Epitaph For My Culture Writing Years

Statue Of Meditation in Fitzroy Gardens. Photo Credit: Flickr

“All rather inhuman and undernourished, isn’t it? Well, that, children, is the true sign of cracking up
- ‘The Crack-Up’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Content warning: Sexual assault and mental health issues are mentioned

I learnt media in high school by studying articles in The Age newspaper and episodes of 60 Minutes. In the first year of my arts degree (2006), I did two Journalism units where I wrote feature articles suitable for maybe a city council’s free newspaper. The possibility of writing online was never mentioned. For one assignment, I covered the then ever-present threat of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne being torn down. I still remember wandering around inside the Cathedral one day, and waiting until I caught a priest to get an interview. I asked him the role he thought a Church played in a city, and he told me a sanctuary was important. Life can’t always be busy, you need a place to collect your thoughts.

When I think about writing and culture, it is hard to disconnect it from my first year of University, especially the many Sunday mornings I sat at the breakfast table reading the paper while my Dad made us breakfast. I still feel sometimes like I am chasing this feeling of peace and quiet. You caught up with news in the morning, discussed it with whoever you shared that morning with, and then the rest of the day was yours.

Like most millennials, I was told from a young age to pursue my dreams, but also that anyone with an arts degree would end up working at a fast food chain, so fast forward a little bit and I study to be a Librarian/Archivist instead of pursuing my real passion — writing — and by 2012 I find myself a depressed young adult, extra depressed on account of being employed on a contractual basis in an Australian broadcaster’s archive, and they no longer have money to keep me employed. By this time I had written a handful of live music reviews for an online music publication, to exercise an urge to write, and to go to gigs for free, and a friend offered me an internship at a new online events/culture publication she had just been made assistant editor of. At the time it felt like the fresh start I deserved.

Within a day or two of interning at this publication I found out that journalistic ethics meant very little to anyone running the publication. I was given a long list of events daily to write punchy copy about, and instructed to find photos from somewhere else on the internet and attach it to the article. Soon other publications would tell off the publication I interned at about plagiarizing, because some interns couldn’t keep up with the workload and had copied from them. The editorial issues didn’t stop there. My editor friend laughed to me one day about an article she had just published on the site about a local girl who had stalked a touring musician and been arrested. I looked up the article and saw the girl’s full name was used. ‘You have to take her name out of the article!’ I messaged my friend on the service the publication used to communicate — Skype. My friend insisted she didn’t have to and I told her it was Journalism 101 — minimize harm, don’t name people so they can be found by the general public. Hours later my friend grumpily let me know she had been told off and made to edit the story and take the girls name out.

Anything time consuming was a burden to publishing online, and unluckily for me it turned out that’s what I liked, and still like, the most about writing. I like time and effort, I like people caring enough about something that they just have to talk about it. But caring is what makes you a target for bullies both online and in workplaces. Most workplaces, but it hurts especially I guess in workplaces where your personal passions overlap with the work you are doing.

I’ve read plenty of articles where former journalists and interns expose the toxic work environment at a publication, and my experience is no different. Pretty soon into my internship random articles I sent my editor friend casually, became ‘fun stuff we came across!’ in the publication’s daily newsletter. Off hand pop culture information I knew became articles by paid writers who didn’t engage face to face with the interns much, but I guess listened closely enough to our conversations to mine us for content (it was a ‘cool’ open plan office with little privacy). Some days if chatting or laughing amongst the interns got too loud the head editor would call out for us to shut up, and God forbid if you didn’t think another top ten list was necessary to write. It was weird to realise that thinking critically was not getting me anywhere. I didn’t want to find the top ten times Morrissey was captured on video being morose as content to put up before his tour, and I frequently mentioned I thought fifty published event articles a day per intern was excessive. Yet, I liked writing about culture, and, still new to seeing my name published — which gave me a high — started sharing my work on Twitter.

