Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Writers’ Centre

I have written posts now on writers centres in every Australian state and territory, but there is also, would you believe, an Australian Writers’ Centre. Who are they, and where do they fit in?

It seems like they are primarily a provider of writing courses. When you click on the About link on their website, the first thing you read is:

Welcome to the Australian Writers’ Centre

We’re Australia’s leading provider of writing courses and we’re so excited that you’ve found us at last!
If you’d like to improve your writing skills or simply find your inspiration, this is the place.

They say that they offer courses in “in creative writing, freelance writing, business writing, blogging and much more”, and that people love their courses “because of their affordability, short duration and accessibility – a risk-free way to gain new writing skills in a supportive environment”.  Their courses are “created by experts who are active in the industry”. They run in-person courses (Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane) and online ones.

Nick Earls, NoHoThey sound and look highly self-promotional, but who teaches their courses? Well, there are some well-known names there, including published (many of them internationally successful) Australian authors, such as Kate Forsyth (best-selling author of fantasy, primarily); Alison Tait (best-selling author, particularly of children’s books); Nick Earls (popular writer of books for adults, young adults and children, and who has appeared here); novelists Annabel Smith (who has also appeared here a few times) and Natasha Lester; plus others including Valerie Khoo, and various journalists and free-lance writers. I notice, for example, that Annabel Smith’s Creative Writing course that started today is sold out.

They also offer other free “resources” or activities:

So, as far as I can tell, the AWC is primarily an organisation offering courses and other resources for writers, both fee-based and free. Unlike the state-based centres it is not a member organisation, but I can’t find anything on their site, not even their FAQs, about their history or governance. (Wikipedia’s article on Valerie Khoo says she founded it in 2005.) This sort of information is not essential, of course. If they are providing a needed and appreciated service, that’s the important thing. But, I’m a librarian-archivist, and I do love it when organisations provide some history on their sites. It’s not hard to do.

A novel works its magic by putting a reader inside another person’s life. (Barbara Kingsolver, from AWC Newsletter, 6/2/20)

Exactly why I love to read (notwithstanding there are some lives I may not want to be in) … what about you? 

Writers Centres posts: ACT, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia.

Writers in Residence: An Online Festival

Program BannerWith information coming from every which way, I’m not sure how I heard about the Writers in Residence online festival. Organised by The Writers Bloc and inspired by Isol-Aid, its aim was to “ask some of Australia’s most exciting emerging writers to read from their new books” and share “what they’ve been reading in isolation”.

It ran from 5pm to 9.40pm on Monday, and involved 14 writers, each on for 20 minutes. All interviews were conducted by Geoff Orton, an English and Geography teacher and a founder of Writers Bloc. The format was that each writer provided some background to their book, did a 10-minute reading from the book, and shared some isolation reading.

I only managed to hear 6 properly, as 5-9.40pm is a pretty difficult time-frame, but I enjoyed what I heard. It looked like there were 50 to 75 people viewing throughout the evening. Here are the writers I watched …

5pm: Shannon Molloy

Book coverMolloy’s book, simply titled Fourteen, was published in March. It is an autobiographical coming-of-age memoir about being a gay teen. It is set in Yeppoon, in regional Queensland, in 2000. Molloy admitted that his story is harrowing, but believes it also has a strong message of hope. He wants kids “to know there is an end in sight”.

The excerpt he read described the annual coral spawn, which he sees as “the best metaphor for Yeppoon”. I understood this to mean that Yeppon is “pretty” but is also “a bit off”. (Apparently coral spawns give off a smell.)  He described how he “became a pastime for bored kids”. “I was there to taunt, to abuse, to bash”, he said.

To write his book, he drew on memories, talked with his mother and siblings, and listened to bad pop music from the era! Pop music, he said, was a way of accessing the outside world, of escaping.

5.20pm Katherine Tamiko Arguile

Book coverArguile’s debut novel, The things she owned, was published in late April. Describing herself as “from all over the place”, Arguile, was introduced by Orton as a Japanese-British-Australian artist and journalist. She explained the title of her book. The things are objects which the protagonist, Erika, inherited from her mother, Michiko. Erika is half-Japanese like Arguile, and the novel draws from her own experience. However, as she stressed, The things she owned is a novel, and Michiko is nothing like her own mother.

The novel is about Erika coming to terms with the death of her mother, which she gradually comes to accept by discovering the stories associated with the things her mother owned. Apparently, the book was the creative component of a thesis for a course at the University of Adelaide. Her research was about “grief and objects”, which is a topic other viewers, like myself, would love to have explored more.

Arguile noted that the things in the book are things she herself owns. These non-fictional objects anchored both her and the story, she said.

Orton commented on the role of the ocean in the book. Arguile replied that it hadn’t been something she’d planned but she’d realised later its strong presence. She referred to the Jungian understanding of water as “something unseen, something that lies underneath the conscious mind”. Makes perfect sense for a book about grief.

5.40pm Leah Swann

Book coverSwann’s novel Sheerwater, which was published in March, is garnering a lot of reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. (I’ve reviewed her short story collection, Bearings). The novel starts with a mother driving with her two young sons. They witness a light plane accident, to which the mother goes to see if she can help. When she returns to her car, the boys are nowhere to be found.

Journalist and speechwriter Swann said the idea had come to her during a road trip some time ago, but that, as the mother of young children at the time, she wasn’t prepared “to go there”. Understandable! When she did decide to do it, she found it easy to write the first draft. She just kept writing, seeing where it would take her. The first draft was 130,000 words, with the final book, four or five drafts later, being around 70,000 words. Like Arguile, she doesn’t plan her books. What she loves about writing is discovering things.

I did note her lockdown reading: Meg Mundell’s We are here (Affirm Press), which she described as “beautiful essays by people who have experienced homelessness”; and Meg Mason’s Sorrow and bliss, whose publication has been delayed until September, because of COVID-19 I believe.

