finnigan and brother playing last weekend – pic by nathan harrison
A friend said to me, ‘I like the stuff you write that’s about you, that’s from your heart.’
Which, yeah. Me too. But on its own, that’s not good enough. For one, all the spoken word / super personal writing I do is just another white dude spilling his feelings into the world, which, we don’t exactly have a shortage of in the universe. And secondly, it’s not good enough on its own. There are poets and spoken word artists and so on who specialise in speaking the truth of their hearts eloquently and with passion, and bless them, but that’s not me, and I’ll never be one of them.
And then there’s the more cerebral stuff I do – stuff like Boho, which is sometimes probably too cerebral for its own good. And that’s doing well right now, but then, it’s also really niche, and it’ll stay niche. And I can’t invest my whole self in science communication, no matter how important I think it is, or how interesting it can be. Work should always be plugged into the world, but if my whole output is just about communicating the interesting ways in which scientists describe aspects of the universe – well, there are other people out there better at it than me, and they care more, too.
And then there’s the trash genre stuff I write. Which, let’s be fair, no-one is crying out for more of. Battalia Royale went well, but that was probably despite my writing rather than because of it. There are people who are both better writers of genre than I am AND better satirical commentators on genre. They know and love and care about nothing else. I will never be one of them.
And so these three strands in my writing keep pulling me in different directions, and everything I write is a mess because of it. Like Kill Climate Deniers – it’s a genre work-out, because I want so much to throw an audience into the world of a high-speed action film, fuckit, gunfights in Parliament House to a killer soundtrack, it feels right to do it. But stapled to it is all the high-concept bullshit I can’t stop thinking about and can’t put down – Geoengineering, Stealth Denial, Media Whiplash… And then I can’t remove myself from the picture, either, and there’s all my own commentary and fears and neuroses on display in sidebars and footnotes, undermining any energy or point the script manages to conjure.
kill climate deniers! pic by sarah walker
I mean it goes almost to the point of self-sabotage. When I was on the ATYP playwrights camp some years ago they asked us all to write monologues for young performers, and they’d pick the ten best to include in a published book of monologues that would be available for high school students. And I knew how hung up I’d get if my script wasn’t picked, so I wrote a piece that deliberately couldn’t be included – that referenced pop culture stuff that would be out of date in five months, that came with a stage direction saying it could be performed a maximum of nine times in total, and that mixed in text sampled from Lion King trading cards. Keeping it interesting for myself, but also, protecting myself from being compared with other writers by any meaningful measure.
I submitted a play to Playwriting Australia a couple of months ago entitled ’44 Sex Acts in One Week’ thinking to myself, ‘well, at least this won’t be accepted, I don’t have to worry about it’. Feels like there’s something maybe not healthy in that.
So yes it’s an avoidance, it’s an excuse, it’s a way of justifying the fact that I’m not a good playwright, I’m not a good poet, I’m not a good science communicator, I’m a dabbler across fields because I don’t have the commitment or persistence to really apply myself to any one of them.
But at the same time, and I can’t help it, I believe that there’s a reason for it. If I get it right – and I haven’t yet – but if I got it right – if I found the right balance, the right mix, then all three elements might sit alongside each other and somehow speak to each other, to an audience, to a reader, and say something real and purposeful.
Because pure writing from the heart, as beautiful as it is, often just feels like self-involved emotional indulgence to me. Because trash genre work-outs, as joyous as they are, don’t say anything interesting about the world. Because articulate non-fiction, as inspiring as it is, doesn’t usually crackle with a fierce energy that makes my hands shake.
But all together, sometimes, in my head, I can sometimes almost see it working – how a tiny nugget of facts about the world could be dropped in the midst of a flowing river of story, bright hard knowledge flashing in the heat and energy of a swirling high-speed action story or romance, and then that too pulling back at moments to show the scaffolding, the skeleton, the intentions of the maker, and those things sparking against each other, running parallel to each other, speaking to each other, clashing and jarring with each other, causing friction as they segue abruptly or shifting almost imperceptibly so the audience barely even knows they’ve been moved.
I don’t know if it’s hard, impossible, or I’m just not very good at it, but I want to make it happen, a lot. And I know it’s possible to mix 2,800 samples into a unified, coherent flow, so how can I not try?
So the commitment is, if I make it at all – and by ‘make it’ I mean survive the next two years of my practice and still be an artist, even as the slope gets steeper and the cost to play gets higher – then I make it with all the mismatched parts of my writing. I don’t drop anything to focus on the other bits. I don’t give up the bad genre-writing, the earnest over-revealing personal nonsense, the incredibly unpalatable writing about science, none of it.* I’m trusting my gut on this one, which is a terrible guide to making decisions, but is at this stage of the game literally the only thing I’ve got to go on.
If I’m right, then in hindsight it will make a kind of brilliant sense. Of course there was some reason to keep trying to tape together vivisected fragments of science ideas, pulp genre and autobiography; This is why, this work (this work that doesn’t exist yet) that makes sense, has a real audience and connects with enough people deeply enough to keep my practice afloat a little longer.
If I’m wrong, then in hindsight it’ll look a lot like it does now – like I’ve spent years frantically running in multiple directions at once, unable to commit to any real progress in any of them and creating a body of work that doesn’t hang together or have any kind of audience.
At this stage in the game, being wrong and being right look a lot like each other.
*Unless, let’s be real, unless anyone offered me any real money or a good opportunity to do so. It’s easy to make these sweeping statements about yr creative integrity when there’s nothing else on offer; I’ll fold like a paper towel as soon as there’s a reason to. Give me a reason to.