10 life changing ideas I learnt at the Sydney Writer’s Festival

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Sydney writer's festival lessons

It’s been thinking season here in Sydney with the Sydney Writer’s Festival having just wrapped up, so me and my amazing writing group got together and brainstormed these 10 life changing ideas we learnt over the course of the event.

SEE ALSO: Why all amazing writers have writing groups

#1 Fairy tales are more than what they seem

The fairy tale session I attended was one of my favourites and was hosted by Kate Forsyth with authors Wanda Wiltshire (also a member of my writing group), Garth Nix and Danielle Wood making up the discussion panel. The talk challenged us to think about the meaning of fairy tales and their importance to us on an individual level but also in terms of their effect on the world and whether or not they provide a cure for cynicism.

One fun fact they shared was that nearly everyone, when asked to choose a fairy tale they can identify with, is able to name one in seconds. For me it was Little Red Riding Hood. Not the Grimm version but rather the one my Nonna used to tell me which was more like La Finta Nonna (The False Grandmother) one of the original variations of the tale where the wolf is more like a werewolf (I hate the demonisation of poor wolves!) and more importantly Red uses her own cunning to see through the wolf’s disguise and escape.

When asked to choose a fairy tale you identify with, most people can name one in seconds Click To Tweet

#2 Knitting on stage polarises your audience

So picture this. In the above mentioned talk about fairy tales, one panellist, Danielle Wood sat on stage knitting a green hat—the colour incidentally had me thinking of enchanted forests.

Personally I didn’t mind. I thought it fitted with the genre of her books and also with the talk itself. For one thing I was amazed and a little jealous that she was able to knit and speak so eloquently at the same time. For another, it transported me back to when people would share these traditional stories by a crackling fire, probably making themselves useful while they did it—darning socks, doing needlework or indeed knitting green hats.

Other people I spoke to found the knitting annoying and felt Wood was not respecting the audience members. We debated whether it was a nervous thing but she had spoken at another talk without knitting so it seemed unlikely.

But we were all talking about her. She dominated our conversation. Along with the Little Red Riding Hood cape she wore (it was also handmade and awesome) the knitting helped her to create a memorable persona—essentially her brand as a writer—whether she’d done it consciously or not.

It got me thinking about ways writers set themselves apart and I realised the phenomenon wasn’t even unique to that one author on the panel. Kate Forsyth who hosted the talk, always wears something velvet. I’d found this out at the festival launch party from someone who works at her publisher, and sure enough Kate mediated the panel wearing a velvet skirt.

At the end of the day you want people to remember you. If they do, they’re more likely to get your name stuck in their heads and one day pick up a copy of your work. The whole point of being a writer is to share your stories so if there’s something that sets you apart, something you can show that makes you unique, then I say go ahead and knit away for the win.

#3 Writer’s who share personal details about themselves are likable

Being a writer means you spend a lot of time living in solitude and maybe because of this, many don’t enjoy sharing information about themselves, their lives, feelings or attitudes in their talks.

What I noticed at the festival though was that writers who did open up about who they were and why they created the kind of art they did, were more likely to connect in a human way with their audience. This links back to a blog I wrote a few months ago which explored the idea that the brain doesn’t distinguish between reading or hearing about an experience and actually experiencing it. Basically like the point above (where an author stood out by knitting), writers are remembered when they share stories about themselves.

SEE ALSO: What writing does to your brain—and that of your readers’

#4 Don’t let over-editing change your writing voice

Don't let over editing change your writing voice Click To Tweet

This is pretty self explanatory and if you’re interested in reading more about voice my great friend and fabulous author, Pamela Cook wrote a whole blog about it for Writing Journey Co so check it out.

SEE ALSO: What is a writing voice and how you can find yours

#5 There’s such a thing as nude yoga

Not exactly writing related but something that’s impacted me—only not in the way you may think. The hysterical Benjamin Law was asked by his editor to attend some naked yoga sessions and write a story about it. An all male class he attended happens to be right near the park where I walk Brielle every day and now when I see men in training gear carrying gym bags (although why they’d need all this stuff beats me) I wonder if they’re on their way to a session.

#6 Leave room in your writing for the reader

Leave room in your writing for the reader Click To Tweet

It seems like common sense but sometimes in your own writing you need someone to point it out to you. When we write, especially first drafts, we tend to over explain everything. But this can push your audience away. In a session on storytelling it was suggested that as a writer you need to leave more room for your readers than you think you need to. They’re smart and don’t want to be condescended. They need space to make up their own minds about what’s going on. I think this lesson ties in really well with the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’.

#7 Record interviews with your mum while you still can

This was something Kate Grenville mentioned in one of her talks. When her mother, Nance died, she left behind fragments of a memoir she’d started. Using Nance’s musings as well as recorded conversations, Kate was able to piece together her mother’s story in a biography called One Life: My Mother’s Story. Not only that but she was able to listen to her mother’s voice after she was gone and be able to remember and connect with her memory in this unique way.

#8 Write because you want to answer a question

More Kate Grenville wisdom and so true. In fact Kate did a fantastic interview all about the process of writing her book which you can listen to here.

#9 There’s room for sentimentality in writing—as long as it’s true

The meaning of sentimentality has changed over time. And indeed one of the reasons for the birth of the modern novel was because writers were acting against a world turning purely to science to explain life in clinical terms. For these authors sentimentality indicated ‘the reliance on feelings as a guide to truth’ while today, society has changed the usage of the word (Serafin and Bendixen,The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, 2005).

The original definition of sentimentality was ‘the reliance on feelings as a guide to truth’ Click To Tweet

The modern definition of sentimentality was summed up by Oscar Wilde when he wrote ‘A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.’ If we look at it this way then maybe there isn’t room for sentimentality. With this definition sentimentality simply becomes ‘an appeal to shallow and uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason’ (Serafin and Bendixen,The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, 2005).

But I personally like to be a little less cynical, as did the panellists Steve Toltz and Brooke Davis in their talk at the festival. Because if we use the word sentimentality in it’s truest and original sense then we pretty much sum up all good art—art that demonstrates and evokes within us something real.

Roland Barthes in his book A Lover’s Discourse talks about how modern society mocks even the word love. Which I think is kind of sad. It’s like we’ve become so caught up in preserving our completely rational, contemporary selves that we feel a need to snigger at any appeal in literature to true human emotion. But isn’t that what stories are about? An appeal to our humanity?

#10 Hang out with other writers

SEE ALSO: Why all amazing writers have a writing group

Everyone agreed that the best part of the festival was being able to spend time with other writers. Here’s some of the things my writing group had to say:

  • ‘Standing in a long queue is a great way to meet people and find out something of their writing journey.’
  • ‘The festival doesn’t end with the last session, but in fact lingers—with writers and book lovers coming together for poetry slams, music, drinks and camaraderie afterwards’
  • ‘The best part is immersing yourself in a world of writing and reading for however many days you’re lucky to be able to attend. The other best part is the bookshop.’
  • ‘I loved the atmosphere at Walsh Bay; walking among so many people sharing the same interest—the love for books and writing.’
  • ‘Having a drink with my writing buddies at the Bar at the End of the Wharf.’
  • ‘I got the chance to meet one of my favourite authors, Steve Toltz.’

What are some writing lessons you’ve learnt at a writing festival or event? Let me know in the comments.

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