Eleanor Catton, John Marsden, Grace Taylor at the Auckland Writers Festival

Yesterday I was on stage in the ASB Theatre at the Auckland Writers Festival — today I was in the audience for a couple of the school sessions.


First up Eleanor Catton (now one of most famous authors after winning the Man Booker Prize last year for her novel, The Luminaries) and she was inspirational. I love the way she connected with the audience and wasn’t afraid to show herself, to laugh, to take risks, to talk about things that matter.

She began by telling a story that turned out to be boring and it turned out to be boring because nothing changed in it. Elie said that change is one of the most important things to explore when you write fiction. She said the greatest stories involve the greatest change.

She then drew a cross on a white board (good tip for me if I ever stand on stage again in front of 2,000 students!) and got the students to tell her the four types of action that drive a story: accidents, deeds, discoveries, decisions. She then talked about the way some were inside you and some where outside you; and some were controlled by you and some were outside your control.

Next she wrote down three questions that matter very much to the writer and reader of fiction: How? Why? What next?

The four actions and the three questions need to be balanced. If you miss some out, your story might fall over. It might not matter so much to the reader.

Then she got the audience to help her write a story. It was surprising! She used the questions to help make the story more interesting. If all the audience voted for what next? she used why?

The first sentence someone came up with was: A rock fell on the cave-dweller.

Then after some sentences in between, a student suggested the last sentence: She got super strength from berries.

You had to be there to experience the movement from first to last sentence! It was surprising.

It was a wonderful session that inspired students to think about their writing and reading and gain solid tips on how to make writing interesting and how to give your reader a good time!


Next up was legendary Australian author John Marsden (he is also a school Principal). He started off by telling a story abut the word ‘um.’ It was the sort of story that makes you laugh and makes you think. It was about a boy and a father at the rugby and the father kept getting cross with his son for saying ‘um’ all the time—so many times the boy could no longer talk!

I loved what John said about writing because it is my philosophy too. Language, he said, is infinitely flexible. It’s like play dough, plasticine, triple somersaults, pouring on petrol and setting words alight.

He said it is really important to learn the conventions as you go through school  (like how to punctuate, grammar and so on), but in the end you don’t have to do things if they don’t help your writing. I agree totally.

John told a story about Poetic Licence. When he was at primary school his teacher told him about Poetic Licence and he thought it was a laminated card he could get somewhere that meant he could do what he liked with words. Poetic Licence is the freedom to do what you like when you write a poem (for example). Now John wants to print of millions of Poetic-Licence cards to give people permission to use language creatively.

Language, he said, is all about play (Yes! that’s exactly what I said yesterday!). Language is yours to do what you want with! he said.

He then went on to talk about status—high and low—and what kind of person that makes you and how that can steer your writing. We can find ourselves in all kinds of situations in life and part of it is how we respond, How we react. Are we looking down on everyone around us? Are we respecting people? Are we acting all down trodden? It seems to me he was saying we need a bit of both. We need to be confident about who we are but not ashamed to make mistakes.

I caught the last part of Spoken Word poet, Grace Taylor’s, session. At question time she said she started out as a closet writer until she discovered Def Poetry Jam and was then inspired by the Spoken Word Poets. She loved being asked who inspired her and reluctantly picked out just a few: Selina Tusitala Marsh, Tusiata Avia, Karlo Mila, Albert Wendt, Lemon Anderson, Sonny Paterson (I missed a few I think). Def Jam Poetry presented her with a bunch of ways of delivering poetry, she said, and then she went on to discover her own. She said rhyme wasn’t important but storytelling was. Spoken Word Poetry is all about storytelling. She said she would love to see part of the news delivered in Spoken Word Poetry! She said her strength as a poet is vulnerability. She is not afraid to be vulnerable.


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