Pretty quickly the same problems I had at my internship recreated themselves online — very little personal engagement, and a lot of passive following. Paid employees of the publication I interned at followed me on Twitter, liked or replied to some of my tweets, but struggled to maintain eye contact with me in the office when we talked. Now that I think about it, most in person conversations were strained, and they openly rolled their eyes in a way that gaslights you from speaking genuinely. One girl in the marketing department, who online proclaimed she was a feminist and who started a female focused film zine, not only didn’t pay any of her contributors (I know because I contributed), but also not surprisingly wouldn’t engage with anyone she seemingly deemed beneath her unless she needed something from them.

Whatever the social hierarchies or rules were, I didn’t care for them, and for the life of me couldn’t understand what about pop culture necessitated staking a claim at a publication over. The pettiness really killed the vibe. I was openly mocked by paid employees for being unemployed and receiving government assistance. I got into an argument with my editor friend’s White boyfriend at a company party because he thought he was allowed to say racist jokes. I was rarely paid on time, and one of the paid employees who was rudest to me had a boyfriend who tried to take advantage of me when I was drunk once, and I felt nauseous most of the time around her. It’s still hard to tell if that’s why she was rude to me, and even harder to tell if I persisted with the internship to prove some unnecessary point to myself about being tough.

Every day at that internship was a forced exercise in going along to get along, and for a publication that wrote about art and cultural events the place seemed devoid of personality (except for the interns but I’m probably biased). There was certainly no sexuality (not even loud talking!), and so you would be right to assume mostly White people worked there, of which I am one, and when I stopped interning there in early 2013, I became for a few years one of the many, and mainly, White freelancers who contribute to Australian cultural publications (sans editor friend though, thank goodness, who decided she liked her boyfriend’s racist jokes and rude colleagues more than me).

At the peak of my low paid, and frequently no pay, freelancing career, I wrote gig reviews, album and film reviews, pop-culture listicles, interviewed touring musicians and other artistic people, and after a year or two, more in-depth articles relating to social issues. Because my parents love music and culture I also loved it, and because of this I was good at writing and talking to other people about it. I don’t mean that I think I wrote beautifully about it. I mean that I knew how to be engaging, because I was genuinely excited about whatever I was writing about, and wanted the reader to get excited about it too. I wanted them to go out and see the film I reviewed, or check out the new musician I was talking to or saw perform.

The end goal, I think, of sharing your work on Twitter is for either thousands of retweets (who knows if anyone actually reads it), or the subject of your article to share it (always a thrill if it’s someone you admire, a.k.a a famous person). Shallow engagement that does nothing to help your freelancing career that in any way will help you as much as knowing an editor personally does. It’s very ‘I’ focused, which is I guess good for sharing personal writing and your opinions, but not so much for talking about other stuff. I don’t think it really matters if I write about an album and the musician shares my review. It matters more that people go and listen to the album. It’s nice, but making it about me in any way feels like I’m being conned somehow. It’s just not the point. Engaging with anyone else but the musician about the album was always the point to me with culture writing.

Probably not that many other freelancers would agree with me. The hierarchy at most publications is the same when freelancing. The suckers who actually care about what they’re writing about get stuck at the bottom, writing for low pay or exposure. They write the most engaging work that makes readers return to the publication but they will most likely never be told this by their editors.

If you are friendly with an editor, you are treated courteously in emails, if you are not you often get the online version of an eye roll — your emails aren’t responded to promptly or lack formalities. I’ve heard of pitches being stolen by editors, and I can share in this paranoia, but mainly I know that editors kill stories or pass on stories more than they should because they don’t know the freelancer personally (i.e. the freelancer isn’t in their deemed appropriate social circle), and I can say that this definitely happens in Australia when you want to write about racism.

It’s frustrating how I see it so clearly now. Way back when I started reviewing live shows I remember an editor removing a quote from my review of The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama at Hamer Hall because “the inclusion of political remarks made for an awkward read”. The ‘remarks’ were that the group had made mention to the state of unemployment for Black people in the United States. I remember thinking it was so weird to take anything out of a review, it wasn’t like I had gone over the word limit, and I was the one there after all. But all I read was ‘awkward read’ and assumed the editor knew best.

An unnecessarily edited live music review was the least of my worries. Like many young writers I was radicalized by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, and the riots in Ferguson that followed. I didn’t think of myself as someone ignorant about race before this but the incident awakened a feeling I had about police in Australia that I felt no one talked about, a nastiness. And once I looked into incidents of police brutality and racial profiling in Australia I was shocked to find a few had happened in my suburb. And so I made it my mission to get a think-piece article published about it.

