Current word count: 10,033 / 50,000 words.
Soundtrack: A whole lot of birds singing their spring songs in the garden.
It’s like someone flicked a switch in my nose and it’s running like a tap. I know, gross, but seriously. I am so sick and tired of getting sick and tired.
I wanted to write a purely NaNo focussed post but it spun off on a tangent. As much as I want this to just be about writing, the fact is that all my writing takes place in the context of my life. And my life often seems to have a way of draining one’s writerly resources. Creativity suffers in the face of real life struggle. I personally think the ‘struggling artist’ as a romantic concept is a harmful falsehood, damaging to artists and creatives whose work is undervalued because it’s seen as something we enjoy. And while yes, we do enjoy it, it is hard to be creatively productive when life circumstances are tough. It’s hard to write a novel when you know that the next landlord inspection could result in you being evicted, so instead of writing you expend your energy on cleaning the house with microscopic attention to detail until it’s cleaner than the landlords’ own home, hoping that – this time around at least – they will give you another 6 months where you don’t have to worry about having somewhere to sleep at night.
A lack of stability, peace and relief are, I think, terrible for creative workers.
Sometimes I’m tempted to look at the last twelve months through the lens of the negatives. I’d be lying if I said it’s been an easy year. I don’t think it’s my subjective view clouding my angle on it. When I have talked to my friends, my clinical psychologist, and my doctors about some of the stuff that’s happened in my life this year, they all seem to get the same look on their face: mouth agape, surprise, and then, “Anyone would feel bad after the year you’ve had. Don’t feel bad for feeling bad.”
One of my great frustrations is that my creativity gets squashed in the great chaotic sea of family dramas, physical health challenges, rejected job applications, the normal everyday stress of living in an over-priced yet under-maintained rental property in Melbourne,, trying to be a good parent of teenagers and all the stuff that comes along with that.
NaNoWriMo, Camp NaNoWriMo and Inktober this year were a creative kick in the backside for me. They reminded me that creativity sometimes (perhaps always) requires daily self-discipline. It’s not enough to just hope that maybe one day I will write a great story or paint a great artwork. It’s sometimes just sheer hard work, with no inspiration from on high to fuel it. It’s a pile of discarded half-sketches that pave the way into something worth keeping. It’s drawing and writing when my house cleaning to-do list is looming. It’s choosing to read more books, too, to inform, develop and improve my own writing skills and reasoning. It’s choosing to stay off social media, to go get some sleep when I want to stay up late, to go for a walk when I’d rather lie on the couch. It’s pushing myself to cook healthy meals for myself when I’d rather just grab some convenience food. It’s asking for appropriate help when I’m swamped. It’s choosing to check-out of other people’s dramas (easier said than done).
But I can flip it around too.
Yes, on the one hand, 2017 thus far has been a terrible year. On the other hand, it has been brilliant. I think a big part of it was that I consciously decided to stop looking with envy at our (apparently) wealthier friends and family who seem to be able to afford overseas trips and expensive holidays on a frequent basis. Such luxuries are well beyond our reach. I have never travelled outside of this country, to my great dismay. I hope that one day, maybe, I will see other lands and cultures with my own eyes. In the meantime I console myself with the thought that many tourists come here to see our lands – so I may as well try to enjoy what’s in front of me. People will often say the trick to saving for a holiday or a house is, “If you just give up takeaway coffees once a day…” It never occurs to them that I already cannot afford to buy a takeaway coffee each day in the first place. It’s more like once a month. (Quite frankly most coffee places in the local suburbs are so terrible it’s not even worth leaving the house. It’s just a pricy cup full of over-heated liquid disappointment.) Or the mad scapegoating of avocados by people who think it’s acceptable to subsist on cheap junk food and give yourself all kinds of horrendous health problems if it will buy you the great Australian dream.
Okay, so sometimes I still feel a little envious as I look at our home-owning family and friends who take international trips once or twice a year and who, as far as I can see, just happened to be lucky enough on the timing of their existence (Gen X instead of Gen Y, for example) and the support mechanisms in their life to be able to get what they want (like, healthy functioning normal family surrounding them). I mean, sure it would be great if all of us had our lives lined up, carefully ordered, and supported by loving families, while just happening to be born into a generation for whom house prices were a lot lower. But we don’t all have that kind of luxury.
