Ring the brass bell!!! Yesterday, I went to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which has long been my “me day” where I liberate myself from all other responsibilities and earthly shackles and return to my tribe.
That said, I must confess that I missed the last two years and wasn’t all that bothered about it at the time. I get frequent lung infections, and I suspect this was the greatest indication that I wasn’t firing on all cylinders. However, I made some adjustments. Now, my energy levels have soared I’m swinging from the chandeliers again and going gang busters working on my book. Indeed, I’m back.
While Sydney Writers sounds like lot of fun, maximizing your experience takes a fair bit of organization. Moreover, for me that’s compounded by my disabilities, chronic health issues and also sorting out the kids.
Traditionally, the nitty gritty all began when the program appears as an insert in the Sydney Morning Herald. This arrives on a Saturday morning and you spread the program out across the kitchen table pen in hand while your drinking coffee and spilling your breakfast all over it. I always start off with a quick scan to see who’s on. Of course, there are the big name events, some years they appeal but just as often, they’re not my cup of tea. I’m usually there as a writer more than a reader and I’m not into political stuff. I mainly used to attend some of the workshops they put on, but I’m not sure if they’re available anymore. In the past, I’ve done workshops with some of Australia’s most successful writers including Jackie French of Diary of a Wombat fame and Andy Griffiths who writes the Treehouse Books with Terry Denton. I felt incredibly blessed and the cost was very reasonable.
After you’ve identified what’s on, the next step is to choose which day or days you’re going to go and personally I try to squeeze as much as I can into that day. However, you still need to factor in those much needed meal and toilet stops and especially in my case, allow plenty of time for getting lost. I should know by now that I always set out in the diametrically opposed direction. Yet, strangely I still trust my gut and my folly continues.
It seems strange that a writers’ festival which conjures up visions of imagination, creativity and striving towards your writing dreams, requires so much left-brain thinking just to find your seat. However, finishing a book for publication is much the same.
My Sydney Writers’ experience is also impacted by my disabilities. My disabilities which can be quite invisible and unobtrusive of an ordinary day, but add travel, crowds, an unfamiliar environment and extensive walking and they come into play and can totally flare up like an enraged zit. There’s this cognitive and physical load and the more aware I am of how these come into play, the more I can prepare around it and have a better experience. I always use my walking stick in such situations and I have a companion card, which entitles me to a free companion. I often find some curly issues crops up and it’s helpful to have that person on hand. This year, I realized that I was needing to pick my tickets up from the box office and with queuing being difficult, I rang the night before and spoke with Emily who had my tickets waiting at the desk and I could just get a volunteer to pick them up for me instead. She also helped me with a few other issues and I really appreciated her understanding and compassion. It helped me feel more empowered and on top of things, rather than overwhelmed and incapable.
So, yesterday Thursday 2nd May was my day at the Sydney Writers’ Festival for 2019. I’d initially flagged yesterday because I’d wanted to see Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s Ark and his daughter, Meg was talking about her first solo novel, Fled . They both write historical fiction and this is the genre I’m heading towards with my book project so my interest was also personal and as a writer, as well as a reader. I attended a literary lunch at Pearl Beach a few years ago when Tom and Meg were promoting the first book of their Monserrat Series. Tom also writes about Irish History and wrote a very helpful book called Three Famines, which really helped me get my head around the Irish Famine, which affected many of my ancestors.
However, when I went back to book my tickets, I also noticed that crossword guru David Astle was speaking about his latest book Rewording the Brain. While this book was heavily weighted towards cryptic crosswords which are totally above my pay grade, given that I have hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain), I’m interested in serious neurological research and discussions. Indeed, in the past I’ve seen Dr Norman Doidge who wrote The Brain’s Way of Healing Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing. So, after a very difficult choice, I went with David Astle. Lastly, I was thrilled to find that Graeme Simsion author of the The Rosie Project which has evolved into a hilarious gripping series was talking about the final book The Rosie Result. Don Tillman, the lovable main character of the series, has become a poster boy for the Autism community so life “on the spectrum” also featured during the session, which tied in very well with the morning’s session and my brain was nicely enriched by the time I arrived home.
