Why I’m a card-carrying Emerging Writers' Festival fan

In amongst the crowd, everyone else seems to know one another. This time last year, I doubt I’d have known anyone. But this year I find someone I know (and there’ll be two more as the evening continues). While my friend and I chat, the official launch of the 2013 Emerging Writers' Festival (EWF) program looms and EWF staffers usher us to our seats. When one gets to me she smiles. ‘Oh! Hi Pepi! I didn’t know you were going to be here,’ she says warmly, ‘but then again…you’re always at EWF things!’ And I smile too, because it’s true. I am. I only learned about the EWF a year ago. But I’ve been an absolute fan since. This is because the EWF has been at the foundation of my achievements in the past year.

I might not be the greatest at making and designing fan-cards but I am one of EWF's biggest fans.
I might not be the greatest at making and designing fan-cards but I am one of EWF's biggest fans.

I might be new to EWF but this year it’s celebrating its tenth anniversary. I can’t begin to imagine how many careers it has ignited in that time. For me it started with an encouraging PS on a kind of ‘rejection’ email to last year’s call for writers. I’d expressed my interest in the context of experiments I had done using Kindle as a way to publish long form non-fiction. ‘PS’, Karen Andrews (EWF's Program Manager) wrote at the bottom of the email, ‘On a personal note, I really like your idea of long-form work potentially finding an Amazon/online audience. Good luck with it.’ I liked that she liked my idea, and her encouragement fed another idea I’d been kicking around for a while. A week later, the first fizz of EWF-inspiration took action, and I started planning this blog.

The 2012 Festival arrived and I was heartened by what I learned. I paid just $65 for a weekend of Town Hall conferencing which was unbelievably good value. This was one of the best investments I’ve made in my writing career so far. At the conference I made a new writer-friend. I learned that I was not alone in my goals and aspirations. I was inspired by the experiments of other writers dealing with our changing publishing environment. I became convinced of the need of a platform in which to write regularly.

A month later I launched this blog. My original intention was to write and post a few weeks in advance, but I was far too inspired. So I uploaded four of the five posts I had already written, backdating them to May. (Read my first post: Give up the newsroom or your career gets it). That may have been enough inspiration from one festival, but for me at least, the EWF is a festival that keeps on giving. Andrews’ PS and the Town Hall Conference were just steps one and two. There were plenty more to come.

I kept writing my blog every week. I started with no readership, but loved the discipline of writing and thinking about writing regularly (and still do). When the EWF put the call out for Emerging Bloggers for the Melbourne Writers Festival I put my hand up. I’ll never forget the thrill of learning that Future of Long Form had been selected. I was whooping through our empty house. The EWF had given me a great opportunity.

In August 2012 when the Emerging Blogging gig began I was struck by the warmth of both EWF and MWF staff. I didn’t know it yet, but EWF was making me a part of a writing community. I now had new writer friends and industry contacts (including my fellow Emerging Bloggers). Thanks to my MWF/EWF calling-card doors opened to interviews with prominent writers and organisations like Creative Nonfiction magazine, Robin Hemley and Margaret Simons. Plus I had ten days of uninterrupted inspiration with my cherished free festival pass. At the end of the festival I wholeheartedly thanked both the EWF and MWF for an amazing experience - somehow thinking their contribution to my career couldn’t get any better than this. Ha!

From Andrews’ PS, to the Town Hall Conference, to starting my blog, to becoming a blogger for MWF came a new opportunity. Based on my interview and post about Robin Hemley I was selected as an official blogger for the NonfictioNow conference. It’s another opportunity to interview great writers of international stature and I was gifted with more days of inspiration at that conference.

By then I'd developed the discipline of writing everyday, and I felt that my work was all the better for it (of course, I’ve still got a long way to go). I also learned a huge amount about long form, writing craft and distribution. I had some impressive names on my blog, which lead to more great names, which increased my readership. All of this makes me consider that none of this would have happened without the EWF. But it doesn’t even end there! It’s no wonder I’m a card-carrying fan.

In January 2013 I got two more whoop-worthy emails, which I wouldn’t have, were it not for the journey that EWF began. Imogen Kandel, Online Editor of Killings (Kill Your Darlings blog) invited me to be a 2013 columnist on Books and Writing. (My work was first exposed to Kandel during MWF). And the Wheeler Centre awarded me a Hot Desk Fellowship. I doubt I would have applied for the fellowship if the EWF team (especially Karen Andrews) hadn’t encouraged me and my new writing career all those months ago. (Props too, to former Director Lisa Dempster and new Director Sam Twyford-Moore - love their work!).

So yes, that’s why I am a card-carrying fan of EWF - and that’s why you’ll often see me at their events. I hope you'll all go to plenty of events (view the program here) because you never know what might happen. And when you do go, come and say hello. I’ll be at the Town Hall Conference and other events and will be tweetings.


MWF: A bag of mixed quotes and reflections

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.

