I’ve never read an Alexis Wright, book. Until she won the 2018 Stella prize, I’d never even heard her name.
But I can’t stop thinking about the speech she gave at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Wednesday night, and I absolutely think you should read it, here.
It’ll be good for the writer in you.
It’ll be good for the human in you.
It’ll just…be good.
‘I absolutely believe that we need deep thinking and deep imagination in our literature to shock the daylight out of us, to make us see what is happening in the world, to make us think, and if we teach how to read more deeply, think more, then perhaps, perhaps, we might stop harming ourselves and the planet.
Alexis Wright, Boisbouvier Oration, 2018
(One more post to go for my Melbourne Writers Festival series. I’ll try to get that to you over the coming days. xx)
I was power walking and angry listening. In my earphones was the voice of an award-winning Aussie writer, discussing his concerns about the literary prizes of the world, and how potentially harmful he thought them to be, considering the subjective nature of reading and writing. I could see his point, but overall I had to disagree; great work should be acknowledged.
A couple of years later, I entered a short story competition…and won. The announcement was electric. I clapped my hand over my mouth (you know it, just like in the movies) and flicked my head around to where my sister was smiling back at me. Someone had liked my story. Someone had loved it, in fact, and I couldn’t quite believe how wonderful that kind of validation felt. This was one of my babies—one that I had agonised over, questioned, written and re-written so many times I thought I was going nuts. And now I was seeing it light up the world outside of me, making a difference in other peoples lives. Gosh, I was proud.
Over the coming days, though, I started to consider the validity of my win. Did I really deserve it? Of course, I was proud of my story, and, using the skills I’d picked up along my writerly way, I was confident that my story had technical merit. But was it the best? What did the best really look like?
My biggest punch of reality was the story that came in second place. It was a good story. It was a really, really good story. Not only was it superbly written, but the final paragraph delivered a twist so satisfying that my mouth flew open and a great big, ‘Hah!’ came flying out. That had never happened to me before while reading. Ever. This was clearly an award-winning story. And yet…it hadn’t won. My mind went straight to the podcast, to the writer who’d questioned it all, and finally, I could see what he was talking about. Comparing two stories is a bit like comparing an apple and an orange. Who’s to say which is sweeter?
With that said, as I sat in the audience of this Sunday’s announcement of the Miles Franklin award—clapping wildly as Michelle De Kretser took out the 2018 prize for her novel, The Life to Come— I decided once and for all. Literary competitions are good. They will never be entirely black and white, or fair; an opinion is an opinion, after all. But perhaps we should try to see the good in literary competitions, look at them through those glasses I love so much: the rose-coloured ones.
Competitions like the Miles Franklin, The Stella Prize, The Man Booker (just to name a few) can provide a roadmap, a huge wavy flag that says, ‘Look here! This is one way to write, this is one way to live!’ My passion for reading and writing—and for being a good human, for that matter— naturally leads me to think of these competitions as a rich source of learning and growth.
And, as for the subjectivity that places a question mark over the heads of every award-winning book out there…the great news is this. We get to decide the true winner. Us. The voracious readers. The learner writers. We know which books and authors resonate with our own sensibilities. And if our own opinion just so happens to be the same as that of the judges, well. Hi-fives all ‘round, hey?
Congratulations, Michelle De Kretser. I read your words and I wish they were mine. xx
Fear of judgement. I could fill a page with all the times it’s crippled me. All the times I wanted to do something but didn’t, all the ways I could have grown in this life of mine if only I’d stood firm and owned what I had to offer.
I’m in the front row at my second Melbourne Writers Festival event (Therapy Couch: Krissy Kneen) and there it is again, that word: humanity. It’s thick, and it’s oozing from Krissy Kneen as she talks through some of the fears she faces with her current project—a memoir recalling the history of her family, and the way it all sits within her life.
The scars of her family history are raw and deep, and, by writing a book on such a personal subject, Krissy will be exposed. She admits she’s nervous when it comes to Twitter and the various other social media platforms, and I don’t blame her. With the rise of the internet, ‘passing judgement’ has become all the more brutal.
It’s a moral fine line she’s walking, too, as it often is when it comes to writing memoir. Because even though our story will always be ours to tell: does it ever really belong only to us? What about the other characters in our lives? Krissy’s deceased Grandmother, who played a huge part in this family story, never wanted this story to be told. Krissy knows it—she’s reminded every time her Aunty shouts it down the telephone—and yet, she has chosen to tell the story, anyway.
Krissy recalls the moment she realised her Grandmothers passing meant the end of her uncomfortable silence. She would now be free to tell the story that, previously, she’d felt obliged to keep quiet. I can imagine the relief she must have felt. How many life choices might I have made differently if not for the wants and needs of others? I can think of a great many.
