Euripides Walks into a Bar

It’s difficult to know when your tragedies will eventually become funny. Some things are fairly self-evident. While waiting for a train recently, I was reading a copy of The Big Issue and an interview with a local writer caught my eye. The interview ended with an anecdote where the writer tells a story of walking past an expensive clothing store on a particularly cold and rainy day in Sydney and, realising that after years of struggle and sacrifice he can actually afford anything in the store, strolls in and buys himself a fancy new coat.

I have heard this story a number of times and it usually isn’t enough to dispel the dread, something about this one reminds me of Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” and the redemption that book gave to me. I feel a warmth in my belly and a lightness in my heart as the world tosses around me, wild and out of control. I become quiet and present and certain once again that this will be my story and one day it will be me with the fancy new coat.

As I sit with this small miracle, containing the fireworks from zipping out of my mouth and the urge to embrace the person seated next to me, I suddenly feel something strange just above my left eyebrow. I dab your fingers to the point of the strangeness and pull them back to see a large paste of warm bird shit, clinging to my fingertips.

As my face acquires a look of dumb confusion the magic drains from my feet and forms a watercolour puddle around me. Passersby turn their gaze, smile, and begin to laugh, as the worst thing in my day becomes the best thing in theirs.

Afterward, I retell this story and people say, ‘Hey, it’s good luck!’ (You recall someone saying that luck is just preparation meeting opportunity, so I can only be thankful that I hadn’t prepared at all, otherwise it might have been a pelican.) Despite what people believe, there is no luck involved. There is only a young man, sitting at Southern Cross Station with an open magazine and bird shit dribbling down his face. Things that amuse others often have a backstory of pain.

Indeed, many struggles are not so clear-cut, not so easy to make sense of or write home about: like watching one’s bank account fluctuate between a few dollars and a few hundred dollars month after month, year after year; or noticing how a passion needs an audience to survive; or relentless touring and returning to play the same venues over and over—a reminder of one’s progress that is wrung out like dishwater; or not selling a single copy of an album on the day of its release. Or, worse, selling several copies and then seeing your mum’s name on the payment details. (Thanks Mum). These things are probably funny, but they also make up a patchwork of anguish that artists stitch themselves into.

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Failure: The Unseen Bucket of Blood

You mustn’t confuse a single failure with a final defeat.

—F. SCOTT FITZGERALD “Tender is the Night”

IF I DIAL UP the aperture and peer back on the past ten years (which is roughly the amount of time I’ve spent out of high school pursuing my chosen ends), I can say with unflinching honesty that the defining characteristic of all my artistic work and ambition has been blunt and recur­rent failure. That’s a strange thing to admit, I suppose. A bit of a dramatic plunge that might have you wishing I would get tangled in a kelp forest and drown. But when the recesses of despair are flooded with light and the booming triumphs are quietened down, this is my view of the situation, bones and all. And although it sounds bleak, failure is not quite as dire as its title might suggest.

John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar, is fond of saying, ‘Pixar films don’t get finished, they just get released’. This goes a fair way to explaining the idea of failure, as I see it, and one’s inability to ever be rid of it.

Having survived a decade  of artist-being that was (though financially mired) both good and rich in experience and opportunity, I find that failure often feels more like success than anything else I know. I trust failure in a strange way because I recognise it as the struggle—the struggle that never abandons me, not even while being peppered with praise, not even for a moment.

Henry Miller believed that no writer ever put down what they intended and saw his own attempts to pin down and punctuate life as crude hieroglyphs. An artist’s idealism is always tempered by the real world, and in many ways, a work of art tries to bridge that gap between what is conceptual and what is physical; what can be dreamt vs. what can be done. Though an artist should not try to produce a masterpiece.

But the more intention that gets put into creating a masterpiece, the more contrived the thing usually becomes as the focus innevitably shifts from process to outcome. From someone who used to stand in the shower and finger-scribble on the shower door, the order and expected popularity of music singles from an album still being recorded, I can tell you that it’s a sign you’re doing it wrong. So, forget it. There is only good work and bad work. Work you are happy to stand beside and work you are happy to bury.

If you’re going to have a crack at being an artist, you must get used to the idea that nothing you undertake will ever be fully realised. Even when brought full term there exists a certain amount of restlessness whereby you curse yourself, ‘if only I’d done this instead of that’. Though this urge should not be concerned with any outward bearings of success; it is completely for the sake of the obsessive and deranged creator as if adjusting the pitch of a note that is heard flat only to themselves.

