Sam van Zweden


Five Gems that Might Just Save your Arse

Image source: Flickr / Pankaj
Image source: Flickr / Pankaj

I’ve spent most of today in the Freelancing for Life Masterclass, an event that’s part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival (which finishes up TOMORROW – can you believe it?!). The day presented a series of panels offering advice from editors, full-time freelancers, and mixed-income writers. I took a huge amount of notes, but here are five little gems you missed which might just save your arse.

1. Don’t have experience? Make your own experience. When publications and job opportunities seem to seek a large amount of experience and skill sets you’re not taught in your uni course, it can seem impossible to find a way in. In the ‘Commercial gigs vs creative freedom’ panel, Sian Campbell stressed that writers need to create their own opportunities. Start a blog to become ‘expert at WordPress’, re-do your mum’s business website to become experienced in copywriting. This was underscored by Erin Riley’s blogging experience. She said, “I don’t think I would’ve ever had to opportunity to write commercially if I hadn’t been writing for free on my blog first”. Work your way up, and teach yourself – that’s how everyone else is doing it.

2. Golden rule: Don’t be a jerk. Panelists right across the day stressed the importance of building relationships with editors, peers, mentors and publications. In ‘The Freelance Life’ panel, Anthony Carew suggested that writers should have ‘a bedrock’ of reliable clients with return business – other jobs, one-offs (which Penny Modra later called ‘mosquito jobs’) can come and go around the edges. These return clients rely on the strength of relationships. Amy Gray, in the final panel of the day, wrapped this line of thought up with the golden rule, “Don’t be a jerk”. Sage nods from fellow panelists.

3. The work is out there. While it’s hard (see: near impossible) to scrape together a living solely from creative endeavours, turning to corporate/commercial writing can be a viable way of cobbling together the time and money to do your creative work. Penny Modra from the Good Copy (who host a team of fantastic copywriters, along with resources for freelancers and writers in general) said that “clients are actually desperate for writers”, it’s just a matter of capable writers putting their hands up for the work. “Don’t look down on commercial work,” she said, “You’ll do it badly if that’s your attitude. Everything you write is the most important thing you’ll write.”

4. You can’t just walk into this thing. More than one panelist suggested that we approach freelancing like any other small business. Starting a small business requires some capital and a buffer for your business to get off the ground. Get some capital behind you before diving in.

5. Work methods! While there’s no single way that every writer should work, I do love good work practice tips. Penny Modra works in Pomodoros (”What I previously thought was an hour’s work is actually just 25 minutes”), while Erin Riley makes time for reading by listening to audio books in her transit time. It’s about working efficiently!

Things change, things stay the same


Each year when I attend the Emerging Writers’ Festival’s National Writers’ Conference I manage to pick up something new. Of course, this is because the discussions change. But it’s also because my priorities change – the discussions that were interesting to me in 2009 were quite different to those that interest me now.

This line of thought dovetails with the experience of the festival as portrayed by Twitter. It’s a strange and wonderful thing to be in a room, furiously tweeting an event, and notice the places where other people’s tweets intersect with your own, and where they diverge entirely. What I think is a brilliant quote or insight doesn’t even rate a mention in other feeds. It’s a different festival for everyone in attendance.

Having said that, some things will always be inspiring. This year, Anna Poletti’s advice at the ‘5×5’ event (in which five writers offer five pieces of invaluable advice) suggested that the best way to get writing done is to stay at the desk. “Five pieces of advice,” she joked. “Stay at the desk. Stay at the desk. Stay at the desk. Stay at the desk. Stay at the desk.” I feel like this has been echoed in previous years’ 5×5 events, and in other writers’ sentiments over the weekend. In the ‘Early Bloomers’ session, Oliver Mol described how he got up every day for three years and wrote a thousand words. An audience member in the ‘freelancing’ panel talked about going out to corporate writing work during the day, but coming home at night to work on her fiction. Every year, proof that writers manage to juggle everything inspires me. Proof that people can create great work and refuse to let life get in the way of that – that makes me believe that I can do it myself. I think it makes everyone believe that it’s all more possible – and that’s the infectious nature of this conference.