7pm Pip Williams

Book coverThe dictionary of lost words, published in late March, is Pip Williams’ debut novel, though she has written other books. She was one of the reasons I was keen to register for this event as I gave this book to my mother for Easter. She, a retired lexicographer, loved it.

If you’ve heard of the book (see Lisa’s review), you won’t be surprised to hear that she was inspired by Simon Winchester’s The surgeon of Crowthorne. Williams said that she saw that the OED (Oxford English dictionary) was a completely male endeavour, that the lexicographers, contributors, and workers were mostly men, and most of the literature they referred to was by men. It made her wonder whether “words mean different things to men and women, and if they do what does that mean for the OED?”

She talked a little about the OED, and her research (which included reading a lot of the OED). After her reading, Orton asked whether she’d found any “hilarious” words. She had, of course, but decided to share some interesting ones. For example, “teen” used to mean “vexed”, “irritate”, and “teenful” meant “causing trouble or sorrow”. Has this played a role in our word “teenager”, she wondered! She discussed the word “bondmaid”, which went missing from the dictionary, and she shared the word “anythingarian”which describes a person with no belief in anything. Perhaps I, a self-described wishy-washy person, is an “anythingarian”!

Her lockdown reading included another Affirm Press novel, Rachael Mead’s upcoming novel The application of pressure.

7.20pm Sophie Hardcastle

Book coverArtist and writer Hardcastle’s novel Below deck, was published in March and is her first novel for adults. It is divided into four parts, with the last being set in Antarctica. Hardcastle had had, she said, an artist’s residency in Antarctica. She wanted to write a work that explored “climate change and our relationship with the natural world.” She thought that a story of the body being violated could work as a metaphor for the environment being violated. The rest of the conversation, however, didn’t really discuss this aspect further.

Asked, whether the story changed as she was writing it, she said that the bones of the story stayed the same, but because it’s a book about trauma, about the way the body remembers trauma, this did come out more during the writing. She wanted, also, to explore, the myths around rape culture. Orton briefly mentioned synesthesia, which both Hardcastle and her protagonist have, but there was no time to discuss this.

Hardcastle’s lockdown reading included Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Jenny Offill’s Weather (which reminded her of Max Porter, she said.)

7.40pm Laura Jean McKay

Book coverMcKay’s novel, Animals in that country, was published in late March. It’s another I had bought as an Easter gift, because, not only did it seem appropriate for the times, given it involves a flu pandemic, but it sounded innovative and feminist. Right up Daughter Gums alley! The novel does have talking animals, including a dingo called Sue! McKay had spent time in a Northern Territory wildlife park as part of a writer-in-residence program, and got to know some dingos here. Sue was apparently inspired by an actual dingo.

McKay read from the part of her book where the human protagonist first hears the animals talking, which happens just as a flu is whipping through the country. At the time she was writing it, she feared her idea was a bit too speculative, but as her publication date drew nearer, well, she realised not so much!

McKay’s lockdown reading included Ling Ma’s Severance (which is about a pandemic) and Ronnie Scott’s The adversary.

A well-conceived COVID-19 event. The writers I saw were thoroughly engaging, and Orton managed the technology with aplomb. Will these sorts of events continue post COVID-19?

Writers in Residence: An Online Festival
4 may 2020, 5:00 PM – 9:40 PM
ZOOM Online, organised by Writers Bloc


Writing War: A panel discussion about war and historical writing

In its original guise, I would not have been able to attend Writing war: A panel discussion featuring Nigel Featherstone, Melanie Myers and Simon Cleary because it was going to be held in Brisbane’s Avid Readers bookstore. However, in one of those lucky COVID-19 silver linings, the discussion was transformed into an online ZOOM discussion and, hey presto, I could attend for the princely sum of $5. Having read Featherstone’s Bodies of men (my review) and Myers’ Meet me at Lennon’s (my review), and being interested in Cleary’s The war artist, it was an opportunity too good to miss.

Convenor, and author herself, Cass Moriarty, started by introducing the authors and asking them to talk about their novels, particularly in terms of their inspiration or intention:

  • Nigel Featherstone talked about wanting to explore different expressions of masculinity, particularly as expressed under extreme military pressure. He wanted to look beyond the ANZAC mantra that all men are brave, all do remarkable things, and so on. Can being a deserter, he wondered, be an act of bravery?
  • Simon Cleary described his Afghanistan War novel as a homecoming story, as being about soldiers finding a place in their home countries, as looking at the cost to the community of sending people to war.
  • Melanie Myers introduced a new genre (or sub-genre) to me, the “ensemble home-front novel”, which, she said, was coined by writer and educator, William Hatherell. It encompasses books like Come in spinner. Her novel is primarily about women’s experience of WW2.

On the challenge of writing about past wars with nuance

Featherstone immediately turned to the ANZAC idea, asking how do we talk about ANZAC without being kicked out of the country, and how is it that we have created a day that we can’t critique. He referred to Peter Stanley’s history Bad characters, which is about soldiers who were labelled as “bad”. Stanley’s book counterbalances the traditional ANZAC mantra, and taught him that bravery and cowardice can have many meanings.

Cleary liked the word coined by Featherstone for ANZAC, its “uncriticability”! He spoke of something he returned to a few times during the evening, the idea that sending people to war is political act. It means, he said, that writing about war is also a political act. Too many war novels focus on glory, resulting in the more human facets, including genuine human trauma, often being missing.

On that tricky question of the authority to write about war, when you haven’t personally experienced it

Myers talked about the challenge of being true to the times and values you are writing about, while being sensitive to those of your own era. Writing about African-Americans in Brisbane during World War 2, for example, she had to deal with the “N-word”.

