JANE AUSTEN – A WILD AND DANGEROUS WOMAN

First Published on the 18th of July 2017

200 years ago, on this day Jane Austen passed away from what was most likely a lethally prescribed heroin overdose (laudanum). She had been ill for some time so who is to say whether it was a merciful unintentional euthanasia or if left to her own devices she would have lived into her eighties like the rest of her family. Her brothers worked hard to paint a picture of a quiet and well-behaved woman who was loyal to prince regent and the church, and only dabbled her literary endeavors as an acceptable gentlewomanly pastime. English Literature professor and Jane Austen expert Helena Kelly recently published Jane Austen: Secret Radical. A highly entertaining and thoroughly researched book that paints a very different picture. Kelly suggests, and backs up with convincing evidence that this supposed shy and retiring spinsters, was in fact a highly active political activist, and radical evangelical who coded into her works subversive statements that bordered on the seditious.

Northanger Abbey, far from a humorous novel, warning young women the dangers of confusing fact with fiction, is an exploration of the very real risk that romance and matrimony posed when the death rate during pregnancy was astoundingly high. Even referencing a commonly used abortitant should her young female readers face the very real danger of an unwanted pregnancy.

Sense and Sensibility is more than a polite romance with a happy ending, but rather a scathing exploration of the unjust inheritance laws of the time, and the tendency of men to exploit women their own financial gain. Even the supposedly innocent Colonel Branden, is a man who has benefited financially from the unjust separation of the woman he supposedly first loved and her inheritance.

Pride and Prejudice a utopian ideal, extolling the virtues of character over the commonly held opinions that class and birthright bestowed nobility. And in a time when England was at war with France, and the French were beheading lords and ladies left right and centre, it is no accident that Elizabeth Bennet, tells Lady Catherine De Bourgh, a noble woman with a French name where to stick it, and marries above her station to a man with a similarly French sounding surname who had been thoroughly schooled on his scornful attitude towards her working-class relations.

Emma, is full of statements around poverty and food shortages, and the supposedly heroic Mr Knightly spends the entire novel trying to push through an enclosure of common land. A practice which denied the poor access to firewood, game, fish and opportunities to farm and forage for food. In marrying his neighbor, he overcomes the one obstacle standing in his way, Emma’s hypochondriac father who worries constantly about food and dislikes change. Austen’s letters show she was very opposed to enclosures, and her almost constant references to ‘shrubberies and hedges’ were not simple set dressing, but targeted political statements.

It is well known that Mansfield Park is a very thinly veiled comment on slavery, the text is littered with references to Antigua, every poem, book and play referenced in the book features abolitionist sentiment, or characters of African or Indian decent. What most people miss is the codified commentary on the Church of England’s involvement in the slave trade. It was clear from her previous works Austen didn’t have the highest opinion of clergy men, or a fondness for cousins marrying cousins. So, is Fanny Price’s eventual marriage to her cousin, the clergyman who literally gives her a chain on which to hang her cross, is meant to be a happy ending?

After all Jane Austen never married. And frequently attempted to dissuade her older nieces from marrying too young, too soon, or too quickly. Even Persuasion which seems to be her most romantic and least satirical work, is dotted with references to the rise and fall of history, and Helena Kelly argues is actually a novel about the importance of changing with the times, the uncertainty of the future, and the rise and fall of kingdoms. Anne Elliott marries a Naval Officer, during war time and in the book, does not return to her childhood home, but instead is gifted with the same type of carriage that had only very recently killed one of Austen’s best friends. If Anne survives childbirth and fast carriages, who is to say her husband and his fortune will survive the end of the Napoleonic War?

I have always found Jane Austen’s work to be bold, feminist, cynical and highly critical of societal mores and traditions. I never felt like the romantic resolutions of Sense and Spontaneity or Mansfield Park seemed entirely satisfactory and always wondered why an author so pragmatic and cynical when it came to ‘happiness in matrimony’ always gave her heroine’s happy endings.

The thing is, Jane Austen wasn’t solely a romance novelist, she was writing pointed social satire about class, gender equality, corruption in the church, history, politics and even race. And in the last 200 years many of the thinly veiled references have lost their meaning to us, but regardless you don’t have to read very hard into her words to see she is an intelligent woman, with something to say, who despite the very limited freedom she had in regard to her time and person went her own way, made her own money, and fought to have a voice.

For a different perspective on Helena Kelly’s book have a read of John Mulland’s review in The Guardian.

Jane Austen, The Secret Radical is published by Icon.

Own Your Words

First Published on the 14th of May 2018

Let me introduce you to Faleena Hopkins. She is a self-published romance author, who has published a ridiculous amount of books in an incredibly short amount of time, as a part of a series known as the ‘Cocker Brothers.’ Recently, Hopkins trademarked, not only the ‘The Cocker Brothers’ but also the word, ‘cocky’ she then went after romance authors on Amazon with the word cocky in their title. Even books that had been written a long time before hers. The outcry as you can imagine is incredible. The twitter storm is known as #cockygate, and if you want to spend an afternoon viewing some outrage porn, then spend a day looking into Faleena Hopkins. The woman’s gall, and narcissism are amusing if not disturbing in the least.

If this is not an interesting example of how copyright can go very wrong, let me follow this up with referencing. How do I reference this story? (Twitter, 2018?) (Not an actual reference, an example of how this is difficult to reference.) (My mum, telling me about this while we hung out the other day, 2018), (A bit of a google later so I could find an article to back up the common knowledge by osmosis, that let this tidbit into my consciousness?)

Here I will make it simple for you, here is an article I found after I wrote everything down, in order to look like I was referencing something.

Alison Flood has written an article for The Guardian. This was the most official looking article I could find, so I will attribute all of the above to (Flood, 2018) even though I will probably only skim the article after I finish typing. Nevertheless, you have a reference, and my copyright guilt is assuaged.

Of course, once I did read the article, (after referencing it) I was able to find out officially that The Romance Writers of America are working with an intellectual property lawyer, as well as that a petition has been signed by more than 17,000 people to cancel the trademark.

