Last week, I went to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. As you could imagine, I was in absolute seventh heaven. As a passionate writer, it doesn’t get much better than this. That is aside from getting published, of course!
I can barely convey the sheer exhilaration of being fully immersed in the writing world… attending author sessions, meeting other writers, discussing all things literary and being surrounded by all those scrumptious books. It was mind-blowing.
As if that wasn’t enough, there was Sydney. How can I possibly encapsulate a place let alone a city into a few words? I won’t even try. This isn’t about Sydney the icon anyway. It’s about my Sydney… our relationship…our story.
Me at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Walsh Bay on Sydney Harbour.
Sydney is home. It’s where I’m from. It’s made and shaped me, even though I technically don’t live here anymore. At the same time, when I come here now, I now feel a little distant and almost removed becoming more the visitor, the outsider,the observer. It’s a place which isn’t quite past but is definitely somewhere interwoven with memory. There are a lot of “was-es” and “remember whens” and even these have aged. When it comes to the City of Sydney, these memories are now almost two decades old. You see, I used to live in a converted warehouse apartment and numerous terraces houses all just a shortish walk from the CBD. These days, with so much water under the bridge, I tend to view Sydney through a different lens. As much as I hate to admit it, I have almost morphed into that most detested of species…the tourist. I even look the part with my Nikon hanging around my neck and my trigger finger permanently twitching.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge viewed from the Walsh Bay precinct
I’m absolutely in love with the Sydney Harbour Bridge and our relationship has never waned!! Seeing her peering over my shoulder surveying the magnificent harbour, which is glistening like a diamond carpet in the glorious autumn sunlight, is like greeting an old best friend. The Bridge has been with me through thick and thin in hospital reassuring me with the occasional wink and a smile through the window. I used to watch the two little flags on the very top of the arch when the nurses were jabbing me with the canula, desperately searching for a vein. I’ve also walked across the Bridge a number of times before my muscles played up. I still remember how the whole bridge shuddering whenever a train roared past. At least, that’s what I remember.
Then there were the people. I don’t know whether Sydney is generally considered “cosmopolitan” but I certainly observed a kaleidoscope of people, personalities, nationalities and sub-cultures. It was like someone had cut up pages of coloured paper and glued them back together again in a haphazard maze of images. I was almost overwhelmed by the mass of people. During the day at home, there’s just the dog and I and it’s very quiet. Watching all these people was incredibly stimulating yet at the same time, it was also a little overwhelming and a bit too much. I was like a hungry, starving skeleton let lose at a smorgasbord. There was almost too much to take in and consume. I was literally devouring everything in sight…Gobble! Gobble! Gobble! It was the sort of pure gluttony which usually sends your stomach into reverse cycle. With such sensory overload and all my neurones firing at once, I’ve been all jibber jabber ever since, unable to articulate it all.
It was that good!
The Sydney Writers’ Festival unofficially begins each year when the program appears in Spectrum, in The Sydney Morning Herald. I’m usually out of bed like a rocket. Before I’ve even considered my constitutional morning coffee, I’ve retrieved the paper from the front lawn and I’ve circled my favourite events. Time is of the essence. I have to be quick. I don’t want to miss out. Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! I flick straight through to the workshops. They only take around 15 participants so I they book out quickly. There’s no time for procrastination, deliberation or dithering around. It’s decision time. I certainly don’t want a repeat of last year’s stress. Last year, I managed to secure the very last ticket for children’s author Andy Griffiths. That was an event in itself when I somehow managed to trap the ticket online and couldn’t access it. I was literally sweating blood but it was mine.
Yet, as much as you need to rush, you also need to plan. Be organised. There is a booking fee so if you forget or overlook an event, that’s another booking fee. That means reading through the entire program for a second or even third time to be absolutely sure.