Featherstone confronted the question more head on, asking “who gets to tell what story?” He did question his ability to write about war but, essentially, he believes “writers can do whatever they want”, with the proviso that they be prepared to talk about it. However, he also, a little anxiously but generously, shared his experience of inherited trauma (epigenetics), through his grandfather’s experience of World War 1.

Cleary noted that authority can come from various sources – personal experience, the novelist’s imagination and creative experience, and, returning to that idea of war being “a deeply political act”, he argued that “every citizen has a right to an opinion” about war.

Regular readers here will know that I agree, philosophically, with Featherstone, including that authors need to be prepared to discuss their choices. I also liked Cleary’s argument.

On the de rigueur question of research 

Myers explained some of her research process, saying that she starts with secondary sources, before looking at primary ones, and that in the case of this novel, she also walked the city imagining how it was, how it looked.

Cleary said that it was important to know the details – even those not actually needed in the work – to help avoid clangers. He also said – and I loved this – that writing novels is an excuse for learning stuff!

There was discussion about the impact of war on the social and economic opportunities for women, on values and prejudices, on the bonds forged during war, and on the burdens of war. Featherstone spoke of the physical and emotional scars of war. He pointed to a book titled We were there which reports on a survey of 3,700 World War 2 soldiers. A significant lesson from this book was that there can be multiple perspectives. He exemplified this by sharing a returned soldier’s view of his life versus the wife’s rather different view!

On should you write about war and love

Featherstone reiterated his position that there are no “shoulds” and that, anyhow, he wanted to write about love as a force of liberation. Love, he said, is what gets us through. Cleary noted that being in the proximity of death can make people feel vulnerable and therefore open to new things, and that these are the stuff of writing about war. However, he also said that war and gore can be depressing, and that art and love can provide useful “leavening”.

On whether war fiction is a genre

Myers answered that she specifically wrote in the “ensemble home-front genre” while Cleary didn’t see his book as being in the war novel tradition, but as simply being a story about humans dealing with an issue.

And on whether there are any parallels re society’s response to war and to the current pandemic, Cleary suggested that in war, as in the pandemic, humanity is fragmented, that borders are closed and self-interest reins, but, in both situations, he said, you can also “flip it around” to see a spirit of solidarity.

On the importance of documenting war

Featherstone responded that the work of artists is to ask difficult, dangerous, blasphemous questions, that we need artists to ask questions politicians won’t, that artists can “dream their way into answers”. Getting into trickier territory – though it wasn’t further explored – he also said that artists can explore different versions of history, the “what ifs”. (Kate Grenville would agree!)

Myers suggested that the volume of books still being written about World War 2 implies we still can’t make sense of it, that it is still unintelligible, while Cleary believed that it’s easy to forget the past, and that the role of fiction is to explore “the costs and consequences of the past”.

Ending the session

At this point the evening’s co-ordinator, Krissy Kneen, brought the event to a conclusion with some general questions:

  • Their advice to young writers: “if it feels dangerous, it’s worth doing”, “trust your instincts” and “be brave”.
  • War-related books they’d recommend: Dymphna Cusack and Florence James’ Come in spinner (Myers); Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Cleary) and The honest history book (Featherstone).
Melanie Myers

Melanie Myers (with the three novels faced out behind her)

Given the opportunity to plug their new work, only Myers was brave enough to name her project. I was thrilled to hear it as she’s research pioneering Australian filmmakers, the McDonagh Sisters. I look forward to that. Featherstone simply said he was not going near war for a long time, while Cleary said that he had a project but it was early days!

The hour whizzed by. Moriarty’s questions were focused and intelligent, the panelists’ responses were respectful and thoughtful, and the technology held up! It wasn’t the same as being in the room, but then, I wouldn’t have been, would I, so I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to hear these three writers speak.

Writing War: A panel discussion
20 April 2020, 6:30 PM – 7:30 PM
ZOOM Online, organised by Avid Reader (bookshop)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing WA

Time for a change from COVID-19 inspired Monday Musings, methinks, so I’m returning to something more straightforward like continuing my little trip around Australia’s writers centres. Today, we travel west to look at Writers WA.

Unfortunately, I cannot find anything on the Writing WA website about its history. I do find it disappointing when organisations don’t provide a basic history of themselves on their sites. I did, though, find under Some Highlights from 2019 a reference to a “new brand identity”. How much change did this involve? A name change like several other writers centres have done in the last few years?

Dervla McTiernan, The ruin, book coverThe Writing WA About page is brief, starting very nicely with an Acknowledgement of Country, followed by a quote by the successful author Dearbhla (Dervla) McTiernan in support of the Centre. This is followed by a vision or mission statement, though it’s not labelled as such:

Writing WA is working between the lines and behind the scenes to build a state of opportunity in Western Australia for writers, publishers and other practitioners in the writing sector – not just for the benefit of practitioners themselves, but for the immense social value that great writing brings to individuals and communities.

It’s a lovely aspiration, but not exactly punchy. The About Page’s banner is punchier with its “We’re working to build a state of opportunity”. However, this could be pretty much any organisation?

Oh dear, I’m sounding a bit critical, and this is not the aim of my writers centre series at all, so let’s move on … because, despite what I’ve said, the site is clean, clear and easy to navigate.

2019 Highlights

I enjoyed reading about the centre’s highlights for last year, which included:

  • launching two writers festivals, both (sensibly) in partnership with other organisations: Confluence Festival (Mandurah), partnering with the producers of the Jaipur Literature Festival, and Quantum Words Perth, partnering with Writing NSW.
  • publication of an anthology of short stories from Singapore and Australia, In this desert, there were seeds. Conceived and funding by Writing WA, it’s the result of an international co-publication between Margaret River Press and Ethos Books.

For Readers and Writers

A lovely clear thing about the website is the way it distinguishes between services for Readers and for Writers. If you know which one you are you can find what you want pretty quickly!