And one will hope this ridiculous decision will be overturned because it is common sense that one can’t own a word. It is becoming increasingly difficult to own our words sans the communication revolution created by the invention of the internet. As a member of the proverbial starving arts, I understand the importance of being paid for your words, after all, no matter how nice the idea of sharing our creations in common with others might seem, we can’t eat our own words. However, with the invention of crowdfunding resources, like Pozible, Kick Starter, Patreon and Ko-fi* options to give your art away for free and be paid by those who appreciate it are increasingly available. I have no answers, copyright is complicated, and I know I would never want my words to be stolen, I also would rather lots of people read my work, than only a very few who paid me a very little.

*(again, how do I reference these these sites, do I add hyperlinks, or just let people google on their own? Is referencing becoming an increasingly redundant practice?)

Flood A, 2008, ‘Romantic novelist’s trademarking of the word ‘cocky’ sparks an outrcry’, The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/08/romantic-novelist-trademarking-of-word-cocky-fameela-hopkins

The Mad Bad and Scantily Clad Women of Australian History–Jessie Hickman The Lady Bushranger

The courthouse is full. You can just about smell the curiosity mixed with the stench of sweat and vindication. From cattle farmers fed up with losing their stock, to bored housewives, and kids craning their necks to see above the crowd, nearly everyone in the district has rocked up to sneak a peek at the trial of the notorious ‘Lady Bushranger.’ The year is 1928 and it is not the first time Elizabeth Jessie Hickman has been in front of a judge.
From the moment the rodeo champion turned ‘cattle duffer’ rode into the town of Rylestone the rumours about her had spread like wildfire. It was said she had climbed through the bottom of a long drop toilet, jumped out of the window of a moving train, driven a heard of cattle over a cliff, and even ridden bareback and naked through the bush to outrun the police.

It is hard to say what is the truth and what is exaggeration, but Jessi Hickman did live rough and wild, hiding out in a cave on Nullo Mountain, running a gang of cattle rustlers dubbed ‘the Young Bucks.’ And whether or not she had the ability to Houdini herself out of train windows in nothing but her birthday suit, she did evade capture for a very long time.

But now she had been caught. And the locals who had lived in fear of the ‘Wild Woman of Wollemi’ were hungry for justice, or at least for just a glimpse of legendary Ms Hickman. The locals of Rylestone and nearby Kandos were due for disappointment. Not only did Jessie avoid a third and possibly much more serious jail sentence, while she was being held overnight in prison, the herd of cattle she had allegedly stolen, mysteriously disappeared from the police station. No evidence, no crime. Jessie Hickman went home, and so did the disappointed townsfolk.
She lived a quiet life from then on, basically a recluse and died aged 46 of a brain tumor. She was buried at Sandgate Cemetery in Newcastle, in an unmarked pauper’s grave. No dramatic shootout with the police, no public execution and little to no mention in modern history or popular culture. Australia’s last bushranger. And a lady at that.

Got your attention? Good.

Welcome to episode one of The Mad, Bad and Scantily Clad Women of Australian History. I’m Jess Mess a Perth girl from Western Australia, who grew up in the mountainous and arid lands of the Pilbara. I have always been fascinated by historical female figures, and spent my childhood lost in stories about fascinating women from long ago and far off places who overcame incredible odds to achieve incredible things. I had a particular obsession with pirates, and bandits, outlaws and cowboys. The rebels. The rule breakers.

Women a long way from home, and mostly up to no good.

Now of course like all Aussie kids I had been raised on the home-grown stories of frontier men who broke the rules. The Ned Kelly’s and the Moondine Joe’s. If there were women in these stories (which was rare) they were always sisters, and mothers and lovers.

And now I am the mother, of my own blood thirsty young lass, who craves adventure and adores stories about rule breakers and rebels. So, I set out a hunting for some local tales, tall or otherwise and came across Jessie Hickman.

Now Jessie is not Australia’s only female bushranger, and certainly not the most infamous. Mary-Anne Bugg would be the first to come to mind (if indeed a lady bushranger came to mind at all!) Known as Captain Thunderbolt’s Lady, or Lady Thunderbolt. Mary-Anne was the daughter of a Worimi woman and an assigned convict, she was born in 1834 and grew up on Berrico outstation. She had fifteen children with the three major men in her life, four of them were fathered by Fred Ward otherwise known as the notorious bushranger Captain Thunderbolt.

Countless myths abound when it comes to Lady Thunderbolt. Some say she rode by Captain Thunderbolts side, and was just as vicious a horse thief as her husband (they never married), others that there’s was an undying romance (they separated, and she returned to a previous partner John Burrows, who she lived out the remainder of her life with), others that she swam to Cockatoo Island with a file in her mouth, and rescued Captain Thunderbolt.

Carol Baxter, author of ‘Captain Thunderbolt and his Lady’ disagrees with most of these myths. And while Mary-Anne Bug is certainly very interesting, at the end of the day she is remembered primarily because of her association with Captain Thunderbolt. Although in my book anyone who raised fifteen children is impressive in their own right--bush ranging activities aside!

If you do want to learn more about Mary Anne Bug, Baxter has also published a website with a load of information about the Thunderbolts, just head to www.thunderboltbushranger.com.au.
Jessie Hickman caught my eye for two reasons. The first that she did everything on her own steam. She wasn’t someone’s partner in crime, she was the ringleader of her own gang of criminals. And secondly because her story leading up to her eventual ‘life of crime’ is just as weird and wonderful as living in a cave in the hills of Wollemi National Park, stealing cattle and eluding the constabulary by comical and perhaps entirely constructed means.

Born Elizabeth Jessie Hunt on the 6th of September 1890 in Burraga News South Wales, she was the daughter of James Hunt and Susan Ann McIntyre. Her father by all accounts was a terrible drunken wastrel and gambling man who abandoned his wife and two children to fend for themselves, disappearing for long stretches of time and reappearing when he needed money. When James Hunt received a lengthy prison sentence Jessie’s mother was unable to provide for both children. Jessie had always been fascinated by horses, and when the circus came to town it left with an eight-year-old Jessie in tow.

Sold to the circus at eight. You can’t make this kind of magical story telling up.
I can’t help but think about her mother, and how painful the decision to send Jessie away must have been. My daughter is seven and as much as she would love to run away with the circus, she is still very much a baby, and wouldn’t want to go very far without her ‘mummy’ along for the adventure.