Interviewing and Paper Radio

A few months ago I wrote a story for a glossy magazine. I couldn’t find my potential interviewees online or on the phone. I had to get out amongst them, and query each one until I had the stories I was looking for. I gleefully went out and popped my digital recorder in front of the mouth of anyone who would speak. I took a minute or two of their time, jotted down their telephone number and went on to the next.  Of every twenty people I spoke to, I found one or two that I might interview. As I wrote the story, that number went down. Writing is so much about cutting. Paring it down makes it a better piece. But I always feel a little twinge of guilt as I cut characters and stories from my work. These aren’t imaginary characters I’m cutting. They’re real people.

‘We interviewed a lot more people than we ended up using,’ Jon Tjhia tells me. He’s one of two Executive Producers behind Paper Radio, an audio journal that produces spoken podcasts of both fiction and non-fiction. This Sunday he’ll be putting together a radio documentary at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Tjhia is one part of ‘The Radio Hour’ which promises to be ‘documentary radio like you’ve never seen it before.’ Tjhia and a huge cast including Pico Iyer, Chloe Hooper and Natalie Kestecher will together take on the daunting task of producing radio in front of an audience. And it’s all on the theme ‘Do you read me?’

Tjhia’s preparation for this topic began earlier this year – as did my involvement with the project. Back in April I saw a call-out from Paper Radio. They were looking for ‘interesting or funny stories about translation or a gap in language.’ I’m not one to get in front of the microphone or the camera, but after a year in Japan (which included the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown) I thought I might have some stories to tell. And I saw the call-out as an opportunity for something else: it was a chance to put myself in the shoes of those I interviewed.

I was surprised how quickly I became a nervous interviewee. On the bus heading into town to meet Tjhia my heartbeat quickened. Once there I worried that my mouth would sound pasty and that I’d spit on the expensive-looking equipment before me. Worse still I feared I’d say something stupid. I could hear the tension in my own voice. And I like to think of myself as someone who doesn’t get nervous about these things. After all I know how it works. Imagine what it’s like for those we interview?

When Tjhia interviewed me, his focus was on language and translation, but like all stories the idea evolved. ‘We had this emergent theme of sign language – which wasn’t really what we had thought of initially but it kept coming up. And it came up not just speaking to people about deafness, but also people being in different cultures and that being a way to bridge (to some extent) [the language] divide,’ Tjhia says.

Tjhia and his co Executive Producer, Jessie Borrelle, did about eight hours of interviews. ‘It’s really important to gain the trust of the person,’ he tells me. ‘You don’t really get to what’s important in a story in talking to someone for ten minutes,’ Tjhia transcribed all of the interviews. ‘Even on the [final] topic … we had some other interviews that - whilst they didn’t make it to the final cut for this thing - we’ll hopefully use later on,’ he says – noting that every single interview, ‘informed much more richly the background of our research.’ (I’m pretty sure I’ve been cut – but I don’t ask, because a) I want to mimic the experience of those I interview as closely as reasonably possible and b) I don't mind if I'm cut).

Some of the other contributors will use live music. Tjhia has prepared samples for his final piece, and will be mixing it all on stage. ‘It will be sort of like live radio… fading up and down, going to tracks,’ he says. But it will be ‘highly premeditated, tightly timed… I’ll try not to lose my way in the script in the process,’ he quips.

Tjhia is keen for those who attend the session to come away with, ‘an excitement about the way audio stories can be told and… [the] freedom of that space.’ He wants the audience to have a better recognition of the strength and creativity already present in Australian radio. ‘This American Life has been tossed around a whole lot in describing this event… I don’t think that we should have to rely on the old powers for our cultural touch points,’ he says.

Sunday’s event will be the conclusion of my experiment as the interviewee. I expect it will inform (if only in a small way) my approach to contacting those whose voices won’t appear in my articles. But I have a feeling that there will be a pleasure (indeed, pride) of having informed and helped to shape somebody else’s creative endeavour. And I’m certain that ‘The Radio Hour’ will do its part to celebrate the great audio storytelling talent we have in Australia.

The Radio Hour’ is on Sunday 2 September at 6.00pm at the Arts Centre. The final hour will later be broadcast on Radio National’s 360Documentaries.


Robin Hemley on breaking rules

‘I write what I want to write,’ says Robin Hemley, author of eight books, winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and Editor of Defunct Magazine. ‘I tend to break the so-called golden rule [of knowing where you’ll pitch a story before you write it] all the time. Sometimes I’ll pitch it to a magazine and they’ll pick it or they won’t. But other times I just write it because it’s just a weird idea,’ says Hemley.


He gets inspiration from all around, and has written on a huge range of subjects from the personal, through the anthropological and even academic (though I hasten to add, he’s not an academic writer). Hemley writes fiction too. His most recent book, ‘Reply All’, is a collection of short stories.

