Stella, and a digression on envy, work, inadequacy

The Stella Prize 2013, the inaugural prize, was awarded last week to Carrie Tiffany, for Mateship with Birds, which you know I enjoyed very much (here’s my Big Issue interview with Carrie from last year). She very generously donated $10,000 of the prize money back to the shortlist, noting that it was a selfish act because it gave the authors time and she was looking forward to their next books! Very sweet.

Helen Garner was invited to speak, prior to the prize-giving. She spoke honestly and personally about how prizes can be tricky, if you don’t win or aren’t nominated at all. You have to remember, she said, that prizes are judged by people, driven by unconscious urges. It’s also true that even the most intelligent, studied, insightful and well-read critic is a person. There is always a factor of subjectivity.

Slowly shedding the naive shell I carried when I moved to Melbourne five years ago, I’m starting to realise that the industry isn’t quite so humble. (Yeah duh, you’re saying.) I’ve been privy to conversations lately, at festivals and events, where people are wearing envy on their sleeves, often around writers who have received big advances or won multiple prizes. I’ve heard words like ‘prize-bait’, and ‘flashing their advance’. Among all the good and positive stuff, mind you, of which there is a lot. Sometimes it just slips out.

But it’s healthy to (privately) express such things, because the industry is tough and getting tougher. Honestly, many authors whom you would think of as famous and respected are getting such tiny advances, like $4000. These are authors who have published several books. So it’s natural, don’t you think, that hopes become higher, maybe a little desperation creeps in?

Since I consider that I’m at the beginning of my career, I’m realising that it is a smart idea to have other work—a day job, freelance work, or whatever—that is regular, enjoyable (or bearable) and can be relied upon for an income. It’s a challenge in itself to find this, because ‘artists’ are not always easygoing. ‘Regular work’ can be a big deal, especially if you’re nervy, neurotic or prone to anxiety or depression (as many creative people are—no, I don’t think it’s a myth, they need to be because they need to see the inner workings of things, even if they misinterpret them):

‘All writers—all beings—are exiles as a matter of course. The certainty about living is that it is a succession of expulsions of whatever carries the life force… All writers are exiles wherever they live and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land…’—Janet Frame, The Envoy From Mirror City.

My own envy swells up when confronted with artists who seem free to be artists. My biggest obstacle to that is not money (though of course that’s an obstacle), it is myself. My unfortunate absorption of others’ opinions of what I should be doing, and the distraction of other genuine but smaller goals, means that I often put my biggest, shiniest ambition last. It gets blocked. And then there’s all the life stuff.

And I’m not brilliant, anyway. I need to work on something a lot to make it any good. An author I very much like suggested the other night that publishing a book might actually hinder my career. But most Australian critics that I respect have published books, fiction and/or nonfiction; and secondly, I obviously don’t see my career in the same light as she does. And that’s kind of depressing. It effects me, and makes me think my ambition is lofty. And it’s hard to shake those words when I sit down to write. Who do I think I am? All the while I watch the musician on the cello, moving his head like a mad person, being pure music; passion, and I envy that.

There’s a reason, then, that I’m drawn to characters in both my reading and writing who feel inadequate (would that effect my critical bias? Maybe). But also, adversely, characters who are supremely confident. Or eccentric, or glamorous; even arrogantly so. Not hard to figure that one out. Characters and figures to relate to, to make you feel less alone, and characters and figures who possess traits you aspire to. Both types are outward expressions of one own ‘truths’ and desires, though how confused it often all becomes. Always Kafka and always glam rock.

Kafka

38 thoughts on “Stella, and a digression on envy, work, inadequacy

  1. Having interviewed several authors, Angela, you’ll know 99.9% of them have to work on something before it becomes ‘good’. They’re no different. What’s that old expression? The difference between the amateur and professional writer is the latter persevered. John.

    • Yes, true John. Absolutely. Though the process is different for every writer. I’ve talked to one who wrote a book in 13 weeks and another who took ten years. I’ve heard some writers say they publish a first draft, though the ‘draft’ is not what other writers first draft would look like. Others do eight rigorous drafts. I do think it’s possible that writing something worth reading (& who determines that anyway…) is a completely different task from on writer to the next. And from one book to the next.