What kind of a life must she have had after that? A small child raised by circus folk? Sure, there would have been the more exotic elements, beautiful women in elaborate costumes performing acrobatic tricks on horseback. High flyers, and tight rope walkers, clowns, and lion tamers and all the other exciting images circus life conjures.
Then there’s the five am starts, constant packing down and setting up, always on the road. Living life between a tent and a wagon, constantly cleaning up animal dung, and surrounded by the smell of horse sweat and hay.
Some of the larger circus’ employed teachers to educate the children of performers and we have evidence from her letters, and her will that Jessie certainly could read and write. But this wasn’t a large circus and Jessie wasn’t there to be educated, she was there to work.

Newspaper clippings, and research done by her biographers suggest she started off with Hyland’s Vice Regal Circus as a stable hand, but due to her small size and affinity for horses was quickly trained up as performer, learning acrobatic stunts and pony tricks. By ten she had moved on Skuthorp’s Buckjumpers and eventually left with former acrobat Martin Breheney, to become a star in his new troupe Martini’s Buckjumpers. Her career as a performer spanned more than a decade, and she was considered one of Australia’s best roughriders.

But life as a buck jumper was no rodeo. (Pardon the pun) The circus would have had other children, but the Scuthorp’s and Martini’s were a different story. In ‘Out of the Mists’ a biography written by Jessie’s great granddaughter Di Moore, there are accounts of incredibly foul language, and a gun kept under a pillow to ward off unwanted advances. But the author admits there is no record of how, or by whom, Jessie was raised from the point where she left her mother behind in Burraga.

Accounts of Lance Skutthorp have him as a former stockman, who wore sapphire studded shirts and performed with Americanised ‘razzamatazz’ but despite all that was an ‘Aussie Bushman through and through.’ I’ve spent a bit of time around circus performers and stockmen myself. I certainly wouldn’t be asking any of the colourful, exuberant and generally binge drinking characters I have come across in the modern world of circus and showbiz to raise my daughter any time soon. But Jessie’s own letters convey that Martin Brenehey was a fatherly figure in her life, that he wasn’t like other showmen.

Which is why when Martin died due to complications from injuries sustained in a carriage accident, Jessie took it particularly hard. Di Moore’s account suggests Jessie took time off to grieve, returning after a long holiday in New Zealand. But in February 1910 Martini’s Showjumpers gave its final performance spelling the end of Jessie’s career as a rough rider.

The next few years were tumultuous. She started a small riding school, met a young sailor by the name of Ben Hickman. At twenty-two she fell pregnant, and although her sailor proposed Jessie refused to marry him, and left the baby to be raised by a girlfriend she had made during her holiday in New Zealand.
Within a year, she was facing charges for theft and she spent her first stint at the Long Bay Reformatory. She managed to behave well enough on the inside to get let out for good behavior, but before long landed herself right back inside with another nine-month sentence.

At 27 Jessie was once again a free agent. She has already led a colourful life, abandoned by her mother, and now a woman who had refused to be a mother to her own child, she had two prison sentences under her belt and was almost completely unemployable. It was around this time that notorious cattle duffer John Fitzgerald tracked her down.
The job was simple enough. Rounding up cattle from one area and herding it to another. And ‘Fitz’ as he was known, was after Jessie for her skills as a horse woman. Considering the rightful owners of the cattle weren’t always aware of the ‘redistribution process’ Jessie had been hired to facilitate her criminal record might have been as attractive as her reputation in the saddle.

From stealing horses, and saddles and chickens to moving stolen cattle. Jessie had officially gradated into the life of a career criminal. ‘Fitz’ was not a nice man to work for. The owner of a fairly hefty criminal record himself, he was a violent drunk and more than one man in his employ had gone missing under suspicious circumstances.

But Jessie got on with it, hiring a crew to work under her, and getting on with the business of becoming a bonafide cattle duffer. As long as ‘Fitz’ got the cattle sold quickly at market, and kept the coppers off her back he was doing his job.

Di Moore would have us believe that Jessie couldn’t stand old Fitz. That even though he ‘tried it on’ a few times, she had rebuffed any romantic advances keeping things between them strictly professional, making sure he knew about that gun she always kept under her pillow case.

However, Patt Studdy-Clift’s biography insists that although they weren’t ‘officially’ married, they did live together, and openly referred to each other as husband and wife.
Whatever the relationship between them, it didn’t last for long. Because in 1918 it was John Fitzgerald’s turn to go missing.

Rumour has it, Jessie killed him.

Studdy-Clift asserts it was self-defense. That Jessie and Fitz got into a drunken brawl after she accused him of killing a member of her crew. Fitz attacked Jessie, and she hit him over the head with a chair leg.
Di Moore, gives an account of Jessie threatening Fitzgerald with a gun, after he accused her of stealing his already stolen cattle, nearly landing her back in jail.

However, Moore’s novelization of Jessie’s life asserts repeatedly that she didn’t actually follow through on these threats. There is no death certificate for John Fitzgerald, and a body was never found. But then again, no body, no crime. Perhaps her appearance at Rylestone Court wasn’t the first time Jessie Hickman got rid of the evidence.
Whatever did happen to her cattle rustling boss, he wasn’t heard of again after 1918, and from then on, the only person Jessie worked for, was herself.

At the end of world war one, Ben Hickman returned. And somehow or other he managed to convince his wild, cattle rustling lady love to finally get hitched. So, at 30 years old, eight years after giving birth to, and then abandoning his baby, Jessie Hunt finally became Jessie Hickman.

Did she give it a good old go? Settling down with her returned serviceman, trying out the staid and settled life of a Jewelers wife living in central Sydney? Perhaps she did. But it wasn’t long after her wedding, that she started finding excuses to visit her brother Hector who lived out Kandos way.

The towns of Kandos and Rylestone are a good 250 kilometers out of Sydney. That is a solid drive by car, but Jessie was on horseback. You are talking a solid three-day ride, and through mountainous well forested territory more like four or five days. That is a long way for a newly wed to travel solo.

Less than a year after marrying Hickman, Jessie stopped coming back to Sydney. And it wasn’t long before Jessie was back to her old cattle duffing ways. And business moving stolen cattle was good. She took out a government lease on crown land near emu river, and set to building herself a hut. Along with her hide out on Nullo mountain, she had herself a pretty good set up.

