I’ve just come from working the Word Festival in Aberdeen: a weekend of literature, readings, children’s book events, and general authorial merriment.
I’ve been going to Word for about four years now. My old friend Allo has been living in Aberdeen for some time, and we’ve made a yearly habit of getting together for Word. While the lynch-pin in our annual reunion has been the literature festival, I must be completely honest – until this year, the primary real reason I went to Word was to have a natter with Allo and a right muck about Aberdeen. The actual literature festival usually fell second to a weekend of wine and chat.
So, when Allo contacted me to see if I wanted to work Word this year, I thought, ‘Great idea. If I work the event, I might actually see some of the authors — as opposed to buying tickets for a reading and then changing our minds because a nice dinner and a bottle of merlot was calling our names.’
For the record, I regularly work events as part of my job/career/way to pay the rent. I used to work music festivals and charity events back in Denver, and for the last five years I’ve been working the Dundee Literary Festival. Plus, Allo initially contacted me about this year’s Word festivities while I was teaching at the Pitlochry Festival. So, making sure authors are on set and mic-ed up, lecterns in the right place, and orderly queues formed for book signings is a pretty normal weekend, or so I thought.
Actually, this weekend turned out to be different, because this time around I was a volunteer.
Being a volunteer doesn’t actually feel that different to being paid. Perhaps there’s a bit more weight on your shoulders if you’re getting paid to do a job, but (paid or unpaid) there’s still work to be completed, on time, in a professional manner, and to the best of my ability. The difference comes down to opportunity.
The number of volunteers at Word was amazing. All kinds of individuals, taking time out of their weekend to show up and work for free (well, were paid with lunch and access to author events).
As the Festival is run through Aberdeen University, many of the volunteers were students, but they ranged from those studying Economics to those reading for a more book-festival-related subject, ie. Creative Writing. There were first years volunteering and Masters students. There were even a few of us from outside Aberdeen University donning our ‘Event Staff’ t-shirt, hooking the walkie-talkie to our belts and making sure the show went on. All in all, it was a great atmosphere, and I’m positive that the enthusiasm of the volunteers had a lot to do with this.
I think volunteering for creative events is a brilliant idea. Through volunteers* the event gets much needed help in an economy that is slashing arts funding, and anyone who wishes to ‘break into’ either publishing or writing can see first hand how an author lives. By volunteering with these types of events, a budding writer can meet authors and make connections. By volunteering, the aspiring novelist can see what the real life of an author is like, and that dashes through airports and fast paced races to a venue for a reading are as common as quiet moments in which to sit down and write. Even for the bibliophile, and others who love to read but have no aspirations to write, seeing how one of these events works is a joy and a pleasure.
All that is required of the volunteer is to:
1. be flexible
2. take volunteering as seriously as you would any other job
3. enjoy yourself
So, how does one become a volunteer for literary events?
Answer: just ask.
Some organisations have a bank of people the use regularly, that way they do not need to train people for each occasion, while others are more than happy to recruit for each event. Some festivals have a large number of people clamouring to volunteer, so they set-up applications, while others are willing to take on anyone who asks.
If you want to get involved with a Festival, just remeber, it hurts nothing to ask, and even if they don’t use you for that specific festival, they may keep you in mind for future endeavours.
Ultimately, volunteering is immensely beneficial to the arts industry, its beneficial to the writing career of a burgeoning author, and as long as you keep an open mind and remain flexible (be prepared to do anything from direct cars for parking to hunting down spring water for an author) it’s loads of fun.
*I must make a few caveats to this statement. I don’t buy into David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. I take strong umbrage with companies who use free labour through the title of ‘internships’, and I believe that people who train in a skilled area should be paid for their services. The volunteering that I am discussing is about using a few hours of an enthusiastic novice’s time, in order to create or establish something that could not happen with out the use of free labour.