Each year there seems to be some thread that becomes apparent to me throughout the conference events, and it’s usually in line with my preoccupations at the time. This year, that thread was ‘doubt’. The landscape for writers looks quite dire right now, with funding cuts making individual writers, organisations, and publications feel unsure of how to move forward. Personally, this is compounded by decisions around how best to balance my work and creativity now that I’m out of university. Nothing underscored this more than the ‘freelancing’ panel, where Sam Cooney acknowledged how soul-destroying corporate work can be, while multiple audience members defended this same work as what makes their creative practice possible at all. As someone who’s been working in an office doing writing work lately, I feel a strong pull between the two. It’s doubt. Is this the best way it could be done? Am I making the most of my time?

At the panel titled ‘Unlikely Paths to Success’, both Mischa Merz and Adeline Teoh described their false starts – actress or teacher? Writer? Their doubt may have held them back from writing initially, but both these two panelists and host Geoff Orton seemed richer for the experiences they’d had. Perhaps doubt can be fruitful, allowing us to test out and discard possibilities as we need until we reach the place where we’re meant to be.

I thought about the familiar faces I’ve seen at the festival across the last six years, and how much our progress reports to one another have changed over that time. How, each and every time, we’re tentative about what we’re doing, as though it might just fall out from under us at any moment. What if doubt is, in fact, perpetual? What if it’s essential for growth?

Doubt doesn’t have to be a nervous place to be. It can be comforting to know that we’re all muddling through. That there’s no right way to do this. The best we can manage is to wrestle the ideas as articulately as possible and lean on those around us – our community.

EWF Bingo!

The Emerging Writers’ Festival 2015 is almost upon us – the opening night event is on Tuesday 26th May.

I’ve been hanging around the festival for about five years now – the same amount of time I’ve been blogging – and this year I’m lucky enough to be on a panel about blogging, along with Michelle McLaren and Meghan Brewster. Both myself and these two wonderful ladies are lucky enough to be invited by the festival to blog the events we attend, so you’ll be hearing much more about #ewf15 here over the next two weeks.

There’s a number of reasons I feel so much love for this festival. It’s supported me, as a young writer, as an intern, and as a friend. It’s provided me with a way to get my voice heard. It’s always a fantastic place to build my circle of peers, and meet potential mentors.

So, naturally, I’ve made a bingo game. The table below lists a number of things that you might see or experience at the festival. From silly things (hai, STM boots!) to ones that can potentially really improve your festival experience (connecting with new people), the aim is to cross off all these squares until you’ve completed the grid. Mostly, it includes things I’ll be happy to see, along with things that I hope will challenge me a bit. I’ll be playing, and documenting my festival experience through Twitter.

Just try and beat me to BINGO!

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

All the fun kicks off on Tuesday, and the program is PACKED with events that will entertain and inform. See you there!


In October last year I finished my Honours course. My hard work was sent off to the printer, and put between covers before being sent off for marking. My partner and I had spent hours on a cover design which I felt did justice to the texture of the work. A month or two later, I received some really energising feedback, a good mark, and told myself that I had done enough. I was allowed to finally take a break.

2014-10-23 16.12.09

I put the ‘final’ product of Honours away in a box and didn’t look at it for four months. I recently picked it up again, and read the creative component. It had been my intention to take a break, put it away, and come back ‘with fresh eyes’. This is what all my favourite writers advise – write it, put it away, and come back later. I might then be able to pick out the flaws more easily, making the process of rewriting and expansion much easier. But on rereading I noticed that I had told a whole story. The work has a beginning, middle and end – the small (10,000 word) project had done its job.

Applying a narrative arc to anything from life complicates it at the same time as simplifying. Providing a clean story structure to anything ‘true’ (no matter how experimental or indirect the trajectory of the story), it changes the way we think about our life’s events. I heard the other day that each time we remember something, we’re actually just recalling the last time we remembered it. My work remembers, remembers, remembers.

