December 5, 2020
Writer-genius Ellena Savage joins us to discuss launching her debut book Blueberries during COVID-times, her approach to personal and academic writing, and her decision to quit Twitter.
Links to topics discussed:
- Blueberries out now through Text Publishing in Australia and Scribe UK. Buy it at any good (independent!) bookstore
- Ellena’s newsletter Little Throbs
- Excerpt from Ellena’s essay Yellow City on The Paris Review
Shout out to:
- Melbourne-based multimedia artist, photographer and performer Devika Bilimoria
- Buying art from local creators! Support local artists!!
- Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter Culture Study
Ellena Savage is the author of Blueberries (2020, Text/Scribe UK). She teaches writing for a living, and has a PhD in Creative Writing with a focus on feminist literary criticism and the contemporary essay. Ellena is a 2019-2021 Marten Bequest scholar.
Ellena Savage: It’s okay to take six months off, it’s okay to take four years off. That doesn’t mean that you’re not going to come back to your art.
Steph Van Schilt: Welcome to Sisteria, a podcast about women and non binary creatives and their experiences creating and consuming arts and culture. I’m your host, Steph Van Schilt. And well, I think it’s safe to say that since we last released in episode quite a bit has changed. So this season of Sisteria is going to sound a little bit different, recorded from my home in Melbourne. I’m currently recording in a little wardrobe in my bedroom right now. But the good news is that our guests are just as brilliant as ever. And honestly, what a way to start the season. Our first guest is my longtime friend and colleague, the all round writer-genius, Ellena Savage. Ellena’s work has been published all over the place. She has a PhD in creative writing. She’s a Marten Bequests scholar for 2019-2021. And she teaches writing for a living. I spoke to Ellena shortly after the release of her debut essay collection, Blueberries, which is a truly remarkable book that on more than one occasion, has been described as “defying categorisation”. It’s a must read. So get your hands on a copy. We chatted about what it was like to launch a debut book during COVID times, her approach to writing personal essays, and her recent decision to quit Twitter. I started off by asking Ellena, how her past few months have been…
Ellena: This kind of past four months, I came back to Australia to do you know, a semester of teaching, which I’ve been doing for the past few years, and to launch my book and do a kind of little mini book tour. And of course, everything kind of went online a few weeks after I arrived. So there was a lot of, I guess, and I had to move house several times in the past couple of months. So I’ve had like a pretty unusual and stressful time with a lot of uncertainty. So I was, yeah, I’ve been like thinking about the questions that you sent through to kind of prepare for this interview and even just thinking about my book Blueberries, just feels like thinking about ancient history. It’s like, it’s interesting, but it’s totally abstract. It’s totally kind of not a part of my day to day life at the moment.
Steph: Which is so upsetting because you came back. And it was supposed to be all about Blueberries and nothing but Blueberries and like, celebrating it and promoting it and like hugging people and having people hug you and shower you with adoration. Yeah, and instead you’re like locked in several different houses.
Ellena: Right! That’s fantasy right? That your book comes out and everyone just kind of like, pours champagne all over you. And finally, I’m the literary celebrity I you know, deserve to be, or something. It’s hard to separate, like what I’m feeling towards the book now with like, is it, is it because of COVID and I haven’t really had a chance to kind of engage with any readers in the real world. Or is it just like, that’s what happens when you bring your first book out. I don’t actually know, because I have no experience of bringing a book out into the world, especially a really kind of personal book. Um, but I suspect that it’s maybe a combination of the two things that like, kind of have this idea when you’re writing the book that, you know, it takes so much will and discipline to get through the labour of producing a book that’s to a certain standard that you can kind of live with. And then to get the book back and see that, ah, you know, like, there’s so many things that I would change now, but I can’t it’s too late. Um, yeah, you kind of think going through this process that the reward is going to be like the few months after the book comes out whenever I’m pours champagne overview. But I think that maybe that’s been like a kind of both go throughout the whole process. And the thing that you really get, which is a really amazing reward for having written a book is that you get to see your book in print. And that’s a pretty significant, a significant thing to kind of look at to hold and to, yeah, relate to. It’s really, it’s been a goal for a long time. So it’s, it has been really gratifying, in one sense.
