Emerging Writers’ Festival (EWF), 2008: I can’t wait to meet Nathan Curnow. Is he the one with the goatee and the nice-guy vibe? No, that’s Kirk Marshall. What about the foxy redhead? No, that’s–
Hang on; I think it’s that guy … the one in the bunny suit.
So you’re an emerging writer. You’ve made it to the Town Hall Writers’ Conference with a cup of coffee warming your hands. Uber-cool panellists like Benjamin Law and Sammy J are probably sleeping off last night’s hangover. You, on the other hand, have a shiny new pen, an open notebook and a slightly anxious feeling, not unlike the one you’d get just before you jump out of a plane.
I have something to tell you: by being here right now, you’re already one hell of a writer. You are, in fact, the best kind, because you’re open to the advice, encouragement and wisdom of other writers.
The EWF, it’s like a river. It’s two days floating on the current and seeing what surfaces. It’s not an author empowered ego-trip or a puffed-up marketing exercise for overblown hacks more at home in a Kmart than a local independent bookstore. The EWF is for you: the beginning, emerging or fully emerged writer. And you, in turn, are what makes the EWF rock, roll and even shimmy from time to time.
That said, you’ll still need a few things to really enjoy the festival, such as:
a) an open mind
b) a sense of humour and an ability to laugh at yourself
c) a willingness to develop a mad crush on someone you’ve only just met.
The EWF is not about impressing people. Just be yourself. Wear a scarf. Knit mittens. Start a conversation about Hall and Oates. Eat someone’s Cruskit and blame it on the guy who likes Kafka, who’s totally hot, by the way, and were you more confident you’d go get a brioche together, talk politics, have your first kiss and then bam: the next Saturday, you’re necking at the asylum seekers rally.
EWF 2009: Lisa Dempster is the coolest girl on the planet. Not only is she funny, smart and ethical but she also likes Naïve. Super by Erlend Loe, one of the coolest books ever written. Could I become vegan so we have more in common? What will my fiancée think?
You’ve noticed a problem. You’re only one day into the EWF program and you’ve met someone who thinks they’re a writer with a capital W: someone to be marvelled at rather than somebody who, like you, started with a dream and is still working at it.
To be fair, these writers aren’t evil, just annoying. They might be shy, they might be drunk or they might just be incredibly insecure. Whatever the case, it’s important to remember that a) you don’t have to be their friend and b) their opinion of you and your writing is of no consequence whatsoever.
There are others who matter because they like you for who you are, and indeed who we all are: writers of all types, from all genres, dedicated to getting better at our craft; committed to learning how best to write, read and play a part in fostering an inclusive literary culture.
So how do you meet these people? Well, that depends. You can go to a panel session or you can mill around the café, waiting for the right moment to start a conversation. If you choose the former, be wary of anyone carrying a copy of their own manuscript. If you choose the latter, then be sure to buy two Tim Tams or two coffees … or two Tim Tams AND two coffees, with the second just waiting to be snapped up by a poor, hungry and incredibly lovely new friend.
Once you’re talking, it’s important to establish rapport. Touching their arm is a good move, touching their arse is ambitious and touching their journal is tantamount to manslaughter, unless you lightly stroke the cover and whisper, ‘Is this a Moleskine?’
EWF, 2010: I’m sick and in bed. I’m swearing at shadows and I’ve developed an unhealthy addiction to Vicks VapoRub. Somewhere in Melbourne, writers are collaborating. They’re sharing trade secrets, high-fiving each other and wondering what happened to that tall, slightly weird smiley guy from previous years.
I try to write but all that comes out is a series of vowels: aah, eee, ooo. It’s as if in addition to being ill, I’m turning into a chimpanzee.
Oh, the pain.
I was lost. It was February 2008 and I had just arrived in Melbourne, having caught a red-eye flight that ferried me into the city at 6am.
I went to a Victorian Writers’ Centre session that first night. I met a girl called Lisa. I developed an enormous crush on her and three years later she’s the director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival.
There is limitless space in the writing world for enthusiastic, collaborative and passionate people and I think your name would look great in the EWF program in one, two or even three years time. I want to see you shine. I want you to say ‘Yes!’ and see where it takes you.
EWF, May 2011: I think I’m in love, but with whom? I’ve narrowed it down to Karen Pickering, Philip Thiel, his partner Julien Leyre, Angelina Mirabito, Demet Divaroren, Karen Andrews, Paul Callaghan, Meredith Tucker-Evans, Bel Schenk, Willo Drummond, Angela Meyer and Steven Amsterdam. Past that and I move onto people I just really, really like.
I never want the festival to end. This year I walked in to find old and new friends, forever marvelling at Emmyrose Hobbs’ choice of dress, Bethanie Blanchard’s poise and the warmth and generosity of so many other writers all keen to learn more about their craft.
Like many others, I want our national writing scene to thrive. I want you, me and everyone else to maintain a long and honourable chain of past, present and future EWF attendees. I want to see you filling the stairwells, halls and foyers with conversation, your laughter echoing off the walls.
Let’s emerge together. Even if you don’t think you can call yourself a writer, come anyway. If you struggle in crowds, then struggle alongside us. And finally, if you’ve just met Lisa Dempster, then hands off … I saw her first.
This essay originated from the festival thoughts of Lisa Dempster, Philip Thiel, JoJo Jakob and Karen Pickering, as well as talks with Ronnie Scott, Ryan Paine, Mark Welker, Jacqui Dent, Angelina Mirabito and Sam Twyford-Moore.
Laurie Steed is a writer, editor and Killings columnist. He is currently completing his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia.