JUMPING THROUGH AND MANAGING THE TANGLE: Verity La interviews Writing Australia’s Mary Delahunty

Verity La Lighthouse Yarns

The unstoppable Mary Delahunty has been many things.  She’s been an award-winning journalist on the ABC’s Four Corners and 7.30 Report programs, as well as on commercial networks.  From 1999 to 2006, Mary was a Victorian Government Minister in senior portfolios, including education, planning, and the arts.  She has worked as a consultant in government, media, as well as in the not-for-profit sector.  On top of all this, Mary is the author of Public Life: Private Grief (Hardie Grant Books, 2010), which has been described as a love story and a political memoir.  Earlier this year, she became head of the new Writing Australia organisation.  Wisely – and appropriately – based in the ACT, Writing Australia promises to be a force of national literary goodness.  Verity La has been chatting with Mary throughout much of this year about her new Writing Australia gig, life as a writer, and what motivates her to keep charging ahead.  (Note: your humble Verity La scribe was involved in the early days of scoping out what a national writing organisation might look like.  Thought it best to be upfront about this.)
Nigel Featherstone: Writing Australia is an exciting new addition to the writing and reading scene in Australia. How has it come about?
Mary Delahunty: State writers’ centres have been established in all Australian capital cities since 1985 and have grown out of the recognised need for dedicated professional organisations in each state to represent and support writing, writers and literary culture. The centres have developed resources, services and support for writers at every stage of their development and across all literary genres. It is interesting to note that since the inception of writers’ centres, the number of practising professional writers in Australia has increased from 3,200 in 1987 to 7,600 in 2009 (Throsby Report).
The Australia Council’s Mapping Literature Infrastructure in Australia Report (University of Wollongong, 2008) identified the following:

  • difficulties for state-based organisations when they try to run cross-border or national activities but are unable to secure funding from other states.
  • short-term program-specific funding which causes stress in many literature organisations and mitigates against strategic planning;
  • inadequate human resources … Understaffing leads to managerial instability and hampers the ability of organisations to profit from new technologies and digital delivery of services; and
  • a perceived tension between audience development and skills and professional development.