Steph: Have you got to see your book in the wild because I know a future Sisteria guest, Laura Jean McKay has talked a lot about ho w she also released a book at a similar time and was like, I didn’t get to even see it in a bookshop before we went into lockdown.
Ellena: Yeah, not really. Like I did a couple of signings at Brunswick Bound and Neighborhood Books, who, you know, both of those book shops are like some of my favorite book shops on earth. And they have amazing booksellers working there. Um, yes, I have been through and did some signings there, but it’s very, I did them in isolation so you kind of like walking in with gloves and a mask, and you’re like signing some books. And you’re like, cool I feel like a cool celebrity right now. And then you’re like, I don’t even know if anyone’s gonna buy the book, or if it’s just gonna, like, sit there because you have no idea what’s happening in the bookshop, because it’s, it’s closed to the public, like, there are no people walking around being like, “Oh, is that the new book by Ellena?” No, not happening.
Steph: It’s weird how you say about how it feels like ancient history, because I feel like every day that passes the day before feels like ancient history, because so much is happening so quickly…
Ellena: So much is happening. Politically, economically and just individually, personally. Like, yeah, I mean everyone, not everyone I know, but like a lot of people that I know, their lives have been kind of turned upside down. And a lot of things have been going on, personally, in the lives of people I really care about. So that’s sort of another element of like, we’re all feeling pretty fragmented and haggard, and yeah, the last thing you kind of want to think about is like your fragile literary ego. And, you know, whether or not people love your book or not…
Steph: But it’s legitimate to have feelings and like, how long did you work on Blueberries for? Beca use that was like, it’s a labour of love, and, like, a labour of labour.
Ellena: A labour of labour that’s for sure (laughs)
Steph: Because you worked on it for so long.
Ellena: I started it really late in 2015, which sounds like really long. Um, I started the first, the titular essay in the book, obviously, called Blueberries. Um, yeah, I kind of started that and then I kind of spent another year with that. And I wasn’t sure, like, I wasn’t sure if it was a collection, or if this thing was going to be like, maybe a really long thing, that would be a whole book. And then I started writing some other pieces that kind of started to form, fall in line with it with that piece formally. And then I sort of realized that I was working on a collection. But yeah, when I started, I wasn’t sure if it was long form, kind of experimental nonfiction or something else. But yeah, that was like five years ago, almost four and a half years ago. So it, I guess I wasn’t working on it full time for four and a half years, like a lot of that was, I do sit on my work for pretty long time, or the, you know, the work that I’m writing for books, I’ve done a lot of online journalism as well, which is has a much quicker turnaround, obviously. Um, but yeah, I guess a lot of other things were happening in my life, I was trying to migrate, I got married, I was doing a PhD, I finished that. So I was never kind of just writing that full time. I was also, you know, I guess that’s just normal. That’s life. Life happens when you’re trying to write a book. So it takes a lot longer. Yeah, when I was younger, I think I just studied the rituals of other writers. And just assumed that I could be like anyone else, you can just replicate someone else’s kind of discipline. And so it’s like, okay, Graham Greene writes 500 words every day, and he pops out a book every year. Like, I have two books a year or something. And like, I’m not…when I write 500 words that’s not like, I just finished that page, and I move on to the next page the next day. It’s like, maybe I write 1000 words in a day and I’m just gonna put them in the bin because they were crap. Or you know, or I’m gonna rewrite those 500 words 20 times before, I’m happy with what’s going on in those 500 words.
Steph: But also some of the writing that you do, as you said before about the book, it’s deeply personal. So it is hard and traumatic to relive some of the things that you do cover in your book.
