Writer’s Block: The Way Is Closed, Because You’re Not Like Me

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Prevention is not always better than the cure, particularly if it limits what people can say and, more importantly, write. Doug Ross explains.

Writing competitions in Australia are a relatively unknown and unconsidered part of the national culture, despite their role as a conduit for ideas and discussions relating to the Australian experience.

Whether they celebrate fiction, non-fiction, essays or poetry, writing competitions also play a vital role in giving writers of all ages an incentive to write. There is only one thing that stops a writer from doing what they love, and that is insecurity in all its forms.

A fear of the blank page is a fear every writer knows well. Nothing spurs them on like an authority telling them what to write about and in how many words to write it. It takes them back to the security of the exam room, when the rules were clear, the time limit verbalised by the examiner, and the way forward signposted.

It is sometimes the case that a writing competition paves the way towards a book deal, and like a tug boat, guides writers’ sluggish hides into the exclusive port that is the world of publishers that they oh so want to be a part of but are too scared (or lack the connections) to enter.

The Horne Prize is an increasingly illustrious essay competition, named after acclaimed writer Donald Horne, who was known for his deep explorations of the Australian experience. The competition is run through Schwartz Media (The Monthly, Black Inc., The Saturday Paper) and is sponsored by Aesop, hence the hefty and catalysing $15,000 first prize.

The judging table is also surrounded by notables of Australia’s media and literary scenes (apart from the obligatory corporate inclusion of an Aesop executive).

Each year The Horne Prize provides a space for the exploration of a single theme: ‘Australian life’ – a vast, generic but inclusive theme that immediately calls to mind a great expanse of Australian desert or the many folds of sand along an expansive coastline. The manifestations of thought made possible by the theme continue to attract large numbers of submissions, all guided by a call for contemplation, self-reflection (‘self’ in all its constructions) and empathetic exploration.

But this year is different for writers interested in The Horne Prize. Three guidelines, singular to this year’s competition, have officially popped up as stern warnings painted on the wall to those about to explore their caves of thought. The competition will not consider:

  • Essays by non-Indigenous writers about the experiences of First Nations Australians;
  • Essays by cis writers about the experiences of those in the LGBTQI community;
  • Any other writing that purports to represent the experiences of those in any minority community of which the writer is not a member.

At first, these may seem sensical, but take some time to reflect on what they truly mean. ‘Essays by non-Indigenous writers about the experiences of First Nations Australians’ implies that a single reference to Indigenous Australians from a caucasian writer will place the essay under probation, if not immediate elimination from the judging process. It is not enough that a writer from a place of privilege may not put themselves in the shoes of a minority, but they must also not even make mention of another’s experience, for fear of risking appropriation, misrepresentation or simply disqualification.

A young man or woman working for the Teach For Australia program in outback Australia may not write about their experience of the education system as it applies to the young Indigenous population of a tiny town, as their attempt to understand, empathise with, explore, criticise, aid, belong to, and love a community is now filtered through a ‘corporate responsibility’ of the judging table to weed out those that do not check their privilege at the gate.

Can a 60-year-old train driver try his hand at writing to explore the experience of growing up in 1970s Melbourne with a homosexual brother, one who was proud and public in his expression of his sexuality.

Does the writer’s attempts to etch out with words his brother’s experience as a gay man place him under watch by the judging table? Is he not allowed to explore his own struggle with sexuality in Australia in relation to the decisions of his brother to refuse to back down to a repressively heterosexual society, the system that let their family down, and the society that misunderstood and grappled with change?

Would these ideas not amount to a reflection of ‘Australian life’? If not, what do we think of previous artistic explorations of similar themes by directors, writers, painters and thinkers who dared to empathise with those different to them?

To be glib but necessarily reflective, if it is wrong to try to represent the thoughts of those who are different from us, should men write of the experiences of women and vice versa? The judges say yes. And if yes, then white men’s prose should include no other characters but white men, and only those that share the same sexuality, gender identity and economic standing as them.

You would be right in thinking that this is an absurdity.

Indigenous academic Vicki Grieves once commented on Patrick White: “It seems he had an affinity with Aboriginal spirituality but not unsurprisingly felt locked out of it.”

The songlines of First Nations people stretch back tens of thousands of years, and are ostensibly impregnable to white Australia, and perhaps should remain so. But to build a wall in front of writers, to officially mark them by their race, and tell them where to stand, reeks of a particularly dangerous ideology we tell ourselves was lost to the 20th century.

We are trying to knock down walls; building others behind us leaves us little room in which to swing our bulldozers.

Poet Philip Larkin once remarked, “I don’t want to go around pretending to be myself.” That comment seems to distill the efforts of a writer. They either look behind their pretences to scrape away at their core, or seek others to understand so as to reveal the ‘self’, whatever that may mean.

It may only be a writing competition, and it may only be a skin company sponsoring it, but the sign they have put up outside the club boldly and eerily states: there are some places closed to outsiders, experiences are not to meet, and only sanctioned words can win.

Douglas Ross

Douglas Ross works as a commercial copywriter, while also acting as a freelance writer. He has written for Crikey, New Matilda, The Big Smoke, Desktop Magazine, and Australian Design Review. You can contact him and view more of his work through his website.

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