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Sam van Zweden

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Review: Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

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In Art and Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland ask of artists, ‘Why do so many who start, quit?’, pitching their enquiry at visual artists, but also at writers, actors –  anyone whose creative pursuits might cause them any doubt.

Pinpointing fear as the main reason we stand in our own way as artists, the first half of this book is pretty useful. Drawing on the documented experience of a broad range of artists throughout history (creating something of a ‘suggested reading’ mountain), the first half of the book provides insight into the idea that all the things you fear, and which can stop you from making art, are necessary. Your self-doubt, your anxiety, your fear of unoriginality, your particular world-view: all essential. Artistic fear takes many different forms, but at its root, it’s all fear.

These ideas are not groundbreaking, but it is nice to have it all researched and put together in one place – it’s kind of like a series of Brain Pickings articles on artistic process, plus some real talk, bound between covers.

The second half of the book tries to put these fears into the context of the world, and identify real-world barriers (i.e., external things that, unlike your fear, aren’t necessary or so easily harnessed for good) to your artmaking. Unfortunately this half of the book reads more like a list of vendettas: Bayles & Orland aren’t very keen on academia, or critics. Where the first half of the book winds up to kick some ass, what follows doesn’t satisfactorily deliver on that promise. Instead, it gives the impression that Bayles and Orland don’t have much to offer by way of solutions. It’s disappointing that the book didn’t narrow its scope to recognition and acknowledgement of the fears tied up in artmaking, because in my reading, that would have been enough.

The last chapter brings the book full-circle and this left me feeling energised; it’s a call-to-arms and insistence that only you can make your art, even if you’re fearful.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the ways that Bayles and Orland call bullshit on ‘the struggle’, without denying its existence altogether. As the authors observe, ‘We live in a world where the ready-made observations about artmaking are typically useless, frequently fatalistic’. They don’t romanticise the difficulties of artmaking, and the fears that they tackle are approached pragmatically, as real, solid blocks to artistic career success.

Overall, not mind-blowing, but worth a look, even if you only skim-read the second half and check back in to the final chapter.

Review: On the Many Shapes Bodies Will Take

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On the Many Shapes Bodies Will Take is a new poetry collection from award-winning writer, poet, editor and long-time blogger (and friend, full disclosure) Karen Andrews. The collection explores, with brevity and precision, the many phases our bodies move through, and the ways our bodies respond to their places in the world. The poems explore themes that have emerged in Andrews’ mixed collection ‘Crying in the Car’ and through her long-running blog, such as grief, motherhood, intimate relationship dynamics and body image.

Andrews’ language is direct and chosen with obvious care. The poems are short, only occasionally running over a page in length. With a strong narrative thread, and a linear progression through the poet’s life, this collection should appeal to poetry lovers as well as those simply looking for a considered meditation on the body’s impact on and in the world.

What emerges through the collection is a retrospective look at the body’s fallibility and vulnerability, but also its strengths and power. A body is never one thing, never static, and never final. Andrews’ collection explores these permutations with tenderness and skill.

Summer is here. It’s billowy and disgusting outside today, but it’s summer. It’ll do.

Here are the books I’ll be working my way through during the muggy season.

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Green Cleaver podcast

Earlier this week, I sat down on stage in front of a really pretty large room of people, to speak with Sam Cooney, Richard Cornish and Tammi Jonas. We talked about meat. We talked about why meat-eating is tricky, why it matters to us so much, and how we can do better with our meat-eating.

In a conversation that too often swings to extremes (vegans vs ‘carnivores’), I think it’s important to create space for nuanced consideration of the issues involved. I feel hopeful about our ability, as a society, to do better. I think part of the key to doing better is removing the myth that if you can’t (or won’t) give meat up entirely then you may as well not think about your meat-eating practices at all.

The Wheeler Centre have been super efficient in sending the podcast out into the world. So, if you missed the event on Tuesday, you can now listen to it online.

Many thanks to The Wheeler Centre for having me, and to my fellow panelists (and chair) for a generous, clever, enjoyable, nuanced discussion.

Revisiting JSF’s meat book

I’m revisiting Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I loved this book the first time around, and remember it for being a wonderfully personal take on the ethics of meat eating.

Next week, I’m doing a panel at The Wheeler Centre called ‘Green Cleaver‘ – I’ll be talking with Sam Cooney, Richard Cornish and Tammi Jonas about the role of meat in our lives and how we can do it better.

This, I suppose, in the wake of having written about why we struggle to embrace offal; and why the stories we tell about food are important.

I’m still working – always, forever – on the larger manuscript about food’s significance in our lives. In my research for that project, I hadn’t thought to revisit Jonathan Safran Foer’s book – it’s about food, but I didn’t remember it being relevant to what I’m writing.

