Writing for other animals

Australian bushfires have been burning for months.  Many unexpected things have happened during this time, such as the man (above) who turned from hunter to wildlife rescuer in a small Victorian town called Mallacoota. Whether he returns to hunting remains to be seen. It was a question I lingered on as I did the painting. Beyond him, however, the message is conveyed to other young Aussie men like him: it’s okay to empathise with other animals, want to protect them and rescue them from harm. That’s a good message, especially in a country where so many young men are still taught to hunt, fish and pride themselves on their meat consumption.

I think about these possibilities as I enter 2020, and as I gear up to spend much of my week writing for my academic job in social work. I’ll admit that it has been hard to get going. In amongst the rolling news reports of the fires, grinding drought and time spent checking forecasts of rain, I have waves of feeling that in the end writing doesn’t really matter, or art, or teaching or anything else that can be obliterated by fire and water crises. After all it can all go up in a blaze. But in amongst this I know these feelings to be unhelpful and untrue. Unhelpful because paralysis is not what we need. Untrue because electronic texts and images can live on beyond fires and into a future that we cannot give up on. It is in this context that I offer the following about writing for other animals.

Just write.

Notice what motivates you and try to work with this energy. Read, view, reflect but keep going back to the practice of writing. Through the fog the ideas will come. Write every day, even a little. If you can, write 3 days in a row. Don’t underestimate the clarity that can come after a good night’s sleep. Your productivity on day three may astound you. Expect ideas to come to you at unexpected times, such as in the shower, on the bus or at a restaurant. If ideas come to you write or record them on your phone, the back of an envelope, or a napkin if necessary. Practicing writing makes you a writer, not waiting for the ideal time or place. Practice doesn’t make perfect because perfect either doesn’t exist or is flat and boring, like a CGI rather than a painting.  Flaws, imperfections and contradictions can be powerful points of exploration. Use your emotion: those of us writing about the ways that humans treat other animals often have them in abundance. If you read something that makes you angry, or sad, and it sparks a thought then write it down. Not only will you feel a little better but it is likely to turn into an interesting piece – emotion works well in writing (most of the time).

In terms of structuring your writing, focus on one topic and try not to stray. (This is a discipline I am still working on.) If it is about in/justice, say so, up front and without apology. Carefully select your accompanying image as you want it to encourage readership, link to the story and say something visually without using words. Clarify your key terms without being patronising. Give lots of examples to highlight your points.  Consider starting with your ‘punchline’ and working backwards. Reorder your points for better flow. Offering actions for readers to take at the end of an article can be helpful. However, these moves can also feel formulaic. Formulas can help get you started but don’t be a slave to them as they can also stifle and bore. Triumphant stories of success usually only work if the subjects are underdogs or the outcome is unexpected. Be critical but not mean.  Big claims need substantiating or they will lack credibility.

You have interesting things to report on, analyse, care about. It might have all been said before but not by you, in your way, with your emphasis. Trust and express that even, or especially, when your context for writing is not easy.  The piece you write will affect someone, somewhere, and you can’t know what that might lead to. So be bold and be brave. We aren’t going to change the world into a better place for other species otherwise.

Author and artwork: Heather Fraser

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