‘When others around us rise up, we rise up.’ Lessons learnt and inspiration gained from The Emerging Writers’ Festival

 

‘It’s easier to write a bad first draft and make it better than to face a blank page.’  Krissy Kneen, The 5×5 Rules of Writing

Getting retrenched from my job could have been a soul-destroying experience, but instead I viewed it as an opportunity to become active in the Melbourne literary scene again. I joined Twitter. I started a blog. I got tickets for some of the free Emerging Writers’ Festival events. A friend recommended I answer the call-out for the EWF blogging partners. I was only new to the blogging scene, but I applied anyway. I’m sure the EWF crew would have known a bunch of bloggers who they could have called upon to write blogs for the festival, but they took a chance on me, and I’m thankful.

‘You’re only going to do better if you write.’  Martin McKenzie-Murray, Emerging Q&A

The Opening Night Extravaganza blew my mind. Maxine Beneba Clarke told everyone that it took her 7-10 years to write Foreign Soil, Miles Allinson revealed that it took him 6 years to write his manuscript, and The Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, paid tribute to the ‘agonising endeavour of writing’. The fact that it took years for these authors to finish their work wasn’t surprising. That they were open and honest about it was. Some writers may have found these sentiments confronting, but it gave me a sense of relief. The Emerging Writers’ Festival completely dispelled the notion of the effortless ‘overnight success’. These writers work hard.

‘The only way you can surprise a reader is to surprise yourself.’ – Alec Patric, The Art of the Short Story

It was inspiring to watch the ‘You Are Here’ panel, as audience members flung their hands up and took to the stage to praise the ‘beautiful love-in’ environment of the festival, share the grief of letting go of a manuscript, celebrate the success of being the ‘pick of the week’ in The Age, or give a shout-out to their literary crushes. Before I had the chance to assemble the eleventy-million dot-points as to why it wasn’t a good idea, I took to the stage to be part of the last panel. My introduction as one of the four blogging partners was met with loud cheers from the ridiculously supportive audience. So, what did I do to capitalise on this rare opportunity? I announced that I had an intense fear of public speaking.

‘Write from the soul.’ – Hannah Kent, The 5×5 Rules of Writing

I returned to my seat and shakily packed my things. I looked up to see someone approach me. She introduced herself as Meghan Brewster, one of the official blogging partners. It was really nice to meet her. We bumped into each other again at the Emerging Q&A session, and headed to Night of the Living Novellas together. It was just as inspiring to talk with other emerging artists, as it was to listen to the panellists. It was pretty amazing to be in the same room as other emerging artists.

‘There is no supporter as strong as you. You are the festival and this festival is you … we’re just here to get you going.’ – Sam Twyford-Moore, Opening Night Extravaganza

I learned a lot from The Emerging Writers’ Festival. I am more determined to get my novel-length manuscript where I want it to be, but this time I will make a point to celebrate the achievements at the end of each day, and to accept the difficulties as part of, rather than an inhibitor of, the process. I spent breaks in between panels jotting down (somewhat illegible) notes of short story ideas. Sam Twyford-Moore passionately conveyed the importance of The Emerging Writers’ Festival as an event for emerging writers ‘at a point when they are likely to give up, to stop them from giving up’.

When others around us rise up, we rise up.’  Maxine Beneba Clarke, The 5×5 Rules of Writing

I’m not giving up. I have the EWF crew and my fellow emerging artists to thank for that.

Emerging Writers’ Festival Highlights: ‘The Art of the Short Story’

Readings St Kilda

Readings St Kilda (side note: I did a double-take when walking past the guy on the right, because of his striking resemblance to Aus music royalty, Tim Rogers.)

It was standing room only in the function area of St. Kilda Readings, as Jason Steger, literary editor of The Age and commentator on First Tuesday Book Club sat down with Alec Patric (aka A.S. Patric) and Chris Somerville to chat about the art of the short story.

Why write short stories?

Alec originally started writing novels. He shopped a novel-length manuscript, which was seven years in the making, around to various publishers but he lacked the literary CV needed to garner interest. He initially wrote short stories to boost his CV, but quickly fell in love with the form, admiring the density and virtuosity.

Self-effacing, Chris noted ‘I never really had much of an attention span’.  His interest is rooted in the voice. Chris prefers short stories over novel-length works, because short stories have fewer events than novels, meaning the few events can be explored in greater detail in a short story.

Crafting a story: do you know the ending before you start?

While acknowledging that some writers need a blueprint, Alec believes it is better not to know the ending. He believes ‘epiphanies should happen on the page’ and ‘the only way you can surprise a reader is to surprise yourself’.

Chris planned a story once, and it kept going for 11,000 words. He said, ‘I once gave it to my mother—she’s an editor—and she just wrote “no” on it’.

What’s the right length of a short story?

Chris was quick to answer, ‘when it ends’, before clarifying, ‘there has to be some kind of character development, otherwise it can’t end’.

Alec said ‘the beauty of short stories is they can be any length’, but noted that 3,000 words is the standard in Australia.

When you write a short story, is it the voice that drives you?

Chris believes two main elements are required – a voice and something at stake. ‘There needs to be tension, or narrative drive, to pull it along’. Describing his own work to illustrate his point, Chris said ‘usually it’s just awkward young men … feeling awkward’.

Alec, you’re interested more in experimentation?

Alec spent 7 years working on a novel. Once he started writing short stories he realised how liberating they could be. He is excited by the possibilities, of trying different things (one of his stories is filled with unattributed dialogue). Alec stressed the importance of allowing ‘yourself to be free with possibilities’.

How important is character?

Chris noted ‘character occurs to plot, and plot pushes character’. He said ‘plot only happens because characters push them forward’.

Who do you admire?

As a teenager, Chris admired Raymond Carver for portraying ‘normal people … just having thoughts’. He cites George Saunders as infectious, and also listed Dennis Johnson, author of Jesus’ Son.

Alec listed John Updike and Ernest Hemingway, amongst others.

Chris and Alec both acknowledged the American-ness of their selections. Alec suggested this was in part due to the rural mentality of Australian publishers, where publishing interest seems to be restricted to beaches or cattle. Alec believes ‘the American experience isn’t western’, and the ‘American pallet is wide open’.

Audience question: How do you choose what goes into a collection?

Chris quipped ‘start strong, worst last and the middle doesn’t matter’.

Alec added ‘it’s often in the hands of the publisher’.

Audience question: Are short story collections and music albums comparable?

Alec believes short stories aren’t really meant to be read in isolation, that there is an arc of movement from one story to the next.

Audience question: Is it dangerous to have an arc in place for a collection?

Alec recommended going with whatever liberates you. ‘If overarching themes for a collection limits you, then forget it’.

Audience question: If you get to your death bed without publishing a novel, will you regret it?

Alec offered a diplomatic answer, saying ‘there’s a legitimacy now (to short story) that perhaps there wasn’t in the past’.

‘I never imagined my deathbed’, Chris dead-panned.