On not-writing, Stewart Lee and breaking up with academia


by Sanna Peden

Young would-be academics are like Arctic polar bears. Every year the ice beneath them gets thinner, and every year there are fewer and fewer resources to sustain them. So it's no surprise that would-be academics and polar bears are getting bolder and more creative—both are starting to turn up to poetry nights and frequenting ... Ok, that's far enough with this metaphor. This week, a guest post by my good friend Sanna Peden.

My first ever job was as a cabaret girl. (Well, musical theatre girl—but the show was called “The Summer Cabaret”, so I’m sticking with the sexier job title.)

The show was funded by the local city council, and having the regional newspaper as a major supporter meant the reviews were pretty good. The cast consisted entirely of 14-16-year-old fledgling performers, with the exception of a couple of mature actors, who were brought in presumably to model a work ethic. Our director was a real actor who is still a little bit famous. The performance was an episodic look back at the twentieth century, and my feature scene came early in the piece, when I played the precocious younger sister of a WW1 Red Cross volunteer. I got to stomp my feet disdainfully as I exited stage left, which was immensely satisfying. I squirrelled my pay check away, and stepped off the stage after Year 12 Drama Studies when I went to university to do More Serious Things.

Almost twenty years later and I’m gradually releasing from my grasp the Most Serious Thing: the once-treasured plan to become an actual bona fide academic. Instead, I’m looking for other ways to be clever, creative and collaborative. Now, over the years I have done roughly the amount of creative writing you might expect of someone whose first real love was Gilbert Blythe. However, it’s only very recently that it has occurred to me to perform some of it.

This is where the comedian Stewart Lee comes in.

Lee is the dark chocolate of stand up: slightly bitter and enough hard work that it’s easy to think it may even be good for you.

His material is sharp to the point of surgical—if you don’t know his work yet watch a bit of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle as an introduction.[1] In his talk “On Not Writing”, delivered at St Edmund Hall at Oxford University, Lee discusses the tension between wanting to be regarded as a writer and the recognition that comedy isn’t meant to feel written: no one laughs if you’re trying too hard.

I am not a comedian,[2] but moving from an academic frame of mind to dabbling in spoken word has required a rethink of what writing means for me. Going from the 5000-word densely referenced article as the standard measure of writing to ‘whatever gets an emotional reaction in about two minutes’ changes things. For example, I’ve discovered that it’s possible to write something without touching pen to paper once: I will find myself playing with words during night-time strolls and walking little phrases into my memory, until I’ve accidentally ‘written’ a poem (or slightly unhinged monologue) without writing one at all.

Lee talks about his writing process, and how instead of writing his shows out in full as he did in the past he now rehearses in fragments as time, tiredness and childcare commitments allow (pause here to recognise the rarity of a man discussing work-life balance). He finds in his fragmentary approach an “automatic writing”, as themes emerge out of scraps of paper collected over time and he comes to edit material he no longer remembers writing—or, as with my walked-in words, had not written in the first place. The result, he says, is a “deliberate facsimile of a person’s thoughts at the point of conception rather than at the point of perfection”.

‘Thoughts at the point of conception’ are what involve audiences in the performance, and allow them to believe the illusion of spontaneity necessary for the genre. It’s only in writing this that I’ve realised[3] that that’s the kind of performance I’ve gravitated towards in the few open mics I’ve dared to tackle. I suspect this is at least partly to do with the opportunity to invert my scholarly point-of-perfection self into an unravelling, unreliable or otherwise unstable character—to restore my creative factory settings, in a sense (of course, this kind of stomping about is also immensely satisfying!).

I can’t help but wonder, though: if it’s possible to write without writing for the purposes of performance, couldn’t it also be possible to perform without performing for the purposes of writing?

I’m not sure what I mean, either. I think what I’m getting at is thinking about writing not as the fixing down of the right words in the right order in a neat serif, but as the shortest distance between a writer’s thoughts at the point of conception and the reader’s similar moment of inspiration. Ultimately a writer wants to share an idea, so however polished and perfected a piece ends up being, it still has to carry that point of conception within it: an idea that dies on the page is no longer an idea.

