In 2012, creative writing degree in hand, I stood on the precipice of the real world, unsure how or where to dive in. My hometown of Adelaide has a strong writing community, yet it is not the creative writing hub of Melbourne or Sydney. If I was serious about being a writer, I needed to move east. I knew several young Adelaide writers who had already made the move, but I hesitated. Choosing to pursue a career in a creative field is not an easy decision. Forging a path in and making a living from the arts depends on a delicate formula of skill, opportunity and luck, and those three aspects correlate strongly to location. Actors seeking international success convene on Los Angeles for a reason. Yet not all who aspire to make their living from creative fields want, or have the means, to move to larger cities, and artists choosing to pursue their craft outside of creative centres require even more resilience and persistence to make it work.
As I considered my options after graduating, I started watching the HBO television series Girls, centred on aspiring writer Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) and her friends, as they try to ‘make it’ as millennials in New York City. Critics and young women alike lauded the series as holding a mirror to the challenges facing Gen Y women as they figured out their futures; yet when I watched the series, I was disappointed. While I enjoyed the show for what it was, I did not see myself or my friends reflected in New York’s bright lights. Hannah’s commitment to becoming a published writer intrigued me, yet there was no escaping that my own plight to forge a path as a writer looked very different in suburban Adelaide. Unlike Hannah, I quickly figured out that I harboured no desire to move to a bigger city in order to chase that path.
Moving to Darwin felt like removing myself even further from Australia’s larger writing communities, and from opportunities and networks to support my aspirations.
Even so, I did eventually leave Adelaide, five years after graduating, but instead of following droves of other twenty-something South Australians to Sydney or Melbourne, I followed my husband north to Darwin. In those five intervening years, I flirted with the idea of a career as a writer, without fully committing. I wrote, submitted work, and earned stacks of rejections alongside a few acceptances. I gained a postgraduate degree in a different field, travelled Europe, and applied for numerous jobs before landing back in a retail position. I continued to write, but most of my work roamed no further than a corner of space on my hard drive, and I constantly oscillated between different career directions. In 2014, I was a panellist at the National Young Writers Festival in Newcastle, and while I enjoyed the experience overall, it felt like Melbourne’s young writers had simply uprooted themselves to Newcastle en masse for the weekend. Everyone else knew everyone else already, and I found it difficult to become part of it. If I had felt this way as an Adelaide writer, moving to Darwin felt like removing myself even further from Australia’s larger writing communities, and from opportunities and networks to support my aspirations.
Shortly after arriving in Darwin, I stumbled across a Norwegian dramedy, Young and Promising (Unge Lovende), streaming on SBS and billed as ‘the Norwegian Girls’. Created and written by comedian Siri Seljeseth and based on her own experiences, the show follows the trajectory of three young women and close friends in their twenties attempting to carve out careers in the arts: Elise (Seljeseth) as a stand-up comic, Nenne (Gine Cornelia Pedersen) as a writer and Alex (Alexandra Gjerpen) as an actor. At about half the population of Adelaide, Oslo is a refreshing change from the usual suspects of Melbourne, London or New York; I binged the first three seasons in a week, and the final season in a day when it premiered earlier this year.
Where Girls felt too far removed from my reality, I immediately recognised myself and my creative endeavours within each of Young and Promising’s protagonists.
The series begins with Elise returning home to Oslo from Los Angeles, where she has spent six months trying to make a name for herself as a stand-up comedian. She plans to stay in Norway only long enough to renew her visa before heading back to the USA, but is unable to convince the official at the US embassy that she is not planning to work illegally, meaning she is stuck in Oslo. Meanwhile, Alex is on her fourth attempt at being accepted into the prestigious Norwegian National Academy of Theatre (Teaterhøgskolen) and rehearsing for her audition, while Nenne, seeking a publisher for her first manuscript, takes advantage of a catering job at a publishing event to introduce herself to an influential publishing house director. Where Girls felt too far removed from my reality for me to view it as anything more than entertainment, I immediately recognised myself and my creative endeavours within each of Young and Promising’s protagonists.
The women are not immune to the cycle of euphoric successes punctured by debilitating rejections that mark creative pursuits, and their steadfast pursuit of their careers is often to the detriment of their personal lives. In season two, Elise uses her family drama as part of her stand-up routine, not realising that her father is in the audience and witnesses her mockery. In season four, Nenne writes a manuscript about her mother, and her father is furious that she would use their family history in her work. These events raise questions about the ethics of mining one’s life for one’s art, especially when doing so involves exposing not only the artist, but also the artist’s family. I have mined various aspects of my life for my writing, and fret over those pieces. Who do those stories belong to, and who has the right to tell them?
Romantic relationships are also complicated in the unpredictability and instability that creative careers can bring. Alex is the only one of the women in a long term relationship, and it is a constant struggle to keep the relationship intact as she gives more and more of herself over to acting. At the end of season two, Alex is forced to make a tough decision between making a firm commitment to her long term boyfriend, or chasing an acting opportunity overseas. This choice is often presented as not a choice at all: of course a young woman should choose her career. But the reality is much more complicated, and in the series, Alex agonises over the fact that she has to choose at all.
Watching the show made me question my commitment to my craft, as compared to the wholehearted commitment to their creative work demonstrated by all three women. My own decision in choosing to stay in Adelaide, and then move to Darwin of all places, might suggest a lack of commitment, or an unwillingness to be part of the wider Australian writing community. It is impossible to live in this city and not physically feel the isolation from the rest of the country. It can get claustrophobic. The hardest part of being a writer in Darwin is that isolation. When the majority of literary events in the country take place on the eastern seaboard, attending from Darwin means a minimum eight-hour return flight and accommodation. It is not a viable endeavour to undertake on a regular basis, and it further isolates an already geographically isolated writing community from national discussions about national literature.
Ultimately, in Young and Promising, it is the women’s friendship and unwavering support for each other and their individual creative pursuits that guides them, both professionally and personally.
I was genuinely sad when I reached the show’s final episode, in a way I have never experienced with a television series before. Over four seasons, I had come to think of Elise, Alex and Nenne as real people, my friends, and I cared about them. Most importantly, while they had their disagreements, throughout the series they remained each other’s crucial support system as they navigated the realities of their chosen careers. For all of Darwin’s reasons not to be a city of choice for an aspiring writer, the city (and the Northern Territory more broadly) has a vibrant and supportive writing community that rivals its southern counterparts. A win for one Territory writer is a win for all Territory writers, and this alone makes the grind and extra effort worth it. Ultimately, in Young and Promising, it is the women’s friendship and unwavering support for each other and their individual creative pursuits that guides them to their successes and carries them through their failures, both professionally and personally.
The challenges of working towards a creative career are not to be taken lightly. The reality is that it is demanding, and, doing so outside of major centres with extensive infrastructure and support add extra layers of complexity. Yet within that complexity also comes greater reward, and opportunity. Oslo is not necessarily considered a creative capital for dramedies, yet Seljeseth has found international critical acclaim with her series that explores the highs and lows of curating a creative career in Norway’s capital. While location is important, it is not the only factor. Choosing a home away from a major centre may change the trajectory of a creative career, but it does not mean no creative career at all. As Elise, Nenne and Alex teach us, you just have to be willing to work harder for it.