October 5

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.

Thank you.

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October 10

Through NYWFs of times past and what I found there

It’s a ritual that spans more than a decade: the annual trip to Newcastle for the National Young Writers Festival (or NYWF, which I don’t think anyone has attempted to pronounce yet*). I’ve been coming since 2001 (not consecutively, I skipped 2005 because I was gallivanting around the world but I was sad to miss it nonetheless) and I have reached an age (that’s 32, young folk) where the body gives up but the mind urges me on.

View of Newcastle from the Obelisk || Photo: Adeline Teoh
View of Newcastle from the Obelisk (you can *just* see Nobbys Lighthouse) || Photo: Adeline Teoh

I have brought friends and boyfriends to this cradle of words in years past but my default is going solo. All the better to socialise, my dear.

I’m the one who’s terribly dressed in shorts and a pair of cheap shoes (this year Dunlop Volleys, two pairs for $20) and maybe a writerly t-shirt (or an ill-fitting singlet with the signs of the zodiac on it as a vague attempt to fit in with the Paranormal Formal theme) and nobody cares. That’s the best part. No one judges you on your attire. The only no-no is trying too hard and even then if you try too hard in the right direction you’re probably going to be okay. Or no one will notice. I digress…

I’m the one who asks questions like a mature age student but is rewarded with some wonderful insights into the writing lives of festival panellists. I started to think I was losing it when I began to babble about my partner’s predilection for sci-fi at Too Close for Comfort (a panel about writers who are related or partners) but later that night I met Bethanie Blanchard and she told me I always ask good questions and she would know because I’ve asked them at her about three times this year, once at the Melbourne Writers Festival and twice at NYWF.

I’m the one who talks to all the zinesters who have zines that interest me and buys them. I devour a number of them on the shitkansen** home. Only once did I drive up: in a car belonging to a person who is no longer a friend. (The reason I drove was that she was too scared to drive on the freeway, but she also tried to make me drive her around Newcastle instead of schlepping down Hunter Street to get to all the venues.) For all its faults, I really do prefer the shitkansen.

I’m the one who gets to the Saturday night social late and leaves halfway to catch a Cracked Theatre production (or finish reading Terry Pratchett’s Dodger) and then comes in at the end to win the most sober person in the room award.

I’m the one you may spot at a distance early in the morning or late at night, either at Nobbys Lighthouse or up by the Obelisk at the top of the hill.

When I started coming to NYWF I was in my final year of a three-year arts degree majoring in media and cultural studies. I had just finished an internship at Pan Macmillan in both the publishing and publicity departments and was just about to complete my editorship of Soma, Macquarie University’s annual arts publication. I am now a writer with many hats—some paid, some unpaid—but certainly quite rich by the standard of the average NYWF attendee.

But more than anything else, the riches I’ve gained have been social. I’ve benefitted from seeing familiar faces year after year as they’ve become more successful and yet still find time to share their journey with those just starting out, people like Benjamin Law, Anna Krien and Lisa Dempster. I now count a number of NYWF veterans as acquaintances including Lisa (I remember buying Lisa’s Scrabble zine in the early years and then some years ago her book… now we catch up at NYWF and other writers festivals around Australia) and resident Novocastrians Alex (Neill) and Alex (Bennetts) (soon to be Melbournians).

And finally, NYWF reminds me that I must must must write more. ‘Look at all this talent, this energy, this passion for writing,’ says the festival, ‘et tu?’ I’ve yet to finish my novel or my third zine. I’ve yet to sit on the other side of the panel. I’ve yet to get hilariously drunk at the Saturday social. Maybe next year?

Site of the former PAN building, hub of NYWFs past || Photo: Adeline Teoh
Site of the former PAN building, hub of NYWFs past || Photo: Adeline Teoh

* I think it should be pronounced 'knife', where the 'w' in NYWF is silent.

** Shitkansen: portmanteau of shit and Shinkansen, Japan's high speed rail network, describing the very slow train from Sydney to Newcastle, a trip that takes longer today than it did 50 years ago. Naming rights go to Marcus Westbury, godfather of NYWF, the This Is Not Art Festival, Renew Newcastle and Newcastle in general.

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October 6

You don’t know me…

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 struggle a little when I go to the This is Not Art Festival (TiNA) in Newcastle. I’ve been to almost every one since 2000 when it was the National Young Writers’ Festival (NYWF) and I was a young writer. I was a university student then. I commuted from Sydney twice because I didn’t have accommodation and I remember teaching some cute guy how to make origami cranes.

