Sweet Sixteen: An NYWF Retrospective
This is the transcript of a speech I gave at ‘Alumni Ultimatum – Ne Oblivarus’ (30 September 2017), a National Young Writers’ Festival reading that celebrated the festival’s 20th year. It also marked my 16th year of attending.
I pass you on the street and I want to say ‘hello’, but you don’t actually know me. You see, you’re sort of famous. You were on that panel, the one with the funny guy who ran late. You spell well. You wrote a zine I thought was the best thing I read in 2004. You have a byline in a magazine that people have actually heard of. You’ve been published in Voiceworks.
I wrote this on my blog after the 2012 festival, which is only a short time ago in the long history of my attendance. To give context to my story, I want to take you back to 2001, which is the first year I started coming.
The global fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks was yet to come. John Howard was Australia’s Prime Minister. And the Newcastle Knights were in the NRL Grand Final. (Time travel spoiler alert: they win 30-24 against the Parramatta Eels and the city becomes a carpet of red and blue streamers for days following.)
I was in my final year of an arts degree at Macquarie University and I’d heard about the festival from a friend, Lee Tran Lam, who was on a couple of panels. It was too late to book accommodation so I commuted every day from Sydney on the shitkansen (hat tip Marcus Westbury for that term). Don’t knock it, it’s a great way to catch up on reading.
The National Young Writers’ Festival was part of a cohort of festivals that would later become This is Not Art. At the time it included events focused on student media, sustainability and music, held in the formal rooms of the Newcastle City Hall.
I came away from my very first festival with three impressions:
- Wow, these people know so much about writing and the media and speak so well about issues.
- Newcastle is a phoenix that needs to die to rise again.
- Linda Jaivin has a cool zipper necklace and I want one.
Since then I’ve attended every National Young Writers’ Festival bar 2005, when I was travelling overseas. I made my own zipper necklace. I saw the city’s renaissance through Renew Newcastle (once again, hat tip Marcus Westbury). And I have watched as festival artists established rewarding careers.
While Anna Krien never bested Phillip Gwynne at Shantaram shotput (apologies Gregory David Roberts), she has become a fine essayist and author.
And although Lisa Dempster did not have the cooking talent of Benjamin Law and Rosie Pham to win Wriron Chef—yes, a writers’ version of Iron Chef—she became the director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and then the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, a stint she recently completed on a high. I still have her Scrabble zine and a first edition of her travel memoir Neon Pilgrim.
Benjamin Law, you probably know, went from Frankie magazine columnist to Quarterly Essay-ist in that time, with ‘side gigs’ as a journalist, scriptwriter and The Australian‘s minority target du jour, ousting Yassmin Abdel-Magied for at least two weeks.
And me? I worked my way up from being an editorial assistant at a publishing house to being headhunted as a content writer, which is where I was when I wrote that blog post in 2012.
That year’s festival made me realise that although I was at home with my relative anonymity, I lacked pride in my writerly achievements, solid though they were.
That did a lot to dent my confidence in the festival space. I was not being the best writertype I could be, which is one way in which the National Young Writers’ Festival checks you. In short, I had done a lot, but I hadn’t shared any of it.
In subsequent festivals, I sought to remedy that. I gave paid work to freelancers I met at freelancing-themed events. I applied to be, and was accepted as, an artist to talk about freelancing, getting paid as a writer and being prank-called by Senator Bill Heffernan, though I should note that being prank-called by an MP is not a pre-requisite to becoming a ‘real journalist’. I also volunteered for the first Younger Young Writers’ Program, for writers aged 13 to 17, (hat tip Geoff Orton), which I directed last year and last week.
I am now a full-time freelance writer who earns enough money to pay her mortgage on a Sydney property and support a dependent. Admittedly the dependent is a mouse called Gustav, but he will never clean his room, so it’s like mothering a tiny teenager for the entire span of his little life.
I’m telling you this because I want you to know that the National Young Writers’ Festival has always been a community of sharing: highs and lows, ideas and experiences.
So… Hello, my name is Adeline Teoh and I used to suffer from the most imposter-y of imposter syndromes: the imposter syndrome you suffer in a festival replete with people suffering from imposter syndrome.
But fast forward to the present and here I am at the Newcastle City Hall again. This time, instead of staring goggle-eyed at the person at the microphone, I’m the one with the platform and I’m wondering whether you’re having a good time. Imposter syndrome. The struggle is real, people. But what the National Young Writers’ Festival has taught me is that we can transcend it because we have seen our peers rise. Like Newcastle. Like a phoenix.