To say it was a joyful week volunteering at ILFD was an understatement. A better bunch of people I could not have met. And, at the end of the week, while my famous red tee shirt was a bit smellier, I found that I was a whole lot wiser. Here are some of the key lessons which I learned from my week meeting authors, ushering attendees, inflating helium balloons and filling gift bags –
1. Life is improvisation
There are many perks to volunteering for a festival. One of them is the opportunity to do something which you would never get to do before. I guess this is what led me to stand in an improv-for-writers workshop with the very talented Alison Jean Lester, talking fairies digging holes with spoons and Russian ballerinas. In only a few hours, we found ourselves learning to let go, listen and accept what others are saying in order to build a narrative. What a useful life skill. Nobody knows what life is going to throw at you next so what can we all do if we let go, listen, accept and build a new story for ourselves?
2. Meet your heroes and challenge other long-held beliefs while you are at it
It is hard to call meeting the amazing author, Maggie O’ Farrell and escorting her to a venue for a talk on her latest book, ‘I am, I am, I am’ volunteering. When I received a message on the Tuesday morning of the festival to take this ‘shift’, I thought I had won some cosmic lottery. And then I instantly panicked when I remembered what I turn into when I meet famous people. An incomprehensible mess.
Somehow, I managed to muster some bit of professionalism and string some words together on our jaunt into town. A more sincere and lovely human you could not meet. This volunteering gig was fast turning into an all-access pass.
The next day, I found myself on a production shift for Documentary Poetics and a panel discussion on the essay. Again, the rise of the essay currently shows that there is a vast opportunity for everyone to challenge our long-held rules. In this case, we could change ‘write fiction if you want to make a living’ to ‘ write what you love to write’
3. People, People, People
People are the best, aren’t they? I did a last minute shift to help out in the box office on the Wednesday morning of the festival. One of the events had been rescheduled and I was tasked with calling the 30 or so people due to attend to follow up on the e-mails we sent. Another event was so popular, we had to move venue and that list was 300+ people. The author, Derek Landy was popular with teenagers and so mostly, I spoke to parents. The excitement on the other end of the phone was palpable. One Dad was very concerned:
Concerned Dad: “So where exactly is it, the NCH?”
Me: “No, the RDS”
CD: ” wow, ok..will there be a lot of books there? I am bringing my daughter and I don’t want her to be disappointed. What time should I get there? Where can I get parking?”
It’s such a lovely job to be able to hear this love and excitement. Then again, I am biased, I do love books.
Two days later, I was registering people for a conference when Selina Tusitala Marsh, came up to say hello. I had met her at her reading a few days earlier and exchanged a few words so she came to say hello again. What else but volunteering would give me the opportunity to be on first name terms with the current Poet Laureate of New Zealand?
4. Be authentically you
One theme popped up over and over again during the week. A lot of the authors spoke of this need to tell their story as this was not represented in literature when they were growing up. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie read about snow and sleds and lashings and lashings of ginger beer while growing up in Nigeria. Selina Tusitala Marsh spoke about the fact that every Samoan child can recite Wordsworth’s Daffodils, although the flower is not native to the islands.
There is an onus on us all then to be authentic, whether we write or not. For my part, although without a job at the moment, I noticed myself working hard, staying on shift until 2am on one occasion, building relationships and bringing a sense of fun to the task because that is who I am. It doesn’t go away when I find myself in a different environment
5. If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again
Turns out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a novel in a drawer somewhere that she couldn’t get published. Kit De Waal wrote a thriller before she published her first book. Even the greats fail sometimes. There is comfort in that as the CVs and cover letters gather on my desktop. Not every application will lead to an interview. When the book is the right one, written in the author’s true voice, it will be published and when the role is the right one to match my values and skills, it will be offered to me. In the meantime, there is always someone who needs a volunteer handy with a helium pump.