It is true that all artists are obsessive about their work. However, sometimes that obsession can manifest into possession, where ideas start to over-ripen and then rot. The reluctance to release something before it is ‘ready’ is an affliction I’ve battled with for as long as I can remember. Even showing work to friends is difficult and full of qualifications on my end. ‘This will be different, that’s not finished, this is garbage and that will be cut’, I assure any and every poor sucker who asks to see what I’m working on.

And then there’s the case where every so often I fairly beg a close group of confidants to review my work (in progress). When they point out where I’ve gone wrong or how I could do better, I smile, nod my head and say things like ‘oh, I see. Yes, you’re right’, while mentally snipping off their fingers with a large pair of scissors. After a few days, when I reassess the work and realise they were right, I call or email them to say thank you and mentally stitch their fingers back on, grateful that I have such patient and clever friends.

Eventually you have to set your little boat to the currents—usually when you are still telling yourself and other people that it is not quite finished—and cut it adrift. In this way, all art is just an attempt. Sometimes that attempt can be graceful and profound and as juicy as an upturned jumper of oranges. Sometimes it can be an absolute stinker. The unswerving constant is that it’s always difficult.

Creating costs me, maybe more than it should. Believe it or not, the distance between this paragraph and the one above was a full twenty-four hours and about two thousand words of shit. It’s not always like this, but it often is. Perhaps, like me, you find yourself wondering if creating is this difficult for everyone else. You see some flawless new work or you read some brilliant article on an event still unfolding (scribbled overnight by some precocious shit) and you think, ‘surely I’m the only moron struggling at every inch and underachieving to boot. Surely I was never supposed to pick up a pen or strike a piano key with any real intention. Surely I’m better suited to the clean ups in ‘aisle 5’.’

It’s convenient to think like this, and whilst it is true that the process of art is an exhausting, often brutish, labour that will go close to finishing you more times than you finish it; the idea that it is effortless for everyone else is, in equal measure, flatly untrue. To believe otherwise is, as Anne Lamott so wonderfully puts it, “the fantasy of the uninitiated.”

The artist’s true hamartia is not failure, but the fear of it. Countless more dreams and ambitions have surely been slaughtered by the fear of failure­ than by failure itself. We are groomed to be risk aversive and yet our culture flaunts the rule breakers and risk takers who ‘make it’. This drives conflict. Tons of it. Being the frail, irrational creatures that we are—the hard-working, secretly-sad mortals doing our level best not to panic—we erroneously regard those who stand on the shiny side of triumph as possessing something that we don’t; some inner quality, talent or ingenuity. For instance, if I was to become a successful artist and paint my mansion in ‘yacht white’, I’m certain that most people I know would look at me very differently; they would see something in me that they currently do not, and yet I would be the same person. That’s not a desperate cry for attention, it’s merely a truth that fits everyone. Every person who has ever had success has been, at a point, the kind of person whose efforts you serverly doubt. Most of the time, that person is you. Even when it’s someone else, it’s you. It’s always you.

I am not proud of my less graceful bellyflops. But then again, in the spirit of fucking up, I am not un-proud either. Life regularly slams me to the ground when I get too cool and I’m grateful for it. While I’m down there I remind myself that less failure doesn’t guarantee more success and more failure doesn’t guarantee less success, more or less. Moreover, I refuse to view success as some kind of end state. Even in success there is failure. Just as even in a happy life there is pain and sorrow. But this does not diminish us. Failure is not a form of defeat, but the struggle against it.

Part 4 of 4 from the book ‘As Dire as its Title: Writings on the Daily Struggles of the Working Artist’. Purchase here.

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Lessons in Self-Sabotage

A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.

                                                             —D. H. LAWRENCE, Self-Pity

I KEEP A CUTTING of a comic strip from Footrot Flats tacked to the wall above my desk. The scene shows the hard-nosed but ultimately tender-hearted farmer, Wal’, with his loyal sheepdog, ‘Dog’ (the emotionally complex, morally conflicted protagonist of the comic series). They are walking along a gully on the farm when they happen upon a number of dead lambs, killed in a recent storm. Wal’ takes in the pitiable scene and visibly distraught, curses skyward, “Why does nature do this sort of thing to us?!!” As he sits down reflecting a tincture of grief, despair and confusion, Dog looks up at him and ponders in reply, “why not?”

