It’s news to few Australian writers that gigging can be grueling work. It also doesn’t pay the bills – at least, not consistently.
“Most writers in Australia don’t get paid much for their work, not by publishers, not by readers, not by the government,” notes Catriona Menzies-Pike in the introduction to Open Secrets. This collection of essays comes at a necessary – albeit under-reported – time that plagues most Australian writers: poor pay, demoralizing side jobs, strong self-motivation and many existential crises.
Throughout the book, it is evident how tiring and torturous a writer’s lot can be. In an essay on her time writing a company’s HR success story, Lauren Carroll Harris gives an unfettered assessment of the cruel life of freelancing. It is one where gig workers, like writers, are “kept in poverty” as they are exploited by big business and universities for their cheap, unprotected labor. Elsewhere, Maddee Clark explores how being a writer in the age of oversharing “means it becomes tempting to use your emotional self-exposure…to offset your financial vulnerability.”
These essays will be comforting reading for those who have also faced financial strife over their creative vocation, traded personal stories for meager incomes, or found intellectual horizons hollowed out, especially in academia. James Ley gives a stark assessment of literary studies in Australia, showing how humanities research stands uncomfortably at odds with neoliberal ‘business’
backbone of universities. If universities can’t keep scholars safe, where can?
For some writers, it lies in the safety of their writing space. The chaotic clutter of Vanessa Berry’s office feels like a comforting counterpoint to the sobering stories cataloged elsewhere in the book. Yet for all its apparent sanctuary, that same desk is a reminder of the inevitable daily burdens: tossing and planning, charging and emailing, doubting and rejecting.
The hard work and love that each writer expresses about their work is a restorative experience to read. Oliver Mol’s time in Spain, which sees him take a planned English language vacation, captures a wider identity conflict that is sure to resonate with his peers. He struggles in vain with the gnawing magnetism that words have for those who are dumbfounded – or corrupted – by their force of attraction and their power.
Open Secrets is a necessary public recognition of the precariousness of being a writer in Australia. It is also a noble project celebrating both the impressive resilience of many local writers throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, while agitating for a broader conversation about greater certainties and financial protections for work. creative.
Giramondo Editions, 272 pages, $29.95
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 under the title “Open Secrets: Essays on the Writing Life, Catriona Menzies-Pike (ed.)”.
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