Ellena: Yeah, there was one essay that was kind of, I mean, really emotionally difficult to write. And that was Yellow City. Um, but I was really ready to write that essay. I’ve been kind of trying to write about, yeah, this event in my life that happened when I was 18. And I was assaulted. I’ve been trying to write about it for ten years or so like, since it’s kind of happened, although I didn’t really have a form, I didn’t really know how to tackle it without…I didn’t really know what had happened to me, let alone how I would kind of translate that into a literary form that I believed I could hold the narrative or the non-narrative of what happened to me. So when I wrote that I wrote it in a month, which is really short, it’s really short timeframe for me to produce, it was a 10,000 word essay. And I wrote it in real time. So I think I was just like, I, I was in Portugal, where the assault had happened. And I was, like, going to the courthouse every day to find the documents, and they were really hard to get my, you know, hands on. Because, you know, institutions and bureaucracies aren’t really designed to kind of assist individuals, they’re designed to kind of block individuals, wills and desires. So I was writing about, like, the difficulty of dealing with a foreign legal system, and then the difficulty of kind of remembering and trying to inform myself about what happened to me through the, you know, vagaries of memory and time. Um, but it was, it was difficult, I had a really hard time that month, but I, it also was fine, because I mean, there were certain things that I learned about that event that I’d sort of suppressed or forgotten, I don’t know, which, that I just didn’t include in the essay because I wasn’t ready to talk about them or even, you know, even just think about them. So when I’m, when I’m thinking about my own life writing, what writing autobiographically about maybe difficult things or sensitive things, I have a really strong sense of my own boundaries. And I have a sense of like, “Okay, I’m willing to share this much.” But there are certain things that belong to me. And I don’t want to share. Yeah, there have been a lot of questions about that kind of question or self disclosure, you know, since Blueberries came out. And I think there’s maybe a lot of attention on women who write about bad things that have happened to them. I try to not like, you know, make it a story about the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. But, yeah, there’s been a lot of attention around like, “Do women know what they’re doing when they self disclose? Maybe they’re self exploiting, like, maybe they re traumatizing themselves, and they’re absolutely not capable of understanding what they’re doing to themselves.” And it’s quite paternalistic. And in my case, I felt, you know, I knew exactly what I was doing. I knew how to kind of protect myself from the harder edges and that story. And yeah, like self disclosure is such a kind of mediated controlled thing in writing, I’m not, you know, there’s certain things that I want to share that aren’t pretty about myself even and about, like things that have happened that a bad or just things that I’ve thought that are cruel or wrong or bad, and that now I’m sort of talking about the rest of the book — being honest about being wrong, and being honest about like, kind of maybe occasional self contempt or contempt for others that’s ugly. I’m interested in documenting that difficult stuff. Because I don’t really want a sanitized version of life to be part of my book. I don’t want to kind of position myself as like, the most moral person who’s ever existed, because that would be a lie, you know?
Steph: Yeah, you talk a lot about like the heaviness of truth and being, and honesty and kind of approaching these darker things. But I also think, and this comes across a lot when, obviously, we’re friends, we’ve been friends for a long time. And I feel like when we have discussions, our conversations are often quite deep, and I find your opinion profound, but you’re also darkly, darkly funny, and I think that that humor came across a lot in the book it. Was that purposeful, or do you just think that that’s a natural way that you write?
Ellena: Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely I mean, it’s somewhat
Steph: Do you love all those compliments that I just gave you there…
Ellena: (Laughs) I really appreciated that. It was definitely purposeful and also kind of part of my, my voice, for lack of a better word that I’ve kind of deliberately kind of cultivated. I humor is important to me, I think it’s about pacing. Like kind of, if you are, if you want to talk about maybe sadness, really miserable things: trauma, fractured memory, the kind of the violence of the past living in the present, like, from an aesthetic point of view, you need to kind of like, you need to modulate it with something much lighter. And humor, dark humor, gallows humor can be the thing that kind of, it kind of picks it up enough to kind of let the reader give them a like, give them a fucking break for one second to just feel a counter emotion so that they can dive back in. And this is same for like, maybe talking about more kind of abstract ideas or intellectually challenging, you know, content. I find that a lot of people maybe were quite, like, interested in reading, and a quite, like, you know, highly intelligent often resist, maybe like what we call theory, and resist a lot of the kind of abstract thinking that theory demands of you. And I think they do that, because often the prose is crap, you know, like, the way that that really highly trained academic writers write is often just flat. It’s like porridge, it’s really convoluted. Bad syntax, no voice and no elevation, like no humour. And so I want to, like, I want to do some of that abstract thinking or push my push myself intellectually, you know, I’m not a trained philosopher or something. So it’s not like, you know, it’s not the most scholarly work on Earth. But I am interested in doing kind of abstract thinking, but I want to do it in a way that’s like, you can think abstractly in a vernacular, you know, you can use ordinary language. You can use humor to make it interesting, aesthetically interesting, as well as intellectually kind of challenging. Yeah, so humor is really important to modulate the kind of heavier, heavier material.