A strikingly similar phrase also occurs in Christopher Hitchens’ posthumously published book, “Mortality”. When describing in exacting detail his losing fight to oesophageal cancer, he says, “to the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

I try to keep these shared sentiments close to mind to remind myself that the world doesn’t owe me a damn thing—both in the absurd and pitiless existential sense, but also in a more grounded personal way that concerns everyday life and one’s attempt to traverse it without plunging down a crevasse of self-pity.

You often find that there are a lot of appealing reasons to feel sorry for yourself when you’re an artist: the pay is crap, the hours are unforgiving, the work is difficult and you don’t always have a set lunch break (or the food on hand to justify one). However, the main catalyst for melancholy and afternoons spent sighing into the sink usually has more to do with the fact that a lot of people who veer toward the limelight have the proclivity to be the slightest bit vain, often possess an ego the size of a small moon and prance about with an ornate sense of entitlement that has a tendency to shatter.

I find I am continually resisting the temptation to gnaw on the rotting idea that when things don’t go my way I have been unduly wronged and somehow cheated out of the life I deserve, the one I’ve worked for, and handed one, less sparkly. With this in mind, it’s not all that uncommon to sometimes throw a bucket of fish heads to my grotesque narcissism and let it gorge as I go about colouring the world in various shades of spite.

It’s fair to assume that all artists secretly compare themselves to one another. And who could blame us? The world is practically overflowing with talent and tenacity—it’s annoying, actually. What is also fair to assume is that when it comes to making comparisons, the game is fixed from the start and you’re sure to come off second best.

When I compare my life, or my work, to someone else, I do so with the implicit knowledge of all the inner turmoil of my own mind: the breaks I’ve had, the opportunities I’ve squandered, the fears that throw me into despair, the anxieties, the low self-opinion, the dashed dreams, the sense of defeat—all of it. I take this soggy version of myself, wrap it in a confidence no thicker than a sheet of paper and plonk it down next to a very attractive, very two-dimensional idea of someone (or something) else and commence to feel positively shithouse.

The fixation to compare our lives with people we know has a huge influence over our ability to feel joy and a sense of accomplishment, and is usually the thing that derails it.

As an artist, it is fundamentally important to know what your contemporaries are up to and as painful as it sometimes is to come into contact with work that is infuriatingly brilliant, it is actually good for you. Being a sensitive starfish, I have to prepare myself to be emotionally upended at any moment, whether by melody, poetry, or a high pollen count. Music can sometimes be so affecting that I will press my face into my hands and shake my head back and fourth in a state of ‘Oh, God! This isn’t happening!’ because I’ve worked too hard for too long to be beaten so soundly.

I no longer expect to rid myself of these feelings and instead, try to view these moments as necessary growing pains; an important part of being an artist who is concerned with forward momentum and devouring the universe. They will serve me well if I can just avoid another annihilating comparison, if I can just hold out against envy. Sometimes that’s a pretty big ‘if’.

No matter your resolve, it is impossible to avoid feelings of envy from time to time. I see how people seemingly net their dreams like catching butterflies on a spring afternoon, while I crawl along an abandoned mineshaft with a candle stuck to my helmet looking for a flash in the dark. On top of this, any attempts to relax and go with the flow are constantly undermined by the hard-wired Darwinian drive that demands victory and the blood of my enemies drip from my canines. It’s almost enough to justify envious misery… almost. However, like the individual who wears sunglasses indoors, it is impossible not to be an arsehole of colossal proportions when you let envy take root and pummel your heart to a pulp.

Hating people is easy once your heart concedes to pettiness, but hatred takes a lot of time and energy, and as an artist, that energy would be better burned on almost anything else. From grant writing, to a chat with a magpie, pretty much anything is a better use of time.

Entering into a mantra of rage rarely has the desired effect and imaginary confrontations don’t seem to thwart one’s enemies as hoped. As it turns out, people are pretty resilient to imagination bashings and will continue to aggrivate you in all their prickish ways no matter how many times you mentally throw them under a bus. When it boils down to it and you eventually eject yourself from the position of the hapless victim, you might begin to see how the world is as unconcerned with your pursuit of happiness and gratification as it is with avoiding obliteration in the Andromeda-Milky Way collision, set to take place four billion years from now. This is as fair as life gets and if you are reading this, chances are it’s been far fairer to you than you are willing to admit.