  2. I think a lot of writers think like this, the obstacles to just being able to work on the real piece of writing. I started studying to take writing seriously, but probably spend more time now working on pieces I don’t want to be working on, when I’d rather be working on the novel. And this was because something else was getting in the way.

    I think writers that are able to have a lifestyle that allows them to focus almost 100% on just writing are few and far between, we just seem to notice them more, looking at how they did it because we want to find a way to do the same.

    • They are very few and far between Ben. But it’s more a case of attitude and confidence in one’s work, too. I know people who would feel much less inadequate calling themselves writers than I do, who have published less. They are able to ‘be’ a writer, in that sense. And for me it’s usually artists more broadly, musicians and others, that I often feel this sense of envy for. Also historical figures. Not really contemporary authors. If you know what I mean. In fact I feel more empathy for contemporary writers, both emerging and established, because it’s a tough biz.

  3. Oh Angela … I have emailed this to my daughter — who’s in her mid-twenties and has writing ambitions. She will know exactly how you feel.

    I think you are right about a job. I asked a writer up here in Canberra for advice for my daughter, and he quoted another writer who said “have a job”. It does cut into time to write, I know, but you have to live, don’t you. I so admire creative people – their drive, the way that put themselves on the line. It takes time I think – it did for me and I still have elements of it – to learn not to worry about other people’s opinions. I have faith – reading you over time as I have – that you’ll make it. What you’ll exactly make, who knows, as life has a way of taking you down paths you don’t always plan or expect, but keep going one step and a time, keep tweaking the balance, and you’ll forge a good life for yourself. You’ll get to 50 or 60 and you’ll be surprised, and I bet pleased, at what you’ve done.

    • That is such a sweet comment, Sue, thanks so much. Re the day job: I’ve managed to get one that basically allows three days free for writing/still completing thesis & life stuff. Feel lucky for that. All the best to your daughter & let her know she can get in touch via here anytime!

  4. Hey Angela, thanks for this.

    When I won a fellowship at Varuna and then got the deal with Allen & Unwin, I joked to a writing buddy that I was becoming ‘that writer we used to envy’ (such hubris! no doubt I’m bound for a fall…or to marry my mother or something) and then I remember how hard I’ve worked for those joys and that they are graces worth envying. Also – they don’t shut up the voices of self-doubt (or especially foster the snarks of hubris). I feel a genuine happiness when good things happen to other writers because the more good things that happen in this crazy literary world just proves there’s a chance for all of us – like most humans, I’m rather selfish, even when feeling warm and fuzzy about the achievements of others.

    There aren’t that many jobs where you have to enter into as much hope management as the arts. It’s tough on the psyche. Also, it’s daunting if one IS successful, to be put in the public eye as it were (even if it’s only a very small public) and would it be worse to have your work ‘out there’ and be completely ignored? Gods. Well, around this time next year, I shall be preparing to find out. Gulp!

    Prizes are great – decent funding for artists is better.

    • Also, I felt conflicted when Carrie Tiffany shared her prize money — a very Buddhist act, it stirred up my feelings of selfishness, as if somehow it was about me: hahahaa, how mad.

    • Clare, you completely deserve it. Live it up! Seriously. And yes, I’m really very aware that given.the personality I have, I’ll probably always be setting new goals, reaching for new heights. That’s what I would like (and many of us I’m sure): a way to be able to savour the small everyday achievements. And be one with where I’m at right now. Trust a little. Be grateful. And I am. But ambition is a devil that whispers in my ear saying: not good enough; not soon enough.
      Bah.

  5. It is indeed a tough gig, maybe more so in Australia because our local market is so small and therefore opportunities are limited while on the other hand breaking into the international market is even harder for all kinds of reasons. That’s why as a reader, I am so grateful to the authors I enjoy for persevering.
    But it’s not just writing: most of the musicians I know have a day job too. At least writers have the consolation that the day job may provide them with material to include in the next book!
    Ignore that little devil: I want to be at that launch one day!

    • Lisa, so true about the day job providing material. I missed that aspect of ‘being in the world’ these past few years when my main income was a scholarship. ‘Missed’ in the sense that I know it is essential to idea-generation, character building, etc. It also helps to keep me grounded. And yet (things mentioned above). 🙂 And thank you.

