Sam van Zweden


I am tiny. Beyond that. Nothing.

Grand Canyon w flag


When we got to the top of the rise in the car park, the Grand Canyon appeared – sudden and immovable. Huge. Hilarious in its immensity. My eyes struggled to adjust to the sudden abundance of depth and distance. Immense. Haha. What. the. fuck. My boyfriend and I walked along a pathway for about half an hour, stopping to take photos. I gave up on the photos quickly, not seeing the point in trying to do this landmark justice in a frame. The path veered away from the rim occasionally, and each time it came back I felt newly affronted by just how massive a piece of the Earth this is. I laughed. What even *are* my problems?!, I joked. I felt insignificant, and this was comforting.

Small metal markers set into the path represented a ‘geological timeline’ – each large step I took corresponded to a million years of the Canyon’s existence. I thought of the act of flying forwards in time, as we’d done to reach the US. Here I walked backwards in time, and my mind similarly struggled to make it a reasonable act. Pieces of rock placed periodically alongside the timeline displayed the changing colours and patterns that we might see if we were actually further down, in the Canyon. These rocks looked foreign to one another – as though they were from different parts of the planet. Or perhaps from different planets entirely. After half an hour of long, million-year steps, I didn’t reach the end of the Canyon’s formation story.

We sat on white rocks and stared out into this negative-space wonder. We held hands. I looked at the rock around us and thought of Hanging Rock – there, people had etched their names into the surrounding trees and boulders. In response to the Australian landscape, this gesture seems to be some kind of feeble protest against the intense discomfort that particular experience can provoke; against the fragility of our tiny lives. At the Canyon, there are no etched names. Along the path on the way back to our starting point, I saw names carved into a bench – so many names that they crowded and took up every inch of the man-made objects. Perhaps these small-time vandals could deal (existentially, I mean) with carving their initials into something they could comprehend the creation of. On the other side of the path, the sheer force and might of the Canyon screamed silence. Why bother trying to leave a mark on that?

Its expanse is terrifyingly beautiful. It is also comforting. It is the hole I feel open inside me at times, and the place I want to disappear into when the shame of existence gets overwhelming. It is a place where I could get truly lost, despite all the visitors to this site, and never, ever be found. I want this. This is my nightmare. I am pulled toward the edge, a scream in my chest; the knowledge of that self-destruction on this site would mean nothing, would be forgotten in a breath. Not even half a step.

Periodically, American flags dot the rim. As if this site could be claimed.

NonfictioNOW 2015 Day 2 & 3 Notes

It’s been a week since the NonfictioNOW conference, and I’ve been travelling non-stop. I thought I’d get a chance to compose my thoughts in the days immediately following the conference, but I’m starting to realise that I need to write in the short moments of down-time. There won’t be an afternoon spare.

Day 2:

The Poessaytics of Form: (Brenda Miller, Paul Lisicky, Linette D’Amico, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, Barrie Jean Borich). Leaning on the academic side of the weird academic/festival boundary that NonfictioNOW teeters on, this panel presented papers on the playfulness of form and possibilities of the ways that poetry feeds into nonfiction. “Differences in mediums and genre don’t have to be dividing lines – they can be intersections” suggested Fletcher. Borich’s paper stood out. “I have always believed nonfiction begins with a poem” – I believe this too. I find that reading poetry before essaying is generally much more useful than reading other people’s essays. Open up the poem in the essay. Celebrate the intersections.

Tim Flannery’s Keynote: I am a proud and an ashamed Australian. Proud because Tim Flannery is one of ours. Ashamed because he’s someone whose work I’d never previously engaged with. I’d understood it to be important (climate change, anthropology, science), but never of particular interest to me. My eyes have been opened! Thanks, NFN programming. This keynote stood out as different from the conference’s other keynotes – Flannery took a conversational approach, spinning tales and keeping the whole room captivated. The conference did a good job of programming discussions of nonfiction built to leave the page, or to use page space in interesting and new ways. Flannery’s keynote reminded me how pleasurable it can be to hear a good story, told out loud – the old-fashioned way. I’m converted. Tim Flannery is a truly wonderful storyteller.

