Sam van Zweden




The Line Between Book and Life: On Public Personas

One of the panels on the Thursday of NonFictioNow was called Writ Large: On Living The Lives We’ve Made For The Page. The panel featured Cheryl Strayed, Ira Sukrungruang, Mira Bartok and Barrie Jean Borich – all memoirists, talking about how they negotiate writing from life, and continuing to live that life when it’s been written.

Are we always wearing masks? Are we always mediated?

One thing that emerged as a common experience for all of these writers is that of having readers confuse the constructed, written memoir with the actual, lived life.

“[Readers] don’t see the book as an artifice,” said Sukrungruang, “they see it as your life.”

All of these authors had been approached by readers and spoken to in a way that implied that there was no gap between author and work; between the story and the world. This kind of simplistic view of memoir (that it’s a process of slapping life down on a page) is simplistic, and worrying. It concerns me that readers are expecting verbatim information – it’s fraught for so many reasons. Writing is a creative process, it’s filtered through perspective and memory, it’s forcing something non-linear or sensible into a linear narrative with… a point. As a writer, I am aware of this when reading any piece of writing that comes from life.

In a later conversation with fellow blogger Alice Robinson, we considered what kinds of personas we create online for ourselves. I feel like this blog is reasonably transparent, and that there isn’t a large gap between myself (lived) and myself (written). But there is a gap, no denying it.

I’ve had people recognize me before. “Oh! You’re Little Girl With a Big Pen!”

…Am I?

This Writ Large panel really made me think about where that gap lies for me. I won’t bother to explain it here; those who know me well no doubt can see the space far better than I myself can.

It could be a site of tension, if I let it be. I refuse to let it be that though, I just know that it’s something I’m very interested in. I find the decisions I make in crafting myself interesting, both in blogging and in my current memoir project. I also find it interesting to hear about how people understand those decisions, and whether the divide between public and private, written and lived personas is a problem.

Maybe it’s similar to the way that we all wear different masks in different situation. No situation is maskless, life being a constant performance. It’s just that when it’s written, it’s more static and dissect-able.


NonFictioNow Day 1

“Collage can save your life,” said David Shields in yesterday’s NonFictioNow keynote speech. He was only half-joking.

For Shields, collage opened up a world of possibility, remixing thought and material to say something entirely new.

“I found a way to write that seemed true to the way I was in the world,” he said. This is a big statement, so ripe for interpretation. Fragmented? Borrowed? Repurposed? How are you in the world, David Shields?

One thread that kept returning throughout the day was that of not forcing form upon a work, and how freedom with form can be a revelation for both writer and content, and I think this is part of what Shields was getting at in his morning keynote.

In the panel Writ Large, Mira Bartok, Cheryl Strayed, Ira Sukrungruang and Barrie Jean Borich talked about (among other things), how their stories seemed possible only as nonfiction, though most of them had moments of doubt: would fiction more easily reach the emotional truth of a situation? Would the label of ‘nonfiction’ result in hurt for people involved in their stories? This was especially relevant for poor Ira, who found Facebook in the months leading up to the publication of his memoir, and was met with communications from people he thought he’d never see again in his life.

Likewise, later in the day Bret Lott’s paper was thoroughly brilliant, especially when Bret made a square-peg-round-hole analogy about nonfiction as form. Form needs to come about from necessity, not function. A square peg doesn’t know that it’s square, nor the round hole that it’s round. The folly lies not with the hole or the peg, but with the person who insists of forcing them to fit one another.

NonFictioNow strikes me as a little strange, probably because I’m having a lot of new experiences. I’ve never been to a writing ‘conference’ before, filled mainly with academics (I can’t figure out if NFN is mainly academic because of the types of people attracted to the form, or because it’s run by universities), with what seems like a majority of international guests, both speaking and attending. I’ve never been surrounded by so many open notebooks while listening to a writer – usually it’s just me and an old lady. But here, most people are jotting things down. What does this indicate? Is nonfiction more easily taught and learned? Do we have more confidence in the ability to strengthen skills in nonfiction, whereas fiction writing is seen as some kind of strange alchemy?

While the conference is very full of international guests, I’m so proud to be Australian and RMIT alumni. Seeing the absolute capability and admirable brains of people who’ve taught me, or who I’ve worked with, is great – America still seems like a strange universe where nonfiction is a much more possible form, but this really underscores the bravery and strength of Australians who are pushing the boundaries and trying new things.

