What a week! The Nonfiction Melbourne 2012 circus, last stop University of Iowa, landed at RMIT's wild-looking CBD campus on Wednesday. Hordes of writers, American and local, gasped at the risk taking of the tight rope walkers, laughed at the clowns and tried hard to avoid the elephant pats. But more about that in a moment.
Because on Tuesday evening, in company with my friend Anne, I participated in a writing event of a very different complexion, when forty Melbourne Pen members met at the North Fitzroy Star to write cards to imprisoned writers, something we do around Christmas every year.
|Writing and sorting at North Fitzroy Star |
As I laboured to say something non-trite to fellow writers from Bahrain and Cameroon, who had been incarcerated for years for offences as minor as participating in peaceful demonstrations, I was overwhelmed as usual by the comparison.
There we were, meeting in delightful surroundings, listening to music, sharing a laugh and enjoying the company of like-minded people, utterly free to write whatever we wanted. And next day I was off to an international writers conference just down the road. How lucky is that.
There were many class acts at the conference, but undoubtedly my favourite was a modest offering by a group of Alaskans, who read from their own works and those of colleagues. I listened enchanted to stories of wild places, of deer, bears and tundra, of pipelines, snow and whales. Alaska couldn't be more different from Melbourne, and yet many of our preoccupations are identical. I loved the community feel of these presenters, the lyricism and directness of their work and their generosity. At the end of the presentation they showered me with books and so even though I will no doubt spend this summer sweltering as usual, in my heart I will be eased by Arctic cool.
|David Shields - scoping the future of writing?|
The American, David Shields, in his plenary address, outlined his radical approach to writing. Called collage
, he describes it as 'the juxtaposition of shards with other shards, the yielding to inchoate intuition'. Although some of what he said sounded like gobbledey- gook to me, I struggled to concentrate and keep my mind open, because he is clearly an original and amazingly creative thinker. He argued that since the beginning of time writers have always borrowed from each other and we should feel free to use each other's works without attribution. This radical idea is most liberating - at least to flirt with.
Another plenary speaker, Margo Jefferson, was simply a delight. Of African-American origin, she encouraged us to go deeper and deeper into the mines of ourselves in our writing, to keep challenging ourselves to take risks. I will never forget her reworking of the beloved 'Little Women' and her eloquent and startling conclusion that she is most like Beth.
|Hardly able to see over the podium, yet Helen Garner is a huge presence|
Our own Helen Garner as usual produced a wonderful, modest and thought-provoking presentation. Undoubtedly most audience members agreed with the organisers that hers was the perfect choice of local voice. Especially because I am uncertain at the moment about what to write next, I was heartened by Helen's reminder that you can't force things. Sometimes you just have to be patient and wait for them to unfold.
I had some reservations about the conference. At times it seemed too academic, with people reading papers, barely glancing up to make eye contact. And I attended one particularly dismal session where 3 boys strutted their intellectual stuff, oblivious to the yawning and nose scratching of the audience.
Sometimes the American origins of the conference were overwhelming, especially when assumptions were made about our knowledge of American literature. Jose Dalisay from the Philippines, who suggested many of us had attended his plenary address because we had never heard of him and knew nothing of his country's writings - was fantastic. I'm sure the programme would have benefited greatly from involvement of speakers from different, and poorer, countries.
Having said that, I have been absolutely a-buzz all week, my mind full of fantasies and possibilities about what I might write next. And I now have a vastly expanded view of what is subsumed under 'Non-fiction'.
Even though my preference is still for the modest, flawed home-grown Circus Oz, I nevertheless appreciate the opportunity to experience the artistry and excellence of Cirque du Soleil.