Authenticity in Web 2.0 Culture

Authenticity:

NOUN

  1. the proven fact that something is legitimate or real, Online Dictionary
  2. not openly false, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age
  3. fake version of foreign cuisine/art/music that appeals to white pseudo intellectual hipsters, Urban Dictionary

SYNONYMS

reliable – realistic – life like – true – valid – lawful – bona fide – unattested – rightful


Somewhat ironically, the best real-world definition of authenticity we can hope for is articulated the most effectively on Urban Dictionary, a platform that calls on the unregulated masses to establish definitions for a variety of terms. These definitions, I would argue, have a firmer grasp on language’s use than the legacy hardback versions.

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We’re entangled in a spiral of transparency, authenticity and employability (source).

Although social media culture advocates for “transparency and openness“, the edited persona must remain simultaneously business-friendly, true and savvy. At the same time, the manner by which others approach and communicate with our online presence must be monitored meticulously. You can maintain the cleanest Twitter account in the digital sphere, but if your friend posts a picture of a drunken night out and tags you, it’s all over. Therefore our social media identity is a self-conscious one by definition. Web 2.0 ideology explicitly requires the self to be constructed as we would a tangible product. So where does this expectation of authenticity fit in?

This generally involves, according to Alice Marwick, a gruelling combination of immaterial and emotional labour:

The self is immaterial in that it is digital, and emotional in that it involves using real emotional affect when presenting oneself and interacting with others. (Marwick 2013)

Establishing a somewhat authentic persona can incorporate a magnitude of negative emotional costs which are often side-lined. This work can involve reiterating personal stories for online publication to the point of “extreme discomfort or vulnerability” (ibid). These stories can be potentially damaging, in a career sense, yet personal branding is increasingly correlated to employability. This is seen through young graduates constructing their social media in a way that represents the values they associate with their chosen field, given that many employers will extensively research a job candidate’s online presence before hiring them.

Young journalists in the United States, for example, have admitted to intentionally appearing apolitical on their social media pages so that prospective employers would see them as objective. They then found that once they were hired, employers expected them to fashion and maintain a personal brand via social media relating to their work. A significant issue with this is that the main persona is not the only person with the ability to contribute to the social media profile, and one must constantly be on alert for friends who post incriminating images, for example, of a lit night out. The amount of effort required to monitor this over a plethora of social media platforms that make up a persona is staggering.


Identity:

NOUN

  1. the conception, qualities, beliefs and expressions that make a person (online dictionary)

In self-branding culture, authenticity relies on our ability to ensure that each decision we make is rooted in being true to ourselves – but what is the self? The authentic self, we can conclude, is very much a social construct, a phenomenon we can relate back to Urban Dictionary’s open-sourced definition of the word. We are simultaneously told to be ourselves online within a virtual framework characterised by the surveillance of self-presentation, often with severe consequences within the physical corporate sphere. This becomes especially intricate in an internet arena without any established guidelines on media etiquette.

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Source

Even while trumpeting authenticity, Web 2.0 enthusiasts generally accept the idea that one should self-censor online (Marwick 2013).

This is the ultimate paradox enframing the social media paradigm. The social media sphere is far more socially progressive than its corporate physical shadow, making the two severely incompatible. We still have rigid distinctions between what is acceptable social behaviour and what is acceptable workplace behaviour. When the two combine, there are no guidelines on how to process this information. Logically, we cannot sustain a Web 2.0 culture of personas both completely transparent and corporate focused, so we need to work on changing definitions and practice to combat the instability between self-branding culture and the corporate western world.

 

 

A Nuanced Pause

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Learning to sit comfortably with big questions that don’t have immediate answers is one of the most valuable lessons I will take from my university story (image: Favim)

In my cupboard live about thirty notebooks, journals and binders, all different books of some description. I’m typing this piece on my blog, which showcases stuff that’s been compulsory in my classes and other things I’m proud of, or want to explore. This stuff will become, if it hasn’t already, the window an employer will gaze through, probably sternly, to understand me before establishing a decision to hire me, or let me go.

In a practical sense, the words I choose to drag out of my cupboard and patiently copy onto my computer screen ought to be stories that present me in a positive, confident spotlight, or some sort of clever analysis from my university days. Authenticity argues against this; my blog is a projection of my voice, my experience, my stories. Right now, I choose to write authentically, albeit with trepidation, what I choose on my blog and try not to worry about what an employer will think. There’s nothing on my blog they wouldn’t discover within a few months of working with me, or that I wouldn’t share if I were asked and that person was genuinely listening. I wrote The Antagonist was a Good Man; so much of this content could be extracted by an employer and used to paint a negative picture of me. Broken home, violent family, unfocused, struggling – who’d want somebody like that working in their organisation? After discussing the implications of this paradigm at length in class, I concluded that I am somewhat indifferent to this. If an employer wishes to use my stories against me, they’re not the kind of person I’d want to work for. Authenticity is something to be treasured and aspired to.

