Blogger in Residence, Shu-Ling Chua, recently attended the National Young Writers Festival in Newcastle. She shares her thoughts and experiences of this literary event below.
“What happens at a writers’ festival?” my friend asked. “Won’t it be, um, very quiet?”
The National Young Writers’ Festival (also known affectionately as NYWF) was anything but. Held annually in Newcastle since 1998, NYWF is:
the country’s largest gathering of young and innovative writers working in both new and traditional forms including zines, comics, blogging, screenwriting, poetry, spoken word, hip hop music, journalism, autobiography, comedy, songwriting and prose.
Presenting ‘writing’ in its broadest sense through panels, discussions, workshops, performances, readings and more, the festival focuses on writers aged 18 to 35 but artists and festival-goers of all ages are welcome. There is even a Younger Young Writers’ Program for those aged 13 to 17.
One of the strengths of NYWF is its inclusivity and diversity. The breadth of this year’s program—over 80 events and more than 120 artists across four days—was breath-taking. From queer writers to writers of colour and regional Australia, from sports-writing and podcasting to writing about trauma and the ethics of gonzo journalism, there was something for everyone. Amazingly, every single event was free.
I arrived in Newcastle on Day 2, just in time for If You Can’t Take the Heat. As a writer of memoir, I was particularly interested this discussion of memoir regret and over-sharing. The panel helpfully explained how to avoid the “unnecessarily personal” by asking: Is this necessary for me to say publicly? Does it serve the story or is it just for you? Are you able to do the story justice at this stage of your life?
I took careful notes and found this idea of responsibility popping up again and again through the festival. Writing for Good discussed comedy as a soapbox and how satire needs political opinion to be worthwhile. Big Issues: Press Freedom, Whistleblowing and National Security delved deeper into the difference between ‘in the public interest’ vs. ‘of interest to the public’, and making a judgement call on which stories to run. And there is, of course, the responsibility around writing about love and family, and representing a community or ethnic minority group (whether you want to or not).
Another event close to my heart was Other Englishes and its discussion of language, culture, identity and how these influence our writing. Each panellist spoke eloquently about their feelings of ‘in-betweenness’, of imaginary homelands and always arriving, of authenticity and framing yourself within culture, and of being honest about where you fit in the diaspora.
Other sessions focussed on the perspective of publishers and editors. Publishing How To reinforced the importance of knowing what your book is about, what you’re trying to achieve and being able to communicate this. An established platform and literary CV help, but at the end of the day, the quality of writing is what matters. Show Me The Money covered the often-overlooked but critical questions around how to make money from writing. Take-home message: know what works best and what writing means, for you, and shape your approach accordingly.
In between this sharing of wisdom, I made new friends and chatted with other writers. There was a friendly, down-to-earth vibe to NYWF, a feeling that we’re all learning and all in this together, a community to connect, talk and share ideas. Despite completely failing the final round (name as many characters in Les Misérables as possible), my team won Literary Trivia, hosted by the hilarious Tom Ballard. There were jellyfish aplenty at the Under the Sea Ball and we heckled away at Up for Debate: Are Young People Killing the News?
The Late Night Readings were an absolute highlight. Raw, humbling stories about a suicide attempt, cruising with the ‘cool girls’, sexual assault, justice and more washed over the audience, causing us to hold our breath, laugh and cry in turns. You had to be there.
Spending a weekend surrounded by others sharing the same passion and optimism as you is a magical experience. Some regard youthful enthusiasm as foolhardy or naïve but we are the ones crazy enough to think we can, and do. While I wish I could write like the amazing talent on show, I learnt writing—regardless of genre, format or topic—is intensely personal and shaped by our life experience. I could never write like them, nor could anyone write like me.
As we clapped and cheered the amazing organisers, I knew I would be back next year.
See you there.
Shu-Ling Chua is a writer, reviewer, Noted festival 2016 Live Producer and HARDCOPY 2015 participant. She blogs at hello pollyanna while living the memoir she hopes to finish one day. Her work has appeared in BMA Magazine, The Victorian Writer and Scissors Paper Pen. Shu-Ling spends her free time reading (favourites include Alice Pung and Sylvia Plath), traipsing and measures her life in playlists.