Yesterday, I spent well over an hour listening to Helen Garner read from her work and talk about writing. It was a great afternoon that began with a series of tiny writing workshops - tasters - run by us teachers from the VU professional writing course. Then we all gathered in the bigger space to listen to Helen. It was such a pleasure, not least because she is a very good reader, with lots of variety and intonation in her voice. No matter how good the writing, listening to a droner destroys the experience. I loved her piece about her two sisters and her with their ukeleles, playing songs while watching the Sydney Olympics.
She is a writer who focuses on the real. She has written a lot of nonfiction, and said her weekly column for the Age newspaper was one of her favourite writing "jobs". Her word limit was 770, and every week she made sure the piece was exactly 770 words, no more, no less. It was a great exercise in paring down and making every word work. She talked about writing every day, and also said (before she read from The Spare Room) that in hindsight she wished she hadn't called the main character Helen, because she got sick and tired of constantly defending the book as a novel and not a memoir.
With the Melbourne and Brisbane Writers' Festivals coming up soon, this session was a good reminder of how simply listening to a published writer talk about their work, their ideas and how and why they write can be so inspiring. Writing means spending a lot of time alone with your computer and your own tortured (sometimes) mind as you wrestle with what needs to come out onto the page. You can forget that it's not just you - that most other writers feel the same way, have the same experiences, and find ways through it all to the end.
I wish there were more sessions at both festivals on fiction writing/fiction writers. I've whinged about this before, I know! But there are many writers who find those sessions, especially the Conversation or Spotlight ones, act like a real spur for your own writing. You attend a good session, you listen, you think, you talk about it with your writer friends, and you go back to your own work with renewed excitement and determination. I often come away from a session with an idea for a poem or a short story.
On the other hand, I'm going to be on the other side of the microphone this year. I'm doing an Artplay session on Sunday 30th August in Melbourne (it's where kids get to have their own writer's and illustrator's session and make their own books too). My partner-in-books that day will be Shaun Tan. And in Brisbane, I'll be doing some sessions on the Schools Days, two of which will be online with remote schools. Yes, I've already started preparing, and trying not to feel nervous, but the kids are usually fantastic and we all have a great time. (And of course, both Festivals have their own Facebook fan pages!)