Kris Christou wrote that employers should recognise vulnerability as a strength and value authenticity:

“Vulnerability shows a deeper form of strength and I have a high respect for anyone who is willingly vulnerable. So why should someone be punished by an employer for writing personally, in public, or being themselves online when it is apart of who they are and conveys their values?” (I’m Authentic. Fire Me)

 

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(Image: Rebloggy)

 

Public writing is murky terrain. That’s something I assumed to be a temporary ideology; to fill in the ethical gaps until I discovered the answer – but I never did find a solution. So I’ll stick to the murky terrain imagery for now. As the use of online data mining continues, and the internet is used for feats such as hiring, it will only become a larger question of ethics and become correspondingly more complicated, for me and those I write about.

I came across the notion of writing a bad guy – but bad guys don’t exist in life, they exist in a context. One story. When you’re writing about real people who have done bad things, ethical boundaries are exceedingly blurred. To present them as good, or hide their misgivings would be doing an injustice to the story, and the other characters. But openly writing about bad times has huge implications for that person and their life outside that story. Again, this is a question I have had to leave for the time being. I make an effort to write my characters reasonably anonymously, excluding people’s names and any identifiable information. It’s not foolproof though. It’s a risk I have taken, one which made me extremely anxious and emotional for almost one month. It’s really rocky terrain, but the only alternative is to keep stories of domestic violence, of rape and of other hardships silent, in their dusty pile in our cupboards. And that’s not an answer I will settle for.

 

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Hidden stories should be a choice, not a necessity (image: Favim)

 

Say “Yes” to Me.

I

January 27th 2016

He’s pulled me to front counter at the end of my shift. Out of earshot of everyone else. They’re cleaning up. They don’t need instruction, they’ve been doing it the same way, in the same order, for years. Like greasy teenage robots. Lots of things are beeping, but that’s normal. 

I don’t want to talk to him; I don’t want him to tell me he’s disappointed or I need to try harder – because that’s impossible. I keep telling him I’m doing the best I can, but he wants more. 

“I know you can’t switch off”, he begins, “but – ” and said something about not liking it when I give him ‘attitude’.  I guess that must be his word for the thing I do when I stop talking to him after he tells me to forget what’s happening at home and focus on my shift. I walked away from him, not giving him a chance to finish. I know I’ve made him really angry now. 


II

Black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot

For thirty years, poor and white,

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo

(Daddy, Sylvia Plath)

In late 1913, Henry Ford introduced the world’s first production line, to fill the need for cheap, fast (efficient) production. To achieve this he consulted Frederik Taylor, the creator of scientific management theory. This theory is based on the idea of transferring impersonal, scientific method into human resource management. It involved removing autonomy from skilled workers and simplifying jobs into mindless tasks which could be performed by even the most unskilled workers. Taylor argued this would increase productivity and efficiency far more effectively than the old “initiative and incentive” method of motivating employees, which incentivised workers to increase their productivity but gave them the freedom to conduct their routine in any form they wished.

With help from Taylor, Ford was able to reduce the cost of making cars dramatically, and exponentially increased his output simultaneously. Even today he continues to be praised for revolutionising the workplace. At the time, his employees had it pretty good; they were paid far above the award rate and their hours were cut. Today’s workers, who receive neither benefit, remain employed by a rigid system which is suffering invisibly without empathy in its bloodstream.

George Ritzer is an American sociologist who looked at this paradigm later, in 1993. Ritzer’s concept of McDonaldisation is an update of Weber’s bureaucracy theory. It comments on the current “economic and social order” as being comprised of efficiency, calculability, standardisation and control. He argues this concept has “rippled” from fast food human resource structure across many organisations in various industries.

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Standardisation and high modality reproduction are characteristic of today’s ‘efficient’ workplace (image)

These three men have a magnitude of people to answer to. From the drowsy patient, stiffened with pain, staring at a corpse being wheeled out of the building he’s about to be operated in, who asks the doctor what he saw (even though he knows), to that same doctor who doesn’t know the standard answer, and who lost control of the situation when the corpse was sighted, and has forgotten, from thousands of student hours poring over text books, from hundreds of exams filling in tiny dots with a 2B pencil, and who has been taught, from years of practice, how to isolate himself from patients, emotionally, because it’s easier. Twenty years into his career, it’s all he knows. From the social worker, so overcome with grey from her emotionally exhausting work that she has to leave, not having enough support from upper management to stay safely, to the fast food Area Manager who knows that of the most recent three managers employed, none have stayed more than several months. He mindlessly punches those numbers into a new turnover statistic, forgetting that these people have stories which can be learned from. From the woman returning to her workplace after a battle with cancer crossing paths with a colleague who hasn’t been trained in what to say. Because we come to work to produce statistics, results, goods – nothing more. This is a structural issue.

Ultimately, we must remember businesses exist to generate profit. They have a responsibility to society to be profitable to benefit the community in an economic sense, as well as keep its employees at work. But humans are still humans, and they have stories; they have what Kate Bowles refers to as details.

There is a Japanese word; in English we call it kaizen. It means continuous improvement and it’s what organisations all over the world strive to do. Over the last century or two, continuous improvement has been synonymous with increasing efficiency. Specifically this includes eliminating waste and reducing time and cost in standardised processes. These are worthy objectives, but what is the cost of this narrow focus on the humans inside these organisations?

This isn’t how the workplace ought to exist.


