Cover of book: Open Secrets: Essays on the Writing Life

Catriona Menzies-Pike (ed.)
Open Secrets: Essays on the Writing Life

It’s news to few Australian writers that the gig can be gruelling work. It also doesn’t pay the bills – at least, not consistently.

“Most Australian writers don’t get paid much for their work, not by publishers, not by readers, not by the government,” Catriona Menzies-Pike notes in the introduction to Open Secrets. This essay collection intervenes at a necessary – if under-reported – juncture besetting most Australian writers: poor pay, demoralising side-gig work, fraught self-motivation and many an existential crisis.

Evident throughout is how tiring and tortured a writer’s lot can be. In an essay about her time writing a company’s HR “success story”, Lauren Carroll Harris gives an unfettered assessment on the cruel freelance life. It’s one where gig workers, like writers, are “kept in poverty” while they are exploited by big companies and universities for their cheap, unprotected labour. Elsewhere Maddee Clark explores how being a writer in the age of oversharing “means that it becomes tempting to use your emotional self-exposure … to offset your financial vulnerability”.

These essays will be comforting reading to those who have also faced financial strife about their creative vocation, traded personal stories for slim earnings or found intellectual horizons hollowed out, especially at universities. James Ley gives a stark appraisal of literary studies in Australia, showing how humanities scholarship sits in uncomfortable opposition to the neoliberal “business”
pivot of universities. If universities can’t provide security to academics, where can?

For some writers, it’s found in the safety of their writing space. The chaotic clutter of Vanessa Berry’s desk feels like a consoling counterpoint to the sobering stories catalogued elsewhere in the book. Yet for all its apparent sanctuary, that same desk is a reminder of unavoidable daily burdens: pitching and planning, invoicing and emailing, doubting and discarding.

The labour and love each writer expresses about their work is a restorative experience to read. Oliver Mol’s sojourn in Spain, which sees him take a planned vacation from the English language, captures a larger identity conflict that is sure to resonate with his peers. He vainly wrestles with the gnawing magnetism words have to those besotted – or corrupted – by their pull and power.

Open Secrets is a necessary public acknowledgement of the precarity of being a writer in Australia. It’s also a noble project at once celebrating the impressive resilience of many local writers throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, while agitating for a broader conversation on greater certainties and financial protections for creative labour. 

Giramondo Publishing, 272pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Open Secrets: Essays on the Writing Life, Catriona Menzies-Pike (ed.) ".

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Nathan Smith is a freelance writer.

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