Melbourne Writers Fest 2010: Days 1 + 2

As I said, I’ll be blogging for the Melbourne Writers Festival. Indeed, I’m planning to blog about every day of  MWF festivities in which I partake. With two days down, and many more to go, I haven’t seen heaps, but I’ve made a good start. Things are just getting warmed up.

So first off: Friday, Day One!

I went along to The Morning Fix at Feddish. I got there a little late, and missed Joe Bageant and Jon Bauer, but arrived just in time to see Benjamin Law, then Benjamin Law’s mum, and then Benjamin Law reading this story to a room of mostly old folks. Nothing like cockroach massacre and casual cursing with your morning coffee. Kim Cheng Boey then had to follow that up with his sincere recollections and musings on memory, childhood and the father-son relationship. Estelle Tang summarises it much better than me on the official blog, which you should all be all over already.

Later that day, I went along to the launch of Above Water. 2010 sees the sixth issue of this (free!) little publication by the Uni of Melbourne Arts and Media Department. Although it started half an hour later than scheduled, and then only went for about half an hour, they managed to pack in a lot. There was some nice awarding of awards to some of the up-and-coming literary newbies at Uni of Melbourne, along with a great stack of readings from said lit-n00bs. You should head on over to the University of Melbourne campus, to Union House maybe, and hunt down one of the free copies doubtless just sitting there waiting to be snapped up. With stories of domestic tension, identity, lost marbles, mutilated mermaids and more, the collection looks pretty strong, especially for a bunch of folks only just getting started on this writing caper. I think I’ll give it a review here someday soon.

After that, I had to head on home, but that night there were keynotes, and people saw these keynotes and lo, they did blog about them, and said that they were good.

The next day, Saturday, Day Two: I busied myself with such important activities as not leaving the house, and then later I spent several hours partaking in proofreading and snacks with my Voiceworx krew. So as it was, I only got along to one session before calling it a day. But I chose well, as it was quite a spesh sesh indeed: readings and discussion from two of the Age Book of the Year winners.

In fact, only the previous night, the Age Book of the Year awards had been announced. Jennifer Maiden won the poetry prize for Pirate Rain, Kate Howarth won the non-fiction prize for Ten Hail Marys and Alex Miller’s Lovesong took the fiction prize and the Book of the Year award. Alex Miller and Kate Howarth were in attendance at this session, chaired by Jason Steger, and it was a cracking session indeed.

First, Kate Howarth spoke about her harrowing, but ultimately triumphant memoir. People have asked her, after reading her story, ‘How could you abandon your son?’. She rejected the word ‘abandon’, and tells how she was forced to leave, to come back later, to do what was best for her child in a terrible situation, in a far-too-recent time when women were essentially powerless. She read two excerpts from the end of her book, where she finally leaves her son, and then is later reunited with him years later. The emotion got to her — she’d never read that section in public before — and it was the sort of moment where it seemed almost wrong to say anything more. She may have been in awe of sharing a stage with Alex Miller, but when Jason asked Alex if he’d liked to read, he replied ‘not really, after that reading’.

Alex was compelled to instead give his own response to Kate’s story. But, eventually, he did read from his book Lovesong.  I’d never seen him before or read his books (despite hearing lavish praise), but Alex Miller is a great writer to witness. At times a gently cynical, no-bullshit curmudgeon, other times a remarkably thoughtful and humble man. When he did start reading from Lovesong, he read slowly, calmly and softly. His voice had some special timbre or hidden quality that scratched past my inner ear, into my brain and rustled around comfortably somewhere in my body. I could have listened to him read all day. When he said the phrase ‘a bag of sesame biscuits’ in his reading, it was like a warm crackling aural fire. A strange, rare quality in a speaker that I notice sometimes.

After his reading, the trio discussed a wide variety of subjects. Kate spoke of the joy of being published and thus realising a childhood dream; of her wonderful publishers at UQP; how she taught herself to write rather than attend creative writing classes; of the driving forces of rage and truthtelling that motivated her to write; of her hundreds of drafts and her perfectionism in writing, that she likened to unpicking a bridal gown. And how she’s planning a sequel.

Alex Miller spoke about the power of the informed imagination’s daydream, how it can spark ideas that grow into novels, which seemed to worked for both him and for Tolstoy. He said how having a child changes your life way more than any book. He spoke of how he can’t stop writing or he gets cranky, because writing for him is a kind of therapy. And he said after he’d exhausted all other options,  he had to just learn and write novels. Now he can’t help it.

