Sydney Writers’ Festival

The silver anniversary edition of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, straddling the Australian federal election this year, wrapped on Sunday.

A good writers’ festival needs a few things.

An interesting venue…

Carriageworks, Australia’s largest and most significant multi-arts centre in Australia, is where the bulk of events is concentrated. These nineteenth-century former railway workshops once employed several thousand people who built and maintained locomotive engines for Sydney’s burgeoning rail network. Their stories, like those of the creatives who line up to speak every year, are in everything you see and touch.

Carriageworks has great atmosphere, but its spaces are as fickle as Sydney’s peripatetic weather. By day three I’d layered up and hauled out the woollen New Zealand socks that first saw service when I walked the Milford Track. Twenty-six years later, those socks are still capable of dealing with concrete floors.

Things to liven up the commute between the nearest station and venue…

It’s a ten-minute walk from Redfern station, immediately south of Sydney’s CBD, to Carriageworks. En route, there’s free salad greens,

Jolly alleyways,

Evocative murals,

Deterrents to breaking and entering,

and good food and coffee.

There’s the festival itself, of course. 2022 saw the return of international patronage and participation after a two-year drought due to lockdowns and closed borders. Damon Galgut spoke of how The Promise would have been shorter if the main character had been more decisive in honouring her family’s commitment to their black servant.

Cartoonist Art Spiegelman, beamed in from New York City as daylight faded through a window behind him, told us that the Tennessee School Board banned his comic novel, Maus, because it offered no redemption. What did they expect from the son of Holocaust survivors? Sales of Maus have since boomed, apparently.

One of the great things about writers’ festivals is their ability to showcase artists we would otherwise unlikely know of. Many of them are in my backyard. Omar Sakr – a Western Sydney bisexual Muslim poet born to Lebanese and Turkish parents – only felt confident about coming out to his mother when he knew she’d become dependent on his earnings. He’s the one in the middle.

Ruth Wilson, published for the first time at the age of 89, found her voice in successive rereadings of Jane Austen novels over nearly eight decades. Of course, I had to buy her book.

There were a few fizzers. Literary Death Match, a part literary/comedy/game show event where four writers compete in a read off critiqued by celebrity judges, suffered at the hands of a host who hasn’t been in the country long enough to understand what makes us laugh. Australian national treasure, Thomas Keneally, being walked off the stage for exceeding his slot by several minutes, was an awkward moment.

An opportunity to buy books…

The Festival operates on the basis that if you like what you hear, you can buy the authors’ works on site and, if you time it right, have them signed.

We left with a few purchases of our own…

I mentioned a federal election. On 21 May, voters cast aside the alpha-male style of governance, culture wars and obfuscation of the past nine years in favour of a polity that can work across party lines to achieve important goals. Among other things, we elected a raft of bright, professional women who want to do something about climate change, integrity in politics and making Australia a more inclusive society. I had a lightness to my step as I returned for the final day of the Festival, never mind the wet weather.

Becoming a Writer in the Third Chapter of Life

For all the third-stage creative nonfiction writers and memoirists out there.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

By Carole Duff

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.  -Anatole France

Western culture divides life into three stages: birth/student, work/family, and retirement/death. My husband and I, moving into our retirement years and building a new house, borrowed the Hindu concept of four stages, adding a time of spiritual growth and reconnection between retirement and death.

The third stage of life, Vanaprastha, the name we chose for our mountain home, means retreat to the forest. Not retirement but time to learn, reflect, and grow. Time to take the internal journey and heal past wounds from loss, rejection, and inexplicable disruptions. Time to explore, discover, seek meaning, share wisdom, and serve others. Time to become our truer selves.

As it turned out, I became a writer.

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Backyard Earth: a publishing opportunity with a difference

Ex New Zealand semper aliquid novi’.