Creative Facting: (Dave Madden, Michael Martone, Tim Denevi, Maggie Nelson). This panel was conducted festival-style, with chair Dave Madden entering into a discussion with panellists – it came as a welcome change after a day and a half of papers. Not that papers are bad, but my brain needed a break. The problem the panel was to discuss, as Madden put it, was how to bring ‘facts’ out of their passivity, and into the writer’s own voice. He suggested “Using facts in a way that doesn’t just resonate with our heads, but also with our hearts and our guts” – a kind of writing I’m sure we all aspire to, and a kind of writing I know I felt particularly keenly when reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Madden referred to “the nonfictive imagination” as the source of movement for facts. Nelson reflected on this idea as “the modes of assembly that make new things happen”. I thought of Nelson’s words in an interview I read recently about how juxtaposition and arrangement are the main actions of nonfiction writing. This is the thing about facts, isn’t it? They can bolster a piece, but they need to be put in the right place, in the right order, between the right other things.

Michael Martone noted that the drives behind narrative and lyric writing work in different ways – the written medium lines up, ie, words move left to right. By its nature, it wants to move forward. However, the lyric form makes words stand still. The poetry of the form creates an illusion where we’re taking in all the words at once. (Aside: Martone’s excited method of execution on this panel was infectious. Watch the guy talk and just try not to get excited about writing nonfiction.)

The panelists were asked for their go-to resources for facts. Denevi prefers the library. Nelson retypes things she likes – retyping allows her to live the syntax, understanding the words from the inside out.

When a Writer is Born Into a Family, the Family is F’d: (David Carlin, Sue William Silverman, Amanda Webster, Amy Monticello, Catherine Therese). You can read my coverage of this panel on the NonfictioNOW blog.

Storify: Read the Storify compilation of Day 2’s tweets.

2015-10-27 17.18.28

Day 3:

Some honesty about Day 3 – I skipped the first session. I woke up as a puddle of nerves, and decided to practice some self-care: coffee. Breakfast. Breathing. So, we kick off with the session I was lucky to present as part of. For the rest of the day, I took less notes than I’d have liked, in my post-panel daze and later, when the altitude got the better of me and I took myself home early (missing out, also, on the last event). So apologies if this one’s a little bit sparse. And apologies to the new friends I didn’t get to thank and say goodbye to – I had no idea that altitude could wreck a body like that.

Unusual Foods and Edible Guests: (Amy Wright, Elena Passarello, Matthew Gavin Frank, Joni Tevis, Sam van Zweden). My fellow panellists were amazing – they each read about strange foods, and my god, there are some strange foods in the world! Their beautiful words slowed those foods down, paused the foods, rewound the foods for further consideration – because what we put into our bodies says so much about what matters and how we engage with the world. When I was asked to be part of this panel, I was humbled. And then terrified. And then I did it, and I felt affirmed and more confident in what I have to say. During question time, someone asked what the strangest foods we’d eaten were. “I’m not really interested in unusual foods so much as the unusual effects of mundane foods,” I said. I felt less interesting but honest. Mundane or strange, food means so much, and is worth interrogating for that importance.

Is this a Golden Age for Women Essayists?: (Brenda Miller, Amy Wright, Nicole Walker, Marcia Aldrich). All my notes and my brain retained from this panel – other than Brenda Miller’s fantastic analogy about hermit crabs and form (let form dictate) – was recommendations of publications which the panellists believe represent women’s voices well: The Writer on Her WorkFulcrumEntropyBrevityThe Rumpus.

The Essayist as Human: (Steven Church, Sarah Einstein, Cesar Diaz, Kirk Wisland). There’s the page and there’s the person. The two don’t always gel. Also, who is that person? How do they move about in the world? At each festival/conference I go to, there’s always one person who stands out as the person I’ll keep an eye out for in future. This conference, that was Steven Church, who defined the person behind the page in a way I related to strongly: “Writing isn’t so much a job as a pathology,” he said. “A uniform you never take off.”

Props go out to Sarah Einstein’s strength on this panel, in sharing the story of a difficult fall-out in the wake of a particular essay being published. Because that’s part of being human too – stories continuing beyond the page, the people we love reacting to our work, or being caught up in its discussion, for better or worse.

I wish I had more to share from the conference – I wish the conference could go forever! I want to send out a massive thanks to the NonfictioNOW team for programming such a wonderful weekend, and for including me both as a panellist and giving me access to their social media to wreak havoc at will. I can’t wait for the next one! Thanks also to the RMIT contingent, who took me under their wing and made me feel at home in a weird environment. I want to also thank the Melbourne City of Literature Office for helping me get to the conference. It’s contributed to the way I think of myself as a writer, it’s helped me make connections, it’s opened my eyes. It’s done all the other things I said it’d do on the grant application, so thank you.

