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Writing as Salvation | Byron Writers Festival 2016

The smell of menthol wafts from the sodden woodchips lying in the muddy grass. You can’t escape the wet, it’s coming up through the soles of boots, and down from the heavens.

If the punters at a writers festival needed another reason to stay indoors and read books, the weather at this year’s Byron Writers Festival would’ve been a good one. Thumbs up then, to the record number of attendees at the event, adorned with raincoats and gumboots, scarves and beanies, braving the latter stages of a mighty low-pressure system hovering just off the coast.

I spent a lot of the festival in volunteer mode, fundraising for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, rattling the can and handing out brochures.

It was my virgin volunteer experience, and I absolutely loved it! You should’ve seen me, smiling away, wedging myself into people’s conversations with the utmost charm and enthusiasm.

The foundation has been the official charity of the festival for the past three years, and it was heartening to see so many people keen to donate their leftover coffee change, or their un-needed $50 notes in some cases, to support the programs and book deliveries that the ILF runs in remote communities across this wide brown land.

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Since I can collect money and listen at the same time, I managed to eavesdrop on some of the sessions, starting with an introspective discussion on writing as salvation between authors Thomas Keneally, Matt Nable and Liam Pieper.

Now 80, the veteran writer, Keneally, comfortably held the audience’s attention beside the two younger men. Having written over 30 books, Keneally is by now quite confident of his writing ability, and clearly still passionate about putting words on the page. He mentioned more than once how keen he was to get back to his computer and continue working on his latest novel back in his hotel room.

Nable, who is an actor and former rugby league player as well as a writer, spoke openly about being bipolar, and how writing helped him stay stable. Keneally responded with charming self-deprecation and support. “Matt didn’t have to say he was bipolar, just that he was an author.” He was only half joking.

Introspection was the order of the morning, and it was hard to tell whether these guys were trying to encourage the audience to take up the practice of writing, or rather justifying their own insane professions to themselves.

“People who run marathons aren’t sane,” Keneally said. “People who write novels aren’t sane.”

Bold, considering the present company. He only got away with it because he’s old and smiley.

Pieper, a journalist and author, and the youngest on the panel, had a foot in each camp. He’s written a novel and two memoirs, with the latter from material inspired by struggles he’s had to overcome in his relatively short life. For Pieper, writing is both a catalyst for crises and a creative goldmine.

“If I can keep writing books to create problems in my life then I’ll always have something to write about.”

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