Short Story Conference – Day 5

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 6.22.33 pmOn Saturday morning I got up bright and early and headed off for the first panel of the morning. However, when I got to the street, I took a right instead of my usual left, on a whim. After a few minutes of walking, I realised I was not heading for the conference at all.

This happens sometimes.

Sometimes you just need to go walkabout (or in may case a small truncated white fella-version of walkabout). I just stopped at every crossroad, had a look and took the road that was most appealing. I found a fabulous bug. I found the city bikes, so I rode around, found the markets and a park, and a few new areas of the city. And eventually, I found my way back to the conference, just in time for a great session on theories of the short story.

Erik Van Achter discussed the problematic relationship between the short story, the novel and poetry, looking at the three waves of short fiction theory, as outline by Susan Lohafer.

The identity of short fiction is something I struggle to define in my own theoretical work, but I often wonder if it is really that important to the process of creative writing itself. Unfortunately, it does seem to be somewhat important after the writing, when you are trying to find a means to distribute it and it doesn’t fit within any clear genres.

On the bike again

On the bike again

Next, I found another kindred cognitive spirit in Maria Christina Dal Pian who discussed some brilliant examples of short fiction in relation to Fauconnier and Turner’s theories of conceptual blending. She clearly used their theory to outline the idea that the short story is a way of communication complex issues, through means of cognitive blending; ie: taking two different ideas and forming a third more complex relationship through the cognitive process of chunking. So happy to see others working in this area too.

After this, my brain and I snuck off again. To wander the streets, buy a few souvenirs for the kids. And generally try to digest the past few info packed days.

DSCF1120Over the week, I heard I missed some brilliant panels – I would have liked to heard what the contingents from India and China had to say, especially after reading their wonderful stories in the anthology. I missed some great stuff on liminality. And I would love to have seen the book ‘bidding war’ that broke out after Paul McVeigh’s reading. Hopefully, next time, in Shanghai, I won’t have so many academic commitments and can go along to more panels just for fun and interest.

But the day was not over yet – and in the evening I headed back into the city to catch one of the five busses headed to the post-conference party venue.


My lovely table-mates – Bronwyn, Linda, Alan, Mei Ching and Rebecca.

Heurigen was the full tourist extravaganza – fabulous fun in the cutest little village, with tables under trees. Waiters in costume, wandering musicians and piles of food and beer. Merriment ensued and all too soon we were back on the buses to town.

A small but entertaining group of revellers went on the Café Einstein and, after, I headed home to collapse happy and slightly overwhelmed into bed.

I am sorry if this is all too sickeningly sweet, but I really don’t have anything bad to say, except I would have like a bit more time.

DSCF1082The end…

Or is it…



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Short Story Conference – Day 4


Friday was a big one and it kicked off with another excellent session – this time on the short-short story.

All three panelists were such an inspiration, giving me lots of excellent examples of writers, who are playing in the playground I have naturally found myself in, that I need to follow up. My reading list for when I get home is expansive, to say the least.

Farhat Iftekharuddin kicked off with a tidy outline of the elusiveness of the short story form in general, and how short-short fiction can still fit within Poe’s criteria. He also asked the rather lovely question – “what is the limit of the cognitive threshold of liminal stories before meaning becomes indecipherable?” In other words, how much can we leave out before all sense of the story is gone.

Richard Lee gave a fabulous overview of ‘hint fiction’ or ‘potential literature’, looking at the ideas such as enjambment. He was the one who mentioned that Lydia Davis likes to write silently and have her readers read silently – to me, heartening words indeed. He also had a brilliant take on the position of this form within the bigger literary picture.

I may have gone to the bookshop - now my luggage it twice as heavy as when I left home.

I may have gone to the bookshop – now my luggage it twice as heavy as when I left home.

And Tania Hershman again gave an insightful presentation. Focussing on space, time and storyness, she gave freeing oration on the threat and thrill of sudden prose. How the short-short is a marginal form within the short story world as well as the poetry world, and how we don’t need to really worry about that. We don’t need to worry about line breaks, or what other people think, we just have to get on with it and the world will catch up eventually.

Personally, my own short-short fiction is not short because I am trying to do something different – it is just short because that’s how it comes out. My stories are as long as they need to be, and for me there is no point forcing them to be longer if they don’t need or want to be. Stories are weird like that.

The next panel was the one I was in, the writer’s perspective, with the lovely (plural) Louise Ells and Pat Jourdan.