Jealousy, and the self-pity that slides along with it, are essentially poor coping mechanisms that are all caught up in the way we so often outsource the problem of self-acceptance by way of acceptance from others. What you find (what you always find) is that you can have the entire room top up your glass and still feel thirsty. Jealousy practically begs that you take other people’s success as a personal attack, as if they have stolen food right out of your mouth. It deranges the mind and if permitted, will spread and compound until you start wishing that everyone haul the same weight of grief you keep strapped to your back. If you claim to have never felt a twinge of glee when someone’s dreams or success have come to an abrupt halt, I’d call you a filthy liar. If you have, I’d embrace you in solidarity, for I am adept in such areas—though I wish I weren’t.

‘Schadenfreude’ is a German word that literally translates as ‘harm-joy’, meaning: “to take pleasure in others misfortune.” And we love to exercise it in instances where we perceive justice is being meted out. For instance, when a fat kid stands up to a bully and pile drives him into the cement. We react in delight to the suffering of the bully far more than we do with empathy to the distress of the bullied. We want that little shit to pay. Whether or not the fat kid walks away from the incident with a newfound confidence is neither here nor there. This, in itself, says a lot about our deficient sense of justice and possibly our violent tendencies, but I digress.

So what of the instances when the only crime that has been perpetrated is success? Why do so many of us creative open-minded types become vicious with jealousy and long to see others have their strings cut from a great height?

Much of it breaks down to the fact that we routinely choose to believe in scarcity rather than abundance. A lot of us assume that there is only so much room at the top and the only way we have a chance of getting there is to hope that one of the other monkeys falls from the canopy and breaks its neck. The idea of scarcity is one of the most commonly held and poorly formed ideas circulating in the creative mind, one that will bring you no end of misery.

To believe the world owes you something is a terrible vice and you will do yourself a huge disservice to let it fester in your mind. Whether you make a go of it or you don’t, strength of character is the only salvation. Try not to look hurt when the world doesn’t validate your parking ticket and compliment your smile, it’s nothing personal.

Part 3 of 4 from the book ‘As Dire as its Title: Writings on the Daily Struggles of the Working Artist’. Purchase here.

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Wrecked and Broke

Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove.

—P. G WODEHOUSE, Very Good, Jeeves!

I WRITE AN EMAIL to the co-ordinator of my university course at least once a month. It always comes out the same way: a friendly ‘Hi’ at the beginning, a casual ‘Cheers’ at the end, and some solid crazy in the middle that tries desperately to pass itself off as calm inquiry about returning to undertake post-graduate study. With each go I remind her of my good marks and ask a few vague questions to make it appear as though I’m just getting more information on the academic venture before sauntering back onto campus, having abandoned the all-or-nothing artistic stagger I resumed after graduating two years earlier.

The truth is, I do this because being an artist allows for a lot of time spent waste-deep in trepidation. Something I discovered ten years ago when starting out as one, and something that, funnily enough, hasn’t changed despite a handful of success, a dump truck of failure, a bank account that continues to wheeze and a uni degree that, since completing, has dissolved the reassuring sense of security that I once clung to for dear life.

To work through the days, weeks, and seasons for something that barely allows you to scrape by is a harsh reality. To know that despite your best most-endearing efforts, the passage of time won’t reveal a finish line—or even a drink station—on the horizon can be terribly defeating. Ask yourself if you could or would work with the same amount of conviction for an employer who halved your wages. Then ask yourself if you would double your efforts if your half wages were cut altogether. If you can stretch your mind this far and still feel somewhat upbeat about the task at hand, then chances are you are just mad enough to survive the chief displeasure of being an artist.

“The gulf between creation and commerce”, as Cheryl Strayed puts it, is tremendously wide and the crux of anxiety for so many artists. It is relentless and something that keeps me in a perpetual state of checking and re-checking for exit signs. Like almost everyone else, I have a very hard time separating the marriage of money and success that tends to dominate societal values—the sum of the former determining the extent of the latter. It is the reason why I write my fantasy emails because undertaking a doctorate, or pretending to, represents a more socially acceptable idea of success that temporarily justifies my current lack of it as an artist. I know that I won’t actually go through with it, but it is a lie that I need to believe, if only to buy myself a moment to pop up an umbrella beneath a gathering storm of fear.