Steph: You talk about academic writing there and just academia in general, you did a PhD as well, you just mentioned that, how was that for you?
Ellena: I really like I really resist academic writing. And I think it’s just, it’s such a problem with, with the kind of like the thesis form that you’re kind of slotted into. I love the research, I love the thinking, I love the ideas. I really hate writing essays, you know, chapters of thesis chapters: “In this chapter, I will dot dot dot, and then I will dot dot dot.” And this is like a kind of essential part of the form that you’re, that you’re taught is absolutely necessary. So that you can, you know, pass your degree, and it’s important to pass your degree, you know, otherwise what happens? You get…(laughs)
Steph: You end up with lots of debt, and no degree, instead of a degree with a lot of debt.
Ellena: Exactly! Yeah, so the academic writing form was really difficult for me to work in, I really, I struggled against it a lot. And it’s not the, yeah, it’s not the thinking it’s the form. And I wish it were a little bit different. And I know that like some universities are, you know, because I did my PhD in creative writing, I know that some universities encourage a more kind of creative approach. I did mine at a research university. Yeah, and some of the universities are like, maybe you can do it in a kind of hybrid form. But even then, the hybrid form ends up containing the kind of the syntax of academia. Um, yes, so I, I learned so much, and I, I grew so much, and it was a really important thing for me to have done. It gave me time to think and to write and to read, which is a gift that like, I mean, nothing else in my, you know, nothing in my history, or my future will kind of provide the structure for that kind of freedom just for a few years. So it was really amazing. But yeah, man, academic writing sucks. (laughs)
Steph: So rigid, it’s like applying scientific, scientific principles and rubric to something that when it’s creative writing is obviously far more creative. And I find that hard to meld…
Ellena: Kind of a scientistic form and you’re like, you know, what’s your methodology? And, I mean, if I’m going to be like, materially honest about my methodology, like, I’m going to read a few hundred books (laughs). I’m going to, you know, lose some of them along the way in the library will get angry with me. And I’m going to take lots of notes from them. This is my, you know, my working methodology that I’m going to read a lot. And then I’m going to like struggle to write a thesis, which is not, you know, and that idea of a methodology comes from science, and it’s a really important part of the scientific method. It doesn’t quite, it’s not that useful. I don’t know, I don’t know if it’s that useful for, to apply to creative work. But whatever. That’s between me and my university.
Steph: I thought you were going to say it’s between you and your methodology. You’ve worked on both your PhD and your book, while being transcient and living between two countries and migrating. Can you talk about that experience a little bit? Personally, I don’t have that experience. And I’ve always looked upon you as this kind of cosmopolitan traveler of the world, I visited you when you lived in Vietnam, you write quite a bit about that transient lifestyle in Blueberries. You’re about to go home to Athens, Greece, can you talk about the impulse to live that way?