NonfictioNOW 2015 Day 1 Notes

Today, 500 people came together to kick off the conference at NonfictioNOW 2015. With five conference rooms, 193 panelists across 3 days, and a book fair running the length of the (quite long) conference centre, this feels like a dream world. Some promised land for nonfiction writers who don’t quite fit into clean definitions, and who perhaps don’t particularly want to.

The book fair tables running the length of the conference centre.
The book fair tables running the length of the conference centre.

Still kicking against jetlag as hard as I can, and still failing at that fairly badly, I’ve put together a Storify that collects my favourite tweets/moments from the panels I attended.

Just a note on the ‘Hydra-headed Memoirs’ panel, where speakers looked at how they approached their work’s form – is it an essay? An essay collection? A memoir? I feel like this session has helped me immeasurably. I’ve been trying to push my long essay into a book for a while now, and every time I try, I shrink away from it – I wasn’t sure why. I thought maybe I was lesser for not being capable of writing a full-length book. But have a look at what Joe Mackall and Steven Church have to say about essays being essays in the Storify below.


[View the story “NonfictioNOW 2015 Conference Day 1” on Storify]

“G’day, ma’am,” says the man at the visa desk at LAX. He hands back my passport and giggles to himself. I had assumed him to be humourless – but then this. He’s used ‘g’day’ like it’s ‘aloha’ – like I could be coming or going. I’m unsure which I am, now sporting the very first stamp in my still-new passport.

In the LA twilight sky, a flock of geese soar overhead. Long necks and feet point out at either end, and remarkably straight, stable wings shoot out to the sides – a floating cross. The geese turn in silence, confident of their direction. Synchronicity in the city. Changing direction, they become X-s. Kisses in the sky.

Kisses for your coming, they say; kisses for your going.


Now that I’m able to count down using my very own hands – now that I don’t need to make use of toes, or borrow another person’s body to make up the numbers – now it seems real.

Earlier this year, I was lucky to receive a City of Literature Office travel fund grant. The grant is helping me get to Flagstaff, Arizona for the NonfictioNOW conference from October 28-31. The conference describes itself as “a regular gathering of over 400 nonfiction writers, teachers, and students from around the world in an effort to explore the past, present, and future of nonfiction”. Not quite a festival and not quite a conference, NonfictioNOW was hosted at RMIT in Melbourne in 2012. During that conference, I blogged and soaked up new ideas. I feel like that conference changed the way I approach nonfiction, and energised my writing practice. I wanted desperately to make it to the next one – and now it’s happening.

2015-09-09 16.51.27

I’ve been helping with social media for the conference (hyper-aware of spelling differences, like ‘travelling/traveling’) and blogging on the conference’s own blog up to this point, and am so excited to be blogging the festival. This post is, then, a bookend – preparing you for the posts to come. And not just a bookend for the conference, because the travel keeps going after that.

I haven’t travelled before. Well, I have travelled before. In 2014 I went to Adelaide, Hobart, Launceston, and Newcastle – it was a big year for travelling. But that travelling was small-scale travelling. Non-passport travelling. Get in a car, get on a boat, get on a train, get on a plane. Get to your destination in no more than an hour or two. The travelling I’m about to embark on is more ambitious – get on a plane, stay there for 9 hours. Stop over in a city that’s further from home than you’ve ever been, but don’t be too excited about it because this isn’t The Travelling yet, this is just a thing on the way to The Travelling. Get on another plane and stay there for 12 hours. And then you’re there, but you’re not there.

NonfictioNOW is being held in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is a 10-hour train ride from LA (or a much shorter flight from Phoenix, but what fun is that?). Speakers I’m incredibly excited about include Ander Monson, Roxane Gay, Maggie Nelson, and Charles D’Ambrosio (whose work I wrote about for Killings) – writers whose work has surprised and challenged me. The program has many names in common with my Honours reading list – Steven Church, Judith Kitchen, and Brenda Miller. The conference provides insight to the act of writing creative nonfiction in a way that no gathering in Australia (that I’ve seen) does. What does it mean to craft the world? How do we wrangle it, does it need to be wrangled, what are our lenses, and what are the implications of what we write? These are questions the conference will engage with.

