By Dr Antonia Pont
I was recently introduced to a verb I hadn’t encountered before. I was attending – as a supervisor – a session looking to create opportunities for doctoral researchers (mostly of a STEM kind) for various post-doc industry pathways. My writing postgrads were there with me and looking increasingly crestfallen as the tone of the session veered further and further from anything that acknowledged their skills or fields of interest. That aside, the session (for me) had one good outcome, and this was learning this new verb. Angular, gauche and graceless, with zero poetry, it is however precise and pulls no punches: to self-select-out.
It means to decide in advance that one is out of the running for something. In this case, it was industry internships. Someone who ‘self-selects-out’ (hitherto referred to as SSO) tries to stave off future disappointment by doing the work of rejection in advance and on behalf of the other party. SSO-ers can be found in any field. They can be the mechanical engineer who doesn’t apply for the post (the example we heard about over the three hour workshop) due to the words in the advertisement being not-quite aligned with her specific area of research. A SSOer forgets that those advertising the position don’t always quite know what they want in advance. They just ‘put some stuff’ in the position description, perhaps hastily, perhaps going for something they can’t quite articulate at the time. They might just want YOU, was the take home message. Hence SSO-ing was not the behaviour of the elegant operator.
This became relevant for me, soon after, when I was pondering the mechanisms of feeling included in or excluded from cultural fields. Working in the creative arts can involve a constant slip ‘n’ slide ride that careens from feeling ‘included in’ and ‘part of’ various scenes, communities and groups, to feeling excluded, ‘not of that ilk’, disliked even (usually with no clear sense of a discrete subject who does the disliking, just a sense … a hunch! … in relation to a vaguely conjured other or others). It can also involve – and this I’m less good at catching in myself – my own dislike of, disappointment in, alienation from the scenes themselves.
Sometimes bunches of people, on particular occasions, can be interpersonally bloody mediocre. That’s par for the course, of course. What matters is to catch the shivers of disdain and sadness that can accompany these moments. And to remember that it might be different next time.
This is where we get back to SSO.
It is a strange kind of ‘non’-verb. That is, it usually involves an abstaining from an activity of some kind. When we ‘do’ it, there is often nothing to be seen. Our action is to stop acting. We can just evaporate a certain possibility for engagement, and usually go about doing something else. Busily. Quietly. Resentfully. Even cheerfully. You see, it’s hard to catch when the SSO has happened. When do we do it? When did we? It can tend to reveal itself in accretion. It reveals itself as having-happened.
In the Creative Arts, for our students, our postgrads, and ourselves as practitioners weathering the wilds of something that is intrinsic to our fields (that is, they are in fact constituted via operations of inclusion and exclusion), we can simply decide in moments that we don’t belong. But without knowing we’ve decided. We can imagine that we have no impact on our scenes and communities, and this Evaporative Thinking is stealthy. Sometimes the field does reject us and momentarily finds our contributions irrelevant. This is ontological to our vocations, not optional. Where we can intervene, I’d argue, is in the internal SSO that we might do – protectively, defensively, vulnerably – which can happen behind our own backs, and about whose necessity we might be utterly mistaken.
I wanted to start my first year lectures in 2018 with a little verb lesson. Along the lines of: what is a verb? A doing word. Let’s take an example verb: to self-select-out. And, let’s decide in first year creative writing that we might enact this odd verb every now and again and that it is not in our best interests as writers. As creative practitioners, we simply can’t know whether we belong or not in our fields, except that this kind of constant not-knowing is perhaps itself the sign that we are deep within our chosen field, surfing its intrinsic topographies. I’d like my emerging writers in class to know to watch for the SSO and the tricksy shapes it can take.
‘Imagine’, I’d say to the students, ‘that it is possible that you do belong. Hold that open and make work from there.’ As researchers, we can acknowledge, but not dwell on, the unlovely terms ‘impact and engagement’, and instead just bear the not-knowing, track the SSO, and focus on practising – together and sometimes alone. Work will happen. And its impact over time – although we’ll try to (and must) measure it for our jobs – like for all art, is also unfathomable in advance.
Antonia Pont is Senior Lecturer in Writing & Literature at Deakin University, the current Chair of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs, and Course Director for the Bachelor of Creative Writing. She is a practitioner of writing, movement and silence. Her theoretical research seeks to articulate the mechanisms involved in practising (a particular mode of engaging in doing and making) to account, among other things, for how it courts change and cultivates stability. She publishes poetry, creative prose and essays, and a recent co-authored book, Practising with Deleuze, is out with Edinburgh University Press.