conversations, classics, words, birds and the passionate amateur – the 2012 sydney writers’ festival

So, what do you write?

I used to dread being asked this question. Because in answering it, I always felt like I was admitting a kind of failure. “Oh,” I’d say. “I’m not writing anything at the moment, really”. Because blogging is not writing. Or, at least, that’s what I used to think

Last year, at my first Sydney Writers’ Festival, I dashed between sessions with my head cast downwards in the fervent hope that no-one would ask me That Question.

So, what do you write?

This year was different. Without even realising it, I’d left my fear behind.

I spent most of last week down at the wharves for the 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival, and the spaces between sessions were filled with conversations. I was fortunate enough to meet a few of the lovely, intelligent people I know from Twitter (and if any of you are reading this, it was great catching up with you all!).

However, most of the conversations I had last week were with complete strangers I met in queues. We chatted about Sydney, about the festival…about what we were reading…and, of course, there was That Question:

So, what do you write?

Without hesitating, I’d answer –

I write a blog about books.

I met a lovely lady who works as a translator. She told me that translators are writers too, in their own way – an idea I find fascinating. Her eyes lit up when she asked me my age. She then mentioned her son who is a year older than I am, taking special care to point out that he owns his own home, he’s been overseas, he’s tall, handsome…oh, and he’s not married. I couldn’t help but smile.

Another woman I chatted to had made her way to the Writers’ Festival from the Central Coast, and she’s writing the story of her mother’s life. She’s interested in starting a blog, and asked me for a few tips. And I met a couple – she writes poetry and her husband writes fantasy. Like me, they moved here from Melbourne. They used to live only a few suburbs away from where I lived when I first moved to the city.

For me, these casual conversations were one of the best things about this year’s Festival.

And then, of course, there were the panels. Choosing my top five Sydney Writers’ Festival picks for 2012 was easy. Here’s my list…

Friends Reviewing Friends

As a wannabe reviewer, I was in my element at this session. Gideon Haigh, Kerryn Goldsworthy and Chris Flynn discussed some of the issues surrounding critical writing. Is it ever okay for people to review their friends’ books? And, for that matter, what happens when people review their enemies’ books? And whose responsibility is it to make sure professionalism is maintained – the critic, or their editor?

The panelists momentarily turned their attention to the practical side of review writing, and listed some of their pet hates; the things you shouldn’t do when you write a review. I was sitting in the second row – I honestly hope they couldn’t see me turn white (then green) as I recognised many of the mistakes I know I’ve made in my (albeit brief) time as a book reviewer-in-training.

Equally terrifying and inspiring, this session gave me so much to think about.

Classic!

I’m rather smitten with Text Publishing’s new Text Classics range. As someone who’s still exploring Australian literature, I’m itching to get my hands on the complete set and read them all.

It was immediately clear that I’m not the only one who’s impressed by the new Text collection. The session was so popular, I actually missed out on getting in. I was most relieved to find that I could watch the session at the festival’s Viewing Lounge. Whoever came up with the idea of the Viewing Lounge – you are a genius. And a lifesaver. I’d have been devastated if I’d missed this session.

I found myself nodding vigorously as the panel – Kate Grenville, Tom Keneally, Geordie Williamson and Text’s Michael Heyward – discussed the importance of establishing an Australian literary canon. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to be present for this absolutely riveting discussion. I’m hoping it’ll be uploaded to the Sydney Writers’ Festival website as a podcast so I can catch it again – I didn’t take notes.

Admittedly, I was a little distracted by Tom Keneally’s laugh…

Not Funny, Strange

Talking of things I could listen to all day, how cool are Chris Flynn and Paddy O’Reilly? I heard both authors read from their latest works – A Tiger in Eden and The Fine Colour of Rust respectively.

To be honest, the reason I went along to Not Funny, Strange was to see Charlotte Wood. I adored Animal People and listening to her speak about her book; about the character she created was an inspiration.

But I was also impressed by Paddy O’Reilly and Chris Flynn – the way they read their novels aloud made me wish they’d just keep reading. I’ve added both of their books to my reading list.

(My reading list after the Writers’ Festival, by the way, is out of control.)

Carrie Tiffany

I really enjoyed Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds – in fact, I’m hoping to review it very soon. Fingers crossed.

Carrie Tiffany’s intelligence and grace left me in awe. Her family came to Australia from England when she was young, and as a child, she believed that the nature strips in front of each house in Australia were like a trail – if you followed them for long enough, you’d eventually find yourself in the bush.

She also spoke about the writing process behind her two novels. It’s given me a whole new perspective on Mateship with Birds.

Her next novel is going to be set in the city – I can’t wait to read it!

The Feminist Supremacy?

I couldn’t help but notice a clear divide in the audience for this session – those who found Kathy Lette riotously funny, and those who cringed whenever she opened her mouth. Needless to say, I was in the latter group.

This panel could have been a complete disaster. But Emily Maguire saved the day. In the gaps between Lette’s incessant quips, Maguire’s was the voice of reason, bringing to light the work of the fearless feminists of Gen Y.

And finally, one other session I have to mention – Criticism and Witticism on Saturday night. My memory of exactly what was said is admittedly a little fuzzy, because I didn’t take notes, but Jonathan Biggins thought it’d be devastatingly witty to launch an attack on bloggers and Twitter. There was one comment in particular that ruffled my feathers: it was along the lines of “If I needed to have a root canal, I wouldn’t go to someone who writes a dentistry blog”. Cue much laughter from the audience, and much eye-rolling from yours truly.

But I wasn’t actually there to hear him – I’d come along to see the presentation of the 2012 Pascall Prize. Geordie Williamson presented the award to James Bradley, and both gave absolutely cracking speeches. I’m still kicking myself for not taking notes!

A year ago, Biggins’ comment would have actually intimidated me. Not any more. There’s no shame in being a passionate amateur. In fact, it’s something I’m rather proud of. Biggins’ remark leaves me slightly bemused – and even more determined to keep doing exactly what I’m doing.

That’s my Sydney Writers’ Festival for this year. I’m already daydreaming about 2013. I’ll see you there?

Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

9 thoughts on “conversations, classics, words, birds and the passionate amateur – the 2012 sydney writers’ festival”

  1. Forget Biggins- that attitude is boorish and small minded. The more people that care and love and write about books, the better…. and you’re doing a FABULOUS job. xxx

    1. Hi Kirsten! This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot since the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I have massive respect for print journalism, but I’m also a huge believer in the quality of Australian literary blogs. There are so many amazing Australian bloggers out there who genuinely love books and literature.

      I can’t help but wonder how many blogs Jonathan Biggins has actually read…?

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