A roaming reader at the Melbourne Writers Festival
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to score tickets to the Melbourne Writers Festival, where I got comfy in front of the camera and filmed an Instagram takeover for @ArtsUniMelb. Safe to say, it was one hell of a weekend and I learned loads about writing, reading, books and the publishing industry in general.
The City of Melbourne
Melbourne delivered that weekend. Despite a major bout of rain and public transport delays, wandering the city made me feel like one of those characters in movies that visit galleries and museums on their own, taking in the 'artistic' landscape and contributing to the 'culture' of their home.
During my undergraduate degree I learned about the literary flâneur. A French ideal, the flâneur is a man (yes, a man only) who wanders the pavements of a city. The Tate defines him as someone who is an 'observer of modern urban life', while the Merrian-Webster paints him as 'an idle man-about-town'.
This is a sketch of a man representing the figure of the Flâneur. Image: sketchbloom, 2011.
I imagine that he wears a top hat, gloves and maybe even has a cane because he's rich, with plenty of time to wander cities for no apparent reason. The whole idea is based on the fact that the man is unseen but sees all. He's part of the landscape but observes it as an outsider.
If a flâneur is allowed to be female in the 21st century, then I felt like one that weekend. I went to each event by myself, with only my notebook to keep myself company. I discovered a few things during this solitary romp.
The Melbourne Town Hall. Photo: Madeleine Corbel, 2023.
Acknowledgements of Country
Melbourne seems to be a city that has recently made an effort to get back in touch with its roots. What I mean when I say that is that there was the most beautiful emphasis on Country throughout the weekend. Each speaker, presenter, interviewer and author acknowledged the lands on which they were standing, but also the lands on which they worked and created their words. There was a further, unspoken acknowledgement that the words spoken in English were not the first, nor necessarily the most powerful that had been shared there. Stories, language, culture and history had been made and spoken in Naarm for tens of thousands of years.
And as a person who has been lucky enough to reside on this country my whole life, I felt an innate privilege and presence, a hushed gratitude for the storytellers that were finally being acknowledged on this random weekend in April.
One of my favourite authors from the talks was poet Kirli Saunders. She spoke so eloquently about words and their impact on society, the power of the spoken word, being present, and First Nations voices and histories. Kirli shared a new poem from her phone's notes app, and her soft voice reverberated with so much presence that my pen shook in my hand and I forgot to take notes. My favourite part was when the English language bled seamlessly into the language of the Gunai Peoples, so that – despite never being able to understand the gravitas of such a language and its epic history – I felt drawn to it.
I was completely compelled by its sound, and I felt that I understood it just a tiny bit. As much as a white woman who needs a greater education on First Nations history could ever understand something so layered and community specific. It was such a privilege to sit in that room.
Each delivery of the Acknowledgement – each time First Nations voices and landscapes were mentioned – was filled with so much thought and care. It felt, for the first time in my memory, like a meaningfully crafted, individually understood and reflected upon Acknowledgement. The MWF had carved out space for us all to consider the Peoples who bonded with the land for centuries. And that was completely beautiful – and necessary.
The above photo is of Kirli Saunders, presented on the Wollongong City Libraries' Illawarra Stories website. Image: Wollongong City Libraries' Illawarra Stories.
As a single wanderer throughout the weekend, I picked up on a few other writing and reading tips. I also learned some things about attending events by yourself, and about the MWF in general that I noted for future visits.
Don't take notes.
I mean, do if you want to. But I struck a super nerdy figure, sitting in each lecture theatre or hall with my notebook propped against my crossed legs and a pen stuck between my teeth as I rifled around in my backpack. I got some great quotes written down, but I also scored some weird looks from readers who had arrived to have a good time.
Always leave enough time to get to the sessions.
There is no such thing as being too early for a bookish event. Especially at the Melbourne Writers Festival: most of the talks were general admission, so whoever lined up first scored the best seat. It's also never worth slipping and sliding through the Melbourne weather to try and get to your event on time.
Write one word a day.
Pip Williams, author of Affirm Press's beautiful books The Dictionary of Lost Words and The Bookbinder of Jericho spoke to her writing habits and schedules during her author talk. When she was asked about a word count or method for getting through pages of text, she shared her hot tip: if you've written one word in a day, you're a success. She said this motivated her to complete the hardest part of the job as a writer: sitting at your desk and beginning.
Image: Pip Williams, Affirm Press, 2016.
Carry a pen with you.
Though it might be a hard no to notebooks, it's definitely worth packing a pen. You never know when you might bump into one of your literary heroes and have their novel handy. In my case, I had just bought a copy of Robbie Arnott's Limberlost after it won The Age Best Book of the Year 2023: Fiction half an hour before. As I stood with his book in my hands, I realised that he was standing just next to me in the foyer. The reader in front of me carefully asked him for a signature but didn't have a pen – I punched my introverted-ness in the face and chimed in with one. I managed to get an autograph too and was very stoked about it for the rest of the weekend.
Never try to brew an invisibility potion. It's not worth it.
Don't ask. If you're looking for more information, you probably need to read the introduction to Richard Fidler's The Book of Roads and Kingdoms.
I had one of the most enjoyable weekends at that festival and can absolutely recommend it to any reader or writer. There's something so beautiful about transforming a solitary activity like reading into a wholesome social experience. Melbourne bookish people really are the best.
Thanks again for reading with me,