‘What I find is that you write the piece you’re going to write. If it’s any good at all you’ll find a home,’ he says. Hemley gives an example inspired in Prague, ‘One of my friends got pick pocketed on the train right in front of us. I started being interested in the whole notion of pickpockets and the art of pick pocketing,’ Hemley says. This began, ‘The Pickpocket Project,’ an essay that was completely written before being picked up by Jill Talbot in ‘Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction’. More recently Hemley did a reading of it, and another editor expressed interest. ‘[Your good writing] will make its way through the culture in some way or another,’ he says.

Hemley uses social media to help his writing into our culture, ‘A part of me hates it. A part of me likes it,’ he says. ‘Increasingly writers are becoming these “circus barkers” having to draw a crowd to them. That takes up so much of their energy that when you get to the three-ring circus, what’s in the middle? Not much.’ On the other hand Hemley recognises the advantages of social media, ‘You’re able to very quickly make people aware of something you have written,’ he says. And using social media has resulted in increased sales of his recent book of short stories.

New technologies aren’t considered crucial in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Iowa University (where Hemley is Director). Students are given the opportunity to study radio and video essay production, but they aren’t made to learn these skills. ‘It always helps to be conversant in different technologies but when it comes down to it, it’s how good you are as a writer. It’s about content – not ultimately about the presentation alone.’ Hemley says that, ‘the most important thing is to hone one’s skills as a writer, and to have something that's worth writing about.’

What non-fiction writers choose to write has always been a popular subject in writing circles. The definition of truth has been the centre of countless discussions. But the release of a book earlier this year, ‘The Lifespan of Fact,’ by Hemley’s University of Iowa colleague, John D’Agata (co-authored with Jim Dingle) has fuelled the debate. (This review in the New York Times gives an overview). And it’s something that Hemley, Kate Holden, Lee Kofman and Lee Gutkind will be discussing at the Melbourne Writers Festival this weekend.

Gutkind, Editor at Creative Nonfiction magazine, is a big advocate for truth in nonfiction. By contrast, at the Melbourne Writers Festival ‘In Conversation’ session last weekend, Hemley puts forward an alternative perspective. ‘Fabrication and manipulation are a part of any artistic endeavour,’ Hemley says. ‘Lying,’ he says (using air quotes), is a part of the artistic process, ‘The sooner you understand that, the easier it is to write.’

Hemley won’t comment on D’Agata, but does question some of the decisions his colleague made in his original essay (which is the subject of the book). Hemley argues that even if a writer has meticulous notes, there is always some ‘lying’. To illustrate the point, Hemley does an exercise with his students. He makes them close their eyes and describe the room. ‘They always distort, that’s just part of it,’ he says.

The debate at ‘Fact, Fiction, Truth’ will no doubt be a corker. It’s on Saturday 1 September at 2.30pm.

David Grann on obsession

At 'The New Yorker' (TNY), writers are allowed to pursue their obsessions. Staff Writer David Grann says it comes from a theory that tapping into writers’ excitements and interests will make them write something better. I think they’re onto something there. The magazine’s circulation has long since travelled past its namesake. Here in Melbourne, Grann’s session ‘The New Yorker: On Obsession’ (at MWF) was sold out. Grann was enormously generous at the session. He described his achievements humbly and shared many insights into his writing process.

Moderator James Button started by prompting Grann to share the how and why of his writing career. Grann said he feels fortunate to have ended up where he is. But when he started he didn’t know how he would get there, or that he would ever get there.

Grann always knew he wanted to be a writer, and says the journey to TNY was a, ‘long, slow evolution with an enormous amount of rejections.’ As a young writer he thought he wanted to write fiction but, he says, ‘I’m really bad at it.’ Once he realised that non-fiction could be entwined with storytelling he became more inspired, energetic and found opportunities. Writers like Gay Talese and Joan Didion were ‘revelations’. Grann said he came upon them late, but devoured them all.

Grann says the problems he had with fiction – such as creating and rendering characters and capturing dialogue – were solved by journalism. Finding and reading a transcript involving a character called ‘Orlie the Crab’ was when he realised that non-fiction was better than fiction. He was researching a piece on former US Congressman James Traficant. The ‘authenticity of dialogue’ sealed the moment. ‘This is what I wanted to imagine [in fiction] but never could,’ says Grann.

When writing his stories Grann looks for the elements of fiction: interesting characters, compelling figures (including obsessives) and subcultures or worlds that the stories allow him into. Grann pursues stories out of curiosity. Sometimes he’ll read just a few lines in a newspaper that will spawn a question, other times a story will evolve. The subject of his recent book, ‘The Lost City of Z’ (about Victorian explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett and his journeys in the Amazon) had its infancy in a different story about the world’s greatest Sherlock Holmes character. For any story to work Grann says, ‘You’ve got to love the subject matter. You’ve got to feel that the questions you need to answer just keep growing rather than closing off.’

Questioning his subjects has put Grann into some fairly curly physical situations. While researching a story on a giant squid he found himself in a small boat at sea during a fierce storm. On his quest for the story of ‘The Lost City of Z’ he became separated from his guide in the Amazon, walking in circles and feeling very lost. ‘At a certain point the Amazon all looks the same – like a white out in the snow, but with greenery,’ he says.

