Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Emerging Writers Festival National Writers Conference: Thoughts and reflections

I went to the first day of the Emerging Writers' Festival National Writers Conference on Saturday. (I actually had a weekend pass, but family and headaches made the Sunday a bridge too far in the end). Saturday was a very interesting day, well worth the trip.

As is always the case at these events, I had my favourites, both among the panels and the panellists, and there were other sessions that weren't quite what I expected or perhaps hoped for based on the precis. The real value of any such event lies in the conversations: between panellists, between the panel and the audience, and between audience members themselves. The sessions that succeeded the most for me were the ones that encouraged a liveliness and diversity of conversation, and they are the ones I'm still mulling over enjoyably.

First up was the session that I seem to remember being called Five Enviable Lines in previous EWFs, but is now called Five Rules of Writing. It was a great way to start - the five Festival ambassadors, while all very different from each other, were all highly engaging and bounced well off each other. I particularly enjoyed listening to the very funny Oslo Davis, the absolutely charming Sulari Gentill, and the vibrant and pragmatic Kylie Ladd (a novellist with whom I have engaged on Twitter, where she is also vibrant - and pragmatic!)

Were their writing tips earth-shattering revelations? For the most part, no - "read forensically", "don't read reviews", "make friends with other writers", "don't trust spellchecker" and "stay at the desk!" are not new ideas to most people who have more than the most cursory acquaintance with writing and / or have read the standard advisories. Indeed, compared with the more philosophical / artistic bent of previous EWF ambassadors (I well remember the year that Christy Dena introduced me to the concept of "fail often, fail better"), this year's crop came across as craftspeople, sleeves rolled up, making graceful or funny or insightful things but not being under illusions about a) what they were doing and b) what the implications of it would be. I liked that, actually; for me, who doesn't see myself as an artist but hopes to build my craft, I connected with the central premise running through this panel, which came down to: "If you want to do it, work hard, find the right tools and supports, and keep going."

Next I attended the Freelancing panel, which was, I felt, less engaging than Five Rules of Writing. It wasn't that the panellists were boring - not at all - but rather that they were too similar to each other to provide any kind of depth of discussion about freelance writing as a whole field. (A fellow audience member muttered that it might as well have been named The Lifted Brow Panel, and I think that's not inaccurate). The discussion of the starving-writer aspect of freelancing was real talk in one sense, but it took audience participation to point out that it is by no means the full story. The panellists didn't even get down to the nitty gritty, that I'm sure people would have liked to hear, about how and when they pitch, what kind of writing they do, what hit rates writers generally attract and so on. The conversation, to me, felt like a meander, and I didn't get out of it what I hoped to.

My favourite panel of the day was next, though, so all was well :-) The Criticism and Reviewing session was absolutely fantastic; worth the effort of the entire day just to sit in and enjoy. All four of the panellists were wonderful, and I especially loved the fact that they, unlike the freelancing panel, were very diverse in terms of the type of reviewing / critiques they publish, their markets, their views on criticism generally, and even their personas. To have a theatre reviewer, a book reviewer, a film reviewer and a music reviewer on the same panel, all tripping over themselves to share their encyclopedic nerdy knowledge of their own discipline, was a delight, as was the genuine cross-field musings they engaged in.

I particularly appreciated the fact that every one of these four seemed prepared; they spoke at reasonable length, there was structure and sense in what they said, and there was substance to their views. James Tierney's "Short History of the Review from the 19th century" talk was so interesting, and I desperately want the list of references that Rebecca Harkins-Cross used in her fascinating discussion (I scribbled as fast as I could, but I missed a few). Overall, as a reviewer myself (albeit not of these people's calibre), I found this panel deeply engaging and worthwhile because I felt like these people knew what they were talking about, were willing to share it with us, and had put some real thought into how best to present their insights.

After a lunchtime walk around the city, I got back a touch late and crept into the back of Kylie Ladd's Conversation session, wherein she proceeded to confirm my impression of her as both a great writer and a great human being. Ladd didn't dwell a lot on the heights of artistic voice and so on, but neither was it a soul-less how-to on Making a Small Competence By Writing Something Commercial in Three Easy Steps. (I say "small competence" advisedly, as the vast, vast majority of writers ain't never gonna be JK Rowling). I think the audience appreciated Ladd's openness about the realities of the publishing industry (I know I did), but I also enjoyed her description of her writing process and her source of ideas. (Note to self: Put that third novel - the one with the rewritten ending - on the TBR pile!)

The final session of the day, for me, was the Genre panel, which I also enjoyed - again, not coincidentally, because the three panellists were coming from really different angles and genres. I was particularly interested in Liam Jose's insights about the role of micro-presses and indie publishing in allowing genre writing to grow and thrive. A few times, the panellists started to get into some really interesting riffs on the ways in which genre writing can allow writers to explore ideas that they just couldn't in the "realist" model, but the conversation didn't really go anywhere, which was a slight disappointment in one way. (Although not in another, as it provided most of my train ride home contemplative-staring fodder!)

Overall, my impression of the EWF Conference this year, as opposed to the other two years I have attended (2012 and 2013), was: Smaller, quieter, friendlier, more pragmatic, less uplifting and inspirational, but more "useful" in the sense of the generous handing out of tools of craft. I would've preferred a poetry panel maybe in place of the freelance panel, but other than that, it was a great day, with much food for thought.

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