22 October 2018

Meet the 2018 Scribe Nonfiction Prize Shortlist – Courtney McMahon

In the lead up to announcing The 2018 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers, we’re introducing you to every name and face on the shortlist. These are some of the brightest nonfiction minds in the country and they’re all aged 30 and under. Read their profiles on the Express Media blog to learn more about their writing journeys, love of nonfiction and their tips and tricks to writing the best real-life stories.


Courtney McMahon, 23, VIC
On Gender and the Colour Blue

How did you begin writing?

I used to write stories when I was quite little, maybe 6 or 7, mainly fantasy stories about magical things like unicorns and girls with special gifts. Actually they were quite good. I always had quite detailed worlds in my head based on characters from books and movies. I still make up these stories. I think a thread of fantasy still pervades my writing, even in nonfiction – gives a story the strength it needs to not just be a pure record.

Why do you write nonfiction?

I’m apprehensive about falling into a genre. Either it feels like a trap, or it feels contrite. I prefer to write between or out of genres. So I use theory and I use fantasy and whatever else necessary when I write non-fiction. But when I do write what is more or less autobiographical non-fiction, it’s therapeutic. I write to try and find my way, what might be below the surface of my thoughts. To map them out. At the very least I still won’t understand much, and then I’ll know I’m not finished here. For example it took maybe 6 months to finish On Gender and the Colour Bluewhich was roughly the time it took for me to stop having so much beef with gender.

Moreover, I’ve tried writing other people’s stories before, but it didn’t go so well. I suppose I wanted to work others’ experiences into my own, but without some kind of connection with another’s experience, you’re just writing over their story rather than letting them speak for themselves. I think it’s less important (impossible even) for nonfiction to ‘accurately’ capture a story than to give space for a person to tell their own story.

Tell us a bit about your submission to the Scribe Prize:

I started writing this piece at a time when I had just changed my pronouns to They/Them and I was very frustrated with not being able to assert myself as genderqueer in a dual-gender language. I was constantly being put back into the box of She/Her, which did bother me since that was the very assumption I was trying to disrupt, but it’s very difficult to explain to strangers or acquaintances an identity which is so different to the commonplace conception of gender. I really got beaten up, by myself a lot too, because I didn’t have the energy to explain my situation to everyone, but I was hyper-aware of how I was being gendered all the time. Add to that my integration into a circle of friends where gender is a big issue. So I started writing as a way to vent, and to try to negotiate my position, to figure out how I could go forward in this world holding a non-gendered space, politically and ontologically. Because I felt strongly underneath the surface of this political stance that gender didn’t touch me at all, that I don’t have one, at least not one that exists in our language. So I wrote to solidify my new identity as well as to deflate my anxieties around it, in what felt like a blue paradox.

Why did you choose to write on this subject?

The subject of gender chose to write on me. As for the colour blue, I had just read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and I understood blue’s potential for helping me through gender, like a friendly intermediary. I kept picking up and finding blue things, like blue denim, blue walls, blue sea, blue plastic things on the ground, so I knew it was important.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

From my friend Erica, whose writing is incredible, who said that you have to write without trying to make your writing ‘good’ or shape it to certain genre conventions. If you write to certain expectations, it can stop you from writing anything at all. Write outside conventions and limits, make your own.