How Not to Write a Column


Tomorrow sees my final Age column. It’s been a golden privilege—I’ve really felt like Charlie Bucket discovering that ticket. But in a big way I’ve failed: I’d always wanted to write in a way that excited the same euphoria as music. But I didn’t and I can’t. Music is the superior art and to my muso friends lemme tell you something I’ve never expressed quite so explicitly: my envy of your abilities is bottomless.

Each column was born by the same midwives: beer, the loud strains of rock music, and a small sense of the cosmic ridiculousness of our public life. But every time came the same disappointment: the albums would stop and I’d review my work and see that my music hadn’t obediently transposed itself to my words. The next week I’d try again: use music to achieve a register of exhilaration or lyricism. Nope. Maybe next week, maybe the week after.

Still, there was something profoundly pleasurable in writing the columns—profound in that the quality of the pleasure was a total immersion and the illusory suspension of time. It’s why I’m out the back now, writing this indulgent guff. Not because I think it’s important to share—it’s evidently not—but because I want another spell of immersion.

*          *          *

CLR James wrote “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” and I’ve long thought the same about certain political writers and staffers. The ones who have taken a mortgage out on The Bubble. The ones with no broader or warmer interests, interests that might—surprisingly and charitably—inform their work.

I think about the ones for whom “apparatchik” isn’t a dirty word, but a perverse badge of honour. The ones who can’t draw inspiration from music, literature, history, science or a personal history that involves washing dishes or working in cemeteries. The ones made dull and rigid by an alarmingly consumptive ambition. The ones made humourless and the ones who can’t riff on irony.

(“Irony” has a bad name these days, but only because it’s become thoughtlessly synonymous with “glibness”. Irony is not necessarily glib—irony is the weird, omnipresent perfume of a world intrinsically contingent and contradictory. Without an eye to this, you might be an ideologue. You might be Andrew Bolt.)

I want hungry hearts. Politics, sport, the first You Am I record—it’s all one. All are human projects made either glorious or pitiful according the particular ratio of charms/talent/cynicism brought to it.

If you only want that column or that staffer position for its imagined status—if the pure occupation of that space represents the total desire—you’re dead in the water. There will always be those who detect in you an absence of acuity; an absence of soulful purpose.

*          *          *

To attempt to make sense of our public life, and then to publish your dubious findings in a column, requires a base level of vanity. Here’s David Foster Wallace (yet again): “You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing—your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal.”

It’s vanity in the media that provides the theme of tomorrow’s column. I look at some of the more destructive and obscene examples of it, but as DFW points out, it marks all of our work—but in different ways and with different outcomes.

Orwell opened his essay on Ghandi thus:

“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases. In Gandhi’s case the questions one feels inclined to ask are: to what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity — by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power — and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud?”

It is this kind of recursive self-consciousness Orwell hints at that haunted Foster Wallace—it was an obsessive theme of his, and the Mobius-strip he could never hop off. And it also offers a more complicated and self-damning picture of vanity than the one I write about in tomorrow’s column.

One of the roles of the columnist is to appear serially interesting or indispensable in a way none of us actually are in real life. Each column requires significant effort to appear effortlessly authoritative. Each columnist—in varying ways—solicits the alchemy of vanity and self-consciousness to transform experience, practice, analysis and observation into something of public worth. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

*          *         *

I won’t miss the avalanche of kooky pique from some readers. Or maybe I will, and don’t know it yet, and it’ll signal a hitherto unrecognised streak of masochism or demented vanity. Shit, who can say?

Most dispiriting was the stream of non sequiturs, ad hominem arguments and other disturbances of logic that the Latin seems to have a monopoly on describing. Take my Canberra piece, in which I slagged off our capital on its birthday.

My point, shabbily conveyed as it was, was that a largely unbending deference to a monomaniacal design—a design opposed to spontaneity and density—might not be so sensible in one of the most urbanised countries in the world (though, happily,  planning restrictions are now being lifted).

I also thought that there was something… odd in having our capital created via compromise, something that stripped it from one of our two major cities. Symbolically, what did this mean?

But the response was like nothing that met any other piece. There were pieces upon pieces about the piece. There were hundreds of abusive tweets, undoubtedly more vitriol on the website. There was TV and radio discussion, and each living Prime Minister sought for comment. Jesus Walter Burley Griffin Christ.  I had always vainly hoped this kind of response might be for something unique or useful (and always feared that it might be for something catastrophically libellous, the writer’s anxiety-dream).

Vanity. My vanity was frustration with the fact that it was this column—described by blessedly honest friends as weak—that inspired temporary cultural apoplexy. A column on the city of Canberra. Not on church abuse, or bikies, or Federal politics.