I’ve been to NYWFs that were held in Newcastle Town Hall, the PAN building, a train yard. There were zine fairs in Auckland Street and Civic Park and panels held in abandoned arcades. I walk up past the lighthouse every year, sometimes in the windy night, sometimes in the blazing heat of the day. It’s customary. Occasionally I make it to the obelisk too.

Before the Spelling Bee became a mainstay there were poetry slams, literary debates decided by Shantaram shotput, and Wriron Chef cook-offs.

I’ve called the YHA my second home while flirting with Noah’s and Backpackers by the Beach and The Oriental when my preferred hostel booked out. Sometimes I bring friends and/or boyfriends. Sometimes I attend alone and make friends for a day.

I used to have Newcastle seasons: winter was The Shoot Out and spring was NYWF. The only year I’ve missed NYWF since 2000 was when I went overseas in 2005.

Unsurprisingly, I see a lot of the same people year-in, year-out. The hairstyles and clothes may change but in context they are instantly familiar. Some are NYWF legends: festival father Marcus Westbury, Geoff Lemon, Marieke Hardy, Benjamin Law, Dr Ianto Ware, Lee Tran Lam and Lisa Dempster. Others are panellists that I’ve come to recognise: Michaela McGuire, Elizabeth Redman, Cameron Pegg, Alex O’Neill, Zoe Barron.

The problem is that I suffer from a very particular kind of shyness that makes it impossible to treat many of these people as real people. Because they’re famous. Because they’re panellists. Because they publish zines. Meanwhile, I’m quite at home introducing myself to people at random events, such as other audience members or sharing a table at the Spelling Bee or, as was the case this year, being a ring-in of a literary trivia team.

I don’t want to bowl up to these NYWF stalwarts and interrupt them. Or feel pressure to impress them. Or treat them as equals (they are special). And yet the NYWF is probably one of the flattest, most accessible festivals I’ve ever been to, where panellists from one session are gazing reverently at panellists of the next and audience members chat congenially to moderators over a post-panel tea.

For some reason I tend to forget that I’m not without credentials myself. Just editing a uni arts publication should’ve gotten me some cred in the beginning. Follow that with a diverse career in custom publishing, feature writing, magazine editing and freelancing and all the other odd writing jobs I’ve done and surely I’m not nobody.

But what am I supposed to do? Nod at these people who I don’t quite know in acknowledgement and walk on by? Introduce myself and stand awkwardly fishing for an excuse not to stand awkwardly? You don’t know me and I don’t really know you but…

***

I have met these people before:

Marcus Westbury: Interviewed him in person about Renew Newcastle for a magazine I once edited, witnessed his and his wife Narinda’s signature for their son Louin’s passport at that meeting. Once bought him a panda hat and gave it to him at the Sydney Writers’ Festival where I was volunteering. He probably finds me vaguely familiar.

Geoff Lemon: Once shared a stage with him at the Spelling Bee in 2010. I was second runner-up after Geoff and that year’s winner Garth. Wouldn’t know me from Adam.

Benjamin Law: He signed my copy of The Family Law after a panel at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and said my name was familiar. Probably doesn’t remember what I look like, though.

Lee Tran Lam: For some years we met once a month as part of a writing group she initiated, which has since died. I used to go to university with her; we were never in the same tutorial but we did share an office: she co-edited the 8-issue/year Passing Show and I co-edited the annual Soma. We later met as junior journos at some PR thing. We exchange hellos but we don’t hang out.

Lisa Dempster: Had her sign my copy of Neon Pilgrim. Later became an Emerging Writers’ Festival Penpal (sponsor) when she was festival director. I like to think she has a passing interest in what I do. She knows my partner Boff as ‘the dinosaur guy’ after a brief nerdy stint on stage during a Spelling Bee sideshow he won by correctly naming a dinosaur or some such.

Cameron Pegg: Flattered when he recognised me (he was wearing a mask, so I had no chance) and tapped me on the shoulder at the circus-themed ball in 2011 and invited me to join his group to dance. We follow each other on Twitter. Does that count?

Alex O’Neill: After following her on Twitter for a year we finally met in person at the zine fair this year. She follows me too. (No really, does that count?)

If any of you have made it here, leave your mark below!

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