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Blow the Note

Speech presented by Jock at AILA – Melbourne, February 2024

 

I feel very honoured to be here tonight, if a little undeserving. Writers carry on about imposter syndrome all the time, but right now it feels very real. I grew up with some of you – professionally – but all of you have outgrown me. I’m glad I have old friends in the room: and hello to you, old friends.


I should tell you a little thing about my old friendship with John Simpson, which goes way back to the Port Fairy Surf Lifesaving Club’s Nippers program, about ten years ago.


John was a dedicated beach parent, preparing his small boy Ed for a life in the ocean, and I was a surf club volunteer running the Nippers group, a cluster of sunburnt grommets whose size, water ability, and attention spans varied wildly.


There is a thread in Australian social history you may or may not be aware of, and that is the longstanding antipathy between surfers and surf-lifesavers. I once wrote a story about this in Surfing World magazine: as far as I could work out, the grudge stretched back to the ’50s - the days when surf lifesavers – or clubbies, as we like to call them – were deputised by local councils on Sydney beaches to enforce surfboard registration rules, and to confiscate non-compliant surfboards. Understandably, there was a bit of ill-feeling around.


Ever since, surfers have viewed clubbies as neurotic, bureaucratic, even crypto-militaristic. Clubbies, for their part, have seen surfers as selfish anarchists and a risk to public order. As far as I can see, both parties are right.


This seems to be a uniquely Australian thing. In Hawaii, surfers and lifeguards revere each other, and there’s constant migration between the two fields. A lifeguard won the Eddie Aikau big-wave event at Waimea last year. Likewise in California: full respect. A young Kelly Slater even starred in episodes of Baywatch, which, gossip followers will know, was the start of his relationship with Pamela Anderson.


I digress. 


In small coastal communities like Port Fairy, a necessary compromise has arisen between the clubbies and the surfers. Even surfers eventually procreate, and when they do, they find themselves having to start their kids off somewhere, so they enrol them in Nippers. Then they get press-ganged into volunteering. So I inherited the Sunday kids from a close surfing mate, whose only rule – and he made them chant it before the sessions began – was “If you can’t rock n roll, go home.” These are eight-year-olds.


When I took on the Sunday morning routine, I was told to take the kids through stretches, beach sprints, swimming out to a buoy, and the dreaded flags (which I’ll come back to in a moment). This was dull. Everyone knew it. So I tried to mix it up.


First innovation was, I filled large plastic tubs with water and sank a rash-vest in them, then froze them overnight in the Rebecca’s Café coolroom. At the Nippers session, each group was dropped in deep water with one of the giant ice-blocks. Through teamwork, they had to work out how to get the rashie out of it, put it on the smallest kid and get their kid back to the beach first.


That one went okay. But then I decided to revolutionise flags.


Flags, as you know, involves standing the kids in a straight line on the beach. You run heats in which they have to sprint to a line of flags ten meters away, and grab one. There are fewer flags than kids, and eventually, after standing around in the hot sun for ages running heats and getting covered in sand, you whittle the field down to the two quickest kids – same two kids every Sunday.


This was inefficient, I thought, so I came up with another format.


I drew a large circle in the sand and I put one flag in the centre. I arranged the kids around the circle and they immediately understood the concept. One shot: winner takes all. 


Now, you’re all involved in risk assessment, so you’ve probably identified the danger here long before I did. After the resultant clash of heads, I was gently sidelined, and the sacred duty of Sunday morning Nippers passed to someone else.


But I did meet John, so it wasn’t all bad.


***


I don’t think I can get away with just talking to you about the beach. So the other thing I thought I could explore is the broad theme of creativity, and its close relation, why I left the law.


I was a practising lawyer for 17 years, without having really chosen it as a career. Perhaps one or two of you here in this room travelled a similar path: I’d only ever wanted to be a writer, but year 12 went better than expected and my parents thought law school would be a safer bet than taking a notebook to a dive bar and waiting for inspiration to strike.