The days are long, and I feel myself starting to get sick, but I’m loving it. I’m about to head back into the conference now, and I’ll bring you more in the coming days.

Making Decisions

Today’s post is brought to you by the theme, “Making decisions”. It seems to be something I’m struggling with today.

I woke up at 4.30am all full of words, so I snuck out of the bedroom and sat in lamplight scribbling away for about an hour before heading back to bed. It was something of a breakthrough in a piece I’ve been avoiding writing, because I have such high expectations of myself, and for it. Having just read back over my notes from last night(/this morning), I was struck by how entirely hyperbolic and essentially unhelpful this wee-hours ‘breakthrough’ was. What’s defeating me, in getting this piece written, is that as soon as I start writing it, I start to close down the many possibilities of what this piece can be. I’m sharing this angst with you because I know that I’m not the only writer who suffers from this paralyzing fear of writing unintelligent drivel.

Realization: writing something and then pitching it is endlessly easier than pitching something and then writing it.

The other decisions I’m struggling with are about which events to attend. NonFictioNow starts tonight with its opening show at Storey Hall. The big decisions start tomorrow, after David Shields’ keynote speech, which will be the highlight of my program. Normally, writers’ festival events cover broad enough topics that I only desperately want to attend one event, two if the timetabling gods look unkindly upon me. But with NonFictioNow, I’m finding that most timeslots have two events or more that I want to attend, because it’s all about nonfiction!

Oh, decisions.

It’ll be less difficult to decide what to blog about in the coming days, as I’ll be furiously note-taking for the rest of the week, and covering as much of NonFictioNow as is humanly possible!


That’s not the official branding- the official branding is “NonFictioNow”. See what they did with the ‘N’ there? Tricky.

I’ve just registered for the 2012 NonFictioNow conference, which is coming up on November 21-24. The four-day conference is being hosted at my home away from home, RMIT. The original plan was to coast in on a ‘volunteer’ pass, but I realised that this would reduce the amount of time I could spend David Shields spotting (and leaping-upon), so I decided to register and ATTEND EVERYTHING.

Having just printed the program, I’m already having a small crisis. I’m hoping that a more in-depth program is released that explains beyond the names of the panels and its guests (“Picturing the Essay” versus “Swap Shop: Panel”?).

The main thing I have discovered about my writing self throughout my studies is that I love creative nonfiction, and that it’s what I ultimately want to be writing. The guests at 2012 NonFictioNow include some literary heavy weights such as David Shields (swoooooon), Robin Hemley and Helen Garner, but also some of my favourite locals – David Carlin (who also posted on NFN today on Overland), Francesca Rendle-Short and Jessica Wilkinson among them. Actually, that “favourite locals” list could be way longer, but I won’t bore you, you can look at the program yourself. Other than this, I know next to nothing about how the conference will operate. I attend RMIT and I don’t even know where one of the listed venues is. Will there be a book store involved? Will I end up spending as much as I did at MWF? Will I have an opportunity to blurt my admiration at Robin Hemley or David Shields, like I did at poor old Lee Gutkind?

I did just discover this brilliant collection of audio recordings from 2010, which will give an idea of the kinds of things that might be discussed at this year’s conference.

There’s nothing like a festival to get my creative juices flowing, and they’re a brilliant opportunity for so many things – to find something new to read, to get inspiration toward your own writing, and to meet like-minded writers. I hope I’ll see some of you there to share in the excitement with me. If you can’t find me, I’ll most likely be located hanging off David Shields’ pant-leg as he drags me behind like a small child, from panel to panel.

The Double Obsession

“There’s a double obsession,” says Gutkind. “The obsession of the people you write about, and the obsession of the writer.”

The obsession of Lee Gutkind of clearly visible in the way he can’t help but go off on tangents, the way he feels the need to stand up and demonstrate his stories using his whole body, and the way he introduces robots like he would an old friend. (“Oh, my God! [delighted…] This is Grace!”)

To write the way he does, Gutkind spends large amounts of time with people and projects to really understand what’s going on, on a human level. The focus of today’s panel is Gutkind’s book, “Almost Human: Making Robots Think”. In it, Gutkind writes about the things he learnt during his time “immersed” in the lives of various robotics experts.

Flicking through a series of slides, Gutkind does verbally what he is so admired for doing in his writing – he acts as a go-between, translating incredibly difficult ideas into stories for the lay man. Just like the audience today understand Gutkind’s words more easily aided by his slide show, Gutkind sees his job as a writer as “creating word-pictures” for his readers, bringing dry facts to life. By spending so much time in the world that he’s writing about, Gutkind manages to “figure out what’s really going on.”