And before long she had built quite the reputation for herself amongst the nearby townsfolk. Everything was blamed on Jessie, from missing chickens, to stolen cattle. Before long the law had caught up to her.
And this is where the fun really begins. Remember the tall tales at the opening of this story? Climbing down long drop toilet, and riding naked over cliff faces?

Well in 1926 the first solid accusation was laid against ‘The Lady Bushranger’ and this is where the fun begins. Legend has it that the first time the police knocked on Jessie Hickman’s door with a warrant to inspect her supposedly stolen cattle, it had taken them such a long time to track down Jessie’s isolated bush hut that it was already too dark to get a good look at the suspect herd of cows. So the ‘copper’s chained her to her bed, and all laid down on the floor in the next room, to get a good night’s sleep before hauling her into the station the next morning.

Except when morning came, Jessie was long gone. So the story goes she had dismantled her entire bed, taken to the chain with an axe, and slipped off into the night quiet as a mouse.
Another account had her chained to a fence, another that she asked to go to the toilet, and just kept on walking past the outhouse into the bush. The police not expecting a lady to disappear into the darkness, let her slip right through their fingers.

Whatever really happened, we do know she did escape that night. And Jessie Hickman spent the next two years on the run from the police, hiding out in the Nullo mountains. And she didn’t let it stop her rounding up and selling stolen cattle.

Eventually they hired a local indigenous tracker James McDonald. Unfortunately for the local constabulary Jessie had a good relationship with the local indigenous people, and ‘Jimmy’ wasn’t in a hurry to catch this lady bushranger for them.

Then one day, while she was hiding out in Nullo cave Jessie came across Jimmy McDonald unconscious. He’d been thrown from the saddle, when his horse got spooked by a snake. According to Jimmy’s grandson Jessie not only took him into her hide out, and stayed with him till he woke up. Once she was sure he was going to be alright, she went out in search of his horse, and sent him back down the mountain not knowing if the gig was finally up.
It’s not surprising that from then on, Jimmy McDonald just couldn’t find hair nor tail of the Lady Bushranger, and so her legend grew. Murder. Cattle Thief. Escape Artist, and now outsmarting the best tracker in the area.
Was there anything this woman was not capable of?

Hide your valuables, lock up your cows and don’t let your young men out at night, for fear she might seduce them away to join her gang of wild and wooly cow thieves!

Except, Di Moore would tell you there was no gang of cattle duffers. That other than a few contacts, when it came time to sell her stolen cows, Jessie worked almost entirely alone. Certainly, her choice to live in the middle of nowhere, and the size of her tiny mountain hidey hold, only big enough to fit a small swag, a cupboard and a camp stove, suggests she wasn’t one for company.

But in May, 1928 the law finally caught up with The Lady Bushranger. Strangely enough after searching high and low through the mountains, ranges and canyons of Capertree Valley, the police tracked her down right where they had first attempted to arrest her two years before. It turns out, Jessie had become so confident, she was living back in her own cottage.

When the Police arrived, Jessie was casually pitching hay for her herd of misappropriated cattle. The Police report says Jessie ran at them with pitchfork shouting, ‘If you want me you’ll have to BLEEP carry me to Rylestone!’
Jessie in turn accused the police of throwing her to the ground, kneeling on her back, and then chaining her to the fence outside of her cottage for hours, before finally dragging her back to the Rylestone to face charges.
According to Jimmy McDonald’s grandson, when they eventually did leave the hut, they tied a handcuffed Jessie to the back of a commandeered sulky, (a sulky is a kind of small carriage), and in the snow no less!

She appeared in court on the 9th of May, accused of stealing cattle from neighbouring farms, and evading arrest. Amazingly, despite a two-year man hunt and what seems to me a ridiculous flight risk, Jessie Hickman was released on bail.

But Hickman did not run. She went back to her farm and lawyered up. Her defense was this. That a lot of cattle roamed freely on Nullo Mountain, and the allegedly dispossessed cows had simply gotten mixed up in her own herd by accident. Something quite common in those parts of the world.
The Jury met for less than an hour. And Jessie Hickman was pronounced ‘Not Guilty.’ Of course, the fact that the offending cattle had disappeared mysteriously in the middle of the night, or that several Hickman’s friends were in the jury didn’t hurt things…

After two years as an outlaw with a price on her head, Jessie was finally off the hook.
Did she retire from her life of crime after that? Who is to say. She certainly disappeared from the attention of the police and the papers.

There are a few letters here and there, divorce proceedings from Ben Hickman when he decided to remarry. But after her infamous day in court we don’t hear much more about the antics of the wild woman of Wollemi.
In the final years of her life, Jessie became more and more isolated from other people. Her behavior was said to be erratic, her memory poor, and her handwriting grew steadily worse. Finally, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and soon after passed away.

Evidence from her medical records and the coroners support suggest she had died from a brain tumor.
Survived by a brother, a nephew, a son who was raised by someone else, and a growing body of local legend in the town of Kandos, about the mad, bad and scantily clad Lady Bushranger who outsmarted the law, and lived a life less ladylike.

Thanks for listening to my first podcast. I hope you enjoyed hearing about Jessie’s adventures as much I enjoyed researching her!

For links to websites, articles, and books about the Lady Bushranger check out my website, jessicamessengerplaywright.com, under the podcast section, you can also follow me on facebook @JessicaDianneMessengerWriter, or Twitter @JessMessWriter

Research first, ask questions later: An autoethnographic exploration of getting lost looking for the research question.

‘The brain is a wonderful thing. It starts working the instant you’re born and never stops until you must write something creative on deadline.’ Arne Dietrich, 2012

 ‘What has been will be again, What has been done will be done again, There is nothing new under the sun.’

