Emerging Writers Festival 2008 – Keynote Address

First off, let me say I am totally flattered to have been asked to deliver the keynote speech for the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I’ve watched from the audience in the past two years as the keynote address has been delivered – last year by the lawyer and writer Waleed Aly, and before that, by the acclaimed author Christos Tsiolkas. To have my name added to this list of established and inspiring people, people whom I respect very much, is an absolute honour, and I thank David and the organizing committee for giving me this opportunity. Hopefully you won’t regret it.

In preparation for this speech, David and I discussed the title ‘emerging’ and what the aims of the Emerging Writers’ Festival are. I guess the reason I was asked to speak is because I, by most measures, have emerged as an author. In the last two years my writing has moved into a space where I can legitimately see a path to making my art my career. This has happened very quickly, but it’s definitely not a success that has come overnight. As an indicator, I’ve participated in every Emerging Writers’ Festival since the inaugural event in 2004. I’ve read short stories, spoken on panels and taken part in the ‘Literary Speed Dating’ event.

These have all been steps in my progression as a writer and in putting this speech together it was interesting for me to reflect on those experiences and see how I have ‘emerged’ and what steps I’ve taken since that first festival in 2004, where I nervously got up in front of a very small crowd and tried my best to deliver a short story – written from a female perspective I might add. I remember concentrating on not reading too fast, on not getting ahead of myself. Pronouncing each syllable clearly. And interestingly, for the wide expanse of difference between then and now, these are exactly the same thoughts flowing through my head now.

What’s interesting on this point, I think, is that there’s not a huge gap between being an ‘emerging’ author and becoming an ‘emerged’ author. It takes self-analysis and confidence and maybe your Saturday nights are spent in a room with a computer more often than out with your friends, but in terms of what’s different now as to before I was published, my approach to the work of writing remains the same. I still get unsure of myself, still get nervous that maybe I’ve missed some glaringly obvious detail that ruins my entire plot. These issues still come back from time to time, and the point is you never know how close you are to ‘emerging’. I certainly didn’t know. I just stayed committed to doing what I love, what occupies my mind till late at night. And through all the changes I’ve experienced, through the acknowledgements and rejections, my commitment to my writing process has remained the same.

It’s the process which is going be the focus of this year’s Festival. The Emerging Writers’ Festival for 2008 is not so much about the finished product, but about how we, as poets, authors, playwrights, screenwriters, bloggers, journalists – how we write, why we write, what we’re trying to achieve in our work. The Emerging Writers Festival is about discussion of the heart of writing and how we can improve and adapt to communicate our ideas to the audiences of today. How we can ensure the art of writing remains vibrant, relevant and representative of our changing culture.

This point of connecting with the modern audience is a crucial one as it relates to the changing of communication in the modern world. I went to a media lecture recently where two old-school journalists were speaking – both long time editors with two of Australia’s most elite and respected publications. Both these men, highly respected in their field, they were both lamenting the dumbing down of the Australian media. The decline in the quality of Australian journalism. They spoke broken heartedly about how the times of insightful, intelligent journalism had passed and we were falling further into an internet lead, gossip-magazine style culture. They had resigned themselves to the fact that real communication and analysis had gone.

All through these speeches I kept wanting to put my hand up and interrupt them. I wanted to stand up and say they were wrong. The principle of what they are saying is correct and anyone can see this dumbing down in any newspaper or on any news bulletin. But I felt that they’d missed the point on this. They were giving up. Rather than adapting and developing new ways to communicate with a modern audience, they were mourning what they saw as the times of elite writing.

The audiences of today are, if anything, more intelligent and more insightful than in the past. They have the advantage of the internet, of personalized content and specialized searches. It’s not that quality journalism is necessarily dying, it’s that our means of communicating have to evolve. The question should not be: ‘how do we convince the modern audience to respond to our definition of quality writing?’ It should be: ‘how can we create stories that are of interest to this changing audience?’ ‘How can we engage them and ensure our writing remains relevant?’

To me, this is an exciting time to be a writer. The opportunity exists to be part of something fresh, a new way of looking at how and why you write. There are many more doors open to writers, many more avenues to connect with a more specific audience or communicate directly with authors. There’s the opportunity to develop your own style of work and get immediate reader response. There are more doors open to create and explore and discuss with an audience that can tune into your message. We have an opportunity to be on a new wave of literary expression and I’m excited by the challenge and opportunity of writing stories for the modern age, capturing moments in time that I have felt and that we know. I personally believe we are creating extremely important works and our messages are being felt, maybe not in a flood of change, but in ripples through the community.

The last point I want to address tonight is the why of what we do. Why do we write? More specifically, in this case, why do I write?

The short answer is I write because I have to. It’s something I’ve always done as long as I can remember. Even when my concentration has been on other things, I’ve always had stories writing themselves in my head.

I write to try and understand why things happen, how they happen. One time saw a man walking into the ocean, wearing a full business suit. This image opened up a whole world of possibilities for me. This was something new, unusual, and my mind started imagining this man’s story, creating how he could have come to this point. These types of stories, inspired by things I see, they play in the back of my mind till they boil over and spill out onto post-it notes and the backs of business cards. They fill pages of my notebooks and get saved as phone messages that will never be sent. I think through every aspect of these stories, developing in-depth sketches of why a person would be this way, thinking of his family history and upbringing. Writing these ideas down helps me clarify my thoughts, and I work to find the most interesting ways to arrange my words so I can share the feelings I have for this story. So I can re-create that feeling in the reader.

I approach my writing by putting together a skeleton of a first draft, the basic details and elements of the story. Then I re-work and refine till the skeleton feels like a complete person. I give it organs and skin. Give it a heart. Give it teeth. I push myself to ensure my work expresses the emotion I feel for the story and to me, this part is like trying to capture the familiarity and emotion of my strongest memories. Those thoughts that come back to you, when you see or smell something familiar. Like hearing a song that reminds me of the time I was traveling in Scotland, wandering half-drunk and alone through foreign streets. Like walking through Melbourne Central Station, which reminds me of when my Dad took me to the new Toys R’ Us store when I was a kid. Like sitting on a bench overlooking the ocean, which reminds me of the smell of my ex-girlfriend’s hair.

These little moments are filled with such emotional depth. I can remember so much detail in these thoughts and it’s this level of feeling that I try to capture in my writing, that instant of recollection and familiarity. Each word I use has to add to this image. Every syllable and sentence has to enhance the picture and add depth. To be able to create such emotion within imagined characters and situations, and to do so with legitimacy, is the greatest challenge and greatest thrill of writing fiction. I love the ambition I feel, when looking at a blank page, to fill it with more than just words. I love putting myself into the place of my characters and wringing out the joy and pain of my own memories to know and understand what they feel. And I love the aspiration I have which compels me to refine and improve my work, in the hope that readers, whether they liked or disliked the story, will not soon forget what I have written.

And maybe, if I get it right, I can expose the heart of my story well enough to create a moment that my reader and I will share. Maybe one time my reader will smell the pages of a new book and be reminded of the time they read my words. Reminded of the time we shared an imagined experience.

The aim of all art, I think, is to communicate what we can in an effort to contribute to a greater understanding of the people around us. In doing this, the hope is we move society to a more inclusive and insightful place where everyone can be heard. That’s what this festival is about – allowing all writers a chance to contribute, discuss their work and engage with like-minded people. This will help us all enhance our writing and contribute to the exciting future of Australian literature.

It’s of the utmost importance that we all continue to read and write and seek better ways to communicate our stories to the world. This festival has helped me in this regard in the past. I hope it will allow you all the same opportunity in 2008.

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