Yet he plays down these moments arguing that the more challenging aspects of his work are the structural elements of writing. A piece of a story can be missing, or sources may collude to create a kind of ‘hall of mirrors.’ For Grann this causes the greatest amount of frustration. He becomes obsessed with trying to find out what happened. ‘My quest is biographical, reportorial,’ he says. He looks for the end of a story, tries to solve mysteries, to sate a certain curiosity. The more I dig, the more I want to know. One piece leads to another. (Grann, paraphrased)

When doing biographical research writers need to interrogate their characters Grann says. He is interested in history from the inside out rather than the outside in. When writing historical pieces he wants to know how his subjects saw the world at that time. This approach was central to his research for ‘The Lost City of Z’. Its main subject, Fawcett, had an urge to explore. ‘These urges do have consequences,’ says Grann describing the devastation Fawcett left behind when he took his son into the Amazon and never returned.

An audience member asked if writing can be taught. Grann delineates between fiction and non-fiction, ‘I don’t think you could create a John Updike. He had an enormous gift,’ he says. But non-fiction in many ways is a craft that can be taught, ‘Some of it is observation,’ says Grann. Writers need to train their ear for dialogue and notice details like a person’s ticks or habitual phrases. They need to figure out the essence of a story and distil these. Grann modestly describes himself as an effective writer but not a great one. He aims to be transparent in his writing, ‘So the reader can almost be there the way I was there,’ he says.

‘It’s less about teaching. A lot of it is doing,’ says Grann. When he was starting out in his career he did anything he could to get clips. He would work for free. He wrote obituaries and about high school graduations. In a session the previous day Grann said that the central element to his career was the urge to write, ‘If you have that urge… just keep doing it.’

Hanging around – being there - is a part of Grann’s theory of reporting. ‘If [you’re] there you’ll see things,’ he says. If you hang around long enough your sources will forget you’re there and become themselves.

Button questions Grann on the future of long form. ‘It’s almost dead in this country,’ says Button. Grann concurs, ‘You cannot be in the business and not feel like an endangered species.’ But, says Grann, stories are things that are, ‘in some ways wired into our DNA… People have been telling stories for centuries and centuries… It’s always [been] a part of our culture.’

‘The truth is long form non-fiction is expensive,’ says Grann citing costs beyond salaries such as guards, satellite phones and living expenses. And long form takes time. ‘So much of media is now predicated on quickness, immediacy and speed. You can’t tweet it out,’ says Grann. But the Internet has allowed writers to reach other people more quickly and cheaply. Grann is hopeful for the future of long form, ‘because of that essential need [for stories] those stories will still remain. It’s hard to imagine it going away,’ he says.

A part of every writer’s life is rejection, and Grann is no stranger to it. ‘We’re all insecure creatures,’ he says. We all want our stories to be critically well received and read. When he writes, Grann quarantines the fear of failure. He focuses on what he can control, ‘the sentences, structure and the reporting,’ and writing something he can be proud of.

At TNY rejection has a different slant, usually when you’re turned down for an idea it’s for the right reasons (Grann, paraphrased). He talks about the way editors at TNY work with writers. They help with structure, to overcome obstacles and talk out riddles. They are enormously helpful he says. Editors and fact checkers take the story though a process that is ‘bigger than yourself,’ says Grann, ‘I always try to pay my tribute to them.’

TNY is associated with an excellence that Grann ascribes to people arriving at the magazine when they’re better at their craft. Staff at TNY care about the story. ‘It’s almost a simple mission,’ says Grann. The story is, ‘what unifies everybody there.’ Grann also says that the magazine insulates its staff from economics and external pressures – something that few magazines are able to do.

A question from the audience asks Grann how he thinks about readers when he’s writing. ‘I don’t know if I really have a sense of an ideal reader. I try not to think of my story with limitations,’ he says. Grann aims to write for everyone, asking the questions: How can I pull you in? How can I take you on this journey? He says you can write an extremely sophisticated story (one that plays with post modernism, revolutions, socialism or idealism for example). But these stories almost always include something compelling – such as a love story. As a story it needs to be pleasurable, told in the best way, but including smart things. Grann also thinks about how busy his audience is, and the competition his story has against the various gadgets that now distract us.

Getting the story is important too. Grann is persistent with sources he wants to talk to. He’ll ask a source for years to tell their story until they agree to speak. Grann advises other writers not to give up if a source says no. Never think there's a great secret. If they really don’t want [to talk] they won’t (Grann paraphrased). But if they do want to talk, and you're the one who stuck with it, you will get the story, he says. Grann explains to sources that he realises they are entrusting themselves to him, and that he will always be fair to them. When negotiating with sources Grann says writers should be themselves, be forthright.

Grann’s approach in this session was very much in accord with this advice. He was honest and forthright, and gave the audience a real sense of the story behind his stories. Above all was the commitment Grann has to the potential of his craft. ‘On Obsession’ was an apt title.