It was a great session too. Louise started with a fascinating look at some of the re-editing choices Alice Munro’s made when she re-published some of her older stories in her collection, Dear Life. Pat presented an elegantly woven account of closure and the short story; and how we create the ending we need to in order to resolve the very problems we created in the story.

Thinking calm thoughts

Thinking calm thoughts

My presentation was between these two ladies, to a packed room (slightly nerve-racking). So, thank you to those who rocked up. The paper was well received, with lots of questions and discussion and some lovely feedback afterwards. A few people even said that it gave them ideas for stories and writing exercise – a lovely compliment.

You can find a copy of the presentation here.

After lunch – again at the same pretty beer garden – with the slightly scary super-efficient waitress, who was all over it today, so we were fed and watered in no time – was the big session on cognition and the short story. This session was right up my alley, some great stuff, with Carmen Birkle on the medical gaze in 19th Century American fiction, highlighting that knowledge is a form of belief, it is a relationship with experience.

Renate Brosch concentrated on visualising short stories, examining how the cognitive and  neuro-sciences can offer many insights into how the mind processes this type of information. What was so good about this presentation for me was that she is the first person I had heard of to take a cognitive approach to the short story genre specifically. She has already published stuff in this area, but unfortunately it is only in German at the moment, and I don’t think google translate is up for the job.



Micheal Basseler reexamined the short story as thought experiments, drawing on literary cognitivism – another new term for me – which is different from cognitive literary theory. As I understand it, literary cognitivism looks at literature as a way of producing meaning and knowledge, in the same way that philosophy and science can. Simply: it is a particular way of cognitive information processing, that leads to us having a better understanding of the world. 

Lastly, Margarete Rubik presented the findings of an empirical study on reading a short story – two session, done 7 years apart, gathered data from students at different points in their reading of the story. She outlined how the reading had changed over time, likely related to political events and social perceptions. It was fascinating to hear how many ways these student could interpret this one story, and how their opinions changed as the story went along, as well as over time.

And after this, was the Aussie Lit session, with Andy Kissane looking at the threshold spaces in David Malouf’s Dream StuffChrista Knellwolf-King also on Malouf, looked at the Australian mindset in his shorts (I am aware that sentence reads funny, but I like it anyway). And Joanna Atherfold Finn talked about stories of the coast – as a liminal spaces of potential. All three of these papers bought up the potential role of the short story in the Australian psyche – with ideas of glimpses, thresholds, and becoming – as the short story form is also in the process of becoming, just like the country. An interesting new take on short fiction for me, and another reason to love it.

Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros – stole this photo too.

Finally, as if my brain could take any more, the day ended with readings by Bharati Mukherjee, Claire Larrière, Velma Pollard, and, the fabulous but too brief, Sandra Cisneros.

This packed day, continued with a trip to the pub, where I met some more lovely folk and my note taking continued. I really feel like the new kid on the block and there is so much to learn. So thank you Evelyn Conlon, Andy Kissane, Cameron Raynes and Donal McLaughlin.

One more day to go….

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Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize

 FYI – Overland/Victoria University Short Story Prize is open for submissions. Maximum 3000 words. Entries close 31st August 2014.

This one has a massive $6000 prize. With $1000 for the two runners up, as well publication for all three in the Overland Journal.

Good luck!!!!!


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Short Story Conference – Day 3

Stole this photo from Bronwyn Mehan - Thanks

Stole this photo from Bronwyn Mehan – Thanks

Just some of the sights

Just some of the sights

Day 3 – Thursday

This very big day kicked off with a brilliant session called How to Read the  Short Story. Here is a photo of the lovely ladies, from the UK, presenting.

Katherine Orr referred to the idea of the short story as a weir, a confinement, but with ebb and flow, a swirling of ideas, if I understood it correctly. She also emphasised that the short story is not for passive consumption.

Vanessa Gebbie, who edited the fantastic Short Circuit (a guide to the art of the short story, which happens to be lying next to my bed, back in Melbourne), discussed the importance of reading aloud and the artistry of it, including the savouring of every word.

Reading aloud is something that makes me incredible nervous, but it is something I want to improve on. Then again, I did hear that Lydia Davis wants people to read her work silently in their heads, the same way she writes it, so there is hope if I do not succeed on the reading aloud.