He shows us a picture of one roboticist from the 1970s, and talks about the capabilities of robots he built. The story is humanized, though, by the kind of detail that only a writer might glean: the fact that, for 8 months, this guy slept in the ceiling vents of his lab and survived on Cheerios, bananas and chocolate milk that his friend brought him. It’s this kind of detail, these humanizing stories, the bring Gutkind’s material to life.

For those looking to write in this “immersive” style, like Gutkind, his advice is this – “Think globally, act locally.” While Gutkind’s concerns stretch as far as Curiosity on Mars, he accessed the stories he needed by talking to people involved in the robotics operations close to his home, approaching them and saying, simply, “I’d like to spend a lot of time with you, because I believe that what you’re doing is important.” This attempt at human connection is often enough. I’m sure the fact that he’s Lee Gutkind doesn’t hurt when he’s trying to get a foot in the door.

However, the double obsession is really what makes his articles and books hit home. Gutkind’s obsession, which reaches equal proportions to that of his subjects, is what makes his stories worth reading.

Lee Gutkind is still quite the Man About Town at the MWF this weekend, with plenty of opportunities to be caught before he jets back home. Saturday morning sees a seminar, “Creative NonFiction: A Movement, Not a Moment,” at the Wheeler Centre, “Fact, Fiction, Truth” on Saturday afternoon, the launch of Creative NonFiction, and a workshop on Creative NonFiction on Sunday. 

My Picks for Week 2 of MWF

It’s officially day 7 of the Melbourne Writers Festival. Last week I brought you “my picks” for the first week, so today I’m giving you my picks for the second half of the festival.

My reading chair arrived this morning, so assuming that I can pry myself from its soft leathery caress, I’ll be attending the following sessions:

Friday 31st will kick of with Angela Meyer’s The Morning Readsampling the work of Claire Bidwell Smith, Asa Larsson, Eowyn Ivey and CS Lakshmi. Not only is this event free, but it’s a great tasting plate of writing you otherwise might miss out on. Plus, in researching the writers she’d be hosting, Angela mentioned that Eowyn Ivey was particularly enjoyable.

At 11.30am, I’ll be at Making Robots Thinkwhere Lee Gutkind (the godfather of creative non-fiction) will be talking about why we need great long-form non-fiction, and his latest work. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

At 1pmThoughts on Thoughts will be discussing cognitive neuroscience. This is a field that’s been moving forward in leaps and bounds lately, and the amount of new books on neuroscience is crazy. I don’t have time to read them all, but I do find it interesting, so hopefully this panel’s got something rad to offer.

At 2.30pm, Benjamin Law will be talking to Germaine Greer. To be totally honest, I’ll be there more for Benjamin Law than Germaine Greer, but it promises to be an interesting session. Germaine Greer’s been so influential for such a long time, and she’s still at it. That’s pretty damn respectable.

I’m a big fan of Spinifex Press, The Stella Prize, and women in cultural production, so at 4pm I’ll be at Women in Culture.

And along those lines, at 7.30pm in the Yarra Building, The Stella Prize are having a trivia night! I’m currently assembling the Dream Team.

Saturday is another big day – and a day where it’s really hard to choose between events that are on simultaneously. But I’ll be there, kicking off again with The Morning Read.

At 1pm I’m catching the Memoir: Fact or Fiction? panel, because it’s a topic I’m incredibly interested in. The conversation on that topic was touched on already at panels last week, particularly the Friendly Fire one, where panelists talked about the fact that memoir is a construction. So where does the line go?

At 2.30pm that conversation continues on another panel in Fact, Fiction, Truth. More Lee Gutkind. And Robin Hemley. Life’s good.

In the afternoon I’ll be catching Robert Dessaix. He spoke to a class I was in a few years ago, and he’s one of the most respectable, gripping speakers I’ve ever seen. Don’t miss it.

Wrapping up my Lee Gutkind filled weekend will be the launch of the next issue of Creative Non-Fiction. You’ll kick yourself if you miss it.

And finally, the last day of the festival is Sunday, September 2nd. It’ll be a little sad maybe. Us and the festival having gotten to know one another over the last few weeks. It’ll hurt a little to say goodbye.

And again, the day will kick of with Angela Meyer at The Morning Read.

At 11.30am, Alicia Sometimes talks to Pico Iyer and Benjamin Law about what draws them to Asia.

