Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ellen Van Neerven, Comfort Food and Status Anxiety

I read Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety many years ago. I remember how calming  The Consolations of Philosophy was at an anxious time in my life and I moved straight on from there to Status Anxiety. I have not re-read it since but I remember figuring something out whilst reading his book. The best way to avoid status anxiety is to hang around people who are less talented/smart/successful than yourself.  The phrase a 'a big fish in a small pond' had always felt like it related to geography. Being famous in Brisbane was kind of different to being famous in, say, New York.  I now know the world doesn't work that way. We are not cut off by geographical borders in quite the same way. Members of my tribe live in Sydney and Melbourne now and some even live in New York, Chuuk and Slovenia. I am a small fish in a very big pond and the size of the pond is dictated by the quality of the writers who I consider to be in my community.

I recently read Comfort Food, the soon to be released collection of poetry by my friend and fellow writer Ellen Van Neerven. How is it possible that your heart can simultaneously explode with pride  and sink at the same time? Well cosmology can explain that if you look at the quilted universe with it's quickly expanding patches and it's patches of dark matter, but you know what I mean.

Reading Comfort Food I wondered if I was just not good enough, would never be good enough to reach for the quality of work that my friends achieve.  I am asking for trouble with the group of writers I call friends I suppose. I regularly have dinner with Ashley Hay and Kristina Olsson,  and I am friends with Melissa Lucashenko too. These are just a few of the people who define the limits of this very big pond. I have recently re-read Ashley's next manuscript and my friend Cory Taylor's book Dying a Memoir and I will never be able to write a book as quiet and delicate as Ash's book, as perfectly structured and wise as Cory's book, as full of deep and resonant vulnerabilities as Ellen's book, as complex and thoughtful and wide-reaching as Kristina Olsson's books... I could go on and on.

Here we have the root of my status anxiety. My friends are too good. I don't want them to be lesser writers. Their own drive and talent drives me to do better. I know I can't be them. I can never write a book like Comfort Food but reading it I want to write something that is as raw and wise and honest as that book. I have to keep trying. My friends make me keep trying. I am friends with the best writers and with a lot of work and commitment and energy I will chase at their heels, hoping only to keep pace, even if I will always be a little step behind. My ridiculously talented friendship group force me to become my best self. That is all I could ever ask.

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