I was asked to be the MC to a LitCrawl event, introducing a panel of great essay writers. These are my notes. A few thoughts on essays and essay-writing and what I like about the form. As well as notes to introduce each speaker.
First of all my name is Simon – I don’t like it when MCs don’t introduce themselves. All you really need to know about me tonight is that. That’s my name. It’s always been my name. Also – I have something very weird going on with my nose. Internally that is. It hopefully looks the same as it always has. But it’s creating an illusion that I have a cold. Whatever I’ve got is not something you’ll catch – and if you need me to repeat something because it sounded like the wrong word that’s possibly due to my limited education but we could also blame the fake-cold. The other option is to just smile and nod politely and pretend you’re getting it all. We are here for the great group of writers assembled. Not for the MC. I’m just going to introduce the theme of this session. And then the writers. Okay. And also – the toilet in this venue is down the back there. So you can just slip away whenever you need to. It’s a well designed venue – stage up here, loo down there. Right.
Hi everyone, welcome – and thanks for coming. We’re here for a good time, rather than a long time – the aim is that this session is just 45 minutes. And we’re going to be hearing from these great writers. Aimie Cronin, Jon-Paul Powley, Khalid Warsame, Ashleigh Young and Naomi Arnold will be sharing from their work – or just talking about how they work, what they’re aiming to achieve, how they go about it. This series of vignette-speeches and/or readings is suitably on theme – think of them as verbal essays rather than the giant lectures.
I have to assume that what qualifies me to be here – honoured as I am to be this close to actual talent tonight – is that I reply to emails. If there’s anything else that qualifies me it’s that I love reading essays. I love them so much I do my best to never confuse what I do with actual essay-writing. I wonder if some people have been put off the idea of reading essays, or are simply unsure of what constitutes an essay because they tie it to labour, rather than labour-of-love. To school and university assignments, to work that is required, rather than work that is created in and of itself by an inquisitive writer. I’m no expert on what an essay even is – because this week I’ve been reading essays by novelists (the great Joan Didion), by comedians (the hilarious David Sedaris) and by journalists (the wondrous Jon Ronson) so it’s hard to know what makes a person an essayist. Our speakers tonight who get to be writers again tomorrow – or in less than an hour (and perhaps that’s what they love best) have many of these traits too. They are bloggers, columnists, freelance journalists. They have ‘day-jobs’ and/or night jobs and they have families and friends. Now, as family and friends of writers should know – nothing is sacred. And the personal essay – a chance to indulge and stretch the diary and short-story forms, as well as to adhere to non-fiction, to offer reportage of sorts and plenty of opinion – is possibly particularly worrying for the family and friends of a writer. Perhaps tonight we’ll hear (if not see) something about that…
The first definition of essay that I googled simply said ‘A short piece of writing on a particular subject’. That’s good enough for me. That’s my favourite kind of writing to read. And this last week alone might have reminded us we need the essay form. We need things like David Remnick’s recent New Yorker profile of Leonard Cohen – I was straight back to re-read that at around 4 O’clock yesterday afternoon. My copy of “Songs of Leonard Cohen” hissing and popping in the background until I had to turn it down.
We need things like the essay “Bad Donald Trump” that a 9-year old Muslim girl from Melbourne handed into her teacher. She called Trump “a really mean, racist person”. And said that she was “sad because I am Muslin myself and he does not respect us and women. He does not think about family, he just thinks about himself”.
We need essays just like we always have. Essays are to writing as the documentary feature is to film-making. They are thoughtful pieces. They are written with – and carry – respect. And they are about more than just the writer. Even when they come entirely from the base of a personal opinion or observation. Essays take us out of and away from ourselves. They place us as near to the world of the writing as possible, they place us in the world as the writer imagines and observes it. And it’s nice to be in that place. Again, like documentary, a good essay should hold your interest regardless of the topic. You get two chances I guess – you’re interested in the writer or the subject. It’s win/win when it’s both. People keep telling me about the pretty well known, highly regarded author named Jonathan Franzen. I’ve heard his novels are great. But so far I only know Jonathan Franzen the essayist. He got me reading about bird-watching an other subjects I was probably sure I wasn’t interested in.
