Almost Heaven: Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015

When the Sydney Writers’ Festival comes round each year, I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven. I’m like a starving dog salivating through a butcher shop window, yearning for that door to open.

Not only am I desperately hanging out to get into my booked sessions but I also want to soak up the incredible ambiance. The weather has been miserabnle before but today the surprisingly warm Autumn sunlight twinkles across the waters of Sydney Harbour as the Bridge seemingly peers over your shoulder. Yet, the view isn’t just about the landscape. It’s also about watching the crowds mill past and watching people deep in thought or discussion and wondering why each and every one of them are there. Are they all like me desperately hoping to hit the big time? Anyway, I soon spy Gleebooks and the four letter word I can never resist: SALE and my Santa’s sack fill to the brim is left behind the desk for later. It’s better than the Royal Easter Show.

Out on the town.

Out on the town.

Yes, indeed, like a scruffy little rabbit-chasing black dog rolling in a fresh cowpat until the stench has well and truly infiltrated the fur follicles (nameless, of course!!), I could roll in the Sydney Writers’ Festival until it was well and truly absorbed by each and every cell. I was definitely in my element.

It is easy to go a bit crazy at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in the same way people literally go mad at the Boxing Day sales. You’ve been waiting so long to get back especially if you, like me, have been counting down the days ever since the last one. Yes, indeed. I live from festival to festival. It is Mummy’s “Great Hurrah” every year when I run away from home and responsibility, flaunting my writer’s cap. Most other years, I’ve stayed in Sydney overnight although this year, I’m here for the day.

This year my programme looked like this:

1.30 Roger Woodward Concert Pianist with his autobiography: Beyond Black & White

3.00 Claire Tomalin: On Charles Dickens the Inimitable

6.30 Norman Doidge: The Brain’s Way of Healing


Talking with Dr Noman Doidge who has put neuroplasticity on the map.

Although I was looking forward to each of the three sessions for different reasons, my focus was on the session with Norman Doidge. Actually, focus is quite the understatement. I was like a crazed fan trying to invade the Beatles’ hotel during their 1964 Australian Tour. I not only wanted to thank him for how much his books have changed my life but I also wanted to tell him how learning the violin had accidentally rewired my brain and that much of the process of learning the violin mimicked the ideas of Feldenkreis (These are ideas presented in his second book along with case studies)… did learning to ski. Indeed, learning the violin has rewired my “noisy brain” and enabled me to enjoy listening to music and even listen to the others in my vilin ensemble to pick my cue. This is a huge improvement.

Although playing the violin and learning to ski might appear very different on the surface, both involved that slow, conscious movement and intense repetition to improve. That is, at least the way I was learning them with my swag of physical disabilities or “issues”. This is what’s required to maximise rewiring the brain.

I managed to listen to Norman Doidge again today on Radio 702 with Richard Fidler and this really helped to cement in the concepts as Filder really probed the depths of his responses.

You see, while it’s all very well to have nitty gritty scientific discussions, what people really want to hear is: “What can this do for me or my loved one who is “blocked” in some way or another? How can you make it better? What can I do?



After all, rewinding back to my darkest hours, I was moping round the house singing Meatloaf’s epic song: Anything For Love I meant it too. I was prepared to do anything at that point to snatch back any time with my kids that I could. I even went off chocolate and cut back sugar for a few months, which was a huge achievement for me!!

However, how does an unknown contact a guru, even when they have a riveting story which shouts their findings from the mountain top?


Autumn Leaves at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Winter is almost upon us.

Sadly, it just doesn’t happen. Tried reaching him via the festival beforehand and no success. Stood up in the queue with my walking stick and foot in boot to ask a question and I could barely stand up and they ran out of time. I guess I’ll have to get cracking with my own story.

By the way, I didn’t think about this at the time but just think of the neuroplastic implications of perpetual whinging?!! Yikes! It makes me shudder!!