 (Ecclesiastes 1:9, NIV, 1973)

I feel as if I have walked into my mother's quilting room, and someone has set off a cherry bomb. There are scraps of fabric, and half-finished projects, and bolts of material collected for their aesthetics but not even cut into yet. And rather than working from a pattern, I am attempting to create my own pattern from scratch, nay, I am going to pull pieces of fabric out almost at random and try to follow the pattern that instinctively emerges! Creativity is a series of choices, some arbitrary some deeply thought through, some well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful. The creative process often involves making any decision at all, so that only afterward you can reflect and decide whether it was the correct one or not--always thankful that at least in writing, unlike life, you can go back and make revisions. Your first choice does not always have to be the final one

Making Decisions

In considering my practice as a writer, and theatre-maker I have often noted the difference between what I enjoy reading and viewing and my own unique voice. For the past decade, I have experimented with style, genre, and voice, analyzed the consistent themes within my work, set out intentionally to answer broader questions about society and culture, and written with the intended audience, and even theatrical space in mind.

The first play I ever wrote was for a theatre in education company. I was given set parameters, told what themes to explore, knew who my audience would be, wrote for a specific ensemble of actors and a with whom I had a collaborative working relationship. I understood what limitations existed regarding set and costume design. I told myself it didn't have to be good; it only had to be finished, after all, I would be working closely, and collaboratively with a team of people to improve it during the rehearsal period.

From there I have built a body of work, which although changing in genre, scope, audience, and intention was continually driven by an understanding of the theatrical medium.

‘Nyabaru Town’ is about two young girls who move to live with their father in the mining town of Newman. It is a loose adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal animated feature ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ and builds on the imaginative play of my childhood growing up in that same mining town.

The initial idea came about because I wanted to explore the Australian Gothic genre, particularly the concepts of a white woman’s place in and relationship to the land, reminiscent of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ and the works of Elizabeth Jolley.

Asked to embark on a practice-led research project, I decided to adapt the first fifteen pages of this half-written play into a novel.

Beginning

Launching myself into the research part of the practice-led research, I found myself re-reading the books of my childhood. ‘Anne of Green Gables,’ the ‘Little Women’ series, even some old Enid Blyton. I thought about how different my own child’s experience of growing up in the city in the ‘nauteens’ compared to mine growing up in the bush in the nineties. I cannot interest her in the Louisa Meg Alcott and Francis Hodges Burnet. She reads a few pages and asks, where are the dragons?

I found it amusing that my child who is so similar to the character written about in these very books, has no interest in reading said books and meeting these characters that remind me of her. Her childhood experience is so very different to mine it seems almost alien.

My intention was to explore questions around the impact of technology on people's relationships with each other, and to the land; and as a white woman with a colonial heritage what was my relationship to the land I have loved and called home? Can we belong to the land, and to each other, or are we doomed to become increasingly isolated in a world of networked communication and endless consumption? And what was the cost of technology, and our disengagement to the land, to the outside, on the family unit?

Launching myself into the research, I had also begun to ask, what was the cost of technology, and our disengagement from a community and the land on childhood? If it takes a village to raise a child, how has the global village impacted childhood and the stories we tell about it?

My story about growing up in Newman, attempting to capture something of the old and the new, was evolving into a book I can give to my child, the avid reader that will excite her imagination, while reflecting the real world that she lives in, along with providing a window into my own childhood experiences. I want to give her a literary key to the freedom and dangers of the bush, see if I can’t extend that innocence for a few years longer.

Delving Deeper

When I began this project, both the scoping paper, and even the original seed for ‘Nyabaru Town' way back when I was thinking about myself, my childhood, the land I grew up in, and the gothic tradition of approaching that land from an alien and mystical perspective. I assumed eco-critical theory, post-colonial theory and an exploration of humanities relationship to the landscape would inform my writing, and of course, these are all still relevant influences. However, as the time drew near to submit my assignment, having already written a first draft of the first two chapters I began to realize that childhood was an emerging and significant theme of the work.

Andrew Melrose, in his keynote speech delivered at the 2011 Australasian Association of Writing Projects, opens with the statement:

‘Anyone who works in the field of children’s literature as an academic discipline or in the field of writing children will be all too well versed in the (im)possibility of producing child-centered writing and culture.’
(Melrose, 2011)

Melrose goes on to explore in depth about the power-dynamic existent in children's literature, a field where the target audience and the writer are rarely if ever the same. Quoting Jaqueline Rose's discussion of Peter Pan, in bringing up the idea of liminal space, that exists between the Adult as the maker, and the child as the receiver. Pointing out that other disempowered groups can operate under a banner such as feminism (Melrose, 2011), there is no such thing as ‘Childism,' and yet children are the most vulnerable members of our society. The simple fact that often the choice of literature and even the delivery is controlled by the adults who buy, teach from and read the books to the children, problematizing this issue further.

Vassiliki Veros, from the University of Technology Sydney, makes similar arguments about the curation of children's literature and its unintentional biases in his discussion on paratextual reading and marginalizing children's reading experiences. Veros argues that contemporary children often read para-textually, and are not considered by libraries, and literary institutions. Not only disallowing children to think of themselves as readers but also discouraging reading for pleasure. (Veros, 2016)

What perhaps Veros, and Melrose overlook is that all adults were children once. And for the primary adults in young children's lives, their parents, and teachers, the gap between childhood and adulthood may not be as long ago as it is for the academic or even the successfully published children’s author.

After all, at 32 and firmly classified as a ‘millennial,' much to my great chagrin, and my childhood is not that long ago. I am also a widely produced children's playwright with a background in youth work, teach approximately 243 children aged 4-18 drama every single week, am a mother to an almost eight-year-old, godmother to a nine-year-old and a five-year-old. I am surrounded by children every day. And every day the small human I live with reminds me of both the similarities and the differences between our experiences of childhood.
Feeling marginalized, misunderstood, misrepresented, silenced, shaped, shifted, controlled and powerless is very much a universal childhood experience. ‘What has been, will be again.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9, NIV 1973)

Putting Theory into Practice

I figured it was time to do a little ethnographic and phenomenological research. I sat down with my captive case study participant and started to ask her about her experience of being a child. Not an easy task, when the subject tends to burst out into spontaneous, improvised rock songs about cats, and to give me lengthy descriptions of her alternate universe, ‘Hazeltopia,' (named after her of course.)

My child began to respond to my questions by asking me about my childhood. I remembered asking similar questions of my mother when I was a child.