      • I was thinking in particular of a debut novelist I read a year or so ago, End of the Night Girl by Amy Matthews http://anzlitlovers.com/2011/08/07/end-of-the-night-girl-by-amy-matthews/ where her central character is a waitress, and I remember thinking that there was an authenticity about her character that was as good as anything George Orwell wrote about slaving away in French restaurants to keep the wolf from the door! For a writer, a good day job allows for meeting all kinds of weird people, yeah!

      • Eliot Perlman, yes indeed…I haven’t managed to read The Street Sweeper yet, but Seven Types of Ambiguity was one of the truly memorable and wonderful books of my reading life. He’s like the literary equivalent of a missionary working in a slum. The very best kind of missionary, of course. The horror of his Melbourne was far in excess of Tsiolkas’ in The Slap, and so was the redemption that came out of it.

    • Hi there Lisa. I loved Down and Out. It’s frightening to think how easily Orwell’s fortunes sunk to such depths. And Elizabeth Jolley was always advising writers to get a day job and get out and see the world!

      • Orwell was an unforgettable writer. Down and Out is the only one I’ve reviewed on my blog but I think I’ve read everything he wrote and some of them two or three times. The only contemporary Australian author I can think of who has the same gravitas and concern for his fellow man and the indifferent state of society is Elliot Perlman, but I’m happy to be reminded of others.

  6. This is an AWESOME post. Artistic publicity and artistic envy fascinate me as topics.

    “I’m starting to realise that the industry isn’t quite so humble.” I’m sure you’re on a first-name basis with a lot more published authors than I am, so you probably have a better idea, but a very literary friend of mine with insider knowledge tells me that most of ‘real pros’ are incredibly humble and self-deprecating, and usually won’t talk up their writing or the idea that their ‘writers’ at all. And yet there’s the other argument (particularly in our digital age) that says an online presence is indispensable for ‘writers’ or ‘authors’ or would-be ‘authors’ nowadays. And of course there are ‘writers’ and ‘authors’ of all levels of experience and acknowledgement doing just that. What’s the ‘right way’ of approaching it? Is there a middle ground somewhere and, if so, where is it?

    I think it can only diminish everyone if we can’t appreciate and acknowledge other peoples’ artistic successes. How can anyone acknowledge and enjoy their own success if those around them can’t do likewise? And if I feel bitterly towards someone for having won some prize that I might have wanted for myself (for instance), how can I reasonably expect others not to feel likewise about me, when and if the occasion should arise? And I’m not ‘holier than thou’ about this; I’m as vulnerable to envy as anyone.

    “And I’m not brilliant, anyway.” Isn’t it so humanising and painful to admit this to oneself, let alone to anyone else? Bless your self-awareness and courage.

    “My unfortunate absorption of others’ opinions of what I should be doing, and the distraction of other genuine but smaller goals, means that I often put my biggest, shiniest ambition last.” Yes – when is it allowing things their proper time, and when is it just plain avoidance? I know the conundrum well. Perhaps you need to share less about your aspirations and works-in-progress. And as far as getting the important stuff done is concerned, Carmel Bird once said “Sometimes, Dear Writer, I think all you really need is courage.”

    Thanks again for writing the post. You should be proud of it.

    • Thanks Glen, you’re such a great reader of my blog posts. And the strangest thing is that I’m just about to read Carmel Bird’s ‘Dear Writer’ as it’s being released as an ebook. Carmel is also writing for my TZ-themed book! DO DO DO DO… She’s a legend and I’m sure her book will help to give me courage.

      ‘Isn’t it so humanising and painful to admit this to oneself, let alone to anyone else?’ Thanks so much for your awesome response to that.

      Re your first para – I think you can be an author who ‘self-promotes’ and still be humble, like you said self-promotion is kind of expected nowadays. And I would agree with you that most writers I’ve met are indeed humble and self-deprecating, even the ones who said the things in quotation marks. They’re human! Famous writers I’ve met have been incredibly lovely, ridiculously lovely! Most writers are, by nature, empathetic. They seek understanding of others’ motivations; they are curious about people.

      But there was one other action I was thinking of (when I wrote that part) that was probably what I was really thinking about, but didn’t want to mention as the author might see him/herself in it. It was a pretty bold display of entitlement… It does happen.