On top of this, there’s what to do with the kids. What am I supposed to do with them while I’m swanning around Sydney being the writer? As much as I might consider my writing “work”, so far it’s not paying the bills and certainly isn’t earning its keep. This makes it hard to justify further expense. Fortunately Mum, Geoff and friends usually help out but that means generally trying to cluster my events on certain days and being very organised. For this reason, I tend to go for pre-booked tickets. I know I have a seat and it’s worth the trip to Sydney.
Anyway, this year I had a genuine panic attack. I hadn’t read the paper and had missed the supplement entirely. I was one week late. I was one week late and that was before I’d even started getting the organisational juggernaut in motion. The entire festival was going to be booked out. I was going to miss out!!!!! I don’t like missing out. I really don’t like missing out…especially when it comes to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s my big hurrah every year where I get myself…my real self….out of the closet and strut my stuff. I am a writer!
Phew! It wasn’t the end of the world. There was one event I couldn’t get into but I managed to secure tickets to hear Hollywood actress Molly Ringwald (of the movie Breakfast Club fame) talk about her new book: When it Happens to You. Wow! I was so excited that I was almost hyperventilating! I loved that movie, even though I can’t quite remember what it was about anymore. Just the thought of meeting Molly Ringwald set my heart aflutter. Wow! I couldn’t wait! I also booked in for a talk with Australian social researcher Hugh McKay about his new book The Good Life, which debunks the happiness myth. I also booked in for a mid week editing workshop about killing your darlings. I wasn’t too sure about killing my darlings but I felt some advice with editing might help me structure things better and actually get some of my writing out the door. Finish something, in other words.
Bronze Pig and sunflower outside Sydney Hospital just down from the Mitchell Library
Last Tuesday, I attended my first session…Editing Your Darlings. It was held at the historic Mitchell Library just across the road from Martin Place in the Sydney CBD. I arrived in Sydney a couple of hours early and bought myself a very rich and decadent chocolate cupcake, a cappuccino a chicken burrito and found a bench in Martin Place. There were so many people. It was like a sea of people….a veritable tsunami! I particularly noticed numerous men in suits swooping through Martin Place like magpies, heading somewhere in a flap. As I looked around Martin Place and the imposing sandstone tower of the old GPO (General Post Office), I noticed sunflowers everywhere as part of an advertising promotion and grabbed one. I couldn’t believe my luck. Back in my 20s, I had adored sunflowers. They were my flower and one of my signature poems was called Sunflower and was about a bloke I’d liked. I only come into the city a couple of times a year and I couldn’t believe the timing. That I would be in Sydney on the very day they were giving away sunflowers in Martin Place. It was serendipity…meant to be.
I must confess that it took me two hours to realise that the sunflower wasn’t real…even after taking a gazillion photos of it around Martin place and Macquarie Street. Good one, Ro!
Me outside the Mitchell Library
Anyway, I went off to my editing workshop and briefly mentioned my book concept to the presenter and she said to get in touch once I had finished it. She genuinely seemed quite interested.
Now, I just have to finish it. I mean get started. Well, do something with what I’ve started. There are a lot of words just busting to get out of my computer and into print. It seems like a very long journey but I suspect I’m already a good way down the track.
Saturday, I was back down to Sydney and meeting up with my close friend, Jennifer to hear Molly Ringwald speak. Her book is a collection of interconnected short stories centred upon the theme of betrayal. I have to tell you it was amazing to meet Molly and hear her talk about her life, her book and read an excerpt. She was amazingly grounded and down to earth. She is a great actor but she is also a great writer so hearing her read her work out loud was amazing. I could really picture the characters. They were people I knew. People I could touch and I could readily walk in their shoes and view the world through their eyes. I couldn’t wait to dash out the door and buy the book but first there is question time.
Now, the audience actually gets to interview the illustrious Molly Ringwald. Little me…humble little old me…decides that I have to ask Molly Ringwald a question. Wow! I mean it’s the opportunity of a life time except asking a question at the Sydney Writer’s Festival is extremely intimidating. Your question has to be incredibly witty, insightful and it actually needs to be a question and not, as I have heard in the past, an extended monologue.