"Tell me about when you were little," is the title of a blog post by child psychologist Karen Young, exploring the importance of storytelling in childhood. Young’s discussion does not revolve around literary stories recounted by published authors, but real-life stories told by parents to their children about their experiences of their childhood.

‘Parents are the most influential, most intriguing, and important person in their lives and they want to know everything about them. Want to know about the person you were when you were little, the mistakes, adventures, and risks. Teenagers want stories that tell them it is safe for them to tell their own. You've been through what they are going through, made the same mistakes and had the same fears. The most important parts of the human experience don't change that much from generation to generation. Hopes, fears and who we open our heart to. What was important in your family? What trouble did you get into, what did you do for fun, what were the rules? They want to know about our misadventures.’ (Young, 2016)

Let me reiterate, one phrase from this excerpt ‘The most important parts of the human experience don’t change that much from generation to generation.’ (Young, 2016) Or as King Solomon put it, ‘what has been done, will be done again.’

My daughter, and the children I encounter do not share my childhood experience of growing up in a small town. Hazel's adventures largely occur behind a computer screen, with her nose in a book, or while playing make-believe in the cubby space below her loft bed. Then again, my childhood was equal parts riding my bike to visit friends, playing in the nearby hills, and behind a computer screen, or with my nose in a book or playing make-believe in the built-in closet in my bedroom. As Jacqueline Rose and Andrew Melrose pointed out children's literature happens in the space between the adults and the children. At this point, I began to think quite seriously about the liminal space between the writer and the reader, no matter who their target audience is. Perhaps this would be my question, an exploration of writing for the other, versus writing for self?

Developing Theory Through Practice

Tackling my draft and rewriting from the younger daughter's perspective was not as easy I thought it would be. Firstly, because as a writer I am not as interested in writing for children as I am writing a good story. Secondly, because I found it a real struggle to pitch correctly at the right age group. When I began this project, it wasn't about writing for young people it was about writing an Australian Gothic. Along the way, I have become entangled with ideas around writing for and about childhood, researched writing about the land and writing for children, focussed my literature review on children's stories and academic papers on writing for children. I wanted to pick a question and let that question drive the research. The writer in me rebelled against this as soon as I hit the ‘studio.’ After all, when I write, it isn’t always to answer some question to contribute to academia.
If this process were to answer a question about writing for children, then I would start from scratch. Get in a room with a bunch of children, and interview them, then ask children to be my ‘beta readers,' give me feedback. Workshop the script, or novel, or interactive media with the intended audience because that is my usual practice when developing new work. And the end goal would not be learning something new about the creative arts or adding to a body of knowledge; it would be about creating the best work possible.

With time running out and the submission deadline fast approaching, I began to rephrase and reframe my question for the third, or fourth, or fifth time, I had lost count. Daniel Mafe, in his Ph.D. paper for the Queensland University of Technology, discusses the concept of ‘tension between the ‘articulate' representation and ‘inarticulate' affect,' (Mafe, 2009).
Mafe contends that due to the complexity of arts practice, there is a state of ‘profound unknowing’ that accompanies creativity and works against the determinism of hypothesis (research question) leading to an eventual thesis (conclusion) in practice-led, or creative arts-based research projects. Mafe states in the opening of his paper:

‘While my primary methodological strategy is practice-led research, there are key problems within this paradigm that I want to address. I wish to establish that the research strategy is far more dynamic, fluid and epistemologically uncertain than previous descriptions indicate. It is my contention that practice-led research outlines often misrepresent what is being done because they underestimate the significance of epistemological uncertainty.’ (Mafe, 2009)

This uncertainty, this process of write, and rewrite, and rewrite until at the very end you discover what the work is and even then, not knowing for sure if it the work is done or if you are just done with the work. This seems to contradict the idea of beginning with a research question in the first place. Certainly not one that is limited solely to the content and genre, or even target audience of the work.

Do I want to rewrite my work to focus on my daughter as a target audience so that I can sell a scoping paper to my university assessor? Or do I want to use this assignment to learn about practice-led research, or am I using practice-led research to learn about writing for my target audience? Or am I using my writing to learn about the creative process, and if so what am I trying to learn? Can I serendipitously discover through action, and reflection something I previously did not know about my creative practice, and through this contribute to a wider body of knowledge? When is it research and when is it just practice? And if everything has been seen, and done before, and there is nothing new under the sun, then is it ever possible to genuinely generate new knowledge? After all the academic sceptics, and philosophers among us would question whether anyone can ever truly know anything at all.

Even if I can resolve my epistemological questioning, which seems particularly challenging when considering the field of creative fiction writing where subjectivity dictates that knowledge is even more ephemeral than it must be in other research fields—how then do I know what knowledge is already out there? It is a big sun, and ten weeks seems hardly enough time to have discovered every paper, and study, and relevant piece of literature underneath it before claiming I have contributed something new.

Psychology Professor Arne Dietrich in his paper for the American University of Beirut entitled ‘You're gonna need a bigger boat,' explores how ideas are ‘assembled unconsciously and enter the conscious mind in fully finished form.' (Dietrich, 2012)

‘…creative ideas seem to be deliberately designed to defy empirical enquiry. There is something elusive and mystical, perhaps even sacred about them, isn’t there? They come as they please and there seems little you can do to force their appearance.’ (Dietrich, 2012)

Dietrich goes on to explore a myriad of theories about how the brain organises, recalls and generates ideas. Dietrich concludes that while we may assume ideas come from nowhere, in fact, a myriad of unconscious processes, are churning away beneath the surface as our mind tests out multiple variations, before landing on the ultimate selection.

Robyn Stewart defines practice as drawing on our ‘creative energies…to respond to situational exigencies with spontaneous acts of mindful and creative expression.’ (Stewart, 2003). Discussing the differences between those who research artists, and artists-researchers, she goes on to say:

‘If we wish as artist-researchers to challenge the traditional theory practice duality, then we also need to re-think established notions of knowledge and to understand that we become theory builders when we position practice and the acts of production to embody and express theory.'

I want to write about my childhood and the land in which I grew up. I want to explore how my daughter's experience of childhood has changed due to technology, and an urbanised experience of growing up. In ‘Nyabaru Town' not only do I give myself the opportunity to revisit the place of my childhood, but the opportunity to place a character the same age as my child in that environment. To explore the disconnect, between the stories we tell our children about what is dangerous, (scary strangers, the sun, crossing the road), and the things that are destroying the world (consumerism, break down in family relationships, social isolation, climate change.)