Creative Nonfiction is keeping it real

More and more, writers and publishers are being counseled to go digital: we must learn a broader set of skills (not just writing), we must be able to present to video, edit an audio file, and charm on social media. Serendipity has enabled me to develop most of these skills throughout my career (perhaps not the charm). But here’s the thing: I like to write. To write is what I want to do. There are times when I worry that my future may involve more multimedia than words (such as at the Future of Digital Publishing event I went to last week). These times can create a mirage of doom and gloom for the future of long form narrative writing. But talking to Hattie Fletcher, Managing Editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine (CNF) has settled my anxiety. The magazine keeps it real with a healthy respect for both the power of words, and the benefits new media can bring.

If you don’t know about CNF, then your writing and reading life is about to change. To me it is the Mecca of the best non-fiction reads, and the kind of writing I can only ever aspire to. It celebrates the power of narrative and storytelling. It’s writing that stays with you, that makes your soul sing.

The magazine was originally published in a journal format with a focus on essays. In 2010 it expanded to magazine format and introduced articles on the creative non-fiction genre. It has since embraced some aspects of e-publishing and continues to explore new media. But thanks to a recent reader survey, CNF isn’t going digital anytime soon. ‘We have a lot of readers who are interested in having a really nice physical object that they can hold onto. We don’t think of it as a throwaway magazine. It’s a little bit closer to a book,’ says Fletcher.

Things like video are a long way off. ‘So far there are enough people who do just want [words],’ says Fletcher. She acknowledges that some readers may enjoy more multimedia, and cites a brief foray into podcasts by the magazine. As a reader herself though, Fletcher says she seldom engages with the multimedia extras in digital magazines, ‘I wonder sometimes how many people really do,’ she says. So do I.

CNF’s approach to new technologies is refreshingly pragmatic. ‘We’re a tiny organisation. And so it’s a question for us of what the benefit in doing this is, and what we can actually work into our process,’ says Fletcher. A great access-point for writers is to submit ‘tiny truths’ to CNF’s daily Twitter contest (via #cnftweets). ‘We get a lot of people who come in new to the CNF tweet contest. But there’s a core group of die-hards who’ve been doing it since the start. And they’re looking out for each other,’ she says. Unlike multimedia extras, this kind of engagement in new media has benefits.

‘For us as a publication social networking has been great. It’s really helped us get closer to our readers and the community, and have closer contact with the people who are reading the magazine,’ says Fletcher. Making this direct contact with readers is an asset for publications struggling on small budgets. But Fletcher isn’t certain that it’s a must for writers to join the social media babble.

‘I think it’s something related to a person’s temperament,’ she says cataloguing writers who excel as equally in social media as they do in a room full of people, ‘They’re just intuitive networkers anyway.’ And while social media can be useful for journalists in finding sources Fletcher says, ‘the flip side is that it can be a huge time-suck. There are people who probably Facebook more about writing than they actually write.’ (If you missed it, there’s a great article in the Guardian by Ewan Morrison who, like Fletcher, questions the value of social media to writers).

Hail the voice of reason from Hattie Fletcher - but don’t be quick to label her a Luddite. In fact she sees many opportunities for the future of long form in new media.

‘On the one hand we have the incredible shrinking attention span because everything is quick. [But on the other hand] you see things evolve technologically that have helped. Definitely Byliner, Longform and Longreads [have] all helped provide a better home for long form,’ she says. It could be argued that pieces between 5,000 and 15,000 words fell into an uneasy middle ground during the era of print. But Fletcher says that, ‘in some ways it’s a really good time to be a long form writer because you have more potential ways of reaching an audience.’

Fletcher’s Editor Lee Gutkind is in Melbourne for the Writers Festival and will be presenting a number of sessions from the 31st of August.

Included in these events will be the launch of the latest issue of CNF which is on the theme of Australia (Leah Kaminsky was guest editor).

The magazine will be making announcements soon about its digital future – so follow @cnfonline on Twitter if you’re interested in getting updates.



Oratory, rhetoric, poetry and prose

So the saying goes, as does a session at the Melbourne Writers Festival, ‘Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose’. If you have an interest in the power of words – or politics – it will be one for you. It’s a session, ‘about political rhetoric in America in an election year,’ says Sally Warhaft, anthropologist, broadcaster, former editor of ‘The Monthly’ magazine and author of ‘Well May We Say: The Speeches that Made Australia’.

Warhaft will chair the event with panelists Don Watson, Martin Indyk and Tom Clark. The stellar line up alone will interest politicos. But I reckon there’s something in it for writers too. At the core of it, Warhaft says, is, ‘what speech and words can and can’t do.’ This session is exploring rhetoric.

Too often rhetoric borders on being a dirty word – a shorthand for the phrase ‘empty rhetoric.’ But rhetoric can be a beautiful thing. It can move people, it can inspire. Rhetoric can capture imaginations. It can tell a story.

