Immersion in the familiar

I flew north to attend the 2014 Byron Writers’ Festival in early August with some trepidation. A week earlier I’d returned from a research trip to Japan with the burning desire to write. I didn’t want to stand around in queues to hear writers talk about writing in a veiled attempt to boost book sales – my lasting impression from the last Sydney Writers’ Festival I attended. And I also already have more unread books on my shelves than I will likely read in my lifetime.

But I needn’t have worried – those four days in Byron were fantastic. Saturday was sold out and I got in a full afternoon of uninterrupted writing done. Over the weekend I hung out with old friends, made some new ones, and listened to some very beautiful minds express fabulous thoughts. Yes, I bought a couple of books; the only thing I queued for was coffee.

Commentator Gerard Henderson is often critical of the amount of “left-of-centre” types on writers’ festival programs – Byron’s would have given him a seizure: Kate McClymont, Bob Brown, Tim Flannery, Jane Caro, Julian Burnside, Antony Loewenstein, Abbas El-Zein, Christopher Warren, Andrew Denton, I suspect even Malcolm Fraser (who had a fascinating toe-to-toe with David Marr about the Dismissal) equates in Henderson’s book as left-wing these days.

There were many highlights, like songwriters Missy Higgins and Darren Hanlon. I liked how they don’t try to do everything at once. When they need to write they go off and write, which is when their best work comes – not when they were touring, or holidaying, or speaking at writers’ festivals. Claire Wright, whose book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (which I bought) won the 2014 Stella Prize, is exploring important aspects of Australia’s past “In history we’ve largely tried to paper over instances of male impotence,” she said in a session I watched.

Frank Moorhouse swept the festival away with charming anecdotes about the researching the League of Nations. Maxine Beneba Clarke must be one of the most exciting young Australian writers around – I picked up her short story collection. Jeanette Winterson talked fearlessly about her personal struggles with madness and depression. “I could not go on anymore as that Jeanette Winterson – she was finished,” she said on an attempted suicide.

Tim Flannery – who I now love – told a packed New Philosopher sponsored tent that humans are the potential brains of the earth – with the human brain making up 2 percent of the mass and taking up 20 percent of the energy the body produces. We’re in our adolescence, he says, yet to grasp as a species that the brain’s survival depends on the body living. A big part of the problem is that we do not live in a representative democracy, he said. He dismissed concerns about overpopulation as unfounded and largely irrelevant.

Wendy Harmer, reflecting on the Brisbane Writers Festival in the Age, equated writers’ festivals with a new spirituality – a place where people can come together, especially in regional areas, to fill the “void left by half-dead churches, political parties and irrelevant media outlets.” I felt this sense of communion in Byron – the festival was a safe space where I could spend time among people who largely share my worldview and values and approach to life.

But there’s a danger in this, which Henderson flails at but is better expressed by independent journalist and author Antony Loewenstein who, writing in the Guardian about literary festivals, said “like many of us in our online habits, we spend too much time listening and reading to those who we like and respect rather than find uncomfortable or offensive.”

For me I think the problem is if we treat writers’ festivals and the like as total refuges, closing ourselves off entirely from the world and immersing ourselves in the familiar – pure escapism. Instead, these spaces can be perfect places to reflect and recharge before we head out again into the often oppositional and adversarial world.

Attendance at writers’ festivals is booming across Australia, lets hope they’re all recharging for the next push for a more inclusive and sustainable society.

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Originally published in GreenMail, the members’ publication of the Greens NSW. More information about the 2014 Byron Writers Festival here.

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