For Readers

The banner at the top of this page is, appropriately, “We love to read local”. Their main service here is to support book clubs. They offer a free monthly Love to Read Local Book Club e-newsletter that people can subscribe to. Each issue contains “detailed information about our selected ‘Book of the Month’ with accompanying notes to prompt discussion in your group!”

Donna Mazza, Fauna, book coverUnderneath this is the current Book of the Month, with a link to more information suited to reading groups, complete with discussion questions and “if you like this book…” suggestions. Check out the info for the March book, Donna Mazza’s Fauna, if you are interested.

Following the book of the month are a number of “What we are reading” books, with links to brief reviews. Below these is a “more book reviews” link which brings up the first of many pages of books reviewed. There is a search box in the side-bar and a broad genre list (biography, children’s, crime, etc) that will help those with specific interests. I wonder how many readers use this resource?

For Writers

The resources for writers are divided into five areas:

  • Find your people: this helps writers find writing groups and workshops (though it doesn’t actually list workshops being offered)
  • About publishing: explains in simple, straightforward language, the main publishing options available to writers.
  • Resources for writers: the say, here, that “Great books are the product of successful collaborations at every stage of the process, requiring effort and expertise from the writer, the editor, the publisher, the book designer, the printer and, eventually, the bookseller and librarian.” This section contains commissioned articles helping writers understand these. Clicking on I want to know about competitions, awards and other professional opportunities will take writers to the Noticeboad, which is also visible on the Home page. Here is where you find the guts of the Centre’s programs – the workshops, masterclasses and other events (most of which, if you look now, are of course cancelled due to COVID-19 – but they look varied and interesing)
  • Other resources for writers: a list of links to all sorts of relevant organisations including other writers centres; organisations providing say, legal or copyright information; and organisations supporting Indigenous and CALD writers
  • Rates of pay: a general statement about advocacy on payment for writers.


Not surprisingly – but pleasingly given not all organisations are doing this – the site has a tab on the Home Page for COVID-19 information. Clicking here will take members (and others) to a wealth of information including government policy, ways to keep working and reaching readers, and ways to stay healthy. Really nice to see.

And that’s about it for Writing WA. It’s probably not the best time to highlight an organisation in terms of showing off what it does, but the link is now here for anyone to follow up whenever they like!

Writers Centres covered to date: the ACT, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria.

Monday musings on Australian literature (and the arts): COVID-19

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it hard to settle to read, let alone write thoughtful reviews right now. (I’m sitting on one at the moment that I really want to do justice to, but my brain is all over the place.) Consequently, I’m going to just write a COVID-19 Monday Musings – and try to keep it simple, and focused on the things most important to us, that is, books and the arts.

A couple of days ago, The Saturday Paper (paywalled except for one free article a month) published an article by award-winning essayist Alison Croggon on “COVID-19 and the arts“. In it she discusses the impact on the arts, particularly on small companies and independent artists in the greatest jeopardy, of COVID-19 containment measures. These measures have certainly affected me with various cancellations, including our beloved National Folk Festival. Mr Gums and I count ourselves lucky to have managed to see the Australian Ballet’s last performance of the season of “Volt”, before Melbourne Arts Centre was closed down.

Anyhow, Croggon writes that:

As always, the brunt is being borne by thousands of small companies and independent artists and ancillary workers – publicists, stage managers, technical staff, ushers, caterers and others. Many are in desperate situations, exacerbated by the fact that their major sources of alternative income – teaching, casual work in the hospitality industry and so on – have also dried up.

She shares the experiences of a musician and a theatre designer to put flesh on the facts. And it’s pretty withered looking flesh. One talks of having all those jobs carefully cobbled together to create a living income disappear in one go. It’s important, therefore, that governmental assistance package/s include support for freelancers and independent arts workers, because they are critical to the survival of the industry as a whole.

Meanwhile, “freelancers are calling for institutions to pay out cancelled commissions” but not much of that is apparently happening. I certainly think that those of us who can should do this, and/or not ask for refunds for cancelled events. I figure that I’ve spent the money anyhow. However, I appreciate that life will become more tenuous for some people and that money recouped (or not spent) will make a difference to their surviving this period. All I can say is that each of us needs to do what we can but to not judge what others do – unless we’ve walked the proverbial month in their moccasins!

For up-to-date information on COVID-19 and the arts, the Australia Council for the Arts has a web-page and the Australian Government’s Office of the Arts also has a COVID-19 Update page.

Bookish stuff, in particular

I can’t even begin, really, to offer suggestions about this because ideas and opportunities to maintain our literary culture are coming thick and fast, ranging from ways to keep buying books and supporting our bookstores to potential livestreaming of literary events (like the Yarra Valley Writers Festival). It’s impossible to keep up and, anyhow, I suspect that those of you reading this blog are well enough connected to be receiving news and notifications yourselves. We can’t catch it all, but we can catch enough to keep us well engaged.

My reading group, which was to have met at my place next week, is setting up a WhatsApp group to try out virtual book discussion. There may be better apps, but as this one is known to many of the group already, it’s where we are starting. Within minutes of the group being set up, 8 of the 12 of us had joined, which is a measure, I think, of how much we value each other and our book discussion.

Many bloggers have written COVID-19 posts, including Lisa (ANZLitLovers) with three posts to date, Bill’s (The Australian Legend) more personal one, and Welsh blogger Paula’s “Coronatome” version of her Winding up the Week posts in which she provides a bumper crop of reading, including one of Lisa’s posts and a Books + Publishing article about the expansion of Australian Reading Hour.