In his 2008 election campaign (and well before it) Barak Obama used great oratory and rhetoric to capture the imagination of a nation and the world. The promise of Obama and his campaign of hope are central to this session.

It will look at, ‘the tension between [Obama’s promise], what the reality has been, and what was probably going to be the reality (of being the president in very challenging times),’ says Warhaft. ‘I would like the audience to walk out with a real sense of that tension.’

If Obama’s been governing in prose will he become a poet again anytime soon? ‘I suspect he will. I think it’s just within him,’ says Warhaft. ‘You probably don’t have to be a natural to give a great, important and memorable speech.’ But, ‘you’ve got to say what you believe. The things that used to be important are no longer important. It used to be essential that you had a big booming voice – before amplification. But people have to believe you. And for people to believe you, you generally have to be telling the truth as you see it,’ she says.

Confidence is also a factor. It’s easy to be lifted by the oratory of Josiah Bartlet and Matt Santos (fictional characters played by actors in Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed TV series, the West Wing). ‘President Bartlet made some wonderful speeches that you never forget,’ Warhaft says. ‘But then you ask yourself, “If Aaron Sorkin gave up a year of his life and came to Australia [to write speeches for] Julia Gillard… Would that actually help?” I think the answer would be, “only a little bit”. You need somebody to deliver as well.’

As oratory is a part of making a memorable speech the session will no doubt consider the hallmarks of convincing delivery. And though you may think it a long bow to stretch, delivery is becoming more relevant to writers. (At a seminar last week, an editor stated that he no longer hires writers who can’t write for video or present to camera). But rhetoric and oratory aren’t the only aspects of your writing life the session is likely to inspire. The speakers are all writers, and have their heads in the wider sociopolitical environment.

The session may also ask whether the state of political communication reflects the state of a culture. ‘In Australia I think that our culture is healthier than our political culture. But I think there is also a relationship,’ says Warhaft. ‘We’re living in a culture that prizes things that aren’t always that interesting – like consumption. And there’s an emptiness… I really hope we don’t get the government we deserve.’

Speaking of governance, we discuss the curatorial responsibilities of chairing. ‘I love chairing. I think it’s a challenging thing to do,’ says Warhaft. ‘You’ve got to read their work. You’ve got to study it. But then you’ve got to let go as well. And just relax. They know what they’re talking about.’

Campaign in Poetry, Govern in Prose,’ will be at 11.30am on Sunday 2 September.

'Community' or 'Crowd'?

As a writer and adorer of our motley English language I do like to amuse myself with the origin of words. For example, in English we have many lexical twins and triplets. Like ‘guts’ and ‘courage’, or ‘ask’, ‘question’ and ‘interrogate’. Their meanings are similar but their origins differ. I like to know these facts and to respect them, to geek out on the details and nuances. Hence I’m curious that in my post ‘The future of long form: an odyssey’, I cavalierly paired ‘Crowd-funding’ and ‘Community-funded reporting’ with a simple forward slash. I didn’t once consider they weren’t one and the same. But after talking to award-winning journalist, Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism and coordinator of Masters in Journalism at the University of Melbourne, Margret Simons, I realise they are different.

When she was at Swinburne University, Simons was involved in a crowd-funding initiative, youcommnews.com. It was among the first of its kind in Australia, and based on the existing website, it seems to have lost its mojo. There was a flurry of activity in 2010/11 and not much since. I asked Simons, what happened. ‘We did prove the model worked. We funded two pieces of journalism on [it]. But certainly levels of activity on the site were a long way short of what we would want to see in order to call it a success. So we won some and lost some.’ Simons says.

The two pieces that were funded were well funded. One was by Simons herself about ABCNews24, and another by Toula Mantis about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. As one of Australia’s first forays into crowd-funding of journalism, youcommnews.com is still ultimately experimenting (and though it is dormant, Simons says it’s not dead). But with only two projects successfully funded, I wonder, are Australian readers ready for these kinds of entrepreneurial initiatives?

‘If you ask the question in the broad, “Will people fund journalism?” the answer may well be, “Well it depends,”’ Simons says. The two funded pieces were very focused, and already had well organised online communities. According to Simons, those communities ultimately provided the funding. She notes it’s early days, but says, ‘My suspicion is that if the reporting or the topic of the reporting is intensely relevant to the community that is funding it, [that project could succeed].’

Thus, ‘crowd-funding’ is the mechanism but ‘community-funded reporting’ is the appropriate label.

Simon’s states her insights are ‘tentative’ because they are ‘based on a very small sample’. But to me they ring true. The community is what gets word out, and those within it will not only read your work, but care enough to help you fund it. Elmo Keep’s successful campaign to fund a ticket for a KISS Cruise (research for her book on the band) is very much in keeping with this idea. It's a very specific subject, with a lot of fans.

So thinking of it as Community-funded reporting could bear fruit for those considering crowd-funding of their long form non-fiction. I like to parallel this way of thinking to that of a pitch. Before you pitch your idea to a publication you qualify it. You make sure that it’s a match, and (technically) you don’t pursue the idea until you have a venue for it.