I feel pressure to write this story for my child, for an audience, for a publisher, for academic research purposes, for future readers. After all, I am constantly told to consider my audience. And yet, and yet, so often when considering my future audience, writing to please the gate-keepers, even considering my ‘ideal reader' as Roland Barthes would encourage me to do, that unconscious creative flow suddenly dries up.

Around the third rewrite, from third person to first person, from the child's perspective, I went back and re-read every tutorial response I had written for this unit so far. While I have been slaving away at my creative artefact, researching diligently, taking studious notes, even keeping my first writing journal, I have as quickly as if I was throwing together a meal with the ingredients I happened to have in the kitchen written a complete novel. An entirely different novel, unrelated to this scoping paper, and the creative artefact I have been using as the ‘practice' through which to lead my research.

Deciding that I was tired of the constant battle to please gatekeepers and assessment panels, I took one of my first full length plays and turned it into a novel with the aim to self-publish through Amazon Kindle. I wrote a short novel in less than a week, sent it out to beta readers, doubled it in length, and continued to work into it and onto it, learning all the while about my creative process, and first reviewers have universally enjoyed it. They have all had opinions, and ideas about how it should be different of course, and I have taken and left feedback according to what I have found useful and inspiring.

This secondary creative process has been eye-opening. Writing is something I have always done due to some compelling internal instinct that drives me to keep on telling stories no matter how difficult, time-consuming and lacking in monetary reward. Often writing first drafts and rewriting fifteenth drafts have felt entirely maddening. I am stuck in the middle of that explosive mound of fabrics, and not only is the pattern not coming together I am unpicking nearly every second stitch.

The project I have worked on in my own time has been a pleasure, reworking ‘Nyabaru Town’ has been a mind-numbing chore. More unpicking than sewing you would say if you were talking to a quilter. And always in the back of my mind the questions, what am I trying to articulate? What theory am I exploring? What am I learning? What can I contribute? Is it enough? Is it new? Is there anything new under the sun?

Playwright Timothy Daly taught the first writing workshop I ever attended. He opened with the words ‘first delight yourself, and then the audience will be delighted.’ I questioned those words even then, being a natural people pleaser conditioned by society as a woman to think of the pleasure of others before I think about my pleasure.

After all, the analogy I have been using has been about craft. Craft implies that the result will serve a purpose, art suggests that the finished product will exist firstly to bring pleasure, any challenge, or question or provocation secondary to the pleasure of looking at the art. Art exists to be seen, absorbed and experienced by its intended audience. Craft, like a quilt, can be art, hung on the wall, looked at not interacted with, but ultimately quilts serve a purpose beyond the aesthetic and experiential. They go on a bed and keep someone warm.

And even in writing this analogy I have found a way to bring the craft, and the art back to the reader, the audience, the other. I write for the other, not for myself. What would happen if I wrote for myself first, and discovered who the audience was later? Pulled the pieces of material together for the pure pleasure of playing with fabric, and once I have crafted something find a use for it?
I have my answer with my other project already, I will finish it, rather than becoming stuck in the initial phases picking, and unpicking, and unpicking. I will sew it all together. And because it is not a quilt, it is a story, and words on a screen can be rewritten, I will fix it later.

Where to from here?

I promised at the beginning of this scoping paper that I would address the problem of the research question later. And here at the conclusion is as late as I can leave it. I have already written several conclusions, claiming one research question or another that I will use to drive my research. I have also written many paragraphs claiming knowledge that I have learned, and others arguing that there is no such thing as new knowledge under the sun. I have problematised the entire research question process, and I have designed methods that rely on too many research questions.
All these possible endings to this paper, draft versions ultimately spurned because they were written not to help me design my practice-led research project but to pay lip service to what I think my assessors want from me. Very late in the game, unhappy with my 'finished' scoping paper, I went back to Brad Haseman's essay on performative research and tracked down Glaser and Strauss' book The Discovery of Grounded Theory.

Grounded Theory emerged in the social sciences, due to the limitation of hypothesis testing when studying human behaviour. Glaser and Strauss set out to create a more qualitative approach to research and concluded that it was possible to generate a theory using research, rather than using research to test a theory. The argument that entering the research without a pre-conceived hypothesis would ultimately lead to more objective results and allow for unexpected outcomes to occur. (Glaser, Strauss 1967)

From these fathers of qualitative theory, I reread Brad Haseman’s article referenced throughout so many of our lectures, and in my fellow student’s tutorial responses. Haseman’s theory of performative research argues for something even more adventurous than what I am beginning to consider, not only ‘diving in’ without a research question but also presenting that research using the medium of the practice—practice as research a step past practice-led research. (Haseman, 2006)

While I am not attempting to produce creative work that can stand as exegesis, and medium all at once, I am arguing for the value of ‘diving in,' or undergoing the studio based, phenomenological, ethnographical and qualitative research first without a preconceived hypothesis or specific question driving the process. Not to argue that I aim to have no purpose or point at all. I am consciously aware of the themes inherent in the work, and the questions I am asking myself about the nature of story-telling, the relationship between the audience and the reader, the problem of making and justifying a knowledge claim in a creative and entirely subjective field.
Instead, I am suggesting that there is some argument for eschewing the central research question, to drive practice-led research. After all, if the question is leading the practice, is the practice genuinely driving the research? Where is the serendipity and flexibility in choosing one central problem, and stubbornly sticking to it, to the exclusion of perhaps creating good work or following those unconscious creative practices? Haseman argues that practice led researchers construct experiential starting points that drive both the practice and the research concurrently, calling this an ‘enthusiasm of practice.' (Haseman 2006)

As a creative practitioner who has always worked hard to justify my work, what it is about, why it is important, how it benefits the audience this concept of starting with something as personal as enthusiasm is challenging to me. After all, how far is this idea, from Timothy Daly's advice to first delight ourselves? If the practice in practice-led research is primary, as Haseman contends, then it seems to follow suit that the practice itself should be a sufficient driver to generate theory.