The other definition of essay is around the use of the word as a verb – to attempt, or to try, to make an effort. In that sense I guess I have essayed essays myself – but I’m at my best with the essay when I’m reading anyone else’s work. We’re in for a treat tonight.
Our first writer is Aimie Cronin. Aimie is a freelance reporter. You have had the opportunity to read her work in Metro and the Sunday magazine as well as in the country’s newspapers and therefore on the Stuff website too. She is also editor in residence at Wintec Journalism school and tonight she will share a personal essay written for The Waikato Times and then some of the thinking and process behind writing a piece such as that. Join me in welcoming Aimie to the microphone.
Our next writer to speak is John-Paul Powley – John-Paul is a writer and Social Science teacher at Wellington East. His blog – Man of Errors is, he says, a navigation of a self and a life in a series of personal essays. You can find it at manoferrors.wordpress.com or by googling Man of Errors Blog. It’s well worth your time. As the father of a child who has just completed his very first week of school I already have a whole new appreciation for anyone who teaches – so John-Paul’s blog is worth reading just for his gentle encouragement and observations around teaching and what he sees in and learns from his students. There’s some really great writing there. And we’ll now hear from him…
In a week where Wellington was already blessed by one of the great artistic souls of Brisbane – I’m referring of course to Robert Forster of The Go-Betweens and writer of an exquisite book-length essay on friendship and the artistic life, “Grant And I”, we are doubly blessed – because here, also from Brisbane we have Khalid Warsame. He is a writer of short fiction, screenplays essays and criticism. And the fiction editor of The Lifted Brow and Festival Coordinator for the National Young Writers Festival – welcome to Wellington and this LitCrawl event Khalid, and he’ll now speak to us about the relationship between structure and time in an essay.
I said at the start that essays can be comedy, fiction and journalism and that they come to us from comedians, novelists and short story writers as well as reporters. I should also have mentioned poetry – there’s something about the time spent in observation perhaps, spending all day or what seems like it framing a description so that it hangs just so, getting the line right and showing vivid, imaginative writing without it ever seeming like showing off. Our next speaker is Ashleigh Young. In her recently published second book – her first comprised of essays – she manages, I think, that great skill of being funny and serious, or reporting and diary-sharing, of observing and framing it just so. It’s an extraordinary book, so beautifully written. I’m not sure about the significance of titles or how it works and whether a writer becomes desperate to shake off one hat or set of skin but Ashleigh is a poet. Her first book – also a wonderful read – was a set of poems. And that eye is still here, still clear, in the essays between the covers of this book and at her blog, eyelashroaming.com. Both her poetry and essays have been published in print and online journals including “Tell You What Great NZ Non-Fiction”, Five Dials in the UK and The Griffith Review in Australia. She won the 2009 Adam Prize from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters. And that first book, the poems, was published in 2012. It’s called Magnificent Moon. She’s also an editor and teachers creative science writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. She emailed this moring to say that “rather than reading” she is going to “say Something” – prepared, of course – about why she’s drawn to writing essays. She also said she’ll take about 5 minutes. So now I don’t need to say that. Welcome to the microphone Ashleigh.
Our final speaker tonight is Nelson-based freelance journalist Naomi Arnold. She writes about everything – but narrows it down in terms of favourite subjects to: stories about people, science, the environment, travel and outdoor adventure. Otherwise known as pretty-much-everything. She has reported from Antarctica and covered the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. She travelled to America in 2013 as part of the University of Canberbury’s Robert Bell Scholarship to learn about the digital delivery of longform feature writing. In the middle of this year she teamed up with The Spinoff – home to plenty of great New Zealand essay writing now – to create media podcast, The Get. Here writers and journalists are interviewed about their work. She also reviews books for RNZ. Phew! – Naomi will read some excerpts from personal essays and talk a bit about that worrying suggestion I made near the start of the evening – the personal pitfalls of writing about family and people you love. Welcome Naomi.