Creativity and Craziness: Discovering your inner creature with Jeanette Winterson and Susie Orbach

Authors and partners, Jeannette Winterson and Susie Orbach Photo: Greg Saunders

Authors and partners, Jeannette Winterson and Susie Orbach Photo: Greg Saunders

“I tried to kill myself, it didn’t work.” On the final day of the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival 2014, these are the surprising words spoken by world-renowned British writer, Jeanette Winterson.

In conversation with her partner and personal therapist, Susie Orbach, Winterson took the audience on a journey through her struggles as a writer and getting through life as a successful human being.

Winterson said the moment when the craziness caught up with her was during the loss of a relationship that she was not prepared for. It’s “like a death” she said.

“I’d always had enough fuel and energy to push me forward, and find a way through using language and writing,” she said.

Winterson said she always thought she could stay “ahead of the fire”, but during this experience of loss, it caught up with her.

“It caused me to go into a place that was completely terrifying because I’d lost language… I lost any sense of being able to describe what was happening to me,” she said.

Orbach then raised the question as to whether the gift of Winterson’s creativity was related to her craziness, and what would happen if she were to lose her craziness.

“I think creativity is on the side of health, I think it’s the thing that is trying to keep you sane,” Winterson explained.

It was at the point of Winterson’s attempted suicide that she realised that death was not meant to be for her. The point, she said, was that she could no longer go on as that Jeanette Winterson.

“I either had to find myself again, or just stop,” she said.

Orbach added her therapeutical insights regarding some of the people she has treated in a similar situation.

“The selves that they’ve been are no longer working and they’re not ready to bury it,” she said.

Along with the Byron Bay weather, the conversation continued in a mix of light and dark, particularly dark when Winterson began to describe the part of her that was “complete madness”, a part she called “The Creature”.

“It was a very dirty, unwashed child… and the way I controlled the madness at that point was by saying to The Creature ‘look, we can talk about this between ten and twelve every morning, but you can’t just come whenever you feel like it’,” she said.

Winterson said that this dialogue seemed to pacify the part of her that was in “complete madness”.

“I would be saying these things to myself… it was completely schizophrenic,” she said.

In very unreassuringly manner, Winterson seemed to try to put the crowd at ease in saying  “I’m not crazy now, I don’t think”.

“What about the fact that you have a permanent shrink?” Orbach, jokingly, countered.

Needless to say, this particular conversation certainly kept the attention of the overflowing crowd in the Feros Marquee on Sunday afternoon.  Jeanette Winterson also gave the keynote address for this years festival and spoke  about her most recent book, The Daylight Gate and Susie Orbach spoke about girls’ bodies and her work as a psychotherapist.

A question Winterson raised that I would like to leave you with is this: “What do you notice? Are you in the world at all? Or just living in your own head?”

Sophie Sambrook is a Southern Cross University Media student.



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Stories of our wide brown land: Alex Miller, Inga Simpson and Tony Birch

Session chair Ashley Hay with Alex Miller, Inga Simpson and Tony Birch. Photo: Greg Saunders

Session chair Ashley Hay with Alex Miller, Inga Simpson and Tony Birch. Photo: Greg Saunders

In The Wide Brown Land panel of Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, Tony Birch, Inga Simpson and Alex Miller spoke of their return to places where they each spent formative years, and of the every day things at the heart of their stories.

The Yarra has been an obsession for Tony Birch whose latest book is highly-acclaimed short story collection, The Promise. Although he lived in the inner city, he never saw the beach until he was 10, and saw the Yarra at Moomba.

When his family moved to Richmond, he would spend his time swimming at the river and stealing cars. He would stay at the river all day, there was nowhere else to go and be himself.

“I couldn’t have understood it better than I did then in an emotional sense. It taught me to understand environment,” Birch said.

When the Eastern Freeway was built and took the swimming spot away, he was distraught and had no language to write about it.

Birch does a lot of “field work” where he sees the stories before him from what is right before him. He notices the silos, “the temples” of the towns that were held together by wheat.

He says writers should run. He would run 12kms to his mum’s for a cup of tea, and recalls running on a summer evening and a wonderful tannin smell coming from the river that took him back to a moment as a teenage. He wanted to write a poem, he had tried for years to describe the Yarra, both in its smell and colour, but it had evaded him.

Then he read Richard Flanagan’s Death of A River Guide, where he had described a river as “weak tea”.

