It’s a wrap: Storytelling, accounting (aka storytelling) and the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2013

Last night novelist Claire Messud and actor, writer and jazz singer Molly Ringwald closed the Sydney Writers’ Festival for another year.

It’s been the most fantastic festival – thanks to the energy and imagination of new director Jemma Birrell and her right-hand woman Renee Senogles. And of course to all their staff, the 250 volunteers, the brilliant, entertaining and thoughtful writers, and their wonderful audiences. According to Birrell, there were over 80,000 attendances this year – despite the weather. It rained and rained. But people queued outside in the downpour, waiting to see their favourite writers. And then on Friday the skies cleared and Sydney was at its blue winter best.

SWF 2013: from brooding ...

SWF 2013: from brooding …

to blue.

to blue.

The four sessions I was involved in were so inspiring.

1 The Uncommon Reader – ‘What makes a good reader? How does one develop and sustain a critical instinct?’ Thanks to chair Tegan Bennett Daylight‘s original and sensitive approach to this session, and to the weighty insights of uber critics James Wood and Geordie Williamson, for me this was the most lively and thought provoking panel on literature I’ve been part of since I first started talking about books in 2005, when Classics was published.

Tegan started the session by asking us what sort of readers we were as children, which was a perfect way into the conversation. Geordie spoke about growing up in the Australian bush, seeking refuge from the blinding heat in the cool darkness of the house with books. James said he wasn’t a great reader as a child, being too restless and active, and that music had been his first great love. The conversation ranged from the books we loved as young readers to how we came to develop our critical faculties, from what books we returned to, to what books written in the last 10 years we thought might still be being read in 100 years time.

The session is podcast here.

2 Molly Ringwald: When It Happens to You – Talking to Molly Ringwald about her first novel (in short stories) When It Happens to You and about writing in general was absolutely fascinating. Knowing the sorts of films Molly chose to be in and her productive relationship with the brilliant writer-director John Hughes, it shouldn’t surprise me that she is so thoughtful, so highly intelligent and such a passionate reader, such a lover of words and writing. But it’s not often you come across someone with such an extraordinary range of talents, all worn so lightly, so modestly.

When I asked Molly how she managed to fit everything in – her education at a French high school in Los Angeles as well as a successful career as an actress which began when she was just 3 years old, and as a singer from the age of 6 – she said, it’s amazing what you can do if you don’t go to nightclubs. Indeed. She used to read avidly while on set. She said she can’t be without a book. My kind of girl.

I suspect this session will also be podcast at some stage. In the meantime, I was intrigued to hear that Molly has always dated writers – her husband Panio Gianopoulos is a writer (they met through words), her former husband was a writer (and French; Molly’s also a Francophile, doubly my kinda girl), as was her boyfriend before that – and that one day her shrink said to her: ‘Stop dating writers, just be one.’ And so she did. And is.

I loved Molly’s novel When It Happens to You. For so many reasons. For her spare evocative prose, for her astute observations of inner and outer worlds. Here’s one of my favourite passages. It comes after a wife asks her husband: ‘Why do you love me?’

‘A tired, almost serene look came over him. “If you had asked me that a year ago, I would have fallen over myself trying to answer you. But no matter how much I went on about your beauty or your intellect or your kindness or the times we had together, our shared lives as parents, the truth is … that’s just part of it. That’s just the outside. The inside is the thing that I don’t know.” He smiled, exhaling deeply. “And it’s why I can’t stop loving you. There’s something about you, and about me, that comes together in a way that doesn’t come together when I’m with anyone else.”‘

Molly and me

Molly and me

3 Sylvia Nasar: Is The West Over and What Would Keynes Say? – after a few last minute changes to the format of this session (which made me thank every god I hadn’t partied with my publisher until 5am as I’d usually do … what goes on behind the scenes at writers’ festivals) this was a lively discussion by Sylvia Nasar of her magisterial history of economics told through the lives of its greatest practitioners, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius.

For me, Grand Pursuit is the best introduction to economics I know. Especially because it’s often forgotten – or not known – just how historically contingent economics is. It’s not a science. It’s a social science which has developed in response to a changing world, born in Great Britain during the early days of the industrial revolution and continuing to evolve today. The way Nasar tells its history makes this abundantly clear – and vividly alive.

Nasar started our discussion by reading the following lines from the Preface:

‘The idea that humanity could turn tables on economic necessity – mastering rather than being enslaved by material circumstances – is so new that Jane Austen never entertained it. …

‘The notion that man was a creature of his circumstance, and that those circumstances were not predetermined, immutable, or utterly impervious to human intervention is one of the most radical discoveries of all time. It called into question the existential truth that humanity was subject to the dictates of God and nature. It implied that, given new tools, humanity was ready to take charge of its own destiny. It called for cheer and activity rather than pessimism and resignation. Before 1870 economics was mostly about what you couldn’t do. After 1870, it was mostly about what you could do.’

4 Research and Writing – my last session was organised by the Nib Waverley Library Award, which recognises excellence in research. I was speaking about the research I did for Double Entry. Fiona Harari spoke about researching her book A Tragedy in Two Acts: Marcus Einfeld and Teresa Brennan, and Robin de Crespigny about her research for The People Smuggler: The true story of Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oscar Schindler of Asia’. Again, the session was fascinating, largely thanks to the wonderful chair, Suzanne Leal.

