Today I spent the day in a room. With. John. Marsden.

…and THEN. Steven. Amsterdam!


Today was the first “Big Splash” at the Wheeler Centre, run by Express Media. The day was a mini-festival featuring a keynote speech from Jessica Au and writing workshops by John Marsden and Steven Amsterdam. And what a day it was – as the first event of its kind, Express Media got it spot-on first go.

Jessica Au’s opening speech was a reflection on her recent reading of Virginia Woolf, who once said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Jessica talked about what a woman today might need in order to write. Money was still a concern – “they say time is money, but for a writer, money is time,” Jessica said. The means to afford time for our writing is important. And not just time for our writing, but time for everything that goes with it – time to get distracted, time for uncertainty, time for re-writing and editing. Also essential are engagement with critical culture, and a good balance between egoism and pessimism. Later in the day Jessica shared her experience in getting published and dealing with publishers – she’s a very well-spoken lady, and while I haven’t read any of her work yet, I’ll be on the lookout for it!

The next part of the day saw the group of 28 attendants split in two, each going with a different writer, which would swap later in the day. The first workshop for me was with John Marsden.

John Marsden‘s importance to me simply cannot be understated. I was part of that generation who chewed hungrily through the “Tomorrow, When The War Began” series, got to the back cover of the last one, then started it all again because I just didn’t want it to end. “So Much To Tell You” is one of the first books I ever remember buying, and “Dear Miffy” the first thing with really explicit material (I remember the sentence too – “squeeze me like a lemon baby, your juice runs down my legs”) that I snuck past my dad out of the library. He’s been with me for about as long as I can remember reading, and now he’s coming with me into my writing life too.

Some notes on Mr Marsden – swears like a trooper. Natural story-teller. Rambles, but in a totally engaging way. Has a natural fascination in people and playing with status in real-life situations. Watches a lot of different movies – Pretty Woman, Terminator, some avant-garde French thing…

John’s been running workshops for about 20 years – and it shows. He does it incredibly well. While the first 45 minutes or so were a ramble about status, he eventually looked down at his watch and said “Shit, this is meant to be a writing workshop, we better do some writing!”.

His exercises were short and to-the-point. We looked at how stories need solutions, and how solutions don’t have to be absolutely unexpected to be good. We talked about how all stories are essentially “What If’s”. The example I came up with for this was, “What if I go home today to find another family living in my house, and find out that that family has been living there for a long time, just when I’m not home, and today I just catch them by chance?”. It certainly got me thinking(/paranoid)… I’ve been keeping an eye out for clues of their whereabouts since I got home.

John also came out with something really comforting – someone said something about a plot they’d come up with, then undermined it by saying “I know it’s just like (some popular thing) but…”. To this, John said: “Sometimes people are apologetic about their work being derivative, but you shouldn’t be, because everything is. You should only be apologetic if your writing lacks energy.”

Speaking to Express Media’s artistic director later, Bel Schenk, she said that John told her we were the best workshop group he’d ever had. It may have been hyperbole, but I’m claiming it. That’s right, folks, I was part of the best writing workshop John Marsden has ever run. YAH!

 The next part of the day was with Steven Amsterdam. Recently, Steven Amsterdam has wow-ed me with “Things We Didn’t See Coming”, which I picked up at the EWF, and was thankful for every page of. The man writes well. Really ridiculously well. You should pick up a copy.

Steven’s workshop had a lot more “heads-down” kind of writing, but was no less enjoyable for it. We used visual prompts to produce a pretty sizable body of story starters. Steven kept one guiding principle in our minds as a way to always push our work forward – “What’s the core value of your story?” he’d ask. And for the most part, by identifying what that is, there was a logical way forward.

This piece of advice is pretty priceless for me. I so often get stuck with a story, with a beginning and most of a middle – I know where it needs to end, but I’m not so sure how to make everything reach that point. Often I’ve been spending time writing really detailed character sketches outside of the story in order to figure out what would logically happen. This idea of keeping focussed on the core value of a story really helps with this process.

Steven also said something great about making story ideas original. With our visual prompts, we were mashing together seemingly unrelated ideas. Steven likened this to googlewhacking… I very much like this idea.

The day wound up with what was called an “informal panel session” but which was executed in a circle, with people throwing questions to the three writers, who chewed on them for a bit. It was incredibly relaxed, and felt so much better and completely different to any other author/writer event I’ve been to.

Both Steven Amsterdam and John Marsden are so incredibly friendly and approachable that I managed to have a chat with both outside of alloted time. Both were lovely enough to sign their books for me…

"Sam, Best Wishes, John Marsden"
"Sam, Keep it strange, Good luck! Steven Amsterdam"

…and John Marsden signed his using MY PEN… I absolutely loved my pen before, but it’s just taken on a whole new element. John Marsden wrote with my pen!

Beloved Pen, now graced by the hand of Marsden!

Best day I’ve had in quite some time, by far. Thanks Express Media, can’t wait for the next one!