Before I touch on these sessions in more detail, I’d like to walk you around the venue because that’s a bit of a talking point as well. While the Sydney Writers as I know it, was at Walsh Bay on Sydney Harbour last year it moved to Carriageworks in Redfern, which is the refurbished Eveleigh Railway Workshops, which were constructed 1880-1889. By the 1900s several thousands worked here, building and maintaining locomotive engines and carriages for the expanding rail network. These are signs of its railway past everywhere, including the train tracks out the front.
David Astle, Rewording the Brain
We’re now heading into our first session with David Astle, Rewording the Brain. I’d actually planned ahead and had bought all three books the day before from my local bookshop and thanks to some late night swatting and the train trip, I’d managed to get through about a quarter of the book. Phew! This session was not one to go into half mast, especially when cryptic crosswords have personally remained forever true to name. Moreover, despite being something of a word smith myself, even I noticed the lexicon in this session was rather learned. Indeed, a dictionary might’ve been in order. However, at least they didn’t bring out the dreaded match sticks. These puzzles appear in the book swearing at me. Indeed, for seasoned crossword puzzlers David’s initials on a Puzzle” D.A. have often inspired terror. Even I had to think, which is a good thing and no doubt primed my brain for the day ahead.
Rewording the Brain addresses how crossword puzzles, and cryptic crosswords in particular, help boost the power and agility of your brain. Recent studies have shown that puzzle-solving and wordplay are among the most effective ways to boost the power and agility of your brain. A cryptic crossword a day can help keep memory loss at bay.
Why? The answer lies in the art of teasing out a clue, a discipline that calls for logic, interpretation, intuition and deduction as well as the ability to filter nuance and connotation. All these challenges and more are found in the cryptic crossword. And all are invaluable in increasing your brainpower and improving your memory and cognitive capacity 1.
I can only live in hope. I took down pages of notes and before I knew it I was talking to DA himself as we walked towards the book signings.
In addition to priming up my brain, I also had secret business. Yesterday, was also a close friend’s 50th Birthday. However, this was no ordinary, extraordinary birthday. Dr Kirsten Harley has been living with Motor Neurone Disease for about 6 years ago and crunch time came in December when her wishes to be resusitated were swung into action. Kirsten had major surgery and has spent the last 5-6 months in intensive care at Macquarie University Hospital and will be heading home soon. Kirsten loves crosswords and while she’s asked family and friends to do 50 of something in honour of her birthday, I decided to do one thing. I thought I’d ask David Astle crossword guru to write her a birthday message. I also wanted to get a photo of David and I for the blog and as I was getting ready at the head of the queue my phone went rogue and I was struggling to get the password in and everything was backfiring. However, David kindly obliged and made my day. Well, that was until my next session began.
Well, before I was off to see Meg Keneally, I decided to cruise around actual carriageworks building and view it through the lens. That’s through my Nikon SLR…my third eye.
Evacuate…My Plans Go Off Script.
However, my visions were suddenly disturbed by a robotic announcement to “evacuate”. It seemed like the scene of a movie and having not been in an office environment for some time, I’ve missed out on the joy of fire drills, false alarms but have become well-versed in terrorist attacks. In hindsight, there were no explosions, sounds of bullets, screams etc which would signal serious trouble, but I was taking the evacuation seriously, especially as the entire building was evacuated and sessions interrupted. I asked a volunteer about the cause, because the nature of the cause would determine my response but all too quickly a fire engine came and went and sessions were resumed.
