One of the last things I did in 2018 was participate in the City of Literature Parliament at the Wheeler Centre. As part of the Senate, I presented a reflection on what it means to be a city of literature, and what I hope for going forward. This is that talk.
The nonfiction writing that’s coming out of Melbourne in 2018 is vulnerable and deeply important. The stories in increasingly mainstream publications are more queer than they were, and they include the voices of more Indigenous writers and people of colour than they used to. The stories being told are more feminist, more marginalised, and more chronically ill. They’re stories from regional towns and unceded lands; from beaches and commission flats. I’m proud to be part of this City of Literature, and of the willingness of Melbourne’s writers to tell and its readers to listen. We’re doing important work to raise unique voices and story forms here.
This work often sits close to the author: essays, poetry, memoir, graphic narratives and more. Who better to tell a story than someone who’s lived it? Who better to represent experiences, identities, or beliefs than those who inhabit them?
This kind of writing also takes a toll. Honest, raw stories can be taxing to mental health. Sometimes that’s because they deal explicitly with mental health issues. Sometimes it’s because the most vulnerable people do the heaviest lifting to tell difficult stories. During the same-sex marriage plebiscite, queer writers shouldered much of the burden of advocacy. Mental Health Week every year sees writers with experiences of mental illness share their most complex parts. And this is as it should be – people’s stories should be told in their own voice wherever possible. But alongside the commodification of personal stories, we need to acknowledge that the people in the best position to raise awareness and start difficult conversations are also those most vulnerable to mental illness.
Freelance writers in particular live with multiple factors that can compromise mental health and wellbeing. These include unstable work and income, an inability to access expensive or exclusive treatment, isolated working conditions, a lack of benefits including sick leave and holiday pay, and a culture that often encourages burnout.
At my part-time job, I edit course content for universities. Recently, a colleague worked on a course including content about domestic violence. Immediately, the company’s HR department reached out to check in on her wellbeing. They made sure she knew about the employee assistance program, which allows her access to a counsellor free of charge.
For freelance writers dealing with similar content, there is no HR department. There is no employee assistance program. There are no paid mental health days. For freelance writers, the responsibility is on them to know when to reach out, who to contact, how to ask for help, and how to look after themselves.
There is more we can do to support one another as writers. The strong and safe systems we’ve built into our City of Literature can do more to support the wellbeing of writers.
This can take place on a number of levels. For free, we can check in with those around us. These are difficult conversations, but many of us have gotten better at them by necessity – we have learned through loss, and burnout, and close calls. This checking in can help reduce the isolation of freelance work. But we need to upskill, too, so that we know what to do if and when someone isn’t okay, and how we can best support ourselves for wellness.
With some funding, it would become possible to support writers through peer support training and self-care workshops. With significant funding, I’d dream big about income support, which would allow a freelance equivalent of mental health days. I’d wish for psychological services tailored to writers. As a City of Literature, we hold space for vulnerable and honest storytelling from a diverse range of writers. We’ve spent ten years building a resilient, varied, exciting infrastructure for literature in Melbourne and its surrounds. It’s time to create a similar infrastructure that looks out for the wellbeing of those doing the creating.