Birch’s favourite writer of landscape is Alistair Macleod and he often re-reads his short story collection, Island. (Macleod died in April.)

“I don’t know that place [Cape Breton] but I know his Cape Breton though his writing.”

Ashley Hall puts a question to the panel, as Alex Miller listens in. Photo: Greg Saunders

Ashley Hall puts a question to the panel, as Alex Miller listens in. Photo: Greg Saunders

The idea for Alex Miller’s Coal Creek arose from his visit to where he had worked 40 years ago before as a ringer.

At the age of 16, he had left London and migrated to Australia and got a job as a stockman in the Queensland Highlands. Being there was “like your university for the first couple of years”. These people challenged him and accepted him.

“The aboriginal stockman moved through the country at the pace of the country.”

Inga Simpson’s perspective in her novel, Mr Wigg, one man’s fight to stay in his orchard while the world changes, is of a ruined landscape, and a small town where disastrous things happen. The setting is drawn from her own childhood. Mr Wigg is a fairytale character, living in a slow food world, which, as Simpson reports her mother saying, is the way we lived – “we used to have to live that way”.

As Mr Wigg sees that the farms are being sold off to winemakers, he begins to adapt to his changing landscape.

I began to wonder how he does that….


Marian Edmunds is a writer, editor and mentor.

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Getting to the Truth: Courage and Persistence in Investigative Journalism

Christopher Warren questions Gold Walkley award-winning inestigative journalists, Joanne McCarthy, Kate McClymont and Colleen Ryan.  Photo: Greg Saunders

Christopher Warren questions Gold Walkley award-winning inestigative journalists, Joanne McCarthy, Kate McClymont and Colleen Ryan. Photo: Greg Saunders

For many years, investigative journalism has played a vital role in initiating the battle for justice for victims of some of the state’s worst crimes.

Names like Newcastle Herald reporter Joanne McCarthy, who through her efforts in investigative journalism and strong campaigning saw the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse established.

Kate McClymont who last week released her book He Who Must Be Obeid, spent years exposing the corrupt dealings of Eddie Obeid through her consistent investigative journalism which helped establish a series of ICAC inquiry’s into the matter.

And Colleen Ryan who last year released her book Fairfax: the Rise & Fall and who through her reporting has also played a prominent role in events such as the Alan Bond WA Inc. and Offset Alpine scandals.

Speaking to a packed tent at the 2014 Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, the Gold Walkley award winning trio shared their experiences of dealing with major stories as they came to hand.

As the audience got comfortable in their seats, McCarthy spoke about how she believes there is no real technique for finding the major stories, it often happens naturally or you just fall into it.

“In 2006, I got a phone call from a guy who admitted to me that he had been abused by a Catholic priest and wanted to know why there had been no major coverage on the issue,” explained McCarthy. “The topic simply wasn’t on my radar, however after talking to my editor I took the phone call further.”

Although what resulted initially was only a few lines at the end of a much longer article, McCarthy believed it was her responsibility as a journalist to fulfill the role of the media by placing the truth on record.

Working as a reporter and columnist for the Newcastle Herald at the time, McCarthy says her weekend column in which she would often talk about her boys or dogs was what drew people to trust her.

“To those who read my column, they saw me as a person first which meant they trusted me enough to share for example the experiences they had with the Catholic Church,” McCarthy explained.

Stopping for a brief round of applause, session chair Christopher Warren moved the conversation to McClymont.

Kate McClymont shares a moment. Photo: Greg Saunders

Kate McClymont shares a moment. Photo: Greg Saunders

McClymont said it was only once you had started that you fully grasped the extent of your story. She aroused great laughter from the audience  when she recalled being sent a message on the back of several TAB slips that asked if she could be at certain shopping centre, at a certain time to meet a source. She also explained how tips could be given to her down at the local park.

“I remember one day taking my dogs for a walk in the local park, when someone leant over and asked if I was Kate McClymont, to which I replied yes, they then said their home had been firebombed and they believed it was by Michael McGurk,” she explained.

Colleen Ryan offered a different perspective, saying that sometimes it’s quite obvious what you have straight away.

“I remember a case where we received a phone call from some Israeli journalist saying they had documents saying Rene Rivkin was set to give sworn testimony,” explained Ryan. “These documents also linked Graham Richardson.”

Ryan explains it that she knew straight away the Offset Alpine story, as it is now known, was going to be big.

As the session concluded, McClymont stressed the importance of looking at the motives of sources.

