Listening to People Talk About Writing

Writers’ Festivals are odd things. The acts of writing and reading are intensely solitary, yet here we are, coming together to listen to those whose work we read, or talk to those who read our work. For the writer, it’s a chance to expand their audience, and ultimately sell more books. For the reader, it’s a chance to see and hear their literary heroes, or discover new writers.

I was lucky enough to be able to spend over two days at Writers’ Week in Adelaide. The weather was pleasantly warm, the parklands were green and lush, and there was plenty of food and drink to keep everyone sated. It seemed the recipe for a perfect few days.

As any Writers’ Week veteran knows, it pays to get to the venue early. In any weather conditions – wet or dry – it is almost essential to get a seat under cover of the enormous marquees. I arrived at about 9.30am on Day Three and found the West Tent almost completely filled. Some quick manoeuvering ensured me a shaded space, and I settled down to listen to Australian author, Robert Drewe.

I get the impression that really successful authors are not only skilled with the written word; they are also skilled public speakers. They have to project themselves as intelligent, sophisticated, witty and knowledgeable about any number of things. A writer will invariably choose to emphasise the attribute with which they feel most comfortable. Robert Drewe chose the comic route, and read a crowd-pleasing passage from his latest book Grace that included many references to flatulence. He followed this up with comical anecdotes about cane toads, haemorrhoids and hangovers.

The Writers’ Week program is liberally sprinkled with panel sessions. A group of four visiting writers will take turns reading their work, or offering opinion on the topic of choice. The success of the session will often depend on the person who ‘chairs’ the group, usually another writer or notable academic. The session entitled The Contemporary Essay was chaired by Gerard Windsor, and included Ronald Wright from Canada, Patricia Dunckner from the UK, and Australians John Hughes and Marion Halligan.

Windsor chose to run the session in an almost conversational manner, putting forward various questions and propositions, and allowing each of the panel members to offer comment. This approach worked well but depended on Windsor to rein in the panel members when they veered too far from the topic or spoke for too long. At one point Ronald Wright had spoken for so long, and about so much, that I (and I assume most of the audience) had forgotten the original question.

In the afternoon, I listened to Helen Garner talk of the hostility she’s faced since the publication of The First Stone in 1995, and respond to such audience questions as ‘My daughter’s friend says she hates you. What should I say to her?’

Another panel session followed, this time a group of first-time novelists related their experiences while writing their books. The session was called Learning the Craft, and I hoped to come away with some helpful tips, but got the impression that all I needed was a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide (three of the four writers on the panel had completed this course).

I was back again on the morning of Day Five to hear UK journalist, Robert Fisk, read from his book about the Middle East, The Great War For Civilisation. I must have been impressed, because I immediately ran to the book tent and spend my entire Writers’ Week budget on his book. The downside, apart from the obvious financial commitment, was the fact that I had to carry the book around for the rest of the day. It is 1300 pages long and as heavy as a brick.

I nodded off during the panel session Interrogation Present, possibly because I didn’t understand what they were talking about (and neither did they), or possibly because the sun was beaming down on my right-hand side and sapping my already depleted (from carrying Fisk’s book) energy.

The afternoon got off to a bad start when I witnessed a brawl in the East Tent between local writer, Graham Catt, and a pensioner. There seemed to be some disagreement over ‘seat-saving’. I assume that Catt lost the argument, because I saw him on the lawn at the end of the session looking most dejected (not to mention hot).

The session itself was a success. British poet, Simon Armitage, read a selection of verse that proved both entertaining and intellectually satisfying. By the end of the reading he had the crowd ‘eating out of his hand’ – a difficult feat for any poet. Reports say that Armitage’s two other readings during the week were just as successful, and suggest that he has found himself a ‘legion of new fans’.

My last Writers’ Week experience was a Poets in Person session in the West Tent. Four Australian poets – Judith Beveridge, Yahia Al-Samawy, Stephen Edgar and Lidija Cvetkovic – took turns at reading a sample of their poetry. All were impressive, but Yahia Al-Samawy ‘stole the show’ with a particularly impassioned reading. Formerly of Iraq, Al-Samawy read poems of grief and exile that made poetry about rivers, daffodils and tigers seem trivial.

Unfortunately, I did not have the stamina to last another moment at Writers’ Week 2006. Listening to poetry in the warm March air is hard work. I caught the bus home, lay down, and promptly fell into a deep sleep, in which I dreamt I had to carry Robert Fisk’s book up a very, very steep hill.

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