In response to one of Suzanne’s questions I mentioned the fact that accountants invented writing (Double Entry is pretty much a history of accounting). Which made me think afterwards about the close connection between storytelling and accounting: ‘account’ relates not only to counting but also to storytelling. It encompasses both ‘a statement of moneys, goods, or services received and expended …’ and also ‘a narration, a report, a description’.

Our urge to account – to measure and record our wealth and our exchanges with others – is one of the oldest human impulses, older than writing itself. Accountants not only invented writing around 3300 BC, but they were also its exclusive users until around 2000 BC when it began to be used in funerary rituals to commemorate the dead. Only later was writing taken up by a wide range of wordmongers, including storytellers. Homer being – perhaps – one of the first storytellers to have written down some of his words.

So how I love the theme of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival: ‘Have we got a story for you’. I see it as a secret tribute to accountants, the very first writers, the original makers of accounts, tellers of tales.

PS The only problem with being involved in so many events at the festival (including various parties) was that there were so many sessions I wanted to go to but couldn’t. Most notably, I wanted to go to Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s two sessions: What Money Can’t Buy and The Public Philosopher: Social Justice in the Age of Markets.

I’ve not yet read his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets – but I can’t wait to. And I’ll be blogging about it here. In it Sandel asks ‘Is there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale?’ I think this is one of the most important questions of our time.

SWF 2013: first thing Sunday morning

SWF 2013: first thing Sunday morning

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10 Responses to It’s a wrap: Storytelling, accounting (aka storytelling) and the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2013

  1. A great wrap, Jane. Accountants as storytellers… me thinks very creatively in more than a few cases! And you were fabulous with Geordie and James. A real treat. John

  2. Thanks John. Wish I’d seen you there. (I thought I contributed more tears than insights …) And yes, definitely – accountants are as creative in their storytelling as writers. Which would be delightful except the repercussions are so horrendous. Thinking Enron. RBS. etc.

  3. Hi Jane — thanks for these thoughtful comments on your festival experience. I’ve missed SWF this year but I listened to the podcast of your session with Geordie W. and James Wood from Florida, where I’m at a writers’ residency. I appreciate your taking the time to put this post together. The photos gave me a distinct pang of homesickness!

    • Hi Virginia – lovely to hear from you. I’m sorry I missed you in NYC – but for such a fantastic reason. Congratulations on your writers’ residency (in Florida?!), I look forward to hearing all and to reading what comes out of it. Sorry to give you homesickness pangs … on the other hand, I’m a little homesick for your NYC. xJane

  4. Sara Dowse says:

    Thanks from me too, Jane. I confess that SWF is just too huge, too daunting for me to attend – it’s been so for years and this one – 80,000! – doesn’t sound much better on that score (another accounting). But no doubt it was and is likely to ever be a fantastic occasion, so much so that you don’t have to actually have been there to enjoy it, what with the wraps and videos and radio broadcasts. For all that, there’s nothing like curling up in bed and reading a book – after the dust has settled and the voices are quiet. All the best and keep up the great work.

    • Lovely as ever to hear from you, Sara. How interesting, what you say about the great size of the SWF. I know exactly what you mean, especially compared to festivals like Byron Bay and Perth Writers’ Fest. Although at least the programme was summarised in two pages this year (as well as the detailed version), for the first time, which made it easier to navigate.
      And you’re right, you can almost ‘do’ the festival through electronic media, which is how I’ll be catching up on everything I missed. And I’m so with you – there’s nothing like curling up with a book.
      all the best to you too, Jane

  5. Tom says:

    I heartily agree that accountings (or rather “Reckonings”) do tell a story, but it is the story that they tell which takes this science well beyond mere storytelling. None other than the master storyteller Goethe is said to have described Reckonings as being “the most beautiful expression of the human spirit”. As for me, I’m happy to call it good at considering it to be an attempt to express/reveal the human spirit by way of method and purpose. In that regard, Pacioli perhaps owed as much to Fibonacci’s “Liber Abaci” and the Golden Proportion as he did to his more modern-day mentors, most all of them artists (even if only by way of architecture, geometry and/or engineering.) Point in fact it is doubtful one could become an “Abbaco Master” without a developed appreciation for, as well as a demonstrated sufficiency with, the visual (if not physical) aspects of the patterns/processes Pacioli documented so succinctly. That being the case, I have always regarded Pacioli as more of a choreographer than writer: A true “Renaissance Man” (perhaps even THE unsung hero of that era) who described in both words and pictures the dance (plight?) of mortal man, caught up in the struggle of pleasing the master or masters s/he has chosen, with seemingly nothing to show for it in the end.

  6. Love your comment, thanks Tom. We are of like mind. I’ve never thought to call Pacioli a ‘choreographer’ but I agree wholeheartedly with this description of him and also with your suggestion that he’s THE unsung hero of the Renaissance. Absolutely. And very interested in your idea that his visual mastery was key to his becoming an abbaco master. I think you’re right. And will ponder this some more with pleasure.
    Thanks so much for your thought provoking and fascinating comments.

  7. I went along to the Molly Ringwald session as a big fan of her films but unsure of her status as a writer. Her dramatic reading and explorations of craft were terrific and I’m excited about taking on her novel. I like the idea of interconnected betrayals. And your conversation was beautifully moderated!

  8. Thanks Kirsten. Yes, can understand your uncertainty about the writing side of Molly, I had similar reservations before reading ‘When it happens to you’. I so enjoyed talking to her – and yes, her reading was thrilling, so alive.

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