If it’s possible to have a nervous breakdown trying to get an article published I would say I nearly went all the way there. Editors I pitched regularly to didn’t respond to my emails pitching articles about racism in Australia. Which seemed odd to me especially because I wasn’t pitching to major news publications, these were youth focused publications, the perfect place to start a casual conversation about racism. When I persisted with my pitch, editors suddenly wanted a reason for the article — these fatal shootings happened in America they said, what was linking it to Australia? And suddenly I found myself trying to explain to editors why any one single article in all the vast internet, which in a few short years had become a 24/7 news station before my eyes, shouldn’t have to justify itself as ‘timely’. Couldn’t someone just write about how racism is weird, and prejudices are happening around everyone all the time, and it feels kind of gross?

Apparently not. Articles about race are not the evergreen content editors are looking for I guess, not like articles about White pop culture, especially nostalgia stuff. Several publications rejected my pitches about racism because they weren’t timely, until I found the loophole for that — the few days after another fatal shooting, or death in police custody. But then editors would kill the story halfway through writing because ‘it fell out of the news cycle’.

I was enraged and fell into depression, so self-righteous with anger over an editorial decision, I couldn’t see that I, a White girl, wasn’t suffering in some way over race too. I lost sleep thinking about what I was doing wrong that editors were rejecting these pitches, and I tried not to think about the editors I knew who stopped engaging with me in person and online after I pitched them articles about race. It was like day to night. Editors love you when you want to write about pop culture that they also care about, but when you’re telling them about a social issue they should know and care about, it is received like you’re telling them how to do their job. You always break the cardinal sin of pitching when you pitch about racism too, your emails are long with justifications for the article’s purpose.

My obsessive compulsiveness was rampant during this period. I lost the ability to trust that I knew the definition of words, checking a dictionary multiple times in a row, and would become convinced that simple sentences I wrote read like gibberish. I stopped telling anyone when I got commissioned to write something, because that would signal to the universe to jinx it. I could only write at the State Library of Victoria, and then only in the newspaper room there, and soon I came to despise seeing the building, because it represented this new inability to get an article published. On the days I emerged from the Library nearly defeated by negative self-talk I had to walk through the Treasury and Fitzroy Gardens to Jolimont Station to get home, because I knew somewhere in my TM joint that the enclosed space of the City-Loop would trigger a nervous collapse.

Eventually I found a home for one article about police brutality, at an online publication that eventually went offline and never paid me. Don’t feel bad for struggling to sympathise with my plight though. I was trying to make a big point about racism in Australia that should be a continuous conversation. It was ridiculous to think my name needed to be attached to that conversation in any way, even if I exhausted myself trying to start conversations about it.

Around this time on Twitter (2015), I had just over four hundred followers. I was mainly writing about pop culture, and by then this no longer seemed important once I knew social issues were harder to get published writing about. Some people I really admired followed me on Twitter, but the more followers I got and the higher caliber of publication I got to write for, the meaner interactions became online. Peers didn’t engage with my work, and didn’t respond when I engaged with theirs. People I looked up to in the Australian writing community were unwelcoming and antagonistic, especially on Twitter where it’s so easy to take what someone is saying out of context. The more someone promoted themselves online as being inclusive, especially White feminists, the less inclusive they actually were when I met them, and you could guarantee the publications they edited didn’t pay writers.

By 2016 I was checking my Twitter stats page weekly, and could see a lot of people were reading what I wrote but not engaging with me to start or continue any kind of conversation. They were listening to music I recommended, clicking on links I shared, and I had no idea why most of my followers followed me at all. Then I noticed extremist right wing Twitter users, and bots. I got into an argument with an extremist right wing man in the U.K (possible bot), who was sending abusive tweets to human rights lawyer Julian Burnside. The extremist told me Muslims were beheading people on the street in Manchester. I asked for detailed info, and for weeks after he sent abusive tweets until I blocked him.