But the city of Canberra.

One aggrieved Canberran—a PhD. candidate, no less—saw something malign in my mischievous fending off of abuse. Yes, it was not the article, per se, that offended her, but rather my pointing out to aggrieved Canberrans that threatening tweets in response to an article criticising their city might be a little disproportionate. Anyway, my making this point was likened by our nascent scholar to men who ignore women’s claims of sexual abuse. I’d link to the tweet, but it’s since been deleted.

You can’t make this shit up.

Her tweet was remarkable for its powerful compression of offensiveness, paranoia and false equivalence in 140 characters. That’s quite the feat. It also hints at the insufferabe sanctimony of a half-bright mind gorging on gender theory.

But hey, since I’ve brought up Canberra, here’s a slight digression on my thoughts about place and parochialism:

I come from Perth, which is maligned when it’s not being ignored. I spent my 20s watching friends leave for the big cities on the east coast, or even larger ones in Europe, Asia and the US. Many were struck by wanderlust, some with the unshakeable sense that professional or cultural fulfilment would only be found elsewhere. Many were right. But many were still dissatisfied, the ratio of internal and external harmonies undiscovered.

I was mostly happy in Perth, and I would grumble when others ritually denigrated the place. My grumbling was intensified when Perth’s detractors were from the east coast. “Then leave,” went my unspoken response. We intuit great injustice when an “outsider” criticises what’s “ours”.

So I understand pride in, or at least serious attachment to, a place. But it’s a complicated emotion, or cast of emotions. Where we live encompasses everything we do—it’s the big roof over our lives—and as such it’s inextricably (if indirectly) bound to our ambitions, desires, triumphs and failures. Hell, maybe even our sense of self.

For some, an attachment to place is bold, explicit, permanently expressed. For others it’s unspoken, the full measure of it undetected until it’s challenged.

I get that. I do. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely rational.

Given all of these real and imagined connections, a city can become a metonym for your emotional state. If you’re unhappy, a sledge of your place can seem like a sledge of your particular situation, and you dig in a little deeper.

I’m not saying this is what happened to angered Canberrans. I wouldn’t presume to mass psychologise at a distance. I’m just saying that this is what I’ve seen. This is what I’ve felt. I’m saying that our connections to a place can be unruly, idiosyncratic and profound.

*          *          *

Twitter is a vulgar neurosis, but one that has brought me closer to some brilliant people. People—gasp!—that have become Real Life Friends. And Twitter has been filled with folks with a superb eye for spotting my intellectual soft spots wrought by oversight, laziness or sentimentality. You responded in the same spirit in which I wrote. Bless you.

(The preceding paragraph is more evidence of Vanity. It’s always there.)

And finally an apology to my long-suffering partner, de facto editor and financier. Stel has essentially underwritten my vain excursion into commentary, and done so with a rare grace. Freelancing is a rough business, but we choose it and thrust the bloody consequences on our loved ones. I can tell you that all across the country there are writers whose work you love, you wait for, you talk about that are being supported by similar graces. Blessings to all of you.

9 Responses to How Not to Write a Column

  1. Mitch says:

    “It’s why I’m out the back now, writing this indulgent guff. Not because I think it’s important to share—it’s evidently not—but because I want another spell of immersion.”

    For what it’s worth, I find these introspective, personal pieces much more interesting than the columns you wrote for Fairfax (not that I didn’t find those interesting).

  2. One door closes another opens.
    The chooks will still be fed or have their heads neatly removed for dinner preparations.

    Marty all the best.

    Re: Boston Bombings –
    I was hoping Islamic hate didn’t have a new set of poster boys.
    We were all disappointed yet again.
    Then the Australians sons caught for “plotting terror” popped into the in-tray from Saudi Arabia.
    Then we had the 6 UK jihadists late for their bombing appointment at an English Defense League rally. Missed it by that much…funny if it wasn’t real.

    Something other than even an absence of “politically correct” discussions on Islam and its share of world violence really needs to cut through MSM but it’s not going to happen. Why?

    It really needs to be lead by faithful moderates here in front of the press. You could talk about it, but can you afford the additional police protection to have a free and open discussion and debate?

    Food for thought.

  3. Claire Rowe says:

    Your column will be missed much on a Thursday.

    As for your supposed failure, I have a few of your articles pinned on my wall which is also shared by my photos of Thom Yorke. One may argue that in fact you have achieved this euphoria desired, maybe not for yourself but certainly for that of your audience.

  4. Drag0nista says:

    Your words have often been like music to me. I will miss them.

  5. Pingback: No Crap App: w/b 29 Apr 2013 | No Crap App

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