Alright, what Pliny the Elder really said some two thousand years ago was ‘Out of Africa always something new’, but I couldn’t resist substituting New Zealand, a country that regularly punches above its artistic weight. Think Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, Sam Neill, Jane Campion, The Piano, Once Were Warriors, The Lord of the Rings trilogy…

I’ll say straight off the bat that this post is a shameless plug for a writing project in which I have a tiny stake.

Backyard Earth is the brainchild of a Kiwi indie publisher, The Patchwork Raven, a garage band publisher with a ‘penchant for perfectionism, and a love of gorgeous words presented in beautiful packaging…challenging some of the assumptions about how that happens, but not at the cost of quality.’ Have I got your attention yet?

My writers’ group first alerted me to this opportunity a couple of years ago. In short, the project aims to publish five books, one for each of the five continents – Africa, the Americas, Europe, Asia and Oceania – and containing a story for every country on each of those continents. Crazily ambitious? Yes. But wouldn’t it be amazing to be a part of something this wildly out of left field?

What is being sought is writing that evokes a sense of the actual place, something that feels local. While it helps to live or have lived in the country being written about, this is not essential to having your work accepted. Stories can be up to 5,000 words.

As of a couple of months ago, Africa was 26% filled, the Americas 34%, Asia 41%, Europe 60% and Oceania 20%. Submissions will be accepted for as long as it takes to fill the quota for each continent. There are more than 100 countries for which stories have yet to be accepted.

Further information, including tips on what’s likely to work or not, document formatting, payment, contact details and so on are here. So what are you waiting for? Start writing! Be a part of an unusual and exciting project!

How do you like your literature?

One of my high-school Afrikaans set works was a story about a morally upstanding family and their perfectly behaved daughter. I was too young to see this as yet another government attempt to manipulate my adolescent mind, but I didn’t know anyone like the heroine, Grietjie, and her sanctimonious parents either. As well as hating them with a passion, being forced to read and be examined on this work made me feel like an alien in the land of my birth.

When we pick up a book, we are invited to keep company with its progression, hopefully finding something familiar within the covers. Vanessa Mártir, of Afro-Honduran background but Brooklyn born and raised, has said it wasn’t until her junior high school year, when her English professor suggested she read ‘How the Garcia sisters lost their accents’, that she saw her experiences of trying to fit into a different cultural environment reflected in the similar experiences of others.

A few weeks ago, I devoured a friend’s 42,000-word memoir in an afternoon. Our fathers had been general practitioners in Cape Town at a time when sole practice was common, and our mothers worked behind the scenes to make the practices run smoothly. Her reminiscences about having to keep personal phone calls short – the landline was primarily for patients’ access – rekindled memories of all the conversations with friends I’d had to abort. I learned that the piano teacher who’d made my teenage years so miserable had also tormented my friend. And was there more than a coincidence in her mother having given birth to Brenda’s younger brother on my birthday, at the same age my mother was when she gave birth to me, also the youngest of three?

While few texts offer such intimate connections as my friend’s memoir, they are no less capable of striking a chord within us. Simon Tedeschi is a well-known Australian pianist who lives in Sydney. Until ten days ago, I did not know that his musical talent was matched by an equally prodigious wizardry with words. In May, Tedeschi’s award-winning essay, ‘This woman my grandmother’, won the 2022 Calibre Prize, one of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards. The subject of Tedeschi’s essay, his maternal grandmother Lucy, spoke her memories onto tape ten years before she died; they were written up and copies given to her two daughters and five grandchildren, of whom Tedeschi is the eldest. While he dwells large on his grandmother’s Holocaust history, it is the cultural idiom in which he writes that provides parallels. Lucy was the same age as my mother, born during the Great War, and both fiercely proud of proclaiming their offspring as being better than anyone else’s. Lucy gave ‘Mrs Schmendrick’ – a Yiddish term connoting contempt – short shrift for having a son whose capabilities were well beneath those of her grandson, in the same way my mother would have taken down one of my peers. The podcast of Tedeschi reading ‘This woman my grandmother’ is here.