Community-funded reporting is not so different. You just choose your community, rather than your venue.

I’ll be keeping you posted on more Community-funded reporting initiatives (and the progress of youcommnews.com).

If you’re in Melbourne and interested in funding models for news, head to the ‘What Cost News’ session.

Margaret Simons will be contributing to a range of sessions at the festival. I think she has great insights for those who haven’t trained in a newsroom. See this page of the MWF site for details.

See also:

Non-fictioneers’ guide to MWF 2012

As an official ‘Emerging Blogger’ for MWF 2012 I have trawled through the festival program as I do every year, ticking, crossing (and doing a twirly line to indicate uncertainty). To do it thoroughly is an uber time-consuming task. So I thought I’d share my shortlist of events with a non-fiction focus. Make sure you confirm the details on the MWF site (titles are linked to the relevant pages).

You can also access these pages using the 'MWF Guide' link in the top navigation.

Friday 24 August

Saturday 25 August

Sunday 26 August

Tuesday 28 August to Thursday 30 August

Friday 31 August

Saturday 1 September

Sunday 2 September


I've tried to make shorthand keys to help you work through the sessions of relevance:

A=Arts, AUS=Australia, E=Ethics, FE=Finance / Economy F=Might include fiction (oh no! ;-)), FC=Foreign Correspondent / Travel Writing, J=Journalism, LF=Long form, P=Politics, R=Religion, S=Sustainability / Environment, Sc=Science.

Yes, but did you ask?

‘One of the primary joys of being a writer comes from the people you meet and the situations you get in.’ Sarah Marshal, Portland Review (April 2012). Getting into these situations takes a little chutzpah. Personally I’m an advocate of the ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ philosophy. If I’m really interested in a topic or a person I will ask for interviews. I wouldn’t say that I was ‘ballsy’ but I don’t see the benefit of staying mute.

For example, as a first year writing student I approached Toby Young, author of the hilarious book, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Young generously gave me the interview, and I wrote up my piece. My teacher (David Astle) allocated points for chutzpah but David chided me for my final line. It read:

‘“I love being married and I love being a dad,” Young tells me. But when I ask him to elaborate, he declines.’

The goal of this line was to draw on the idea that there was a public Toby Young and a private one (or that’s what I told myself). But David saw that it revealed something else: I wasn’t prepared to ask the difficult question.

‘It’s a really common fault in emerging writers,’ says Margaret Simons, award-winning journalist, Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism and coordinator of Masters in Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She’s referring to, ‘an unwillingness to do the difficult interview’ – a trade skill that has traditionally been taught in the newsroom.

Toby Young's book (also made into a movie) is about a writer who asks difficult questions.

Most emerging writers fear that an interviewee could become angry. Some simply don’t want to interview those with highly contentious or disagreeable opinions. Others don’t ask for interviews because we think we know what the interviewee will say. But as Simons says, ‘You don’t know. We’ve basically got to discipline ourselves to do those difficult interviews. It’s part of the job. It’s not an escapable part of the job.’

You may think you can fudge over your lack of questioning. But Simons says it's evident in your work. In its simplest form it shows in a bias (because you’ve interviewed people from only one side of the debate). More subtly it can be evident in the quotes (or lack of) from your main interviewee - like my first-year profile on Toby Young. (I didn’t want to push it. After all, Young is a hero of mine).

I ask Simons if she has any tips for those who do find themselves in an awkward situation with an interviewee. ‘Well,’ she takes pause, ‘Deal with it.’ We both laugh - but that’s the sum of it. ‘It’s not necessarily wrong to make people angry,’ she says. ‘They might not like the line of your questioning. But most people are mature enough to handle that. Usually what happens is that the reporter’s own discomfort with emotion in an interview… prevents us from doing the best possible job.’

Simons says her newsroom training taught her to ask the difficult questions, ‘If you filed a piece that didn’t have the other point of view, then you were told to go and get it.’ She recalls one incident during her cadetship where, ‘I was being fed a line by one side of [a] campaign and failed to get the other point of view.’ She ended up being on the receiving end of, ‘an extremely stiff and entirely justified,’ letter to the editor. She says she’d effectively ‘taken the drip… and people tend not to see it as taking the drip when it’s a point of view which they agree with.’

I like to think of myself as media savvy. I watch our local program, the ABC’s Media Watch. I think I can recognise bias in work. But I take heed in the fact that I am outside a newsroom of any description, working alone and very much within my own head. Though I like to see myself as objective I know I must take care. In the new media galaxy writers must be certain that we’ve asked the difficult questions.

If you’re in Melbourne (or will be in late August) checkout the schedule for the New News conference at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival.

For writers of long form non-fiction Simons recommends:

What cost news’ ($19.50/$21.50) and the discussion afterwards ‘New News: Future of Journalism’ (free).

Also, Alan Missen’s Keynote ‘Oration Literature and Global Citizenship’ ($27/$30).