Therefore, I shall set out with an enthusiasm, willing to first delight myself and see what I discover. I have already discovered so much, it seems to follow that I will throughout this process generate more knowledge coming to a succinct and articulate theory of practice to put forth in my exegesis. If, there is something new under the sun to discover, after all.

References:

Alcott L, 1832-1888, e-book 2013, The Complete Little Women Series (Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men, Jo’s Boys), Roberts Brothers, e-artnow, United States

Bourke N & Neilson P 2004, ‘The problem of the exegesis in creative writing higher degrees,' TEXT, Special Issue No. 3, April, available at: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/4598/1/4598_1.pdf

Dietrich A, 2012, ‘You're gonna need a bigger boat,' TEXT Special Issue: Creativity: Cognitive, Social and Cultural Perspectives, accessed 30 April 2018, available at: http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue13/Dietrich.pdf

Haseman B, 2006, ‘A manifesto for performative research', Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy, them issue "Practice-led research," no. 118, pp. 98-106, viewed 20 April 2018, <https://eprints.qut.edu.au/3999/1/3999_1.pdf>.

Hassal L 2017, TEXT Special Issue 41: Romanticism and Contemporary Writing: Legacies and Resistances 12 eds Stephanie Green and Paul Hetherington, October 2017

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Lindsay J, 1967, Picnic at Hanging Rock, F.W Cheshire, Australia

Mafe ́ D, 2009, ‘Rephrasing Voice: Art, Practice-led Research and the Limits and Sites of Articulacy,' Queensland University of Technology, accessed 03 Meg 2018, available at: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/32131/1/Daniel_Maf%C3%A9_Thesis.pdf

Melrose A, 2011, ‘The Hidden Adult and the Hiding Child in Writing for Children’, TEXT Vol 16, No 1 April 2012, accessed 30 of April 2018, available at: http://www.textjournal.com.au/april12/melrose.htm

Montgomery L, 1908, Anne of Green Gables, L. C. Page & Co, United States

Miyazaki H, 1988, Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro), Studio Ghibli, Japan

NIV, 1973, ‘Ecclesiastes 1:9’, Holy Bible New International Version, Biblica Inc

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Stewart R, 2003, (Re)inventing Artists’ Research: Constructing living forms of theory’, TEXT Vol 7 No 2 October 2003, accessed 27 April 2018, available at: http://www.textjournal.com.au/oct03/stewart.htm

Testoni C, Singing Bones Podcast, available at: http://singingbonespodcast.com/

Veros V, 2016 ‘Marginalising children’s reading experiences; From series books to paratextual reading.’ TEXT Vol 20 No 1 April 2016, accessed 30 April 2018, available at: http://www.textjournal.com.au/april16/veros.htm

Young K, 2016, ‘“Tell me about when you were little.” Children and storytelling- The stories they need to hear.’ Hey Sigmund, Accessed 30 April 2018, available at; https://www.heysigmund.com/children-and-storytelling/

Creating Safe Spaces

First Published 19th of May 2017

Like anyone who has been acting for a while, I have some horror stories. The director who would routinely grab me on the ass, or bend me over and thrust into me, as a demonstration to my scene partner. Then immediately afterward ask me, ‘Oh, wait, Jess is that okay with you?’

Or the fourteen-hour rehearsal days, in the heat, with maybe a lunch break if you’re lucky. I remember being told that I wasn’t coping with the schedule because I hadn’t been professionally trained. I had flagged at the beginning of the process that I have a chronic illness and will need to take breaks, but I doubt anyone would have found that level of rehearsal sustainable. With or without professional training.

Then there are the atrocities I have committed as a young director finding my feet. Choreographing a push without a qualified fight choreographer in the room, or encouraging young actors to go to intensely emotional spaces to ‘find their character.’

Of course, for every negative experience, I have incredible examples of empowering, collaborative and egalitarian processes run by clever people who have looked after the actors in the room. And after learning from my early mistakes, I have endeavored to create safe rehearsal rooms as best I can.
Certain that I am not the only one who has endured the costs and benefits of both sides of this coin, I began speaking to local Perth artists about their stories.

Some common themes began to emerge. The pitfalls of ‘method acting’, women feeling unsafe or disrespected physically or sexually, long hours, low pay, and a general reticence around speaking up because work is scarce and competition is plentiful. For every person who won’t put up with being treated badly, there are dozens of others who will.

It wasn’t all negative, the artists I spoke to were all able to articulate very clearly what made for a safe working environment. Simple ideas like clear lines of communication, mutual respect, establishing boundaries and expectations at the beginning of a process, checking in and checking out at the end of each day, and creating processes for dealing with conflict resolution before conflict arises instead of dealing with it on the fly when it occurs.

I began my career in the arts working for a theatre in education company called Fine Edge, that toured to high schools and primary schools. The company was a part of Scripture Union of WA, and SUWA literally wrote the manual on ‘Child Safe Practices’ for volunteer organizations working with children and young people. So along with learning to act, we were taught how to be ‘safe’, with the audiences we interacted with, and with each other.

Over the years I have attended many business forums run by wonderful organizations like The Blue Room, that explore the importance of treating art like a business. Lectures and workshops on marketing, branding, networking, applying for funding through grant processes, and developing philanthropic partnerships. And in the Eastern States with the inauguration of the Arts Centre Wellbeing Collective and the work of postgraduate researcher Mark Seton, we are starting to see a larger focus on self-care.

However, if we can borrow the marketing and financial strategies of the business world, perhaps it’s time to borrow the leadership, management, and pastoral care training as well. Yes, absolutely train artists to run their lives like small business owners, and of course teach artists strategies for building sustainable careers with a focus on self-care.

I would like to see the training courses teaching directors, producers, large scale and small scale arts organizations, and arts managers how to create safe places, clear lines of communication so that we can build a healthy culture of mutual respect and physical and psychological safety.

If you would like to read some of my interviews, and the research I have done on this topic, my article ‘From Toxic Theatre to Safe Spaces’ has been published on Artshub.

Welcome

Hey there, and welcome to my blog. I will be porting blog posts over from my now defunct playwright website, mostly about theatre, with the occasional Jane Austen thoughts thrown in. This will be a space to talk about my upcoming publication, and any other writerly, or creative thought processes.