As a member of a writers group, I regularly hear others say ‘That scene is so true to life’ or ‘I’ve been in that position myself’ or ‘it made me think back to a time when I did (something)’. To paraphrase Mártir and others, literature that contextualises the events and people in readers’ lives provides the ‘anchor that moors us to the text’. When we see ourselves reflected in a story arc, it is at that point we can more readily engage with and enjoy what we read.


And the winner is…

Earlier this year, I was asked if I would like to be on a panel of judges for a new writing competition. This was not something I’d done before.

Stories were to be inspired by the theme of ‘tree’, as loosely interpreted as contestants wished to choose, in any genre and up to 2,500 words long.

The competition attracted 42 entries. The panel was asked to read them carefully and select a ‘top ten’ within 14 days of the closing date. I was mildly panicked at having four of those days eliminated due to travel, and the unexpected arrival of a competing interest in the form of another job with a short deadline. But I reminded myself that I’d juggled priorities before, and that I’d be able to give adequate time to both tasks.

The judges were given a set of criteria against which to assign points for each entry: things like plot, characterisation, style, setting and fitness to theme, scored variously out of five or ten. Some entries didn’t make it to first base, having been knocked out for the most basic transgressions – not numbering pages, and ignoring required fonts and line spacing. I was dismayed to see poorly formatted text, sloppy grammar, and misspelt words, and that a handful of entries had exceeded the word limit. Some of these stories were otherwise so good I wished their authors had asked a partner or friend to read them before submitting.

The theme had been explored in ways I’d not anticipated. I read about the relationship between trees and climate change, a story told from a tree’s point of view, and another that used trees as problem solvers. A story that compared and contrasted the ageing process in humans and trees, communicated its message effectively in 200 words. I found myself drawn to genres I would normally eschew, for the simple fact of the writing having been so well constructed and imaginative. In some cases, writers had crossed the line between fiction and nonfiction with such a light touch that I couldn’t tell if the story was true or invented.  

Being on the other side of the fence made me appreciate that a judge’s responsibility is not taken lightly. When I think that I could easily devote 50 hours – the amount of time I spent in reading and critiquing the entries – to crafting a short story of my own, I want to know that whoever reads it will do so comprehensively, and that my work will be given the best chance when ranked against others. I hope I gave that same respect to contestants in this competition.

The winning entries can be read here.

What’s in a name?

Back in the 1990s, one of my girlfriends married a man whose surname was the same as hers. How fortunate, I’d thought, at the time. There would be no need to explain the retention of a maiden name or having to change paperwork into a married one. When her kids started school, the teachers would know straight away whose mother she was.

I mention this because, in a roundabout way, it is related to a recent contact I had on my genealogy blog, In search of Harris. The inquirer, whom I shall call Jillian, had noted my reference to a family history source that mentioned her great-grandmother, Annie, a woman with my surname – Saltman. I asked if she could tell me who Annie’s father was. Louis did not ring a bell, but then neither had several other names I’d come across in the family history.

I consulted the 31 Saltman trees a relative sent me a few years ago. There is a clear patrilineality in my line traceable to an early-nineteenth century Lithuanian patriarch with the biblical-sounding name of Judah Arie. I assumed that Annie was a descendant of his eldest son Zelig – a man with four interchangeable first names and my great-great-great grandfather – who had emigrated to England circa 1870 with his six children. But while I found an Annie among their offspring, it wasn’t the ancestor Jillian had described.

I’d read the first chart, the one headed by Judah Arie, scores of times, but without ever leaving the left-hand column where details of my ancestors and their movements are recorded. If I’d bothered to scroll right, I would have seen that Judah had four children, of whom two emigrated to England: Zelig and his younger sister Rachel. I’d not needed to know about her. That is, until now.

A chart lower down in the hierarchy showed that Rachel married a Bernard Saltsman, and they made a life for themselves in Manchester. They had a son, Isaac, who at some point struck out the second ‘s’ from his surname. It probably made sense to anglicise it, but in doing so Isaac created a parallel tree that would bamboozle future generations of family history researchers.