I’ll reluctantly concede they were right. Sometimes I wonder about the novels I might have written if I had those 17 years back, but I doubt very much that I’d own a home. And maybe also, I needed to be middle-aged before I had anything useful to write about.


I worked in insurance law twice: first for the late Pat McCabe at the now-extinct Dunhill Madden Butler. That was on the defendant side, then much later at Maddens Lawyers in Warrnambool, on the plaintiff side.


Pat McCabe was one of the most wonderful people I met in the law. He was a massive personality. If I wrote him as a character people would scoff in disbelief. He had a scarred face and a crooked eye, the products of some youthful misadventure which he never explained. He was a vigneron, a cunning negotiator, a reckless driver in a huge car. He was loud, funny and extremely smart, a chaotic force of nature held under some form of control by his PA, Lauris. He inspired absolute loyalty, and had the cultural independence of a barrister, somehow loosely federated into a partnership of solicitors. He could convince anyone of anything, and for 18 months he convinced me I was having fun in a commercial law firm.


But I left. And I went to a country firm, and left. I went to the Western Desert to practice native title, went to the bar, went back to the country firm as a partner. And each time, I left. In the end, I left the whole profession.


Leaving a functional career to pursue one in creativity raises a lot of questions in people, because it’s patently ridiculous, yet almost everyone has thought of doing it at some stage or another. So what does it mean to do it?


***


The starting point for this discussion is a little rant about words. Oh great, I hear you say. They invite a writer along and he starts complaining about words. But please bear with me.

English is a living, breathing thing, an organic language, yada yada. But we have a bizarre fetish for turning nouns into verbs, or worse, verbs into nouns - so we end up with Frankenstinian zombie-words. And I blame the management classes for this.


Exhibit A – LinkedIn. It was probably them who gave us “impact” as a verb. Corporate-speak then invaded sports, so that athletes and coaches discovered there was shelter from scrutiny after a bad result in using silly grammar to sound like they intended the result all along. This was taken to new heights by the English cricket team last winter: defeat was miraculously turned into “unprecedented transparency” or “elite accountability” or “the transcendence of victory and defeat” or some such nonsense. We all know that it’s a ball sport - you either hit the ball or you miss it (or in Johnny Bairstow’s case, you miss the ball, wander out of your crease and create an international diplomatic incident).


Then there’s an even more unpalatable mash-up: the term “content”. I encounter content all the time, because in publishing and communications circles there’s an assumption that that’s what I make. I have seen my colleagues, who are unarguably writers, describe themselves as “content-creators.”


Content is the stuff that’s used to fill up podcasts or blogs or even magazines: beanbag stuffing, a gluggy amorphous sludge. Content might be the mysterious substance inside a Chiko Roll. Asking a writer for some content is like asking a musician for some noise.   

But one of the most insidious instances of this language creep is one you’ve probably only heard in the past year or two: the use of the adjective “creative” as a noun. As in, “let’s ramp up this campaign by getting some creatives in.” I’m told that I am now a “creative”. It might surprise you to hear that I have a real problem with that.


It’s more than irritating: it’s harmful, because of the assumption built into it: that some people are creative and others aren’t. Much like it was fashionable ten years ago to call some people “thinkers” - “Noam Chomsky is a writer and thinker.” It should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway - we’re all thinkers.


And we are all creatives.


Every one of us creates in our daily lives, and if there’s any difference between the people we’re calling “creatives” and everyone else, it’s nothing more than the degree to which they are selling creative thought as their product. That is, it’s not inherent: it’s a market position.

If you have a beautiful garden at home, or you play with your children in ways that are uniquely mad, or you make food that no-one else can replicate, or you like howling at the moon in your underpants or banging your fists into a piano…you’re being creative.


This distinction is very important to me, because as a lawyer I talked myself out of years of creative fun by reasoning that my job defined me.


I was analytical. I was functional, deconstructive. I didn’t have “the soul of an artist,” whatever that means. I was pretty sure that creative people dressed with an effortless cool that I didn’t have. They never listened to daggy music, or if they did, it somehow became un-daggy when they listened to it. These assumptions dogged my thinking. I’d lost the distinction between what I was, and what I did.  