  7. Awww.
    The comment re hindering your career made me a little bit mad; that must have been so deflating. I for one am cheering you on — do keep up those ‘lofty’ ambitions..

  8. No, the industry isn’t humble, it’s messy, ego-ridden, vulnerable, amazing, dreary, exciting, inspiring, generous, petty, humorous, defeatist and a lot of other things besides because it’s full of people.
    Brilliance and simplicity are hard work and involve a shit-ton of editing (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) so write your book, publish it if you can, and just keep writing and slogging away.
    And if anyone else tells you that publishing a book could harm your career, just hug them (they obviously need it) and move on.

  9. Balancing writing and “all the life stuff”; myself as an obstacle – I’ve been turning similar thoughts over in my mind for a while now, so I found myself nodding in agreement with you as I read this post.

    But when it comes to this thing about you not being brilliant? I disagree completely. Whether you publish a novel, criticism, blog posts, tweets – anything – I’ll read it.

    Excellent post. Thank you.

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  11. I really enjoyed this, particularly the reference to Janet Frame. I think the intimidating myth of effortless gift persists because of the idea that good writing is fancy writing, packed with complicated writerly flourishes, when in reality it’s just writing, tearing up, re writing…

  12. Great article. I would buy your book just because I find your blog and all your writing really inspiring, no matter if critics thought it was good or not. But forget about me and the critics and the reviewers if you can and just enjoy writing because at the end of the day, that’s the best part.

    Plus if you stopped writing I think people would really miss you.

  13. Angela, I’ve been thinking about this post again and again over the last couple of weeks. So, you may not consider yourself ‘brilliant’ but you have written a post here that has obviously resonated with many people, and has certainly stayed with me.

    I think it takes a lot of courage to write about envy – it’s something I’ve thought about blogging on myself, and perhaps still will. I often find myself choked with envy about other writers’ success, (for example, when I recently saw ‘The Rosie Project’ for sale at Coles, I honestly thought about flinging myself onto the floor, crying “why can’t that be MY book?’)

    The act of creating work is inherently non-competitive – no-one else in the world could write the book that you can write. Unfortunately, when it comes to getting that book out into the world, we are forced to compete at every turn. Opportunities can sometimes seem so few, and the feeling that our success depends on them can make us mean-spirited about the success of others.

    As for someone telling you that getting published might hinder your career – boo to them! Perhaps they don’t understand that it is your ‘shiniest ambition’ – otherwise I’m sure they would not have said something so discouraging. I say, go for it, if it’s what you truly want. And may the force be with you.

    • Annabel, sorry to take so long to reply. Early week is always very busy 🙂 Thanks for sharing your own thoughts on envy. It’s so true about the contrast between the work and then getting it out into the world.

      And thanks! I’m doing my best. May the force be with you too!

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  15. I read this at a moment in my writing day where I was feeling all the things you talk about and it was very heartening and comforting to know that other writers feel this way because when you’re in it day to day you can feel like a unicorn. I am the author of two published novels, both critically well received, and am currently finishing a third. I still feel like this nearly every time I sit down to write. I hope that as long as it doesn’t paralyse me it will keep me honest, keep me humble and keep me focused on improving as a writer for the sake of writing itself. On that note, self publicity is never something I have felt comfortable with, although I do understand the market has changed. In an ideal world, the quality of work should speak for itself and writers are nothing if not idealists. Festivals, interviews etc are necessary but writers I admire such as Winton tend to just get on with the work and hope the world meets them halfway.

    • Very true, Kate, getting on with the work is the most important thing. However, Winton has a good publicity team behind his novels, whereas many first-time authors or even established ones (depending on the publisher etc.) are expected to pick up the slack, since publicists are also overworked and underpaid. Many feel they don’t have a choice. It’s a bit of a shame. But when I interviewed Colm Toibin he said he feels he’s been having to do that since his career started and he has no problem with it. He doesn’t tweet or anything, but sees the festival circuit etc. as part of the job. The quality of work should speak for itself, sure, and it does, and many books rise to the top by word of mouth and so on. But the stuff outside the desk can probably be seen as an inevitability, and I don’t think it has to be seen as self-publicity, either, it could be simply seen as conversations around something one is passionate about (your own work, or writing and literature in general).

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