MWF 2013 Take 1

After having such an incredible time last weekend at the Melbourne Writers Festival, I’m not quite sure where to start…

I’m getting set to go to more sessions tomorrow, but before that I thought it might be good to share with you guys a few choice statement, take-home messages, and curiosities from the sessions that I attended last Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

An extremely busy Friday saw me running around after kids, backwards and forwards for the better part of the day. By the time I hopped on a train heading to Fed Square, I was well and truly ready for a little sit down and some me time. And what better way to wind-down than with a lecture from Peter Singer on how to best demonstrate effective altruism?


Okay, so maybe it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it works for me and I took home a lot after this session.

Singer weaved a well-considered logic, making it pretty clear that all of us can and should strive to find a way to contribute to the improvement of the lot of the world’s children, those who are unwell or vulnerable and creatures with no voice to speak up for themselves. He stopped short at saying that we have a moral obligation to do so, but essentially…

What was refreshing and inspiring was Singers’s focus on the variety of ways in which we might contribute. Suggestions were not prescriptive, rather, they were respectful of individual income, skill sets and personal motivations. Singer acknowledged and encouraged us to ask questions around the integrity of aid organisations and charities, encouraging a healthy level of scepticism and emphasising the term ‘effective’ in his Effective Altruism movement. The basic idea is to find the best way we can to do the most possible good.

Peter can sometimes be a little extreme in his beliefs, but tonight he avoided the ‘shock and awe’ and as I result, on leaving the auditorium, I felt convinced and compelled

Next up were a couple of sessions on Saturday afternoon, the first being ‘Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard’ with Catherine Deveny, Max Barry and Sean Condon. Essentially this session tried to get to the bottom of what it takes to write funny, and although wonderfully entertaining, I think the audience might of left none-the-wiser as to the answer to this question…

In short, being funny, for these three at least, isn’t as much a craft as it is a language. It’s the way they communicate and how they observe the world. As it is, that just happens to be humorous to others. And you know what? I think that’s fair enough.

20130829-144402.jpgMax read from his latest novel Lexicon, and although he offered the explanation that this was his least funny book, it still had that tell-tale smart-arsery that comedians can’t seem to altogether avoid. Catherine read from her novel The Happiness Show, in which her character’s internal dialogue suggesting shades of Catherine’s own busy, rapid external dialogue. I got the impression that her ‘accident novel’ would be pretty sharp and a bit of a trouble-maker. After sitting impatiently, shuffling and rolling his eyes while he waited for his turn, Sean Condon read next, but not from his newest book Splitsville but rather, two short pieces from an earlier work. They were funny pieces, but what was more entertaining was seeing just how funny Sean seemed to find himself.

At the end of the session, each writer did offer a pearl of wisdom regarding being funny… From Max, it was make sure you always pick something that amuses yourself. For Catherine, her philosophy is to ‘shit where you eat’ – I can only imagine this is so as to stir up as much trouble as possible, and Sean suggests starting with a great first sentence, and for that sentence to never start with a B. Righteo…

20130829-144338.jpgAfter this, I gathered my giggles and headed to ‘Tartan Noir’ where I heard from Doug Johnstone and Liam McIlvanney. Both readers of Scottish fiction and writers of crime fiction, Doug and Liam were wonderfully knowledgeable, offering a fascinating insight into Scottish culture and literature.

I now understand more of why literature is so important to Scotland, how authors like Ian Rankin, Irving Welsh and Doug Johnstone help to give Scotland a new, independent voice of its own.

Suffice to say I now have about a dozen new titles and authors to add to the reading list, Liam and Doug, Denise Mina and Caro Ramsay, as well as a hunt to track down a copy of the classic Laidlaw by William McIlvanney (on good authority, worth pursuit).

Sunday morning was an early start, and with tea in hand I bunkered down for a full day of MWF. It began with ‘No Safe Place’ featuring Deborah Ellis and Morris Gleitzman. This session was incredibly moving, and I think, very important. Deborah and Morris shared a little of their stories, of their conversations with children living in terrible circumstances and of the importance which they place on teaching children to consider their own ability to making the world that they want to live in.

The thing that stuck me the most about these two authors was the great admiration and respect that they had for their readers, in particular children between the ages of about 9 – 12 years-old. Morris reflected on the fact that “our awareness at 9 to 12 is starting to develop as we form our own individual moral landscape.” It is no doubt for this reason that he and Deborah feel to strongly about communicating with this audience – to teach them a little of what is going on the world, in the hope that they might grow up wiser, strong and more inclined to make a difference for the better.

I’ve always been a little worried about having Evan read these more seriously-themed books. I think now I’m convinced of the importance of doing so.

Next was an in conversation session with Michelle de Kretser, Miles Franklin Award winning author. Her newest novel Questions of Travel has been incredibly well received (she’s just won the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction) and her career has clearly gleaned her a huge following of loyal fans – the auditorium was full to the brim.


I’ve not read her book yet, but nonetheless, it was very interesting to find out more about just why someone would take it upon themselves to write about what it is to travel – what does it mean to move around the world; for fun, for work or for protection?

Questions of Travel, with its starkly contrasting characters of Laura (young, wealthy, professional) and Ravi (seeking asylum from Sri Lankan unrest) is topical, highly relevant in our currently political environment.

Another book for the reading pile…

20130829-144442.jpgMy final session for Sunday (after a long lunch and a look around the Ian Potter Museum of Art) was ‘Destroying the Joint?’ with Stella Young, Jane Caro and Aidan Ricketts. They pondered on the question… “how many likes does it take to change the world?

You could sense the electricity in the air, a gathering of people searching for a way to influence their community for the better. Many were asking the question – can a Facebook page (i.e. Destroy the Joint) really have any kind of impact when trying to redress the gender imbalances that are becoming more and more obvious as a result of conversation, political events and social media?

After listening to Jane, Stella and Aidan (an expert in activism) I was in no doubt that it can certainly contribute, as every action to call out crappy behaviour is a good one, one worth making.

I’m so glad that I went to this session as next time I despair at the discrimination and difficulty that I see as pretty rampant in our current landscape, I’ll reassure myself a little with these three reminders:

1. Three people talking about equality can fill an auditorium.

2. Expressing outrage achieves nothing. You can use it to drive you, but take it out of your argument (Stella Young)

3. There is no magic key that will unlock good will. Rather, we must learn to appreciate the wins as they come and continue to move forward (Jane Caro).

And with that, Sunday was done and on that note, buoyed and encouraged I headed home.

I’ve more sessions coming up (you can see what I’m going to here) so stay tuned for Take 2 next week!

Do you go along to the Writers Festival in your area? What kinds of sessions do you like the most?