Next up was my new hero Tania Hershman, who discussed the process of writing for radio.  Her take-away points were: Don’t pander to your audience. She also said, she doesn’t always know what her stories are about, but she can trust the reader to work it out. DSCF1103This was über refreshing for me (see, I picked up some German), as I often have no idea where my stories are going, especially during the process, and I thought that was a bit weird. Until now! She talked about the tingle factor as the indication that you are on the right track, and that, pretty much, is how writing works for me. Except I’d call it the bouncy leg/desk tapping factor, which can be really annoying for those around me.

Zoe Gilbert inspired me to get out of the house more with her talk on literary events, and also to stay in more and listen to audio fiction podcasts, as well as the importance of The Unexplainable.

The rest of the day was equally stimulating. Unfortunately, readings of creative works were on at the same time as the theoretical, and given I was here to learn, I favoured the theory, and missed some great readings.

John C Rutter‘s talk on Dark Energy and the Short Story offered an alternate perspective on the form, asking the question: What force is acting to add lasting power (or affect) to these stories? (Such as, Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro).

OK, so I may have snuck out to Central Cafe at one point.

OK, so I may have also snuck out to Central Cafe at one point.

Then came lunch – an important part of any conference, and a group of us headed to a lovely beer garden nearby and chatted away. Sadly, a few issues with service meant we missed the next session. But I made it back in time for a ripper one on Short Story Cycles which I was another new term I learnt this week.

Moderated by the always entertaining Alan Weiss, this session kicked off with Paula McGrath  who asked the question we were all thinking: “When is a short story no longer a short story?” She talked about her own process, and the difference between the novel and the short story, with the short story cycle offering the best of both world – a novelish feeling to a collection.

Neta Gordon looked at the frame. And Paul Mitchell took the Aussie bloke perspective – neatly comparing the short story cycle to the utility vehicle (or the Ute for those readers at home.) He outlined the tradition of the serial form in Australia and discussed some excellent examples by Tony Birch’s and Steven Amsterdam (shit – forgot the other one).

This is a different session, but does prove, again, I was at a conference.

This is a different session, but does prove, again, I was at a conference.

And Alan Weiss finished off with a lively discussion on the sociology of linked stories, looking at the economic considerations of the form throughout history. It’s easy to think we’re doing something new, but any time you stretch the surface, you usually find a rich tradition in whatever form you can think of.

After that, my brain was officially full for that day. So I took myself home and passed out at 6.30. Such rich stimulation can be extremely exhausting.

More to follow…..


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Short Story Conference – Days 0-2

OK, I am cheating. The conference is already over – but I was having such fun, I didn’t have time to post. I thought I should break it down for you anyway.


Walked around this church about 4 times trying to find my way - St Stephens

Walked around this church about 4 times trying to find my way – St Stephens

Day 0

I arrived in Vienna late Monday afternoon and took myself off to an Australia/Austrian to a pre-conference reading. Got lost and got there late. But in time to hear two Aussies – Cate Kennedy and Andy Kissane read two great stories. And several Austrian writers who spoke in German, which I don’t understand, but it didn’t matter so much, they sounded beautiful, especially Friederike Mayröcker, whose voice was just mesmerising – and later when I read the English translations, it was fabulous.

I snuck out afterwards, a bit tired (still jet lagged)  and not quite ready for the socialising part, so headed home to bed.

I used Airbnb to rent a fantastic apartment on the other side of Augarten, so I used the city bike system to get around. I highly recommend it if you are ever in Vienna.

DSCF1031Day 1 – Workshops

Tuesday consisted of workshops with short story writers. I chose the one with Canadian writer Clark Blaise. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was quickly clear that he had been considering this form for probably more than my lifetime, and it was a treat to listen to him wax lyrical for three hours on the short story. There was also input from the class and number of fine examples to read.

I left my afternoon free for a wander around the city.

Day 2 – Conference proper beginsDSCF0984

I knew no-one going into this conference. But in the first panel session, on the first day, Wednesday, I sat next to a lovely Canadian writer who happened to be presenting in the same panel I was later in the week, and she put me at ease immediately (Hi Louise).

The first panel on Alice Munro was useful as I will be looking at one of her stories in my thesis, and it gave me plenty to think about.

This has nothing to do with the conference, but just a cool shot of a swimming pool on the canal.

This has nothing to do with the conference, but just a cool shot of a swimming pool on the canal.

The next panel was New Ways of Disseminating the Short Story, and I am embarrassed to say that I had to come all the way to Vienna to hear about the fantastic work being done in Australia by Spineless Wonders and Raging Aardvark Publishing. Spineless Wonders, in particular are publishing the short-short fiction I love so much, that there just doesn’t seem to be many other platforms for.

