Joanna Murray-Smith: 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Address



good evening the map I will first make it so wrote Patrick white in his novel voice 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 but tiny weak of an idea flickers into life fills its sail of gold and 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 that can't be unborn but what every time we must write our own map I sit in CTE 17 of my play currently honored Melbourne theatre company three little words and for the next hundred minutes follow the map over 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 the same way before to write our Maps we use a language which must be comprehensible and yet uniquely our own we must avoid backtracking repetitions tedious typography who must be general enough to be universal and specific enough to be original our map must lead us somewhere that feels surprising but predestined simultaneously it must be written with almost equal parts of how in head reflect both the chaos of the artist and the control of the craftsman it must plumb the most private of private rooms yet much 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 and 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 a 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 51% non artists often assume that an artist is happy with their finished work but as Tom Stoppard said a player's never finished it's only ever abandoned so the work is never finished and only a phony is ever happy we face the end result and pride jostles with humiliation both making intermittent sense like to unruly and equally unlikable drunks at a party the imagination is 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 assistants no grants or commissions it fills out the writer's plans with perfect structure language and performance those plays or novels inside our heads our little unmarketable calls cozily 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 pitch perfect then the realization that this fragile exquisite artifice this fledgling play that feels so organic and often authentic must travel from the hemisphere of intention to the hemisphere of realization it's a torturous trip plagued by low odds from the spidery notes on the back of bills through the endless Word documents with shifting dates through meetings with publishers or artistic directors editors or dramatics and for the dramatists the birth into terrifying 3d it's a vast collaboration a web of complicated relationships all of which can go wrong actors with their own voices and movements their tics and floors 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 told 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 have redundant overridden 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 and act as 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 pacemakers not to mention the play itself a new plan the most terrifying thing in the world a ship fight of hi blown language in search of some entertainment value you need the director even if you don't want to 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 your figment an expression of your in conquerable arrogance and then a few weeks later I'm sitting in the audience and it's 8:37 and 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 booing and re and in this moment I have the extraordinary sensation the awareness that I've something out of nothing and it's a universe and that critic that jumped up failed right up he 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 life 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 losing my darling of twelve-year-old smiles of me with a camera artery of The Insider she knows what I've done she knows the cost she feels the pleasure of the applause but it's just a momentary reprieve at 8:39 it's all changed in two minutes the sensation of accomplishment has morphed into a feeling of disingenuous nurse and utter utter despair what am I thinking that two-bit moronic critic and failed us that artists desperate to make a name for himself who 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 Chekov Jana Marie 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-sabotaging thoughts cannot be banished a vicious archive of snarky reviews odd disengaged comments from neighbors and mostly my own brilliantly articulate and tremendously talented self-doubt in this at least I really am fantastic how many times have I fumes 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 911 I am back again I'm on song and the high is the high of a brilliant cartographer mapmaker to the stars founder of new lands this is the most marvelous life life is the grist to the writers 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's dead or as Georges Braque said art is a wound turned into light though as young writers we often try to outrun ourselves older wiser we stop running we realize that we can catch a plot a narrative by simply holding up our hands in a strong wind from a dinner party and overheard conversation in a cafe the news item but to tell it we must mine those dark seams of our own humanity the worst of us the most conflicted the self the ravaged narcissistic damaged and also our 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 audience's dilemmas and confusions their absurdities and weariness and sense of injustice into their quests their curiosity their courage in their 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 a fury a play about the sixteen-year-old son of left-leaning Sydney intellectuals who dis desecrates a mosque the cast seemed to be excited to have the Australian playwright present but not as excited as the Australian player ideas to meet the cast most of whom I've been watching whilst churning through the Danish Swedish cope road the bridge who knew the Chief Superintendent of Police would be my leading lady one of the actresses who plays the sweetest and most vulnerable character of characters in my play approaches me and exclaims I was a serial killer later in my cute hotel I lie onto 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 amalienborg Palace later I argue with the guy reception about whether the Danish princess is our Mary or his Marian 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 fourteen thousand kilometres from home it took more than your modest 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 blouse a 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 discovered there were porn stars or arms filled it took a Midsummer's Night's Dream Midsummer Night's Dream in Regent's Park when I was eight fairies emerging from the trees at Twilight my first theatrical high it took Frank Moorhouse who happily is here tonight who included my first published story in his anthology it took a couple of extraordinary high school teachers it took Carillo Gantner at play box telling me after my first failed play 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 Lee now dead sadly a firecracker English agent in New York who marshaled the same play through Broadway the West End and onto the world along with many of my other plays despite the fact that her other life was as a leading British horse trainer her advice on contracts was often delivered on the phone trackside at the Kentucky Derby it took a husband who loved me enough to let me write come hell or high water of three young children and his own captivating career perhaps most of all it took fifty summers on an uninhabited Bass Strait island where I listened to the arguments of my friends and of my parents and their friends and spent hours wandering until Twilight listening to the suti of oyster catchers and tracking the footprints of Cape Baron geese on the sand and making up stories 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 taught through Furies mixed reviews forwarded by the Danish agency although I do not usually read reviews the translation adds unusual charm we are led astray by this coolly calculated Australian playwright this is a performance with a verbal smack fury is artful drama with drifting lines not sure about that one there is the pain and pleasure of reentry not just a family responsibility and the frustrations that belong to the place where we listen to talkback radio there is also the difficult acknowledgment that culture is regarded self-consciously as worthy but not embedded in the bedrock of how we live why is it that from corporate CEOs to post these 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 are to seem to remind our world that the arts are no adjunct to life our life itself and yet how often is an art story a lead story in the media the arts page is shrinking the dying news papers the daily review the only online national newspaper dedicated to the arts which my husband happened to found I should declare can barely survive despite the multi-billion dollar industry the arts generate annually in the 80,000 subscribers he has hungry for arts news and discussion why is it that those careers of cultural ambition the great life-changing highschool literature or drama or music teacher make the same salary as a first-year law graduate first job why can't our school kids barely names five Australian authors why doesn't every primary school principal reader stance or a bruised or or Judith Wright at school assembly we couldn't have a bipartisan avoidance of a health or education policy but apparently it's fine for neither party to have an arts policy the arts are health they 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 varies here I travel constantly and come home enchanted by the creativity the freedom the joy the beauty of 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 and right Christian Jew Muslim Collingwood and Culture this business of the imagination is not a sideline an idealistic endeavor remote from real life it's not less important than the latest political maneuvering 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 recognize not the accountants and the lawyers sorry accountants and 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 up 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 are really just the beginning of something because every ending starts a new journey for the writer and the writers map inspires the reader zone there's a great Argentinian poet Antonio kochiya wrote set up from any point they are all alike they all lead to a point of departure thank you very much [Applause] [Applause]

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