Ellena: The impulse to live that way is probably that, I guess, I’ve never felt a really strong sense of continuity, or, like, homey-ness, I moved a lot when I was a kid, my dad’s, my dad migrated to Australia, from England. So I think there’s been like, and my mum’s family, like, I’m, you know, I’m close with her, like, immediate family. But beyond that, I don’t have any, you know, I don’t really have a strong kind of family network. So there’s been a lot of kind of splitting off in my family line, and though no heart. So I don’t feel like there’s a place where I returned to, and I think, like, everything’s in its right place, and I’m at home. Um, and I think that’s maybe made it possible for me to feel untethered in a way that has permitted me to take maybe more risks than people with more solid kind of grounding in place yet, but it’s also, you know, propelled me into this kind of like precarious, like, yeah, really trends in kind of existence. And it’s, it’s been a bit exhausting. Like, it’s really funny that you say, like, “Oh, I look to you as this like glamorous, like, cosmopolitan globetrotter.” And I just feel like I don’t know where my undies are, like, everyhting is so disorganised, and I’m just kind of, you know, flying more than I would like to, trying to pick up piecemeal work to kind of make it work. So I’m really looking forward to, yeah, like, I’ve lived in three houses in the past three months, like, that’s not fun. (laughs) So I’m really looking forward to going somewhere, you know, like Athens, where I’ve kind of lived for the past three years, more or less, to go back there and like, stay in my apartment and just, like, be with my undies. And it is important to have a home, it turns out, you know, it gives you a lot of I’m, I’m learning that maybe my kind of resistance to having a home was just a kind of result of not having a really strong sense of one. But the past few years, I’ve become really, really domestic and really yearning for a time when I can just sit still, and, and research and write and build a community and build a real life.
Steph: (laughs) How does a day look for you then? So you talk about wanting to s and research and read but also how you have been transient and moving house? How do you continue to write and make work on a day to day basis? What does the day look like for Ellena Savage?
Ellena: Um, yeah, it looks really different at different times of my kind of work cycles. So when I’m like, I guess when I’ve been teaching here in Melbourne, it looks like doing a lot of emails most days and doing maybe some paid writing commissions and stuff. When I have a bit more freedom I write in the morning, first thing when I wake up because that’s how my brain works. And I’ll just kind of write until lunch or a bit later. And that’s, I just sort of write until I get distracted. And my concentration kind of peels out and then I’ll have a break. Maybe give Walk, do some housework, whatever and then come back and do a bit more like maybe admin stuff in the afternoon. I’m trying really hard not to work evenings and weekends these days. But at times, that’s not really possible. For the past, like four months, I’ve been just working weekends and nights and losing my mind a little bit.
Steph: Well, I think it’s hard when we’re all locked in our houses.
Ellena: Oh totally.
Steph: And it all, like everyday bleeds into the next
Ellena: Every hour bleeds into the next! So kind of …yeah. Right. I’m either like, a horizontal staring at a TV show, or I’m like, I’m just going to work incessantly non stop. But that also could be that also could be my illness. But that’s that’s its own, that’s its own conversation (laughs) I just realised, that’s very a bipolar response. (laughs) Just when that when things are going well, I just like, would happily, yeah, just start at seven in the morning and go through till the afternoon. And then then the afternoon doing, you know, getting my life in order for the next day. Yeah, so we’ll see if that ever, that routine ever returns.
Steph: Oh, it’d be nice
Ellena: Yes very nice.
Steph: When you are kind of stuck at home, one thing that you can get addicted to, I am like, I’ve been guilty of this, is social media, right? Just like scrolling and scrolling and incessantly scrolling. But you recently quit Twitter. Was that a deliberate act of self care? Do you think or…
Ellena: Yeah, definitely. I’m just trying to eliminate everything my life that feeds my anxiety.
Steph: Or you were like, I’ve done my Blueberries promo (laughs)
Ellena: (laughs) Yeah, well, partly it’s like, like, strong sense that one of your responsibilities as a writer to kind of like, help your publicist and help your publisher, like, actually be a helpful author in the process of publicizing your book. It’s kind of, you know, it’s rude to just not be on social media and expect someone to do that publicity work for you. So part of being online is like you, you’re trying to reach audiences and people who might buy your book. Um, and, but and so I was like, doing a lot of that work. And I’ve done a lot of that work for a long time just trying to push my work out into the world and find readers. But another thing that happens when you’re online is that you like you end up just getting, I mean, you end up creeping on strangers and getting angry about their opinions. And I’d be angry about someone’s opinion, who like lives in America, and I don’t even know their name. Like, it’s…
with 63 followers…
Ellena: Yeah 63 followers, and I’m like, I can’t believe that person said that thing on Twitter. You reached a point and you’re like, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t want to do this and don’t want to be this person who’s like, stressed about the existence of someone who I disagree with. Like, it’s so unhealthy. Um, yeah, so I also kind of I was, I quit like drinking wine, because it’s like, not fun when you can’t hang out with your friends. It’s just like, I was watching Grey’s Anatomy and drinking glasses of red wine. And COVID…
Steph: Which, if that’s, if that’s your like…
Ellena: Oh, I mean, it was really fun at the time,
Steph: lifestyle choice, yeah, go for it
Ellena: It was great. (laughs) But my partner quit drinking. And I was like, I just starting to do it alone. And I was like, this is not fun. And it just, even if you, you know, you’re not waking up with a hangover, you’re waking up with a sense of like foginess, and, I don’t know, just anxiety about like, what, what am I doing with my time, and I don’t want to be productive with all my time, I kind of need to learn how to just take time off and kind of fluff around and do nothing. But in order to do that, you know, I don’t want to do it on social media. And I don’t want to do it with a glass of wine in my hand, and I don’t want to be binge-watching TV. I’d rather just, you know, read a book or hang out with my partner, or just like, like sleep. I don’t know if anyone’s heard of that. Sleep is really good.
