Sam van Zweden



Guest post

Guest Post on The Emerging Writer Online Journal

Today I’ve got a piece up over on the Emerging Writer Online Journal. It reflects on the process of coming to see myself as a nonfiction writer, and how the recent NonFictioNow Conference made me think even more.

The Emerging Writer Online Journal is a fantastic opportunity for emerging writers. Karen, who edits the journal, is keen to hear pitches for just about anything concerning writing, the writer’s life, process… Etc. It’s a great way of getting your name out there, of having a paid writing gig, and of building up your publication folio. I can’t recommend this organization highly enough, so go make the most of their generosity!

Guest Post at Liticism

The lovely Bethanie Blanchard over at Liticism hosted a guest post from me today… Head over and read it, stick around for Bethanie’s past posts, and visit in future for the awesome that Bethanie brings. Here’s my post.

I Can Still Be Inspired By Your Life – Anonymous Guest Post

I met a girl at a party recently, and after some prolonged flirting, she tried to tell me that I would write about her. I told her, with the absolute certainty of the inebriated, that I would never ever do such a thing. And yet here we are.

But! This isn’t just to prove what a capricious cunt I am. I’m writing today on the nature of inspiration. While I may have been sure at the time that there was nothing inspiring in her short skirt and vapid eyebrows, clearly there was, if only in my blind resistance towards her wheedling her way into my writing (a lot more surface [and permanent] than my heart). What is it then? What turns someone from a real and complex human being into a kind of implement with which I hope to channel something eternal (or sexy) ?

Let’s look at another case study. I once fell in love. And so I wrote about her. Looking at my journals from the time it seems that I did nothing else. Why? What was I doing? It certainly wasn’t helping me sleep with her (as besides a few tentative [and terrible] poems, I never showed her anything) so what was I hoping to achieve? Thinking about it more now, it seems that I wasn’t necessarily doing it to achieve anything, or at least nothing tangible. My musings seemed to be anything from the diarunal (*from a diary) to the deviant, from fantasies to fan-fic. She just filled everything from me. I was prolific. In a very limited sense. But prolific nonetheless.

Not that very much of it was good. In fact if you are looking at amassing a large body of work I would much more highly suggest travel, or a job in a new environment. Anything other than girls actually, because that leads to my second point. What I wrote was inevitably and unbearably same-ish. And how could it not be? Being that the subject matter was already impossible to improve upon. So rather than exploring things, I just wrote about her. How she looked with wet hair, how her body was a time of day, what happened to me when she did that thing with her tongue. I’m sorry for the needless foppery, but I feel without scaring you enough you won’t appreciate the true horror of a writer with an obsession. Look at Philip Larkin’s erotic schoolgirl fiction or the letters from James Joyce to his wife. On second thoughts, don’t.

Because, frankly, they’re a mess. And I was no different. You should have seen me, or have had to re-read them when researching this piece. It is like watching a train wreck hit a car that spun off wildly, starting an explosion in a mediocre fireworks factory that just shot words four feet into the air like You’re so Pretty! And I’m sorry! and I love you! and fuck you too!

I even wrote about her new boyfriend’s job.

But none of this answers the question as to why I am inspired, or what purpose it serves. Yes I was a sad sack of shit, but I was in love. Can I justify it like that? If not, what about the idea that perhaps there is something in the process of writing that tries to come to a mutual understanding. An exchange between writer and subject where the writer comes to learn more in the act of re-creating than they can in the act of fornicating. Is this specific only to writers? I sure hope so.

The old idea of catharsis comes into play too, and is probably the excuse (albeit not a good one) for a lot of my ‘darker’ (*cringe*) poems. Use what you know (poetry, big words) to come to terms with what you don’t know (how she could possibly do this to me?!?). It works too, sometimes. Just like throwing up, you feel better once it is out of you. Don’t let it become a habit though. I went through a time as an emaciated, hungry wretch in the month post-breakup. My tongue was bile. My heart was a shoe.

So catharsis, understanding. They seem like noble intentions. But why some people more inspiring than others? For me it was intrigue. The more they seemed distant and unattainable, the more I sought to pin them down like butterflies to a page. Meredith* at the party, bluntly telling me I was going to write about her was like a guy walking up to a complete stranger at a bar and saying ‘You’re going to come home and fuck me, yeah!’ No subtlety, very little hidden depth. But that’s something we like as writers – the ambiguity, the depth. It helps to take away from the fact that we can be just as shallow as everyone else.