Portrait of Roger Woodward by portrait by Boris Eldagsen


Anyway, rewinding to my session with Roger Woodward, concert pianist

You might recall that my grandmother, Eunice Gardiner, was an accomplished International concert pianist who’d not only attended the Royal Academy of Music in London but was appointed one of a handful of Fellows. Eunice taught at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music when Roger Woodward was a student and although I’d never met Roger Woodward, it seemed like he was something like a long lost member of the family. Not our family but my grandmother’s family of pianists. I met quite a few of her protege’s over the years and she had an affinity with them I could never even try to grasp. They were birds of a very exceptional feather and by nature, an exclusive club. The rest of us mere mortals simply didn’t get it. My mother had originally been in that family and had met my father at a soiree at my grandparents Lindfield home featuring pianist Gerard Willems and also attended by Australian authors Ruth Park and husband D’Arcy Niland. I’m not sure if Roger Woodward was there that night but until recently I’d thought he’d played that night and so he was very much enmeshed in my personal history.

While Woodward spoke about his time at the Sydney Conservatorium and took me into my grandmother’s world, what really gripped me from his talk was his belief in social justice and the need to take a stand. That as creatives we can stick our head in the sand and ignore it or stand up and fight. In 1965, he moved to Poland where he became strongly associated with the Solidarność movement. He remarked that while a lot of artists stood on the fence, in Australia, you stood up for your mates. He said: “I don’t feel comfortable sitting back as a human being and saying: “That’s not my business. Stand up for human rights. Australianness is standing up against a bully.”

On a lighter note, I must say that Woodward is the consumate performer. Not just at the piano but also in the way he delivered story after story and you were transported back in time into his shoes. You could sense each and every emotion as you sat riveted on the edge of your seat  I hadn’t expected that. Although I grew up with the classical music scene all around me, I was very much a foreigner….an alien so I was really pleasantly surprised to enjoy his session so much.

By the way, I just have to mention that he was waering these striking maroon and navy striped socks.To be they displayed a character, personality. Not quite sure what else socks say about a person but I was wearing a pair of navy “Happy Socks” with different coloured circles all over them. Yes, they were colourful and quirky, reflecting just a little of who I am too.

Charles Dickens

Next, I was off to Claire Tomalin: On Charles Dickens the Inimitable. At this point, I was joined by my friend Clare, who was my appendage for the afternoon (I have a companion card). Although I’m somewhat interested in Dickins, I must confess that I’ve filed him under “should read” rather than “must read”. While I love performances of his works, I don’t read a lot of novels and prefer shorter and more contemporary works. That said, I have been researching our family history and Dickens writes about that period of history and he does it exceptionally well. This was the carrot enticing me to explore Dickens further.

If you have attended writers’ festivals yourself, you, like me try and organise your sessions around a can’t miss and then sandwich something else in to fill the gaps in between. This was how I ended up at this session exploring Dickens. After booking the tickets, however, a friend had heard Claire Tomalin interviewed about the book on radio and then I was sold. I even bought the book beforehand. Suddenly, crusty old Dickens which I’d struggled through at school, had been metamorphosed into a character himself. A character I was intrigued to explore not just as a writer but as a student of people.

Tomalin, who has written many biographies in her time, said: “the best way to get to know a writer, is to hear their own voice” and she read out a letter Dickens had written to his sister. However, there were two anecdotes which truly appealed to me. Firstly, she mentioned that Dickens wrote with a quill. That somebody could write so prolically with such awkward equipment, is beyond me. Just think was his output would have been if he’d had a computer! He’d have filled a library all by himself!! Secondly, she talked about how Dickens loved walking and by walking we’re not just talking about a stroll to the local shops. Indeed, he walked 20 miles a day. This struck me as a kind of therapy.

However, the Sydney Writers’ Festival isn’t complete with a bit of indulgence. Clare and I ended up dining out at a fabulous restaurant the Ash Street Cellar. It was a thorough great meal and such a thrill to be back  in the city. I felt like a real person again…myself. I used to work and live in the city many lifetimes ago and it’s still in my veins. That said, I do prefer the more relaxed beachside, family lifestyle these days. I prefer to just visit the smog these days.

The Sydney Writers’ festival continues and the Vivid light festival starts tonight , I believe. We saw a few glimpses of it last night but I’ve seemn it in previous years and it is spectacular.

Are you a writers’ festival junkie? Do tell!

xx Rowena


A Cappucino and chocolate Mouse at the Ash St Cellar after gnocchi for dinner.