After the 2016 U.S Presidential election results I couldn’t believe it when my Twitter feed was full of politically left people crying, ‘What are we going to do???’ That’s the wrong question to ask I thought, their tweets read like a refrain. And then I thought, even the right question wouldn’t get an answer because everyone would tear it apart before a point could be made or a conversation could be started. No wonder we were in this mess.

That same day, curious to see what right wing people in Australia thought of Trump’s win, I looked up One Nation party leader Pauline Hanson on Twitter. She had not tweeted about the election, not even a whoop. Then I thought to check her @’s and replies. Sure enough some of her followers had tweeted at her about Trump, and she had responded ‘how do you know the results?’ to a few of them. I still laugh when I think about it. There’s a lot to criticize about Pauline Hanson, but we often forget her overall ineptitude.

But, what Australian publication at the time was making any better of an effort to find anything out about this shift towards nihilism in the culture? Ineptitude just about sums up my feelings toward trying to be a freelance writer in Australia. Ineptitude from editors who couldn’t recognize a story, who don’t engage with a wide network of writers to keep abreast of what’s happening in their community, let alone the country. Editors who I don’t even know if their attitude changed when the publications they worked at went offline after a few years, and they found themselves editing a real estate agents newsletter, or working in advertising. Nothing against it, I just wonder if they see a point to the work they were doing prior when they were influencing ‘the culture’. I wonder, because a lot of editors sure made a big deal about giving you their stamp of approval. Enquiring minds want to know and all that.

When I quit Twitter and freelance writing, there was no feeling of, ‘oh it wasn’t fun anymore’. I really thought people wrote about cultural things because they actually cared about what they wrote about, or cared about it being written about period. I guess I thought some version of my peaceful Sunday mornings reading the newspaper could be recreated online with other people. I’m not surprised I came across mean people, but there is a lot of unnecessary energy put into being nasty online, and I think Twitter unconsciously influences users to conform to how most use it, which is to be hostile. Not just hate speech and subtweets — passive aggression, criticism of others work disguised as sarcasm, and otherwise silence. Even positive exchanges I observed seemed performative most of the time. I didn’t want to think I could only get writing opportunities by sucking up to anyone.

Suffice to say, I never found my culture writing sanctuary. Maybe such a place doesn’t exist with that kind of writing. This will sound melodramatic, but freelance writing in Australia, and trying to engage with other writers online, made me hate writing. It made me feel embarrassed that I wanted to do good work, because that work seemed to be purposefully unappreciated. It even got to the point where I hated being observant. Why bother I thought, to just waste my time trying to get an editor to see what I see, and I’ll be even more honest, I thought about suicide a lot. Not because I believed I was fighting a losing battle, because I did eventually find a place for most of the articles I wanted to write, and even if a story was eventually killed by an editor I know I tried my hardest to get it published, and I accept my failings in the process. I thought about suicide because I started to think that words no longer had meaning, that only smirks and sneering and posturing did, because the more I had to say, the more people in the Australian writing scene seemed to not understand, and recoil from me.

To move on from these negative experiences, I had to accept that it was all part of something that I could still find a silver lining in. It turns out I didn’t actually hate writing, I hated the kind of writing I was doing — topical /opinion focused writing — and I figured that out sooner rather than later at least. I personally think it’s a good thing as a creative person to not know how to market oneself on social media, and I am also not alone in my experience with editors. Most importantly, even though I spent many evenings waiting at tram stops in Melbourne feeling like a knotted plank of wood in my head and heart, the knots only formed because I cared about what I was doing.

Thankfully throughout the experience my dreams were filled with the poetic words I really wanted to write. Written on pieces of paper I picked off a paper tree like a leaf, and spoken from strange faces I must have seen on the street in my waking life. I used to wake from these dreams annoyed by their surrealism, unaware they were trying to save me from myself.

A few weeks before I quit Twitter I dreamt I was scrolling it except it was all poems, only two lines of which I remember:

I grow bigger
I brighten

Note: This piece might just be specific to being a freelance writer in Melbourne, Australia from 2012–2017, and for the purposes of getting a lot off my chest has left out many positive experiences during this time

Welcome to my graveyard of old pieces from publications that sadly closed down, and some new stuff ⚰️📰🗑💀🥀🌹contact: hejwriting@gmail.com