From the early morning of August 24th I am in possession of a treasure. In the days that follow I find myself coming to a stop along Swanston Street and rummaging through my bag until I feel the shoelace-like necklace in my hand. When I wear it around my neck in Federation Square I anxiously grasp at the pendant (flat, and the size of a credit card) seeking certainty that it is there.
Technically it’s now void, worthless even. But I think I will treasure it for a little while yet. It gave me access to the thoughts and minds of dozens of writers and provided enough inspiration (and topics for futureoflongform.com) to keep me going for months.
One of my favourite lines from this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival is from 'The New Yorker' team (paraphrased) A ‘New Yorker’ piece has beats in it. It moves you through ideas. It isn’t a waste of time. That one’s going up on my wall.
At his ‘In Conversation’ session, Robin Hemley quotes Tobias Wolff as saying (paraphrased) Some stories have to be told, they create a kind of volcanic pressure within you.
Lee Gutkind speaks of his research work for ‘Almost Human: Making Robots Think’. He tells writers pursuing similar immersion projects to, ‘find a long term project with a beginning and an end.’ As far as cracking into those projects he reminds us that, ‘lots of people think what they’re doing is really important and thinks nobody notices.’ Thus if you show those potential subjects that you understand and respect what they’re doing you are likely to be allowed in. But he warns, ‘if you don’t immerse yourself for long periods of time – if you don’t watch them succeed or fail – then you’re not a part of it.’ (For more on this session check out this post by Samantha van Zweden).
I like what Pico Iyer says in his session with Robert Dessaix, ‘If you write honestly you have to forget about the audience.’
I am asked by my fellow Emerging Bloggers what the highlights of the festival were for me. I think first in sessions, ‘I learned a lot from David Grann’s presentation,’ I say. (And wrote that up too). Interviewing Robin Hemley and Hattie Fletcher were highlights. It meant something to me to shake Lee Gutkind’s hand and thank him for his indirect advice and inspiration over the years.
But I also learned from those around me. Bloggers emerging and official blew my socks off with their speedy-yet-beautifully-written post-session reviews. (especially Alice Robinson, Angela Meyer, Andrew Bifield and Samantha van Zweden). Jen Hansen – a savvy journalist in her own right - reminded me of the importance of chutzpah. As a session chair Estelle Tang showed that earnestness, intelligence and humour are not mutually exclusive. The entire cast of The Radio Hour should stop us all from referring to ‘This American Life’ as the cultural touch point for good radio documentaries. It was proof enough of the trove of local talent we have.
And then there’s the people who made the festival happen – outgoing Director Steve Grimwade and his amazingly talented team (including my main contact, Imogen Kandel). And those who made it happen for me, Karen Andrews and Lisa Dempster at the Emerging Writers Festival. Generous legends, all of them.
It may be void of value, but I am sure this pass has some kind of a half-life. For this reason it will remain a treasure for me and take pride of place at my desk alongside the framed ‘Remittance Advice’ of the first article I was paid for.