Today is my final day at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, as my outgoing Director status becomes plain old gone. It has become something of a tradition for festival staff to write a sign off (read terrific contributions to this spectacularly niche canon from former Director Lisa Dempster and Program Manager Karen Andrews). I guess we all think we’re writers – we just can’t help ourselves, so please indulge me, as I bid a fond farewell.
It’s been a wild ride of three years filled with incredible highs and lows – which is to say, it has presented all the peaks and troughs that a festival naturally brings to your working life, doing terrible things to the stability of your calendar year. But I wouldn’t change a thing. After all, the role of Director for the most innovative, forward-thinking writing organisation in the country is an obscenely privileged position. I remember during the job interview – over a shaky Skype connection held between the Sydney office of New York University, the space kindly loaned by a friend, and The Wheeler Centre, beaming in a selective panel from the board – being asked what I would get out of the role. My answer was something along the lines of: ‘Are you kidding? Getting to hang out with two hundred writers a year? Do you realise how many ideas there will be for me to steal!’
The role might have interested me initially for selfish reasons, but the scope of the organisation and the vibrant community that comes together to form the festival quickly kicked any sense of entitlement out of me. The founding principles of the festival – established by the inimitable Richard Watts – of inclusivity of writers from all ages, backgrounds and genres, and diversity in audience, were there facing me from day one. Such strong values, naturally lead to incredible innovations in programming, which hopefully serve to strengthen the opportunities for writers across the country.
There has been so much literary activity packed into three years, and all of it vital and valuable, that there’s no way to pick favourites – but here are some final thoughts from me on what the festival and organisation have achieved across that time.
Within the festival program itself: in 2013, inspired by Peter Minter’s suggestion that writing is a life, not a vocation, we presented a full weekend in partnership with The Abbotsford Convent, devoted to the well-being of writers, offering strategies for them to look after themselves at various stages throughout their careers, which in light of recent events within the Melbourne literary community, seems more important than ever.
One of EWF’s greatest strengths, in my mind, has been fostering partnerships with likeminded organisations. Our Late Night Lit Mags programs forged a close relationship between the festival and a number of local literary magazines – The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Canary Press, Chart Collective, among many others – providing an essential connection given our shared work supporting emerging writers. Challenging writers and editors to create vital late night programming, which can activate bar spaces across the city, and which can compete with any number of bands and live performers, is essential for the festival to promote writers to a broader audience. I remember well walking into the first event in this series, on a frigidly cold Melbourne Monday night, for the first ever Mixtape Memoirs, and being blown away by the amount of bodies in the gallery of Thousand Pound Bend to hear writers read at 10 pm.
Two individual events to highlight: The Pitch Networking Session for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Writers seems like a no-brainer looking back – we had budget for Auslan interpretation, why not use it for professional networking and not just interpreting general audience events? Connecting mainstream publishers and writers from the Deaf community in this way is the one event I genuinely hope every writers’ festival around the country blatantly rips off. Accessibility should be core to all festivals, but sadly it isn’t always so – and it needs to go beyond venue checks: accessibility also means access to a voice on programming and editorial committees and representation throughout entire creative programs, not just single one-off events.
And look, there was also getting to be cheeky-as-fuck by hosting a panel in the dark at The Wheeler Centre, with four anonymous panelists (with big thank you to our Production Manager of that year’s festival Kylie Maslen, a brilliant writer in her own right, who got my mad vision and pulled it off with limited budget but unlimited reserves of creative verve). Risk is central to the artistic direction of so many festivals dedicated to emerging and early career practitioners – and I can’t tell you how thrilling it is when you get away with these innovations. It’s always part heist.
One of those anonymous panelists is no longer with us, and I will miss her comforting yet confronting voice most of all – she taught me more about the importance of artistic risk than anyone I will likely ever know, but also to do so with empathy, and so inclusivity too, in mind, always.
This really is the festival that knows no bounds. Lisa Dempster, and David Ryding before her, had left incredible groundwork to build national and international connections. I was lucky enough to tour the festival to Hobart, Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra within those three short years. Indeed, within my first year, we managed to establish an incredible valuable cultural exchange program with the Bali Emerging Writers Festival, culminating last year in the ‘Island to Island’ tour, produced in collaboration with the productive teams Asialink Arts and the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, strengthening the ties between Indonesian and Australian emerging writers. The exchange program, supported by DFAT and the Australia Indonesia Institute, has just finished its third year and shows no sign of slowing.
Launching the Digital Writers’ Festival – a broadened version of Lisa’s groundbreaking EWFDigital program – with Connor Tomas O’Brien has undoubtedly changed the Australian literary landscape. Writers’ festivals around the country need to be investigating livestreaming options and investing in digital infrastructure now. We need to be the leaders in this area internationally too, and own this story of innovation: lucky, we have the entire internet in front of us to do so.
This is all to say nothing of the hundreds of writers involved across all of these programs, of their incredible work and bright futures – which, without them, there really is nothing to say at all. This festival is for writers first and foremost.
There are those that have suggested that the Emerging Writers’ Festival is only for the careerists – but such criticisms have only ever been aired by those who haven’t bothered to attend. A festival is a meeting place, and by meeting, writers can be so much more effective in the world than sitting in their bedrooms alone – sure, we can do that for most of the time, but for eleven days a year there is a space marked out for us to come together and share war stories and to formulate ideas for the future.
If there’s one parting provocation to leave behind it is this: When will my generation of writers realise they are best placed to argue political views, particularly those that will serve and advance their own best interests as writers?
I leave the Emerging Writers’ Festival fully satisfied with my three years of creative direction and am proud that the operational staff has doubled in my time. I do wonder too if your successor can indicate some level of success? Not to make it about me, but I really couldn’t be more thrilled to be followed in the Director role by Michaela McGuire, whose achievements with Women of Letters have been absolutely dizzying over the last five years. And with an exciting new Co-CEO model with the talented and deeply driven Kate Callingham, supported by a strong and nurturing volunteer board, this new era can only strengthen what the organisation achieves from here.
I cannot wait to see what Michaela does artistically with the festival over the next three years – certainly it will be a different experience from my tenure, but those guiding principles and values, of inclusivity and innovation, will remain always.
As for me, you can continue to listen to my ramblings on The Rereaders podcast, and I’ll be back in freelance writing mode, putting to use all of those terrific ideas I stole over the years. I told you it was a heist!