By Dr Julia Prendergast
As Chair of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP), the peak academic body representing the discipline of Creative Writing in Australasia, I recently joined colleagues to celebrate the AAWP annual conference. This encouraged me to reflect upon AAWP initiatives that bring us together as writer-researchers, through collaborative and community-minded initiatives.
During the conference we launched The Incompleteness Book (Recent Work Press: 2020). The book is the result of a call for contributions to the theme: the incompleteness of human experience. The call was distributed in April 2020, amidst the global pandemic of COVID-19. The collection takes an interest in the relationship between the haunting incompleteness of human experience and short form writing. This, together with the unforeseen challenges of COVID-19, as well as the lure of coming together as writer-researchers, was the impetus for the book, which is aimed at capturing our individual and collective experience as a composite picture. The contributions were collected in just nine-days and were first published as a Special Issue of TEXT Journal.
In a keynote address at the AAWP conference, Associate Professor Julienne van Loon cited extracts from the collection. The excerpts were referenced within the broader context of philosopher Corine Pelluchon’s (2019) approach to the concepts of radical sensing, nourishment and an ethics of practice. This led me to think about the conference contributions that reached me in the form of what Gordon Weaver calls felt presences. Weaver asks: “in how small a space can [we] create the felt presences that animate successful stories [or poems]?” (1983: 228, my emphasis). To my mind this is one of the most precious things about gathering and sharing the way we weave connections between others’ ideas, as we’re prompted to think about how ways-of-saying and ways-of-seeing rub up against each other. I wonder about the initiative of The Incompleteness Book, as well as our exchange across the days of the conference, as a collaborative ethics of creative writing practice.
Taking up the prompt of thinking about what nourishes us puts me in mind of various conference sessions. I reflect upon the pure joy of hearing a wide variety of creative work, read by the makers in their own voices. We held a special event featuring the winners of the 2020 AAWP prizes, offered in partnership with local and international partner organisations. This event also included the launch of ACE Anthology II: Arresting Contemporary Stories by Emerging Writers (Recent Work Press: 2020), featuring authors who have submitted to our suite of prizes, in previous years. Given the current climate, and in particular our need to stay connected and engaged as writers and thinkers and educators, I take this opportunity to share AAWP prize initiatives: https://www.aawp.org.au/news/opportunities/
The Prizes and Partnerships Portfolio abounds in positive energy generated by outreach and engagement. We provide publication pathways and networking avenues for writers and translators, with a particular focus on facilitating opportunities for emerging writers and under-represented voices. All AAWP prizes have been ratified by Arts Law who provide best practice guidance on our terms and conditions for award to ensure they are fair for entrants. In short: “Arts Law was very impressed with AAWP’s attitude, which clearly demonstrated AAWP’s respect for writers”.
At the close of the AAWP conference I was invited to give a reflection. I suggested that the act of reflecting was, for me, an act of piecing together: it is ordinarily something I am slow at, something I step “out of time” to do, in the spirit of Drusilla Modjeska’s analysis of temporising—not as avoidance but following Proust, as a response to the “incurable imperfection in the very presence of the present”, not as evasion but following Andre Aciman, as an act of self-presence, an “attitude of mind which develops [when one is] engulfed, even tipped off balance, by [an emotional response to] the present” (Modjeska 2002:75).
What’s my point? Get there faster, my eldest daughter says (often). She is a critical cure nurse. She has been nursing COVID patients. She has no patience for my tendency to piece ideas together as I “test the story out” in “realtime”. This activity is at the heart of conference gatherings, absorbing the “thinking positions” of others as felt presences, forming a composite picture, thinking about the whole as more than the sum-of-its-parts—asking what it all means, all of this superb thinking and writing. What a joy it was, to gather and think collaboratively as a response to crisis, as testament to our resilience as writer-researchers, remembering that we are makers, despite the wild circumstances.
As a final gesture of thanks and reflection, I offered my AAWP colleagues a prose poem. At my home university we, like so many others, hold regular spoken word events for students to share their work. At the close of these events, when I thank all of the writer-readers, I offer them a prose poem. I write down single lines as they read and then I put them together and give them back – a William Burroughs style “cut-up”. It’s a way of reflecting in “realtime” without singling-out or summarising – it takes an interest in the work of association, spontaneous connections, the sum of us – a reflection in media res. In this way, in closing, I gathered thinking positions and ways-of-saying as a running chorus of felt presences. I’m grateful to all AAWP members who contributed so generously to our annual conference. I’m moved by those who laid bare their thinking positions in their contributions to The Incompleteness Book and, more broadly, to all writers and translators who contribute to AAWP prize initiatives. Thank you for breaking me and sustaining me at a time when, perhaps, we all need to be reminded of what it is to be broken and how, as the ground shifts at every turn, we might sustain ourselves.
Modjeska, D 2002 ‘Writing Poppy’ in Timepieces, Picador, Sydney: 67-94
Weaver G 1983, Sudden Fiction. American Short-Short Stories, in R Shapard and J Thomas (eds), Sudden Fiction. American Short-Short Stories, Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith.
Pelluchon, Corine 2019, Nourishment: A Philosophy of the Political Body. Translated by Justin E.H. Smith. London: Bloomsbury.
Prendergast J, Strange S, Webb J (eds) 2020, The Incompleteness Book, Canberra: Recent Work Press.
Prendergast J (ed), ACE Anthology II: Arresting Contemporary Stories by Emerging Writers (Recent Work Press: 2020).
Julia Prendergast is Chair of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP), the peak academic body representing the discipline of Creative Writing in Australasia. Her novel, The Earth Does Not Get Fat was published in 2018 (UWA Publishing: Australia). Her short stories feature in the current edition of Australian Short Stories. Other stories have been recognised and published: Lightship Anthology 2 (UK), Glimmer Train (US), TEXT (AU), Séan Ó Faoláin Competition (IE). Julia’s research focuses practice-based analysis of meta-level processes in creative writing: including neuroscientific and psychoanalytic approaches. Julia is a Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Swinburne University, Melbourne.