“You have to be able to tell whether they are simply trying to get back at someone or are they genuinely seeing wrong,” explained McClymont.

The three women left the audience thoroughly immersed in the world of investigative journalism, having shared  just a fraction of the memories behind some of the most well-known stories put together through courage and persistence.

Brendan Pearce is a Media and Politics student at Southern Cross University.






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Susie Orbach: What’s going on with girl’s bodies?

Susie Orbach, speaking at the 2014 Byron Bay Writers' Festival. Photo: Greg Saunders

Susie Orbach, speaking at the 2014 Byron Bay Writers’ Festival. Photo: Greg Saunders

Young girls are being primed to look at their bodies as a site they have to change from as young as five, warned Susie Orbach, academic, activist, author and one of the editors of Fifty Shades of Feminism.

The author of many books including Fat Is A Feminist Issue and Bodies at Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, Orbach said that so much “work” is being done on children’ that, “by the time kids enter school we are seeing massive body disturbances.”

“The woman’s body becomes a calling, the body becomes the thing you work on.” This extends even to have surgery on the labia because they hate the way it looks, said Orbach.

“It doesn’t matter what age a girl or women is, there are always procedures.”

In the past bulimia arose in late adolescence and now we are seeing at age five, said Orbach.

“The women’s body has become a calling. The body has becomes the thing you work on.”
“It’s starting earlier with baby photos being photo-shopped to add dimples.

“You are supposed to have this brand that all looks the same – long straight hair, manicured and the same clothes.”

Orbach is one of the co-founder of Endangered Bodies, an international local-global initiative, that challenges merchants of body hatred who turn girls and women against their own bodies.

“It is a movement of girls, women and men who reject the horrors of body uniformity and is encouraging girls and women to dare to enjoy their bodies.

The initiative is a way of bringing a bigger change. In her work as a psychotherapist you can only work with one by one. But she still thinks it is the best job in the word.

”People don’t come to therapy because of a trauma, no, it’s more likely to be ‘why aren’t I happy’? But it’s hard to write about small pieces of change,” said Orbach.

Marian Edmunds

Marian Edmunds is a writer, editor and journalist

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The Cost of Free Speech: Julian Burnside, Thando Sibanda and Antony Loewenstein

The definition of free speech can arguably be defined as depending on the circumstance of the person or people defining it.

Crime writer P.M. Newton chaired a discussion between writer and performing poet, Thando Sibanda, journalist, Antony Loewenstein and barrister, Julian Burnside.

Zimbabwean poet, Thando Sibanda on the state of free speech in his home country.  Photo: Greg Saunders

Zimbabwean poet, Thando Sibanda on the state of free speech in his home country. Photo: Greg Saunders

Zimbabwean performance poet Sibanda kicked off the discussion by defining free speech as “having the ability to criticise your leadership”.

Loewenstein agreed and also added: “Truly believing in free speech means that you believe in the right to be profoundly offensive and to defend that right,” he said.

Burnside continued in agreeing with his fellow panellists and summarised free speech as “the right to say, that which is unpopular” and also supported Sibanda’s definition.

“You’ve got to be able to criticise those in power, because that will almost always be an unpopular idea,” he said.

Newton then prompted Burnside and Loewenstein to describe what they thought the health of free speech is like in Australia, and Zimbabwe for Sibanda.

“The state of free speech in Australia is not too bad by international standards,” said Burnside. He continued, “…It was implied in the Australian Constitution a right of free political speech, so that one can say with impunity that Scott Morrison is a liar, hypocrite and a psychopath.”

As the audience’s laughter from Burnside’s remark subsided, Loewenstein spoke of his experience as a journalist reporting on things that are somewhat unpopular and how he finds that people “self-censor, rather than being censored”.

“Thinking about the issue of Israel and Palestine, …human beings are reluctant to speak out about these questions because they fear they are going to be attacked,” he said.

Sibanda described the state of free speech in Zimbabwe on a scale of negative one to ten, ten being the best, and said, “in most cases we are in the negative”.

“We have laws that require if people are gathering, like what we are doing right now, they would definitely need police clearance,” he said.

Antony Lowenstein and Julian Burnside on Australia's attitude and handling of free speech. Photo: Greg Saunders

Antony Lowenstein and Julian Burnside on Australia’s attitude and handling of free speech. Photo: Greg Saunders

Sibanda’s descriptions of the state of freedom of speech in Zimbabwe left a bad taste in my mouth. He explained that in Australia if you are charged with defamation you go to court, in Zimbabwe you go to jail.

