Each year when I attend the Emerging Writers’ Festival’s National Writers’ Conference I manage to pick up something new. Of course, this is because the discussions change. But it’s also because my priorities change – the discussions that were interesting to me in 2009 were quite different to those that interest me now.
This line of thought dovetails with the experience of the festival as portrayed by Twitter. It’s a strange and wonderful thing to be in a room, furiously tweeting an event, and notice the places where other people’s tweets intersect with your own, and where they diverge entirely. What I think is a brilliant quote or insight doesn’t even rate a mention in other feeds. It’s a different festival for everyone in attendance.
Having said that, some things will always be inspiring. This year, Anna Poletti’s advice at the ‘5×5’ event (in which five writers offer five pieces of invaluable advice) suggested that the best way to get writing done is to stay at the desk. “Five pieces of advice,” she joked. “Stay at the desk. Stay at the desk. Stay at the desk. Stay at the desk. Stay at the desk.” I feel like this has been echoed in previous years’ 5×5 events, and in other writers’ sentiments over the weekend. In the ‘Early Bloomers’ session, Oliver Mol described how he got up every day for three years and wrote a thousand words. An audience member in the ‘freelancing’ panel talked about going out to corporate writing work during the day, but coming home at night to work on her fiction. Every year, proof that writers manage to juggle everything inspires me. Proof that people can create great work and refuse to let life get in the way of that – that makes me believe that I can do it myself. I think it makes everyone believe that it’s all more possible – and that’s the infectious nature of this conference.
Each year there seems to be some thread that becomes apparent to me throughout the conference events, and it’s usually in line with my preoccupations at the time. This year, that thread was ‘doubt’. The landscape for writers looks quite dire right now, with funding cuts making individual writers, organisations, and publications feel unsure of how to move forward. Personally, this is compounded by decisions around how best to balance my work and creativity now that I’m out of university. Nothing underscored this more than the ‘freelancing’ panel, where Sam Cooney acknowledged how soul-destroying corporate work can be, while multiple audience members defended this same work as what makes their creative practice possible at all. As someone who’s been working in an office doing writing work lately, I feel a strong pull between the two. It’s doubt. Is this the best way it could be done? Am I making the most of my time?
At the panel titled ‘Unlikely Paths to Success’, both Mischa Merz and Adeline Teoh described their false starts – actress or teacher? Writer? Their doubt may have held them back from writing initially, but both these two panelists and host Geoff Orton seemed richer for the experiences they’d had. Perhaps doubt can be fruitful, allowing us to test out and discard possibilities as we need until we reach the place where we’re meant to be.
I thought about the familiar faces I’ve seen at the festival across the last six years, and how much our progress reports to one another have changed over that time. How, each and every time, we’re tentative about what we’re doing, as though it might just fall out from under us at any moment. What if doubt is, in fact, perpetual? What if it’s essential for growth?
Doubt doesn’t have to be a nervous place to be. It can be comforting to know that we’re all muddling through. That there’s no right way to do this. The best we can manage is to wrestle the ideas as articulately as possible and lean on those around us – our community.