It's not a gift...

Writers festivals get us out of our garrets and into an audience. They can make us swap our view of keyboards and screens for that of a stage. They take us outside the stories we are writing, and into those of other writers. They can be inspiring. And intimidating. My local - the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) - is looming. As an official ‘Emerging Blogger’ for the MWF (thanks to the Emerging Writers Festival) I have pored over the program.

I count down the days. But I temper myself too. I know how starry-eyed I can become in the face of my hero-writers. Thoughts like, ‘I don’t have the gift that writer does,' or 'I could never do that,’ used to trot through my head. These days I’m still humble, but more knowledgeable.

While researching an article on Singapore and creativity, I came across a book ‘Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation’  by Dr R Keith Sawyer. It was a watershed read for me. In it Sawyer debunked various myths about individual creativity. Referring to his and other studies he demonstrated that creativity is not god given, or hereditary, or related to one side of the brain. Creativity stems from a very different place:

‘The most important predictor of creative output is hard work, dedication and intrinsic motivation.’[1] (Sawyer)

It’s that simple.

In fact, studies on creativity align with writers’ mantras. Firstly there’s ‘just write’: highlighting the importance of getting on with your work. According to Sawyer creativity researchers agree it takes a decade of working within a domain to become creative. So as your heart soars with the prose you hear at the festival, think back to when you started writing seriously, keep writing and count forward.

Another mantra ‘make time to write’ aligns with creativity research. Tardiff and Sternberg (quoted in Sawyer’s book) wrote that, ‘creativity takes time… the creative process is not generally considered to be something that occurs in an instant with a single flash of insight, even though insights might occur.’ [2]

Creative people make time for their work, and they also manage it in a particular way. Writes Sawyer, ‘Creative people multitask in networks of enterprise… While they’re consciously attending to one project, the others are on the back burners. They know that good ideas require some incubation time. So they schedule their workday to accommodate this process.’[3] In other words, they allow time to think.

Many attribute success of a particular story to an ‘aha-moment'. But creativity experts see these moments as part of a wider process. They are, ‘sparks, nothing but rough outlines; the creator usually experiences a continued cycle of mini-insights and revisions while elaborating the insight into a finished piece.’[4] (Sawyer again) And lo! There’s our next writers’ mantra, ‘revise’. That’s where the ‘mini-insights’ come into play.

Being creative depends on shared cultural knowledge, and emerges from a group of people – not a single individual. So though it may feel a little intimidating, going to writers festivals, talking to others, workshopping and putting your work out there will help!

Fortified with this information, I shall be sure to stay on the inspired (rather than the intimidated) side at the festival. I hope you will too!


[1] Sawyer, Keith R, Explaining Creativity; The Science of Human Innovation, Oxford University Press, New York, 2006, p. 54 (Second edition published 2012)

[2] T Z Tardif and R J Sternberg, quoted in Sawyer, Keith R, ibid, p. 139

[3] Sawyer, Keith R, ibid, p. 62

[4] ibid, p.70

Writer wanted

I just popped a sign in the window at the front of my house. It says ‘Writer of long form non-fiction wanted – ENQUIRE WITHIN.’ Don’t worry, there’s no chance some unsuspecting writer will knock at my door. You can’t see the sign from the street, and anyways no one comes past. The sign is intended for me.

There must once have been a time when publishers advertised writing jobs just like this. I picture these in black and white celluloid; they were long before colour, Technicolour and the Internet.

Now contemporary writers have a galaxy of channels to get their work to readers. Publishers are just one part of an entrepreneurial whole. That’s why I put the sign in my window. As far as funding, publishing and getting readers for my work, I must ultimately rely on myself. I am the incorporated company. Readers, not publishers, are my clients. But there’s another thing I like about my new sign and it relates to the writers’ mantra: ‘just write’.

As obvious as it sounds, the missive to ‘just write’ is among the best advice an aspiring writer can get. Writing somethingis a 100% improvement on writing nothing. When I took on some contract work unrelated to my writing a couple of weeks ago, I made sure to set aside time for my writing. Within days I had absorbed the details of the contract work: the deadline, the challenges, the personalities, the pace and how different it was to my everyday. When I sat down to write I lacked direction and focus. I had effectively buried my muse within the contract work’s minutiae.

It was a brief but valuable lesson on the need for writers to make time to think. This is the other thing I like about my sign. When I sit at my desk it reads backwards – as if in reflection. It’s a prompt that I must make time to ponder, make connections and inspire ideas. (Though we mustn’t confuse that with procrastination!)

One humble sign sums up the requirements of emerging long form non-fiction writers in the new media galaxy. On the one hand, we must rely on ourselves to be entrepreneurial. On the other, we must also be thoughtful and reflective.

Next month the Melbourne Writers Festival launches on the theme 'Enquire Within'. I hope we can be inspired by the writers there – whose success I suspect is driven by their own initiative and reflection.

Meanwhile I have my sign to remind me of what’s important. It was easy to make – perhaps you should make one too!