Name: Steph Kretowicz
Occupation: Intermedia artist, journalist, writer, editor
Current release: Steph Kretowicz's I hate it here is out via Curl / AQNB. It features contributions by felicita, Ben Babbitt, Mica Levi, Tirzah, and Coby Sey.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I’ve found that a lot of my personal creative writing is a way to work out emotions and experiences of the past. I didn’t have a particularly easy childhood for all sorts of reasons and there is a lot of unaddressed trauma in my family by virtue of being from Poland. I try to write very honestly and directly, which often means I reveal things about myself that are hard to articulate, or even access, otherwise. It can be a really difficult process but ultimately useful and possibly cathartic.
A piece like ‘I hate it here’ became a way to confront some of my fears around death and ageing, as well as the loss of my grandmother and the issues around my identity that remained unresolved when she died.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I never actually have a clear picture of what a thing is supposed to be from the outset. There’s an idea, and then there are other variables which will influence how it turns out—like babies and who they become. Nature versus nurture. It was a thing that took me a long time to accept with writing—that whatever you want the thing to be (even if you don’t clearly know what that thing is), it’s going to be something else.
I suppose that’s one of the reasons I moved away from strict essay-form journalism because it exists to reinforce a position that’s likely already been decided upon. It’s there to provide evidence arguing for an existing hypothesis, at the exclusion of everything else. Very ‘lawyer-ly’. Now I instead use the same format to express an emotion or a personal truth with the explicit awareness that it’s ultimately a total fabrication based on my own subjectivity.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
My research is lived experience. I’ve never been very good at studying or homework so I prefer to go to the source for anything I want to learn.
It’s definitely the reason I love interviewing people and I like to travel. It’s a primary versus secondary sources thing. I don’t like to rely on someone else’s account of a thing—which is obviously a double standard because the expectation as a journalist or writer is that someone else should rely on mine. That’s embedded in the writing though, particularly with this creative auto-essayistic stuff. It’s self-aware in the sense that the form the work takes is totally dependent on the author’s context and subject position—whether non-fiction or not—so whatever I write is all essentially made up.
On top of that, even if I do see or experience something myself, I don’t exactly trust how I perceive it and I don’t think anyone should.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I’m certainly a fan of all sorts of stimulants and I don’t know a good writer who doesn’t rely on them. I can’t really say what and why it is, except that writing is highly stressful, difficult and not that fun. It’s extremely solitary and requires a lot of focus, and the internet doesn’t help with that.
When I was younger, I tried all sorts of things to combat procrastination, like using those apps that block the internet and unplugging the modem. But I’ve since learned to integrate the fractured, attention deficit nature of contemporary reality into my work, which means it’s often distracted, digresses and goes off on tangents.
I don’t know if that’s shit writing or not, but it’s how I do it.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I remember a long time ago in a creative writing class, a guest lecturer said that once you’ve got the first line, the rest is easy. I don’t know if that’s entirely true but I will say that once you have the first line, you’re going to finish the piece.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
I can’t speak for songwriting because obviously I’m not a musician but I think what’s been exciting about working with Ben is that I might have a piece written but then we riff off each other, sound to text and text to sound, and it has a role in shaping the whole narrative.
I’m interested in taking that approach even further in the future, where the shape of the narrative is as informed by the music as the music is informed by the narrative.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I can’t speak for myself on this but I can on the music I am drawn to as a music writer and it’s the simple, direct and self-effacing lyrics that are the strongest to me.
As my friend Jonnine—who also contributes to ‘I hate it here’—said to me in a recent interview: "there’s always some humour, and some wit mixed with an authentic feeling that the musician or singer has experienced something pretty heavy, and I believe it."
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
I can’t write linear narratives and I’m interested in perception, particularly how the present is so informed by the past and how, cognitively, we experience the continuum of time all at once.
I think that’s why I like the essay as a form for my auto-fictional writing because rather than it being an account of a series of behaviours left to the reader to surmise why a character did a thing, it becomes an exposition on ‘why I did what I did’ or ‘why I see things the way that I do’.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
While I keep insisting that ‘everything is fiction’, I’m actually obsessed with veracity and I’m what you’d call a ‘data-hoarder’. I still have essays from school and cassette tape recordings of interviews I did with Western Australian stadium rock bands from the early 00s.
I own many, many notebooks and many, many harddrives. I suppose that comes from my interest in history and experience in documentary film-making. The archive is important and you never know what could be useful in the future. Ben and I did a piece recently called ‘Brutal’ that includes a sound byte from a very early interview with an artist who is now a good friend to illustrate how my accent has changed since leaving Australia in 2009. I found it when digging around for something else.
When it comes to working on a piece, I have to wade through and organise an immense amount of information from notes, voice memos, field recordings, videos, photos, screenshots, jpegs, text messages, then research every element of it, which is extremely time-consuming. Most of what I examine won’t end up in the piece but I like to think the process has an influence on the final outcome. If I didn’t do all that searching, I wouldn’t come across certain invaluable elements.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
I think it just comes down to letting go and relinquishing control over the outcome.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I’ve always been envious of musicians whom I assumed had some moment of inspiration that at least gave them a kind of rush for a minute that writers don’t get. But in working with Ben and watching his process, I’ve realised the two crafts are rather similar and both equally as laborious and cumbersome.
I suppose the main difference is the fun and social aspect after the music is already made that you don’t really get as a writer.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
A hard deadline.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I’m not that into refining. Or I am and I’m not. I’m very deliberate with my writing and if I go over it again I will definitely have edits. But I’ve also been doing this for long enough to know that there will always be edits. So once it’s submitted, it’s over. Out of sight out of mind kind of thing.
Although, that’s for straight text, with the sound it’s different because there are other elements that I enjoy and want to listen to. I will get nitpicky though and eventually never want to hear it again because it’s just not right.
The performative reading stuff, meanwhile, so far has been exclusively a one-off thing and I certainly can’t look at or listen to recordings.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
This is Ben’s domain. I don’t consider it much at all but I know he really does. I’m grateful for it because while I’m more concerned with the gesture, he’s more concerned with its execution.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I’m so hands on with everything that I do, that I don’t really get that moment of reflection. I also work so much and on so many projects that it becomes a bit of a production line. I think that’s part of my process, that I’m never doing just one thing. I think if I were it would be crippling.
I’ve never really experienced writer’s block and I think it’s because I’m constantly being stimulated by other things. It might be an attention deficit. The thought of having a year to do nothing but write a book is terrifying to me but also it could be interesting to try it.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I suppose my interest has always been in the craft of writing and not the subject itself. Since I travelled a lot in the past, I had considered travel writing as a way to support myself but—aside from some more political concerns around said field—felt it would cheapen the experience to commit it to paper. I also felt like it was too easy to write about subjects that were inherently interesting. So, where maybe making a great cup of coffee is not necessarily an art form (although I’m sure there are a lot of baristas who would disagree) the writing about the making of the cup of coffee in Proustian prose might be.
I’m also reminded of a story a friend of mine told me about a near death experience, where when he was watching his life flash before him, all that was presented were the mundane daily tasks of washing the dishes, doing the laundry. Those were the explicitly human activities that he would most miss in changing form. I think that’s what I’m interested in exploring through my writing—the experiences we share, rather than what sets us apart.