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Mapping the life of the artist at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards

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The following is the keynote address given by playwright Joanna Murray-Smith in Sydney last night at the announcement of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.


“The map? I will first make it.” So wrote Patrick White in his novel Voss –one of the greatest of all Australian novels, no small claim.

And so it is for artists.

The map of our work doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist for novelists or playwrights or poets—or for composers, for painters, for choreographers. It doesn’t exist for the first play, or the second or third. Each time we begin, we start in darkness, from nothing. That tiny wick of an idea flickers into life, fills its sail of golden light and bursts into flame. The light captivates us. We feel flourishes of story or character or image but we don’t know how to lay it down, what shape it should take, what we want from it or what it means. Something has been born that can’t be unborn, but what?

Every time, we must write our own map.

I sit in seat E17 of my play currently on at the Melbourne Theatre Company, Three Little Words and for the next 100 minutes follow the map of the last two years as it plays out on the stage. Around me, five hundred silhouetted strangers go on this journey with me, into a territory that may reflect on their lives or their world, may remind them of other journeys as far back as the Greeks but which is, in effect, a new map leading them to destinations never exactly formed before in quite the same way.

To write our maps, we use a language which must be comprehensible and yet uniquely our own. We must avoid back-tracking, repetitions, tedious topography. We must be general enough to be universal and specific enough to be original. Our map must lead us somewhere that feels surprising but pre-destined simultaneously It must be written with almost equal parts of heart and head, reflect both the chaos of the artist and the control of the craftsman. It must plumb the most private of private rooms in our minds yet march stridently, confidently into the public spotlight. It’s all a crapshoot. The final destination might change your life in money or fame (“What if this plays the West End with Daniel Craig?”). It might enter the lexicon (You imagine the headline: “An Instant Classic”) But what is certain is that it will cost you. The time. The struggle. The pain. The doubt. And that’s a great experience. Then there’s the brutal criticism, the disappointment, the despair. Anyone who doesn’t feel it, isn’t an artist. As I often say a successful writing life is ego and vulnerability in almost equal measure. The ego has to carry fifty one per cent.

Non-artists often assume that an artist is happy with their finished work. But as Tom Stoppard said, “A play is never finished, it is only ever abandoned.” Only a phony is ever happy. We face the end result and pride jostles with humiliation, both making intermittent sense, like two unruly and equally unlikeable drunks at a party.

The imagination is a not just a perfectionist, but a fulfilled perfectionist because everything is perfect in it. The imagination wrestles with ideas through the day and night, requiring no office space or administrative assistance, no grants or commissions. It fills out the writer’s plans with perfect structure, language and performance. Those plays or novels inside our heads are little unmarketed miracles. Cosily ensconced in the imagination, the lighting, the sound, the production-design is sublime. I feel tremors of excitement. Inside my head, for just an instant, I have a story that has never been told in quite the same way before and it is playing out pitch-perfect.

Then the realisation that this fragile exquisite artifice, this fledgling play, that feels so organic and authentic must travel from the hemisphere of intention to the hemisphere of realisation. It’s a torturous trip, plagued by low odds.

This business of the imagination is not a side-line, an idealistic endeavour remote from real life.

From the spidery notes on the back of bills through to endless word documents with shifting dates, through meetings with publishers or artistic directors, editors or dramaturgs, and for the dramatist, the birth into terrifying 3-D. It’s a vast collaboration, a web of complicated relationships, all of which can go wrong. Actors with their own voices and movements, their ticks and flaws, their rhythms, histories, prejudices, their ability to reshape the look of a character by simply turning up. Designers, prop buyers, wardrobe teams, marketing girls who want to put your delicate internal rumblings on the side of a tram, carpenters wielding their tool belts building your world out of plywood and of course, the director – who is the Head of Army in a war you started.