At 2.30pm, Chloe Hooper will be talking about her turn to fiction in her new book The Engagement, which has just been included in the Get Reading list of 50 Books You Can’t Put Down.

At 4pm, Michael Williams hosts a panel talking about that age-old issue: what really makes a classic, and what should be included in an Australian canon? This should be great – Williams always asks really spot-on questions and gets good conversation flowing.

The festival wraps up on Sunday night with the launch of the latest Going Down Swinging at the Toff in Town. $25 gets you entry, entertainment, and a copy of the journal.

I’m looking forward to another PACKED weekend. Come schmooze if you see me. As always, I’ll be blogging and tweeting my thoughts throughout.

On Patrick White’s Face

Badge from MWF websiteThe launch of the Melbourne Writers Festival should have involved Simon Callow, and Dickens, and the Age Book of The Year, but for me it was all about Vicks steam inhalations, antibiotics, my couch and Gourmet Farmer. On Friday the story was much the same, and so my MWF didn’t get started until yesterday morning. Bright and early, I battled my flu-brain and made it in time for David Marr’s lecture about Patrick White’s face.

The specificity of this lecture is what got me there. I only have a fleeting knowledge of David Marr (now someone I’ll be trying to see again), and have never read any Patrick White (oh, put down your pitchforks!), but I found the idea of the lecture intriguing. Can a face hold a person’s story? What can we tell from a picture?

“Reading” visual material is something I’m deeply interested in. My partner is a photographer, and I am working on a memoir which draws on old photographs as a means of creating and understanding stories. In attempting to read old photos of myself, of my family; trying to read photos I don’t recall being taken, this process has made me really consider what it means to read a photograph. Going into Marr’s lecture I wondered – can a person’s story be written on their face in a way that can be directly read? Is it just about having the keys to unlock its secrets?

Marr looked at photography and paintings of White throughout his life in chronological order, starting with a picture of “Paddy White”, very young, and very endearingly dressed as the Mad Hatter. Moving forward through White’s life, Marr spoke about White’s obsession with having himself visually documented. White wanted to demystify his face, to make sense out of it. He wanted to see what it held, and to see what meaning creative people (artists, painters, photographers) could draw from it. Even to Patrick White, his face was a mystery.

Some stories show themselves clearly on White’s face. Certainly, stress could be seen around war-time. It can be seen when White was affected by medications, and when his teeth were pulled for dentures. What is less readable is the stuff that makes White’s story truly interesting and worth hearing – the stories around the photographs. This is where Marr’s expert knowledge comes into play. Marr knows that the reason White looks so outrageously pissed off in one picture is because he found the photographer attractive. That he disliked another for being “too German” (particularly his hands, apparently). That copies of many White portraits were seemingly cursed, being punched, chopped up, stolen, lost, or otherwise removed. So maybe photos can’t just be read. Perhaps the whole process is far too dependent on the kind of knowledge that experts like David Marr have about the subject of the photographs.

Marr spoke of White’s “London Face”, the mask of pretension that White would use in photographs – in White’s most enjoyable portraits (and those that White felt most accurately showed his inner being), that “London Face” is nowhere to be seen, and we are confronted mostly by White’s incredible eyes. Eyes that Louis Kahan (whose portrait of White won the Archibald Prize in 1963 – pictured left) called “the eyes of a seer”. Sure, all great writers seem to really see, but White’s eyes seem to almost speak back, telling some of the stories they hold.

One idea that interests me in reading a photograph is Roland Barthes’ idea of ‘punctum’: that thing that could be inconsequential, but which snags the eye and keeps drawing you back. That exists in White’s portraits – it’s often his eyes, but it also often manages to be another part of his face. And perhaps this is the key to artists’ life-long love affair with White’s face, and White’s own continual pursuit of finding the meaning in this thing that faced him in the mirror every day.


At 4pm today (Sunday, 26th August), a session called “Remembering Patrick White” will continue this discussion of the life behind this face. David Marr is part of the panel, and he’s a brilliant speaker. 

Penguin Specials Launch

Last night I was lucky enough to ride on the coat-tails of my more successful friends (congratulations again, Jo Day, Veronica Sullivan and Tully Hansen!) into the launch of the latest Penguin Specials range of ebooks. The launch was for a whole bunch of new shorts available in digital form. The good people at Penguin have included the shortlisted and winner of the Monash Prize as part of the Specials range, and it’s available on Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, etc etc – all the platforms. Of course, you’d expect a company the size of Penguin to be inclusive of all the relevant platforms when they publish digitally. Less expected is the fact that they’ve given this awesome opportunity to emerging writers – nice work, Penguin!