Albert Camus, The plagueBooks have been written over the years about epidemics/pandemics/contagions, including our own Geraldine Brooks’ Year of wonders. This is historical fiction inspired by the Derbyshire village of Eyam which, when struck by the plague in 1666, quarantined itself to prevent the spread of disease. An interesting read in the light of what’s happening now. But, my favourite of them all is Albert Camus’ The plague (which I’ve read a few times, including since blogging, so here’s my review!) Camus explores the three main responses to plague – rebel, escape and accept – through the actions of his various characters. Rebelling, of the right sort, is his preferred approach. Read it if you haven’t already! In the end though, whatever happens, I’m hoping that what the lovely Dr Rieux says proves true with our COVID-19 experience:

… what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

Finally, if you are finding it difficult to cope with the stresses of the current situation, there’s always Up Lit (check my post from 2018 to get you started.) Seriously, though, many jurisdictions have their helplines, including, in Australia, Lifeline (13 11 14). Do call the one most appropriate to you if you find the impact of isolation or just overall worry about COVID-19 starting to seriously affect your mental health. It’s not easy right now, and we all want to come out healthy and ready to go on the other side.

Take care and be safe my blog friends.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund

We all know that a writer’s life is not a well-paid one. One way that writers keep going, that is, that enables them to continue writing, is through winning awards and grants. I report often on awards, and they also regularly appear in the media, but how much do we know about grants? And what exactly is a grant?

I’m not sure what the official definition of an artist’s grant is, but I’d define it broadly to encompass any monies or, other in-kind products or services (like residencies), intended to support creators doing their work. Grants tend to be offered by government bodies, foundations, trusts and non-profit organisations, with the best-known ones in Australia being, probably, those offered by the Australia Council for the Arts and the Copyright Agency. However, there are many other grants – big and small, general and specific – that writers can apply for. Darned if I know how they find out about them all, but their state writers centres, most of which I’ve now covered in this blog, are probably a good start.

I don’t want to get into the politics of funding artists. There’s the politics involved in grant-making (as anyone who has followed the Australia Council over the years knows only too well) but there’s also the bigger issue of how (or if, some would say) we should, as a society, support artists in the first place. Instead, today, I just want to share one specific grant, as an example of the sort of support artists (in this case writers) need and can get.

Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund

The Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund was established in 2017 by Writers Victoria, with funding from the Myer Foundation, in the name of poet, novelist and short story writer Neilma Gantner (1922-2015). Gantner was the daughter of businessman and philanthropist Sidney Myer. The Fund recognises, says the Writers Victoria webpage, “the unique value of travel in the development of new writing and literary careers”.

The grants, which range between $2000 and $10,000, are “intended to support emerging, midcareer and established Australian writers and literary sector workers. This includes writers, editors, agents, publishers, librarians, booksellers, employees and associates of literary organisations and journals, and other literary professionals currently living in Australia”.

Last week, Books + Publishing advised that Writers Victoria had announced the fifth round of recipients for the Fund. This round was the second offered in 2019. The judges change for each round, with those for Round 5 being writer Eugen Bacon, podcaster Astrid Edwards, and Black Inc. publisher Kirstie Innes-Will.

Here are the recipients (in grant amount order), showing the sorts of activities the fund supports:

  • Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk ($9656): to research Aboriginal and settler–colonial literary and cultural relations in England and the Czech Republic. Araluen is an Indigenous Australian poet, educator and researcher, while Dunk is a poet, critic, fiction-writer and academic.
  • Cate Kennedy ($7000): to attend writers’ festivals in Ireland and Jamaica, and residencies and reading events in the US. I’ve read some of Kennedy’s short stories, and have reviewed the excellent anthology Australian love stories which she edited.
  • Ruhi Lee ($6850): to research her memoir in India. Lee is a Melbourne-based writer, and was, in fact,  part of this year’s HARDCOPY program, run by the ACT Writers Centre (about which I wrote in 2015).
  • Mirandi Riwoe ($6062): for a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. I’ve reviewed her powerful novella, The fish girl.
  • Book cover for Madelaine Dickie's TroppoMadelaine Dickie ($4374): to research a proposed biography of Wayne Bergmann in Broome. I’ve reviewed Dickie’s debut novel, Troppo, and will be attending the launch of her second book, the intriguingly titled Red can origami, this month. Dickie won the T.A.G Hungerford Award for Troppo, and it was also shortlisted for the Dobbie Literary Award and the Barbara Jefferis Award.
  • Fiona Hardy ($3920): to research and begin her middle-grade fiction book on Christmas Island. Hardy is a children’s book writer, reviewer and bookseller.
  • Robert Lukins ($3473): to research a novel in Carter Lake, Iowa–Nebraska, US. Lukins’ debut novel, The everlasting Sunday, was short or longlisted for some major literary awards this year.
  • Maria Takolander ($3177): to attend the Arteles artist-in-residency in Finland. I have Takolander’s short story collection, The double, on my TBR, but keep not getting to it! My bad.
  • Sara Saleh ($3100): to take part in the inaugural Arab–Palestinian literature festival in New York. Saleh is an Arab-Australian poet, creative artist and activist.
  • Tamara Lazaroff ($2723): to research her memoir on De Witt Island, Tasmania. Lazaroff is a Queensland-based writer of fiction and nonfiction, who took part in last year’s HARDCOPY program.

Books + Publishing referred to “eleven successful writers, booksellers and publishers” but in fact all these grants have been given to writers and/or for writing projects. This is not surprising really, given their generally insecure funding base, but it would be interesting to know how often other literary professionals have been given grants.

It’s darned hard work applying for grants, I know. The above 11 (for ten projects) were selected from 99 applicants, which is probably not a bad ratio. Still, writers must have to juggle the time spent on writing grant applications against writing their books. I congratulate the above 11 on their success, and hope they find spending their money both fruitful and enjoyable!

The Constructive Critic (Panel discussion)

For some reason that I can’t quite explain – a sudden rush to the head methinks – I agreed to be part of a panel being organised by the ACT Writers Centre for this year’s Design Canberra Festival. The panel, called The Constructive Critic, was described as

a unique panel discussion about art criticism across multiple disciplines including visual arts, design, theatre and literature, and its importance and impact.

What is the point of arts criticism? What has changed now everyone has a voice via social media? What is the relationship between artist and critic, and what about the blurred lines of artists who critique others?

The panelists (check bios on the event website) were art curator and critic Peter Haynes (also the moderator), local authors Jack Heath and Karen Viggers, and me. This is not one of my verbatim reports because I was too busy taking part, but I want to document some of the things I remember that we discussed.

It was an enjoyable evening – for me, anyhow – largely because both the panel and the audience were friendly and engaged. We didn’t always completely agree on topics, but the ensuing discussion invigorated rather than diminished our thoughts and ideas.

My favourite description of arts criticism came from the most experienced critic amongst us, Peter, who said that:

For me writing criticism is about opening a dialogue and first the critique is for me to explore the work. Whatever medium. A review should start with a question. The critic opens the questions that the artist and curator have posed. (Tweeted by the ACT Writers’ Centre whom I thank for capturing this so nicely!)

I love this, the idea of opening the questions posed by the creator of the work (the book, the play, the exhibition, the film, etc), and will try to do it more. [PS: I forgot to say that we later talked about how social media at its best can encourage this dialogue/conversation.]

The topics we covered included defining what criticism is, what creators want from criticism, who criticism is for, the role of social media in contemporary criticism (is everyone really a critic?), the economic impact of criticism, whether creators can critique or review each other’s work, and what we think about negative criticism.

Most of us seemed to agree that there is a review-criticism continuum. The highest level of criticism we saw as comprehensive, academic, knowledgeable about the wider culture/genre/context within the work fits, while reviewing at its most basic can be short, narrowly focused and, perhaps, more oriented to promoting the work. This is not to say, however, that high level criticism can’t/doesn’t promote a work too, but the link is, I’d say, more tenuous.

Related to how we define criticism is the question of who/what criticism is for. For some critics*, it seems to be for the consumer (the reader, for example), for some it can be for the creators (the authors), and for others seems to be more for the producers (the publishers). At least, this last is how it looks when you get to the emerging “influencer” role, upon which we touched briefly. For the authors in our panel, the second was particularly relevant. They appreciate criticism which can help them develop their own work. There is a fourth option, which is the one I ascribe to. It’s that criticism is about contributing to the wider culture. While of course what critics write will encourage or discourage people from reading the book, going to the show, whatever, the main loyalty is to the culture. This means I’m keen to see the work I’m discussing within the context of both literary and social culture, to talk about how it adds to the body of work to which it belongs and how it addresses or contributes to the society in which we live. Looking at it this way, I’m less interested in ascribing value – this is a “good” or “bad” book – than in where it fits. I’m not sure I achieve this, but that’s my goal.

We talked briefly about social media: the destructive impact of thoughtless negative comments on authors; the positive and negative economic impact social media can have; the impact and application of ratings (like those on GoodReads); the current plethora of free review copies which can result in reduced early sales; and the value of hindsight versus the immediate response that is common in social media.

Opposing opinions were offered about whether artists can critique artists. The affirmative suggested that artists know what’s involved in creating the work and can therefore bring that understanding to their review, while the negative suggested that it is hard to properly critique people you know, and that creators, knowing the techniques involved, will often focus on technical aspects rather than the work as a whole.

Negative reviews came up several times throughout the discussion, and again at the end. Peter announced early on that he didn’t write negative reviews, which, regular readers here know, would appeal to me. What he meant by this – and how I also see it – is that if he doesn’t like something, he won’t review it. However, he will, in an overall positive review, refer to aspects that might not have worked so well. Yes! However, a question came from the floor about negatively reviewing a work that is against current social values – that is blatantly sexist, racist, ableist, for example. Karen spoke for all of us when she said that such ideas should be called out. Jack, earlier in the session, had entertained us by describing how he had learnt from a one-star review. The reviewer had missed the main point of his work he felt, but nonetheless the comment had made a valid observation, one that he used in the next book in his series!

Of course, like my old school exam days, I came away thinking about all that I could have, or wished I’d, said. One issue we didn’t discuss in any detail was the critic him/herself: the degree to which critics should aim to be “impartial” (whatever that is) versus put their preferences and background on the table, and, indeed, whether, in our current environment regarding who can write what, whether there’s also a question concerning who can critique what? But, I’ll leave those for another day!

Meanwhile, thanks to Paul and the ACT Writers Centre for asking me to be on the panel, and to Peter, Karen and Jack for being such fun and so interesting to talk with.

* I’m using the term “critic” broadly in this write-up to cover the whole continuum of arts writers, and my examples are mostly from the book world (but in most cases you can substitute your art form of choice!)

The Constructive Critic
Design Canberra Festival 2019
Gorman Arts Centre, Main Hall
12 November 2019

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers Victoria

When I wrote my last post in this Monday Musings series on Australia’s writers centres, author Angela Savage, who is also the current Director of Writers Victoria, commented that the centre was celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. She was hinting, in the nicest way of course, that I should “do” Writers Victoria this year – so, here I am.

Like Writing NSW and Writers SA, Writers Victoria changed its name (in 2011) from its original name, the Victorian Writers’ Centre. A not-for-profit membership organisation, it was created in 1989 by a group of writers who believed Victoria’s writing community needed a professional organisation. I love the clarity and comprehensiveness of their overall goal:

Writers Victoria supports and connects all types of writers at all stages of their writing careers.

