like these make me feel a bit left-out. I don’t see myself in these movies. I love action, I love thriller, but the only people who look like me in them are not the heroes. I’ve never seen myself in the role of dependent girlfriend or long-suffering wife. Growing up, I didn’t dream of waiting at home to find out what was going on. These weren’t the character types that spoke to me.

I wanted to be Ryan Gosling, smooth-talking with a heart of gold. I wanted to be the straight-shooter, pinging tin cans out of the sky with a knowing wink. I wanted to be that “one man” (in movie voice) who saves the world. I wanted to be Will Smith punching aliens; Keanu Reeves stopping bullets; Tobey Maguire discovering he could climb walls with his fingertips. I wanted to be MOTHER-FLIPPING WOLVERINE.

But I’m a lady.

You might be excused for thinking I’m gender-confused, wishing I was Hugh Jackman or something, but that ain’t it. It’s not me who’s confused about my gender – it’s Hollywood. Women are categorically more interesting, varied, and powerful than is represented in cinema. No wonder that, when I’m watching the latest blockbuster, I find myself relating more to the male characters for their appealing array of courageous and tenacious heroes.

There have been flares of cinematic womanhood that have dazzled my weary eyes, such as Hermione punching Malfoy, or Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or Pocahontas diving off a cliff with zero fear. And, I know I bring it up a lot, but The Hunger Games. These characters are self-possessed, capable, at home in their surroundings. They have that thing inside them, a special power. That’s what so many female characters in cinema lack: an internal power. Their power is more often derived from external sources (usually whomever they’re letting lie on top of them at night).

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read past here if you haven’t seen Season 2 of Game of Thrones yet and you still want to be surprised.

Daenerys Targaryen, "Game of Thrones".

Daenerys Targaryen, “Game of Thrones”.

I think that’s why Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones has gathered such an intense following among fans: She is the Khaleesi. She started off a meek, oppressed, pretty little thing who did what the men around her said. Then, she walked into a fucking bonfire with some dragon eggs and everyone was like HOLY SHIT. No one told her to do that; she felt it intuitively. It came from inside her, a special power that she possessed. I love that. She isn’t a perfect feminist icon, but as Caitlin Moran recently tweeted (in response to the overthrow of Prime Minister Julia Gillard): “[F]eminist role models don’t need to be perfect. Currently, they just need to exist”.

They exist in real life (see: Wendy Davis). I’m damn sure they could comfortably exist in our imaginary lives, as well.

US Senator Wendy Davis. (Dragon probably photoshopped.)

http://www.timeforafilm.com/2012/12/04/movie-review-pitch-perfect-2012/

Movies That Are Good For Girls

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As longtime readers may know, I used to work with teenagers of the female variety, and I noticed that the only movies they would watch were awful Hollywood rom-coms. In other words, they were living on a steady diet of stupid.

myboyfriendthinksimfatI wrote a post a while back, shaming a few “bad movies for girls” – but now I’m stepping it up. I’m not just bringing problems, here; I bring solutions. So, what movies would be good for these teenage girls (and anyone else) to watch? What movies are out there that offer solid alternatives to the ol’ “I need a boyfriend, wah!” formula? I’ve made a list of movies that I wish those teenage girls would watch instead of No Strings Attached. If they ever felt like watching some light entertainment that didn’t end with Matthew McConaughey laughingly mocking a woman and then planting his face on hers*, I would like them to have some options.

* Notable examples of this trope include: “You throw like a girl” (Sahara, 2005); and “Bullshit!” (How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, 2003), to which he romantically adds, “You heard me. Bullshit”.

I ran all the movies I could think of through the Bechdel Test before selection. If you’re not familiar with Bechdel, passing the test requires that the film includes:

  • at least two (named) female characters
  • who talk to each other
  • about something other than men.

The movies listed below pass that test with flying colours. (It’s harder than you’d think! Apparently only half the movies in cinemas at the moment pass it.) I also chose these movies on the basis that I just like them. They’re entertaining. They suggest that maybe – maybe – it would be feasible to make more films about diverse female experiences. I know my life consists of somewhat more than just “wah, boyfriend” (although that’s in there, too), so it would be nice to see the movie options out there reflect that.