Once I’d twigged to what was likely going on here, I dropped down a tier. I found Isaac, his wife Dora and their nine children. Louis was the third. I’d proved a relationship between Jillian and me, but not in a way either of us may have expected.

Saying no

I stumbled upon a great post, last week: Writers with no desire to publish. While the post dwells mainly on the distinction between writing high quality work for personal satisfaction versus writing for publication, it was the way the author introduced the topic that grabbed my attention. He cited the example of a much published writer who, when invited to submit to a highly-regarded journal, turned down the opportunity because the thrill of being published no longer existed for her.

While I’m not in the enviable position of being inundated with offers to publish my work, I have been put in a position where I’ve had to think twice.

Last July I entered a family history competition hosted by a local Genealogy Society. By September I knew that I’d not made the short list. I closed the book on that opportunity and pitched the piece to another publication in December. That journal, like most others to which I’ve submitted work, predicated any acceptance of my story on it not having been published elsewhere.

In January, I received an email from the Society. While acknowledging that my entry – as a non-place getter – was not bound by any restrictions, they valued it nevertheless and wished to include it in a print-form publication that would be available later in 2022. I deduced that all 124 entrants in the 2021 competition had received the same email.

I weighed up the Society’s offer.

On the plus side, my story would be published. I could provide a link on my website to the Society for further information, including where to buy the book. I could mark it in red – the colour I use for published works – on the spreadsheet I maintain to keep track of what I’ve pitched and to whom.

On the minus side, 123 other stories would also appear in the anthology. There was also the $30 entry fee, the book’s price – $42 for last year’s anthology, less an undisclosed discount for competition entrants – and $14 postage.

I asked the Society about circulation and exposure.

They helpfully provided insights on how they’d publicised the 2020 anthology. In addition to canvassing their 760 members, of whom I imagine some were among the 54 entrants in the 2020 competition, they shared news of the anthology with other family history societies – fewer than 20 nationally – in the Society’s quarterly journal. A print run of 100 copies had sold out; while they didn’t say, it is reasonable to believe that a portion of buyers was represented by competition entrants. The national library was given a copy and anyone wanting their own could order it via the Society’s online bookstore.

I mulled over this information for a few days.

I wondered where my story would slot in: near the front, middle or back of the anthology? I asked myself how many readers might see my work and, on the basis of what they read, decide to commission me for an assignment? If, by removing this piece from circulation now, had I cut off future opportunities for having it published elsewhere and be paid? These were matters over which I had no control, but they were still valid concerns.

Saying no felt right in this instance. I have now pitched this story twice; that’s early days in the cycle of trying to get work published. I know that the odds of another publication picking up my piece are long, but I’m prepared to take them.  


Call it beginner’s luck, but my letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s travel edition of 2 April 2022 – my first to any newspaper or journal – found its way into print, all 66 words of it on page 20 of the travel page

The prod was an article about Liverpool published in the Herald two weeks earlier

I’d earmarked this northern English city for a visit in 2018, much to the head-scratching bewilderment of friends and family. ‘Why,’ a London friend intoned at the time, ‘would you want to go there? It is one of the poorest cities in Europe.’ I cited an ancestral connection with Liverpool, as if a need to validate it in person was enough to trump all of the city’s perceived shortcomings. I don’t think he bought it.

Liverpool is, of course, famous for being the birthplace of the Fab Four…

…and a host to landmark buildings, docklands and cobbled streets.

This rich urban fabric – Liverpool has more listed buildings than any other UK city outside London – has provided a contextual backdrop for the production of blockbuster movies and TV shows, prompting Liverpool to become known as the ‘Hollywood of the North’, an evolution celebrated in eloquent fashion in the Herald’s article. What escapes mention, however, is one of the city’s greatest attributes: its extensive network of pedestrianised streets.

