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Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Somerset Celebration of Literature

The Somerset Celebration of Literature is a festival hosted by Somerset College dedicated to the celebration of all things reading and writing.

With more than 30 authors from around Australia in attendance and over 100 individual events scheduled across the three days of the festival, attendees have the opportunity to interact with authors, illustrators and each other as they explore the art of storytelling through a variety of workshops and presentations.

Having been fortunate enough to attend last year and experienced the energy and passion that Danny Katz and Tiffany Hall bring to their writing first hand, I was pleased to be able to take advantage of the opportunity to attend again. These are the lessons I took away from the day.


Enthusiasm is contagious

Over the course of the day it became evident that even the toughest nuts had been cracked by the enthusiasm, passion and skill of the authors we had seen. On a day when temperatures were well into the 30's and the audience could have easily drifted off to the sound of the fans whirring above their heads, the first two sessions in The Great Hall conducted by George Ivanoff and R.A. Spratt respectively seemed to fly by thanks to their enthusiasm for their craft and a willingness and capacity to share it with the audience. The relief provided by the air-conditioning in the final venue for the day afforded Richard Newsome the opportunity to take a more nuanced, yet equally effective approach.


Ability is no barrier to enjoyment

Ivanoff told a wonderful story at the beginning of his presentation about what it means to be a reader.

Growing up, Ivanoff was a slow reader. And a reluctant reader. It is easy to attribute the latter as a result of the former.

Now Ivanoff is...still a slow reader. But he made it clear that he reads books as fast as his self-described slow reading rate will allow him to.

The key was finding content that he found engaging. Once he was hooked, in his case by Science Fiction, his ability was no barrier to his enjoyment.

A little structure goes a long way

The final act of Ivanoff's presentation was a spellbinding piece of structured improvisation. Having established a basic story structure he developed in partnership with the audience, he proceeded to weave a tale that we all knew the ending to (because we had decided what it would be just minutes earlier) in such a manner that by the time the ending was 'revealed', the audience cheered for their hero (Bob) and the successful completion of his quest.

The talent of Ivanoff as a presenter and a storyteller certainly contributed to the success of the story as an event to be experienced, but the simplicity of the structure ensured that there was little opportunity for it to fail.

All shapes and sizes

When R.A. Spratt took to the stage, she did so with a bugle, a hat and a brief history of writing up to 40 30-word jokes a day for three years at Good News Week.

What was interesting about Spratt's presentation was her approach to storytelling seemed a lot like I imagine her perfectly-crafted 30-word jokes. Similar to Ivanoff, the structure was central to the success of the ideas being communicated. Each anecdote was bite-size with a closing line that wrapped it up brilliantly.

On first impressions...
"When you have a hat, people look at your hat and then your face."

On the difficulties associated with being a creative writer...
"Knowing what day of the week it is can be a big issue."

On getting people's attention...
"I highly recommend getting a bugle."

Newsome was at the other end of the scale in terms of his storytelling. In contrast with Spratt's quick-fire stories, Newsome had a meandering approach that just kept drawing you in with characters, details and events that seemed to flow effortlessly from moment to the next. In the 40 minute presentation we got as far as the train trip he took to a small fishing village in India as part of his research for one of his book. And such was the nature of our engagement, we were happy to go on the journey wherever he was happy to take us.

Getting it right takes time

Newsome had some home truths to offer to the students about drafting. All of the authors had mentioned the drafting process at some point in their presentation, but Newsome had the benefit of a 240-page notebook, filled with the first draft of one of this book. There was an audible moan when the students realised that three months of work would produce just a draft. For some of them, the draft is the work that is produced the night before it is due, then roundly ignored until the night before the final is due. That you would dedicate so much time to something knowing full well that it will still be incomplete when you have 'finished' it was totally incompatible with their usual approach to writing.

There is no substitute for being in the presence of a professional

Excursions are incredibly disruptive to the structure of the traditional school day. The students miss out on lessons in their regular subjects and it is difficult to validate or quantify whether the experience has been successful. Having said that, there is little doubt in my mind that the value of being in the same space as a professional working at their craft is worth the effort that it takes to get them out of the classroom.

As Behrendt and Franklin, authors of A Review of Research on School Field Trips and Their Value in Education highlight in their conclusion:

The outcome of an experience depends on a person’s interests, motivation, life circumstances at that time, needs, and prior experiences and knowledge (Rennie, 2007). Field trips offer an opportunity to motivate and connect students to appreciate and understand classroom concepts, which increase a student’s knowledge foundation, promoting further learning and higher level thinking strategies. With understanding comes confidence and intrinsic motivation.

The final word

Reading fiction makes you a better person.

It teaches you empathy.

People are kooky.


There are lots of kooky people in the world.


R.A. Spratt

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