The only trouble is that as much as I’m desperate to ask a question and seize the moment, my mind’s gone blank. I can’t think of anything. I’m shifting nervously in my seat staring up at Molly Ringwald who almost has a golden halo at this point and angel wings. Looming overhead, there’s the huge and very magestic Town Hall pipe organ. Just to intimidate me even further, I’m surrounded by a huge crowd of very erudite and sophistocated opinionardoes. As I said, this place is very intimidating. Hands are going up all around me but I still can’t think of one simple question. There’s just the point Molly made about writing two of the stories from a male perspective and that made me think of my Dad wanting to write a novel from a female perspective. If I could wonder how a man could think like a woman, shouldn’t I also question how a woman could think like a man? Tentatively, I raised my hand. I was the very last question and I had to get out of my seat and walk over to the microphone. My heavy boots echoed on the polished wooden floor as I walked up the aisle to the microphone. I was dying on the inside but at the same time, this was the chance of a life time. I had to do it. It would be a moment that I’d never forget.
Molly was quite delightful and her response was actually quite insightful. She talked about how men and women notice different things about people. For example, she mentioned how her husband wouldn’t notice her new haircut but a man would notice how a woman’s body moved, for example.
Molly Ringwald signing her book at Sydney Town Hall
Books signed, Jennifer and I had the rest of the night to ourselves without any kids or interruptions and we could actually talk. For us, this was almost a sacred moment!
Jennifer and I at dinner
We walked up George Street and had dinner in a swanky restaurant in the old GPO building in Martin Place.
I could get used to this!!
We enjoyed watching people pass through Martin Place. I noticed a bloke carrying his groceries home which looked a little out of place in the city on a Saturday night until I remembered that people actually live here…right here. The rest of the time, we observed a veritable parade of young women out on the prowl with all the usual…too much makeup, death trap heels and very dubious fashion sense.
H! Well might you scoff, Rowena. That used to be you.
Oh how I’ve aged! I even have a walking stick to prove it but I tell myself the walking stick is “just in case”. That I don’t really need it.
Rainbow light tunnel at the Vivid Festival
This stunning light sculpture was made by illuminating plastic witches’ hats (ie as used in for road works).
With my usual commitment to carpe diem, Jennifer and I are squeezed two festivals into one night. Now, we’re off to check out the Vivid Festival down at Circular Quay. There were elaborate light sculptures and stunning laser displays and a philosophy behind it all that passed us by.
Customs House during the Vivid Festival
However, we were sadly struck by the huge amount of rubbish spewing out of the bins and onto the footpaths. I’m not sure who you blame for that but I couldn’t help find it a bit odd that an event could both beatify and desecrate the city simultaneously. Unfortunately, the rubbish was just as much a comment on what it means to be human as the art.
Art and rubbish side by side
At least someone’s happy with the mess.
Jennifer and I were like Thelma and Louise: seizing the day…seizing the night. By now, it was getting close to 11.00 PM and we were starting to think about getting home…but not without having an ice cream. Even on a cold, frosty night, you can’t go to Circular Quay without indulging in an ice cream. The ice cream was so lush and creamy and being a cold night, for once it wasn’t dripping all over my shoes faster than I could eat it. I had a Royal Copenhagen which had crunchy chunks of honeycomb set in a vanilla base in a gorgeous waffle cone. The best thing about the ice cream was that I could enjoy it in peace without being badgered by the kids and having to spend a fortune buying only 3 ice creams. Buying your kids an ice cream shouldn’t send a loving mother broke!
We caught a taxi back to Jennifer’s and she dropped me round to stay with my friend Sue. Sue and I will be going to hear social researcher Hugh McKay talk about his new book The Good Life in the morning.
This is my first trip down to the Walsh Bay precinct during this writers’ festival. The Sydney Theatre Company in Walsh Bay is the main hub of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Being a converted wharf, it is the perfect venue for a writer’s festival. It is very atmospheric. The wharf was completed in 1919 and was quite derelict when it was converted into theatres back in the 1970s. Richard Wherrett, who was the artistic Director at the time, said: “I liked the metaphorical notion that every time you went into the place to see a play, you went on some kind of journey”.
