A beginner’s guide to the EWF

This was my first experience of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and it was interesting to compare it to larger writers’ festivals I am more familiar with. Over nine days, events were spread out over the city at venues such as the Wheeler Centre and BMW Edge, but the weekend program was housed at the Melbourne Town Hall. This created a sense of intimacy and camaraderie, which I think is something writers often crave, and also one of the main reasons for why so many writers’ festivals exist. The act of writing is isolating, and those who practice it need companionship and reassurance from fellow travelers. What is also different about the Emerging Writers’ Festival is that it welcomes and attracts new writers and promotes those who are ‘emerging’. Therefore, the crowd was a mixture of writing students, freelance writers, literary wunderkinds and those who are about to take off.

Festival Director Lisa Dempster and Communications Coordinator Susan Bird were visible and approachable throughout the weekend, and their warmth and friendliness created a positive atmosphere free of exclusivity.

The first session, ‘Seven Enviable Lines’, had the festival’s 2010 Ambassadors, Natasha Campo, Sean Riley, Guy Blackman, Jill Jones and Julian Shaw sharing pearls of wisdom about ‘the craft’. They each come from a different background, but all emphasised the importance of self-belief, discipline and perseverance. Feminist historian Natasha Campo suggested finding a writing routine that works, be it in bed, a café or desk, and sticking to it even when it’s painful. Remember that as a writer ‘you are not alone,’ Campo said, and use the motto ‘publish or perish’. Playwright, Sean Riley, spoke humorously about surviving in the arts. He recounted the rules of his mentor, Edward Albee: ‘No. Absolutely not. Go fuck yourself.’ Riley suggested never sharing work with friends and family (‘it’s death!’), not trying to write someone else’s vision, and defending yourself and your words no matter what. It is crucial, he said, not to ‘bury yourself in a hole’; spend time in the real world to remind yourself why you write. Guy Blackman, songwriter and music journalist, talked about the importance of being able to let go of an article once it’s been submitted. There is no point in getting upset, complaining and earning a reputation for being difficult. ‘Don’t protect yourself, go to scary places,’ he said. ‘Nobody wants to read or listen to things that have been said before.’ Blackman spoke about the importance of turning off the inner critic: ‘otherwise you won’t write anything at all. Type without thinking.’

‘The Pitch’ was a highly sought after event, attracting a full house of writers keen to learn the best ways to get their work published. The panel included publishers, literary agents, editors of books, journals and magazines, and radio programmers. It was a formidable lineup and an information-packed hour and a half.

Crikey editor Sophie Black described the best pitches as ‘short and sweet’. They must have a hook and be timely. She likes writing that is ‘a little bit different with a unique voice’. Donica Bettanin, literary agent, suggested researching which agent is most appropriate to your style of writing, and who represents your favorite writers. Treat getting an agent like a job application. Keep submissions simple too – no coloured paper or crazy fonts. ‘Take yourself seriously as a writer,’ Bettanin said, ‘and that’s the beginning of others doing the same’. Cool kids from Paper Radio, Jessie Borrelle and Jon Tjhia, offered the valuable advice: ‘You can’t persuade people to adjust their agenda according to your writing.’ If your work isn’t suited to a publication or in their case, a radio program, don’t submit it. Do your research and read/listen to the type of writing they prefer. UQP non-fiction publisher, Alexandra Payne, encouraged all audience members to pursue creative non-fiction (I do agree that it’s a fantastic avenue). Professionalism is crucial. She also favours pitches with ‘no bells and whistles’, and is attracted to writers with a ‘personal quest’ who have an ‘unusual and intelligent’ writing style. An interesting tip of Payne’s was to put a manuscript away for a while before submitting it, which allows for a period of reflection.

All speakers stressed the importance of reading submission guidelines carefully, not including a piece of writing in an email body, not sending a whole manuscript (10–15 pages is ample), and being patient when waiting for a response – reading submissions takes time!

For me, the festival’s highlight was ‘Going into a Dark Place’ with Nathan Curnow, Jeff Sparrow (I promise there is no bias here), Anna Dusk and Joel Magarey. The Lifted Brow’s Allison Browning, who hosted the event, also impressed me. Browning had obviously read each of the speaker’s books, which came through in her insightful questions.

All speakers had a different approach to exploring dark territory, but they shared a similar compulsion to discover what might be hiding there. They were each uniquely charismatic and mysterious, and I came away wanting to read all of their books.

