This post was prompted by the EWF Hobart road show, and was written by Connor Tomas O’Brien.
One of the great things about writing and reading are that both acts can take place virtually anywhere. This makes discussions about the relationship between writing and place problematic. Technically speaking, it is now wholly possible to scrape out a living (or a meager part of a living) as a writer from virtually anywhere with a reasonable web connection. The role of a strong writing community isn’t always immediately obvious, because writers can believe themselves to be self-sufficient.
Those working in other forms have clear practical reasons to relocate to places with strong arts communities. If you want to make a film, for example, you really need to situate yourself around a community of screenwriters, actors, directors, lighting professionals, and producers; cities with talent gaps become untenable for those looking to make movies, leading those interested in filmmaking to trickle to centres with established infrastructure.
Writing, on the other hand, can be solitary. For those living in rural or regional areas who are interested in writing, it’s not especially clear whether it is necessary or even appropriate to move to a major city. For twenty-four years, until about a fortnight ago, I lived in Adelaide, a confused city unable to decide whether it wants to stay small or grow into a major capital (to clarify: I love Adelaide). All of South Australia is, according to the Australian government, classified as part of regional Australia.
Writing in regional areas – South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and rural New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, and Western Australia – is not impossible, because it is possible to write from anywhere, but subtle infrastructure gaps do make sustaining your writing practice more difficult. Internationally renowned authors routinely visit Melbourne to deliver lectures, creating an invigorating culture of ideas in that city that sends a strong signal that writing matters. When you’re writing in a regional area, that culture can be lacking, making it infinitely more likely that prospective writers will never open their word processor in the first place.
At the Emerging Writers’ Festival Hobart Roadshow, which took place at the beginning of November, I had a number of discussions with young Tasmanian-based writers. When I told them I’d been based in Adelaide and had just moved to Melbourne, they would nod in affinity and say, a little conspiratorially, “I’ve been thinking about moving, too.” Hobart, like Adelaide, is a regional centre with a little literary infrastructure (Island and the Tasmanian Writers Centre’s Twitch! group are focal points), but which doesn’t seem to have quite reached the critical mass of activity required to prevent emerging writers from migrating.
At the EWF Roadshow, NT-based Kelly-Lee Hickey made the point that, “Being a regional writer is a political act”. In fact, staying in a regional area and deciding to leave it are both political acts. If you stay, you commit to building up the infrastructure within your city (in Adelaide, the city I know best, Josh Fanning and Farrin Foster have worked on a number of initiatives designed to help establish the city as a publishing centre, and those associated with the Format Collective are committed to nurturing a community around live music in the city). If you leave, you fail the city you’re leaving by removing your support, but you do so in order to make use of superior infrastructure that will let you do what you’d like to do, better. It is never clear whether it is better to leave the country or regional centre for the big city, or to stay put.
When you’re running literary arts events and attempting to establish infrastructure, these decisions are even more difficult. The core question is whether it is better to expend time, money, and energy on establishing infrastructure in remote or regional areas, or to use those same limited resources to further improve infrastructure in capital cities (read: Melbourne). Realistically, it is far more cost-effective for literary arts organisations to organise events in Melbourne (where they are already based), and the return tends to be greater: Melbourne has a larger population than any regional centre or rural area, and a stronger existing community, making audience engagement with any event virtually assured.
There is something to be said for consolidating resources in this way. Because Melbourne has a critical mass of literary infrastructure, it can compete on a global scale (it is one of only seven UNESCO Cities of Literature in the world), and because Melbourne has an engaged community of readers and writers, funding can go a long way (at least when measured in ticket sales and foot traffic). This is exactly the logic that brings writers from regional areas to Melbourne: why expend the energy to build up a network in your city when you could buy a $69 plane ticket and fly to a place with everything all set up and ready to go?
