Monday, September 9, 2013

Brisbane Writers Festival 2013

The enviable view from the writers' green room verandah
I've just returned from three days at the Brisbane Writers Festival.

Smug, post-run
I arrived on Friday and went for a run. Perfect.

Then dinner, a whisky with fellow Zeitgeist author Dawn Barker, second dinner with Dawn and David Thornby, and wired half-sleep.

My four gigs were shoe-horned into Saturday and Sunday. Busy but fun.

I began with 'Inspire: Mind', a TEDx-style talk and panel, looking into the mind, brain, creativity and cognitive skills.

Signing books with Barbara Arrowsmith Young
and Ruth Ozeki (Dr. Karl in the background)
Canadian-American author (and Zen priest) Ruth Ozeki spoke first, giving a sharp summary of some Buddhist principles, and a great demonstration of meditation. I look forward to reading Ruth's latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, which sounds fantastic.

Next I spoke about philosophy, the love of ideas, and ideas of the mind -- and gave some suggestive examples: Iris Murdoch and Martin Heidegger. 

My general point was to note the caprice and vagueness of ideas in general, and ideas of mind in particular; and to highlight a couple of ideas that resist the mind's selfishness or pettiness. I might publish the talk later this year.

Speaking last was Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, who demonstrated the practical importance -- in her life and others' -- of 'neuroplasticity': the brain's capacity to grow and develop, with targeted training. Barbara's own story was moving and inspiring: testament to the danger of neat medical labels, particularly with children.

Raising our glasses to Jane Austen: Lesa Scholl,
Kim Freeman, Kate Forsyth
Next I was on a panel: 'The Pemberley Inheritance', which celebrated two centuries of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. My fellow guests were novelists Kate Forsyth and Kimberley Freeman, and Lesa Scholl chaired. 

We drank champagne. Conversation was as free-flowing: we touched upon Austen adaptations, characters, plotting, history, and the urge to make the author an Expert on Everything.

We also touched upon the garden in Austen's novels: its standing-in for Darcy and Mr. Collins' souls. We also speculated about the love-life of Lizzie and Darcy, Jane and Bingham. Kimberley had the perfect line for Bingham: "He would have fucked her like an apology."

Out of the woods: Anna Krien and Inga Simpson
After Austen, I joined Anna Krien, Inga Simpson and chair Megan McGrath for 'Into the Woods'. We chatted about the threads stitched between art, philosophy and landscape. 

Anna's journalism and Inga's novel both offer meticulous and often quite touching stories of 'nature' -- in varied ways. Anna's Into the Woods details the fraught, often violent world of logging protests in Tasmania -- this is what journalism ought to read like. Inga's Mr Wigg is a slow, meditative novel that celebrates small pleasures -- particularly those of gardening, agriculture, cooking and unheralded human intimacy.

We spoke about the artist's obligation (or not) to attend to the environment, particularly if it's threatened. We touched on the dangers of fetishising 'nature', and faking reverie. Drawing on Philosophy in the Garden, I explained why gardens are particularly philosophical. The session began and ended with haiku: Japanese miniature poetry from Brisbane poet Matt Hetherington, with a 'nature' theme. (They were excellent: suggestive, smart, attentive.)

That done, I sprinted (well, power-walked) off to Comics Etc to find some gifts... 

Speaking of which, there was a fantastic comics and genre mood to the Brisbane Writers Festival this year. Our sessions clashed, so I wasn't able to catch Kelly Sue DeConnick, Matt Fraction and Marjorie Liu. But I did enjoy a great dinner with comics writer and illustrator Dylan Horrocks, alongside novelists (and comics fans) James Bradley and Elizabeth Wein, and Ashley Hay. I also chatted briefly with Kelly Sue and her lovely kids.

Astonishment in black, white and blue
On Sunday I taught a three-hour masterclass, 'Everyday Philosophy'. I spoke about philosophy's ambitions and discipline; about the slipperiness of ideas, and how to do them justice. 

Many in the class had never read philosophy before, but we had some excellent conversation about Seneca, Nietzsche and a poem by Alison Croggon. The common theme was human relationships, and the ideas were thrown to and fro boldly, but with care.

After my class, I saw Philosophy in the Garden was number one on the bookshop's bestseller list. They were sold out. A shock -- and a welcome one. (The overall bestseller list is here.)

Congratulations to the festival director, Kate Eltham, and to all the festival staff and volunteers. You rock.

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