The State Library at South Bank was buzzing this week as hordes of schoolchildren, blue-shirted volunteers and writers from every age amassed to attend workshops, seminars and interviews with authors, editors and celebrities. My dad travelled up from Sydney to look after the girls this week so I could attend some of the events.

Brisbane Writer's Festival, September 2012
The logo for this year's festival is a large heart fashioned entirely out of books. I overheard two writers/readers discussing the sculpture — they were uncertain whether it was a work of creative genius or an evil abomination because the books were glued together and could no longer be enjoyed!

The hardest part of the “Brisbane Writers Festival“ was selecting which items to attend. I frequently found that the talks I were interested in conflicted with each other, and early on I had to make difficult decisions. I opted to attend workshops rather than watch interviews, for I felt that the workshops may help me improve my writing in tangible ways.

It was interesting to be exposed to many excellent authors. Although in the past I’ve been a voracious reader, I have not been able to read for pleasure since Elijah’s death. Consequently, I didn’t know some of the authors featured, and I withheld myself from buying the books that sounded interesting because I’m just not sure when I will be able to read again.

I may actually be the only person attending the Brisbane Writers Festival who doesn’t actually want to write a book. I’m happy with writing online, but I figure I can always use some tips to improve.

Alison Lester and Lauren Fisher, September 2012
It's an honour to meet Alison Lester and tell her how much our family enjoys her books.

My very brief review of Lester’s Magic Beach was one of the first books included in the DFF Book Club. Although Lester is very well-known in Australia as a writer and illustrator, international readers who are not yet familiar with her works should make a point to get at least one of her books.

As well as rubbing shoulders with famous authors, I was provoked and encouraged by the speakers in some of the interview sessions I attended and wanted to share some the highlights of the festival for me. John de Graaf is probably best well known for his work on the book and documentary Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, and I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with his quick litany of facts and figures.

John de Graaf at the Brisbane Writers Festival, September 2012
John de Graaf explains that since the second world war, our society has been conditioned to believe that "the good life" is the "goods" life. He concludes with a warning: "Our global economy — our national economies — are something like the Titanic. We need to see that we're on a ship that is cruising towards disaster, and we need to turn that ship around."

De Graaf points to Bhutan as an example of how a nation can turn its focus away from Gross Domestic Product and towards the pursuit of holistic well-being — “Gross National Happiness”. Now the Bhutan government’s official goal is sustainable happiness for its population, rather than economic factors.

Something else that de Graaf said about TV-watching resounded with what I already know from anecdotes within the unschooling community. Detractors have said that if people (or kids) have more free time, they’ll just watch TV. De Graaf quoted statistics that shows that the most TV-viewing is done in countries that work very long hours. The least amount of TV-viewing is done in countries that work for the least amount of time.

De Graaf wanted to make the point that although there is a correlation between income and well-being, there is a level at which when one becomes wealthier, one doesn’t become happier. He urged us to live within limits, to trade our gains in economic productivity for more time instead of more stuff. He advocates volunteering, giving, sharing and taking care of our health. “This concentration on non-material needs is where our focus needs to be,” he said.

On De Graaf’s urging, I took a quick survey at The Happiness Initiative to see how my level of happiness compared to the average U.S. citizen. It will be interesting to re-take the survey in a year or so and see if my levels of satisfaction have improved.

Attending the festival has been good for my morale — as well as spending time with my dad again — and after attending a session with Robert Dessaix, I came away in an even better humour. Dessaix spoke candidly about his books, his perspectives on life and his acceptance of himself.

“You have to enjoy your own company,” he said. “You have to feel like you don’t know yourself entirely and would like to. You have to accept yourself, even though there are things you don’t like about yourself and you just put up with them. You have to want to be kind to yourself — and then you can be kind to others.”

Robert Dessaix at the Brisbane Writers Festival, September 2012
After listening to Robert Dessaix, I don't think there would be a single person in the room who could walk out without having become smitten by him. "Ordinariness in our lives must be redeemed into extraordinariness by finding the words to make it so," he says.

When Dessaix talked about friendships, I related to his perspective: “A friend is someone who will share his or her vulnerabilities with you, and will — at some level — feel close to you regardless of what you may say or do. The closeness is deeply rooted. The main thing for me is the sense of not having to defend myself or perform myself. I can just be myself.”

I was also particularly interested to watch the debate called Religion: The Next Chapter. Former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway, social commentator David Marr and the editor of ABC Religion and Ethics website, Scott Stephens, discussed organised religion — Christianity, mainly — with Paul Barclay from the ABC. This will soon be broadcast on the ABC, and I’ll link to it from here.

Scott Stephens, David Marve, Richard Holloway and Paul Barclay at Brisbane Writer's Festival, September 2012
As Paul Barclay opens the panel for discussion, he posits: "The greatest threat to religion is not science but religion's diminished status within society."

The workshops I attended ranged from mediocre to excellent, and in the classroom situation I was forced to read a light piece by David Sedaris on cigarette smoking. This reminded me how much I enjoy reading — and I miss it — but I don’t think I’m yet ready to open a novel.

Just being out and about on my own has been a treat. It’s been fun to catch the train into the city — commuting again on the train I used to take daily to work. I’ve enjoyed my walks along the Brisbane River, the glimpses I’ve had of artworks in the gallery — reminding me to bring the girls back soon! — and the added excitement of the Brisbane Festival decorations.

Flamboyant tree outside the Queensland State Library, September 2012
A marvellous flamboyant tree sprawls over the walkways outside the State Library. I enjoy the walks into the venue and being part of city-life for a short while.

I’ve come away with lots of notes, some very raw pieces written within the workshops, and perhaps a bit more wisdom about the world and the authors who share their worlds with us. Thank you so much to the organisers of the festival, and I’m deeply indebted to my dad who made my participation possible!