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.
People talk about creative talent as being a ‘gift’. But ultimately, for most creators, it’s a gift that you give to your community and the wider world. And it is often a heartbreaking venture, not least because it can involve huge financial sacrifices.
Many writers and artists spend years on end creating work that they hope will bring joy and meaning to other people. Few artists will gain financial success, even when their work is loved by many.
Yesterday I sent off a submission to the Senate Inquiry into the impact of cuts to funding of the Australia Council for the Arts. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve written in a while because it forced me to confront how hard it can be to make a living when you choose to follow your passion.
The Australian government has cut over 100 million dollars from arts funding in the 2015 Budget. Art is important to everyone, not just the artists who create it. If you read, draw, create, enjoy film, theatre or any art form, these government policies will have an impact on your life.
Following is my full submission. Some of the points may seem a little technical if you’re not familiar with the proposed changes but I urge every Australian to consider contacting their local member of government to let them know how much they value books, art, music, theatre and film to ensure the government doesn’t push through these damaging policies.
Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee
PO Box 6100
Parliament House Canberra ACT 2600
RE: Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts and the appropriateness of the establishment of a National Programme for Excellence in the Arts
I am deeply alarmed by the decisions made about Federal arts funding in the 2014 and 2015 Budget and the proposed changes to Australia Council funding.
I am a full-time writer of books for children and young adults and I am fortunate to be able to live from my work. My novels have won many awards and been published internationally. Most of my books are historical fiction with a deep focus on Australian history and culture. These books are read and studied in schools and universities in the UK, USA, Germany and India as well as in Australia. Without the support of the Australia Council’s new work grants to individual writers it would have been impossible for me to create a body of Australian work with an international reach.
My family has worked in the Arts for five generations. Although I publish under the name Murray, my father was the sculptor Guy Boyd and dozens of members of my family, including my adult children, have spent their lives dedicated to building a vibrant Australian arts community, often in extremely difficult circumstances.
I remember, as a teenager, when my father told me about the establishment of the Australia Council for the Arts and the excitement felt by many of our friends and family that, at last, Australian artists were being taken seriously. It was a turning point not only for Australian artists but for Australian cultural identity. In my lifetime I have seen Australian artists move from being complete outsiders who were treated with suspicion by the wider community to become valued, dynamic and engaged participants in every facet of the Australian experience. Much of this is due to the existence of the Australia Council for the Arts.
In the last few decades, Australian artists have ‘punched above their weight’ both at home and abroad. When artistic expression flourishes the flow-on benefits to the wider community are immense. The fact that creative industries are growing at almost double the rate of the broader economy is indicative that Australians have grown to value artistic pursuit. Sadly, too many artists are struggling to maintain a decent standard of living. It is heartbreaking to see young people enter the arts full of passion and then watch them lose heart as they battle to establish a viable long-term career. As a small nation, we need government policies that generously fund individual artists as well as the institutions that employ them to make it possible for artists to engage with their communities and lead meaningful and productive lives.
In the 1950s and 1960s, many Australian artists felt obliged to leave Australia to further their careers, including my uncles Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan. Sadly, the creative drain to larger markets is still in operation, robbing us of many talented young artists. Despite the pull of foreign markets, the Australia Council has helped make it possible for thousands of artists to stay integrated in their local communities, bringing a richness of cultural experience to every Australian. De-stabilising the Australia Council will have repercussion not just for Australian artists but for every member of the wider community.
As a writer, I am particularly distressed that the proposed NPEA makes no reference to the literary arts. The Literature Section of the Australia Council had one of the smallest pools of available funding. It is utterly galling to see that literature is not listed as an eligible art-form within the draft NPEA guidelines.
I was on the steering committee that helped secure Melbourne’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature. The impact of the NPEA on arts funding could potentially jeopardise Melbourne’s ability to maintain the cultural standards necessary to retain this status. To lose our designation as a City of Literature would be an international embarrassment and an indicator of a culture in regression.
The fall-out of cuts to funding of arts programming in major institutions will also have a demoralising impact not simply on those institutions but on the artists they will no longer be able to employ. It will further reduce the possibility of Australian artists living from their work. The establishment of a second arts funding body such as the NPEA would duplicate existing infrastructure and grow bureaucracy at the expense of the artists they are theoretically meant to be supporting and encouraging.
I am also extremely concerned about accountability issues in relation to the proposed changes to arts funding and the potential impact on freedom of expression. An independent arm’s length statutory body free from political influence is the only viable model for arts funding. Without transparency, the wider community are denied comment on where arts funding is allocated. No funding model is perfect but the only way to ensure the process is dynamic and open to improvement is to maintain transparency and independence from political and corporate agendas.
The use of the term “Excellence in the Arts” is bewildering. Judging creative excellence is invariably a hit-and-miss process, particularly as new, innovative and groundbreaking work, is often misunderstood on first viewing. In many instances, only hindsight illuminates the excellence of a creative work. It is crucial that proposals for new work be assessed by independent assessors and peer reviewers from the relevant arts industries who can embrace a broad definition of the term ‘excellence’.
Another alarming aspect of the NPEA is that although the guidelines say the creation of new work will be a priority, individual artists are not eligible for funding. This completely excludes the majority of writers and artists from applying and fails to acknowledge the many long, hard hours that artists must spend alone in order to create new work. It preferences institutions and bureaucracies at the expense of individual creators.
I hope the inquiry will see fit to advise a reversal of the cuts to the Australia Council and that the Australian community can be assured that federal arts funding will continue to be administered through accountable, arms-length, peer-reviewed processes.
Countless artists and writers feel despair at the direction of current government arts policies. Despair and poverty do not nurture vibrant art.