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A celebration of words and writers

The Emerging Writer’s Festival, held in Melbourne in the last two weeks of May, was just what emerging writers needed to kick off the winter months: inspiration, motivation and the coming together of a writerly community.

Still I have to admit I’m a bit bemused by the concept of ‘emerging writer’, perhaps because I’ve been emerging for quite some time. Call me Sean Condon, but sometimes it seems that when it comes to residencies and grants, the emerged not the emerging get the gig.

So, who better to approach about a definition of ‘emerging writer’ than festival director Lisa Dempster (who must have had her thinking cap on to come up with festival hits like ‘Zine Bus’, ‘You Can’t Stop The Musing: Disco Lecture’ and ‘In the pub’ – writers in the pub: who would’ve thought – and lots of other clever ideas that made the Emerging Writers’ Festival such a success)? Lisa says that if you’re writing but haven’t made a million dollars in sales, you’re probably an emerging writer. I recalled the zillionaire-book-selling authors who recently made an appearance on Bestellers & Blockbusters, and after a moment or two contemplating fame and riches, decided I wouldn’t want to join their ranks.

Okay, whom am I kidding?

Still in pursuit of a definition, I asked Aden Rolfe, highly commended in the 2009 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets for his poem ‘Exchanges’, how you go from emerging to emerged: sheer self-belief. What would you expect from a poet extraordinaire other than depth and brevity?

It was self-belief (surely) that had me tidy up the rejection slips on my desk (I just can’t write unless they’re nearby) and unfurl from my foetal position to get along to the ‘Never Surrender’ panel session. Paul Callaghan, a writer who also tells stories through developing and designing games, told the packed room that failure was fundamental to how we experience life. I was sure he looked straight at me when he said we fail all the time. The trick, said Paul, was to reframe failure and rejection and accept it as part of the process of being a writer. According to Paul, failure and rejection are awesome because they teach us about the world we live in. My theory that writers are deeply masochistic had been confirmed.

It would be fair to say that Sean Condon, who found failure a difficult concept to grasp let alone embrace, didn’t echo Paul’s philosophy. It was hard not to sympathise with someone who’d had more than 30 rejections in less than a year and experienced what Sean referred to as the attenuated silence. Sean’s sad and sorry tale put me in mind of Margaret Atwood’s advice about rejection: write better.

On the same panel was Dee White whose first book Letters to Leonardo gave commitment a whole new meaning. Dee confided she’d persevered through 10 years, 100 drafts and a million words to get Leonardo to the printers. But Elizabeth Campbell, recipient of the Vincent Buckley prize for poetry, said she’d love to surrender. It took her 7 years to pen poetry of a standard (methinks her standards probably scream perfectionist) for a first book. I clapped hard when she said the only thing more painful than writing was not writing.

I’m not sure I left ‘Never Surrender‘ feeling I’d never surrender. I was in fact more persuaded to the rewards of writing real estate copy than staying with The Novel – don’t sneer. After all, where else are adjectives and adverbs so welcome and publication guaranteed and instant?

But now to the panel ‘Mining the Personal’. I think it was Clive James who said the worst thing that can happen to a family is to have a writer in their midst. I have a feeling my family would agree. Benjamin Law, whose first book The Family Law has just been published, says one of the richest sources for writers is their family. I was once taken aback when a journalism student after a few drinks said he was sorry I’d had such a sad life. I went looking on the internet to get a handle on his empathy and to my horror could see where he was coming from. I thought about this post-hangover and came to the conclusion that I just don’t write about life’s boring bits. Simone Bos, who blogged about her own life for eight years to keep herself entertained, admitted to being moderately mortified about what’s up on the internet about her even though she blogged under a pseudonym. Now that she uses her own name she’s more cautious.

Jon Bauer, author of soon-to-be-released first book Rocks in the Belly, ruminated that fiction allows more truth than non-fiction. Jon was as raw and honest as he says fiction ought to be. And Lou Sanz entertained with stories about picking-up in bars and other dates that went terribly wrong. So funny is her blog it’s about to become the subject of a television series. Now that’s the sort of pick-up I’ve been hanging out for.