Steph: (laughs) Get it when you can. I also don’t understand. For me, I’m not super present on social media because it really just stresses me out in general, like I get almost social anxiety from the idea of posting anything. I don’t know how people can post all the time.
Ellena: There are so many layers to why it’s bad. You know, like, there’s this thing of just being watched, right? And exposing yourself and having… I mean, I just said that I like spend my time on Twitter forming opinions about people who you know, whose existence is quite like, irrelevant to my life. And but you because you’re doing that you have an acute awareness that other people are doing that with you, right. And so you’re just participating is putting you in a vulnerable position to kind of cruelty of others. And it puts you in a position where you’re more likely to be cruel yourself. And I don’t want to be cruel. And I don’t want others to be cruel to me. And I want to be kind of free of the idea of being watched as well and so much about society now is structured around surveillance. And I think it’s actually just damaging us very deeply, damaging our relationships to ourselves and our relationships to other people. I think that trying to disengage from just the electronic surveillance of everyday life is going to be really good for just psychic well being. And then this the thing, which is that, like, everything you post is being collected as data like it’s being sold by corporations on terms that you’ll never become aware of. And that’s like, deeply worrying…I kind of sound like a 90s like, conspiracy girl like that film The Net.
Steph: I didn’t want to say it, I was like, yeah, I was like she’s got a baseball cap on, channeling your Sandra Bullock over a keyboard…Literally everything on our phones, like the phones themselves, everything, like. But and at the same time, I feel like we’ve seen recently with the Black Lives Matter movement, how important social media can be for political movements.
Ellena: But this is why it’s so worrying. It’s like this is how I’m accessing all of my information about how I can participate, how I can assist and support and help. And the fact that this is happening inside of this is a private space, it’s not a public space, none of the kind of like obligations to one another exist in this space. And none of our kind of like, freedoms are protected in this space. All of this information is being shared, which is what I completely rely on is information that’s now owned by corporations. Oh my god, I sound like Tyler Durden. Oh well.
Steph: (laughs) That’s so good. But is this all part of… I’m going to talk about your tiny letter, or sorry, your newsletter a bit later, because you wrote that for a while. And in that, because you’ve finished it up recently, in that you talk about like, trying something along the lines of like making yourself smaller?
Steph: And obviously, you shut down the newsletter. Is that kind of all part of that same, I was gonna say theory, but when you say like a conspiracy theorist, that same kind of like inclination,
Ellena: Yes. That was my decision to stop writing. I was writing this kind of, we can be better for a year and a half, maybe two years? Um, yeah, excited to kind of wrap it up. Recently. I mean, I’ve been pretty burnt out from this whole COVID thing. And I was finding writing a weekly newsletter, more and more kind of onerous, rather than when I started it, it was really fun. Um, yeah, so it’s not so I closed it, I finished it, not because I thought that someone was collecting and selling the information that was in it. But more that like, I was, I don’t know, I want to spend more time learning a bit more deeply about the prison system, the economics of the prison system. I want to yeah, I want to maybe stop just commenting and writing for a public or really limited public. And think about what like, maybe kind of spend more time formulating what I want to say, basically, I just want to work on my next book, and I want to do a lot of research. And I don’t want to, I don’t want to reveal and open myself up to others before I feel like I have something worthwhile to say.