And here’s the grind. The stories I told (and am still telling) have been told already – and I have told them in a final way. I struggle now to undo it. In recent months, every time I sat down and try and ‘expand’ that project, to fill in gaps and bulk it out, I couldn’t. I opened the document, put something in, took the thing out, and closed it again. Having seen what I have to say set between covers, with a title and publication date – I wanted desperately to take it all back, and start again. The end product of Honours feels too inevitable – that story has been done, and I can’t insert anything more into it.

I’ve come to realise the way in is about recontextualising. What I have is a complete first draft, but not of this project. While I thought the personal story I’d written needed to be more, I’m now wondering whether, actually, perhaps it’s quite enough. Perhaps what I need to do is take that story with me as a starting point for another project, one which informs my looking at these issues (food, memory, family) in a more outward way. And perhaps the work I’m doing needs to be done in the opposite direction – rather than opening a soft copy of ‘my book’ and trying to shoehorn new bits in, I’ve been working from a blank document. Saying it all over again, and borrowing from what I’ve done when needed. I hope that the work I’ve done will be giving and generative, and that both pieces will work together, with bits from that personal storyline interweaving with the larger, more ruminative thinking throughout. I hope that eventually, these two strands will become one, and the whole thing will make some sense.

But you never really know, do you. You just sit at the desk each day and try to put something, anything, down.

Good News Update

It’s always hard, or at least a little strange, announcing your own good news. Part of me likes sharing happy achievements, while another part of me wishes that everyone already knew, so I wouldn’t be bragging. With writing news, I also struggle with embargoes. I’m not good at keeping secrets, so that when I finally can tell people I blurt at them like an excited six year-old.

Two happy pieces of news in the last few weeks:

1) I’m part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival program! I’ll be talking with fellow bloggers Michelle McLaren and Meghan Brewster about all things blogging. Having hung around the festival for the longest time (as an attendee, as a blogger, as an intern and friend), I’m thrilled to be taking the leap across the desk and hopefully share some insights and advice that will be useful for emerging bloggers, as well as connecting with new people and learning from their experiences. This event is part of the National Writers’ Conference.

Aside from my own involvement with the festival, I can’t encourage you strongly enough to get along to the festival. This is where you’ll have an opportunity to connect with people at a similar stage of their writing career, as well as potential mentors. People are far more giving with their time and knowledge than you’d imagine, and I’ve found the EWF to be one of the best possible places for finding the support and encouragement I’ve needed.

The EWF team have done a fantastic job once again of making a hugely accessible festival, with over half of their programming FREE (!!!), and presenting a huge range of voices from artists at various stages in their career. Get ye to the festival!

2) I’m also chuffed to have been awarded a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship, and humbled to be part of such an amazing group of recipients. The Hot Desk will give me time and space to write, a platform for my current project (an exploration of food and memory titled Eating with my Mouth Open), and the all-important moneys. I’ll be writing at the Wheeler Centre from late September to early December. You can read more about the program, as well as the other fantastic recipients, at the Wheeler Centre website.

The Little Things: Poetry

It’s easy to wrap up the large things I’ve read – simple to tie them up with ribbons and bows, outlining themes and concerns using broad, sweeping gestures. What’s harder is to dissect the little things. I’ve been reading Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, and in it he says that “it’s only in the tiny that anything matters or exists at all.” Most of what I write is small – vignettes and poems, blog posts and flashes. Why prize the larger works when so many smaller things really speak to me, and they’re my main mode of creativity? I also want to cultivate the noticing of mundane life and quiet art.

It’s been a while between memes on this blog, and this is purely a matter of falling out of the habit. I’ll be running ‘Little Things’ posts intermittently, and each post will outline a handful of small things that have caught my attention.

April is NaPoWriMo – 30 poems in 30 days – and so I’ve been making an effort to read more poetry. The tiny red lotus in Jenn Webb’s ‘From: Four Cities: 3. On George Street’ has stuck with me. As has the feeling of displacement in Farz Edraki’s ‘Five signs you’re in the wrong time zone’, which appeared on Feminartsy this week.