And while we’re wringing our hands renting for 15 years, barely able to save because average monthly rents around here are often higher than average monthly mortgage repayments, hoping something or someone will give us a break, nothing happens except that the bills keep getting higher at a faster rate than our income. As happened last year to us, instead of things working out, instead we get evicted by incompetent landlords and have to spend all our home deposit savings on the cost of moving and paying a bond for a new place – because our state currently protects the ‘right’ of landlords to be exploitative users of the poor for personal gain, able to evict tenants for no substantiated reason whatsoever and with very little warning. And then we have to start saving again, hoping against hope that the next set of landlords will be more merciful. No amount of diligent saving counts as the bank tells us yet again that paying rent at a higher rate than the average mortgage consistently for 15 years without a single late payment still doesn’t count as proof of being able to pay off a mortgage because we don’t have enough saved up. Despite the fact that if our rent had been going directly into a mortgage of our own, we’d have nearly finished paying it off by now. The system is stuffed and it’s weighted against tenants, regardless of socioeconomic bracket, while bowing down to the new landed gentry of this country.
So we could, as a family, just shrug our shoulders and say, “We don’t deserve to live at all because we don’t own our own home.” God knows that’s exactly how a lot of Aussies seem to think of people like us. There is no compassion, not even an attempt to understand what it might be like. It’s just cold condemnation of those deemed unworthy. It’s the declarations from on high that unless one is a homeowner, one does not deserve any of the simple luxuries in life, like the occasional hot drink from a café nor a holiday once in a blue moon. It’s actually really problematic and sometimes – often – I wonder what happened to this purportedly “Christian” country to make it acceptable to be so cruel to other living beings.
But I also know that in a sense, all this is just a massive sociological and psychological problem. The people parroting the same tired lines about avocados and coffees apparently don’t have the intellectual or critical thinking resources to consider that theirs is a pretty blinkered, uninformed, and prejudiced viewpoint. The complex mess of reasons as to why increasing numbers of Australians can’t afford a home, while being treated as parasites by the privileged few, it’s not as simple as a predilection for smashed avocados on toast.
It’s also human nature to zero in on some easy scapegoat. But that doesn’t mean we have to act that way. Because it’s also within the ability of humans to stop and reflect on how our words and actions and societies affect “the least of these” – and if we, as humans, aren’t exercising such abilities, then we aren’t living to our full potential.
We could, if we wanted, choose to create a supportive society in which there is stability, support, and compassion. But we don’t. We bought into the myth that a country’s greatest function is to operate as a business, and ignored the complex socio-political, health, humanitarian, and environmental factors that also contribute to a country’s purpose and success.
Despite all that media-promulgated societal antagonism, we decided as a family to try to do positive things that won’t break the bank. Even if the naysayers will point at our activities as proof we haven’t learned our lesson and stayed in our ‘rightful’ social position.
- National Parks are usually free (though I will always drop some spare change in the donations box because the last thing we need on top of suburban sprawl is to lose our parks to rampant irresponsible development – if you can, please support your local parks!).
- Bike riding and walking are cheap. Once you’ve got the bike, or the shoes, it’s a fun hobby for the whole family with the added benefit of improving health and fitness. You get to see places and experience nature and burn off some energy.
- Some of the art galleries in Melbourne are free. We did pay to enter two different exhibitions at different times – one, an exhibit of Indigenous Australian women’s art, the other a Van Gogh exhibit. These exhibitions were excellent, thought provoking and exposed us to a greater perspective on life than we would have if we weren’t interested in art.
- There are lots of fun events in our region that were cheap enough for our meagre entertainment budget, like the big Winter Solstice festival and sculptural bonfire held at a community farm back in June, or the biennial Australian International Air Show back in March.
- We sometimes take road trips, usually packing a picnic lunch and eating it on the beach.
- For all the books I read, the vast majority of them come from the library. On the rare occasions I buy books, it’s usually out of money or vouchers I receive for my birthday.
- We sign up for customer loyalty cards at every shop we frequent. Once in a while that will result in a discount voucher, or a free item, or free movie tickets.