I thought about this all a great deal while down in Hobart. Engaging with regional centres is actually not as easy or cheap as it sounds. The planning for the Hobart Roadshow took the EWF team months, with much of that time spent figuring out the best ways to engage with emerging Tasmanian writers. If a regional area doesn’t already have a very strong network, it can be difficult to work out how to find writers in the area, especially those who might exist on the margins. Express Media, publisher of Voiceworks, have also been experimenting with magazine launches in regional centres in a bid to encourage writers outside of Melbourne to engage with the magazine. In both cases, these initiatives have been successful, but it is tempting to underestimate exactly how difficult it is for organisations to engage with those on the geographic fringes.
Over at his blog, Matthew Finch has suggested that arts organisations, particularly those based in Melbourne, have an obligation to “physically go to the deprived and marginal sites, and then use digital technology to share those events with the city centre”. This is a noble idea, but not always entirely practical. It takes a lot more time and costs a whole lot more to engage with writers in regional centres than it does to engage with writers in Melbourne, and it costs a lot more again to engage with writers in even more remote areas, particularly if there is no literary infrastructure upon which an outside organisation can piggyback. The Australia Council, Australia’s peak arts funding body, recognise this, and have committed to funding outreach programs for eight major writers’ festivals for 2013 – 2016. At the same time, of course, a substantial amount of funding trickles back to Melbourne organisations creating events and infrastructure for Melbourne-based audiences.
When I think of how I began to engage with other writers, it’s through a confluence of events that took place in my hometown (a regional area), other regional areas, and Melbourne-based events I travelled to attend. As a student media editor several years ago, I was funded to attend Express Media’s NEWS Conference at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, which provided editors across the country the ability to share tips and war stories. Later that year, I travelled to Newcastle (which is not technically classified as part of regional Australia, but is certainly more regional than Sydney or Brisbane or Melbourne) to attend my first National Young Writers’ Festival. The fact that the event is held in Newcastle both levels the playing field for audience members, many of whom travel in from interstate, and benefits Novacastrians who participate in the festival both as artists and audience members. Back in Adelaide, the Format Academy of Words, a grass-roots festival for emerging local writers, was instrumental in creating strong links between local and interstate writers (and was directed for several years by Lisa Dempster, now director of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival). And, in terms of regional outreach programs, both the Emerging Writers’ Festival and Express Media have run a series of events in Adelaide over the past few years, solidifying the local writing community and providing writers with links to Melbourne-based organisations.
My story is in no way exceptional, and I’m aware there are still huge gaps – if I grew up in Mildura or Port Augusta, I would probably have been left out of the loop entirely. There are also questions to be raised about the goal of outreach programs: do Melbourne-based organisations travel to regional areas to preach the benefits of living and working in Melbourne (to some degree, I think so – that’s one reason I’m now living here), or do they travel to regional areas to encourage those in the region to stay put and establish their own infrastructure (I think this happens, too)?
What’s interesting is that, though literary centres like Melbourne do tend to attract writers, it is the stories from the margins that can be the most vital. In other words: the writers with the most exciting stories to tell might be those based in Darwin, or Alice Springs, or Mildura, or Port Augusta. Or Hobart, or Adelaide. The problem arts organisations face is figuring out the most cost-effective way to find those writers and engaging with them. Programs like the EWF’s Roadshows can be illuminating – for regional writers used to working alone, recognising that a strong support network exists (even if that network is largely Melbourne-based, with tentacles extending outward) can be enough to encourage writers to keep at it and to seek out non-obvious opportunities for publication. Of course, once regional writers link themselves to a network with Melbourne at its centre, it becomes up to them to figure out whether it’s better to stay or to go.
Connor Tomas O’Brien is Melbourne-based writer and web designer. He is the co-founder of independent ebookstore platform Tomely (tomely.com) and co-director of the upcoming EWF Digital Writers’ Festival. He tweets as @mrconnorobrien and blogs at connortomas.com
(in the porting of content from previous blogs, I wanted to keep some of the comment)