Last year, at the annual National Young Writers’ Festival in Newcastle, I was asked to be an emergency addition to a debating team made up of writers arguing the topic ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ The debate, hosted by the awesome Scissors Paper Pen collective, was designed to unearth the biggest arguments for either staying in smaller towns or leaving them in pursuit of bigger cities when it comes to pursuing a creative career. As we sat there formulating our arguments in the bar at Newcastle’s Great Northern Hotel, our fingers sticky from cider and wedges, I realised that the topic couldn’t have come at a weirder time for me.
Earlier that year, I had finally put my money where my mouth was and made the move from my hometown Canberra to Melbourne. By the time the festival rolled around in September I was nearing the end of a six-month slog of long distance with my boyfriend, I had finally found my Melbourne feet, and I was feeling somewhat comfortable with the move. And yet writing my speech for the ‘leaving’ team at the debate, I felt more conflicted than I had when I actually decided to move. The question we were debating wasn’t so much ‘Should you leave?’ as it was ‘Will leaving be better for you, creatively?’ And that was a question I just couldn’t answer.
Ever since I was a teenager, I had a strong impulse to run. Not physically (I have asthma, ok?), but I had wanted to transport myself as far away – from my home, from my family, from my school, from everything familiar – as fast as I could. When I graduated year 12, I applied for universities everywhere except for Canberra, and got into two in Melbourne, one in Wollongong, and one in Sydney. After pleading with my parents to let me go to Melbourne, I ended up at UTS in Sydney, studying Creative Writing. Approximately five weeks later, I was back in Canberra.
Like all 18-year-olds, I had convinced myself that by changing cities, I could somehow change personalities. Sydney-Zoya was going to be cooler than Canberra-Zoya. She was going to be witty and uber-cool; she would immediately make friends with all the hip, arty Sydney people, and she’d be writing an underground zine, publishing her first novel, and falling deeply in love with the perfect indie musician in no time. Right? Wrong. Instead of this idealistic dream, I found myself sharing a student apartment with three other Indian girls (nice racial type-casting, UTS), struggling to make friends and just feeling incredibly out of my depth. I gave up and moved back to Canberra.
I enrolled at ANU, studying Arts. I hung out with my friends that I had known since high school, and who I found just as interesting and exciting as ever, and I made new friends as well. I started writing for the student newspaper, became Women’s Officer, wrote for the local streetpress and a few websites, became the editor-in-chief of the feminist magazine Lip, which I turned into an online magazine that is growing every month, was given a Chief Ministerial appointment, worked at a cinema…and, eventually, I did meet an indie musician who I fell deeply in love with.
I grew so confident, happy, and stable that all I could think about was… leaving again. As soon as I graduated uni, I found a full-time job. One that paid well, and that was even in my field of interest. But after a month, I realised that I just wasn’t ready. I wanted to go out there, do things, meet people – and for some reason, I felt convinced I couldn’t do that in Canberra. Don’t get me wrong – I loved my city. But I felt like a big fish, slowly running out of water. And I had always wanted to live in Melbourne.
So I packed my things, promised to maintain my relationship with the love of my life, told my parents I would miss them, and moved to Melbourne. Soon I was sharing a gorgeous Northcote house with one of my best friends, and I was ready for life to begin.
The rumours are true, by the way. Melbourne is amazing. As much as I missed my friends and family, as much as I was completely lovesick for the whole first six months I was here, I fell in love with this city.
The magazine I edit, Lip, has a huge staff base here and suddenly we could have meetings and bounce ideas off each other, and the whole thing started taking off even more. I met other writers and creative folk, and made some friendships I don’t think I’ll ever lose. I got involved with the National Young Writers’ Festival, running their first ever media centre at the 2012 festival. I received a Prime Ministerial appointment to a federal government Board, wrote for a bunch of new places, started my Masters degree, and learnt to tell the difference between coffee and good coffee. But I also spent upwards of eight months trying to find work, with virtually no luck. I had two interviews at Penguin – but didn’t get the job. I worked at Myer for a while, and wanted to die. I got a job at a call-centre, which I turned down for a part-time job at a small publishing company, who then unceremoniously sacked me after two weeks because they changed my position to full-time. Despite all the wonderful things about Melbourne, not having a job, income or security made it hard to enjoy as much as I wanted to.
…Which is why I am now moving back to Canberra, where I just got a job in Communications. All this time, while I’ve been in Melbourne, I have had a nagging sense of missing something. Missing the streets I grew up with, and the Autumn leaves that clog up the footpaths in Kingston and Manuka. Missing the crisp mornings in Spring, and the lake glittering like a million mirrors in the morning. Missing my friends, my wonderful friends – nobody tells you that just because you leave, your friendships don’t extinguish themselves. They stay there, pulling at you, making you yearn for people who can’t be replaced by a place.
I’m torn right now, because I’m equal parts sad about leaving Melbourne, and excited to get back to Canberra. When I think about my favourite local restaurant, or that great evening I had with a friend the other night, or how nice the little Northcote apartment I share with my boyfriend is, I get a pang. But then, when I think about the exciting stuff going on in Canberra right now, about my besties, about Gorman House Markets or Tilleys, I get a pang at the thought of not going back. I’m pang-ing all over the place.
When I wrote my speech for that debate last year, I struggled to pick a side. I absolutely don’t think that leaving small towns is the only way to nurture your creativity, but I equally see the value in seeking new territory. I don’t think that you necessarily should stay or go. But I do think that sometimes, staying is too easy. Having uprooted myself, moved to Melbourne, and thrown myself into the deep end, I have undoubtedly grown. My skills, my networks and my desire to be a good writer have all grown and changed and taken shape. But what I’m really excited for is taking those new skills back to Canberra, and contributing to a creative community that is always growing, that is full of talent, and that can rival any larger city in Australia.
Sometimes you need to go, to remember why you want to come back. Who knows – maybe I’ll move back to Melbourne one day. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll go overseas, or maybe I’ll die in Canberra. It’s the not-knowing that makes it thrilling, and the knowledge that I can thrive anywhere that makes me feel secure. In the meantime, thanks to the Internet, I can keep the best things about Melbourne – my friendships – no matter where I live. And I guess that’s all that really matters.