I’ve been writing poems too, as is the NaPoWriMo goal. I’ve never written a good haiku – one that embraces nature and stillness – and I very much want to. So far this month, I’ve written poems that rhyme and ones that don’t. I’ve written poems that play with epic movement and physicality, and poems that meditate on memory. In chasing the elusive good haiku, I’ve written a lot of shit haikus. I wrote a poem based on the objects I spotted in the bottom of the NGV fountain, and one based on this picture that popped up in my Twitter feed:

Joining NaPoWriMo

April is NaPoWriMo, or National Poetry Writing Month – the poetic equivalent of NaNoWriMo. This project is a marathon challenge to write a poem every day throughout April. By the end of April, participants should have 30 poems.

Kate Larsen, director of Writers Victoria, wrote an article about NaPoWriMo for ArtsHub, which I came across this morning.

Image source: Flickr / Pankaj
Image source: Flickr / Pankaj

Recently a poem came to me when I was walking down the street. It struck me in that “sent by the Muses” way that infuriates me, because it goes against my everyday sit-down-and-do-the-things approach. It frustrates me that I put in hard work and get nothing sometimes, though most of the time it’s just fine. It’s both upsetting and a blessing that sometimes the universe just hands you exactly what you need. What I needed was a piece of paperbark on a city footpath. From there came a line, and from that line a stanza. I thought about distance between paperbark near a main city road and the paperbark I peeled from one of the many tea trees around my beachside home. I thought about all the trees around that place, and what they meant to me.

So I’m feeling inspired about NaPoWriMo. My writing seems stuck in a rut right now, and I’m unable to see things from the required angle to move forward. NaPoWriMo, while not related to the larger work I’m doing, might just be the injection of something new that I need to shake it up and get it all moving again.

So for the whole of April, I’m committing to read a poem each morning, and write a poem each day. I’ll experiment with form and themes, and hopefully at the end of the month I’ll have at least a couple of things I’m confident enough with that I can send them off to lit journals for publication. Sometimes I might share a poem, or at least the prompt that lead me to it.

Who’s with me?

A different room

Image source: Flickr / vanessaberry
Image source: Flickr / vanessaberry

My work space at home is a room of its own – it’s a second bedroom turned into a study, where I have a desk, a reading chair, and a couple of book shelves. This room houses the nonfiction shelves and lit mags. It’s nice to be able to get out of bed and be at work without leaving the house.

It’s also really hard. It’s hard to not do the dishes mid-morning, or watch some TV over lunch (which then turns into an afternoon of TV). It’s difficult to concentrate on anything for a particularly long period of time when the rest of my life creeps in, because the place I work is amongst my life. It’s all tangled up in the messiness of living. The washing and the dinner and the laziness of lunchtime. The lure of bed on bad days, the ease of slipping into loneliness and sadness when the only person I see is my secretive neighbour whose blinds snap shut each time I spy his face. Working at home can be isolating, and it gives my mind every opportunity to sink into the troublesome parts of myself.

Last year I benefited hugely from having a space to work away from home, in the lab at uni. I left home in the morning, taking my work with me, and when I came home I had permission to relax. While I was in the lab I saw people – I was able to ask them how their work was going, and offload my own worries or struggles. Together we’d celebrate the little victories – a chapter completed, a discovery communicated. Perhaps these kinds of relationships are unique to well-matched research groups. Perhaps it’s silly to try to recreate it.

I can, however, hope to recreate the good habits and healthy attitude of leaving the house to work.

I’ve just opened a membership with the Athenaeum Library – a subscription library above the Athenaeum Theatre – where I will try to work at least three days a week (as employment allows, which it totally does at the moment). It’s a serious place, full of dark, wooden furniture and paintings of bearded men on the walls; there’s something oddly comforting about its masculinity. It’s quiet here; silence broken intermittently by chatter amongst friends.

I’ll still work at home once a week, at a treat. I’ll allow myself that day to potter around between working, and I’ll accept that.

My mind feels open today – brighter, energised, ready to make something. It’s not any easier to write, but it feels less easy to get discouraged. And that’s something.