There exists a myriad of these psychological landmines around the common idea of success and money, and no matter how you redefine it in your own beautiful, poetic way, the capitalist notion continues to blow up in your face—the pinch being particularly sharp in the cavity where one’s sense of social contribution should reside.  For me, it’s easy that a mundane thing like filling in a patient form at the doctor’s office can become an unwanted exercise in harrowing self-evaluation. I start off strong, going through the formalities with boundless ease and confidence:

Name: ‘No problem’

Address: ‘Hah! Next’

Email: ‘Fake email’

Occupation: ‘Fuck . . .’

There it is.

I suppose you could take the word ‘occupation’ to mean the time-sucking, worky-thingy that interrupts your guilt-free weekends; the thing that tops up your bank account each month, (maybe that’s all my GP expects). Or, you can believe it represents an individual’s earnest attempt to contribute something meaningful and enriching to the world as well as their own life. I’m partial to the latter definition, no matter where the word pops up, and whether you’re a projectionist or a plumber, I truly admire someone whose work makes them come alive.

Back in the doctor’s office I remind myself, as I stare at the patient form (leafing through it, checking to make sure I haven’t missed a ‘Hobbies’ section), that art is not something I dip my toes into every third Sunday afternoon when I’m feeling ‘crafty’. I wake up in its grip every morning and wrestle it like an anaconda past nightfall—at least, it feels that way. All I know is, I’m twenty-eight years old and I should be able to dash off the noun ‘Artist’ without the need to qualify it. And yet, I can’t. This may have something—or everything—to do with the fact that I spend a lot of time justifying to other people what I do, how I do it and more to the point, why I do it.

I’ve never gotten used to the idea that when people ask ‘What do you do?what they really mean is, ‘What do you make?’ You could cover the surface of the moon with wildflowers and people will still want to know if your little luna project sold, and for how much, in order to size you up. If the number attached to your work is meagre or, as is often the case, non-existent, they will raise their head and acquire a self-satisfied air, as if realising ‘Ah, so you are not really an artist then.’ People can be such twits.

Once you have been outed as a fraud, expect a follow-up to the tune of, ‘So, if you don’t make money from being an “artist”, how do you get by? This is another pearler that I’ve endured innumerable times. It’s amazing how often it comes up in one form or another. Not so amazing is how it always manages to feel like the unpicking of my last bit of nerve.

The truth is, I often don’t get by. There have been many times when I’ve had to take factory jobs unpacking shipping containers stuffed with bottles of Heinz products­. I spend the entire day disassembling towers of tomato sauce and then reassembling them`on new pellets under the watchful eye of a farting, nose-picking forklift driver who I know only as ‘Trout’, Trout the forkie. There are times when I have to painfully borrow a couple of hundred dollars from my parents after remembering that I can’t actually pay the rent with my smile—we go through the usual ritual where I swear I’ll pay them back and my mum offers her reassuring ‘it will all come out in the wash’ line that smacks me with a heavy dissonance of gratitude and shame. Other times still, I stop creating altogether—sometimes for weeks on end—convinced I’ve finally heaved up the last bucket from this rapidly shallowing well of creativity. During these enchanting periods it’s a cinch to fall into despair and whilst taking some ‘Me’ time to properly appreciate just how much I creak, I also mentally spend some time hanging out with my ideal future self who is, for the record, nothing like the seized creature that currently greets me in the mirror.

Future Cam (Me) is fluent in French. He’s rich in the sense that he can afford to shout his friends’ lunch with-out worrying if that can of soup will have to be rationed or if his housemate’s food will have to go missing. He gets involved in a lot of conservation work, maybe runs a not-for-profit animal and environmental welfare organisation. He also has a kind of laissez-faire with “The New Yorker” and will occasionally pen the odd article on whatever he pleases; performing his music to small, replete venues, winning everyone over with song and story. Yep, future Cam is a pretty incredible guy, which is probably why his present self can often feel so diminished. Did I forget to mention that he’s also an invention borne out of a present low self-opinion?

We all prop up ideal versions of ourselves from time to time; portraits that embody all the lovely things that seem just out of reach. When we look upon these figures as whole, we feel broken. When we portray them as found, we believe we are lost. And when we visit them too often, we run the risk of becoming indifferent to the present, in all its face-planting glory. Between a past that is immovable and a future that is unknowable, the juicy present is far more deserving of ownership.