Did you see that ludicrous display on Q&A last night?

The reason an idea emerges in the first place is often as interesting as the form it eventually takes—and from this point of view what also appeals to me in Lee’s talk is the way he understands his own cultural context, that “whenever you talk about any kind of writing you very quickly can’t get away from economics and politics”. He talks about the alternative comedy scene developing in the UK partly as a response to cuts in arts funding: when it was no longer viable for small left-wing theatre troupes to go on tour, performances condensed into just one person with a mic and a message. The auteur comedian emerged—and has since waned, eclipsed by the ghostwritten Russels they have these days.

I can see the outlines of my cultural moment: the current lack of funding of the Australian higher education sector sees doctoral graduates facing a desiccated job market. It is no surprise that bright, sparkly people would turn to other creative and intellectual pursuits, whether for fun or profit: people who, like me, set aside the thesis-to-book project and begin to nurse the long-dormant whelp of a novel. Letting go of teaching is harder, because teaching is genuinely the best thing. Yet here we are, venturing into creative writing, filmmaking, visual arts, theatre, music and freelancing of every stripe. It is of course unfortunate that, in Australia, the malignant neglect of higher education is happening in tandem with the dismantling of independent arts funding as well. (Under such circumstances artists and academics may make the best collaborators, because none of us know any better.)

At fifteen I could spot some of the societal forces around my stage-stomping: the connection between the newspaper support and the reviews, the quotas for young people from different parts of the region to make sure it wasn’t just city kids getting flowers on opening night. But I certainly didn’t realise that ‘looking back at the closing century’ also fit perfectly into the pre-millennial nostalgia wave. (We were, in essence, a low-budget Forrest Gump.) So what cultural pattern does this moment of alt-ac artistry fall into?[4]

After all, frustrated academics aside, the massification of higher education means there have never been as many people out there who have at least a passing awareness of historiography, psychoanalysis, ethnosymbolism, film theory and memory studies, or just simply the mechanics of university life. From there it’s only a short stomp to writing material specifically for people who are used to being told they read too much into things. Maybe this, then, is the time to pitch that pilot about the scholars trying to contain their sizzling sexual chemistry while teaching a raucous bunch of undergrads about Balkan cinema? Like the X-files, but with fewer aliens and more Dina Iordanova. And how about IT Crowd transported into a Humanities department? (*answers phone* “Have you tried reading the unit guide?” *hangs up* “Did you see that ludicrous display on Q&A last night? The problem with Zizek is…”)

It must be time for the wry campus novel, or the fringe festival show satirising conference panels—or a new kind of journalism, or even an entirely original visual language that could only come out of this point in time.

I don’t know. (Although I do know that if anyone wants to start a creative non-fiction or literary magazine that also has colouring-in pages, I will give you money hand over fist.)

I'm not sure how to end this piece—perhaps because most of the things I’ve mentioned are incomplete processes themselves: my rediscovery of the pleasures of creative performance is still so fresh my interest may well fizzle out; the end of my on-again-off-again relationship with academia hasn’t been so total as to see me do without footnotes even here; and the cultural context-question hasn’t resolved itself in the 542 words that have passed since I brought it up.

All those incomplete things—incomplete parts of me!—are the ‘points of conception’ for this rabbit hole, so in the interest of metatextual integrity (feel free to quote me on that) I’ll leave it here, and hope it gives you something to not-write about.


[1] It is my firmest belief that for best effect Lee should be seen either live or downloaded illegally, with all available recordings then immediately purchased in a fit of shame, guilt and delight.

[2] Don’t get me wrong, though: I am hilarious.

[3] See what I’m doing here? :-)

[4] Notice how I do still need to intellectualise what I do. And confess to this in a footnote, of all things. You can take the writer out of the cultural studies department, but...

Sanna Peden is a recovering writer, performer and lapsed academic. Her brand new blog is called definitive knots—a follow up to Siberian Ginseng.