An open mind in the big city

By Rhonda Dredge

It’s 5.45 on Friday night and the bar at Young and Jackson is full of workers but you can still feel alone. 

The hotel is a favourite watering hole in Melbourne, particularly among interstate visitors. Boutique beers are on tap and there’s a friendly crowd who will swap business cards at the drop of a hat and compare notes about professional preoccupations. You can pretend a little here.

Creative writers are often solitary creatures who delve into private spaces. There’s a preference for understanding and showing in contemporary Australia literature “character” at a deep yet concrete level. Is a pub in the CBD too shallow as a setting?

Julia Prendergast is in town for a book launch. She’s stopped off at the pub for a beer and a chat. She’s trying to take her job as writer and academic seriously. She isn’t sure which hat she is wearing. Sometimes the demands are overbearing.

The launch is up Swanston St but she’s just received a text warning her to avoid the corner of Bourke. This is real life and it’s more confronting than both fiction and academia. She has been thrown in at the deep end of the CBD at its most dangerous. Everyone is acting normally, however. She’s got a glass of chardonnay and her friend has a beer. They could have been in any bar in the country except for the view out the window. They are upstairs looking down on Flinders Street Station.

A bouncer out the front has just told Julia that three people have been stabbed. That’s all she knows. This is way outside her area of expertise. She’s a realist writer not a true crime specialist. She feels as if she’s on a freeway and that life is whizzing past quite dauntingly. Her first book has just been released and it’s a finely-tuned, first-person account of family life in present tense. How relevant is this in an era of terrorist attacks and texts from the police?

 “I think that fiction writing is an opportunity to say things than can’t be said elsewhere,” she says, looking worried. She doesn’t seem that convinced but she’s sticking to her guns. Travel by foot is the only way of defining your range. She is training up a batch of creative writing students at Swinburne to value their responses. Existential moments mean more to her than the drama of the big city but this evening she is not letting on. 

She talks about the missed moments of human experience. It’s important to be alert. She looks out the window. 

“Writing is an opportunity to provide scaffolding for ideas and transfer what’s unsayable to other people,” she said. She has spent some time supporting her ideas with theory. This is the job of the creative writing academic. She would rather be writing fiction, and Young and Jackson on the evening of the stabbing in Bourke St is not her first choice of setting. 

The CBD attracts writers. They have their favourite places. The Wheeler Centre is one. Ms Prendergast has read from her novel at The Next Big Thing, a forum for new writers there. Writers tend to see the CBD as a place for broadcasting their regional stories. Narratives are meant to travel well. The CBD of Melbourne has struggled to develop an identity. You’re more likely to find hype here than anything home-grown.

According to statistics released by the City of Literature, Melbourne has almost a million creative writers. What does this indicate? It appears that everyone wants to join the profession. Readers want to become writers. A novel invites a reader into its pages. It is a site of hospitality in which the reader is flattered and entertained. No wonder the literary fervour is spreading. 

Creative writers prefer to talk about uncertainty than statistics even though Julia is part of a growing industry that often presents writing as a glamorous career full of launches and chats. These are incentives for engagement in the profession yet they are way down the track for the novice writer. Julia’s book is made up of a series of interlocking short stories. Some have been published in small magazines. Other writing academics have been supportive. It has been a long cautious road. She wasn’t sure if the book would find a publisher.

Julia is also a mother of six. She has a PhD in creative writing and teaches full-time. Her first book is called The Earth Does Not Get Fat. She organises conferences and is the book review editor for an academic journal. She often gets up at 3 am to write. 

Content demands a lot of a writer. You could say that she is spreading herself thin. If fiction is her first love, she also has family, theory and teaching as options for her creative energy. They all make up the one totality yet some places are better than others for finding the support you need to forge a career in an increasingly competitive field.

The mark of a professional creative writer is compulsion, she says. “There’s a big difference between writing and the desire to be part of a scene.” This is pithy advice for those who like to hang out in Readings or at the Wheeler Centre. You need tenacity and the keenness to get to the bottom of a story. Results may not ever match youthful desires.

 Julia is currently working on a short story about olfactory hallucinations. 

“I like concrete, realist work. You can’t create compassion with compassion. You have to get to the concrete and specific.” The comments come from the great US short story writer Flannery O’Connor and she uses them at Swinburne. Students write about moments – a dying woman projecting herself onto a butterfly, a socially-isolated man waiting for a wife to be delivered on e-bay, a woman on the way to the hospital with a phantom pregnancy. She is able to bring out the dark in her students without being too maudlin. The stories are funny and real.

Suburban stories create more space for phenomenological responses than those set in the CBD. A moment of reflection is the incentive rather than a book launch. Will the CBD ever be a viable setting for the kind of work that is valued in Australia? 

RMIT offers writing courses in the city, as does the Council for Adult Education and Writers Victoria. A book club meets monthly at bars around the city and classifies its selections according to genres such as ethical dilemmas, redemption, urban fiction, English classics, indigenous author and dysfunctional families. Does the CBD belong to the reader rather than the writer? Are CBD people looking for drama?

Dr Prendergast advises her students to look for telling details. Sitting beside her at the table at Young and Jackson are two men also with PhDs. Their area of specialisation is road engineering. They can talk quite knowledgeably about bitumen. They are rather charming in their delight to be meeting a published writer. Julia begins to blossom. Is there such a thing as too much introspection?

“What I like about the CBD is that it’s so anonymous. People act out in symbolic ways,” she said. Creative writing students tend to base their stories on themselves. What if they tried a bit of projection rather than introjection? It might be amusing to create a character who designs roads rather than a subjective prison. 

The precarious trajectory of the individual rings a bell with contemporary readers. A writer lifts up the carapace of society and looks at what’s lurking beneath. Cooking for six children must be a trial. Even creative writing must seem like a breeze in comparison. Closely focalised narratives may seem suburban compared to genre pieces that escape the confines of the self but who’s to judge? Only a brave critic would dare suggest that Julia put her feet up. There are conferences to attend and people to meet. The life of a writer can be quite cosmopolitan.

“I’m interested in what happens behind closed doors,” she said. The best locations are secrets and she’s not giving them away. You need an open mind in the big city. 

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