This is supported by more specific purposes as listed on their About Us page. It’s not surprising that what they do is similar to other centres, but, like the others, they have their own flavour. They also operate within a very specific environment, given Melbourne’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature and the presence of The Wheeler Centre (for Books, Writing, Ideas). The then Victorian Writers Centre played an instrumental role in achieving both of these. Writers Victoria is, apparently, “the largest writers’ organisation in the country” and “the country’s leading employer of writers” through their programs.

You will have read enough of these writers centre posts now to know what they offer – courses and workshops, mentorships, manuscript assessments, fellowships, writing spaces or studios, to name the main activities. Writers Victoria also specifically supports regional writers, young writers, diverse writers, and writers with a disability. They also advocate for writers and the literary culture.

Book coverTheir diverse writers program, for example, supports “writers who face barriers in the development of their writing careers”. The programs are, well, diverse, catering for women of colour, Asian Australian writers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, refugee writers, and so on. The program recognises that money can be an issue for these writers, so among the support it offers are bursaries, and paid commissions. The indigenous writing program has used writers you’ve met here – Tony Birch, Anita Heiss and Bruce Pascoe.

For writers with a disability they have a program called Write-ability. Its aim is “to remove some of the barriers that have traditionally prevented people with disability from connecting with writing and publishing”. This support includes regional and online programs, and fellowships.

30 Years

However, because this year is their 30th anniversary, I thought I’d focus mainly on how they are celebrating this milestone – particularly since October was their establishment month.

Here are some of the ways they are celebrating their anniversary:

Flash fiction challenge

In April – the first month of the year with 30 days – they held a Flash Fiction Challenge, which they promoted as “30 days. 30 prompts. 30 Words.” For each day they offered a word prompt, and writers had to submit their 30-word works of flash fiction inspired by that word by midnight of that day. The 30 winners are shared at the link I’ve given, with the first winner, for the word Grit, being blogger Tony Messenger. As a wordlover, I enjoyed the variety of the prompt words, which included Baroque, Gloss, Remember, Nacreous, and Perfectionism.

For a clever, pointed piece, check out Sumitra Shankar’s Beginning, on April 21. It’s a perfect example of the power of flash fiction.

Writers on Writers Vic

Book cover for Toni Jordan's AdditionFor each month – they are up to September – a Victorian writer comments on what Writers Victoria means to them. The writers to date are:

  • Lee Kofman (who co-edited Rebellious daughters which I’ve reviewed)
  • Mark Brandi
  • Toni Jordan (whose Addition, Fall girl and Nine days, I’ve reviewed)
  • Melanie Cheng (whose Australia Day I really must read)
  • Shivaun Plozza
  • Fiona Wood
  • Andy Griffiths (with whom I’m sure to soon have a close acquaintance through my grandson!)
  • Anna Spargo-Ryan (whose The paper house I’ve reviewed)
  • Else Fitzgerald

You can check them all out by going to the site’s page, but to whet your appetite, here are some of the things they say:

… the main antidote to that famous writer’s malady – loneliness, isolation – is in hanging around with peers. Today writers’ centres seem to serve a similar function to that of literary salons from the previous centuries. (Lee Kofman)

I always tell aspiring and emerging writers about Writers Victoria. Many, like me, are just bumbling along, feeling lost and isolated. Writers’ centres like Writers Victoria are invaluable in making writers feel less alone. (Melanie Cheng)

First, I would wholeheartedly recommend it [joining Writrs Victoria]. But second, know what you want to get out of it. A centre like Writers Victoria has something to offer writers at all stages. (Anna Spargo-Ryan)

And so, a very big Happy Birthday to another active writers centre. Australians should be proud of the energy and commitment centres like this one are putting into both supporting all writers and keeping our literary culture alive. Oh, and thanks to Angela Savage for the birthday heads up!

Writers Centres covered to date: the ACT, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers SA

Time, I decided, for the next Monday Musings in my little series on Australia’s writers centres, this time South Australia’s. And it, like Writing NSW did, has recently changed its name, in this case from SA Writers Centre to Writers SA It is, says its About page, Australia’s first writers’ centre, and is located at the State Library of South Australia..

The Chair at the time of the change, Amy Matthews, said that it will ‘turn its attention in an even more dedicated way to helping South Australian writers achieve their creative dreams’, and that they are ‘going to do even more all over the city and the state, with more free events, more writing workshops and three targeted year-long programs for writers at all stages of their careers’. One can be cynical about name changes, but if they result in real improvements, then who cares. Let’s hope that’s happening here.

Like other writers centres, Writers SA is a membership organisation, but also obtains funding and support from others, particularly from federal and state governments.

Here are some of the things the centre does:


Courses and workshops are, as I’ve said in previous posts, a major component of what writers centres do, and so it is with Writers SA, and it’s clear that this centre makes a particular effort to support and encourage young writers. Here is a small selection of Writing SA’s current offerings:

  • Teen Writers Club (with Jason Fischer, a science fiction writer who has won and been shortlisted for Ditmar and Aurealis Awards): geared to teens 15–17 years old, but this is a guide only, they say. That said, they also have a group for younger people aged 12–14 years old. It’s a weekly group that meets on Saturday mornings during school term time.
  • Manuscript Incubator (with Bronwyn Tilley): a 5-month program for “writers looking towards publication”. It’s far easier to quit than to finish! This program says it’s for a whole range of needs from turning a draft into a “final polished product”, to finding/approaching an agent or publisher.
  • Story to Screen (with Holly Lyons, who is been script-writer or script editor on many Australian television series, including, most recently, Home and away): a one-off workshop on how to transform “an original idea for a story that you’re happy to share with the group … into a story with impact suitable for film or TV.”
  • Book coverWriting for Change (with Tory Shepherd, journalist who has written On freedom, published by MUP): a one-off workshop on the challenge of crafting “a piece that will (hopefully!) withstand the scrutiny of subeditors, editors, and of course readers”. The promotion for this workshop says that “there’s more demand than ever before for opinion pieces, which means more opportunities for freelancers. It’s also a powerful way that advocates and lobbyists can make their case.”