II

Arthur Frank says that generosity begins with a welcome: “a hospitality that offers whatever the host has that would meet the need of the guest”, even if that guest may be disruptive or demanding. In her exploration of homosexual and transgender education in schools, Jen Gilbert refers to Derrida’s maxim, “let us say yes to who or what turns up“. She gifts us an anecdote of a party in which a neighbour’s eight year old “boy who may be a girl” turns up in a party dress. The child’s parents laugh it off but the neighbours are uncomfortable with the ‘interruption’; it’s not a norm, nor by the book and therefore they do not know how to act.

boy2
We need to say ‘yes’ to whoever turns up, regardless of unanticipated ‘interruptions’ (image: PDN)

We can relate Gilbert’s discussion of “saying yes” to what turns up in a classroom (walking through the door radiating kindness, ready to listen to twenty students each coming from vastly different homes – some of which may be happy, some broken, some violent, some stricken with illness – and prepared to adapt to their needs) to the workplace. The concept of sonder applies beautifully here. Each person we meet has an intricate, delicate and fruitful life which we aren’t usually exposed to, at least completely, and because we can’t see it, we don’t consider it.

I value the way a compassionate boss won’t fire someone because they need the day off to take care of their mental health. I value the teacher who actually listens to a student’s problems that are affecting their work. I value the compassion afforded to those who are ill, whether be an invisible illness or physical – Maddy Cook 

In short, the sense of empathy embedded in the structure of organisations tends to be highly conditional. Mark Westmoreland  argues that conditional hospitality is somewhat exclusive in the west; it has historically been juridical and regulated. It is concerned with rights, duties and obligations. Neither acceptance, nor empathy, exist in this model. Immanuel Kant presented a perpendicular model; he claims that, in terms of hospitality, the “right of a stranger” is strictly limited to not being treated with hostility.

The latter paragraph sketches a brief but uncomfortable caricature of many industries in Australia (and I daresay beyond). If your manager doesn’t assault you physically and pays you correctly, you don’t complain.

 

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Image: rebloggy

 

The former paragraphs contain beautiful ideas from Frank, Gilbert and Derrida, three exquisite thinkers – but that’s all they are: ideas. A clash sometimes exists between academic theory and physical field work. It’s not usually obvious; we all have a tendency to believe our ideas will work, but when these theories are proposed as answers to real-world problems, we sometimes end up using squares to patch up circular holes. Awkwardness crawls through the gaps and the solution becomes truncated and half-effective at best.

Sadri, Weber and Gentry published a paper on workplace empathy in 2016 which claims that empathy is the quintessential ingredient to effective leadership. Their corresponding study revealed that empathy has a positive relationship with workplace performance. There’s absolutely nothing new here. They go on to present some decent arguments for incorporating empathy in the workplace (aka it increases productivity and efficiency), backed up by solid academic sources. The paper even provides various how-to’s detailing skills on listening and encouraging empathetic discussion. This theory is fluffy, pleasant and encouraging – but in no way practical in making real change.

Talking about empathy is great, telling people how to be empathetic is wonderful – but the whole argument backing up empathy is still aligned to efficiency like a magnet. This might not be enough to push the mammoth shift we need. On a perpendicular scale, efficiency is so deeply embedded into organisational structure that a ‘how-to’ isn’t going to cut it. Even if we manage to convince managers that empathy is important, and we take the time to teach it to them, time constraints make it unreasonable to assume they’ll actually take the time and care to incorporate empathy into their structure. The empathy strategies suggested by Sadri, Weber and Gentry disclaim that each exercise “takes time” – time that efficiency-driven organisations do not have to spare on a regular basis. Structurally this is difficult to achieve.

The conflict between hospitality and practicality is as old as organized medicine. Practical lack of resources is immediately complicated by possibilities of financial gain (Arthur Frank)

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Financial gain overrides genuine care for individual humans; it reduces us to transformational assets rather than existences (image: rebloggy).

Can efficiency goals be realigned so that the most important key performance indicator is staff turnover? If this were the case, empathy might organically reinvest itself into organisational culture as an attempt at understanding, listening and delivering to employees, to keep the staff turnover ratio low. Realistically, the only way organisations can learn to value staff turnover is if they are in a position where they genuinely need staff to stay. Where could this happen? In an economy where the demand for labour is significantly higher than it is now; a world where employers are fighting to hire employees, rather than vice versa. It’s unlikely, in the current economic climate, that this will occur naturally. Indeed, it is far more probable that the power gap will continue to stretch, through the increasing use of robots which are predicted to replace humans in the workplace in the near future.


IV

Not guns, not abuses,

But a thin silence.

Wrapped in flea ridden donkey skins,

Empty of complaint, forever

Drinking vinegar from tin cups: they wore

The insufferable nimbus of the lot-drawn

Scapegoat

(The Thin People, Sylvia Plath)

Injecting empathy into a static organisational structure is a feat by itself, but we’re dealing with a dynamic structure which is becoming increasingly industrialised at an exponential rate. On one end of this structure, as already mentioned, we have employers increasingly treating employees purely as a means for generating profit. On the other end of the spectrum we are victims of corporations which suck data out of our internet practices. This does nothing to shake corporations’ views of people as less than humans.