Next was lunch, where I started some tentative, slightly awkward socialising. Luckily, at these things there are so many in the same boat, it makes it a little easier to just go up and say hi.

This is just a pretty Viennese scene near

This is just a pretty Viennese scene near my home

After lunch there was a fantastic reading session with work by two very different writers, Ida Cerne and Paula McGrath. Really impressive stuff.

Then it was time for dinner. I had been invited to the Australian Ambassador’s residence for ‘a reception’. (This is the type of thing that happens when you go to a well organised international conference, apparently) There were many more Australians at the conference than I realised, and I met most of them here – a fantastic bunch. As well as other Aussie working in the city – opera singers and musicians. Several hours of chatting ensued (always easier with a glass of red) followed by a bike ride back to the flat and total collapsification.

More to follow……

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DSCF0780Flying 28 hours to Europe for a conference, I would be foolish not to try and make the most of it and see a few other places while I’m here.

So, instead of flying straight to Vienna, I touched down in Budapest, for two nights, before catching the train up to my main destination. ( I also have a two weeks on the other side of the conference to do a bit more travelling on my way home.)

The reasoning behind this went – Oh my god, Budapest is so close to Vienna, I want to go, I want to go, and I could get over my jet lag there and it would be very relaxing, blah, blah, blah.

A long plane trip is a great time to do your work – so I worked on my conference presentation on the plane and again on the train to Vienna – now it is pretty much done and I can just enjoy this free time.Visiting-the-Széchenyi-Baths

Aside from not remotely getting over my jet lag – Budapest was a great choice. The Szechenyi baths were amazing, and very relaxing, even though I got in trouble for breaking the rules a few times. Jet lag came in handy here as I was up and out of the baths before all the other tourists were even out of bed.


On my back from the baths I found a castle. And then spent the rest of the day walking, walking, walking…





I found great food, and one of most favourite things that we don’t have in Australia – Bumble Bees!!!!!!





Before I left home, a workmate told me when walking around Budapest it is important to look up. At street level it is often very modern and tidy. But, if you look up can see some of the damage from the WWII still on the buildings. I didn’t need to look up.

This was the house across the street from where I was staying, with the bullet holes clearly visible in the wall – particularly around the windows. A very visceral reminder of the history of this city, and also of the fact that life goes on.


Thanks Budapest – After two too-short days I took the train to Vienna – where the conference will begin tomorrow.


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Conferences – ups and downs

8405575922_1ee1efc518_zConference attendances and presentations are one of the obligations of the PhD student.  I went to a conference last week and I’m off to another next week.

It is definitely a fabulous perk. I am going to Vienna to the Short Story Conference, and presenting a paper on cognition and one of Nabokov’s short stories. Very excited about the trip, and the conference, and the trip. I will be posting over the coming weeks, both here and on twitter, to keep give you a bit of a taste of this conference experience.

But here’s what I have discovered about conferences so far, both good and bad:


Conferences are a great way to meet like minded people, and even better, un-like minded people who challenge your way of seeing things. It is a plethora of information, some relevant to your work, and some not, but generally it is at least interesting.


Some fields of study have more interesting presentation styles than others. EG: English/Literature tends to present in a stand and read format, which I find a difficult to keep interested in, unless the reader is particularly dynamic. Whereas science like slides and image-rich, case study type presentations, which I find much easier to concentrate on.

My main criticism, and it is a criticism of academia in general, and that so many presenters place an overwhelming emphasis on presenting in academese (that impenetrable jargon-laden speech that makes a speaker seem super intelligent, but ultimately elitist and dull. It is probably the main reason that the non-academic world thinks we are a bunch of wankers.) After a few days of trying to decipher all this, my head usually hurts and I switch off completely. But I do understand the power of the right word, and there are many who seem to love it.


Academically heavy conferences can still be useful and will always bring up aspects in my own work that I had not considered. But conference with a creative aspect (like the AAWP one) are usually more stimulating.


I hate asking questions. It does seem that many people ask a very long-winded question mainly to let everyone else know they are smart. I am not smart enough to ask these questions, and I often come out of a conference session feeling a bit dumber than I did when I went in.


People will be genuinely interested in your work, and you will meet some fascinating people doing great things. I am socially awkward, I hate going up and trying to join in conversations, but plenty of people that go to conferences are in the same boat as me. I keep reminding myself of that, and once I get started it is not too hard.

You don’t have to talk about work all the time, but it is a good ice-breaker.


