Short Musings at the 2018 Australian Short Story Festival by Jacoba Quayle
I had never been to a writers festival until I volunteered for the 2018 Australian Short Story Festival. While university set me up with the technical skills of writing, there wasn’t a class I could take on the uphill battle of being a writer. Here, I will reflect on some of the more memorable moments I experienced at the Australian Short Story Festival. My role as the Social Media and Event Assistant volunteer over the Festival weekend, allowed me to witness a plethora of discussions, readings, and debates. There were conversations shared between writers that considered the ongoing divide between technical practices and the reality of the writing scene. Writers reflected on the ethical and cultural barriers many faced throughout their career and the unexpected consequences of their writing. Throughout my observations, I was able to see how writers festivals, especially small and intimate Festivals such as the Australian Short Story Festival, are a chance for the community to show their comradery, support, and excitement for writing.
One panel that quickly left an impression on me was, ‘Why Perspective Matters’ featuring Roanna Gonsalves (The Permanent Resident), Elizabeth Tan (Rubik), and Alice Grundy (Ed. Stories of Perth). They explored how societal changes and the increasing celebration of diverse writers has shifted the writing culture, but there are still a number of blockades many writers face. The panellists considered these ideas and sifted through the concepts of perspective, power, and voice. Roanna explained how her characters come to her, “I find that the characters are quite stubborn,” said Roanna, “they demand to be listened to.” Nods were shared in agreement around the room. When I think of my writing, the characters have already found a voice for themselves and my job is to get that on paper; I’m the vessel they need. Elizabeth Tan joined the conversation: “sometimes I feel like my characters are little bits of me, or they contemplate some of the things I contemplate.” In my own experience, I have read about this idea many times. It’s a hotly debated topic in my writing classes—whether the author is the character, or the character is the author. I found myself agreeing with Elizabeth. Characters can be a part of the author that they wish to explore, but ultimately, they aren’t. Alice Grundy, facilitator for the panel session, asked Roanna and Elizabeth for their thoughts on the current writing culture, which shed light on a topic I had not deeply considered before. Elizabeth said, “I think that the reviews I cherish the most are from reviewers and critics of colour.” I was admittedly confused at first, not fully understanding what she meant, but Roanna explained this further saying, “I think it’s important to have a diversity of writers, but also reviewers and critics.” Her reasoning for this being that it allows for multiple levels of interpretation and critical perspective. Roanna and Elizabeth both expressed that having their texts read by people of colour encourages a multi-layered understanding of the text’s meaning. Roanna and Elizabeth’s points of view inspired me to more critically consider my own privilege and to be further aware of the need for diversity in our writing culture. The power of language is exceptional, and we should hear more from voices like theirs.
Despite three years of university teachings under my belt, attending the Australian Short Story Festival made me realise I knew only half of the story when it came to writing. I know how to, and can, write in several different forms to convey contrasting ideas for a range of purposes. I know the genres and the archetypes, templating each one. I can edit and strip down pages of words and rewrite an entire report in a few hours, a strict deadline looming overhead. But these rigid structures and techniques, that are the very essence of the university experience, are limitations in themselves. Listening to Hannah van Didden (in Southerly, Hippocampus Magazine, Breach), Emily Paull (in Margaret River Press Short Story Collection, Westerly, Revolution), and Brooke Dunnell (in Best Australian Stories, Westerly, Voiceworks) speaking with Amy Lin (Westerly, Cordite, Social Alternatives) in the session ‘Why Do You Write?’, the question was a lingering thought in the back of my mind. I have an idea of why I write, but I also know that I lost my passion for writing when I started university, so this panel was more of a self-reflective experience than other sessions. Hannah said, “the creative process and the editing process should never meet when you’re writing.” It’s an interesting method to contemplate and compare with the overall question of why I write. I have found that I hate everything I write as soon as it’s on the page, and I may spend hours on one passage trying to fix what I think is wrong. Emily’s advice was to “put everything in and then cut back until you’re happy.” She suggested writing whatever grabs your attention, or to write what interests you. She explained that she often uses something that has happened in the news and explores it from a different perspective. Alternatively, Brooke’s suggestion was to be fully submerged when involved in the writing process. She then explained that when it comes to the editing, writers should come above what’s written and look into its depth with new eyes. Brooke emphasised that she takes care to “see everything and be slow” when writing a short story, compared to writing a novel. While novels have countless threads and branches to figure out and plan, it seems a short story can be a more enjoyable process. While this panel explored an assorted range of perspectives and approaches to writing short stories, each held the short form in high esteem.
Everything my peers and I read is quickly deconstructed and analysed, so much so, that it almost feels like the text’s power and purpose is lost.
Being new to the writing scene, my understanding of the idea of being able to change the minds and hearts of readers through stories is different, particularly considering how I’ve read texts throughout my university degree. Everything my peers and I read is quickly deconstructed and analysed, so much so, that it almost feels like the text’s power and purpose is lost. I therefore had given little thought to the full power of texts until Yvonne Fein spoke in the panel session ‘Good Things Come in Small Parcels’. Richard Rossiter (Thicker than Water, Refuge), Annie Horner (No-One Was Watching), Wesley Robertson (in Aerodrome, Westerly) and Yvonne Fein (Choose Somebody Else) explored the huge concept of generational trauma. When Yvonne said, “I started writing because of my fear of the world forgetting what happened to my parents” her words hit hard. It had been only a few days before the Festival when a friend of mine was relaying to me that historians are desperately trying to gather as much information as they can from groups of people who have lived through historically significant events, such as the Holocaust. There’s been a need to record and share these untold stories on a global scale. Yvonne—a child of Holocaust survivors—explained that the reason for this phenomenon is because, as these people pass on, we’re collectively losing our history. Agreeing with Yvonne, Annie Horner went on to say, “I’ve chosen to do something because I believe fiction can change people’s worldviews.” Annie believes that the arts can help people “see, feel and know empathetically” things that they haven’t experienced. Though Wesley couldn’t say he personally experienced anything to do with generational trauma, he did say that it is an issue stories are able to delve into because it gives people a chance to relate to it. As Yvonne said, “it’s wanting to show that in the deepest ugliest [stories] there’s fact and truth.”
There is no place quite like the Australian Short Story Festival. Being surrounded by people who arrange words on pages, who create something for a reader to grab hold of, is almost otherworldly. While I have been taught the techniques and skills of writing and editing in an institution, what I have gained from the Australian Short Story Festival is that there is no right or wrong way to tell the story you want to tell. There is a sense of community and connectedness, a familiarity and ease between writers and attendees. There is a shared bond in knowing that language and stories are powerful, and the short form can push boundaries unapologetically. As Maria Takolander said in her Closing Address, “writers are in the business of inflicting that emotional unease.”
Jacoba Quayle is a student at Curtin University studying a Bachelor of Arts Double Major. She recently completed an internship at the Centre for Stories and was also the Social Media and Event Assistant volunteer for the 2018 Australian Short Story Festival. When she isn’t studying in Perth, Jacoba resides in Exmouth, WA.