It breaks my heart to think of the amount of times I have disregarded achievements in my life, times when I have sat with some small but uplifting victory for only a few precious moments before loading the next distant ambition into the chamber, squeezing the trigger and setting off after it, dissatisfied and convinced that fulfilment lies somewhere up ahead.

To survive as an artist, you must go forward with a heart that knows joy and a mind that continues to bat away cynicism and envy, because if the financial hardships don’t finish you, jealousy and spite inevitably will. With regards to money, you have to accept that by and large, society takes a pretty illogical stance on the artist and how valuable they truly are.

For example, Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” fetched a casual 142 million dollars in a private sale in 2006. On the other hand, Vincent Van Gogh reportedly sold only one painting while alive, “La Vigne Rouge” for four houndred francs and died virtually penniless and unknown after churning out over two thousand works of art in the last decade of his life—Van Gogh’s complete oeuvre is now valued over one billion dollars.

This is not supposed to make you feel better, or worse, but simply to show you how the rules around art and money tend to bend and break and then break again. The English poet Thomas Gray wrote, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” It is difficult but neccessary to accept that some of the most beautiful creations are never carried to us; never given a chance to be fully appreciated in a world where artificial flowers thrive in abundance.

Maybe you’ll never get payed for this labour of love, maybe you’ll make a million dollars—I hope you do—but if you’re going to be an artist in any sense of the word you must learn to know the difference between the monetary value of something and its worth. George Orwell rightly observed in his unadorned memoir, “Down and Out in Paris and London” that “money has become the test of grand virtue.” To reject this notion takes courage. To accept it is to hand yourself a very low experience of life. One that is quite a way beneath you.

If all else fails and your album is a stinker, if no one buys your book of acrostic poetry and your artist Facebook page goes into negative ‘likes’, do what I inevitably do and round out your most recent artistic catastrophy with a heaving floor-bound crying fit. Drench a few hankies in tears and mucus. Howl wildly. Claw at the floor and bring that buried knot of anguish up to the surface. After you’ve calmed down, call your mum and tell her you’re feeling a bit better since you last spoke (because you are), and then forget about being an artist for the rest of the day. Move gently and think well of yourself, because being vulnerable has a way of making you porous and in these moments you are likely to soak up nourishing things like reverence and forbearance, things that will sustain you in art and in life.

Part 2 of 4 from the book ‘As Dire as its Title: Writings on the Daily Struggles of the Working Artist’. Purchase here.

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Grit

Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

—DR. SEUSS, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

 

I’M NOT ENTIRELY SURE about other people, but I usually spend most of my working hours in quiet alarm, feeling less like the captain of some great steam train traversing a continent (or at least a few prickly suburbs) and more like a nervous fare evader unsure of everything except for the heavy sense that I’m doing something wrong and will likely be found out.

Over the course of the day there exists a near relentless threat of being psychologically commandeered by any number of bellowing drunken pirates inside my head, whose sole aim is to sink my ship and the precious cargo.

Woody Allen once said “eighty percent of success is showing up”. This is probably the most accurate assess­ment and beneficial advice for any young artist, though what this looks like from day-to-day, varies greatly.Don’t be fooled, it is a game played and won in inches and that giant leap we’re all dying to make is actually just a multitude of fractional and ungainly steps.

If you’re anything like me, you will have few days refining work you’re pleased with and a lot more churning out shit and examining it for trace amounts of gold. You will spend hour upon hour trying to write, giving up every so often, fighting off distraction in the forms of household chores, fantasising about a career in palaeontology and waging imaginary arguments with all the people you know who haven’t adequately validated you as the brilliant and precious jewel you actually are. You’ll refocus to record a series of clumsy melodies on a phone, play them back to yourself, straining to hear something that sounds remotely like music, all the while wondering if those trilobite fossils are still up for grabs on eBay. At best these days can feel wasteful and at worst, utterly destroying.

Some days, getting stuck in means just being able to get out of bed when your doona has filled with cement; when your teeth go un-brushed and your overheating laptop glares cold comfort from the series that careened you into un­consciousness the night before (because even Fran Drescher’s voice sounds positively angelic compared to the beasts inside your head and the TV show reminds you of childhood and you’ll take that comfort to bring on a sleep that can only be achieved by maudlin es­cape.)