All in all, it was assuredly a thoroughly satisfying session, except for that one person who didn’t turn their phone off, let it ring, and then proceeded to answer it mid-session. Let me just say: WHAT.

But all in all: a great first two days. Looking forward to the rest of the fest!

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My picks for Sunday, which will quite possibly fill my next embloggenations to bursting: another Morning Fix of several of your soon-to-be-beloved writers; The Lifted Brow and friends getting up to all sorts of shenanigans in a shipping container on the riverbank; an In Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson, the ace author of The Years of Rice and Salt and the Mars Trilogy; gettin’ wordy n nerdy at A Wordsmith’s DreamMeanjin, Overland, Going Down Swinging: Birthday Stories; and Dog’s Tales at the Toff and moooooooorrrrrre. See you at the Fest?

(2011 Post-script: I went to a lot of other great stuff at the Fest, but never got around to blogging it fresh. Wups. Sorry. Sam Cooney, however, wrote a bunch of great stuff about the Fest, which you can read via his blog, which is full of other excellent things you should also read if you read this.)

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Willy Lit Fest Part 1: Being Frankie and Talking Blogs

Last weekend I ventured along to the Williamstown Literary Festival and checked out a couple of panels:  Let’s Be frankie, Literary Blogging and From the Quill to the Kindle. All in all, it was good stuff, and it was nice to experience a different part of Melbourne, one that’s more like a coastal town, with the sea breeze, fish n chips and hordes of seagulls, along with some good literary company.

Thuy Linh Nguyen has already written about her experiences going to two of these panels, and Lisa Dempster has expanded on some of the stuff covered in her blogging panel, which I’ll get to later. But first, Let’s Be frankie.

I was drawn to this one because, while I don’t mind the odd look through a frankie mag if I see one,  I really wanted to see Marieke Hardy and Benjamin Law. The former, still jetlagged from an extended holiday in volcano-wracked Iceland, I’ve long been a fan of, thanks to First Tuesday Bookclub, JJJ Breakfast, her blog and her numerous other writings.  The latter I recently became a fan of, upon reading his hilarious story about murdering cockroaches en masse in the latest Brow. And I’m really looking forward to his first book, The Family Law. PLUS he just did an interview with Virgule, the newish Voiceworks blog. Check it.

So with Susan Bird as chair, and plenty of  audience interlocution, their casual discussion covered all kinds of things, from freelancing to Twitter to Ben’s mum’s vagina.

Ben, who often writes somewhat ‘personal’ stuff about his partner, parents and siblings, mentioned that family is such an interesting subject for writing because it’s one of the basic social units, like a microcosm of society. It’s true, your family shapes who you are and how you relate to people. Plus everyone’s got one, so it’s always at least somewhat relatable.

They discussed how important it is to run your material past the people you’re writing about if you think there’s the slightest chance they might have issues with it. Plus, it really helps to flesh out your work and get a new perspective on it.

They went on to discuss that, sure it can be good to be honest and lay everything on the table when you write, but have you really thought about the consequences of putting what you’re writing out into the world? Have you considered your audience and the context and how it could be received? Some boundaries are important. Sure, external censorship is something to take a stand against, but it’s interesting to think about how important self-censorship can be, for good or ill. And all of this applies not just to stories, articles and essays, but to blog posts, status updates and even microblogging/tweets (hello Catherine Deveny). They also touched on the idea of ‘the illusion of intimacy’, which I’ll get to later.

Ben discussed the life of a freelancer. He always strives to find something interesting in any dull freelance gig he takes on, and noted how easy it is to get overloaded, because you always think every assignment is going to be your last. He also recommended that, when you’re writing, you should keep a template of ‘good writing’ close by (or perhaps at the back of your mind), so that you’ve got something to aim for, no matter how high you’re aiming.

Marieke mentioned how handy she found News Ltd. lawyers, as dull as they might sound, and how they kept her out of trouble 99% of the time when she wrote for the Green Guide. Still, she was a little surprised that the people she’s writing about actually read her columns and sometimes take offense. It was similar back when she was writing her blog. She saw it as a place to vent, and didn’t really consider any potential offense, defamation or other trouble she could face. It’s funny, I guess when you’re a lone blogger, most people aren’t going to bother taking you to court, whereas a huge organisation like The Age with a reputation, stakeholders and circulation necessitates the team of lawyers.