Oh, and me! I’m speaking! I’ll be on a panel called ‘Unusual Foods and the Edible Guests’, discussing food writing with wonderful writers Amy Wright, Matthew Gavin Frank, Elena Passarello and Joni Tevis. These writers are all brilliant, and I’m feeling entirely humbled to be part of such a stellar session. I’ll be delivering a 12-minute paper on the idea of writing food memories, and how difficult that can be, and why – and how we might meet that challenge. MFK Fisher suggested that she couldn’t write about food without writing about a yearning for love and security – “We cannot straightly think of one without the others”. It follows that we can’t straightly write it, either – that’s what my paper looks at. At last reading it was 21 minutes long – I’m in the process of editing it to meet the 12 minute brief, but it’s certainly a big challenge in economy of language and clear communication.

When I pitched the trip to the City of Literature Office, I said that I’d like to investigate the ways that nonfiction – particularly creative and experimental nonfiction – is shared. I want to know how it’s published, presented and sent forth into the world. There are only a handful of journals in Australia which really embrace unconventional nonfiction writing, and I hope to come home armed with some knowledge and ideas that will help open us up to the form. Many, many thanks go to the Melbourne City of Literature Office for making the trip possible, and to the organisers of NonfictioNOW, who’ve embraced my small involvement with all generosity.

After the conference, I’ll be travelling across the United States with my partner over almost four weeks: Las Vegas, New Orleans, Washington DC, New York. I’ll be blogging the trip, and meeting new people, and trying to write meaningfully about the significance of what I learn.

I have many hopes attached to this trip, and I’m not sure they’re all reasonable. Now that I’m only a handful of days away from leaving Australia for a while, I’m realising that I hope a great deal of my own travel: I hope it helps me meet new people. I hope those people are open to sharing with me. I hope I deliver a good paper. I hope I can meet the world for what it is, and move outside my own small universe. I hope travel makes me simultaneously more and less: more open, more knowledgeable, more capable. Less inward-looking. Less scared. I’m full of questions.

Tomorrow I can get rid of the second hand for counting – there will be only 5 days to go.

Spots of time

Poets talk about ‘spots of time,’ but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone. I shall remember that son of a bitch forever.

— Norman Maclean, quoted in Judith Kitchen’s ‘Grounding the Lyric Essay’.

Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship

The third round of the Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships for 2015 have kicked off, and I’m starting to settle into my space. I’ve brought in books and tea and scrappy manuscript copies for marking up and stabbing holes in when I get to the stabby part of the day.

Many, many, many thanks to the Wheeler Centre for having me – it’s a huge vote of confidence in my work. I’m chuffed, too, to be in such wonderful company with the other hot deskers, whose projects sound amazing. You’ll have a chance to hear a bit from each of the projects at the Next Big Thing event later in the year – I’ll post more details about this closer to the event.

My desk sign
My desk sign

Continue reading “Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship”

We eat the world

Image via Flickr CC / darwinbell
Image via Flickr CC / darwinbell

“Psychologists say that the action of eating, of taking in food is simply enchanting – because it’s the way we can take up the world inside ourselves, how what is around us becomes part of us. We eat the world.”

— Antije Krog.

The Interrobang

Today the Wheeler Centre have announced their forthcoming ‘festival of questions’, which will take place on November 27-28.

This promises to be a unique festival. The Wheeler Centre has launched its Interrobang website, where the public are asked to submit their ‘best question’. These questions are being compiled into an archive, where you can click a love-heart to show that you’d like to hear a particular question discussed at the festival. The questions with the most votes will become part of the festival’s program. You’re literally being given the opportunity to give direct input on a crowd-sourced festival program.

Just a quick A++ shout-out to the person who’s submitted a question as to why people overlook Cameron Frye’s importance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I had a moment of realisation recently where I understood, all of a sudden, that that film is about Cameron, and not Ferris. The IMDB blurb doesn’t even mention Cameron. Ferris is the same at the beginning and the end of the film – his story has no arc. For Cameron, things change… This might seem tangential, but I encourage you to vote for the Cameron Frye question. I want to see this character celebrated for the hero that he is, and this is the only opportunity we may get to make this happen.

The line-up of guests for The Interrobang (the ‘Brains Trust’) has already been announced, and it’s full of people with multiple job titles and areas of expertise. A few particular favourites of mine have me beyond excited – Cheryl Strayed! Meghan Daum! Nakkiah Lui! This is gonna be good.

So go have your say on what needs to be discussed – submit a question, and vote on those you think belong on the program. The full program will be announced on October 12, and the festival takes place in Melbourne’s CBD on November 27-28.

The corpse that feeds the flowers

“With ruins a city springs free of its plans into something as intricate as life, something that can be explored but perhaps not mapped … with ruin a city comes to death, but a generative death like the corpse that feeds flowers.”

  • Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, pp89-90.

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