It is most important on these days, when you struggle to think of yourself and your work without a burning hatred, that you remember that this too is you working. And more than that, this is you being courageous. Work, like success, doesn’t always look like what you imagine. Art is as much a painstaking process of quiet victory and successful defeat as it is an emancipa­tor of the spirit.

If you can get out of bed on these black days; if you can put the kettle on and walk past the place where you’ve toiled fruitlessly and not vomit, consider it an act of bravery. Grant yourself that and go again.

 

Part 1 of 4 from the book ‘As Dire as its Title: Writings on the Daily Struggles of the Working Artist’. Purchase here.

 

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The Travelling Insect.

I overheard a conversation between two guys earlier today. They were talking about travel and one said to the other with more than a paltry smack of boasting, “I’ve done Switzerland, three times!”

Now, aside from the grammatical implications of speaking about a country as though it were a thing that could be completed – like say, a cartwheel or a poetry reading of ‘Ode to the Douchebag’, it reminded me of a certain attitude you bump into every now and then from people who blitz around the world in their twenties and then consider themselves enlightened by default.

Dear Mr “I’ve done Switzerland, three times!”, if only you’d told us Switzerland was ‘done’, we would have blown it up years ago! Oh, but before we do, are you absolutely certain it’s completely done, finished, depleted, exhausted, stitched up and settled?’.

I can’t tell you irritating the conquering tourist schtick is to me. As with so many people, it’s about how many places they’ve been to, not HOW they spent their time there. It gives me an idea for a book title, called ‘Quantity over Quality: A tourist guide to being a know-it-all wanker’.

Travel is supposed to give us an opportunity to dine upon the juicy marrow of the present; to forget the the gnawing past and the dreaded future for a while. Hopefully you learn a thing or two about yourself and then return home and attempt to be one-tenth less of an arsehole than you presently are, and maybe even encourage someone else to discover some far off land on their own.

I commend people who travel far and wide, and I implore everyone to hurl themselves against another culture, to get foreign dirt under the finger nails. But please don’t assume that spending three weeks, or even three years, in Zurich will hold any weight with anything.

rAhnertWritersBlock

A Mature Hour

When I sit down to write I always come on too strong. Each time I am a virgin in bed with a beautiful woman—all elbows and clammy feet. I am too eager to please. Too concerned with how I look to her. Too bewildered that this time might mean something or everything. Too afraid that it might mean nothing. I await brilliance like a fool. I forget that the best possible outcome are good words, and in between, a multitude of bad ones strung up like panicked chickens run through an abattoir—millions of ugly words awaiting slaughter.

When I sit down to write the world shrinks into sentences and I live line by line. To look beyond a few words is insanity. To think ahead is impossible. I remember Di Morrissey’s writing advice about parking on top of a hill at night so that you have momentum the following morning. I go to sleep atop Mount Fuji and wake to find my words broken and bled out at the bottom having rolled down while I slept. Fuck you Di Morrissey!

Writing is not pouring a big cup of tea. It is not warm lighting, a room with a view, a shawl wrapped around your shoulders, an ignored cigarette wedged in the corner of your mouth, Brainyquote, or a cluttered desk of well-thumbed classics. Writing is a nursed laptop on the couch, the drone of angry traffic outside, the film of instant coffee in your mouth, bad posture, the urge to stop trying. Writing is a bad mood, a full bladder, a trembling push against fear.

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Glenn McGrath: On Killing an Elephant.

Anyone who knows me, knows what a massive tree-hugger I am—a Level 10 nature poet who acquires a very goofy look of childish wonder when amongst a patch of greenery. So, when photos surface, like the ones of Glenn McGrath sporting fatigues, a rifle, a proud smile, and a discernible hard-on in front of some recently killed exotic animals (including: an elephant, a buffalo and two hyenas), it really does twist a knife in my heart and form yet another white ball of rage in my mind, which I don’t really know what to do with.

The photos, which you’ve no doubt seen by now, were taken in 2008, a short time after the death of McGrath’s wife and this is basically the thin and predictable line he has chosen in his Twitter apology, stating that it was an “extremely difficult time”. In the ordinance of ‘self-destruction under grief’, this definitely seems like a strange reaction and makes me think that Glen probably enjoyed the thrill of killing with or without a dead spouse and that standing alone in the quiet dusk of a golden career makes a whole lot more sense for thrill-seeking behaviour than a deep desperation brought on by mourning.