Liverpool’s city centre, and the city itself, had been in decline during the latter half of the 20th century. In the late 1990s, a retail-driven upgrade of the centre was adopted as the model for both satisfying shoppers and regenerating the precinct. Six companies tendered for the job, among them, Australia’s Westfields Group. The Group is said to have offered Liverpool City Council leader, Mike Storey, an all-expenses paid trip to inspect some of its work in Australia, an offer that was rejected. In a veiled reference to Westfields’ preference for building enclosed retail development, Storey emphasised that the council ‘…did not want a giant mall under any circumstances. We wanted to use existing street patterns and…to ensure that listed buildings and buildings of significance were kept. We wanted to…try and develop and link the waterfront with the new retail area.’[1]

Despite being urged several times to reconsider malls, the council stuck firmly to its aim of recreating the ‘hustle and bustle of a New York of London.’ I’m glad it did.

[1]             Liverpool, Regeneration of a City Centre BDP 2009 p30

It’s all in the timing

I went down to my local beach this morning to swim off some excess from an enjoyable if rather indulgent weekend away. I was late getting there, having tried – and failed – to persuade my husband to join me.

It would be the first time in more than a month that I’d set foot on Balmoral Beach, the annual March drenching that has become a feature of Sydney’s weather being the culprit. The only reason I could get there today is due to La Nina having taken a few days off.

I checked the sea temperature on the board at the wishing well: 21.3C – a bit cool, but doable. The clock above it read 6.45am. I ambled down the steps, stripped to my cossie, donned cap and goggles, and made for the water. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a parallel movement of about 10 swimmers at the northern end of the beach – the Salty Crocs, a swim group with whom I have a mutual followship on Instagram.

I swam out to the most northerly of four directional cones that line the beach, a point at which I had to make a decision. I could head straight out to a yacht marker known as RP, where the sun would be in my eyes the whole way; or turn right and make for the jetty, a lap that would come with an oblique sun angle. I decided on the latter, becoming aware halfway of an orange-capped man swimming in front of me. He was kicking backstroke as fast as I was swimming freestyle.  

The rest of the Crocs were waiting at the jetty for Mr Orange Cap. Among the group, I spotted someone from my swimming-pool competition days and struck up a conversation with her. Having seen a connection, Mr OC invited me to join the group on their morning swim. ‘How fast do you folks go?’ I asked, not wanting to keep them waiting. ‘Not that fast,’ Mr OC said. ‘Okay, I’ll come along then.’ I hoped they hadn’t lined up a marathon.

I hung at the back of the pack, keeping pace with a lady in a red cap. Not content to stay there, I gunned it, the old competitor in me testing to see whether I could get in front of her. If only I hadn’t eaten and drunk so much at the weekend…

We swam out to RP, and from there to another yacht marker known as EB, and beyond to a small beach where we stopped for a while. On the return journey, I found myself alongside Mr OC. I stole a glance at his lower half through the water and saw a pair of black rubber extensions to his feet. I’d suspected as much.

There were four stops to let the ‘tail’ catch up to the leaders. Some of the Crocs used the opportunity to engage with me. Was I a member of the local beach club? Did I come down here often? I was welcome to join them anytime I wanted, Mr OC said, with a warmth that I found affecting. However, a combination of stops and the cumulative impact of rolling thermoclines – those sudden declines in temperature where warmer water transitions to cooler and deeper layers – had started to bite.  ‘I think I’ll head back now,’ I said, and took off.

Back on the beach, I checked the clock at the wishing well: almost an hour had passed. I know I should return tomorrow morning.

Things are about to get a little busier here

Starting with this: Go to page 3 for a short profile on me and a generous plug for the Northern Beaches Writers Group’s anthology, Rhapsody, which I wrote about a few months ago here: Rhapsody: how 15 Sydney writers fought lockdown with lyrics! You can order a copy in paperback or ebook here:

More is coming shortly on other initiatives, but for the time being, enjoy reading about my backyard and feast on the scenery.