In October 2009, an Expression of Interest to form a new Key Arts Organisation Writing Australia was developed.  The Writing Australia Working Group was formed in February 2010, comprising the directors of the five participating writers’ centres (South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory) as well as a representative from each of the funding partners, the Australia Council for the Arts and artsACT.  The Business plan was accepted and the Board set about establishing a company.
Writing Australia Ltd was incorporated in 2011, the National Director appointed, and the national office established at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.  The new national body formalises an existing collaboration and offers the opportunity for a much needed broad-reaching suite of national programs to service writers across the country.
The digital revolution has brought many changes to the worlds of reading, writing and publishing. The business model for publishing is in a state of flux and the ability for writers to earn income from their practice may potentially be more challenging, but the multiplication of e-platforms also brings a myriad new opportunities.  Writing Australia, in collaboration with the Queensland Writers’ Centre, can respond creatively to these trends, offering advice through its central web portal, online workshops and information on latest developments and play an important role in supporting the sector while it is grappling with the challenges. Information for writers available through the central web portal could include: print-on-demand, e-books, self-promotion through active blogging, social media, discussion groups, as well as the new financial and employment opportunities on offer in the digital world.
An established extensive national industry network will strengthen the national program and the profile for Australian writers and literature. Writing Australia aims to be nimble, cost-effective and national, an enabler of writers’ professional development, and a voice for the sector.
NF: Writing Australia really could be a significant shift to how Australian writing activity is organised and promoted. If the Letters to the Editor pages of a newspaper is, as it’s been said before, a town or city having a conversation with itself, a country’s writers, through their works of prose and poetry, is a nation having a conversation with itself. And you’re about to be at the epicentre of that conversation. How does it feel being in the literary hot-seat?
MD: It’s not often you get the chance to shape something from the ground up. At Writing Australia we’re grafting a new shoot onto the lush literary landscape of the nation. What a marvellous opportunity!
Words build bridges between ideas and it our writers who polish and publish them. Writers keep our stories alive and fresh, tell them in our own voices, astonish with insights about us and our place. Australia needs to nurture our writers and I’m honoured to be working now in this corner of the cultural canvass
I’m hoping that Writing Australia will be a voice for writers and writing, that it will lift writers’ profile, networking and arts practice exchange. As a long-time ABC journalist and first-time author I love words, writing, and ideas. I know how hard, disciplined serendipitous even bewildering the serious craft of writing can be.
When I published Public Life: Private Grief last spring I was both elated and relieved; when I read the writers’ wisdom in the visitors book at Rosebank, the residential writer’s retreat I set up with the Victorian Writers Centre at our farm in the Macedon Ranges, I understand all over again the space and place writers need to fall into the creative muse.
I admire writers, am in awe of so many of them, particularly when I interviewed leading Australian authors for the ABC Sunday Arts show on television all those years ago. I have worked with words all my life as a journalist, writer, arts advocate.  I am a long-time devotee of Australian literature and the power of the written and spoken word.
So, no surprise that I am chuffed to be part of this new national voice called Writing Australia, supporting writers, writing, and literary culture. By osmosis I will learn a lot and, I hope, give a lot.
NF: You mention that when Public Life: Private Grief was published last year that you were both ‘elated and relieved’. I wonder if you can tell us a little more about the writing of that book: your motivations, as well as how you found the process of going from idea to physical object.
MD: My motivation in writing this book was to understand the long dark nights, to interrogate loss and the unending absence, the dreadful missing, the nights and seasons that pass unshared. I wanted to face loss, grief and depression. I was coming out of a long bleak tunnel and I didn’t want to drop that thimble of happiness.  I was also intrigued by memory, those places and spaces where we glimpse parts of ourselves and others.  I wondered why certain memories glow luminous in our past. Nabokov aptly described these memories for me: That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. I was keen to expose a workplace where the dark arts of politics stop for no one and where personal stumbles are exploited by those scavengers intent on advantage.  An unexpected setting to understand the burdens of grief.
As a journalist – and before – I have always kept journals. In government these became private pages I could trust. They provided astonishing detail about Jock’s long dying and the parallel path of unrelenting politics. Good material but I was haunted by the thought of ‘just because it happened to me doesn’t make it interesting’!  Maybe every writer faces that demon.  I was determined to widen the frame so a reader could relate. After all we will or have all faced loss in some form and the buffeting waves of grief. The act of writing, the deep deep solitude, was a joy.
I love writing and am in awe of those disciplined enough to do it every day. Writing friends and mentors held my hand and one introduced me to the medium of meditation before writing. It’s a brilliant technique to turn down the rational controlling part of my brain and invite the muse in. Solitude is not loneliness. Solitude has been my teacher and friend ever since I hung over the farm fence, a skinny kid freckled from the hot Wimmera sun that urged the ripening of acres of wheat genuflecting gently before the Grampians. As the western sky blazed I waited til my brothers grew bored and left me there to gaze happily into infinity. The deep process of sustained writing is like gazing into infinity.  As the Poet Rilke says, It’s never too late to dive into your increasing depths/Where life calmly gives out its secrets.
The loving and detailed editing process was an eye-opener. I was shocked when I opened the first edited chapter and confronted what seemed initially to be brutal deletions.  I came to admire the perception of my editors while arguing successfully for restoration of a few precious passages. I will never forget the joy of seeing the galleys, the layout of my words as a book. Then, even more than when I saw and held the printed product, I knew I had written a book.
Now, I am always happy to discuss the ideas in Public Life: Private Grief but that work is done and another book beckons.
NF: You’ve done many things in your professional life: journalist, writer, politician, and now National Director of Writing Australia. Has there been an over-riding principle for how you’ve approached these various facets of your life?
MD: Curiosity. I’m an avid student of the human condition and in each of these roles I am privileged to be up close and personal with and to people who make a difference.  Of course, curiosity is not a principle, more a state of being. The principle that I hope has and does guide my personal and public life is fairness and an open mind to new ideas, views and information. In many ways a stubborn belief that everyone has the right to a fair hearing, a fair go. It mostly doesn’t happen but it is a powerful aspiration and I’m happy in my various roles to be an advocate.  For example, I was jolted to learn of the massive disparity in Australian Government funding for different arts forms. Half the Australia Council’s grant and project money ($83m) goes to music/orchestras/opera, while a meagre $7.7m goes to literature – the lowest of any art form funded. Yet stories told online, on screen, on canvass through games, mime or song are the genesis of cultural content. Whatever the form of expression or the distribution method, content is key and content starts with words, words building bridges between ideas.
Another guiding principle is optimism. When the window of opportunity opens, I don’t hesitate for long. I jump through and manage the tangle of the other side when I get there. It always works out somehow. Regrets, I have a few but never for want of trying.