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I've finished all of the big write-ups I'm going to manage for the Sydney Writers' Festival, so this post and the following one will attempt to summarise some of the other sessions I attended.

That means I'm not going to say much about David Mitchell and Michael Cunningham, but that's all right, because if you're interested you can read LiteraryMinded's gorgeous post entitled The epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives: By Nightfall and Michael Cunningham in Australia, and watch the entire David Mitchell session I attended, The Thousand Styles of David Mitchell, thanks to SlowTV*.

Onto things I actually am going to talk about. One of the best things about the festival, for me, is seeing writers engaging with one another's work. One reason the Jennifer Mills and Lyn Hughes panel worked so well was that each writer seemed to genuinely love the other's work and be interested in discussing it. The two novels (Flock, about a group of conservators restoring a historic house, and Gone, about a man released from prison who hitchikes across Australia) are ostensibly very different, but they both comment on the theme of memory: how our mind suppresses things, and what happens when those things come back to haunt us.

Writing is a lonely business; Hughes described writers as moving in parallel worlds, obsessed with a story that (while unpublished) no one else is interested in. On another level, this story also contains characters who have their own obsessions and parallel worlds. Added to this is the effect of the human memory, which is ever unreliable. As humans, we confabulate; we reconstruct our past in our present mind, but it is never quite accurate; it always contains an element of story. It is only natural for characters to do this, as well.

David Mitchell described the process of absorbing "stuff" from your immediate surroundings - "found stuff", he said, is the best stuff to use as a writer. He quoted (paraphrased?) Picasso, who said "First I find something, then I go looking for what it is" as a good way of figuring out writing - which also ties back to something Lyn Hughes said: "Write in wilful ignorance, and then ask why."

Michael Cunningham wins my prize for most beautiful use of words when talking about writing as art. His latest book, By Nightfall, begins with a Rilke quotation: "Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror." In the panel, "On Beauty", at which he appeared with art critic and gallery director Betty Churcher, he described his fascination with "annihilating beauty - a sort of miraculous, terrible angel that swoops on us with a sword of light and leaves us ravaged and altered forever."

Someone in the audience asked whether beauty was dependent on craftsmanship. Michael Cunningham said that he sees beauty in the gap between what the artist set out to do and what he/she achieved. As a novelist, he describes an idea for a novel as "a cathedral made of light and fire" hovering above his mind; what he gets down on paper becomes "just that book". But to him, that's part of what makes any work of art interesting - what it says about human limitation.

This, for me, was the heart of the festival: the intersection between what we are (human beings) and what we can achieve with that humanity.

*SlowTV will be uploading other videos from the festival, so keep an eye on the site if you're interested.
** If you want to melt, watch 9:00-9:20 of the David Mitchell video.


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