What makes things difficult in my life is that I feel both united by the public outrage, and also angered by it. A lot of the public are ready to completely right off the Australian hero/ultimate dad/stoic widower Glenn McGrath and cast him out as a despicable brute that relishes the killing of beautiful animals. Right? Not quite. The truth is, although Glenn did something that is totally wrong by our better moral expectations, he didn’t actually do anything illegal, and by comparison to some of our everyday behaviours that swing on the same notion, he really didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. It goes largely unnoticed that moral issues are usually made sense of by either consensus or law. Usually we get it right, sometimes we get it really, really wrong.

We like to think that we forge our own opinions or develop them through critical thought. But history tells a very different story and from petty thievery to genocide, it is often the question of legality and social rationalisation (are enough other people doing the same thing that I won’t be singled out), rather than critical thought and a sense of moral justice that we rely on in order to shape, and make permissible, our behaviours.

What do things like Glenn McGrath’s apparent desire to kill teach me? Simply, that it is possible to hold two conflicting ideas in your mind—to believe yourself a good person and to sometimes act like a shitty one. This is a painful lesson I’ve had to learn over and over. As frail creatures doing our level best not to panic we are irrational and prone to intellectual laziness equally as much as we are capable of an impassioned cri de coeur in the face of injustice.

I’m sure Glenn enjoys seeing his labradoodle skip around like a moron. I’m sure he believes it has feelings and that’s probably why he named it ‘Paul’. I’m sure he enjoys buying free-range eggs as much as he enjoyed killing that elephant (although I have noticed that cartons of caged eggs are often swathed in sponsorship for the McGrath Foundation, so maybe Glenn really doesn’t give a fuck about any other animals except the upright ones who cheered his name on the pitch).

I am not suggesting that you’re are an evil bastard if you eat meat. But your participation and consent is worth consideration—almost everything you take for granted is. If you are morally and emotionally okay with the slaughter of billions of animals and the inherent human error and fuck ups that result in torture, suffering and the unimaginable waste of life then maybe you don’t have as much right to be angry at Glenn McGrath. He insulted your better moral expectations only so far as you have yourself. Everything in you might feel like you have a big gigantic right to be mad, but the Steggles crumbed chicken breast on your plate says you’re full of shit.

No one is going to convict you as an accomplice if it is discovered that the bird you ate had it’s legs and wings broken by a farm hand who decided that its uncooperativeness of being stuffed into a trucking crate might be dissuaded by thrashing it to the ground and stomping on it. No one would even suggest you lose sleep over it. However, if you held a man’s coffee while he beat his dog in the street for not sitting at the traffic lights you might just be frowned upon a teensy bit. Sure, one act is tacitly aware and the other is not, but in the age of information, ignorance does not redeem you of complicity.

Knowing this doesn’t allow for a kind of moral superiority, I just tend to spend more time feeling sad, angry and confused, unable to shake off the feeling that as with the animals, our humanity gets trucked to the abattoirs as well.

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HUMBUG! AND OTHER CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS

It’s almost Christmas, which for me, has typically meant a ratchet’ing up of my Grinch’ian persona, who although doesn’t try to steal Christmas, becomes particularly enraged by annual retail psychosis and consumer stuff-lust. Each and every December, my usually pleasant trips to the local shops become ghastly assaults on my person and senses where I subsequently play out fantasies of ploughing my trusty bicycle into cars outfitted with Rudolf antlers, feeding baubles to store managers and hanging myself with tinsel in a communal nativity scene.

That should give you an idea of the type of crotchety jerk I can be, but this year—in the spirit of personal growth…. or something—I’ve decided to make a concerted effort to get involved with things that I reckon Christmas ought to represent; things that come a distant second to the haemorrhaging of money on insincere, barely thought-out gifts and the wasting of food on a collective scale that could feed small nations.

When you first see through the gimme’ gimme’ gimme’!! consumer blitzkrieg, Christmas becomes something so easy to reject and despise, but that attitude now feels exactly like the kind of me-against-the-world banality that looks ridiculous on a twenty-seven year old.

I’ve realised that under all the rubble and vacant ‘Merry Christmas’ upchucks lay a few ideas still worth the mental exertion and a few thousand causes still worth rolling up my sleeves for. This year I’m trying to set a precedent for how I intend to ingest Christmas for the remainder of my life, by basically shifting myself from the centre of the universe and nudging on that thing they call ‘altruism’.

Consider it a Dickensian awakening.