“I don’t know why the laws are put that way, I believe if you are a leader you should be open to criticism.”

A topic that continually came up during discussions was legislation around free speech.

Newton posed the question, “how do you go about legislating freedom of speech?”

Burnside explained that one of the difficulties of protecting free speech is it has to be limited where it comes into conflict with other human rights.

He quoted one of his lecturers from Monash University in saying: “Your right to swing your fist stops just short of my nose,”

“The problem, of course, is figuring out where the fist is and where the nose is,” he said.

Sibanda made a statement that really stood out to me and seemed to be the basis of what free speech is about: “Free speech should take paramount position. Where there is free speech and acceptance of free speech we will improve, eventually, as human beings.”

Sophie Sambrook is a Southern Cross University Media student.

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Last words: David Leser in conversation with Jane Caro

David Leser. Photo: supplied

David Leser. Photo: supplied

Journalist and author David Leser has put countless others under the spotlight.

On the final afternoon of the 2014 Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, it was the irrascible Jane Caro’s turn to shine the light on him.

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Can Writing Be Taught?: The case for and against creative writing courses and workshops

Robin Hemley

Robin Hemley

Can Writing Be Taught? was a session by writers for writers at Byron Bay Writers’ Festival with a panel of writers who teach writing.

Robin Hemley is Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Writing Program at Yale-NUS.
His memoir, Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness, has recently been reissued.

Reading is one of the best teachers and for Hemley it started with the books he found at home when he was 19.

Writing can be taught, he said. He has seen many writers who seemed unable to craft things “then something clicked. I have seen too many examples of this happening to say otherwise.”

He teaches workshops but thinks one-on-one teaching is best. It allows him to enter much more deeply into creative relationship with the student. Hemley studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: “That [workshop] method is only as good as facilitator and the group,” he said.

He taught there too, running the non-fiction workshop until recently. The students learned as much from each other as from him, he said. An internet chat room was particularly helpful, set up so that students could see the comments on their work only after everyone had posted.

“We wanted to avoid everyone piling on,” he said. It meant that the class discussions started at a higher level.

“There are a lot of people who want to be published. Many people will ask about something they have just written, ‘Do you think this publishable?’ The question annoys him. “Do you play one tune on the piano and ask if you are ready for Carnegie Hall?”

The persistence required is that of feeling the need to write.

Hemley has a set of six questions he asks students to help them work out what they are writing. They are: What is it about? What is it really about? What is it about? What is it really about? What is it about? What is it really about?

Each reply brings a different iteration.

Katheryn Heyman whose latest novel is Floodline , says talent cannot be taught. Over 25 years of teaching, she has seen many times immensely talented writers not become becoming brilliant writers because of a “lack of work and application”.

“Without wanting to be provoking, the question asked for this panel offends me,” said Heyman. “We do not ask this question about architecture, dancing or art. It seems an insult to the deep and profound work of literature.”

Heyman is not a big fan of workshops, although they have their role, but it is not the same as the teaching of writing, an ancient form of coaching.

“Craft can be taught but you need to choose your coaches and teachers carefully.”

Carrie Tiffany

Carrie Tiffany signs a copy of her book for a purchaser. Image : Greg Saunders

Carrie Tiffany, whose second novel Mateship With Birds  won the inaugural Stella Prize, is not sure writing can be taught but it can be supported. “Your craft is the sentence,” she said.

There is a lot of self-sabotage among writers so it helps to have a sense of someone being there with you, she said.

“It is quite an honour to sit beside someone and read their work.”

Tiffany likes workshops and how they enable people to carve out time for their writing, and how they seed long-term writing groups but recalls her response to a univerisity-based workshop process.

“I wrote my first novel as part of MA in creative writing. I would read it out and it was universally disliked and I would pretend I was listening, and meanwhile writing that what they said was ‘bullshit’.”

At this point, Heyman speaks: “You are a writer of exceptional talent and stubbornness but this an expensive way [to learn], two years to have people who don’t know saying it’s bad.”

Tiffany said she tells her students:. ‘It’s your book, and you are the only one writing it.”

“Writing should not be stopped,” said Tiffany. “There are so many things you can waste your time on, renovating your house or your arse. Sitting in a room quietly can only be good.”

As Sophie Hamley, the literary agent who chaired the session, put it: “Tell the damn story.”

Marian Edmunds is a writer, editor and mentor

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