The director tells you what battles you want to win, which ones you can and can’t. Sometimes you don’t like what she tells you but she’s the one on the ground. She’s the one who can see the enemy camps of your ego and the battalions of redundant, overwritten lines coming over the hill. Sometimes you really want to tell her that if not for you, she wouldn’t exist, but on the other hand, she is managing a logistical minefield you don’t want to go near. An actor’s dog has died, the lighting designer has asthma, the floor has come back from the workshop the wrong shade of green, the company’s artistic director thinks there are too many vulgarities for subscribers with pace-makers. Not to mention the play itself, a new play, the most terrifying thing in the world, a shit-fight of high-blown language in search of some entertainment value. You need the director even if you don’t want her.

That first week of rehearsals, the words hover over the page finding their little wings and then in a surge of adrenaline they are off and up and in the mouths of the actors. You are in pain, in ecstasy and sometimes can’t tell which is which as these professional optimists do everything they can to make something that feels utterly authentic out of a figment, my figment, an expression of my inconquerable arrogance.

And then, a few weeks later, I am sitting in the audience and at 8.37 it is authentic. I can feel it. The actors are selling it. The audience, those 500 miraculous individuals who are prepared to suspend disbelief, have. They have suspended it. They are deathly quiet –but awake. They are laughing mightily. They are oohing and aahing. And in this moment, I have the extraordinary sensation, the awareness that I have made something out of nothing. I have made a universe. And that critic — that jumped up failed writer who thinks he’s Kenneth Tynan — is just so wrong about me.

I turn sideways and see an engaged audience leaning forward in their seats and feel the high frequency surge of pure joy that live performance can deliver. In such a moment, the playwright feels pity for the novelist who can only imagine a good reception. Here I am, sitting in the middle of mine. For this brief moment, I am literally the mother of invention.

Beside me, Lucie, my darling little 12 year old girl smiles at me with the camaraderie of the insider. She knows what I’ve done, she knows the cost, she feels the pleasure of the applause. But it is just a momentary reprieve.

The talented writers in this room start with no map. They make it as they go along. And when they are done, they hand it to you, the audience — the flaws and triumphs of their journey.

At 8.39, it’s all changed. In two minutes the sensation of accomplishment has morphed into a feeling of disingenuousness and utter, utter despair. What am I thinking? That two-bit critic desperate to make a name for himself  took 20 minutes and three inches to destroy something it took my life to write, in a paper at the end of its lifespan in a media empire in death throes– may, in fact, have a point. I am a failure and just because he’s an idiot doesn’t make him wrong. You’re no Chekhov, Joanna Murray-Smith. The Greeks were doing what you’re trying to do….. and they nailed it two and a half thousand years ago.

The whirling self-saboutaging thoughts cannot be banished, a vicious archive of snarky reviews, odd disengaged comments from neighbours, and mostly my own brilliantly articulate and tremendously talented self-doubt. In this, at least, I really am fantastic. (How many times have I fumed at the fact that the Australia Council doesn’t offer Fellowships for Self-Doubt. I could feed my children and never have to lift a finger.)

But by 9.11, I am back again. I’m on song. And the high is the high of a brilliant cartographer, map maker to the stars, founder of new lands. This is the most most marvellous life.

Life is the grist to the writer’s mill. We do not have to travel far for source material. We can, in fact we must turn inward to the infinite archive of the personal past. Everything we write, we owe to it. Every memory is a point of departure. No experience was wasted in childhood, nor none now. I don’t know what imagination is, if not an unpruned, tangled kind of memory.” noted Christina Stead. “Art is a wound turned into light.” ~ Georges Braque.

Though as young writers we often try to outrun ourselves, older, wiser, we stop running. We realise that we can catch a plot, a narrative, by simply holding up our hands in a strong wind, from a dinner party, an overheard conversation in a café, a news item. But to tell it, we must mine those dark seams of our own humanity, the worst of us, the most conflicted, the ravaged, narcissistic, damaged and also the capacity for tenderness, for love. . When we do this well, those fictional humans on stage will shine a light on the humans they look out at, they will shine the light into the audiences’ dilemmas and confusions, their absurdities and weariness and sense of injustice and into their quests, their curiousity, their courage and hope.

