It’s been an intense month of caving indoors…. and at times caving in.
Writing a book is as hard as writing a PhD; only this time (fortunately, she says, touching wood), mercifully free of heartbreak, house moves and death (I had 4 friends die during my PhD).
And – fortunately (she says, touching wood while making a sign of the cross), I’ve been able to scrap through my fourth summer of unemployment – ineligible for Newstart, and paying full price for medication and public transport – but luckily with enough cash reserves from working my ass off last year to see me through. I am glad that I got a visa overdraft when I had a scholarship and teaching. The overdraft helped me finish my PhD and has kept me through the past 5 years of casual academia.
I am very grateful to be living with someone who can pay the mortgage, so I don’t have to pay any rent. I would prefer to be able to claim Jobshite and pay them rent without filling out 50 forms attesting to the status of our domestic living arrangements or their entire financial life history. But we are living in Dickensian times, and poverty is increasingly equated with charity and shame and lack of dignity.
I am very grateful that I don’t have kids. Because expecting a child to live under the poverty line is difficult. Trying to live as a queer person with a child, under the poverty line is even more difficult. Children are equated with consumerism in this society, and queers are constantly under pressure to perform as functional consumers, as functional partners, functional parents and functioning members of the middle class. Much more so than non queers.
I am grateful that I have done this for 5 years, and I’m not in that early shocking post-PhD phase of despair. I remember how it felt, when I realised that I was in a new city, without the marvellous FIGJAM hothouse environment of a large department at an elite uni to bolster me. I remember how it felt to be working at a really crap uni with a really crap library and a really crap micromanager who sabotaged almost every attempt by the research team to publish anything. I remember feeling so lost and cast adrift from my discipline or other academics in my field who weren’t part of some secret in club that I was unable to enter. I had thought my 5 years at Sydney Uni would prepare me for the Melbourne Middle Class. It didn’t. I am grateful that I have enough whiteness, enough middle class habitus to almost pass, to almost cope, to kid myself that it is really my choice to reject them.
I am grateful that my PhD supervisor wrote a wonderful book about the neoliberal academy. I am grateful that I wrote a chapter in a wonderful book about para-academia. These words, and the words of others give me hope. I am grateful that Jack Halberstam published The Queer Art of Failure just when I was about to give up on everything. Hir words gave me hope that words are the thing that create space where there is none, that allow impossible things to be imagined and to emerge and survive, and that writing is something that I can and must and will do.
But I constantly fear myself, fear my writing, fear rejection. I just had a book review rejected after the editors asked for 4 rewrites (GROAN). Unlike book reviewing for any other publication, academic book reviews are unpaid, and they contribute almost nothing to publication points. They are done out of generosity, and the joy of scoring a free book that usually costs $100AUD. However I have encountered a couple of reveiws editors that display fairly strong symptoms of pathological narcissism if not outright nastiness, so I’m not going to do this any more.
The pointy end of bottom feeding academia like book reviews and casual tutoring does seem to intensify some fairly awful behaviours. Last year I did some casual tutoring at a university which employs full time ‘senior tutors’ to supervise and manage the teams of casuals. I have taught in universities for 10 years, including lecturing in 4 countries, and convening courses in 3 countries. I have undertaken team teaching with other tutors at Sydney Uni and COFA, as well as the Melbourne Free Uni. In addition I have developed and delivered collaborative teaching in public health at Vic Uni, and in our refugee art group, and god knows how many community based volunteer feminist/queer/lefty rif raf thinkies….
However, employed within a structure underneath a sub-caste of tutor-managers I felt completely nervous, insecure, micromanaged and oversurveyed. The marking moderation meetings were excruciating exercises in poker faced guessometry where I was subject to levels of bitching about students that I hadn’t seen since the ALP student club meetings at UNSW in 1989 (the bitching, not the students). The sheer horror of the space wasn’t apparent to me until one afternoon where I travelled from MITA to uni, and realised that SERCO was a more convivial, cooperative and philanthropic workspace than the uni. And I can’t even blame my colleagues – as outside of that space, I have really enjoyed collaborating with the same people at the Melbourne Free Uni. So clearly there is something toxic about the structure of that particular institution. Needless to say they haven’t contacted me and I haven’t approached them about tutoring this year.
I’m thinking about all of this, as I contemplate (with fingers crossed) finding enough tutoring work at the beseiged campus where I have been based for the past 3 years, to see me through to the book deadline in September. I’m hoping that I can get the rest of the book written by then too.
I haven’t applied for any jobs this summer and I feel guilty. feel the constant nagging pressure of wanting to be a better, brighter, smarter, more competitive, more efficient, more amazing academic. People say I could write my book as well as hold down a full time academic job, but I don’t believe them. I see how much time full time academics spend doing some weird office work meeting stuff; reports, and plans and emails and meetings. I see how little writing they get done. I see how precious this time of absolute insane immersion in writing and thinking really is.
