A review of work performed at the Emerging Writers’ Festival 2017
Ben Knight and I meet up in the common area on level 2 of Building 9 at RMIT on a Wednesday. Despite the fact that we were supposed to have five hours of classes together that day, he was only there for our interview. His girlfriend sitting next to him, he tells me they’re heading to Asian Beer Café after we’re done talking, because ‘the only real reason to come in to the city is the cheap jugs.’ When the conversation progresses to a debate over whether rollies or pre-made cigarettes are better, I grow to love how much Ben embraces being a cliché Creative Writing student. If he were a character I wrote, I’d be pretty happy with the merging of stereotype and real-life Arts student that is represented in Ben. My experience of Creative Writing students is that they are usually fairly slack in regards to attending class, but they make up for their sometimes strained work ethic when it comes to the act of writing and performing. The apathy they harbour for classroom-based learning is often counteracted by their passion. Ben Knight is a perfect example of this.
When Ben does come to class, he spends his breaks writing in the Dome Reading Room in The State Library. It was here that he initially conceived of his idea for his stage play, entitled Dear Ms. Leading, which will be performed at the RMIT Horizons Salon, Double Exposure. The event will be run in partnership with the City of Melbourne’s Emerging Writers’ Festival. Beginning his creative process with free association, the first word that popped into the writer’s mind was “frogs”. From there, the idea came to him fully formed.
Dear Ms. Leading is different and more obscure in form than Knight’s previous work, the stage play still gives itself away as Knight’s writing to those who have read him before. The author’s M.O. is writing about serious themes, made lighter by humour (usually in the form of jokes about masturbation). In his own words, everything he writes starts off as funny, and then gets serious.
I can only write things that are stupid or depressing,’ says Knight. It’s difficult to tell if he’s annoyed or proud of this fact. While there aren’t any penis references in Dear Ms. Leading, fans of Knight’s work won’t be disappointed with this tale of lies and deception, speckled with sexts between drug addicts and a good dose of truly terrible WordArt.
Although Knight is adamant that there was no motive behind writing this work, he believes the topics of child and drug abuse – explored in Dear Ms. Leading – are concerns that should be discussed in creative arenas. Knight finds inspiration in his favourite television show, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad (2008), viewing it as a way to represent personal and societal issues (cancer and drug syndicates) within a narrative that enthrals the reader via in-depth characterisation.
The author is particularly interested in drugs, and the ways in which they can influence a story. Comparing Breaking Bad and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), Knight emphasises the different routes their central characters take as a result of their interaction with narcotics. He is fascinated by the way Breaking Bad’s Walter White becomes a powerful, confident manufacturer of methamphetamine, while the audience sees Requiem’s protagonist, Harry, destroy his life with his use of heroin. Moreover, when it comes to subject matter, Knight’s primary focus is human nature, and the way each person is affected differently by his or her circumstances. This interest has been the concept behind the novel Knight is in the process of writing, in which the central character ingests a drug that makes him able to hear music objectively so he can make an album that he’s been stuck on for five years, but has dire consequences in that he cannot hear emotion in music or voice as a result.
The process of writing Dear Ms. Leading was something that Knight thought about a lot, due to its contentious subject matter. As this piece was created to be performed in a public sphere, he felt obliged to think about what he is saying about drug and child abuse as an issue that affects people in a global context. While Ben does not have any personal connections to those negatively impacted by these problems, he does find it crucial to emphasise the importance of having a free discussion around these topics.
‘In creating a dialogue through creative means,’ iterates Knight, ‘it provides a safe space for those who are suffering from these matters to come forward.’ As the writer of the work, he is slightly offended that the producers of the Double Exposure event have asked him to begin his stage play with a trigger warning. While he understands the value of making the audience aware of the subject matter explored before his performance begins, Knight is also apprehensive as it gives away his storyline. When discussing controversial material and censorship, he becomes passionate in his stance. He stops looking absentmindedly into the distance and his posture straightens.
‘Restricting artistic expression is bullshit.’ His voice is louder than before.
‘Writers should be able to say whatever they want. And I know I’m not supposed to say this, but you can write it down it you want.’ There’s a slight pause.
‘I would never say “nigger” in my real life, but if I want to say it in print, I should be able to, and be able to do it without getting into trouble.’
I’m not sure I’m fully onboard with this notion, so I ask Knight to explain his point further.
‘A person should be able to use any means to put forth their ideas. That’s the point of all of this. It should be about the art above all else. You are not your characters.’
When I tell him I agree with him, he’s noticeably more relaxed. Knight is clearly a sufferer of the artist problem of being really headstrong, but also secretly needing someone else to assure him he’s right.
For months, the artists performing at the Emerging Writers’ Festival have been told that this festival is a celebration of storytellers of all kinds. When I ask Knight if he sees himself as a storyteller, he tries to make the distinction between writers and storytellers. He decides that a writer’s purpose is to construct something cohesive, insightful, and succinct. A storyteller’s aim is to recount a happening in a fun, memorable and almost obnoxious way. A storyteller, Knight thinks, is that person who always needs to be the loudest in the room.
‘The main difference between the two is that writers are smart, but you don’t need to be intelligent to be a storyteller.’
I tell Ben he’s avoiding answering my question. He pretends to ponder for a second, then says, ‘Yeah, I guess I’m a storyteller.’ Deep. Considering Dear Ms. Leading contains the line, ‘I want my best friend to be a robot and not a star,’ I’d say he’s hit the nail on the head when it comes to his thoughts on intellect not being a crucial character trait for the storyteller.
Although the author did not initially intend to create a political work, Ben Knight’s Dear Ms. Leading is a piece that has something meaningful to say about the issues at its core. As is true of all of Knight’s work, frivolity and jest have been employed to mask the insightfulness of the writer, but it is obvious to the audience that this piece will inspire conversation and word-of-mouth acclaim to those who witness or read the stage play. It is a work that Knight one day wants to transform into a longer piece (he is thinking about using the outline of the piece as a springboard for a novel or full-length cinematic script). As the work is soaked with Knight’s characteristic wit, which is coupled with his love of exploring real-life drama, I don’t think Knight will have any trouble drumming up interest or continuing the narrative of Dear Ms. Leading.
Recently, outside of our interviews and in class breaks, Ben and I have taken to inflicting on ourselves the worst torture known to man: consuming the $1 7/11 coffee. As we venture through the construction zone that is RMIT, we discuss stories from the weekend, what we’re going to do with ourselves when we’re no longer students, and how adorable our teacher looks in her myriad of cat-themed jumpers. The coffee at 7/11 is granulated, watery sludge. I suggest that maybe we should go to Starbucks instead. Their coffee is no roasted blend made by orphans in Peru made solely for a singular coffee cart in Degraves Street with an unpronounceable name, but it’s certainly a step up from our Old Faithful. I’ve read enough of Ben’s writing to predict what his response will be before he says it, but I listen anyway:
‘Fuck that! If you’ve got $6 to spend on a flat white, be my guest!’
We walk back to class, and as I scrunch my face up after each sip of the $1 boiling vomit liquid in my hand, I’m grateful to Ben for the conversation that makes it bearable.