Steph: I think it, I think it does relate though, because you were saying about collecting information and getting information from Twitter and you said that you wanted to think more deeply and be more specific with your research, so distancing yourself from that platform, and that kind of information feed and focusing on another, I think it relates. I don’t think it’s part of a grand conspiracy theory of yours.
Ellena: Yeah, I think it’s probably I’m just feeling very strong. And maybe this is like a symptom of having a really personal book out in the world. I’m feeling a really strong urge to kind of have a barrier of privacy in my life, and maybe spend a bit more time, like nourishing my home life and my like the relationships that I’ve, you know, value the most. There’s a, the Italian philosopher, Maurizio Lazzarato writes about this. I’ll just find the quote actually…
Steph: I was just about to say exactly the same thing (laughs)
Ellena: So I mean, we kind of touching on the subject of like, artists, as workers, rather than as these kind of like princely little lords that jump around with a feather in their hat. Writers as workers. Artists as workers. So Lazzarato says that “as a worker, or an artist is simultaneously… personally responsible for the education and development, growth, accumulation, improvement and valorization of the self in its capacity as capital.” He says, “This is achieved by managing all its relationships, choices, behaviors, according to the logic of a cost slash investment ratio, and in line with the law of supply and demand.” So that’s like he’s talking about in Foucault, it’s called capitalization. And it’s where you kind of, in the, in, in the experience of an artist and an artist, being a worker, what you’re doing is that you’re turning yourself into, you’re literally yourself into a kind of permanent, multi purpose, business. Right. And that’s kind of part of this thing, where, as a writer, you’re doing this kind of self promotion, you’re online, you’re like, keeping abreast of the literary currents and debates and you’re participating in them. And, you know, and part of this thing about capitalization is, is that it encourages you or it kind of like demands that you, yeah you make these cost benefit analyses around the work that you’re doing. And I think that that’s really hostile to creative production. I think if you’re thinking like, will this this thing, sell to an audience, then maybe the thing is not the thing that you should be writing. I mean, of course, you know, you need to eventually find a readership for your work, but the work should be good on its own terms, not just kind of like well market researched. Um, yeah, so it kind of trying now, I feel like I’ve spent the past 10 years kind of scrambling together, um, just producing so much work and, and, and working in so many different kind of fields to support myself. And I’m now just feeling quite raw and exposed. And I kind of want to like, bundle myself up. And yeah, do some proper work.
Steph: That was a perfect segue into our Arrogant Aunt question. So Arrogant Aunt is our segment where we answer a listener question with an authority we just don’t have. It’s an exercise in imposter syndrome for all of us.
Steph: The question is from Cat, and I’ll play that now.
Arrogant Aunt Question: Hi, this is Cat. I want to ask about existing in the world as a working creative. It’s hard at the best of times, but I’m feeling super disheartened right now. It’s stressful thinking about money. So do guests have any tips on finances and being a creative person? Or do I just give up? Thank you
Ellena: Um, don’t give up. Um also I don’t have any financial tips. I’m not like, you know, that good at money. But I do, I do think that I have something useful, maybe possibly useful, which is that I think in my experience, most of the people that I know who’ve turned their creativity, or their art into a profession really tend to overwork and they have pretty high standards of themselves, and they kind of they’re pretty goal oriented. And I guess what I was saying before about this thing, where you’re kind of become this constant ever-present, multi purpose business when you’re, you know, you’re you’re making a profession out of your creativity. And I think it’s really important to kind of remind yourself that it’s okay to take six months off, it’s okay to take four years off, that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to come back to your art. You have to kind of like prioritize your material life. And if that invokes, like, yeah, you need to go and do some work that’s not related to your art. If you need to spend more time caring for your family members, or people that you care about, like life, kind of has to take precedence in times of crisis. And, and that doesn’t mean that you’re, you know, like, we just force ourselves to be productive all the time. And it’s exhausting. So, yeah, like this idea of, I feel it very acutely as well. Like, if I stopped writing for six months, am I even going to be a writer ever, like, maybe I’m just kidding. But I think that’s maybe the wrong way to look at it, like living your life is always going to kind of, if you’re an artistic person, it’s always going to feed your art work in some way, it’s going to give you a new perspective on, you know, it’s going to bring something to your creative practice when you have the mental and physical energy to get back to it. So it’s not so much about money, but maybe making time to yeah, focus on money if you need to, and take time away.