The things I gained from using these muses were small, sometimes incoherent and often only really relevant to the people they involved. I couldn’t help when I did it, but besides a spate of rash and revealing in-jokes, it rarely caused too much damage. There were things I found out about myself that I could only learn through suffering. It came naturally, I felt an emotion and so I wrote. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I now know not to worry about it either. And so, Meredith* you were right. But you’re still a shit kiss.



*definitely not her real name.

Silence, Punctuated Only By a Cat Eating in Triplets. (Misha Adair)

Today’s post is by my good and very talented friend Misha Adair. He’s sorely missed in the blogging world (responsible in an earlier life for Adair on Books), but I talked him into coming out to play on the question of listening to music while you write. Thanks, Mish!


I can’t write while listening to music. I just can’t. And I’ve just tried. I stared glumly at the computer screen for the three minutes and nine seconds it took for Bob Dylan to get through The Man in Me. Then I gazed stonily at the computer screen for the six minutes and fifty-two seconds it takes Wynton Marsalis to redefine the first movement of Hayden’s trumpet concerto in E flat.  Not a word was typed.

Now the only sound in my flat is the steady sharp crunch of the cat having her second breakfast.  She crunches in triplets, by the way.  And the words, if not flowing in a torrent, are coming at least in a steady trickle.

The challenge that my gracious host has set me in this piece, I suppose, is that I’m going to have to try to unpick two great loves of my life: music and the written word.  And try to explain the fact that they seem not to get along in a creative sense.  I’ll start with the music.

I absolutely adore music.  It’s been a tremendously important part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Exactly as long as I can remember, in fact.  My very earliest memory is of my father swinging me through the air.  There was music playing.  When I was about twelve I heard a song that immediately – almost painfully – took me right back to that memory.  Water of Love, by Dire Straits.  That’s what was playing, and I have to brace myself for a brief moment of rapid remembered motion every time I play it.

The sense of smell is cornily and repeatedly cited as the most powerful trigger for memories.  I’ve never understood that.  It’s music for me every single time.  There are songs I dare not play because I know that they’ll have me sobbing brokenly in the opening bar.  At the moment, my girlfriend is teaching English in South Korea.  She’s been there for six months now, and I miss her terribly.  We used to listen to Nick Drake’s Fly a lot.  Even thinking about that song has me in gentle tears now.

When I was about five, my parents got me a piano teacher.  The proper kind – Eastern European.  If you’re ever looking for a piano teacher, accept no substitutes.  Maryla would make me play scales with erasers balanced on the back of my hands until I cried.  Her most powerful gesture of affectionate praise was to grab a handful of my hair, yank it, and make a curious ‘Teeeeeeeeeeee!’ sound.  When you’d been defoliated in this way, you knew that the week’s practice had paid off.  I’m not for a second saying that it’s necessary to learn the grammar of music to appreciate it profoundly, but I do think it makes a difference to the way you listen.  Trying to write a sonnet, analogously, gives you a new appreciation of how hard it is to write something like Shakespeare’s incomparable number seventy three.

When I was in high school, I had an astonishing music teacher called Hugh McKelvey.  I’ll never forgive him for the confidence trick he pulled off to saddle me with playing the tuba, but I’ll never be able to thank him enough for the time and trouble he took with me, and for turning a gentle blind eye to the fact that I faked having music lessons to get out of PE.

By that time, I had a new piano teacher too – the darling Mrs MacKay.  Not Eastern European, but so delightfully nervous on the day of her students’ piano exams that you could smell a faint whiff of brandy around her, and never mind that that was at nine o’clock in the morning.
The first paying job I ever had was in the orchestra for a production of Hello Dolly!  I’ve played in a symphony orchestra (conducted by Hugh McKelvey, who got me the gig – another thing to thank him for) and in my early twenties I played bass in a hip-hop outfit that I still think had the greatest band name of all time: ‘The Catholic School-Girl Appreciation Society’.  Music is a huge part of my life.  I’ve given up the dream of being a hip-hop bass sensation, I knew when I was about twelve that I was never going to be a concert pianist and the first time I ever lifted a tuba I knew I wasn’t going to be lugging one of those bastards around for the rest of my life.  Music was never going to be my profession, but it was never going to be something I took for granted.

My iTunes library will play for forty two days, starting with AC/DC and ending with a Russian hard-rock group whose name I can’t decipher since I don’t read Cyrillic, and I’ve got a small but stunning collection of vinyl.  Ever heard the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing their 25th Anniversary Tour?  It feels like sacrilege even to consider converting that stuff to MP3, and the same goes for the incomparable LP of Mikis Theodorakis’ Mauthausen songs.