Firstly we can examine the role the internet plays in tertiary education. A plethora of degrees have become available online. Despite benefits of cost and convenience (efficiency), there is absolutely minimal face to face contact between student and teacher, and between students. Very much the most authentic communication between student and teacher is numerical and/or categorised grades. This strips education of empathy and sets a worrying standard for future adult employees.

Secondly, automated robots have been predicted to “inevitably” replace humans at work, doing everything from making burgers to driving public transport, providing sexual pleasure and writing news stories, according to economist Eduardo Pol. Despite the trajectory of technology for creating robots anywhere close to human capability being far off, robots are likely to slowly transcend upon the workforce. They don’t require empathy, understanding, and certainly not listening. This is no encouragement, nor example, for employers to demonstrate empathy to their staff.

Thirdly, freelance culture is a growing phenomenon. An employer can become a faceless intermediary between freelancer and client. Again, the lack of human contact and expression is a dangerous standard to be setting. I fear that over the next decade, this will become the norm, and we will be even further from setting structural empathy standards than we are today. Not recognising employees, who walk through a door at 9am, produce goods for profit and leave at 5pm, as human beings, has disastrous impacts on organisational culture, multiple industries, and a variety of worlds which exist outside of business.

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When human contact lacks from an organisation process or transaction, efficiency subconsciously overrides empathy (image: Sortra)

This movement can be seen in the way that the migration of humans from places of famine, dire war and natural disasters, has been choked by ideas called borders, and white men in business suits who call some humans “asylum seekers”, and don’t consider their details because of that. Borders are invisible colanders which strain through ‘desirable data’, leaving clumps details caught in the rusty, silver dish. Borders are something that someone decided we had to protect, even though they were never threatened by these people.


V

Say yes to what turns up.

This is where we can start. There’s little we can do to influence efficiency-obsessed men in black suits at the top of bureaucratic hierarchies. Efficiency is their responsibility, they simply don’t have room for deep empathy in their day to day timetables, even if they want to.

There are twenty-three of us in BCM311.

That’s twenty-three workplaces we will become part of over the next several years as we graduate. That’s twenty-three workplaces we can lead by example. If some of us end up in leadership roles, we have the capacity to influence more people directly. As we work our way up corporate ranks, this number just keeps increasing. It’s been predicted that millennials will dance between 6-7 careers in their lifetime; 15-20 jobs each. If you project some numbers, the capacity of the 2017 BCM311 class to brew empathy and listen slowly but stoutly in workplaces all over, surely some change could be predicted. If we manage to influence other people on our way, who go on to ignite and practice empathy on their own paths, the number continues to grow. At a micro level, we have a real chance to make a difference. We can build up to a structural change over several decades, even generations. Norms can be adjusted over time. At this point, perhaps this is all we can hope for.


VI

He messaged me later on.

“I don’t want to come across as saying ‘just turn it off’, as I know it gets hard and you have a lot going on, but I’m just really trying to keep it professional.”


 

The Bureau Drawer

“Do you know what a poem is, Esther?”
“No, what?” I would say.
“A piece of dust.” (Sylvia Plath)

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If I pull off my mask and tell personal stories online, a lot of people won’t know how to respond. Of those who do, some may use it against me in the workplace. I can’t even control if people close to me, people the story is about, read it. WHY then, do I possess such a strong desire to write online? (Image: Favim)

We exist in an odd shell. Fragility is a rich, red blood and society is a shark – but you’re protected by a shark net. You’re just bleeding out in the ocean, dying slowly, whilst the predators circle you menacingly without knowing how to attack. Emotion spills out of us like those electric red laser beams robbers have to duck and leap through to get the jewel in the centre – except the jewel in the centre is smooth efficiency and the robbers are our workplaces and broader society. It’s masculine, it’s capitalist, and, when you stop to consider its implications, this ideology we obey like soldiers is downright heartless. Kris Christou has shaped this complex ideology into one sentence:

The stigma attached to vulnerability in society is extremely insensitive and inherently wrong (The Clear Pane of Soundproof Glass).

People don’t know how to react to what Michael Adams calls heart stuff. He won the 2017 Calibre Prize for his essay Salt Blood about freediving, suicide and family. If anybody has a firm grasp on navigating the terrain of stark vulnerability, it’s Michael. He reflected on a personal story he once narrated to an audience:

You kind of spill your innards and they politely clap at the end . . .they don’t know how to respond.

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There’s a certain beauty which exists in vulnerability. We as a society are yet to fully unravel it (image: Nico Nordstrom)

I think this is why we are so scared of vulnerability; we don’t seem to see it much and therefore we do not understand what is ‘expected’ of us in response. The sheer irony is that we all have these vulnerabilities and, if they were expressed more, perhaps we would all be more confident in dealing with others’. This notion of sonder: that every person has an intricate, flame-filled life as deep as our own, was discussed by Maddy Cook in her post The Value in Life:

Perhaps if a few more people had this realisation, and could acknowledge that others around them are going through issues and break ups and family problems and cancer and mental illnesses… maybe the world would be a bit more compassionate?


Writing in Public: A Brief Recap

I wrote The Antagonist was a Good Man, a recap of the influence of family violence on my life. I then published a literature review which discussed the ways in which we conduct autoethnographic analysis on ‘tabooed’ narrative topics, including domestic violence and suicide. It is a Fragile Promise sprung from a class discussion on the workplace implications of what we write online. In this piece I ended with the tentative conclusion that if a potential employer wants to use my personal stories in a decision to hire me, he or she is most welcome. I just don’t think that threat is a good enough reason to stay silent.

Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you – George R. R. Martin

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Considering the threats of public writing is like having tape wrapped around my jaw (image: Pinterest)

I’ve found it difficult to move on from this; not possessing an answer to the questions of public writing feels kind of like I’ve been gagged. I’m beginning to accept that there probably won’t be a straightforward answer whilst the internet maintains its current constitution, as much as my inner mathematician (my alter ego who is allergic to grey) struggles with this.

I attempted to break down the questions I am asking to figure out where my thoughts should travel next.

mindmap.jpg

I started with a heading and followed my thoughts via words and arrows. I tried to answer each question with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. However I was left with three unanswered questions, which I’ve highlighted.

  1. Given that I cannot completely control who reads my work on the internet, is this a good enough reason to not publish?
  2. What happens if ‘the antagonist’ comes across these posts?
  3. If not the internet, where?

One

I believe silence is a dangerous sound. Do you remember those huge, rainbow parachutes we used to run under in primary school? The teacher would yell “one, two, three!” and we’d wave it in the air. Twenty-something six-year-olds would then run frantically underneath, trying to secure a handle on the opposite side.

parachute
Image: Carly3

 

That moment of chaos, when each person is running at each other, ducking and weaving to reach the other side. That moment reminds me of silence. I don’t mean the peaceful, sleepy kind, I am thinking about the silence that lazily sits back to watch chaos ensue. Is it fear? Avoidance of conflict? Why are we so resistant to tell bad stories? Why are we so resistant to hearing them?

Forming a decision to not publish my stories on the basis of ‘not knowing who might read them’ feels like silence to me. It feels like I’m the kid holding up the parachute, letting potentially dangerous events unfold. When I’m lifting up the handles, I can see parents screaming at each other, small children screaming. A teenage boy seizes a bottle of Jim Beam and sprints outside in fury. He empties the entire bottle onto the garden. His father is livid. We need to drop the parachute, break the harsh silence and burn the stigma. Advocacy in public writing is a new concept for me and I will touch upon it in a later paragraph.


Two

I can’t control who reads my writing once it’s posted online – but there are steps I can take. I would never post certain pieces on Facebook; it’s too populated. My family, friends, colleagues and more exist there. Everybody knows who I am. On Twitter, I am far more comfortable sharing my thoughts. It’s less persona-based and more of a conversation-driving platform. This means that outside my following, most people who come across my work are searching for something of that nature specifically. On Reddit, this is even more true. Reddit is driven by a culture of anonymity and it values information above persona. This means that those who read my work are reading it, and will inherently judge it, based upon the value of its content, rather than because I wrote it.

social media
A very rough idea of how we can distinguish between social media platforms which are ‘safer’ to write personally on; I think the less persona a platform embodies, the less ‘searchable’ it is, and  the safer it is to publish personal content for discussion.

Choosing to share my work on Reddit and Twitter is hardly a foolproof mechanism, but it’s something. I drew the above graph to articulate my current thoughts: as the level of persona on a social media platform decreases, the ‘safety’ of posting public writing increases.

What would happen if my own antagonist came across some of my recent posts? I think it would hurt him. He would recognise it as truth, he would recognise it as a pain that he caused. Maybe it would strike up a conversation that’s never been had. Honestly, I’m not sure it would be a good thing. A lot of silence exists in my family – but I think it should stay this way.


Three

My writing stays in my drawer. It’s dusty in there, but it’s where my stories live. This made me remember a theme that interestingly appears across several of Sylvia Plath’s poems; the bureau drawer:

From The Bell Jar:

There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth

From A Secret:

An illegitimate baby-
That big blue head-
How it breathes in the bureau drawer!
‘Is that lingerie, pet?

tinkerbell
Bureau drawers have stories too (image: Deviant Art)

I adore this concept. It’s secretive and mystical, it’s feminine and it’s planted firmly in my mind as I plan the rebranding of this blog. We put things in a drawer because it is convenient, neat or they need a home. Sometimes we put things in drawers to hide them.

Despite admiring the concept of hidden words in a bureau drawer, I want my words to be more than that.


And . . . Four

Kate Bowles has nudged me to consider a fourth question; who is it for? There’s a process by which experience shifts from therapeutic writing to advocacy. But this is tough when your story includes someone else’s story. Advocacy isn’t something I’d come to consider until now. Has my writing unintentionally shifted from the therapeutic to the advocator? What am I advocating for?

In Finding a Voice: Without Apology, Tanya Dorey-Elias reflects on her experience of public writing with anonymity, and on her experience with the internet as a safe space:

It’s been positive but not without some bumps and at times terror – once something is exposed it is not easily hidden again . . . If there is one thing that this experiment has taught me is the need, at least for me is that open only matters if it challenges and empowers.

Right now I don’t have an answer for this question – nor the other three, for that matter. I’m content to sit with this and think for a while longer.

At this point in my early public writing career, and after having read several intriguing and thoughtful BCM311 blog posts this week, I’d like to think I’m becoming an advocate for empathy. If that’s not a legitimate entity, perhaps it should be. Every person has stories which are impacting them in various different ways as they carry forward with their lives.