And finally, I went along to ‘The Pitch’ where publishers, literary agents and editors gave the needy among us a few tips. It seems that a lot of us emergings do silly things that show we either don’t know about or ignore the guidelines that are one the website. Okay, I get it, I get it. From this moment on, I’ll stop pitching exclusive rights to the first draft of my novel and then copying in every agent, editor and publisher within cooee. (I’ll learn how to bcc instead.) The Pitch really came into its own during the Q&A, when editors shared with the we’re-all-ears-audience tips on how to get published. The overall consensus was write good.

The Emerging Writer’s Festival teemed with writers on their way to discovery and panels of writers and editors passionate about their craft. Events were informative, packed out and loads of fun. I’ll end by quoting the festival’s director, Lisa Dempster, who said the Emerging Writer’s Festival is not pitched at readers or about selling books; it’s about celebrating writers, writing and ideas.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Trish Bolton is a creative writing student. She has had a short story published in Visible Ink and is working on a novel inspired by her cross to the dark side when she worked as a political media adviser. Her writing - opinion pieces and articles - have appeared in a number of newspapers.

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  2. I’ve always found the whole ‘emerging’ thing weird. It’s such a strange metaphor. What is it that one is supposed to emerge from? And what happens once the emergence has taken place?

  3. It’s a birthing process. You emerge from the jaws of life inside your own brain very slowly until someone gives you a tug, wraps you in a jacket and pops you down onto a bookshop shelf and hands you a cheque.

  4. It is a bit weird I agree, Jeff. I wonder what else we might call emerging writers or why we need to slot into a category at all. It feels kind’ve funny to be emerging when you’ve been around for a while. I like the birthing process you describe Tara but so much to go through for a few millimetres space on the shelf in a bookshop. The idea of emerging fully formed is appealing but then perhaps it wouldn’t be as much fun!

  5. I think if you emerged already fully formed, you wouldn’t have much shelf life.
    There, that’s the closest thing to a poem I’ve written in months.

  6. It’s weird how much the whole writing thing is dominated by a romantic sense of the artist, even though everyone explicitly denies believing in it. I mean, the writing process as a caterpillar turning into a butterfly (which is what the whole ‘emerging’ metaphor conjures up)is really too silly for words.

  7. And the birthing process is often long and painful, exhausting and sometimes impoverishing. There is a reward at the end but after a few years you might found out it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

  8. Hi Trish

    I too enjoyed the wit and generosity of the Mining the Personal panel, though I wonder if it might be renamed Minding the Personal…

    Trish, your words of warning about the misfortune of having a writer lurking in the family reminds me of an interview Boyd Tonkin conducted with Zadie Smith (Nov 09)

    Says Zadie: ‘Yet the writer who, in 2000, could write a scorching anonymous critique of her debut, scolds herself for the theft of a loved one’s (father, Harvey’s) life. “It’s a grim thing to admit to yourself: that these essays will end up being in my mind more real versions of my father than my father… I always think that every time a writer is born into a family, that family has reason to fear.” Harvey’s death may have “freed me to write about my version of our lives together. But it’s certainly my version. I don’t know that any of my siblings, my mother – or my father if he were alive – would agree with it. I find that if we get together and speak for five minutes about the past, we’re completely at loggerheads.”’

    Some of the Mining the Personal panel thought that using the personal was exploitation and indeed ‘theft’ whereas for others it seems open slather. Either way, if we dare to write from personal material, indeed mine from family and friends, we’d better mind our steps! Conversely, we take the risk and embrace our wicked status!

    Full transcript Zadie Smith interview:
    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/comedy/features/comic-relief-zadie-smiths-passion-for-british-comedy-1823815.html

  9. Thanks for the quote and link, Julie. I think the personal is always present in our writing whether we intend it or not. The people we’ve met, our experiences, the loss and hope and the times we live in are eventually expressed in our writing.

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