If you are considering a ‘no’ vote in the plebiscite on gay marriage, imagine walking into an average Australian classroom – hypothetically, 25-30 small children. In that room there are, statistically, at least three children (11%) who cannot be party to the story you are about to tell them.
Here is the story you will tell:
“Twenty-seven of you here today will grow up to be legally entitled to marry and live happily ever after. Three of you will not, because three of you will not be entitled to have your love recognised under law. But that’s okay. Because you three must understand that the other 27 will love in a way that allows them to be privileged to the protection of the law and the love the three will feel will not be equivalent. The families of the 27 deserve the full protection that the law can offer, if they choose to avail themselves of it. For the three (and for those who are already the children of gay couples), their families are beneath the law.”
You, the story-teller, may then feel a need to apologise to the three, but, you will say, those three children must understand, they are not like the other 27, not full citizens of their own country.
Perhaps the three do not yet know that they will be gay one day but when they realise who they love, they will remember your story and it will torment them.
Three (or more) children in the classroom are not given your respect, your acceptance, or the privileges you will grant the other 27 under law. This is a hard story to tell the three, but it is also a cruel and destructive story to tell the 27. Some of those 27 children will feel ashamed and embarrassed for their three friends. Some of the 27 will assume that the three don’t deserve their friendship and respect, some of the 27 will see your denial of the three as a licence to abuse them. Every child in the classroom will be damaged by your ‘no’ vote.
I will vote yes for the sake of the three and for the sake of the 27 – because every child deserves full access to society, because I believe in the very Australian value of a ‘fair go’, because love is love and legal rights are legal rights and all our children deserve to live in a free and equal society.
Yesterday I visited Camberwell Girls’ Grammar School to speak to the Year 8 students who are studying my novel ‘The Year it All Ended’. They had great comments and questions about the book and had obviously read it very closely. But during question time, a bright-eyed girl in the front row asked an impossible question, or at least one I couldn’t answer on the spot; had a real person inspired the character of ‘Ray”.
For an awful moment, I drew a complete blank. Ray? Who was Ray? The student prompted me – ‘Nette’s fiancé!’ Then suddenly, Ray came pounding to the front of my consciousness. Ray Staunton, husband of Nette Flynn, WW1 veteran who takes his bride to Cobdolga to farm marginal land courtesy of the Returned Serviceman’s Land Scheme. Poor gruff, tortured Ray with his damaged hand that’s missing three fingers, scarred in more ways than one, struggling away on his bleak acreage in the Riverland. How could I forget him? I invented him. I had even cried when I wrote the scene where he held his baby son for the first time.
It doesn’t happen often but, occasionally, I forget some of the minor characters from my novels. It’s excruciatingly embarrassing when it happens during a public lecture. How can a character I’ve created, someone that I have lovingly laboured to bring to life, someone for whom I have created character files and scenes and dialogue, someone who was so real when I was in the thick of the story, how can they disappear into the crowd of imaginary characters at the back of my brain? Other authors have shamefully admitted it happens to them, too, but that’s small compensation.
In the last twenty years I have invented literally hundreds of characters across eleven novels and many short stories and junior fiction titles. Sometimes I dream of them, long after the book in which they’re featured has been published. So there is always a particular sense of shame when I forget one of them. Sorry, Ray.
Tomorrow I’m heading into RMIT to talk about “my brilliant career” to students studying YA and Children’s Literature with Simmone Howell. When I started making notes for the session, I realised that 20 years ago, in 1996, I was a student at RMIT studying in the exact same course – Professional Writing and Editing. Back then, I never doubted that I’d eventually carve out a career for myself as a writer.
My father was a professional sculptor who made a living from his art. He always said that if you want a career in any area of the arts you have to expect to serve a 20 year apprenticeship. So now I’m finally at the end of my apprenticeship. Although I’ve lectured at literally hundreds of other universities, festivals, schools and institutions there’s something about returning to RMIT that really brought this home.
I’ve learned a vast amount about writing and publishing in the past two decades but perhaps the most valuable thing I’ve learned is that writing well means taking nothing for granted. Not making assumptions and staying humble is important. What makes writing worth doing is it forces you to never stop learning. To stay engaged with the world and to keep your work relevant you have to keep setting yourself new challenges.
One challenge I didn’t take up this month was participating in Instagram’s #authorlifemonth. But I have been following YA author Lilli Wilkinson’s Instagram posts and it made me realise that sometimes I do take for granted what I’ve learned. I love Lilli’s snapshots of her writer’s life. Those little insights into how she balances writing with domestic life and the real world are so important when you’re starting out as a writer – or even when you’re decades in. They put everything into perspective.
Next week I’ll begin teaching writing every Wednesday night at the Faber Academy in Melbourne. There’s nothing like communicating what I’ve learned to new authors to make me reflect on what it means to live an author’s life. Lucky me.