I went to my first conference as a guest. It was great, no pressure to present or engage, just harvest information, eat nice lunches and chat. Now I am getting to the pointy end of my PhD, I am expected to write papers and present.

I am not a natural public speaker (that is why I write). I prepare detailed notes, and then ignore them. I over-use powerpoint – I am a visual learner. And I sweat and lose my voice and generally act like a lunatic up there, or at least that’s how it feels from the inside.

But that aspect is over quickly and the papers have been generally well received, even when I presented to an audience of only two. So it is probably not as bad as it feels.


If I am well prepared, then not sticking strictly to a script can be a nice way to keep the audience engaged. And my overuse of powerpoint is a good way to keep myself on track.


In Vienna, I might even find the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

SO: My big advice thus far is: 1) time yourself; 2) don’t go over time (less is more); and 3) don’t try and include too much. If you leave them wanting more, then you will get lots of questions.

I’m sure there is much more to say about conferences, and I hope I can address some of this in my next few posts, while in the thick of it.



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2 years in….

4737797759_963faf7d33_bThis post is a bit late – I had my 2nd year review in May and all went well. If you have read my post-confirmation post, you will understand this was a new experience for me.

For the 2nd year panel review, I had to hand in one chapter of my thesis and a section of my creative work, all in all, about 26,000 words.

The lead up was pretty anxiety-ridden. I just kept writing and tweaking and writing and tweaking, until I thought I would loose my mind. My chapter should have been between 10,000-12,000 words and ended up being 19,000, then edited down to 16,000.

I have a lot of trouble getting my head around that many words. Writing this many words, made me excited that I have made such big headway into the thesis, and totally sick now I know how much work is involved and how much I have left to finish.

During the meeting, there was plenty of constructive feedback on the critical work – questions about where it was going; suggestions of ideas I had not thought of (there are always so many other theorists/theories/discussions, I have never come across). I am lucky that I have a very easy-going, knowledgable group of academics supervising me, I know not everyone is that lucky.

I didn’t get much feedback of the creative. Maybe it is a bit hard with a collection of shorts that is not finished yet to have anything constructive to say. I don’t know how I feel about that. But it is a good time to reflect a little on what I have learnt during my PhD so far…..

I’m starting to trust my own writing:

The more creative work I write, and the more short stories I read, the more I feel like I am finally coming to terms with my own style and content choices. It has been a struggle for me to understand where my work fits in the academic realm. So many people around me are writing on deep and meaningful topics, with demanding and heavy stylistic choices. And my work feels a little fluffy in comparison. But I am starting to see its value, if only for myself.

The theme for this collection is pretty open. It feels a little like odd popular fiction, not overly literary or poetic. I am having fun with words and hopefully telling stories that will be fun to read and, occasionally, thought provoking/curious. I like to draw attention to the process and give a reader a bit of work to do. Sometime, that means it comes off as experimental and may miss the mark, but I am finding my balance. So, pretty happy in that department.

I am starting to get confident with the theory:

I am a lazy student. I know that I could be reading more and writing more, and I could probably come up with some valid sounding excuse like the brain needs time to consolidate and assimilate information before it can be truly creative and innovative, and procrastination is a vital part of any intellectual endeavour….  but really that is is just an excuse for being lazy.

8024245710_aa0ecda8f1_zBUT, I am learning my field, I am able to answer questions with more authority and I am becoming an expert (of sorts); which is the point of all this, right?

I now know that I will never and can never know all there is to know about my chosen areas of study (I did pick literature and science, after all), but I should be happy with what I have learned so far, and happy that when I read now, I have a base of reference and comprehension that I just didn’t have a year or two ago.

I need to forget thesis guilt:

This is a case of do as I say, not as I do, because I am riddled with guilt. I feel guilty right now, writing this instead of writing the paper I have spent the last few weeks avoiding. But guilt is pointless! Take a day off here and there. Go to a movie, go for a walk, go for a nap. It is amazing how much clearer your work will seem after.

4006272614_f6ffc8a58f_bI have taken a few month leave of absence over the last year, to stretch out my time. taking  LOAs when you can, is great, but not always possible. You don’t get paid my scholarship when on LOA, but I will get it back at the end, and it gives me breathing room, which is so important.

And I will get it finish when I get it finished. A thesis isn’t your family or friends. It will not give you a cuddle you when you need one, so you need to put it in its place every once in a while and enjoy your life.

So that’s the main points for now. Hope it helps those of you out there in a similar, slightly leaky boat.

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