There really is no escaping the ache of humanity, is there? It’s the one thing we all have in common, whether we choose to share it with each other, or not. The stories of our humanity connect us and are often strewn with painful truths; truths that, these days, most of us would rather escape, than face. It’s easy to sit at the bottom of a mountain. But if you’ve ever stood at the top of one, I’m betting you know all about that view.
As I leave the auditorium, bumping shoulders with the people of my day, I can’t help but feel a hum of admiration for this woman called Krissy Kneen. Here is a woman who is chasing after her truth. She is standing in all of her power, and despite the ever-present fear of judgement, she is calm and she is steadfast. She sees the challenges. She chooses to move past them.
This is her life. Her story. Good on her for granting herself permission to honour it.
Recently, a friend asked me if I’d ever experienced a ‘sliding doors’ moment. I didn’t even have to think about what my answer would be. I rattled off a moment from the past where a right turn, instead of the left that I took, would have drastically changed the course of my life.
I suspect that yesterday I experienced another one of these perfectly orchestrated twists of fate. Because maybe, rather than simply blaming poor time management skills, I was actually meant to be late to my first Melbourne Writers Festival event. Maybe I was meant to walk in on John Marsden right at the very moment he was unzipping his skin and revealing the inner scars that have no doubt been etched into the lives of each of his characters.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, John is an Australian author, perhaps most famous for the young adult series, ‘Tomorrow, When the War Began’. I was first introduced to the ‘Tomorrow series’ when I was about sixteen and, as luck would have it, the first four or five books had already been published by then. I gobbled them up with barely the urge to sleep or eat.
But let’s talk about the John Marsden of today. The John Marsden whose talk at the 2018 Melbourne Writers Festival I was quite late for, because I’m a goose who just happened to lose track of time on the wrong day.
I scurried out to the garage—car keys jangling, jacket half on, kissing the air around my husband and children—and I was off. I won’t talk too much about the drive there, but I will say the traffic was maddening and added ten more minutes onto my estimated time of arrival. (We should just skim over the moment I flicked the gear stick into reverse, instead of first gear, don’t you think?)
Upon arriving at the venue I apologised to the lovely girl manning the front desk. She smiled and directed me to an empty seat, with sympathetic eyes and very little fuss. One of the marvellous gifts of this writer’s festival of ours are the volunteers. Their passion for books and arts always shows, and how lovely it is to see (especially when you’re very bloody late. Omg.)
As I listened to the conversation unfold between John and his interviewer, I was struck by the quiet nature of the man. John Marsden, not the writer, but the ordinary, imperfect being, baring his soul to a room of strangers.
There was no talk of the books that fed my creative soul throughout my youth—I was clearly late enough to have missed that boat. But I found myself sitting there thinking: perhaps I am hearing exactly what I was meant to hear. Perhaps if I’d been there from the start, I’d have missed the relevance of a writer’s humanity in this whole reading/writing shindig.
Do you believe in fate?
Because, after yesterday’s frantic dash and subsequent late entry to Marsden town, I really think that maybe I do.
I am the proud owner of a cunning new plan. I’ve just unwrapped it, and there it is, slowly spinning on the Lazy Susan of my mind, while I sit wondering why on earth it took me so long to think up such a genius plan.
The thing is this. A few months ago I was gifted a five-session pass to attend the Melbourne Writers Festival. And like the lovely, bouncy book nerd that I am, I opened my arms wide and I ran, across a light-flooded field of daffodils, to my bookshelf, where I found several of the books I’d need to read in preparation for the big event. (Okay, so there were no daffodils. But how wonderful if there was!)
Anyway. The writers festival. The non-existent daffodils. The Bookshelf. Cutting a long story short, I found myself staring into a week of all things bookish, and here I am: the morning of, and It’s struck me.
I must share this with the people of blog land.
Because, for me, this blog has always been about sharing bits and pieces of my life, connecting with like-minded people, smashing our days and our hearts together and seeing what magic comes of it all.
What might happen if I take you to this festival of dreams with me? In what way might I take you—I don’t even know. Knowing me, it’ll likely include the words ‘magic’ or ‘wonder’ or ‘butterflies’. (And If you’re giggling into your hand, you either know me personally or have read a vast majority of my posts so far. Aww, besties. xx)
I’ll keep the events I’m attending a secret until I post about them (because surprises are THE best) but what I will tell you is that there’ll be at least five posts from me over the next seven days. I’ll likely sprinkle a few photos onto my Instagram page along the way to make it a little more fun, also (you’re all very welcome to join me there if you’d like).
So! What do you think of my cunning plan? Let’s do this, is what I think! It’ll be all sorts of wonderful, won’t it? We’ll be bookish besties for an entire week.