-Claire

 

“It” is a Fragile Promise

This one’s a stream of consciousness (of sorts) which occurred as I packed up my bedroom recently. The activity pushed me to think about homes, family, stories online, and finally workplace implications of the latter. Stick with me!


Things which are important when packing up your house:

  1. cardboard boxes; and
  2. permanent markers.

They’re mundane, common objects; but good luck moving house without them.

I could smell the ink of the marker as I scribbled “Claire’s Room” on another cardboard box. I had to cross out other people’s names, and words like “china” and “bathroom”, because for some reason it’s important that my name stands out the most.

Home has been an interesting concept since my parents separated. I was living on campus at the time. Campus living isn’t home because it’s so temporary. I went there with the full understanding I would be back under the same roof as my parents in November. It was never permanent, never secure. It was an amazing experience; fun, social and empowering, but never a home in my sense of the word. By the time my contract ended, my parents were living in separate houses.

My Dad had stayed in the family home, the quaint little farm cottage on our property that I’ve loved like no other. It stopped being home, though, when everything happened. It just started to look cold even on warm days, and its corners became sharp. I’d never noticed those things before. The fireplace, which used to be the centre of the house and a node of comfort and warmth, became angry. It would shake and roar. Maybe we had made it anxious too; during that last year especially, it stopped being a friend.

house.jpg
Photograph: Pinterest

Mum and my sister had moved into a small villa much closer to town. I think Mum liked having neighbours really close after being so isolated on the farm for so long. That’s the one perk of a separation of our variety; people help you find a place to live. During the last month of my contract at Kooloobong Village, I was travelling between the three houses and it was horrible.

Home; the place where one lives permanently”

My car was more of a home to me for a while than any house. I didn’t sleep in it or anything that extreme. I just spent a lot of time in it, travelling from place to place. It was my home because anything that was important to me lived there; travelling between three places was both physically and emotionally exhausting. It was a period of unrest. Perhaps I could describe it as made up of wonky triangles. Really shaky foundations. Poetry that doesn’t rhyme or make sense grammatically, but possesses an eerie rhythm when you read it aloud. Fine on the surface but uncomfortable underneath. All of my journals lived in the boot of my car. I couldn’t leave any of them behind. Whether I was at mum’s, dad’s, my friend’s house, work or my room in Wollongong, it gave me an odd sense of security to have them close to me.


We’re really only moving a few streets away. This shouldn’t feel like a big deal. But it does.

Each member of my family (whom I live with) sits in a different room right now, packing objects away one by one. I wonder if they reminisce when they do this, as I do?

I don’t like too many things everywhere; I’ve always found it easy to cull my belongings every so often. The exception to this is books. I haven’t let go of any books I’ve collected since I was about sixteen and I never plan to (when I’ve collected enough I’m going to build the Pinterest library of my dreams. That’s literally the only goal I have set in stone).

In saying that, it’s difficult for loose items I’ve culled to actually leave the house. The reason for this is that the stealthy magpie who lives in my house (sometimes known as my 10-year-old sister) still hasn’t figured out I’m not as cool as she seems to think, and every last faded jumper or weird trinket somebody bought me for Christmas that I pile together to take to a charity box ends up in her bedroom. She’s just gotta have whatever is (or was)  mine.

I have one shoebox of meaningful things; letters, cards, dried flowers, small keepsakes. The letters my best friend wrote to me, the dried rose with blunt thorns given to me on a first date (it was alive at the time) and other special bits and pieces live there. There’s a sinister elegance in looking back at physical artifacts which, at some point in my life, I’ve decided were important enough to keep.

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Photograph: Pinterest

Whilst looking through my memory box I came to the conclusion that I’m a pretty private person. I have a duffel bag and an entire shelf of notebooks I’ve written in, privately. My most prized possessions live in a little shoebox at the back of my cupboard. I trust a handful of people (my palms are small) with my secrets. And yet I blog the same way I write on paper; the end result being that complete strangers are beginning to see stories which until now only lived in my notebooks.

I decided in the spur of the moment that writing The Antagonist was a Good Man was a good idea. I wrote it, jumped straight in the shower and panicked. Rinsing my hair under the too-hot water, I resolved immediately to delete it. I went straight to my computer. I had a Twitter inbox message from a person who told me I’d impacted their life with my blog post, and who thanked me for writing it. So it stayed. I left it there for a few weeks with trepidation. And now I’m writing this, even though the idea of public writing makes me kind of uncomfortable, but oddly empowered. There’s always going to be a ‘but’ with public writing; no matter which angle I emphasise.


Writing in Public: Workplace Implications

A decision in a moment is made up of every single experience we have had up to that point in time. That’s what I have learned in BCM311 this week. A story written on a blog post is much the same; this gives public writing an authenticity. This week’s focus question was what would an employer think if he/she saw this? Is my blog content going to affect my hiring in the future?

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Photograph: Pinterest

 

I first came across domestic violence-related stigma last semester in one of my classes. During a discussion, a tutor went off on a tangent and spoke about how alcoholism and violence are passed from father to son; parent to child. He was so damn certain that if a child is exposed to an alcohol-fuelled, violent environment, it will be replicated. That’s just the way it is. Could a potential employer think the same way? Of course. I haven’t recovered from that. I wanted to stand up from my chair and scream at him, that’s not true! But I didn’t. I just sat there, counting the minutes till I could leave and find a quiet corner in which to sit and think. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought about this kind of thing because, having seen the damage alcohol can inflict upon a family, I would just never do that. But now I’m freaking terrified of myself. I’m not going to blame everything on him; I’m sure these thoughts were in my head already but I’d never unburied them. What am I going to become? What kind of adult, mother will I be? How will I be in a relationship? Will I hurt people too? I don’t plan to, but neither did my Dad. Neither do most people.

Just this week I heard a story; a friend of a friend had to phone the police on her husband who’d been abusing her. The policeman she dealt with was beyond kind. He told her he’d grown up in a domestic violence household. He took every possible measure and spared no resources to keep her and her children safe. He said his childhood still affects him now, as a grown adult. But he’s taken it in his stride and made a career out of helping others with similar experience. I have so much respect for this man, whom I have never met, and for countless others I am sure are just like him.

It works both ways and I try really hard to be the latter. Generalisations can be harmful.

Maybe an employer would be right to read through my blogs and decide I’m too much of a risk, too much trouble. That’s up to them. If they’re anything like that tutor who was out of line last semester, there is no way I’d want to be in a workplace with them. Ever. Their loss. But . . . maybe my past is something an employer should know of; there are so many days it still affects me. So often I stumble into class or work on hardly any sleep, or having cried the whole way in my car. Some days I cannot even focus on my lessons; I just zone out completely and write what’s in my head on paper or on my laptop. Lucky I’m the ‘quiet kid’ who rarely speaks anyway; I can do this somewhat unnoticed. Of course, it makes me less productive in class. The workplace is going to be the same game, right?

Writing in public is dangerous, but it is also authentic. Let’s broaden this conversation to mental health issues in general. One in three adults will experience some sort of mental health challenge in their lifetime. This isn’t something that you advertise on your resume. I tend to keep it to myself (yes, I know the whole blog thing is ironic . . . ). It’s hardly a water-cooler conversation. What happens when these stories are shared online? They become available to the people who decide whether to hire us, promote us, fire us. I’m going to propose that how this information is used is on the onus of those individuals. If my story makes me a bad fit for you, pass me along. No hard feelings.

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Photograph: Pinterest

As I throw my belongings in cardboard boxes at random, these questions circle my mind. Staring around an almost-empty room that was never mine and seeing my belongings in reused cardboard boxes of various sizes really puts things like stories into perspective – because cardboard boxes are stories. They carry objects from place to place; maybe they’ve been interstate or even overseas. Maybe they’ve carried photo albums, family heirlooms, somebody else’s journals. Cardboard boxes are like journals, actually, you just can’t physically see all of their stories. Just like people (unless they blog).


This will be it, Mum told me. This house is where she will stay. Words like it have no meaning for me anymore. Our farmhouse was supposed to be it. It’s what Mum and Dad both worked so hard for; the forever home for all of us. But it wasn’t. We’ll see if this one is. It isn’t a milestone. It’s a fragile promise.

-Claire

 

Literature Review: Tabooed Topics in Narrative

Article: Breaking with Taboo: Writing about Forbidden Things

Read full article here

Guntarik, O, Van de Pol, C, & Berry, M 2015, ‘Breaking with Taboo: Writing about Forbidden Things’, New Writing: The International Journal For The Practice & Theory Of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 4-13, viewed 19 August 2017, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14790726.2014.956121


Some stories are hard to swallow. They contain material that is taboo and some would say the taboo is forbidden territory (Guntarik et. al 2015).

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How much of the truth should we mask in storytelling? (image: Tumblr)

What happens when the story involves suicide, murder, crime, war, death, incest or rape? What if these were part of our family stories? And as writers, what do we ‘do’ with these difficult memories? (Guntarik et. al 2015)

The article Breaking with Taboo: Writing about Forbidden Things investigates the difficulties of expressing tabooed issues in narrative. The authors suggest that the starting point for exploring aforementioned taboos is simply to start storytelling with care. They draw on their own ‘tabooed’ experiences to explore this.

Marsha Berry, a Senior Lecturer in creative writing and digital media at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), shares her story of “exiles”; being the Australian-born child of a German woman who escaped Dresden after the atrocities of World War II. She explores how she shared her mother’s sometimes horrific life via post-memory; tragic wartime stories and photographs.

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It’s often difficult to tell the stories of others with authenticity. How do we build their ‘truth’ using facts? (image: noupe)

Caroline Van de Pol, a lecturer in public relations at RMIT, completed her PhD on truth in memoir at the University of Wollongong. In Breaking with Taboo: Writing about Forbidden Things she reflects on the narrative of her sister’s suicide. She notes the ‘facts’; “as the dictionary states, (they) ‘are known  to be true and exist'” (Guntarik et. al 2015). These are the manner and fact of her sister’s death, but little else. Van de Pol goes on to question the relationship between hard facts and the truth, and how this is represented in narrative practice.

I find that the facts alone rarely tell the whole story . . . at times, this truth has often only been revealed when I have allowed myself moments of imaginative play . . . a space where I might pretend to be the inquisitive child again (Guntarik et. al 2015).

