It seems odd that a writer would have trouble writing about a writers’ conference, but I don’t think I’ve actually managed to digest/process the Faithful Writer yet. Maybe I never will. That’s part of the problem when you’re on an organising committee of any sort, even if most of the running around is being done by someone like Karen The Dynamo. You are just aware of tiny things that have the potential to become problems, you don’t get a chance to just soak up the atmosphere or just hang around with the other delegates.
I arrived at 8.15am, as Karen and I had arranged, with the booklets I’d designed. I was barely through the door when I was already being hassled (the hassler was obviously just worried because people had turned up early, but since the registration desk didn’t open until 8.30 I don’t know why he was so frantic). I had to tell people to just leave me alone for one minute, allow me to put my bag down and work out what I was doing. Guan had kindly bought me a coffee, and once I was organised, we registered about 120 people and welcomed them to the conference.
Trevor interviewed the keynote speaker, Mark Tredinnick, and then did a short devotion. Mark then gave a fairly rambly talk about writing as an act of faith. He talked about how you needed to do the important work of ‘mending the nets in the hope that a fish may rise’, continuing to work away at your writing even when it seems mundane, so that you’re ready when the moments of inspiration hit. I can relate to that.
He encouraged us to aim for the Hemingway school of thought and try to say things in a way they had never been said before. He said “a way of finding your voice is in refusing the clichés that are most precious to you.” And the final thing I wrote down was “write the poem, the sentence, the essay, the story, the book that only you can write – the one told in your own original voice.”
After a donutty morning tea, Guan and I wandered to a local cafe so he could work on the writing exercise that had been set. I didn’t even attempt it; my brain was so scattered and my thoughts so unfocused I don’t think I could have managed much. But towards the end of the hour I scribbled a few things down about the whole writing shebang:
Words are ordinary things that fall from our lips every day, but they can also be extraordinary and dangerous when put together a certain way. When they are put together well. But as Mark said this morning, that can take discipline and practice.
Kate Grenville works by a couple of principles. One is ‘never have a blank page’. Another is ‘you can come back and fix it later’. It was very freeing to realise that, to be released from the idea that something had to be perfect the first time around, or that you had to keep nutting out a phrase before you could move onto the next. Sometimes you just have to step over that roadblock and move on. You can come back and clean it up later.
Just before lunch everyone handed in their writing exercises for us to look through. Karen, Trevor, Tony, Mark and I read them all and pulled out ones we thought would be good for workshopping after lunch. It’s kind of hard to do that; just as hard as it would have been for the writers to feel confident submitting something for public scrutiny after only an hour, it was hard to read them all and feel like we’d done them justice. But we weren’t looking for the best or worst, just ones that had something interesting to talk about in the workshop.
Karen and I grabbed a quick lunch. After letting Mark read through the pieces more thoroughly, culling them down to a final six, we typed up the pieces so they could be projected onto the screen for all to see. Mark led the workshop and was tough but fair and reasonably gracious. I think everyone learned a lot through the process, about avoiding cliche, about when and how to use certain types of punctuation, about what makes a piece flow better, about how to structure something.
Then it was time for the seminars. Karen and I ran a seminar on Writers and Editors, which oddly enough had the highest number of attendees of all the seminars. We did a kind of tag-team effort, with interview, role play, brainstorming and general discussion all thrown into the mix. I had a minor disagreement with one of the delegates who kept saying, “I’ve had two books published and my experience with editors has been nothing like that”. I never quite know how to respond to things like that without getting prickly and defensive. But apparently I handled it well, and we were on friendly terms by the end. George was very encouraging and said we had done a good job at running training (drawing lots of inspiration from her seminar at Word by Word a while back).
I don’t think I had afternoon tea. I seem to recall chatting to Dave and telling him I needed a holiday, but I’m not sure if that was at afternoon tea or lunch. Then we tried to call everyone together for the readings, though we were running a bit late by this stage. Greg read an excellent piece about getting his car (or himself?) serviced at a prestige garage, and some entertaining poems he had written for his children. I read the pineapple tarts section from Undragon Stories – and a brief listen to the audio tells me that I still need to work on slowing down my delivery. And to close, Mark read a selection of his poetry.
After the conference I sat, guarding the bookstall cashbox, while the packing up went on. I was impressed that Karen was still able to rush around, but she just kept going until everything was done. People came up to me and told me how much they loved the story, which still amazes me because I am so familiar with it I can’t see any of its merits anymore. But several people said they really really wanted to taste a pineapple tart, and others commented that they felt they were right there in that humid kitchen. One lovely woman said after last year’s conference she had scanned the Sydney Writers’ Festival programme for my name, and hopes to see it there next year.
Maybe one day!