Melbourne Writers Festival 2017 – Day 1

I’m going to events over three days of the ten-day 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival (so there’ll be two more posts like this one). Today, the focus of the sessions I attended were on health.

Women of Substances

Kate Holden (author of the brilliantly confronting In My Skin) spoke with journalist Jenny Valentish about her new book, Woman of Substances, which charts the world of substance use and abuse, and how it’s gendered.

Valentish began by saying that she needed to write about what she knew (alcohol and cocaine) and that despite reading lots of addiction memoirs, she didn’t feel any closer to answering the “Why?” questions. Her book draws together neuro-scientific research and memoir, and Holden observed that Valentish writes in an intimate way, “…with a clear quest for knowledge and with an edge of defiance.” Valentish responded by saying that at first she tiptoed around some of the more difficult personal stuff but ultimately decided that “…if all your life you’ve been a bit abhorrent, you can say that in one sentence.” And with that, her writing got straight to the point.

The conversation moved on to shame and fear – both authors had a fascinating perspective on shame, talking about the fact that there’s a bravado that comes when you’ve pushed yourself to the “outlaw outliers”. Holden said of her time as a junkie (her preferred terminology), “I’m over the edge, anything is possible…so shame doesn’t work then.” They agreed that you can’t shame people out of using drugs despite the fact that that’s the approach many take.

Although both Holden and Valentish laughingly mentioned the ‘discoveries’ of a sober/ clean life (“Getting in a cab and you’re not trying to pretend you’re not drunk. Wow.”), Valentish avoided a redemption narrative (as did Holden). Valentish emphasised that she doesn’t use the word ‘recovery’ in relation to her own situation – “…it keeps you forever in that box. I don’t accept any label that ties me to the past” and Holden noted that when her book was released in the US, reviewers loved it but were baffled “…because there wasn’t a chapter at the end where I was sorry.”

The session ended with a lament – that personal stories often fail to land with the broader population, instead only reaching people who are already empathic. I suspect there’s some truth in that but as a devoted memoir-reader, I hope they continue to be published.

Deconstructing Health

Kate Cole-Adams, author of the recently released Anaesthesia, discussed anaesthetic horror stories and the meaning of consciousness with fellow author, Christine Kenneally.

Cole-Adams began by saying that anaesthesia is “…almost gothic…it brings up so many human fears – the silence and powerlessness of it” and talked about the combination of paralysis and unconsciousness (or more specifically, what happens when you’re paralysed but remain conscious, as was the case for a number of people she interviewed for her book). She notes that paralysis, whether literal or metaphoric, is the triggering event for many people who suffer PTSD – “Basically, paralysis is linked to so many bad psychological outcomes.”

There was lots of discussion around particular research – I found it riveting, especially the stuff around learning while unconscious, blood loss during surgery, and communication with patients. Cole-Adams summarised with “People heal so much better when they’re heard.” So true, on so many levels.

Cole-Adams’s thoughts on consciousness were fascinating, particularly because it shaped the way she wrote the book. She started by writing about pharmacology and neurology but very soon found she was writing about philosophy – “There’s no agreement about what it is to be conscious or unconscious. It’s completely subjective.” With that in mind, she noted that “Consciousness can be a burden. You want to put it down sometimes but you want to put it somewhere safe.”

Georgia Blain: The Museum of Words

The auditorium was packed to capacity to celebrate the life and work of late novelist Georgia Blain. Three friends and colleagues read from Blain’s work, and her partner, Andrew Taylor, talked about the process for writing her final book, The Museum of Words, which was launched at the event. Taylor, a filmmaker, had put together a short audio-visual presentation (he jokingly said “A radio presentation with some pictures”), with excerpts from the new book read by Claudia Karvan.

Everything that was said was beautiful and fitting. I can’t wait to read The Museum of Words.

19 responses

  1. I had a ticket for the session about Aboriginal writing, but we had a middle-of-the-night callout for my mother-in-law who’s in aged care, and I was just too tired to go.

  2. Why were they (memoir writers) sorry they didn’t reach wider audience – Sales? Or do they believe more people should know about their lives? I have trouble enough dealing with my own life. Find memoirs boring unless they illuminate a subject I’m interested in.

    • They had been asked a question about how to ‘improve’ the system to support people with drug problems and their response was around the fact that the stereotypes (of junkies) drives much of what happens in terms of social and government response. Both authors noted that there are many people with drug problems that are also highly functioning (Valentish being one). Both authors felt that personal stories show that every situation is different and that individual stories resonate with different people.

      I like memoirs because they allow me to learn about something from a very individual perspective. Sure, this is limited by being a singular experience but being given the opportunity to be inside someone’s head always makes me curious – a good example is Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, which was about depression and anxiety – he framed the issues in a way that really hit home for me and certainly gave me a new understanding. Equally, David Sheff’s A Beautiful Boy taught me so much about ice (10 years ago when there wasn’t much info) and why it’s different to other drugs. These personal stories stick in my mind as compared to reading a news article about ice or depression, for example.

      • Thanks for taking the time to give me a considered response. My preferences, SF for instance, are at the other end of the emotional response spectrum (mostly. I like love stories too. I wonder where they fit in).

  3. I heard Kate talk about her book Anaesthesia at Byron Writers Festival and it intrigued me enough to go and buy it. It is still in my to be read pile… Did you feel inspired enough to buy any of these books?

    • Absolutely. I had read Holden’s years ago and had bought Valentish’s but didn’t have time to read before the session. I wasn’t sure about Anaesthesia but after hearing her speak, I’ll be getting it.
      Usually I read a book before hearing the author speak so will be interested to see if I focus on particular things in Woman of Substances having heard her goals, thoughts etc before reading.

    • The author said two funny things – 1. that before she had her first GA, she called the doctor and said she’d been doing some reading and before she could go on, the response was “Ohhh…that’s not good.” 😀
      2. A few of her friends have said “I’ve bought your book but I’m not going to read it!” 😀

    • I’ve only read Wolf that was shortlisted for the Stella this year and was blown away. I loved it and will slowly work back through her whole list (I won’t binge, I’ll savour!).

  4. Pingback: Woman of Substances by Jenny Valentish | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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