It’s a fair question. Last year I was punching out articles and raging against the dying of the light. This year, a quiet has largely settled over my corner of the internet. But what kind of quiet? The kind where I decided I hated everyone and retreated to a rustic mountain cabin to grow my own tomatoes in a beehive and teach my dog to pump clear cold water from the stream? The kind where I stared too long at an enchanted painting, so that one distant day, someone will notice my tiny silent grimace among the oil-pastel throng? The kind where I’m waiting in a cupboard with a vacuum-cleaner pipe for someone to come looking? The kind where I choked on a corn chip, leaving my nine cats locked inside the house to eat my face, and giving a poignant reminder to all when I’m eventually found that I was alone, just so alone? What gives?
Well, none of the above. Nor have I retired from public comment after a hefty six-month career. But I have been busy doing other things, and I have been holding back from the Scripture a little. People who get immersed in politics can start to take that shit way too seriously in a very short time. They take themselves way too seriously into the bargain. They treat five hours of Twitter commentary like an event of substance. From where my father is currently working in the States, he reminded me the other day that no-one there has ever heard of Tony Abbott. That’s worth bearing in mind. It’s also good to remember that not every debate demands your personal contribution, and not every idea you have needs to be seen through. Whether it’s the self-importance brought on by having any kind of audience, or the depression induced by realising what a spectacular clusterfuck our national situation is, politics can eat you away from the inside like a hydrofluoric enema.
Here, then, are the things I’ve been doing instead.
First, working with other kinds of writing. For a while now I’ve been editor at a joint
called Going Down Swinging. We make books, audio CDs, sweet digital inventions, and put on performances. I like these things. Reading stories that go in strange and lovely directions; reading long-form essays that have nothing to do with the news cycle. Our book/CD package last year looked like this:
and I love it dearly. (That photo is a bit washed out, the colours are even nicer really.) I’m perhaps proudest of the CD – in a world where so much performance work is admittedly awful, I would challenge anyone to listen to this disc and not get some real enjoyment out of it.
Last year, I loved getting Neil Gaiman’s work into our collection; I loved previewing part of Pat Grant’s graphic masterpiece Blue, which has just been released to great acclaim; I loved putting together a collection of writing and artwork that really sings together. And this year, there has been great enjoyment in assembling what is to come.
In September there’ll be a new book and a new CD which will be spectacular. At the start of June we’ll be launching a beautifully redesigned website which will be filled from then on with writing, video, audio, and image. Much more digital content will start to become available online, for tablets, and for e-book readers. These are exciting times.
GDS is one of those chronically under-funded arts organisations, though it is rare in having survived into its 33rd year. If you want to support it, the best thing you can do is buy a copy, or a subscription. It’s cheaper than a round of drinks, and it’ll give you much more lasting pleasure. Garn.
Another thing I’ve taken on is co-directing the National Young Writers Festival, which has run in Newcastle since 1998, most of that time as part of the multi-festival This Is Not Art. I’d been going to TiNA religiously for six years, so it seemed about time to chip in. I’ve even got a half-finished story about it that I might post here if I finally knock it off. TiNA is great because a few thousand random artists descend on Newcastle for a weekend. The town gets a real buzz about it, equal parts intrigue and hostility. There are workshops, panels, discussions, readings, fun and serious. And because only the locals can actually go home once each day, it basically turns into a four-day party. Smart times during daylight, stupidity in the evenings. Thoroughly recommended as a good holiday, no matter how old you are.
My sportswriting has also expanded to include weekly radio segments – Monday breakfast at 8.15 on RRR in Melbourne, Thursday evenings around 8:30 on ABC 702 in Sydney. I filled in for RRR’s full breakfast show for a couple of weeks over summer. Another nice radio thing was Radio National getting me involved in their Valentine’s Day love poetry series, which was apparently a great success. You can hear all the poems here. It felt a bit strange to be among people like my satirical hero John Clarke, as well as Peter Singer, Michael Kirby, Sarah Blasko, Father Bob, Kathy Lette, David Williamson, and Clover Moore. Then there was the fact that the ABC asked all of those people to record their favourite love poem by someone else, but asked me to record one of my own. I didn’t know this until the program went live. So amid all these eminent people paying tribute to Chaucer or Shakespeare, there’s me paying tribute to… me. Awkward, though some were probably unsurprised.
The last excellent thing for the moment is called the 24 Hour Book Project. It’s pretty fucking self-explanatory. In June I get together with some excellent writers like Nick Earls, Krissy Kneen, Steven Amsterdam and Chris Currie, to write an entire book in 24 hours in Brisbane. Apparently we live-blog bits of what we’re doing, and have a day to pull it all together. An entire book, run through an editing team, running through the night, against the clock, literary Jack Bauer style. I tell you I am looking forward to it. Especially the split-screen bits where it zooms in on me staring blankly at a laptop.
The calibre of people involved in this means it’s actually really exciting rather than daunting. I’m especially pleased to be working with Nick Earls, who was one of my adolescent writing heroes. At perhaps 16, times were hard. Hormones were high. Outlets were scarce. I was an impossibly awkward teenager – funny, but never confident, ever the wacky sidekick. (I have a story about it on YouTube.) I had never even managed to kiss a girl, and was growing distinctly pessimistic about that opportunity ever arising. I felt young and strong and ready, but hemmed in by adults, constantly frustrated in any attempt to do anything. It was a pretty depressing time.
Nick’s book Zigzag Street made me feel a whole lot better. It helped that I lived on Zig Zag Road – immediate identification there. I picked up the book after my sister had left it on the table. “A laugh-out-loud book,” the cover said. Never one to be told what to do by anyone, especially lowly copywriters, my sister declared “It didn’t make ME laugh out loud, not even once!” before flouncing off to her room. In the spirit of wanting to explore any possibility of my sister being wrong, and also in the spirit of not having anything like, say, a girlfriend to go and hang out with, I started reading. I dropped right into the middle and got stuck. I read through to the end, then went back to the beginning, then right through to the end again. It was well into the evening when I began, and I read through until four in the morning, until the book was well and truly done. And you know what? I laughed. Out loud. A lot. Late into the night and echoing off the kitchen slate, sometimes until tears came.
Because finally – finally, in sweet relief – that book made me feel better about things. The main character (Richard?) was something like 28 years old. He was frustrated with life. He felt like he was being kept from achieving things. He was lovely and kind and likeable, but utterly hopeless with girls. He had a lot of time in his life for masturbation. These were all things that I imagined guys grew out of at an early age, in which pursuit everyone else was well ahead of me. Then suddenly I was being told, no. It’s not like that. It doesn’t necessarily get any easier. And rather than being a depressing prediction about where we might all end up, it was a message of heartening solidarity.
It’s ok, said Richard. There are so many others out there like you, like me. It’s how things are. So much of Richard’s life involved extreme embarrassment, hilarious mishap, in the same exaggerated form that we always imagine our own humiliation takes. But of course in the end, Richard is found (via the most absurdly hilarious embarrassment) by a girl who sees through his fumbling awkwardness, and finds the lovely guy within. This is possible, said Zig Zag Street. This is what happens to guys like you. Just be patient.
As it turned out (see that YouTube story again), he was eventually right. And though I couldn’t be certain that he would be right, I still went to bed that night feeling like a lot more things were possible, and I’m not sure that a little bit of that feeling hasn’t stayed with me ever since.