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 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.

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.