Here’s something they don’t tell you when you sign up to do a PhD: You will write hundreds of thousands – probably millions – of words, and no-one will read them. As a general rule, most of what we write as postgrads will never see the light of day, destined to malinger in the murky depths of the hard-drive. Occasionally, some of those words will make it into chapter drafts, to be seen by another person – the thesis supervisor. Very, very occasionally, a tiny fraction of those words will make it into a journal article or conference paper, where their exposure perhaps expands to a dozen or so people. Anything over fifty people is, for a postgrad at least, a boom audience.
So writing something that’s seen by hundreds and hundreds of people? That takes a little getting used to.
A few weeks ago, I attended the History & Media conference, as part of the Presenting The Past History Week program. Designed to bring academic historians and media types together in collaboration (or, at least, into the same room without it disintegrating into cross-career chaos), the conference included a Writing Workshop; bring along a draft op-ed or other piece of public history writing, the email said, and we’ll go through it with mentors. My first attempt was a decidedly scrappy book introduction, with almost no redeeming features save for me referencing four of my favourite music festivals in a single sentence. It was shoddy, but it was words on a page.
And then came Election Day.
I voted mid-morning, and then escaped the Sydney heat (and the election coverage) for a few hours in my office. In an effort to do ‘work’ without actually, you know, working, I decided to catch up on George Brandis’ interview with Radio National recorded a week earlier, about arts policies under the (inevitable) Coalition government. The interview, from memory, was a little under half an hour long.
I lasted eleven minutes before I ripped my headphones out of my ears and stormed away from my computer in disgust.
That night, I went to my friend Lisa’s house, to watch the election coverage. I was still on the train when Antony Green called the election for the Coalition, fifty-seven minutes after polls had closed. It wasn’t until much later that night, as Kerry O’Brien was signing off, that I remembered the interview I’d been listening to (raging at) earlier in the day. Brandis, I realised, with a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach, was Arts Minister once more. And that’s when I got very, very angry.
I was still angry two days later when, back at my desk, I saw the shoddy book introduction I’d written for the conference writing workshop. The workshop was the next day, and I had eight hundred and twelve other things to do. So, naturally, I ignored all of that, opened up a blank Word Document, and wrote a thousand rage-filled words about why Brandis as Arts Minister was decidedly not-good for the popular music community. After deleting the swear words, it looked a little like an op-ed. Certainly, it was less awful than my other possible workshop offering. So off I, and my angry little op-ed, went.
The feedback I got on the piece was far kinder than it, or I, deserved. My angry little op-ed, they said, should be published. For five days, I sat on the details they gave me of who to send the piece to, and where it should (could, would) be published. Finally, by the Sunday, I was deeply fed up with myself and (after adding in a paragraph and getting rid of what the journalist mentor called “that wanky academic lingo”) I emailed it off to the editor of Australian Policy and History. Two days later, it was published.
A day after it went online, one of the people at APH let me know that she’d forwarded my op-ed on to a couple of music journalists. A day after that, media group Sound Alliance asked to use my piece on one of their music press websites. A few hours later, my article – now with a snappy new title and pictures – was at the top of the Opinion page of FasterLouder.com.au.
My byline. On the music website that I’ve been reading obsessively since I was fifteen years old. I tried to play it cool, but (as ever) don’t quite think I managed it. I tweeted a link to the op-ed at its new (music press!) home, and then watched as, for the next twenty-four hours, my Twitter and email inbox exploded. People were engaging with my work. People were reading my work. People who weren’t me, or my thesis supervisor, or the dozen or so people who constitute the readership of an academic article. People who run websites and music advocacy groups and radio shows that I love. People who not only liked my work, but actively defended it – and me – when the inevitable detractors emerged.
Comparatively, the amount of people who have read and shared my op-ed is less than a drop in the Internet ocean. A week on, and I’m firmly back in the world of the thesis, with its even-smaller readership (of two). But if nothing else, I got two publications in less than a week, and one of those was a byline on FasterLouder.
Yeah. That still hasn’t sunk in.