24 thoughts on “Almost Heaven: Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015

  1. roweeee Post author

    Thanks, Merril. I was in seventh heaven!! Now, I have a lot of reading, researching and writing to do.
    xx Rowena

  2. D. Parker

    My goodness, that looks amazing, even down to the food.
    I’m so pleased you had such a wonderful time.
    Have fun with the follow up research, reading, and writing. 🙂

  3. Smorgasbord - Variety is the Spice of Life.

    You sound like you had an amazing time and I know how difficult it is to get some one on one time with someone who is a public figure.. but perhaps you can send a link to your story to him via his social media sites and when he is not tied up with interviews and presentations etc he may have more time. Wonderful to see one of your grandmother’s students as an established performer and very exciting to think of how she helped bring him to this point. Plenty of food for thought and certainly lots of interesting things to write about.. thanks for letting me know Rowena.

  4. roweeee Post author

    My grandmother didn’t teach Woodward but she did examine him apparently.
    In terms of contacting Norman Doidge, I’m going to find the right people to contact here as well as sending him an email. He gets absolutely flooded with messages but I do think my story needs to get out there and I’d also like to get a bit more of a scientific interpretation of what’s happened. My neurologist has certainly been blown away by the fact I’m playing the violin at all let alone in an ensemble. Being able to ski…never thought I’d achieve that in a million years.

  5. vanbytheriver

    What a great writers’ experience. I’m also fascinated by the brain rewiring/violin/ski issue. Have to go back and catch up on your older blog posts. ☺ Van

  6. roweeee Post author

    You’re welcome. I had such a fabulous and engrossing time that I had to share the joy. Moreover, since we can’t all be in the same place at the same time, blogging enables that vicarious experience. xx Rowena

  7. byrdwords

    Excellent post. Going to a writer’s conference always jazzes me up for more scribbling and helps me through the doldrums of editing when no one understand that yes, the book is written but there’s still a lot of work to do to make it right.
    You learned the violin as an adult? My hat is off to you, that’s wonderful. You must be wicked smart to be able to do that.
    When I considered the idea of Dickens at a computer keyboard rather than a quill pen, I compared it to my own process, which involves either hammering out on an old typewriter (I have three, is that too many?) or writing with a fountain pen. Oftimes when I’m stuck I’ll shut down the computer and bring out the fountain pen and just start writing. It’s more natural to me and I don’t have to use that bit of my conscious mind that does the typing, so my thoughts just flow better. If you took the quill out of Dickens’ hand he might not have produced as much. That’s one thing I learned at writers’ conferences, that everyone’s process is different, everyone’s brain is different and that’s the wonder of it all. Vive’ le difference.
    Wonderful post, I like the way you write.

  8. roweeee Post author

    Thanks very much, Bob. That’s an interesting point you make about Dickens…and yourself.
    While I write most of my blog posts directly onto the computer, I handwrite most of my poetry. Hand write a journal and also like writing letters. I find there is something in the movement of the pen over paper which whets the creative juices.
    I would love to understand how that works. I’ve always found the handwriting thing quite intriguing.
    Some brains are more different than others! xx Rowena

  9. Minuscule Moments

    Rowena thank you for sharing the experience, it sounds wonderful and inspiring and I am sure one day you will get to that place you want to be with your writing. The passion you have is infectious.

  10. TanGental

    Great about your meeting and the Doige story too Yes, you must get your story out there. But I said I’d be jealous and I am. Green. pea green. A deep explosive pea green…..

  11. roweeee Post author

    Of course, I can’t tell you that it wasn’t worth getting jealous over because it was but perhaps you’ll just have to schedule another trip out for next year’s.
    I am going to try working more on getting this book going. I’ve needed to I guess work out the thread of it all and that has taken so much thought. It’s hard when you are dealing with real life events instead of fiction where you can manipulate the plot to suit yourself. You create the characters etc. Also, you don’t have to worry about objections from the living characters either.
    The funny thing was that my quest all started out with trying to fight the fibrosis that had just started developing in my lungs. This can develop quite rapidly or lie dormant and be a complete non-event but we didn’t know what my experience would be. Strongly influenced by Doidge’s first book, instead of focusing on the dead or damaged parts of my lungs, I focused on the good and thinking about how I could get them to work more efficiently. I mean, you think about opera singers and brass players and how they’ve built up their lungs and I thought something was possible. It was during this process, that I stumbled into learning the violin and how to ski, which I just read in his latest book, use slow conscious movements similiar to Feldenkrais and Tai Chi and these not only improved my auto-immune disease but residual symptoms from the hydrocephalus I’d had since birth. Having conquered the slopes in Perisher and done Preliminary violin and scored an A, I came down with pneumonia. Had a flare up of my auto-immune disease which attacked my lungs and I was fighting for my life…not polishing off the book and about to hit the big time. At this point, I was very ill and was struggling to breathe and walk due to absolute shortness of breath.
    Ironically, while I was having chemo. they pumped me full of massive doses of prednisone so for a few days there I was quite euphoric and I swam in my parents pool at Palm Beach and fought to make my way back and succeeded.
    While this journey doesn’t match a conventional plotline, I think it is much more real and helpful to others than your standard motivational spiel. Even though so many things improved and the auto-immune disease is in remission again and I’m doing well, I am a\still having trouble with chemo brain and the planning part of my brain is scrambled. I have a very poor sense of time. No idea a lot of the time. Yet, like Terry Pratchett with his Alzheimers, I’m still able to write and write well. I have struggled to come to terms with these inconsistences and contradictions and tried to put them into a framework, which makes sense. The best I’ve done is to acknowledge the contradictions. That there are some things we can change, even very surprising things and some things, which prove totally immovable and also those other things which are a “not yet”. This may not be what some motivational types are preaching but that’s what I know to be true.
    If I can just sit down and write the @#$% book, I think it could do very well.
    Any thoughts? I know it seems like I’ve just shared my entire life story but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
    Weekend over…Monday beckons xx Rowena

  12. roweeee Post author

    Thank you, Kath. Yes, I am totally on fire about writing and have been for years. One day, I’ll probably combust. I think it’s actually starting to touch on the kids. Miss received a merit award for her writing recently and Mister went to the Sydney Writers’ Festival with school and met up with Andy Griffiths. He really liked Anthony Horowitz and his Alex Rider series. We are slowly making our way through the Tom Gates book. Before I had the chemo, I was religious with doing that nighttime reading with the kids and it’s been very hard to get back into it but I must.

  13. TanGental

    If planning and plotting is a struggle, why not write scenes? Those deeply affecting bits of the journey If it is a memoire, then yes you do have o consider others sensitivities (if you aim for a public distribution of some kind). But you could fictionalise it. The truth is you have a bundle of material. It might even start out as a series of short stories which you can link together or leave as such, that tell of the journey.
    And yes you write very well (though if you want an honest view, you do have a teensy weeny tendency to overwrite, which you get away with because you have a facility with language but might set you back with a longer work! I hope that isn’t rude? I do too as many dear friends have told me often) so whatever you write will be something a lot of people will want to read.

  14. Minuscule Moments

    I love it Rowena my two are into writing too. Willow was a finalist in a competition for a fantasy piece out of thousands of stories. Reedy writes quirky little stories too. I am taking my nanowrimo draft through an editing course but I swear my kids no more about writing than me sometimes. I know willow would enjoy an excursion to the Writers Festival that must have been awesome. Happy to see their minds expand.

  15. roweeee Post author

    Thanks for your feedback, Geoff. I really do value your opinion and I wasn’t looking for someone to just pat me on the back. I need to get this moving!!!
    You are not wrong about me on the over-writing front…my 33,770 words written during the A-Z challenge was proof of that. I really enjoy your work and often don’t find short works all that interesting.I like a journey and I really enjoy your style and yes, we have some similarities there.
    I am going to start out with the interconnected short story approach I think. I went to a seminar on structure at the Sydney Writer’s Festival last year with screenwriter Mark Lamprell. He divides things into four acts and had a story board for each where he sticks post it notes. I m such a bad girl because even though I know what I should be doing, I don’t do it. But I at least started writing the darn thing today. Have post in notes and he cut up moving boxes for his boards He introduced me to Joseph Campbell and like so many of my good intenbtions, I read chapter 1 and was very impressed and was diverted. I am now getting a lot more rigidly structured. That said, still aren’t enough hours in the day!
    Hope you had a god weekend. We did an enormous amount of work on the house and garden and actually have the start of a veggie patch. Geoff has built some planter boxes and we’ve got the soil sorted and even added some sprouting corn cobs from the worm farm. It could be that our garden is about to come back from the dead…like your pond! xx Rowena

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