These are just four of many courses and workshops they offer on topics that include, in addition to the above, creating comics and writing YA fiction, the future of fantasy, finding an agent, and even on how to keep your motivation up!


  • Monthly meet-up: A monthly informal get-together led by staff from Writers SA and Adelaide City Library that is “usually genre specific or practice specific”. The promotion says “ask for advice, ask questions, tell stories or make up stories. You’ll come away motivated and ready to go home and put pen to paper.” The August meet-up is on Journalism.
  • Literary drinks: These are regular (or semi-regular, it’s not clear) evening which they describe as “relaxed networking opportunities for writers, readers and everyone in or interested in the writing industry. Meet your writing peers, connect with your community, and find out what’s happening in the world of words in SA.” The next one occurs in September and is called “Spring Mixer”.
  • Salisbury Writers Festival: This annual festival, now 15 years old, is organised by Writers SA and the City of Salisbury. The program for the 2019 festival to be held at the end of August is on their website.

In addition to the above, Writers SA also offers a wide range of professional resources and services, including manuscript assessment, something they call “first feedback”, and individual consultations. It has a blog, which seems to be published regularly, and which covers a wide range of topics, from professional to fun things like giveaways.

Book coverIn 2018, the centre created a Writers and Readers in Residence Project specifically designed to support regional communities. It involves South Australian and international writers undertaking “an artistic residency in regional communities to activate reading as well as writing in the town”. It seems to have funding (from the Australia Council of the Arts) to run from 2018 to 2020. You can read about it on their website.

Writers who have been involved to date include Jennifer Mills (author of the Miles Franklin shortlisted Dyschronia) who was based in the Eyre Peninsula; New Zealand novelist and playwright Whiti Hereaka who is currently based at Roxby Downs Community Library; and writer Karen Wyld who took part in the ACT Writers Centre’s Hardcopy program and was based at Ceduna. The project involves writers working on their own projects and offering workshops or other activities in the communities in which they are based. Karen Wyld was hosted by the local public library while another participant, novelist and poet Bernice Chauly, worked with Ali Cobby Eckermann (who has appeared several times on my blog.) It sounds like an active, exciting program, one that recognises the needs of South Australia’s many remote communities, while offering development opportunities for the writers too. It also clearly puts diversity into practice in its selection of writers for the project. (Oh, and this sounds like just the sort of thing the newly-renamed organisation was aiming for!)

.. and here ends my post on another busy, active Writers Centre.

Writers Centres covered to date: the ACT, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, and Tasmania.

Monday musings on Australian literature: New Territory 2019

New Territory LogoFor the third year I am a mentor for the ACT Writers’ Centre arts writing program, which was called in its first year, ACT Lit-bloggers of the Future program, but rebadged last year as New Territory or, Adventures in Arts Writing. It was broadened then to include theatre, when the Street Theatre joined the National Library of Australia and the Canberra Writers Festival as program partners.

I’ve greatly enjoyed my role, as I’ve met some wonderful people – Angharad and Emma in 2017, and Amy in 2018. This year, we increased the number of participants to three, but one has since withdrawn due to being offered work in Kyrgyzstan! Canberra, Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan, Canberra … What would you choose?

So, to recap the program before I introduce this year’s participants. Its overall aim, as the Writers Centre says, is to develop:

a deeper conversation about the arts: why we make art, how do we engage in art, and to what end? We aim to develop the arts writers, thinkers and provocateurs of the future.

This is done by providing for the selected emerging ACT-region writers to attend events at the National Library of Australia, the Street Theatre and the Canberra Writers Festival, and post their responses (which “document/explore/critique the experience”) on a blog. And this year, we have a dedicated New Territory Blog for the writers. It is still managed by the Writers Centre, but is separate from their own blogWe expect each blogger to write around 6 posts over the 6 or so months that the program runs. The Writers Centre plans to populate this blog with all the posts that have been written for the program since its inception.

The three writers were chosen in May, and the program is now well under way, so I’d like to introduce the two continuing writers to you:

  • Shelley Burr is working on a novel, and took part in the ACT Writers Centre’s well-regarded Hard Copy program last year (the same program, though a different year of course, that helped Michelle Scott Tucker with her biography of Elizabeth Macarthur, which I’ve reviewed.) She is particularly interested in what she calls “drought noir”, which term sounds perfect for some of the crime coming out of Australia at present. Shelley has had her writing place well in the Stockholm Writers Festival First Pages program. She hasn’t posted to the blog yet as she wants to focus on the Canberra Writers Festival, which takes place at the end of August.
  • Rosalind Moran already has quite a CV, having written for anthologies, websites, and journals including Meanjin, Overland, Feminartsy, Demos, and Writer’s Edit. She has also featured in several festivals – the Emerging Writers’ Festival, the National Young Writers’ Festival, the National Multicultural Festival, and Noted Festival. Oh, and she’s the co-founder of a new literary venture, Cicerone Journal. Rosalind has already written three posts on the blog: on the National Library’s Inked cartoon exhibition; on a puppet show titled BRUCE at the Street Theatre; and on a play at the Street Theatre, A Doll’s House, Part 2. Rosalind has her own website, here.

As in previous years, I plan to ask Shelley and Rosalind whether they’d like to write a guest post here during the program. Regardless, I will also report back later in the year, but meanwhile please do check out their posts on the blog (linked above).

Until then, thanks again to the ACT Writers Centre, the National Library of Australia, the Street Theatre and the Canberra Writers Festival for sponsoring this program – and a special thanks to author Nigel Featherstone for initiating and overseeing this program. I love being involved. I reckon I gain as much, if not more, from meeting and talking with other local arts writing enthusiasts, as they do from my involvement.

Previous posts on the program: