About a month ago I attended my 15-year school reunion. I hadn’t planned to go – it just so happened I was back in my hometown for work the weekend it was on, and one of my best friends was going, so I figured there’d be safety in numbers. I was actually surprised by how nervous I was, because high school for me was a complicated mix of emotions (as it probably is for everyone), which shaped my character in both good and not-so-good ways, and I wasn’t all that keen to revisit it. It was also the first reunion I’d been to – I’d been out of town for the others – so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I pictured all the worst sorts of high-school reunion tropes, where everyone is just as cliquey and bitchy as you remember, and it becomes a pissing contest over who’s the most ‘successful’. The fact that I was going to be one of the few there without kids was also a bit of a worry – I envisioned being bored to death by a host of yummy mummies (it was a girls school). My friend and I reassured each other that we only needed to stay an hour, then we could bunk off and go shopping.

To say I was pleasantly surprised, however, was an understatement. When we arrived at the pub where it was being held there was only a small group there – all girls I remembered as being ‘cool’ and having it totally together (while my friend and I were paid-up members of Club Nerd) -and my heart sank a little. Then I started talking to them, and all my misconceptions got blown away.

There are many debates about the merits (or otherwise) of single-sex education, but two things stood out very strongly to me – our year group has produced a lot of kick-ass women who are doing amazing things, and most of us credit this to the fact that we were never given the impression at school that we couldn’t do something just because we were girls. If your passion was maths or physics or agriculture you could go right ahead (the creative fields were a bit more problematic, because although it had a fabulous art program, it was still a hothouse private school that wasn’t terribly tolerant of the more eccentric aspects of creative personalities, especially when it came to dress). We left there believing we could do anything – and although for some of us, me included, this put us on a bit of a crash-course with the reality of workplace sexism down the track, it also gave us the tools to fight it.

The other thing that struck me about the gathering was how interesting and diverse the stories were. There were health issues, religion found and lost, creativity discovered, identities established in myriad different ways. A number had gone on to become teachers themselves after initially pursuing other careers, and many more had had a variety of career and life changes. Motherhood was part of this for many of them, but it wasn’t the sole part, and we had far more in common than I’d thought. I also realised how little I’d known about these women when we were at school. Some had been facing various upheavals at home; others had struggled with learning difficulties or other things that made life harder. And the greatest revelation was that those same ‘cool’ girls whom I’d envied in high school had felt just as dislocated as me all along. Turns out we were all faking it, but none of us dared admit it.

The school years are a relatively short time of your life – I’ve now been out of school longer than I was there – but they seem to have a disproportionately large impact, coming as they do at such a seminal stage. Before the reunion I hadn’t seen the point in revisiting a time when, for large chunks of it, I’d been quite unhappy. But afterwards I realised how important it can be to revisit your perceptions, the stories you tell yourself about a particular time or people, and to sometimes have those turned on their head. In the end, I didn’t just stay for an hour and then go shopping – I spent six hours talking to these funny, smart, amazing women and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I’ll be at the 20-year reunion with bells on.

My stall at the Independent Publishing Fair (it was very cold!)

Last week was the third annual Noted Festival, held in Canberra, where I live. I’d heard about it the previous two years, but for various reasons had never got round to actually participating in anything.

Noted isn’t like other writers festivals – for one thing, it has “an explicit commitment to emerging and experimental writing from diverse backgrounds.” From what I could tell, in practice this looks like a couple of different things. First, and most obviously, the festival celebrates writers regardless of race, gender, sexuality or disability. One of the most powerful moments for me was at the festival launch, where the Welcome to Country was delivered by Ngunnawal elder Aunty Nin Janette Phillips, who spoke of the importance of telling Indigenous stories and the role that all Australian writers, regardless of their heritage, can play in bringing to light the stories of the First Australians.

The second, less obvious aspect of celebrating diversity was the range of events on offer, across all types of writing and art more broadly. This doesn’t seem like such a big deal unless you understand what a closed shop the Australian literary scene is, and how often genre fiction (i.e. anything that’s not literary fiction) is scorned by the mainstream book world, including most major writers festivals. I know multi-award-winning genre authors (including winners of the Aurealis Awards, Australia’s premier speculative fiction award) who can’t get panel slots at the major writers festivals. Noted was the exact opposite of this – egalitarian and just damned good fun, without an ounce of snobbery. There was a spirit of playfulness that pervaded the festival, and everyone there just seemed to be having a really good time.

My favourite event was ‘Ghosts in the Seams,’ held on Friday evening in one of the city’s large op-shops (second-hand clothing stores). We were invited to develop a character of our choosing – either a new one or one we’d been working on for a while – and then to find clothes that we thought encapsulated that character and dress up. The clothes served as inspiration and we then had a 20-minute writing session where we wrote about the character or a scene from their story. It sounds crazy, but the dressing up was actually hugely inspiring. Actually putting a character’s clothes on made them seem so much more real than when you just meet them in your head. I dressed up as Jane Adams from my new novel, The Iron Line, and in the process fell in love with a pair of black steampunk-style combat boots that suited both her and me perfectly (and being an op-shop, I could buy them for just $4 and take them home!). I wrote in my last post about the importance of creative play, and this was another experience of that. I came away from it feeling re-energised and inspired.

I also got the chance to participate as a stallholder in the Independent Publishing Fair, which showcased individual authors, small presses, zines and other independent creatives, as well as poetry and performance art. Regardless of the sales side of things, I just really enjoyed talking to the people who came by, many of whom were writers or enthusiastic readers. It’s made me consider the possibility of doing other markets, because I just really enjoy getting out there and meeting people who love books as much as I do.

So, all in all it was a great festival, and I’m already looking forward to Noted 2018.

I’ve just come home from five wonderful days at the Sydney Artists Retreat, which I try to get to every year. On the drive back, I happened to listen to a fantastic podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) with Liz Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear) discussing creativity.

One of the many topics that came up was the blocks that people often have about creativity – her statistic was that something like 78 per cent of people say they’ve been told at some point that they’re not creative (e.g. that they “can’t” sing/dance/paint/write), which often leads to people becoming blocked or giving up on certain art forms. Often, sadly, this occurs in our childhood and adolescence, and a lot of us never get over it. Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artist’s Way is used by practically every artist I know to address this – but that’s a post for another time.

Anyway, the thing that struck me most about this in the context of the retreat was that even if we’ve got over our blocks sufficiently to develop a primary art form, many of us still feel that way about other types of art, as if they’re all mutually exclusive. There’s still the idea that you’re a writer or a visual artist or a musician, when in fact creativity often crosses boundaries. Although it’s true that most artists excel in one main field – due to the sheer amount of time and effort involved in developing talent to a high standard – it can be immensely freeing to engage in creative play in mediums that aren’t your natural inclination.

One of my paintings from the Sydney Artists Retreat

One of the things I love about the Sydney Artists Retreat is that it’s one of the few places I’ve been that actively encourages this. The competitive aspect of art is stripped away and attendees are encouraged to engage in whatever art form they feel called to, even if it’s not the project they came to work on. So, despite intending to spend the week working on the second draft of The Iron Line, what I did most was paint, sing, play piano and make things out of clay. Was it immediately ‘useful’? No. I’m a writer, and words will always be my primary art form. But it was incredibly relaxing and refreshing, which was exactly what I needed after several months of stress and creative paralysis. It didn’t matter if my paintings were ‘good’ or not – what was important was that the act of creating them tapped a well in me that I was worried was starting to run dry.

So I guess the moral of this story (and I’m sure Liz Gilbert would agree) is don’t be afraid to play. It doesn’t have to be great – it doesn’t even have to be good, whatever that is. Just get stuck in – sculpt, paint, write, dance, sing, sew – whatever gives you joy. Because ultimately we’re all creative beings – we just have to stop telling ourselves we’re not.