There is a power in writing. This is a sentence I have written here before. In that post, the first I offered in this series, I was daydreaming of riding—there was an element of self-indulgence, even while I argued for the power a horse has to take me somehow outside myself. The more subtle indulgence is that all three of my posts to date have turned around questions of self and subjectivity. This is, I feel, not an unimportant question. Being aware of the manner in which self is constructed and informed by the texts we write is crucial to every writer’s understanding of their own positionality, something which in turn informs each writer’s capacity to engage with and consider the ethics of writing as an act.
But it is also a question which is inherently self-absorbed. The week after my first post came out in this blog, I read another, one which made me acutely and painfully aware of this: Reneé Pettitt-Schipp’s ‘Writing as Spinning: Weaving the Darkest Acts of Our Nation-State’. Describing her work teaching English to child asylum-seekers on Christmas Island, Pettitt-Schipp considers the relationship between writing and social change, calls on her reader to join her in enacting a powerful hope, one which is ultimately a demand that the world do better:
On the Cocos (Keeling) Islands I wrote, like I write now, to survive. I wrote to find my way back to hope, even when there was no cause for hope. In the words of Joanna Macy, hope need not be something we have, but something we do. I wrote to transform the darkness, to perform daily rites of alchemy, spinning the darkest acts of our Nation-State into a yarn leading me back to our common humanity, golden thread to work into the damaged weave of my world. (np)
This description of writing is compelling. It recognises the contingency in the work, the possibility of failure. Writing for me is habitual and compulsive, incessant, often a little desperate. At times, I write because I don’t know what else to do. But the writing Pettit-Schipp invokes is also powerful. It allows the writer to consider society, opens the individual to ‘our common humanity’, and in doing so looks to transcend the limitations of the present in imagining change in the future. In witnessing, her post also offers representation. She writes in protest, and in support of those our society has rendered voiceless.
If understanding the relationship between text and self is essential to an individual writer’s awareness of their own ethical responsibilities in writing, then a nation needs likewise to understand the manner in which it is framed and constructed by the texts (legislative as well as creative) that it produces. The work done by Pettit-Schipp in this piece—the work she does likewise in her recent and beautiful collection of poetry, The Sky Runs Right Through Us—is to hold our nation to account, even while simultaneously opening a space for hope as a positive force for change. This is what literature can offer: a space in our social and cultural discourses for challenging the status-quo, with hope and a sense of possibility sitting alongside the darker recognition of the failures of the world we live in. This is the work of writing, this is part of its power.
This work is complex and difficult, though, too. Pettitt-Schipp is masterful in offering witness without over-writing the voices and perspectives of those already disempowered by the forces of our political system. The work in progress of my post last week has been an attempt to begin navigating the reach of this power to represent and to question. I have found much to be anxious about in that process. The metaphor of short-sightedness was, for me, a deliberate effort to draw attention to the limitations of my perspective and my engagement with the world I am trying to write. But there is also hope, which can’t be underestimated. And this ongoing process of learning to negotiate the power of writing is in itself a privilege that I am grateful to have in my life.
Catherine Noske is a lecturer in Creative Writing and editor of Westerly at the University of Western Australia. Her research focuses on contemporary Australian place-making. She has been awarded the A.D. Hope Prize, twice received the Elyne Mitchell Prize for Rural Women Writers, and was shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award (2015). Her first novel is forthcoming with Picador.
Read Catherine’s previous blog posts with us, ‘Riding, and the Feel of Writing’, ‘An Exercise in Breaking’ and ‘September 2016, 2017, 2018: Fragments from a Work in Process’.
Pettitt-Schipp, Reneé. 2019. ‘Writing as Spinning: Weaving the Darkest Acts of Our Nation-State’, Sydney Environment Institute (blog post). Sourced at: http://sydney.edu.au/environment-institute/blog/writing-spinning-weaving-darkest-acts-nation-state/?fbclid=IwAR1lJvI-iF1Ex7Xq5cqwPakFDQGOrhh7rgvmpb69GCu3YWskFav1VDv1WOg
Pettit-Schipp, Reneé. 2018. The Sky Runs Right Through Us. Crawley, WA: University of Western Australia Publishing.