How I Got Here: writer, author and arts advocate Emma Batchelor | HerCanberra

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How I Got Here: writer, author and arts advocate Emma Batchelor

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Admit it, we’ve all been there—deep dive stalking social media and LinkedIn profiles, trying desperately to figure out how the hell someone got their dream job.

It seems impossible and yet there they are, living out your career fantasy (minus the itchy business suit). It might seem hard to believe, but once upon a time, they were also fantasising about their future career, and with some hard work, they made it.

Welcome to How I Got Here, HerCanberra’s series that reveals everything you wanted to know about the secrets of career success.

This week we sat down with Vogel Award winning writer, author and arts advocate Emma Batchelor to find out how she went from wanting to perform autopsies for a living to writing Now That I See You and advocating for Canberra’s art scene.

Existential crisis time: Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Emma Batchelor. I am a writer, author and arts advocate.

Let’s go back to when you were a kid, have you always dreamed of working in this industry?

When I was young I wanted to be a person who performed autopsies. I had gotten the idea from reading a lot of age-inappropriate crime fiction and it seemed to stick with me. All throughout school I pursued science subjects and went on to study medical science at the ANU, completing my Honours at the John Curtin School of Medical Research. I was a long way to becoming a forensic pathologist before I realised it wasn’t my dream anymore.

Also from a young age, I had been involved in the arts: dancing at QL2 and with my brother, choreographer James Batchelor, reading voraciously and eventually working at the Canberra Theatre Centre. I now recognise that I wanted a life focused on art and creativity but struggled to balance that alongside my pursuit of science, which seemed like a more secure and practical career option.

Being able to develop a creative career now in my thirties feels like reconnecting with an important part of myself.

Tell us about when you were first starting out, what set a fire in your belly to get here and how did you do it?

I was in my mid twenties and had abandoned medical science when, by chance, I came to write an article about Canberra’s fashion festival for a local online publication. I stayed up all night perfecting that first piece and felt a spark of realisation: this, or something like it, was what I should be doing.

I began to write more and eventually started my own online publication, Leiden. I made this decision impulsively and naively; I had to figure things out as I went along. Being able to work with and platform so many incredible creative people, writers, photographers, make-up artists, stylists, models, and designers was incredible and motivated me to build and maintain the publication.

Recall a time when you wanted to chuck it all in; what did you tell yourself when it got too hard?

Almost four years into running Leiden, my partner began to question her gender identity. It was an overwhelming time for both of us and we struggled to hold on to one another through this period of change. We decided to separate and I found myself living with mental illness for an extended period of time. I constantly worried about letting my contributors and audience down and felt anxious about not performing at my best.

It was difficult to accept that I had no capacity to keep Leiden going. It took me a long time to realise that I needed to channel what energy I did have into my own recovery and wellbeing if I wanted a chance of being able to work that way again.

What was your biggest break?

It was after I had stopped running Leiden that I began to develop a manuscript for my first novel, Now that I see you, which draws on the relationship between my partner and I as she began to  affirm her gender. My biggest break came when I won the Australian/Vogel literary award for an unpublished manuscript written by an author under 35.

Having my manuscript published and receiving such recognition has opened so many doors for me. It has given me confidence in my ability as a writer, connected me with so many people and given me the financial stability to spend more time focusing on writing.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Last year I gave a talk on writing and dance as part of the BOLD Festival and in preparation for that talk I came across this piece of advice from choreographer Martha Graham:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

I think this advice transcends any art form, and any way of working.

What is it about your industry that you love and what makes you want to pull your hair out?

Arts and artists are vital. They teach us more about ourselves and the world around us. They encourage us to think, feel, dream, and connect. We are so fortunate here in Canberra to be exposed to so much incredible work. Engaging with as much of it as possible is an important part of my own creative practice.

Funding and opportunities for artists and arts organisations have been steadily declining in Australia with many creative industries hit hard during the Covid-19 pandemic. While creative communities are well practised at caring for one another out of necessity, I hope to see more structural support for this sector going forward, and the latest federal arts funding announcement has been a good start.

Tell us how you ‘stay in the know’, what media do you consume?

I am the Chair of MARION, our local centre dedicated to writers and their art, and through our organisation I get a lot of practical information about upcoming opportunities and events for writers. For industry news I subscribe to Books and Publishing and for new and exciting writing and criticism, I often read publications like Overland, Meanjin, Griffith Review, Australian Book Review, London Review of Books, and Literary Hub. I also listen to podcasts like You’re Booked, In Writing, and Literary Friction and follow writers and authors I admire on social media. I also love visiting my local bookshop every week or so to browse new arrivals and check out staff recommendations.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Still here in Canberra, hopefully with another book or two under my belt. I hope to continue my role with MARION and to do more advocacy work championing the work of other Canberra based writers and artists. I am about to start developing a live performance work, which is exciting. I am looking forward to expanding my writing practice and being able to perform again.

Why should people follow in your footsteps?

I think trying to cultivate a sense of openness and curiosity while looking to a variety of people and experiences can be helpful in figuring out where you might want to go and how you might like to get there.

What advice would you give your past self?

While I don’t regret the path I have taken to get to this point in my career, I often wonder where I would be if I had connected with my desire to write earlier in life. It doesn’t feel particularly constructive to dwell on that so I would tell myself to listen to my gut and act on it when I can and it feels right.

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