Meg Keneally – Fled
Next, I was off to see Meg Keneally who was discussing her first solo novel: Fled. I am very keen to approach Meg as an author in her own right without leaving her in the shadow of her famous and very talented father, Tom. Yet, at the same time, she also grew up under his wing and Dad was not only a story writer, but also a storyteller. Meg spoke about going on an extended family road trip in the US when she was six or seven. “We were van-schooled and part of that was Dad constantly spinning yarns, and one of those was about Mary Bryant.” Not surprisingly, I’ll wait til I’ve read the book to review it. However, I just wanted to mention that I ran into Meg as her father was doing book signings next to David Astle. She was very down to earth and approachable and thoroughly lovely.
Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Result
Now, we’re onto an old pal of mine, Graeme Simsion author of the Rosie Series. Graeme is no stranger at Beyond the Flow, even if I am a stranger to him. You see, with almost 3000 views, my post asking: Who Is Don Tillman?…The Rosie Project Uncovered. is my most viewed post by a country mile.
Anyway, as I arrive for our session, I spot Graeme Simsion chatting with the audience and said a big hello as though he was my long-lost best friend. After all, the Rosie Project keeps popping up in my list of favourite posts and my stats often include a couple of views. It’s always there like a good friend. So, he looks at me with a rather searching expression, and asks if he knows me because clearly, I know him! That’s when I say we went out for dinner. Or, was it more along the lines of I went to dinner with you and after I recovered from my awkwardness managed to mention Mandy from Book Bazaar who organized for him to speak over dinner. I’m not usually one to gush over celebrities, but I was really looking forward to meeting him. I’d not only loved the first two books in the series, they were very personal and approachable and drew me right inside the mind and life of Don Tillman to such an extent that I had to ask: Was Graeme Simsion actually Don? After all, the book was written in the first person and I found it really hard to divorce the author from his creation.
However, that was then and this is now. We’re now up to the Rosie Result where Rosie and Don’s son, Hudson, is now eleven and in Grade 6 at school. This is the last year of primary school here in Australia. Hudson is struggling particularly after they move back to Australia and the teacher has a chat suggesting they get him assessed. He might be on the Autism Spectrum.
Much of this talk addressed the issues Simsion faced writing about a character, indeed, a family on the Autism Spectrum. Through this process, he decided to have himself assessed. This was quite a confronting process and what concerned him most about being diagnosed, was the people would think he didn’t care. Now, he didn’t say that with the voice of a robot, but rather a cry from the heart calling out to be accepted, understood and not written off without giving him a chance. Put the ruler on the page and emphatically cross Graeme Simpsion out. It really helped me realize how careful we have to be with all human beings and to treasure people for the complex creations which we are, without being blinded by what Google does or doesn’t day.He also addressed the issue of whether kids can grow out of Autism, which is said to be a lifelong condition and he was strongly on the side of making our communities more diverse and inclusive than making Autistic people change. That said, all of us go through a socialization process growing up and science has also discovered a lot about neuroplasticity and it seems on one hand we’re telling people on the Autism Spectrum that they can’t change and we’re telling everyone else how you can rewire your brain both in good and negative ways.
By the way, when I opened up the book on the train heading home, he’d written: “Be Yourself”. I know he probably wrote that in everybody’s book, but it really struck me in the heart in such a profound and emotional way. He obviously has a lot of interaction with the Autism community, but this is very true for me too. I was born with hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain which was undiagnosed but not entirely inactive until I was 25. I’ve had a shunt put in and it’s made a huge difference but there are still residual quirks and I doubt I was ever going to be a regular sort anyway. “I’m creative”.
Lastly, as the session drew to a close we had question time and I stuck up my hand. After working on my series of Motivational Quotes for writers writing a book, I wanted to ask him for advice for someone writing their first novel. He basically said you have approach it like a neurosurgeon. I thought that was quite funny, because I’ve actually had brain surgery and have been on the receiving end of that.
Have you been to the Sydney Writers’ Festival? Who did you see? Or, perhaps you’ve been to a writers’ festival closer to home? How was it? I’d love to hear from you!