Literature engenders in us a need to reply, and I think that’s what writers’ festivals are about—an audience of reply. (Tegan Bennett Daylight, during The Uncommon Reader)
Of course, I paused over the possessive apostrophe in the above quote—to whom do these festivals belong? I am one of those writers who gets something out of listening to other writers speak about writing. What that something is will differ depending on the speaker. But over the past six days of SWF, my notebook has filled with other people’s words, fragmented wisdoms gleaned from larger conversations and frantically scrawled in my appalling, miniscule handwriting. Some of these are simply witty or astute observations, others talismanic verities which will later be returned to for nourishment:
You bring the person you are to the book. (Ramona Koval)
You couldn’t wait to get up in the morning. If you didn’t, you felt bad. You felt you’d done wrong. (Dermot Healy, on watching Barnacle Geese)
Group sex involves you being mutually engaged with one another. It’s more of a French film than what’s happening to these girls in hotel rooms. (Anna Krien, during Sex, Power and Sport)
On reading Helen Garner’s ‘Sing for Your Supper’—an essay considering the strange beasts that are writers’/writer’s/writers festivals—I recognised a collective conundrum that for several years I’d felt to be my own failing: the sickening fear of public speaking. For me, this means hot hands and a loss of appetite and the surety that yes, this time… this will be the time that I collapse onstage, because there are cameras, and because that author I hugely admire is there in the audience. (That said, I also have an intermittent fear of supermarkets. And of addressing envelopes. So perhaps I’m not the most reliable source for ‘how a writer feels’, as this particular writer finds many innocuous situations unsettling. What I’m trying to say is that any authoritativeness I do possess is fixed to the page.)
It’s an unfair presumption that as writers deal in words, they are therefore wonderful speakers. It’s so completely at odds with how and where the work gets done, completely at odds with the solitude of it. You shut yourself in a room, then you shut yourself in your head, and then you pace around the room in your head, trying to remember where the light switch is, how you made it work last time. To build a festival around a couple of hundred people who have elected to engage with the world asynchronously seems like a recipe for disaster. But here we all are, and it’s turned out fine. Inspiring, even. Enriching. Fun.
Do writers come prepared with carefully-crafted responses to those questions of how and why? Some do. The braver (and the less prepared) among us may turn up empty handed and risk a few moments of dead air and a bit of flailing in their replies. The truth is that to speak about the mechanics of writing is so often an attempt at fitting words to the inarticulable, that which is, for the most part, instinctual. How do you know when a work is finished? Because it feels finished. How do you know if you’ve got the voice of a character? Because I can hear it. Where do you get your ideas from? I think them up, and so on. To quote a very tongue-in-cheek Jonathan Lethem, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I just go into a small, badly furnished room and out come these stories…’
In ‘Sing For Your Supper’, Garner is comparing selves—the 1978, newly-published Garner, who drives with a cardboard box of clothes to Adelaide Writers’ Week and spends ‘whole days in the tent, listening eagerly’, and the 1992, somewhat-more-seasoned Garner. ‘Somewhere between 1978 and 1992 the gilt had worn off the gingerbread. Festivals had lost their festiveness and turned into work. The magic had fled.’
Needless to say that in spite of aforementioned nerves, flailing, and imminent collapse, I identified more strongly with the 1978 Garner: ‘How lucky I am! What a marvellous way to hear writers from other countries, and meet other writers from here…’ Golly gee whiz, Country Mouse.
But Garner of the 1990’s goes on to say that ‘…writers rarely go to hear one another read or speak, at these events.’ Is my enthusiasm for hearing other writers symptomatic of my comparative youth, then? My naivety, my greenness? Words that are so often found in the company of that neo-pejorative, ‘earnestness’? Earlier this week I waited with Arnold Zable at the signing table after one of our events.
‘So many people at this festival remind me of the White Rabbit,’ he said.
‘As in, I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date?’
‘Ah. I’d probably count myself as one of those white rabbits,’ I admitted, shortly before dashing off to wolf down half a salad, so that I would not faint during the next session.
At one point during my rabbiting, from event to event, from reading to panel to greenroom to launch to hotel and out again, I rabbited into Cate Kennedy, on her way to hear Daniel Morden’s Tales From the Odyssey.
‘Are your events all done?’ I asked. ‘You’ve had a lot of work…’
‘Work?’ she quipped. ‘This isn’t work. It’s not hammering in star pickets. Being able to share something that you’ve spun from nothing? That’s exhilarating. That’s my pleasure.’