Shady Jobs & Active Voices
We’re doing some renovating at the moment and putting in a back door among other things. The back door has to be slightly off centre from the front door. The lack of symmetry bothers us but our neighbour says it’s a good thing. It’s something to do with feng shui and making sure good fortune doesn’t pass straight through the front door and out the back. I haven’t researched it but it’s a cute idea and it made me think of learning and teaching, reading and writing. I was thinking of the content I consume that passes straight through me and the few things I take the time to hold onto for a moment and process. Adding a little friction or resistance to the passage is important.
In my experience, if I’m learning in order to teach or write or make use of information in some way, I process it more deeply, understand it better and tend to remember it. After finishing university, I fell into some freelance writing work. It sounds better if I call it that but I was getting paid to write other peoples’ essays. It was not my finest moment but it was a good gig, getting paid to learn instead of the other way around. I wasn’t tackling anyone’s honours thesis, just the throwaway stuff people wanted off their plate at the end of semester. I wrote dozens of essays on different subjects — sustainable architecture and Australian films, on aesthetics and something called Panpsychism. I really liked Panpsychism. I found I was much more efficient at learning when it was ‘work’ and it suited me perfectly to dive deeply into something at random and be done with it by the end of the week.
I remember learning to write essays in year nine. If I’d written a sentence in a passive voice, my intensely critical history teacher would ask, ‘So what?’. We’ll call her Mrs S and she was on the mean side of critical but she knew her work. We would write and rewrite sentences over and over, “Not good enough Dan, write it again. Use stronger verbs like ‘force’, and shorter sentences.” and then “Why are you blushing? Are you embarrassed? Good.” A bit mean, sure, but the active voice really stuck with me. It’s the difference between saying ‘Australia was isolated.’ — ‘So what?’ and saying ‘Australia’s isolation shape its culture.’ It’s something we teach our guides in the tour business I run now — that facts and stories shouldn’t be gratuitous. Tell them what they need to know and tell them why.
Writing more regularly the last few months has had me asking ‘So what?’ more to my experiences, especially knowing I will put a piece out for others to read. When I was much younger, I sought adventure to have more to write about. I still value that but the shift I’m noticing now is more subtle, like moving from passive to active voice. I’m more attentive and more curious, I’m on the hunt for inspiration and I am making space to reflect on the content. And something else has been happening… Most weeks, after publishing a piece like this, someone will reach out to me to share something thoughtful and personal of their own. They’re not necessarily close to me but they’ve taken my act of creation as an invitation to reciprocate.
That act of drawing something out from inside and giving it form in the world is an act of creation. It’s active voice. It happens in real conversation — when someone shares an insight or tells me a story, they create it from nothing for me. Often, they are creating it for themselves as well, at least that’s my experience. Even when I’m talking, I’m often hearing it for the first time — finding expression for an abstract thought or feeling and giving it space to exist independently of me. It exists independently, whether it’s a sentence or a sculpture. Even its creator can go back and enjoy it or criticize it or learn from it later…
It’s strange that I can remember more about Panpsychism from an essay I wrote in 2009 than I do about a series I watched a week ago on Netflix. Without that little part of my brain switched on to active, creating a little friction, it all passes through the front door and out the back. I’ve been researching local Dreaming stories from Aboriginal communities around Australia. For the longest part of human history, we existed without a written tradition. It’s wonderful to have all of human knowledge on Wikipedia these days but there’s a weight of character in stories retold from person to person through generations for tens of thousands of years. When you heard such a story you listened knowing you would one day have to tell it. When you told such a story it would take some part of you with it. These heirlooms are some of the oldest human creations in existence.
I love the creator deities in Dreaming stories. They’re almost ubiquitous in human religion and mythology and often they are the first of the gods or the first act of God. Creator gods are always bad-ass, like Bunjil the wedge-tailed eagle, or the Rainbow Serpent — they can split the land and command the seas, they shape heaven and earth. A Creator is an answer to existence. Even separated by tens of thousands of years and kilometres, that’s something we all seemed to wonder about. It’s why a meaningful job is one where you get to create value that wouldn’t exist without you and why writing or painting or building a house feels so damn good, creating is active, it reminds us action doesn’t just happen to us, and it’s God-like.
Sing out if you want to read my essay on Panpsychism from 2009, it’s a bit of a mindfuck.
And check this out if you’re keen to get a bit more God-like: https://www.theisolationjournals.com/
Originally published at https://danielplatt.substack.com. Click to read more and subscribe.