It felt like an impertinence to stick my head over the parapet and say “hey, I think I’ve got something artistic inside me.” That was as deluded as one day saying, You know, I think I might be an electrician deep inside. I might try wiring an apartment block.


Tradies are a good point of reference here. They don’t agonise. You don’t get a plumber around and find them sitting in front of your broken dishwasher for hours saying “I’m just not sure if I’m a real plumber.”


Which reminds me of a very dark joke: what’s the difference between a pizza and an author? A pizza can feed a family of four.


***


People have thought about this stuff for centuries; about the audacity of claiming a creative life for yourself. And love seems to be a starting point.


I’ll start with David Foster Wallace, who’s long-gone now but one of my writing heroes. He said this:


“It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art…has got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love, instead of the part that just wants to be loved.”


Then there’s a tiny little four-line poem that Emily Dickinson wrote in the late 1700s. Simple words that all of us know and readily understand. Dickinson was not working with a different tool-box, but she created something of immense power: four small lines that are now over 250 years old:


“That love is all there is,

is all we know of love.

It is enough.

The freight should be proportioned to the groove.”


The English writer Max Porter introduced me to that poem, via a recent podcast. He was dwelling on that enigmatic fourth line, “The freight should be proportioned to the groove.” It sounds like a musical thing. What could it mean?


To explain what it meant to him, he told a story about being a ten-year old, playing the clarinet at a jazz improvisation session. He was terrified. He blew one massive, squealing note for sixteen uninterrupted bars. Afterwards, his teacher told him he did exactly the right thing. She said: “don’t worry about the machinations of others. Don’t worry about competition and virtuosity and all those things. You have a thing that makes a note. Blow the note.”


Blow the note. Do your thing. And don’t worry about whether you’re a so-called “creative.”

There’s a lovely little book which is modestly called “Work Book”, written by an English writer named Steven Heighton. Heighton sadly also died young, but he left us some wonderfully practical thoughts about creativity and work. One of them is this: “I chose writing because I saw no reason why adults should ever cease to play.’


I’d go further: I think we need to play.


It’s hardly a revelation to say we’re living in hateful, violent, avaricious times. There will be highly consequential elections this year in the United States, India, Indonesia, Taiwan, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. There are wars without foreseeable end in Gaza and Ukraine, and a long shadow over Taiwan. Nobody knows what AI might do, or how to reverse the climate crisis, or where the next pandemic is coming from. And right at the time when we need sober and respectful dialogue, our public discourse is in the hands of people – I’m not going to use any adjectives – like Murdoch, Bezos, Zuckerberg and Musk. That is, the theatre of debate is controlled by the type of men who feel validated by blasting themselves into space inside giant steel penises.


In the face of all of this horror, it can feel trivial to spend your days making up stories about people who don’t exist. For the past year I’ve been writing a very strange novel, and my agent has been encouraging me to go stranger. To ‘fly my freak flag,’ as she put it. I often feel like I don’t have a freak flag. I’m a lawyer. I’m reflexively rational.


But I was surprised how weird I got once I was pushed a little. And maybe there’s something in that for all of us.


To go back a step to the bad stuff – why embrace creativity when the world’s on fire? What’s the glass half-full side of this?


It is that every creative contribution carries greater value now, than it did in peaceful times. Every creative thought and gesture is a reminder of human goodness, whether its bearer thinks it’s clever or moving, or silly or naive. If a creative act is born of integrity, born of love rather than wanting to be loved, as Foster Wallace put it, then it is inherently a thing of value and it’s an antidote to our times.


There’s no such thing as so-called “creatives”, because accepting that there is, means accepting that there are also non-creatives, and I’m sure that’s wrong. Each of us carries within us the capacity to remake the world in tiny ways or large, through our creative thought.


So when you’ve finished dessert and headed home, I would encourage you to get started right away. Write the book, write the song, paint the picture, build the spice rack, QUIT THE JOB! – no, maybe don’t do that –


- but you’re as entitled as I am to have a crack at it, because we are all, every one of us, creatives.    

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