The Emerging Writers Festival Digital Masterclass (and Overage Players)

Boomer and MeI almost didn’t go attend the Emerging Writers Festival (EWF), both because it’s in Melbourne and I’m not and because I’m still a bit puzzled that EWF consider Dave Graney ‘emerging’. My tweet about it probably earnt me a black mark from the festivals’ organisers, but the succinctness of Twitter didn’t allow me to explain myself in full.

It was less a case of sour grapes than despair at the state of the industry. In the interests of transparency, I applied to be a panellist but wasn’t accepted, and I’m pretty cool with that, to be honest. I’m not from Melbourne, my publishing track record is in sport and social and environmental issues so doesn’t often pique the interest of those following a more traditional arts-scene publishing route, and I have plenty to learn before being able to impart some wisdom.

My concern was—and is—that if one of the creative industries’ most established and respected artists is putting their hand up for a festival designed for those who are at the formative stages of their careers, there’s even less money and publication and promotion prospects than we already know there to be.

Graney aside, most of the other writers appearing at the festival write for such top publications as The Monthly, i.e. publications that you tend to have to be fairly established in order to write for. But I’m perhaps heading into the murky debate about what constitutes ‘emerging’ as opposed to ‘emerged’—‘emerging’ really is a contested term.

Graney was switching from writing songs to writing creative non-fiction memoirs, but I’d argue that he’s a writer merely adding additional style and platform strings to his bow (he’s arguably becoming a transmedia storyteller). Moreover, his memoir would already garner interest—and reviews and their related promotion—from major newspapers and independent publishers alike.

I’m not saying EWF shouldn’t have included Graney, but I’d have felt more comfortable if his festival inclusion was the literary festival approach of some youth football (soccer) leagues’. Forgive me this sporting example, but it relates, I promise.

The National Youth League (the soccer league for up-and-coming players) allows for an overage player in each team. These overage players offer a cool head and advice and informal mentorship to these emerging footballers. They also bring fans to games who would not otherwise know about or engage with the youth league.

I would have loved to see Graney brought in for an equivalent role (and it’s arguably what EWF was aiming for, even if it didn’t explicitly say so). Still, my niggles aside, the Digital Masterclass warranted attending. It was, as one of the speakers later said on his podcast, something I’d seen a bunch of times before. But having arrived a bit burnt out, it was refreshing to be in the room talking industry stuff with people at roughly the same stage.

The day was structured logically, with the morning kicking off with goal-setting and strategic planning (I will concede that a one-sentence mission statement is confoundingly difficult to do, especially when you’ve only had one coffee).

Jo Case, who’s just released Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s, and who Benjamin Law recently referred aptly to as one of the lynchpins of the industry, took us through content creation. Her Wheeler Centre examples were interesting, especially how she explained her dual-output strategy: she often obtains transcripts from Soapbox speeches to turn, where possible, into web articles.

GaysiaCase also explained that there are three types of capital: money; fun; and progress (skills you’re learning, people you’re meeting, credibility). All three come into play in careers in the creative industries—arguably more so than in others.

Hearing her speak I was reminded I’ve in recent times lost sight of the fun, which was what had previously given me my bottomless enthusiasm for working for little publication gold or pay. At one stage she posed a question that’s stuck with me ever since: What’s your why?

Thang Ngo took us through capitalising on success, with specific reference to blogging. He commented that he always seems to be the speaker with the onerous task of speaking just before lunch. Random and hilarious GIFs—and Ngo’s own quality content and enthusiasm—staved off the is-it-lunch-yet watch checking.

The afternoon sessions were the most impressive, both because they’re where I’m currently working and because they were a hint of where working as a writer in the digital age is heading. Johannes Jakob (I’m currently working my way through his fantastic podcast, Jo Mad, I Heard You Like Books. In fact, the first one I listened to included Chad Parkhill, a talented writer and editor I know from my undergrad days) walked us through podcasting, showing us that you don’t have to know how to work absolutely every single aspect of technology to start working with it.

He listed the usual suspects with which I’m obsessed: This American Life, Planet Money, and The Moth. But he also introduced me to Slate Culture Gabfest, Back to Work, The Rereaders, and Podmentum, which I’m steadily ploughing into my brain.

In the second half of the session, editor turned filmmaker Mark Welker of Commoner Films demonstrated how filmmaking is storytelling with footage. The videos were great, and he’s using the industry-standard 5D, a stills camera that allows for (I think this description is incredibly apt) ‘cinematic intimacy’.

He spoke of how when you start, there’s a gap between what you want your film to look like and what skills you have to do it. That gap never closes, he said, but your skills improve. Like Jakob, he emphasised the importance of throwing yourself in and learning on the job, something writers tend to be shy of doing. I know this, but I needed to hear it again.

Matt Blackwood brought us a keynote speech about locative literature (that is, literature that uses such things as QR codes). It’s not something that works hugely for me, but he almost had me sold.

One of his projects saw him put stickers on chairs in cafes, with patrons coming across and enjoying the stories when they may not otherwise have found his work. My favourite aspect, though, was when Blackwood creating a working QR code from the black and white keys from recycled keyboards.

20-year-old wunderkind Ashley Davies previewed Tablo, ‘the WordPress for ebooks’ start-up he’s masterminding which, if it works, will be groundbreaking. It’s something I plan to explore more in depth in future blogs so will just say: keep an eye out for it.

Rounding out the day with Lord of the Fries chips (I’m vegan and rarely get to enjoy chips without fear) and a trip to check out new social enterprise Shebeen (profits from sales of certain drinks are donated to charities), I was fatty carbed up, mentally full, and feeling equipped to head back and re-fling myself into this crazy career that’s called freelancing in the creative industries. Suffice to say, I’ll be back at the festival next year regardless of who they decide to have as their overage players.