1. Keep your notebook within arm’s reach at all times
On Saturday, KYD were hosting an afternoon of 15-minute events at Magazine – a Yarra-side shipping container, done up like a Fitzroy bar. One of those events featured Estelle Tang (our online editor) interviewing Ben Law and Michaela McGuire on humour writing. Just seconds into the talk, I was itching for my notebook, but had left it at the front of the stage and couldn’t get it without being excruciatingly rude (and ruining the video of the event being recorded by Ben’s mum, who was sitting next to me in the front row). So, I simply tried to commit two crucial moments to memory, scribbling them down post-session.
1) Asked about how she’d developed her ‘voice’ as a humour writer and if she’d consciously constructed it, Michaela said, ‘My style is dry and scathing, so I find if I’m a jerk about myself, it’s okay to be a jerk about other people.’ This rang true: it’s a golden rule of likeable humour writing, but she put it perfectly.
2) Ben Law, responding to a question about how he manages to write about people he knows without ruining relationships, quoted David Sedaris’s advice to him during an interview – Sedaris had said he tries to write about people who don’t read. This made the crowd laugh, as intended, but there’s a grain of wisdom in it too. (I guess I liked it because I’ve been guilty of applying that handy maxim myself.)
On a more serious note, Law added that he allows his family to vet his writing about them, and admitted he was lucky, as a writer, that they are generally pretty accommodating. He also said that even though his writing is very revealing – including writing about his mother’s descriptions of childbirth and what it does to a woman’s vagina – and it may seem that he has no boundaries, he does in fact have quite careful boundaries, with certain things he doesn’t say about his family and their experiences, things they want to keep private. I thought this was a really interesting point, and one I’ve heard before from renowned autobiographical writers – that good writing in this genre has the illusion of no boundaries, but is generally really frankness within particular (personally negotiated or judged) boundaries.
2. Never, ever categorise a gathering of fiction writers who use humour in their work as ‘Comic Fiction’. Or they will rebel.
Tony Wilson, Marie Munkarra, Andrew Humphreys, David Musgrave and Peter Rose made it abundantly clear during their session that they not only hated its title, ‘Comic Fiction’, they felt insulted by it. As I took my seat, a few minutes late, they were taking it in turns to talk about why they were unhappy. ‘You think comic fiction, you think “funny, and that’s all it is”,’ said Andrew Humphreys. ‘You don’t want to be seen as somebody who’s just trying to make people laugh.’ Tony Wilson said that as a writer who writes humour, he often ‘feels bludgeoned’, like he’s not being taken seriously as a writer, though he takes his work just as seriously as any other writer. ‘All of us would say we’re writing satirical fiction,’ he said, and the panel generally agreed they would’ve been happy if the panel was titled, ‘Satirical Fiction’. Andrew Humphreys (who said he writes ‘dark comic fiction’) joked in response to an audience member who asked what the authors would like their session to be called, that it would be, ‘Insecure Writers About Comedy Who Want to Be Taken Seriously’.
It was, despite the title fracas, a really interesting session, with a range of thoughts on using humour and fiction – and some interesting reflections on the role of humour by some of literature’s greats. Andrew Humphreys and Peter Rose admired Evelyn Waugh, particularly Scoop, and Humphreys controversially called Brideshead Revisited ‘Waugh’s worst book’. Rose said that in the modern age, ‘too much categorisation goes on’ and pointed out that ‘a strong pulse of humour’ runs through the works of many classic writers. Talking about whether they use autobiography in their work, Humphreys said ‘no one wanted to publish’ the most autobiographical book he’d ever written – the reason given was that the characters were ‘so horribly unlikeable’. Since then, he’s steered away from autobiography in his work.
3. Twitter has revolutionised audience feedback (and eavesdropping)
The session I chaired on Sunday, ‘The Author as Brand’, featured a lot of conversation about Twitter. Kathy Charles, panel member and author of Hollywood Ending, had said that Twitter is the literary community’s social networking tool of choice, so if you’re tossing up between that or Facebook, choose Twitter.
Browsing Twitter on my iPhone between sessions later that day, I realised I was basically listening in to people’s conversations about the festival via my feed – finding out (in snatches of 140 characters or less) what sessions people had been to, what they thought of them, and what had struck them most about the conversations onstage. But interesting though it was, it was no substitute for actual on-the-ground eavesdropping, in terms of finding out what people really think.
I’ll never forget an incident from the coffee queue during the first MWF in which I’d been a (very nervous) chair. In front of me in the line stood one of the authors from the session I’d just chaired and a friend of hers, who said something like, ‘I don’t know who that young girl was up there,’ at which my ears pricked up, while the rest of me shrivelled in mortification. She continued to wonder aloud, going on to say exasperatedly, ‘why did she say X’s book was a blend of travel and politics? It’s not travel at all! Where did she get that idea?’ And that’s when, to my surprise and horror, I found myself looking her in the eye, and rather imperiously saying ‘do you realise that I’m that young girl you’re talking about?’ The author – who I quite idolised – said embarrassedly, ‘yes, I know’, while the friend’s face dropped, and she hurriedly assured me she didn’t have a problem with me, she just wondered who I was because I didn’t say my name, and the book under discussion – which she’d been heavily involved with – was, in her opinion, being miscategorised by its publisher.
Twitter is more careful than that. People are putting their names to their observations, and putting them in print, so you’re much less likely to find a frank criticism of your session – which is both good and bad, of course. But it’s still pretty fascinating as an overview of what people are doing and thinking.
4. Politicians speak the language of Hollow Men because they’re trying to say a lot without revealing anything
In ‘A Wordsmith’s Dream’, David Astle shared some thoughts on our current political situation, as seen through the prism of words and language. ‘The independent bloc have revitalised political language by coming in with a different vocabulary,’ he said, identifying this as a key component of their appeal – they talk like ordinary people. ‘I feel sorry for politicians,’ Astle said. ‘They’re trying to say so much without giving anything away. That’s why you end up with so much empty jargon; hollowed-out words.’ Kate Burridge agreed, observing, ‘If you don’t use a word, it dies. If you over-use it, it dies too.’
5. The Melbourne Writers Festival is a great place to pick up
Not all politicians and officials rely on empty jargon. In a refreshing and utterly charming move, the Melbourne City Council person who gave the speech at the MWF opening party on Saturday said that while she has a speechwriter, and she had that speech with her, she personally loves MWF and wanted to do her own instead. The crux of which was – her husband first kissed her after a Melbourne Writers Festival session many years ago and it’s a great place to pick up! She closed by saying she hoped ‘everyone in the room picks up tonight’, and was greeted with resounding applause. The Twittersphere was appreciative, with many branding her speech ‘best ever’ and one writer tweeting later in the night ‘I think I’ve picked up!’ I didn’t pick up, but went home to my husband … who I met working at a bookshop and first kissed at our work Christmas party (also many years ago), so I figure that was in the spirit of things anyway.
Jo Case is Associate Editor of Kill Your Darlings.