I’m starting to get used to the faces at the writing events I go to, but when I left the Moat last night I was feeling a little star-struck and small fry. The launch included readings from Sonya Hartnett (tiny! Who knew?!), Robert Drewe, and Tully Hansen. With some familiar faces, many I hadn’t met yet (like… famous people), and the sampler of the publications doing the rounds on iPads, it was a really fun night. Free wine helped. It’s also really nice to know that being published digitally doesn’t mean the publishing company won’t splash out and celebrate your awesome achievement. The writers included in this series of Penguin Specials have a lot to be proud of.

Penguin seem to have their heads screwed on about what the strengths of ebooks are with their new and upcoming releases. There’s a new imprint coming for romance books, which is a smart move – there’s a huge market there, because it allows all the things ebooks do well anyway (cheap, portable collection), but also opens up the possibility for people to read romance/erotica in public, or to read around family and friends without having reading choices scrutinized. Also, the readers I know who are into romance are pretty voracious about it, and finish one book needing to slip straight into the next one. Ebooks make this a little easier than a trip to the book store. I’m not super-excited for myself about the romance imprint, but I certainly think that Penguin are onto where the money’s at, rather than just making their entire catalogue available and hoping for the best. (Though… I think perhaps for the most part they do this anyway?)

What’s relevant for me as a writer, and for all writers of short stories, is that short stories are now being published in single volumes, per story. Portability is a great strength of eReaders, and to make short stories available for this platform plays to this strength. A short story is a great way to spend time on public transport, and unlike a novel, you can possibly finish it in one sitting. For a long time people have been mourning the lack of publishing opportunities for short stories outside of journals – collections just don’t sell the way that novels do. Hopefully this (and, of course, things like Smashwords, where many authors publish single stories) are a way for short story writers to regain those opportunities.

The Specials are available now, and for a short time the sampler (including Tully’s amazing work, and extracts from others) is available for free.

Emerging Blogger, Coming Through!

An exciting announcement! I’ve been accepted as one of the Emerging Bloggers for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (in partnership with Emerging Writers’ Festival). Myself and four other bloggers have been granted the amazing opportunity to go along to the Festival and soak up all the writerly and readerly vibes, and blog about it all. So fear not, I’ll be taking you with me all the way!

Below is the piece I submitted to apply for this opportunity. I hope you enjoy it, and I’m looking foward to sharing the Festival with you here. Keep an eye out before the festival for my picks, and if you’re a Festival attendee and you need a date, hit me up. We can hang.

Only Connect: 

Think about the last really good book you read. Really good books grab hold of something inside us and don’t let go. The best books are the ones that are close to impossible to articulate in terms of why they are so great.

Give it a go – in that last great book you read, what about it stuck with you? Was it the author’s use of rhythm, alliteration or pastiche? If you’re a really critical reader, perhaps you do take note of the author’s knack with minimalism, or their broad use of literary allusion. But you remember these things because they provoke some sort of feeling inside you.

While we may live in a post-modern world, where the author is dead and reading any cultural artefact becomes a individualist free-for-all, good books don’t exist in a vaccuum. Good books come about through that invisible bond between the reader and the writer. By spinning this story and sending it out into the world, the author has followed EM Forster’s mandate to “only connect!”. There is a lot of wisdom in the idea that a reader’s experience impacts the meaning that they draw from a text, but that text doesn’t come from nowhere.

I’ve just finished reading Charlotte Wood’s Love and Hunger. The book is a foodie memoir, made up partly of Wood’s memories of foods and the stories that go with certain foods for her, and partly of recipes that go with the stories she tells. Upon finishing this book, I needed to sit in silence for a while, having had something inside me moved. I needed to be still and interrogate my emotions to figure out what about this book had so grabbed hold of me. I realized that the reason I was so affected by Love and Hunger was because of my own closeness to food, with two chefs in my immediate family. The bond that Wood makes clear between food and stories is something I relate to entirely. In reading this memoir, I felt a connection with the author, despite never meeting, never talking, never interacting beyond the pages of her book.

Finding a good book involves handing yourself over entirely to what you’re reading, trusting the author’s attempt to connect with their readers, and doing your part as a reader by interrogating your emotions. Turn inward and look inside yourself for the answer; the connection.

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