Words on the Waves Writers Festival 2022
The second Words on the Waves Writers Festival was held on Darkinjung Country on the NSW Central Coast during the first weekend in June 2022.
The festival expanded over two venues, Ocean Beach Surf Life Saving Club and Umina SLSC (both at Umina Beach) and was marked by its professionalism, variety and strong sense of hospitality.
The program was exceptionally well curated, with topics ranging from On Belonging, A Growing Anxiety, Bearing Witness, Why Land Matters, and more.
The venue, with ocean views, provides one of the best settings for a writers’ festival in the world.
I was privileged to moderate a session close to my heart, ‘The Beautiful Friend’.
‘The Beautiful Friend’
Patti Miller, Germaine Leece, Vanessa McCausland, moderator Joy Lawn
Authors Patti Miller, Vanessa McCausland and Germaine Leece have all written very different books from each other in form and structure: a memoir, a non-fiction book of letters and a crime novel.
But all explore friendship – using beautiful ideas and words. They show us how some friendships remain strong but others, because of circumstances or inexplicably, wither and fade.
I always find it fascinating to discover the connections between books in a panel like this. Although these three books are so different in form, they explore interlinked ideas of friendship rather than love; memory; beautiful words and writing and books.
Reading the Seasons: Books Holding Life and Friendship Together is Germaine Leece’s accomplished and absorbing debut book. Germaine loves talking about books, champions librarians and has discovered poetry.
As I read her book Reading the Seasons I had to keep stopping to make a list of books I want to read that she recommends. Fortunately there’s also a book list at the end.
Germaine is an enlightened and profound sharer of books. She has a ‘beautiful obsession’ with books and believes that we can have a relationship with literature; that ‘all forms of story teach us how to live’ and that books can be lifelong friends.
And her book is equally about her friendship with her co-author Sonya Tsakalakis.
Patti Miller has written an impressive 10 books, including Writing True Stories – an invaluable handbook for memoir writing. Another of her books, The Mind of a Thief has been particularly awarded.
Her new book, a memoir – True Friends – has already been praised by eminent Australian authors. Her writing and structure here is excellent. She is the Storyteller.
We know from this memoir that Patti is insightful at a deep level about people and friendship. We also find out about her through this book – she is honest, vulnerable and lays herself bare in what she discloses about herself.
Patti has many, many friends and is obviously a ‘true friend’ herself.
Vanesa McCausland is a former journalist. The Beautiful Words is her third novel, following The Lost Summers of Driftwood and The Valley of Lost Stories. She is adept at finding and sharing people’s stories and exploring the links and layers between friends, friendships and stories.
Some of her characters in The Beautiful Words almost become our friends too. (We wouldn’t want the others to be our friends!)
Her brilliant protagonist, Sylvie, loves books and says, ‘I’m always waiting for the quest to start, you know? The grand adventure that propels the hero into the story’.
Australian crime writing is having a heyday and The Beautiful Words showcases the best of this genre with a riveting plot, thoughtful ideas, injustice brought to light and connections between friendships. She recognises the beauty of stories and writes this one in her own beautiful words.
Through their books and during the panel session the authors shared why they have explored friendship in their books rather than love, which is so often the preoccupation of a book or other creative form. Patti made the important point that there is love in friendship. In The Beautiful Words, Vanessa’s character explains, ‘but sometimes it is friendship that is our true life calling, our true soul connection’.
To different degrees, the three books look at the friendships of youth and what is distinctive or memorable about friendships between young people. Vanessa reminded us of the potency and potential angst, where everything is heightened, in these friendships. Her characters are affected by trauma in their youth. Germaine describes being the outsider and writes about ‘that fragile sense of self and the adulation of others I remember, amplified now that I have two high-schoolers’. In True Friends, Patti writes about childhood and other friendships through her own life stages.
Friendships change over time. Patti explains that friendship never remains static, an interrupted friendship can rekindle and that ‘a new friend can be made at any age and … a new friendship can be as rich and affirming as an old one’. Germaine muses about ‘how long-term friendships mirror, and sometimes magnify, our own regrets, disappointments and triumphs along the way as we scuttle about with our careers, intimate relationships and families.’
Memory and memories are a key part of the books. The authors reflected on how memories about friendship are sometimes unreliable and what consequences this can have. Patti is very interested in the science of memory and she gave examples from her life where her memory of when an incident happened was simply wrong. She describes memory often in True Friends, using words such as: fluid, overlap, blend, fragments, kaleidoscopic, spiralling loops, misremember, tangled timeline, and how ‘All of it stored in the light and shade of memory labyrinths. Mostly shade’. And how memory is the ‘unseen editor’. Sylvie in Vanessa’s The Beautiful Words also comments about memories, ‘maybe our memories play tricks so that it doesn’t hurt as much’.
Friendships (or in Germaine’s book, usually her clients’ relationships) can sour. The writers all wrote about broken relationships in their books – and if anything can be done about it. Vanessa uses the terms ‘rift’ and ‘hibernation’ in her novel and Germaine and Patti both refer to ‘bewilderment’ after a friendship ends.
The role of forgiveness in friendship is regarded as essential, as is the healing power of words. Healing words are part of Germaine’s job. Patti tells us how she often forgave but couldn’t always do so. She emphasised that we should not act as if we have forever, believing often erroneously, that we can leave hurts untreated and they will resolve themselves in time. It is best to deal with them before they fester.
Germaine described how friendships can be based on a ‘beautiful obsession’ about books and how you can become friends with someone based on the books on their shelves. Most of the audience agreed that they check out people’s bookshelves! Patti enjoys the friendship of people who read a lot and has many friends who centre their lives, thinking, feeling around books as ‘a way of being and a way of relating’.
The very nature of Germaine’s Reading the Seasons means that she incorporates many books into her book. Both she and Patti reference Montaigne. Patti structures strands of her book around the Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells much about friendship. The Bell Jar and Catcher in the Rye are integral to Vanessa’s novel and Pippi Longstocking also plays a role.
In summarising what being a beautiful friend means, the authors’ answers range from knowing that their friend is always there for them; being seen for who they are; and ‘hope’.
Each author shared a favourite book about friendship: Patti chose The Beautiful Friend by Elena Ferrante, Germaine chose Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane and Vanessa chose Emily Bitto’s The Strays.
In an uplifting and fulfilling session we heard about friendship through thoughtful, heartfelt and beautiful words.
To quote Toni Morrison from Patti’s book, ‘She is a friend of my mind…The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back in all the right order.’