21 October 2015
Spotlight On Scribe: Ellena Savage
This week, we’re bringing you daily Q&A’s from our Scribe Nonfiction Prize Long-listed writers. Read on for more information on their work, writing journeys, and all their tips, tricks and advice for budding young non-fic creators.
Ellena Savage is an essayist, critic, and editor from Melbourne. Ellena is undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University. She co-edits The Lifted Brow, and has previously contributed to and held editing positions of a number of magazines, journals, and newspapers. Ellena was one of Melbourne Writers Festival’s ’30 Under 30′ writers this year.
How old are you?
What state or territory do you live in?
How did you begin writing?
Not entirely sure. I had it in my mind when I was 13 that I was an activist of some kind, and when I was deciding what I might like to do with *my life* I found it difficult to commit wholly to either of my two main drives: to the kind of logical, policy-based politics that you might do in a room full of people wearing suits or union vests; or to the totally aesthetic, interior thinking life that making art requires.
I was always a big reader of fiction and philosophy, and when I was maybe nineteen or twenty I found myself using writing to try to align my aesthetic compulsions with my political ones. Sometimes that’s not possible though, sometimes trying to forge that union is a terrible idea. I’ve certainly made a lot of mistakes attempting to do it.
Why do you write nonfiction?
I wish I could write poetry better. Or fiction, properly. But when I try these different forms I end up testily reiterating the themes and thoughts and compulsions that drive my nonfiction writing, and everything ends up sounding like an essay (which is just an aestheticized version of the internet rant…). So I guess one reason I write nonfiction is because I have a limited range as a writer.
Tell us a bit about your longlisted Scribe submission.
The piece I submitted to the Scribe prize is a creative nonfiction piece that began while I was in the states early this year. The backbone of the piece is the Black Lives Matter movement, which I found myself participating in over December-January-February, because I was in the Bay Area during the emergency response to the non-indictments of Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson. Because I didn’t know enough about the history of Black activism, I spent many, many days in the Oakland Public Library and the African American Library, and many nights with friends who were involved in the movement, learning as much as I could from them. One of them features a lot in the piece. I was really lucky to spend so much time in the East Bay, which has the most incredible political history. I learnt a great deal.
The main question for me writing this was not: what is this movement about and how can I fix it? – I was very aware of the position I was in as this little Australian woman furiously taking notes at the sidelines. The questions became more ambivalent: what is the role of white people as individuals and as a group in the construction of white supremacy; what might an ally look like; is nonviolence possible; where do women sit within radical politics; what does inter-racial friendship look like or mean; and are we always powerless when history plays itself out?
There are limits on how these questions can be tested, of course, but I think there’s a moral imperative to keeping them open and finding ways to treat them responsibly and artistically, while knowing that you’ll never uncover the ‘correct answers’ because they don’t exist.
Why did you choose to write on this topic as a young writer?
I had no choice in approaching this as a young writer! I’m not sure how useful the title ‘young writer’ is when it comes to writing about political activism – I think that radical politics actually favours the young. Many of the activists who are driving the Black Lives Matter movement are much, much younger than me. I think part of the age thing is having more time to spend devoted to projects that are not going to making your own life more comfortable. If you don’t have dependants, you also have more flexible living standards in your teens and early twenties. Eating crap food and not sleeping and living in a garage doesn’t bother you as much as it might when you’re older and achier.
Doing activism or making art is unsustainable over the decades for most people, because it’s just so difficult to find an income from it. Many people burn out and get jobs that they end up apologising for. I am pretty concerned about that, and am in the stage of passing through it at the moment. Eventually you just want someone to put you on an income and rub your feet and say everything’s going to be ok. But for most writers, like activists, there’s no point at which quitting is completely possible, so it’s about negotiating those economic and social realities however you can.
How long have you been working on your submission, or where in development was your piece prior to entering the Scribe prize?
I started writing it in December last year, and then put it aside to work on my thesis. Then I workshopped it at Tin House summer workshop in the states in July. I haven’t known where to take it since then, so hopefully I’ll devote some time to thinking more seriously about that soon.
How important is Australia to you and your writing?
Australia feels both limiting and enabling to my identity and my writing. On the one hand, I feel like Australia’s parochialism can work to cut down imaginative approaches to writing. There’s a certain career model that’s idealised in the writing world that I don’t really believe in, which is tailored to audiences that are presumed to be affluent and white. When people write outside those assumptions they tend to do really well, because those ideas about who is reading and why are often false. I also see writing as a craft that unfolds slowly and inconsistently, so I’m not sure a conventional-looking career trajectory enables writers to make really honest or daring work. Many of the writers I admire have written their best work outside of that model.
But then on the other hand, Australian parochialism opens up this cultural vocabulary of blackness and stoicism that is really funny and also pretty resourceful. When I show writing of mine to American friends, for example, they don’t necessarily understand the colloquial language I’m writing in, or some of the attitudes I adopt, and the more they don’t understand it, the more staunchly I want to hold to it. So Australia gives me this flawed way of seeing the world, but it has some character that I admire, too.
What the best and worst piece of advice that you’ve received about writing?
Worst – ‘follow these rules some famous writer made up one afternoon.’
Best – ‘ignore all the rules.’
What is your favourite or most influential work of nonfiction that you’ve read? How has it affected your writing?
Hmmm this is such a difficult question. It’s like, if you ask any band what their influences are, no matter what music they actually make they’ll always list Björk. Everyone loves Björk, but no-one else actually sounds like her. They learn from her in the broadest, most philosophical way to approach their own work as openly as she does. So maybe I’ll say that Björk as an entity has influenced me the most.
But probably the piece of writing that influenced me most in the last couple of years was Hélène Cixous’ ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ because it is like taking the red pill. Or the blue one. The that brings Neo closer to ‘the truth’. This essay says that women have been turned away from writing as we’ve been turned away from our bodies, and that coming to writing is more or less coming to being. It’s truly encouraging to hear a voice come at you saying that you have to forget about all the complexes and inferiorities you harbour, and just write so that you can exist.
Can you share a piece of your published nonfiction work that you’re particularly proud of?
Well it’s a bit 2013, being so obsessed with selfies and all, but this one still feels ok to share.
The Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers is a developmental award to foster talented writers aged 30 or under who are working on a longform or book-length nonfiction work.
In addition to a cash prize of $1,500, the winner receives the opportunity to meet with a publisher or an editor and to experience the process of working with an editor on their writing. The winner also receives a year-long subscription to Scribe: each month for 12 months, one new-release title will be sent out to them before it’s in stores.
The 2015 Scribe Nonfiction Prize shortlist will be announced on November 2nd, 6pm, at The Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas. This event is free, but bookings are essential.