sometimes it seems as if the phd was a mistake. a waste of precious time. something i did not think over seriously enough. something i decided to do partially because of the financial security of a guaranteed scholarship stipend for three and a half years. don’t get me wrong, i was interested in my topic and have emerged as something of an expert (i would hope) on queer film. i treasured the discussions and debate and most of all the friendships i made while in this academic context. and i got paid a modest living allowance for the privilege. and again, do not mistake me, it was a privilege.
prior to the beginning of the phd, i had fuzzy plans to become a writer. when i was 19, i wrote a novel. i did it in six months. i was unemployed, living with my parents and at that point in my life was very anti-social. thus 100,000 words were knocked over in half a year. were they 100,000 good words? hell no! i don’t have any copies of that novel and i sometimes wonder if it would be at all salvageable, but i don’t think so. if you’re curious as to what it involved, it was a big fat fantasy story. i guess because at that time, big fat fantasy stories were all i read. for me, that novel was the first proof that i could do the work required to be a writer.
years past and i published a few things, becoming much more enamoured with short fiction. i published a few bits of fiction. nothing really substantial. they were rarely over 2500 words and realistically not that many people read any of them. but i was paid for my work. someone thought enough of it to think it was worth paying cash for. this was a delight. i also had a few pieces of non-fiction published while an undergrad, mostly movie and food reviews for a couple of local rags. add to this a few highly commended entries in a couple of short story competitions and i began to feel like this was something i could do with my life. it was encouraging. my plans were still fuzzy, but they seemed to be slowly coming into focus.
all the way through this, i was aware of what other writers said about the ‘writer’s life’ and what publishers and other creative practitioners were saying about the business side of creativity and art. the prognosis was not good. very rarely can you make a decent living out of this life. novel advances are rarely very significant these days, most small press anthologies or magazines don’t pay nearly enough to support any sort of lifestyle except poverty. i don’t think i was ever under any illusions. i knew that if i wanted to be a writer, i would most likely need a way to subsidise it with another job or career.
i loved university and learning and i could write a pretty good essay, so i thought ‘why not academia? why not get paid to write long essays and then work on your own stuff in your spare time?’ now there are some illusions for you. all academics know that there is NO spare time. anyway, i wrote my honours thesis and didn’t really find it as stressful as some because when you’ve written 100,000 words as a 19 year old, 15,000 doesn’t look so daunting as a 25 year old. i flew through honours, had a fun year, met some great people, then i applied to UQ for my phd. actually, at first it was a research masters. i later upgraded it to a phd. the phd was much more stressful. however, i managed in my limited spare time to work on my own stuff. this was at the beginning of the phd. the creative writing i did was just in dribs and drabs. a short story here and there, but mostly a piece of commentary for The Drum or Overland or various sorts of reviews. by the middle of my phd, it had become all consuming. there was no time for any of my own stuff.
there came a point where i stopped writing non-academic stuff altogether. my life was academia, and i was okay at it, i guess. but i hated it. not the processes of writing, reading or thinking, but all the other stuff that academia entails. i came to realise that should i pursue an academic career, the other stuff, the errant bullshit and bureaucracy that suffuses the university system, would surely drive me insane. i think the taste i’ve had of it has probably traumatised me a little already.
after finally submitting my phd and graduating, i kept asking myself what the point of it all was. i mean, it kept me fed for a few years, sure. and yep, it gave me a solid ‘job’ that I could wake up for in the morning. but i am certain now that i don’t ever want a conventional academic career. too much unnecessary stress and overwork. having decided this, i also recognised i had deviated so far off the path that i set out for myself that i found it hard to even think of myself as ‘a writer.’ let alone call myself one.
since i’ve moved to Melbourne and taken on a pretty good job that gives me plenty of free time and flexible work hours, i am writing more words that i want to actually write. it’s a bit unseemly to brag, but seriously, it’s a verbal deluge at my work space right now! every morning brings more and it’s addictive and it looks like i’ve got my mojo back. it feels like this is what i am supposed to be doing. i feel truer to myself, to go a bit Oprah on you there.
this post all came about because i was wondering whether i have the right to type ‘writer’ as a descriptor on my twitter bio. i was harangued by self-doubting questions: have i done enough notable work yet? won’t it confuse a lot of people who view me more as an academic? added to that is the fact that a lot of good friends of mine are writers, and follow me on twitter. what would they think about this seemingly ‘sudden’ shift?
but it’s not a sudden shift. i have been doing this for years. i just took a long hiatus. a hiatus that seems meaningless and a waste of time at this point (yet one that had its own rewards.).
i’m not dabbling or tinkering anymore. it’s not secondary. i am in a position where i have enough time and resources for writing to be primary. i am going to use this position to do the kind of work i really want to be doing. i have written a play that will be performed next year, i’ve just finished a novel and i’m planning another one as we speak. this summer will see me return to short fiction.
maybe i am rusty. maybe i’ve been out of ‘the game’ for a while. but i’ve been so prolific these past few months, and i think at least some of it is okay. i don’t feel too anxious or ashamed to say ‘i am a writer’ now.
i’m coming around again. and it’s good to be back.