Until now. In preparation for the panel event on Tuesday, I’m dipping back into JSF. This paragraph encapsulates so much of what I’m trying to do in my work, it’s hard to believe I’d forgotten it:

Perhaps [my grandmother’s] other stories were too difficult to tell. Or perhaps she chose her story for herself, wanting to be identified by her providing rather than her surviving. Or perhaps her surviving is contained within her providing: the story of her relationship to food holds all of the other stories that could be told about her. Food, for her, is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joyfulness, humiliation, religion, history, and, of course, love. As if the fruits she always offered us were picked from the destroyed branches of our family tree.

It’s succinct, and hard-hitting, and I’m finding it so energising. Deeply sad, very important, and energising.

Review: Shibboleth, ed. Laurie Steed

shibbolethIn Jo Riccioni’s short story, ‘Shibboleth’, ex-lovers visit the Tate Modern to see Doris Salcedo’s installation, ‘Shibboleth’. The story’s protagonist feels ‘a primal shock, the life-sized rupture of it in all that civilised space’. The story runs for a short 12 pages, but gestures far more widely than those confines without feeling too ambitious. A shared past is cobbled together from snippets. The dialogue glows with the warmth and idiosyncrasy of talk between familiar people. This is the story that won the 2016 Margaret River Short Story Competition, and the story which provides the title for a new book from Margaret River Press, compiling outstanding entries from that competition.

I know little-to-nothing about what happens in the writing world of Western Australia, and I’m both apologetic for and embarrassed by this. I suspect it’s unconscious urban south-eastern literary snobbery at work. But WA accounts for such a large portion of our country, it’s silly not to make a priority of knowing what’s happening there – such as the good work done at Margaret River Press. This collection features writers from Australia and New Zealand, but also (importantly) new and exciting voices from WA, including the winner of the Southwest Prize, awarded to a writer from south western WA (this year, Phil Sparrow’s story ‘Theo’).

The vast majority of writers in this collection are female. The experience level of the writers included varies greatly, ranging from a first publication, through to the winner of this year’s VPLA for an unpublished manuscript, and others with major awards and big-name publications under their belts. Casting an eye over the author bios at the back of the book, it looks like this collection could, in years to come, be a bit of an early who’s-who in the world of Australian fiction.

Salcedo’s art work, alluded to in Shibboleth’s cover art, is a huge installation. It’s a fissure in the gallery floor, the kind of damage done by a massive earthquake, only this is man-made. It’s a stunning image that stands at the centre of the award-winning story, but it also provides a wonderful unifying motif for all the stories in the collection.

Again and again, these stories riff on that gap – for better or worse. Maybe it pulls people apart. Maybe it’s something to be overcome. The crack’s still there though. These stories acknowledge the existence of the gaps, and all our attempts and failures to bridge them. In ‘Shibboleth’ it’s what comes between the central characters, and its protagonist scoffs at the tactless metaphor. Throughout the collection, these chasms also exist between carers and patients (’It Used to be a Boyd’, ‘Flight’, ‘Theo’), and between who we are and who we’d rather be (’Teacher’ and ‘Fork in the Path’). It’s the space between the limits of human behaviour – the awful, as in ‘Fork in the Path’ and ‘Composition’, and the redeeming, as in ‘Teacher’ and ‘Flight’. Between the familiar and the strange; exploring the rub of strange places and new experiences, or the moments where the the repetition of the same-old reaches breaking point. Sometimes it’s literal, where physical structures separate us, like animal enclosures (‘Thirsty’) and wards (‘Theo’). Or perhaps it’s the space either side of death (‘Flight’ and ‘A House’) or grief (’Before they had Teeth’, ‘The Sea also Waits’). Again and again, the stories in Shibboleth act as meditations on what brings us together and what sets us apart. It looks at the tears – large and small – that appear in the fabric of the things that make us human. The faults and cracks. And the tiny, skipped rhythms of everyday life.

The Southwest Prize winning entry, ‘Theo’ (Phil Sparrow) is about the ease with which we can slip away from being able to care for ourselves. It talks of those complacent to this reality as ‘They who thought they were safe’. Shibboleth, as a whole, cumulates as a study in the faults in that safety. At any moment things could change; these stories are pivotal moments.

The collection is at its best when the stories act as a catalogue of things that the form does so well: tiny moments of unease, glittering language, and stunning central images (such as Shibboleth, or the baby trees at Tana Toraja).

I didn’t love all the stories in this collection – with 24 stories in there, that was always unlikely. But the ones that got me really got me. ‘Le Farfalle’ and ‘Before they had Teeth’ both left me wanting more. My favourite story, ‘It Used to be a Boyd’ is about a mock wedding that happens every week in a nursing home, because ‘everyone loves a wedding’. The aged care worker at its centre, and the resident with whom she connects, felt very real.