The intricacy of sorting between fact and truth made me recall Charlene Bose’s post, The Presentation That Never Ends (And How We Grade It)Charlene considers the complexity of self-representation in the era of social media connectivity. Everything posted online is accessible to a variety of third-parties; we seem conscious of this when choosing how to present ourselves. Given this, Charlene then poses the question of how to represent others in online storytelling. This links nicely to the article’s discussion of truth and fact. How much is okay to share about someone else’s life, especially when their story contains a taboo and may implicate others?

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How do we portray the truths of others? (image: rebloggy)

This is also an issue I touched upon when I composed The Antagonist was a Good Man, a recount of the influence family violence has upon my life. What is okay to write about and what is too taboo to be spoken about? Undeniable facts include that my father physically hurt people in my family and that my parents are separated now. The impact of this damage, and the psychological violence which occurred are less straight forward and remain subjective in nature. This makes it difficult to claim it as truth.

As my family story took shape, transforming into a kind of hybrid, writing it continued to maintain truth as its source, but with imagination as its guide (Guntarik et. al 2015).

Van de Pol also considers how the limitations and biases of memory make writing more difficult, particularly when the narrative is composed after a traumatic event. Kris Christou explored the challenges of memory in his post Words are Powerful Entities which convey the Values of an Individual, through interviewing his mother and analysing the difference between his perception of his father’s diagnosis and hers; also noting his mother’s surprise at the words she chose to convey her version of the truth.

Olivia Guntarik, a lecturer in media communication history at RMIT, examines the role that death plays in our lives; in particular the way we portray others’ stories after death.  She also discusses the need for expression after a tabooed hardship.

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The truth is not always factual (image: The Artroom Plant)

There is, in each survivor, an imperative need to tell and thus to come to know one’s story, unimpeded by ghosts from the past against which one has to protect oneself (Guntarik et. al 2015)

I see this idea reflected in Brooke Eager’s post, entitled A Double-Edged Sword. This piece beautifully explores notions of dealing with the past and coming to peace with it. She explores, perhaps unintentionally, the aforementioned relationship between fact and truth. The fact – what happened to her – did not change, but the truth did over time; her realisation that the assault was not her fault changed her story and subsequently her values.

The storyteller will always see a particular version of the past; broken bits of the past … always pieced together after the facts of the event have taken place (Guntarik et. al 2015).


More questions than answers are raised in this article. This is powerful yet somewhat frustrating. It’s vital that a solution is reached so that these stories can be told. Although it discusses truth as authenticity, this article fails to recommend actual research values or appropriate methodologies in writing tabooed stories. Until a conclusion is reached, research and storytelling of this magnitude ought to be conducted with the fullest intentions of respect and honesty.

-Claire

 

Excerpts from Before

“If you don’t ever reflect, you just stay an idiot” – Jenna Marbles (YouTube comedian)

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image: superwall

19th August 2015

18:30

It’s times like this, when even though my blood is crying as it pumps reluctantly through my veins, I feel perfect. The universe is staring down at me, the cold breeze is belly-dancing at my window, trying to lure me outside. The soft, busy hum of my computer’s engine somehow complements the pin board above me which is decorated with colourful, sporadic notes; a microcosmic world of inspiration. Sitting atop years’ worth of imagination and fear in my journals, the blank white screen of my laptop beckons me closer.

It is 6:34pm. The sun has just fallen.

Now I am ready to live.

_____

12th September 2015

18:20

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image source: favim

Honestly, I’m feeling a lot better. It’s not because anything has been resolved or spoken about, but there’s an odd acceptance exuding about me, the acceptance that there’s nothing I could physically do to change any of it. Except write about it, of course. So here I am.

***

When we got to my car, he went to open the passenger seat door. I quickly pushed in front of him, mumbling that I had to move something. “Your journal”, he said. I don’t think it was a question. I think what he said next was don’t worry, I’m not going to snatch it or read it.

“Yeah, I know”, I whispered. “I’m just going to move it”. He knows that I write and he knows that sometimes it’s about him. Why am I shaking?

***

If we assume Adam Smith’s invisible hand theory to be fate, and institutional intervention to be decisions, suddenly we have a whole new way of looking at why things are the way they are, and maybe even a way of modifying them. The economic battle between efficiency and equity becomes the struggle of head and heart, and suddenly my journal becomes revolutionary (for me).

_____

30th August 2016

10:58pm

Me: hey are you busy?

Her: yes x

That’s our friendship in a nutshell. Paper is easier to communicate with than people.

_____

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image source: Tumblr

14 December 2016

Coldplay concert

I liked watching the lights on everybody’s armbands from the opposite side of the stadium. If I focused carefully enough I could drown out the noise and movement and imagine it was just me, sitting on stony, cold pavement, admiring a brick wall decorated with Christmas lights. Strangely enough, this illusion made me feel much less alone. The only alternative was reality; a voluptuous musical performance which all my friends were consumed by, whilst I sat tapping poetry of pain on my phone before my head exploded. In a stadium dancing with laser beams of triumphant orange and sensual violent, I have never felt more green.

_____

19th August 2017

17:40

That’s enough for tonight.

I’m glad I write.

-Claire