I’m hoping that I can work out a way to get my book proofread without paying anyone, since I don’t have any money. I’m hoping the editors don’t reject the manuscript. I’m too scared to send my drafts to anyone, so I do the ill advised thing of asking my mum and partner to read drafts….
I’ve been wrangling with a chapter of doom, which I’ve been stuck on since September, and have now split into two shorter chapters, which I’m still not happy with. I lovehate the space of writing. a friend doing their Phd said that writing reminded her of practicing the viola – how the world shrinks down the intense space of practice, and nothing else is. In my own little OCD cave of waking, reading, writing, writing, writing, writing until my bladder bursts, my wrists ache and until my eyes feel like they are bleeding, writing up to and including my limits, I am writing about Carolee Schneemann too, and writing her words about drawing and writing some more.
When my eyes hurt too much and my brain fades, I peep out and my partner is there, and she offers backgammon, and star trek, and walking outside to watch the sunset and she supports and understands this closed OCD/Aspy space that I am in. I am really glad that her mother isn’t dying of cancer this time and she knows what I need and is willing and even more able to provide me with pats, and hugs and distraction, and doesn’t disagree with me when I decide that Bogan Hunters is the best reality TV show ever, but quietly goes into the next room and puts on some headphones. The world is a very small safe space for me and the cats and the book, and I am so glad I don’t have kids, because I don’t know how parents manage to do this when their bodies are linked to other small demanding people. Whenever i read the acknowledgements to the partners of writers in the frontspieces of books, I know that there are angels who walk the earth and make writing possible by loving and supporting a person who writes.
It’s been exciting times to write a book about life drawing and to redraw (LOL) on the research I did 7, 8, 9 and 10 years ago. Tracey Emin just had a big show of life drawings, and David Shrigley has a life drawing installation at the NGV in Melbourne. So things are shifting. the ProppaNOW group had a great show about drawing, and Vernon Ah Kee wrote a manifesto about drawing, and a wonderful researcher at the British Library wrote an essay about the Polynesian ethnographer Tupaia who sketched the Gweagal fishing in Botany Bay while he stood on Captain Cook’s ship. There is also the amazing experience I had of helping run a life drawing class in a refugee detention centre last year (the model was clothed). We repeated it this year outside of detention with the participants who are now free, as well as running another class with the new people who are still detained.
It is 10 years since I worked as a life model. I did it for nearly 5 years, and went into academia because I felt myself becoming bitter and angry about only being a painter and a body, and because I was afraid of how much pain I would be in if I had to rely on it at the age of 40. I am 43 now and I have chronic back pain; scholiosis, spurs, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. I hope I don’t have to rely on centrelink any time soon. I hope they don’t get rid of medicare.
I try not to think of the future. I try to meditate, go for walks, eat 500 grams of fresh vegetables every day. This is the shape of practice. And writing is a practice, slow intense immediacy, immersion.
When I hit writers block on wednesday I looked to the interwebs for inspiration. I bookmarked PhD to Published and re-read the thesis Whisperer, and then I felt incredibly depressed. After 5 games of backgammon and 2 episodes of star trek, and a sudoku puzzle and brushing the cat, I found some words…. and there is, in this advice columns for and by academics, something really monstrous. They give me the feelings I had when I was 14 and were were at a family Xmas where some auntie gave me some instruction book on how to be a teenage female. Some kind of expanded Dolly self help book, full of beauty tips and line drawings of women who looked like the women I dreamed of in ways that I didn’t understand and were certainly not explained in the book. After thinking ‘oooh goody’ and reading it from cover to cover, I burst into tears in the car home…..
and the shape of that feeling is of being hollow, and looking out to something that you think is a rope or a step upwards, and instead it is a smokescreen? no… it is something weirder, to do with being asked to reinvent yourself. It is the performativity of neoliberal self fashioning and it insidiously inserts ourselves into all of our language – even the most well meaning and sincere attempts to help.
I am writing this, because I wanted to write words of comfort and help to 2 of my friends who are also writing books, and about to publish or approach publishers. They have recently finished PhD’s and they are both in hell, and I want to write something nice and schmaltzy like “it gets better”. but maybe it doesn’t, and maybe it won’t. I cannot give any new advice on how to do this, on how to be a success in academia, or how to get a book contract or write a book, or get a job or get a boyfriend or a car or a mortgage or a new mother or a therapist or a makeover……
All I can say, is that writing is hard and slow and important. and making space to make the impossible is the most magical thing there is. But this is what practice is (according to Deleuze according to my yoga teacher). It is about making a space. And if we are committed to scholarship as a practice, then we find ways in which that can happen. There are still spaces in the academy where we can fight for moments and possibilities of scholarship (like in the classroom!) and these are worth aspiring towards, but there are also many other spaces outside of these that can and will sustain us as well.