Nathan Curnow talked about writing The Ghost Poetry Project, in which he spent time in some of Australia’s most haunted places. Curnow spoke bravely and sincerely about the impact that putting himself into these situations had on his life – emotionally, physically and spiritually. ‘It was definitely the most demanding year of my life,’ he said, ‘and I am still dealing with the hazards of putting myself at risk’. Curnow admitted that ‘ego and ambition’ were the driving forces behind the project, and that he was terrified of actually having to go through with it. He believes that going into haunted places symbolises the act of writing, and is ‘hungry to risk’ but needs ‘regular resuscitation’. ‘All writers are haunted by something,’ he said, ‘and I can’t imagine writing about other themes’.

Jeff Sparrow began by stating that he is always surprised to be described as a ‘dark writer’ and thinks of himself as more ‘comedic’. Having just returned from the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Sparrow spoke with power and clarity. ‘It’s a no-brainer that writers should cover dark issues,’ he said, ‘because of the world we live in’. He talked about the history of people turning to literature to make sense of what is happening to them personally and in the world at large. I was struck by Sparrow’s question: ‘Where are the novels and poems dealing with war and climate change?’ When asked how he handled the process of writing Killing, Sparrow answered, ‘journalism isn’t hard when you compare it to other things people have to do’. Although he also shared the belief that ‘the more you write the stranger you become’, which frighteningly, I think is true.

Anna Dusk, who has just released In Human, which is about a teenage werewolf in remote Tasmania, was ‘shocked’ to discover that she was a horror writer, but was ‘open to it’. She believes that it sprung from yearning to ‘go into a bigger world than the one (she) was living in’, which is ‘restricted by the constraints of time and having to earn a living. The process of writing this book was moving from the mundane to the divine.’ Horror writing gets dismissed by people who don’t want to be confronted and Dusk described times when people tell her they can’t handle violence and horror, assuming she isn’t sensitive to it, when in fact she is acutely so. I think the difference is that Dusk has the courage to delve into her own darkness, unlike many of us who pretend it doesn’t exist. ‘Beasts reside in all of us and we are all capable of killing in certain situations. If writers confront their own darkness they can move through it.’

Joel Magarey, whose book Exposure recounts his journey through Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, spoke about the process with honesty and insight. Detailing the darkness of OCD, he said that writing the book was a way of trying to humanise the illness. Initially Magarey was terrified people would ostracise him after reading such personal material, but found the opposite to be true. People felt that he had confided in them personally, and wanted to tell him about their own anxieties and irrational habits. Before writing Exposure, Magarey had to gain distance from the subject matter so he could understand what he had been through. He suggested that all writers take a similar approach to writing about their own darkness, and said that ‘we must continually go through fear like a revolving door’.

Overall, I had a great weekend at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and am feeling inspired and rejuvenated. It was great to feel a sense of belonging among a crowd of people who are following a similar path of terrifying uncertainty and ‘emergingness’.

Lina Vale

Lina Vale is a professional writing and editing student at RMIT. She writes non-fiction, poetry and short stories.

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  1. Hey Lina

    Thankyou. I missed out on EWF this year so I appreciate being able to catch up on some of the ideas circulating. Particularly disappointed I missed out on this ‘Dark place’ panel everybody keeps talking about. (I didn’t know about becoming stranger the more you write. That’s worrying.)

    1. Hey Jacinda,

      It is scary to imagine one’s self becoming stranger the more one writes. It won’t stop me from writing though. Perhaps we just need to accept our destinies of strangeness.

  2. Thanks for those kind words, Lina. I enjoyed the ‘dark places’ session, too.
    I was quite struck by the general enthusiasm that the festival fostered. It wasn’t full of big name celebrities or anything like that but all the sessions were packed. Actually found it quite cheering.

    1. You’re welcome Jeff. I have thought about the things you said a lot.

      I agree that the festival was quite cheering, which we all need sometimes, don’t you think?

  3. Thanks Lina! I was glad the topic was part of the EWF. Each of the panelists was able to offer something unique being that each came from a different genre and approach: a pleasure to be part of. There was indeed a great all-round positivity for the two days at the Town Hall.

  4. A wonderful summary and great voice there Lina, thank you. I missed ‘Seven Enviable Lines’ due to the tyranny of distance, so thank you very much for sharing – some wonderful stuff there.

    I came out of the EWF feeling daunted … and determined. So look out!

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments Clare. Don’t feel daunted, I have no doubt that I will have to ‘look out’ for you in the near future!

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