Music, broadly and not entirely accurately speaking, is something I can do.  So when I listen, I think about how I’d do it.  And that, I think, is why I can’t write while I’m listening to music.

Now, limping towards the writing part of this…

I grew up in a house that was blessed to be free of television.  The first time I had regular access to a television, I was seventeen.  And my father is a literature teacher.  Not just any literature teacher.  He’s quite simply the greatest (non-Eastern European) teacher I’ve ever met.  The classic description of a competent teacher is of someone who can muster some enthusiasm for a subject and explain any given point in three quite distinct ways.  My father can do that in his sleep.  But then he can do something more: he can transmit his love for something (a poem, a play, a novel) in such a way that the love is contagious.  You cannot not love John Donne after you’ve heard my dad riff on him for a few minutes.  And you can’t do anything other than listen spell-bound while he reads.

I grew up in a home that had no TV, but about three thousand books.  I didn’t miss out on anything important.

And my mother, who won’t mind me saying that her husband is the better and more sensitive reader, wasn’t ordinary either.  She was born in Melbourne, but she’s as Russian as you get without a long black leather coat and a propensity to be gloomy and hurt people.  And she used to read Chekov short-stories to my sister and me on trips home from school.  And she was translating them as she went.

When I was fourteen, I read a radio play called Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.  It changed the way I approached literature.  I realised for the first time that the English language was music – and that script on a page was notation.

Language and music are, for me, alarmingly similar.  At their best they are both so utterly bound up in creating aural beauty that they make it impossible for me to listen to one and practice the other.
If I listen to music, it changes the way I write, if I can write at all.

Get me listening to Beethoven’s Seventh (one of the great human achievements in all of history) and I’ll write you something that sounds like a cross between a Human Rights screed and a manifesto in favour of the immediate invasion of the nearest militarily inferior country.  Set me up with the Sixth, and I’ll write a diary entry that would be the pride of any six year-old girl.

Play me some Bach, and I’ll just stop.  How can anyone, anywhere create while listening to that man’s creativity?  It’s just not possible.  You don’t even want to breathe while listening to Bach, in case you’re doing it the wrong way.

I’m reasonably eclectic in terms of my musical taste – so please don’t think that I listen to what the uninformed automatically call ‘classical’ music exclusively.  In a moment, I’ll listen to Bryan Adams, Sting and Rod Stewart singing All For One, and it will be one of better five minutes of my day.

But I won’t be able to write a single word while I listen.

When I listen to great music, I very often get ideas.  Sometimes I even think I get great ideas.  But I can never write them down until there is silence, punctuated only by a cat eating in triplets.

in this light, at this moment – Rafael S.W

Today’s is a guest-post from a good friend, Rafael S.W. When I talk about those people that support me with my writing, Raf’s one of those I’m referring to.
He’s weighed in on what I wrote about last week – about the conditions under which we need or prefer to write. 

picture by Zouavman Le Zouave

I have started to be very aware of light levels in my writing. As I type this, I am in my grandmother’s kitchen because that is the only place I can be in her apartment that means I can have some lights on but none that are in my face. I spent a fair few minutes flicking different lights on and off before deciding on how I wanted it. This might sound weird, but I have become somewhat of a light connoisseur. I used to have one of those touch-lamps that could change the level depending on how I felt and what I wanted to write (the brightest setting for seriousness, essays / a completely dark room except for the lowest setting when I wanted to write poetry). Then I broke it. And now at home I write while my new lamp (which doesn’t dim) is covered in paper, with one of the two bulbs taken out, and it sits behind my door.

Where did this come from? Was it in the single moment where a girl first took me to her room and it was lit by nothing by Christmas lights? Was it when I walked home from 4 am parties and spoke poetry into my phone while the streetlights dimmed the road ahead of me? Was it when I first noticed how beautiful skin looked in the blue wash of a laptop screen? I don’t know, but ever since I’ve been writing with a light level that reflects my mood, my writing has felt smoother, less forced.

I have heard that the converse is true too. I have a friend who is completely impacted by the halogen brightness of trains at night. If he sits on a seat underneath one of the ones that flickers, however minutely, he might not even notice, but after a few stations his mood will sour, he sometimes even gets headaches. And only when he sees the spasmodic winking of the light overhead will he have an explanation for while he suddenly feels terrible.

I’m a strong believer in writing in a way that works for you, however weird. If it’s upside-down to candlelight, then so be it.

“That’s bad light there.” Says my grandmother, coming out from her room, squinting a little in the gloom. “Can you see alright there?”
Enough, yes, I can see enough.

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