There’s a paradox in really good short stories where they manage to feel bigger than they actually are, for their gesturing beyond the bounds of their page length. At their longest, the stories in Shibboleth run for 12 pages. At their shortest, just four. They’re very ‘just-one-more’ish, and fit easily into commutes or before-bed reads.

In just a few sittings, Shibboleth took me around the world, into lives I’d never heard of. It introduced me to characters both sympathetic and not, and to writers I can’t wait to hear more from (Magdalena McGuire and Cassie Hamer, I’m looking at you!). It pivoted gracefully around the chasm introduced in Jo Riccioni’s title story, and made me consider the turning points and breaks in my own life.

Entries for next year’s Margaret River Short Story Competition are open, with Ellen van Neerven editing. If this year’s shortlist is anything to go by, the competition will be fierce.

So Sad Today review

 

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So Sad Today presents unique new possibilities for our relationships with our mental health in an age where severing painful thoughts and sending them out into the void of the internet can serve a number of functions: defusion, therapy, confession, meaning-making. These essays, and the @sosadtoday Twitter account work so well because they defuse awful thoughts by flattening them to black and white marks on a screen or page, drawing out the power of thoughts and observations that might otherwise take your breath away with despair.”

I reviewed Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today – a collection of essays exploring themes from the Twitter account of the same name.

You can read the whole review over on Killings (the Kill Your Darlings blog), and purchase the book here.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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I’ve just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. It’s a book about racially-motivated violence in America, written as a letter to his 15-year-old son. It looks at how the ‘progress’ of white America is built upon the decimation of the black body.

You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable. None if that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have your descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world (pp. 107-108).

There’s nothing I can say about this because it’s not useful for me to speak. This is a book for shutting up and listening. For doing your best at understanding and being better. This is a book that represents a huge gap in both my reading and my understanding of the world, and one I’m going to make a conscious effort to address. This is required reading. Not optional. Go, now.

A Week of One’s Own

I spent last week as a writer in residence at RMIT non/fictionLab’s new creative space, the Urban Writing House. It’s a gorgeous studio on campus in the city, decked out with comfy and stylish furniture, and all I needed to put my head down for a week to work on my book.

I spent the week working on structural and formal elements of my manuscript. It was in dire need of a print-up-and-shuffle-around, having grown in dribs and drabs without too much attention to order – and so I took to the walls with a bunch of blu-tac and shuffled to my heart’s content. I was surprised to realise that some of my short vignettes belonged together as longer bits, and I worked on building a map of the different narrative and conceptual strands that weave throughout the project.

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This cleared the way for more words to be written, and for greater purpose in my moving forward: I have more of an understanding of where the work’s going, and for the shape of what I’m saying in it.

What was most interesting about the time, for me, was what it was like to spend intensive time with my work. I haven’t had a chance to do this in a long while – usually I’ll be writing smaller things alongside work on the manuscript, or have days where I don’t touch it at all after coming home from the day job too tired. When I was doing Honours, I was in the lab most days. My process then involved approximately equal parts jubilation and despair. I’d have an awful day and be utterly convinced I’m incapable of doing good work, and particularly this work. But that day would be followed (perhaps not immediately, but eventually) by a day where things click into place and I take a large step forward. My week at the Urban Writing House replicated this pattern.

Throughout the week, I softened. I walked in on Monday with a militant, no-nonsense attitude to my need to work. By the Saturday, I was being much kinder to myself, and this helped open my mind up to creating worthwhile work. After an awful day on Wednesday (wandering, crying, crying, crying), and many kind and encouraging words from many wonderful women, things picked up – or at least evened out. This shift can be seen clearly through the mantras I wrote on the blackboard in the space, as reminders of what I thought was important and helpful at the time.

They appear below in order. The shift in my attitude toward myself and my work is pretty clear.

There’s one more, from my first day, which for some reason has deleted itself from my camera roll.

They read:

Monday: The thing about writing a book is, you have to write the book. (Possibly inspired by this wonderful post). 
Tuesday: Just do the things.
Wednesday: Be deliberate.
Thursday: You won’t finish it today. Stop trying.
Friday/Saturday: Allow discomfort.

‘Allow discomfort’ was such a good fit that I kept it for two days.

While it was only a week, I feel like I learned a lot. I got good work done. It was a great reminder to be more present (working more regularly helps), and more kind to myself.

This gorgeous little space is evolving. It’s documenting itself. I left my gratitude and story in its guest book, along with the words of the residents who stayed before me. I left a little keepsake on the shelf – a tiny jar with a few sprigs of rosemary in it. I work best when there’s some leaves nearby, and rosemary is often used as a mnemonic prompt in rituals – weddings, funerals, religious ceremonies – so it appears in my work.

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I’m so grateful to the non/fictionLab for providing me with this space – my work and my process have benefited greatly.

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