She also discussed how it’s easier writing about crap TV, because writing about programmes you love just turns into celebratory, masturbatory drivel. Finally, she compared her scriptwriting to her blogging, and discussed how writing for TV doesn’t get much personal response when the finished product finally emerges, whereas writing online has the benefit of immediacy and instant feedback.

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Speaking of writing online, the next day, satisfied but eager for more, I went along to the Literary Blogging panel, with Lisa Dempster and Angela Meyer (aka Ms LiteraryMinded), both of whom have blogs I follow and enjoy reading, so I was interested to hear their thoughts. There were plenty of questions from the small but engaged crowd and it gave me a lot to think about.

They both agreed that blogging can help you find your voice, build your style and help you grow as a unique writer. Lisa reckoned writing her book Neon Pilgrim was easier because she’d been blogging for so long. She didn’t have to struggle to find a writing voice; she already had that part mostly sorted.

They said that blogging is a discipline to stick to, and that you have to want to stick to it, then it builds its own momentum, just like other forms of writing I guess. But it’s unique in that it’s a good way to test ideas and see what others are thinking. You can admit that your ideas aren’t fully formed and open them up for discussion.

Angela says she still questions her role when she’s blogging: is she a reviewer? A cultural commentator? ‘Just a blogger’? Or, simply, a writer? It’s part of the necessary constant process of self-reflexivity.

And again, they touched on this idea of self-censorship. They wondered about ‘stepping on toes’, especially in such a tight community like that of Australian literary bloggers. You want to be honest, but there is always a degree of self-censorship. The question is where to draw the line. Personally, I want to be able to critique art, literature, media and the world around me, but at the same time, it can be damn hard to really call out perceived major flaws in something, or someone’s work, especially if they’re just starting out or you know them personally. So do you tone down your critique, not put up a review, or be bold, harsh but fair, and give an open opportunity for anyone to reply, refute and defend?

They also discussed this ‘illusion of intimacy’ idea that Ben and Marieke touched on. Sometimes these writers have been accused of being not just honest, but ‘oversharers’. But the fact is, people often don’t know about all the stuff that they’re not sharing. It can seem like they’re telling readers everything about their life and readers might feel that they know everything about them. But like all art, blogging is a constructed representation, and while you may be getting an honest picture and feel you know all about the author, you only know about them from what they give you. Three quarters of their life, or more, might not even be hinted at.

Is this ‘illusion’ a bad thing? Not really. Unless you want to go, warts and all, publishing the minutiae of your life, while alienating everyone you know and possibly facing legal action, it’s hard to have it otherwise. The boundary has to lie somewhere. In the end, of course, it has to be a personal decision. As long as you strive to be honest and fair in what you do reveal, and seriously consider what to publish and what to hold back, then it’s all good.

When asked about whether one should try to blend a large variety of topics in one blog , Lisa replied that cross-over is fine. The blog is your blog, so its topic is always going to be you and your interests. Other people have cross-over interests too, and if your blog is good enough, people will keep coming back for the stuff that they’re interested in, and won’t mind the odd uninteresting post.

There were a couple of other tidbits to think about:

  • A blog evolves over time and has its own narrative. So in a sense, a blog is a story.
  • Before the rise of Facebook and Twitter, people used online ‘handles’ more often. But now with such sites we’re commonly going by our real names online, or our real names are not so hidden anymore. Interesting point.
  • How is blogging perceived? How do you perceive it? Is it for your ‘best’ work? Does it really distract you from other writing? Or is it just a part of the broader spectrum of writing?
  • Finally, they mentioned two interesting things I’d never really heard of: blog tours, where someone hops along onto various blogs from all over the place, providing guest posts on each. Then there’s blog carnivals, where various bloggers all riff on a chosen topic, and they can engage with each others ideas on that topic.

Essentially, this panel built on what I already knew about blogging, gave me a lot to consider and gave me a good kick in the rear to blog more. All in all, blogging is experimental: it’s an experiment for each individual and also because the internet is a medium in flux, all of this stuff is still changing and being negotiated.

Speaking of emergent mediums: eBooks!

But that final panel will have to wait for Part 2, in the next day or two. This time I’m not going to go away for a week or so; I’m going to get some of that momentum happening with this blogging thing.