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Posted on 5 Aug 2014 in Non-Fiction |

JUSTIN HEAZLEWOOD Funemployed: The life of an artist in Australia. Reviewed by Walter Mason

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funemployedWarning: reading this book can get you down if you are a creative in Australia trying to establish or maintain a career.

Justin Heazlewood’s brilliant Funemployed is not all happiness and light. But in spite of its, ahem, realistic portrayal of the scene for Australian writers, actors, musicians and others, it is, in its own odd way, an incredibly inspirational piece of work. Somehow, through acknowledging the hardship, the desperation and the poverty involved in any creative career, Heazlewood manages to also convey some of the excitement and satisfaction that make up an equal part of it.

Best known as the Bedroom Philosopher on Triple J, Heazlewood was the kind of uber hipster wunderkind who inspired all kinds of jealous rage when he found success immediately out of acting college. A national radio show, albums, tours and comedy festivals – no one could get enough of the Bedroom Philosopher and his quaintly plaintive songs and observations. Until, that is, it all got old and Heazlewood found himself in the grip of a mid-life artistic crisis while still in his late 20s.

Funemployed is, in part, the author’s attempt to grapple with the collapse of his artistic ego and his mainstream success. Posited as a guide to making it as an artist in Australia, it is really a hefty dose of salts for young realists and old fools alike. You may well be a genius at your craft, but your genius is unlikely to pay the bills. In fact, as is frequently pointed out in the interviews in this book, you often have to pay for the pleasure of expressing your own particular genius, rendering the idea of a ‘career’ occasionally laughable.

The book is structured around the various thematic challenges likely to be faced in the course of pursuing the creative life – going pro, selling yourself, rejection, etc – and Heazlewood has chatted with some of the most talented and hardworking musicians, actors, writers and artists in Australia, trying to find out how they have managed their careers and if they have any magical secrets to dispense.

What he discovers is frequently sobering. Some famous authors work part-time at op-shops or vets’ offices, a lot rely on the dole and, like Heazlewood himself, live in sub-par accommodation provided as an act of charity by bewildered family members. There are plenty of gripes, occasional bitterness and painful observations about the impossibility of sustaining a creative career in Australia. But there is also something else, an immense sense of resolve to keep growing as an artist despite the terrible odds and the realities of depression, substance abuse and snarky comments on YouTube.

That is the secret of Funemployed’s charm, and of Heazlewood’s own success as a performer and writer. Underneath the pain and awkwardness, we feel sure, is a coded optimism, even braggadocio, and a stubborn assurance that we do have something to offer the world and that our own sanity requires us to express it. And despite the author’s occasional naivety when it comes to the realities of ‘the business’ (he freely admits that his previous expressions of artistic preciousness have damaged his career), he still recognises that cheesy things like networking, money-management and relationship building are essential, not just to success, but to even taking the first steps. Creating is as much about headspace, knowledge and schmoozing as it is about garrets, the muses and quill pens:

Like flirting, sometimes networking can happen without you even realising it. The more time you spend thinking about your art, the more your brain is trained to look out for spaces where you can sneak a foot in the door. Triple J was never going to call; it was up to me to approach them and sell myself.

The book is filled with real-world advice from fabulous and successful people, people we have read about and idolised. As such it should be a textbook for those who want to try their chances at building a career out of their creative talents. The exquisite iOTA, for example, counsels: ‘Just get out of your bedroom. Do as many gigs as you can.’

Sound advice indeed. And Emilie Zoey Baker says that jealousy is a wasted emotion in the creative life:

‘If you get riled up about a poet getting a grant to write a play, then DAMN! You need to get your arse into gear and write a play.’

In a scene where entire evenings can be consumed by furious denunciations of whoever was selected for the latest regional literary festival, this is sound advice indeed. And it is something of a leitmotif throughout the book: Don’t get mad, get even. Don’t despair or blame the establishment and hothouse your own delicate artistic temperament. Heazlewood, whose own brand of creative oddness is miles away from any entertainment mainstream, recognises that railing against the prevailing culture is ultimately pointless and frequently counter-productive. Don’t like what you see on TV? Shut your mouth and produce your own YouTube show. The same goes for publishing opportunities, exhibition spaces and performance venues – we are definitely living in the DIY age. It’s always too easy to moan and point the finger, but Funemployed reminds us that such quixotic scolding rarely results in the further expression of creative genius. Create your own scene, so many successful people advise us, or, as I always counsel my own writing students, be the reader you wish you had.

Ultimately the book is an example of good old-fashioned self-help. Build your audience, work on every aspect of your career and don’t expect enthusiastic endorsement just because you think you’re wonderful. And also, for pity’s sake, realise that Australia is a tiny market and you have selected what Heazlewood’s grandma calls a ‘very difficult path in life’. The struggle will be never-ending, and the work constant. As Paul Livingstone – better known as Flacco – says in the book:

‘There is no follow-on, no momentum for when you achieve something. One thing doesn’t necessarily lead to more work, especially when you get to the top of your hill.’

In an increasingly fractured world, creative artists encounter new and frustrating barriers. But Funemployed reminds us that the immense challenges and the inevitable failures are all worth it, and our willingness to suffer them is what marks us out as artists. Reading this book I encountered many moments of sad acknowledgement and depressing realisation. But ultimately I recognised the spirit and conviction that made me pursue the writing life in the first place. Heazlewood has created a unique guide to surviving as an artist in the 21st century, and I believe it needs to be read by every creative person in Australia.

Justin Heazlewood Funemployed: The life of an artist in Australia Affirm Press 2014 PB 287pp $24.99

Walter Mason is a writer, spiritual tourist and a lifelong dilettante. He is the author of Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam (2010) and Destination Cambodia: Adventures in the Kingdom (2013). You can visit his blog here.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here. SMSA members can check the Library here.