So here are five movies that I think are pretty good for girls:

1. Stick It (2006)

Angry girl is angry! For reasons that have nothing to do with boys! Also, she is a kick-ass gymnast. She and her teammates learn to put personal ambition aside and work together to shake up Big Gymnastics. It’s a gorgeous example of overcoming petty competition in favour of communal thinking. And, thank the heavens, they weren’t competing over men. To top things off, this movie’s got some rad athletic scenes, set to a cool soundtrack. I’d much rather hear girls quote this movie than the Bring It On franchise, as this one gives the mean/angry girls a bit of depth, compassion, and even redemption.

2. Pitch Perfect (2012)

Similar set-up to Stick It: angry girl is angry, joins in a team competition with much eye-rolling, and eventually leads her new friends to victory. But this take on a familiar trope is just so. Much. Fun. With a capella singing groups battling each other on campus, heaps of screwball characters, and Rebel Wilson declaring herself the “best break-dancer in Tasmania” … I mean, I’m in. There is a half-baked romance in the wings for the protagonist (Anna Kendrick), but it’s pure exposition for her character. The real triumph is her relationships with the other girls.

3. Brave (2012)

Made for a younger market than the other films on this list, but such a beautiful story from Disney-Pixar that I had to include it. This Disney princess resists being socialised to accept her fate as someone’s wife, and takes matters into her own hands. The central dynamic is a mother-daughter relationship – rare for Disney films – and it is handled beautifully. I cry every time. Every damn time.

4. The Hunger Games (2012)

Katniss is a bad-ass archetypal Artemis figure who shoots straight, takes no shit, and will do anything to protect her sister. At first I wasn’t sure if this one would pass the Bechdel Test because Katniss spends most of the movie interacting with Gale, Peeta or Haymitch (two of whom fancy her) … But then my housemate (a man) reminded me about the beautiful scenes between Katniss and Rue, the young victor from District 11, in which they teach each other to survive.

In fact, the narrative plays with the romance genre by introducing a “meta-romantic subplot” – Peeta and Katniss must act as star-crossed lovers in order to survive the Games. Is the love real? other characters ask. Or is it just what the audience in the Capitol expects? I think somewhere in there are the traces of an interesting commentary on how our culture consumes romance.

5. Mean Girls (2004)

Did someone say “YOU GO GLEN COCO”?? After reading Queen Bees and Wannabes in the early 2000s, Tina Fey bought the film rights to the book and BOY DID SHE USE THEM. I am using so many capitals because I LOVE THIS FILM. This came out just after I finished high school, and ten years later I still hear teenagers quoting it. Fey certainly hit a nerve with this story of a high school newcomer who learns manipulation at the hands of girl cliques. It explicitly addresses problems with the way girls behave towards each other, and does so in a hilarious and highly-quotable manner.

To the guy who told me he would never watch Mean Girls because “What, it’s a chick movie”, I say GO EAT A HAT. Iron Man; Yes Man; Cinderella Man; Spider-man; Bicentennial Man; Lord of War; Iron Man 2; The Dark Knight; The Last King of Scotland; I Love You, Man; Spider-man 2; Children of Men; The Men Who Stare At Goats; X-Men; Men In Black; Man On The Moon; and Spider-man 3 – I’ve watched ’em all, and ENJOYED them (even Spider-man 3, no matter what people say), and I still have all my lady parts in tact. Oh, you know what, just read this.

"She doesn't even go here!"

“She doesn’t even go here!”

But, Bridesmaids ..? Some may remark upon the absence of Bridesmaids (2011) from this list … But I felt that it only barely passed the Bechdel Test. Yes, there are many female characters, but they do mainly get together to talk about men. And when we get a blockbuster Hollywood comedy written by women with a leading cast of women, it’s still centered around a wedding. I think this movie is hilarious, but I’m not sure it offers a great alternative to traditional patriarchal narratives. That said, I nearly cracked a rib laughing at the ‘airplane scene’.

Just a quick point: I recognise that my list of movies representing “diverse female experiences” is doing a great job of privileging young, white, hetero, first-world girls’ experiences. I get that. I would love to watch more diverse female characters on screen, and I welcome suggestions of movies to watch that can help me outside this bubble.

My overall hope is that we’ll see more movies being made that represent the rich diversity of human experiences, especially in the comedy/romance genres. There are so many more types of people out there! Let’s get their stories into teenage DVD collections, too. C’mon now.