Notes from the Brisbane Writers Festival by Wil Patterson
The trouble with prison, even if you are only there for a short time, is that you lose trust in strangers. At Beechworth Correctional Centre there were only about 120 inmates. In a very short space of time you get used to seeing the same faces, you know who to talk to, who to wave or nod to, who to avoid. When you come home you realise that the world is a very busy place, and it is FULL of strangers.
All this was running through my head as I walked into the green room of the Brisbane Writers Festival. I was on my own, didn’t know anyone, and the room was bustling with activity. Serious- looking academics mixed with artistic hipsters, casually dressed women and dapper chaps, and everyone was engaged. There was food, smells of coffee wafting on the warm Brisbane breeze and background music that I couldn’t quite place. At the sight of all these strangers and all this noise I felt my chest start to tighten, my palm start to sweat and I knew the shakes were coming.
I hear my therapist in my head saying, ‘Ground yourself Wil, ground yourself.’
Right-o, I look around and ask myself: what specific things can I see? The massive boardroom table is covered in scatterings of books; I try to find my book.
It’s not there! My heart starts to race again, then I hear that insidious voice: ‘The book is not there, see, you don’t belong here, and these are not your people…’
‘NO!’ I yell to the voice.
I look around and see there are people reading in little enclaves everywhere. Someone might be reading MR Ordinary. Ground yourself Wil.
I search the room, looking for the familiar black cover, orange writing. The lady with the blue hair…Okay great! She has the book. Now I just need to go over and say hi. I hear my therapist again: ‘Now fake it ‘til you make it.’
I walk over and crack a smile that feels like I’m making duck face for my perfect Instagram life.
The woman looks up from the book.
‘Oh my goodness, Wil – hi!’
I’m surprised the woman recognises me but then realise she is the moderator for our session today. Her name is Aimee. That’s why she has the book, that’s why she’s pleased to see me. I take three deep breaths, then realise she’s talking.
‘You know the word I have heard most often about your book is “assured” ’, says Aimee smiling. ‘For a first time author your voice is incredible.’
I pause a moment, waiting for the ever-present voice of self-doubt to question what Aimee is saying, but surprisingly it is silent.
During my pause Aimee asks: ‘So the theme this year is What the world needs now. Do you have any thoughts on that?’
I do actually.
I don’t tell Aimee about panic attack I almost had, my self-doubt, my feeling that I’m I don’t belong here.
I tell her these two words: grounding and grace.
That’s what I think the world needs now.
In our session, which was completely fabulous with a small, engaged audience, we talk about the festival’s theme. This is what I tell the group.
Grounding: First let’s look around and see all that we DO have. Don’t let any voice convince you that it’s nothing, or that we need more.
Don’t let the world trick you into FOMO.
And grace: Have the grace to smile, even if you have to fake it. Accept the kind smile of someone you don’t know. Be the person who offers an amazing compliment about someone’s writing being assured. The kind of compliment that can silence the self-doubt in others. Do the tiny things that cost you nothing, because those things sometimes mean the world to others.
I finish with this, a rule I have for life, which is to measure a situation against one question: Is this better or worse than being in prison?
Rather astonishingly, most things are better.
Prison is a place full of familiar strangers, that’s how it differs from the world. It shrinks your view, restricts your social skills. And like any skill, if you don’t practise, you lose the ability. We’re all out in the world; it’s a beautiful place full of strangers, self-doubt, and new situations. Meet them with grace and grounding.