Writers not only tell us who we were and who we are but who we want to be. And of course, they tell others who we are as Australians. A few weeks ago I sat in a full theatre in Copenhagen and watched (in Danish) my Sydney Theatre Company play Fury, a play about the 16 year old son of left-leaning Sydney intellectuals who desecrates a mosque. The cast seem to be excited to have the Australian playwright present, but not as excited as the Australian playwright is to meet the cast, most of whom I have been watching whilst churning through the Danish-Swedish co-pro, The Bridge. Who knew the chief superintendant of police would be my leading lady? One of the actresses jauntily approaches me and exclaims: “I was the serial killer!”

Later, in my cute hotel, I lie under my Danish duvet with a plate of foraged wood ferns for supper and watch with rapt fascination the televised State Dinner of the Danish royal family welcoming the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway to Amaalianborg Palace. Later, I argue with the guy at reception about whether the Danish Princess is our Mary or their Mary. She’s Tasmanian, I yell at him. You can’t ever take the Tasmanian out of the girl! In bed, the Royals now gone to their own duvets, I contemplate how I got here, 14,000 kilometres from home.

It took more than immodest dreams. It took parents who read me Henry Lawson short stories in bed and who filled our house with people who made their life, if not much of a living, from their imagination. It took my parents’ blasé reception to my declaration that I was going to be a writer, as if what else was there. It took hearing my mother, on coming home from an acquaintance’s dinner party, say grimly to my father, eyebrows raised: “No books” as if she’d discovered they were porn stars or arms dealers. It took a Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park when I was eight, fairies emerging from the trees at twilight — my first theatrical high.

As the great Argentinian poet Antonio Porcia wrote: “Set out from any point. They are all alike. They all lead to a point of departure”.

It took Frank Moorhouse publishing my first short story in his anthology in my teens or early twenties and a couple of extraordinary high school teachers. It took Carillo Gantner at Playbox telling me, after my first failed professional production, not to worry because their faith was not predicated on instant gratification. It took Trevor Nunn in London who wanted Honour for the National and Sarah Jane Leigh, a fire-cracker English agent in NY who marshalled the same play through Broadway, the West End and on to the world, along with many of my other plays, despite the fact that her other life was as a leading horse trainer. Her advice on contracts was often delivered on the phone from trackside at the Kentucky Derby.

It took a husband who loved me enough to let me write come the hell or high-water of three young children and his own career. Perhaps most of all, it took 50 summers on an uninhabited Bass Strait Island where I listened to the arguments of my parents and their friends and spent hours wandering until twilight, listening to the Sooty Oyster Catchers and tracking the footprints of Cape Barren Geese on the sand and making up stories about creatures in the rock pools. It was there I found two simultaneous passions: the Australian landscape and the power of language to win arguments, both of which have formed the foundation of me and therefore my writing.

From Denmark, I fly home to Melbourne. I wonder where all the people are. I drink three great Melbourne coffees. I trawl through Fury’s mixed reviews, forwarded by the Danish agency. Although I do not usually read reviews, the translation adds unusual charm:

“We are led astray by the coolly, calculated Australian playwright.”

“This is a performance with a verbal smack.”

“Fury is artful drama with drifting lines.”

There is the pain and pleasure of re-entry. Not just to family, responsibility and the frustrations that belong to the place where we listen to talk-back radio. There is also the difficult acknowledgement that culture is regarded self-consciously as worthy but not imbedded in the bedrock of how we live.

Why is it that from corporate CEOs to posties, the arts are understood to nourish the soul of Europe and are acclaimed for it, whereas here, the acclaim is often a whisper or an aside from the main event. At almost every opportunity we artists seem to remind our world that the arts are no adjunct to life, they are life itself. And yet how often is an arts story a lead story in the media? The arts pages shrink in the dying newspapers — Daily Review, the only online national newspaper dedicated to the arts (which my husband happened to found) can barely survive despite the multi-billion dollar industry the arts generate annually and the 150,000 readers a month hungry for arts news and discussion?

