I can’t recommend this festival enough, and decided to dedicate a whole blog to explaining why!
The Emerging Writers’ Festival is now a strapping six-year old in Melbourne’s literary playground. Starting as an annual Independent Press and Zine Fair with workshops and presentations, the program extended to involve writers at early career stages from across Australia holding different sessions to inform, enlighten and entertain aspiring writers. Since then, the festival has been a sell-out and changed from a weekend event to a ten-day fest, moving across genres, types of events and venues.
I’ve only attended the festival last and this year, much to my regret; I’ve discovered that emerging writers are founts of information, and far too kind in passing along the tricks they’ve learned of the trade. This year’s Festival program had an “Ambassadors” program, where five writers — from poetry, fiction, television, freelance writing and playwriting — would be available during tea and lunch breaks and in between certain sessions, for answering questions one-on-one. Their approachability was both daunting and oh-so-tempting!
I was unfortunately only able to attend the Melbourne Town Hall (MTH) set of events over the last weekend of May. [Melbourne Town Hall — for any Melbournians who may be interested — is such a cool heritage building to check out. Have a wander upstairs to Level 3 sometime and check out the historic Yarra Room with the portraits of the old fellas in curly wigs lining the walls, or Melbourne Room with a grand piano in a corner and definitely Swanston Hall with it’s fancy ceiling. Takes you to another time, and adds a very delightful character to the Festival.]
HIghlights of the program for me:
Seven Enviable Lines – The first and one of the most engaging sessions over the weekend. The Five Ambassadors shared seven secrets they wished they’d been told before they started their writing careers. Some memorable lines were poet Pooja Mittal’s emphasis on good writing being all about rationing — “Make do with less. Conserve syllables.” You hear “less is more” all the time in writing classes, but the part about syllables struck me; a lot of novelists love their big words. Keeping words tight and short like a miniskirt, sticking to simple when you can complicate is I think the best writing. Another point Pooja mentioned: when writing, act like a criminal with no shame — don’t explain yourself or the writing. And that when it becomes tempting to explain things to critics and reviewers, you’re reducing “literature” to “conjecture”. Television writer Luke Devenish stated something terrifying. He reckons 50% of your time as a writer is devoted to talking about it. 50%?!?! *feels like hiding under the bed*
Theatre writer David Milroy (best among the sites I could find. If you’re reading this, sorry, David) said a very pretty line (apart from the “fact” that bananas, dark chocolate and peanut butter are absolutely critical in stimulating the writing process): “Critique is like manure; spread it in your work and watch things grow.” 🙂 Both he and Pooja stressed on the fact that no criticism is bad criticism. Even inaccurate criticism helps strengthen your conviction about its inaccuracy, which must be a very very good thing.
Crime writer PD (Philippa Deanne) Martin mentioned in the Just Write Dammit session that when she’s faced by the blank page with a blank mind she tries different techniques, the most astounding one being that she attempts to write 10K words in one day – 10,000 words! Much of the rules are as in the article linked – no editing, no rules-of-the-craft focus, no research, no scrolling back and forth AT ALL while writing. Part of the process is to stop focusing on the details like He said, She said and simply letting the story take hold. I think most people in the room were gobsmacked. I am already telling myself I should give it a try, but of course, I have reservations on the quality of writing that will come out. But Philippa promptly answered that question by professing she very rarely went back to delete huge chunks of it; a lot of it was very much useable, quality storytelling… freaky.
The From Here to There: Blogging session had writer Christopher Currie, who in order to avoid being a stagnant writer avowed writing one blog a day for 365 days between March ’08 and ’09. The blog site is Furious Horses, and he spoke eloquently on how the blog — while not always producing groundbreaking literary masterpieces — served its purpose by getting him into the habit of writing fiction regularly, so much so that he missed it when he stopped. (Check out the hilarious section at the bottom of the page where he lists the Search keywords that “accidentally” led people to his blog :D)
Okay, by now, if I haven’t convinced you yet why a writers’ fest is THE way to go, then let me introduce you to the best part of EWF — Skills Sharing Forums. I attended only two that pertained to me, but these Forums are intended to provide people desiring to break into a new writing career – like comic writing, theatre, television, copywriting, freelancing, etc. – the opportunity to interact and get lessons from someone already living their dream. I went to the Copywriting Forum, by the amazing Bernadette Schwerdt (where I may have had an epiphany of sorts — there is serious money to be earned here folks, and sue me for being tacky and going to the Lowest Common Denominator :D) and the Freelancing Forum by the impressive Rachel Hills. Both were seriously informative and fruitful.
Other super-impressive find — poet James Stuart, who in an effort to frame his poetry based on Mesopotamian myths such as Gilgamesh, created a website called the Homeless Gods. This is where technology meets art. Some of the verse is beautiful, as is the complexity of the site designed (I’m assuming) with Karen Chen and Guillaume Potard. Sample verse plucked from the Bellowing Bull section of the City:
With a wooden gesture the table
billows out — it’s a canvas
for the best stories you’ve ever told.
Pity no one gives a damn about you
& the violence that begat this world
— All contents © James Stuart & Karen Chen, 2007
I also want to give an honourable mention to Stu Hatton, lecturer at Deakin Uni who highlighted the benefits of mentorships, and the tremendous effect a mentor can have on your work.
Personally, the most exciting session for me was The Pitch where the founders/editors of 11 Aussie publications spoke on how they’d like to be pitched to by aspirants. It’ll take me a seriously long time to list all the publications and link them (I did want to, believe me), but if anyone is desperately interested, get in touch with me and I’ll try to oblige.
Typing out this has made me sad. 😦 I wish there could be something like this arranged every weekend; imagine how writing would flower.
So, I have made up my mind that if I am ever left with a lot of money and nothing to do during May, I will try to make it every year for EWF. Just having a few hundred writers cozied up on a grey, wintry weekend in the Town Hall creates this atmosphere of fertile evolution, like ideas sprouting shrubs on our heads. If you are any sort of writer in Melbourne trying to figure out how to write, get to an agent or a publisher/filmmaker/production house, this is where you have to be every year.
A friend told me last year that she pictured Writers’ Festivals as events where people sip their fine wines and mingle to talk about the latest bestseller to storm the market, or (God forbid), whether Twilight really is literary or not. This certainly is nothing like that. Festivals like the Melbourne Writers’ Festival are clearly readers’ festivals, meant to be a Literature Appreciation Society of sorts. If you want to talk to the pragmatists — the ones who will tell you to never quit your day job if you want to write, who’ll tell you that you’ll be broke for a long time and that you may be rejected a few hundred times with a manuscript languishing in your bottom drawer for years before getting published — then this is the festival for you.
NOTE: If you are one of the writers I have linked in or (mis)quoted, and you either want to be de-linked, be removed or correct the quote, drop me a line and I’ll gladly oblige. 🙂
Also, any errors are mine, referred to from hastily scribbled notes.