- Instead of going away on a holiday we went to the Australian F1 Grand Prix. It was cheaper than booking accommodation but the memories of that fun day will stay with us forever. (That said, in the past when we’ve stayed somewhere, we have tried to find the cheapest option – like staying at the YMCA camps, rather than in hotels or motels. The food is often heartier and the experience of sharing the space with other people far more interesting anyway.)
- Thankfully my music tastes in somewhat obscure European heavy metal bands means that on the rare occasions we go to concerts, the tickets to live shows are about half the price of a pop concert, or less.
We carefully budget every spare cent to ensure that while we are still saving in the increasingly absurd hope that we might one day buy a house of our own, we will not stand by and let our children’s entire childhood disappear in a sea of blandness and misery. They aren’t getting any younger – my eldest will be an adult within a few years’ time – and as parents we don’t want our children to be left without memories of happy moments. We’ve found other useful things that help the budget too, like recycling services that will pay you cash in exhange for your old technology, and carefully selecting utilities providers that balance value with service. We look for bargains. We keep our computers running long after they’re considered obsolete. We focus on living as healthy as possible so as to keep medical costs low. As vegans and vegetarians the food we eat tends to be lower cost – dried beans, rice, potatos, and fresh vegetables bought direct from the farm are cheaper than buying convenience foods or meat. We do what we can to try to live a meaningful life on a shoestring budget.
On top of that, fun online challenges – NaNoWriMo and Inktober for example – are free to enter, and my children have participated in these things too. It was their choice, and they are/were both encouraged when they saw how quickly their creative abilities improved with the regular habits of drawing and writing.
I know there are commentators who think they know exactly how everyone else should live because it worked for them as individuals (often individuals who happen to have wealthy parents or lucrative careers, but they will say it doesn’t count because they ‘worked hard’ to get where they are, as if lower income folks don’t work hard too), and they will rant about how people shouldn’t be allowed to do anything other than work and save until after they attain homeowner status, but those people just don’t understand that there is more to a healthy, functioning human society than the ruthless application of neoliberal free market economics. They’re living lives that, from an outsider’s perspective, ultimately seem replete with a lack or meaning or purpose apart from attaining the external trappings of economic success. And they would know this if they ever condescended to leave the luxury of their sprawling suburban McMansions, and actually went to an art gallery or read a book or truly loved music or philosophy or tried to listen to others they see as below their station in life. Sure, they have the kind of stability I could only dream of, their lives with a greater potential to be able to weather life’s inevitable storms… but apart from that, what’s the point of anything if one is not living to one’s full potential as a human?
But in the meantime I won’t waste my life waiting for complete strangers to give me permission to live as fully as I can as a human being.
So, while I could look at this last year as exceedingly difficult, the fact is that despite all the stressors, we’ve managed to make the most of it. I am pretty certain that at some point in the future my kids are going to look back on a lot of the memories from this year in particular and say that they remembered those things as fun moments. I know from my own experience that despite growing up relatively poor, I still have many happy memories of going to the beach with my grandparents, or swimming at the freezing cold outdoor public swimming pool, and many hours spent browsing the country town library where I grew up. (I picture ghastly orange and brown vintage couches arranged in front of the encyclopaedias, and a wonderful box full of Asterix comics down the back.)
So, in light of all that, what do I do? I keep writing and drawing. It’s all I can do. I keep hoping that at some point someone will like my work enough to support it – in a literal, financial sense as well as in the conceptual sense. There are a few people I have who are ‘patrons,’ in the sense that they have purchased several of my artworks for their homes and for that I am very grateful. I hope that continues, but to do so I need to keep working and growing as a creator.
I hope that one day I might be able to secure even a little work, something simple, to help pay the bills, but it’s hard to be motivated to keep applying when every job application ends up rejected by potential employers who are looking for a veritable genius when all they really need is someone to operate a till and be polite to customers.
So I just keep trying to actually live my life too, and raise my kids well, and to not buy into the lie that life’s small joys – like creating, eating good food, spending time with friends, and making life as beautiful as possible – are the sole privilege of the homeowner class in this country.
All links accessed 9 November 2017.