That’s also what it’s like when you experience the Sydney Writers’ Festival here.
One of my personal favourites is how the buildings intermingle with the Sydney Harbour Bridge. You can see the Bridge reflected onto a bank of louvre windows which creates multiple reflections. I’m sure even one of the thousand photography students who has ever taken this shot has claimed it as their own, as “their” very unique interpretation of The Bridge. You also see fragments of the infamous “coat hanger” framed by all sorts of windows. It’s like the Bridge just wants to remind you, reassure you: “I’m still here. I haven’t gone away.”
You can quite literally dangle your toes in Sydney Harbour down here but I’m not game. There are sharks in that water. These are nasty sharks of Jaws proportions with great big teeth and even bigger appetites. You see, being a writer, I have a very vivid imagination. Actually, it’s not just my imagination. Sydney Harbour is full of sharks and they have been known to munch.
The Wharf Theatre home to the Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Writers’ Festival
As I said, Walsh Bay is the hub of the Writer’s Festival. It’s where I go to “experience” the festival and get into “the scene”. I don’t know if all these people are actually writers but I sure hope they’re all readers and wannabes. Surely, all these people don’t believe they’re actually going to get published? I sure hope not. They all look and sound like better writers than me with their slick haircuts and creative outfits something like a vintage 50’s frock. Hair dyed red, or black or perhaps even purple. Dark rimmed glasses… You know the types. I don’t know whether they’re just wearing the glasses for effect or whether they are just like me…as blind as a bat. There’s also the black brigade. For some reason, a lot of creative people seem to dress head to toe in black even though it really doesn’t show much creative flair at all. After all, aren’t you just casting yourself as a shadow?
Sue and I
I’m pleased I bought Sue along this year. We chat and it relieves some of the performance anxiety I have experienced in the past. It’s the first time she’s ever been to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and she’s not a desperate writer yearning to get published but not sending any material within cooee of a publisher. She is much more relaxed and not overcome by existential angst. I can feel my heart rate starting to ease. Sue is my rock.
Author Hugh McKay is moving to the mic. McKay has written a number of books which I’ve found very insightful. He is an Australian social researcher and he has interviewed thousands and thousands of people about their attitudes to just about everything and in the process he has absorbed a good overview of life, developing great insight and a very strong moral compass. He makes no secret of his mission to bring out the best in humanity and to make the world a better place.
I have only read about a chapter of the Good Life. He classifies the “good life” as a life that is characterised by goodness, a morally praiseworthy life, a life valuable in its impact on others, a life devoted to the common good.
Of course, he mentions the golden rule.
This was all great stuff particularly how he debunks the utopia complex and our quest for constant happiness. Happiness, he stresses, is just one of a range of human emotions.
I was particularly interested in his comments about parenting styles:
Children are likely to struggle when confronted by the demands of independence if they have been cosseted in a state of prolonged dependency and fed a diet of self-esteem-boosting praise. (Good try! is the response to failure currently favoured by parents, even if the failure was actually the result of zero effort.
He also emphasised these points in the talk. This interested me on a personal level because I often worry about the negative impact that my health issues are having on the kids. I really feel it puts an unfair burden on them. I know they get angry at me at times because of this or perhaps it’s just because I’m their mum and it’s their job.
Anyway, once again it came around to question time and me being me had to get my one question out there. Eventually the microphone comes my way and this is my question:
“I am a mother with a chronic illness and I am often concerned about what sort of effect this is having on my kids and yet I often hear about successful people who lost a parent when they were young or had sick parents. What are your thoughts?”
Well, his response showed great insight. Hugh McKay had never met me before and he said one word “relax”. It was exactly what I needed to hear and even more importantly, what I need to put into action. Relax Rowena! Take a deep breath. Everything is going to be okay.
Perhaps, real life can have a fairytale ending after all!