Noted, Buzzwords

Noted is a brand new literary festival touching down in Canberra at the end of March (20-22). The lead-up to the festival has been super-exciting – last week we saw Noted’s Pozible campaign surpass its goal, and earlier this week the Noted program was released. The festival brands itself as ‘experimental’, ditching typical panels and Q&As for performances and social events.

Here are a few events I’m excited for – I can’t make all of them in person, but I want to give an idea of the breadth of this amazing program:

There’s a poetry slam that will see Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit! face off against Feminartsy, You Are Here festival and Noted.
– There’s an intercontinental work-swap between London and Sydney.
– A story will be publicly-sourced, so that any tweet with the #TedNo hashtag will become part of the narrative.
– There’s also a great series of Lit Hop events, as well as Ask Me Anythings and workshops.

A few weeks ago, I shared the exciting news through social media that I’m being included as an artist at Noted. While the traditional Q&A format isn’t a feature of the festival, writers can still find writing advice and wisdom through the Buzzwords project, which is where you’ll find me. It’s an Agony Aunt set-up, where you send in questions and myself and a panel of other writers – including Patrick Lenton, Kate Iselin, Lynette Noni and Katie Taylor – will bestow upon you our wisdom.

If you’re in Canberra, get along to Noted and support local and national artists. If you’re anywhere else, dig into the digital program, including Buzzwords. See you at the festival!

Digital Writers’ Festival Picks

After the craziness of Christmas and finding the old footholds of routine in the new year, I’ve hugely enjoyed perusing the recently-released program for the Digital Writers’ Festival, which is fast becoming the event that kicks off my literary calendar. Running a massive 11-day program of events, featuring writers and organisations both established and nascent, the DWF begins on February 11th.

One of my favourite elements of the Digital Writers’ Festival is its accessibility, which reflects the ‘come one, come all’ inclusive attitude of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, under whose umbrella the DWF takes place. Taking it to the next level, the majority of DWF events are free, and no matter where you are, or your level of comfort around new or overwhelmingly brilliant people, you’re able to engage with DWF. I’m currently in a brave new (and temporary) world of 9-5 work – if this were a meat-space festival, I’d be missing out on heaps of great events. Since it’s all being streamed live, recorded, and archived, I’ll be able to catch up on ‘missed’ events whenever it suits me, as well as having access to the amazing proceedings long after the festival’s over.

On to the picks. I’ve made a list of events I’m really looking forward to – it’s a list of what interests me, not necessarily ‘the best of the fest’. Don’t forget to check out the program to figure out your own picks.

20 Minute Cities: Iowa
While Hannah Horvath’s doing a helluva job of killing the vague hope I’ve always felt towards Iowa, I’m keen to know what the locals think. In this event, a pair of real life Iowa writers conduct a guided tour of this sister City of Literature.

The View from Here
The perfect storm of arbitrary rules and absolute chance, this event pairs writers (like, you!) in geographically disparate places and sends them on a walk… together.

The Stella Longlist
The Stella Prize champions fantastic writing by Australian women, and in this event they announce the 2015 longlist, accompanied by readings from the longlisted writers. Let the to-be-read list grow!

DWF x Pozible: Writers’ new age toolkit
Monetisation is confusing and difficult. I believe that it can be done well, but good advice is hard to find. This DWF and Pozible collaboration seems like a fantastic place to start.

Confessions! Memoir! Confessional memoir… and anonymity! These things are all wonderful, and Scum magazine is wonderful, so this event just can’t go wrong.

Publishing on the feed: Social media as a publishing platform
Social media opens up new possibilities for self-publishing. I’m a big fan of the work of both Patrick Lenton and Autumn Royal, so I’m really looking forward to hearing what they’ve got to say on this topic.

Digital Dinner Parties
I can’t go past a great food event! Unlike any writers’ festival event I’ve ever heard about before, this event offers participants the chance to cook along with the panel. The women featured in this event are all fantastic food writers, and this promises to be a unique experience.

Those are my picks for #dwf15 – what are you looking forward to?

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