Steph: And sometimes I think the, having a side hustle that isn’t creative related, that maybe helps finance your creative endeavors, offers you a bit more freedom than it does…
Ellena: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah.
Steph:…trying to pursue purely a creative path. Because it’s a very tough terrain right now. So perhaps finding work if you don’t have work already, or maintaining work that is very dry and very boring, and not the creative profession that you would prefer to be doing might help facilitate that creative profession some more.
Ellena: Totally, when I was trying to like kind of, earn a substantial part of my income from writing, I just found myself like, I never actually had time to write what I wanted to write, I was just constantly filing kind of commissions. And some of them were interesting. And some of them were like, I don’t even know I’m putting my name on this. And so you kind of feel like it’s like, well, I might as well work at a fish and chip shop, you know, like, it’s so not related to what I want to do. So I might as well just get a job at a fish and chip shop and spend my weekends working on my poetry or whatever it is. Yeah, I think that just like being, prioritizing, like, just getting things sorted out in your, you know, in your real material life, make it possible for you to, to dedicate some part of yourself to your creative practice when you can.
Steph: And I think knowing when perhaps you don’t have that creative impulse anymore, and you need to stop is also valuable. And yeah, just like you with your tiny letter, which is going to we’re going to segue into our shout out…So, the Sisteria shout out is when we give a shout out to something that has been giving us joy recently. And mine has got to be your newsletter Little Throbs, which you have now stopped but also Anne Helen Peterson’s newsletter and just Anne Helen Petersen’s writing in general. She’s an American cultural critic. She writes a lot for BuzzFeed. She writes a lot on celebrity, but she also has been doing a lot of coverage of COVID in smaller towns, protests in smaller towns. She’s just very interesting. So the only two newsletters that I really read as well as subscribe to have been Ellena’s and Anne Helen Petersen’s. So Elena, what have you, what’s your shout out? What have you got?
Ellena: Well, I guess in COVID, we’re thinking more about like, supporting small businesses and giving, you know, like, making purchases that put money directly back into the economy and in people’s pockets, in workers pockets, right? And my thinking around that is like, what is the smallest business? The smallest business is an artist and the only worker an artist exploits is themselves. So I’ve been kind of thinking about how I can support my friends and kind of warm acquaintances who lost a lot of work and maybe don’t have many employment prospects in the next kind of couple of years. So I recently purchased my first like, major artwork by Melbourne artist, Devika Bilimoria. Devika is photographer and performance artist and dancer and they do lots of really beautiful interesting kind of playful stuff. And I just bought this beautiful like a print, a photography print of a prize winning photo called “Pool Hall”. So my, yeah, my shout out is Devika Bilimoria’s work and buying art from artist friends to help them, you know, just support themselves through this desperate time.
Steph: One hundred percent standby that shout out. That’s why this whole Sisteria season exists, to support the likes of you who have released books during the shitty time. But also I’ve always wanted to take our friendship…
Ellena: Oh to the next level…
Steph: …in front of the microphone, to the next level. Elena Savage, it has been an absolute pleasure to talk to you today. Thank you so much for being on Sisteria.
Ellena: Thanks for having me on. Ciao!
Steph: Sisteria is supported by the Melbourne City Council Arts Grants Program and recorded on the lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nations. We pay our respects to the elders past and present, and to the elders of all the lands this podcast reaches. Subscribe to Sisteria everywhere. Follow us @sisteriapod. Links to everything discussed in the episode are available at sisteriapodcast.com. Our theme music is by Rainbow Chan. The song is called Last and it’s from her album, Spacings. Thanks so much for listening. Stay safe and we hope to tune in again soon.