Why is it that those couriers of cultural ambition – the great life-changing high school literature or drama or music teacher – make the same salary or less than the law graduate in their first job out? Why can our school-kids barely name five Australian authors? Why doesn’t every primary school principal read a stanza of Bruce Dawe or Judith Wright at school assembly? We couldn’t have a bi partisan avoidance of a health or education policy but apparently it’s fine for neither party to have an Arts policy. The arts are health. The arts are education. They are Life. When our State and Federal Governments put out a Request for Tender, why don’t they include the question: “What does your company do to support the arts in Australia?”

And what a bounty there is here. I travel constantly and come home enchanted by the creativity here, the freedom, the joy, the beauty of our art in all its forms. What a bounty of artists who lift the spirit, explore the mysteries, make sense of our confusion or make it more interesting. Who face each day with no map but trust in their vision to make one. Who look outside their own outline and seek to forge a profound connection to the humanity in all of us: national and international, Left or Right, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Collingwood or Carlton.

This business of the imagination is not a side-line, an idealistic endeavour remote from real life. It’s not less important than the latest political manoeuvring, the budget, the dumping of a sports coach. Fill a room with people of average education and intelligence and give them a list of names from the last five centuries and it will be the sculptors and the writers and the architects and the poets they will recognise, not the accountants and the lawyers.

Which is a very long way of saying how wonderful it is to be here and what a joyful and valuable and purposeful event this is when the powers that be stop and say: If anything will define the quality and identity of this nation, now and in the future, it is our humanity, our empathy and our creativity.

The talented writers in this room start with no map. They make it as they go along. And when they are done, they hand it to you, the audience — the flaws and triumphs of their journey. For both the writer and her audience, the final stop on those extraordinary maps is really just the beginning of something. Because every ending starts a new journey for the writer. And the writer’s map inspires the reader’s own. As the great Argentinian poet Antonio Porcia wrote: “Set out from any point. They are all alike. They all lead to a point of departure”.

3 responses to “Mapping the life of the artist at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards

  1. Thankyou for your thought a as a writer ,you explain very clearly how it is for you. I have seen nearly all your plays and have been completely engrossed by them Your sense of humour, pathos ,the plot and the changing of my mind through the play about the people in it. I have just seen Three Little Words and loved it . The way you cover every part of the life of a relationship is marvellous. I swing back and forth about the characters ,then you make me laugh !
    I wish in Australia we appreciated the Arts more instead of the great god sport . It is heart breaking and infuriating and many of my friends feel this way. Thankyou again for your work and I look forward to the next play that you write.

  2. Can someone read this into HANSARD – send copies in any event to every parliamentarian state and federal – and to all national and international Big Biz CEOs for prompt attention and a splashing of foundations of the arts in perpetuity. This beautifully written essay should be read in every school (no, not set as an examination – just read and appreciated) – let it seep into our national soul.

    I came to Australian literature – in some senses – during a year in Mudgee (1978) working (for a brief period) on the Muller gherkin farm at Eurunderee – a stone’s throw from where Henry Lawson grew up – and nurtured in startling new ways through the 1980s where I used reflective OZ LIT as the basis for much of my work and teaching of English to refugees and immigrants – which put me in touch – of course – with Judah Waten – among many other writers not necessarily of my own Anglo background. And during that same era – a subscriber to Overland – so the name Stephen Murray-Smith became an important reference point!

    I live now at some distance from the big city – so chances to get to live theatre are limited. But Art Gallery visits – and other live performances are seriously a part of the travels whn my wife and I take up such chances. Brava, Joanna, for this reflection on a creative life. Long may you continue to challenge your self – setting out to lead to the point of departure!

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