Sam van Zweden




Is “Late To the Party” A Personality Trait?

Can I put “band-wagon-jumper” on my CV? Is “slow on the uptake” a favourable quality in a person?

I’ve been hearing about Ira Glass’ amazing podcast, This American Life for some time now, but I just decided to start using it as a soundtrack while I work out (which is a surprisingly successful tactic). And ohmigod. WHY DIDN’T I DO THIS SOONER?!

(Just a side note – I feel like this realization is akin to the one where I realised that public transport time is really reading time. Working out or walking is really listening time. My brain’s not doing anything anyway, so USE IT!)

No matter what the subject matter is, this is some really moving stuff. Ira Glass has his finger bang on the pulse of life and what it is in all its minutiae, and knows just how to make the minutiae count in terms of a wider context. What a dude.

It’s also really exciting in terms of thinking about different ways of telling a story. It doesn’t just have to be on a page to be powerful. I’ve known this for a while, sure, but Ira Glass’ podcast really brings it home and reminds me to think more laterally about narratives.

39 down… 962 to go!

It’s really, really hard not to spend all my money on books. Working in a book store means I’m now eyeing off categories I normally wouldn’t even go to, and “trying to broaden my product knowledge” is just as good an excuse as any… In two and a half weeks I’ve bought four books. It sounds pretty controlled, but if I did that all the time I would be both poor and swamped, so from now on I’m resolving to buy things only when I have saved up the cash by putting it aside from my living and debt-paying-off expenses.

One of the many books I’m stopping myself from buying is the very cool 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It’s exactly what the title suggests. In a great act of genius and self-control, I looked up the list online instead of spending the $50-odd on the book that will probably sit around for a fair while.

I’ve read 39 out of the recommended 1001. I was discussing today how much more achievable the other books in the same series are. …Songs to Hear Before You Die is pretty easy, at the average three minutes per track. …Movies to See and Albums to Listen To, likewise, at about two hours, three maximum. As a pretty slow reader, it’s going to take me a lifetime to finish that list. Or, by Estelle Tang’s calculations, about a third of a lifetime. Having said that, I’ve saved the list to my computer, and I’m going to work on crossing off a bunch more of those books in future. Many of them are on my shelf waiting to be read… So I guess we’ll see if that “39” goes up any further toward the end of the year.

If you can be bothered going through the list – how many have you read?

Essential Reading

I really, really enjoyed Sophie Cunningham’s essay in Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings, titled “A Prize of One’s Own: Flares, Cock-forests, and Dreams of a Common Language.” Now it’s online, so you can read it too. And it’s not just a great title (which it really, really is) but it’s also got some really shocking statistics in there. Very much admire Sophie’s work to correct this, because it’s so easy to pinpoint a problem and whinge about it, but to make moves toward a better state of things is hard. I am looking forward to seeing the Stella Prize take off.

Daniel Handler reads “Collectively”

I’ve been reading Adverbs by Daniel Handler. He’s hilarious, and poignant, and writes in that ironic, self-conscious/unself-conscious (yes, both at once) way that cool people do.

I just found him reading my favourite chapter (so far, because I haven’t finished the book yet) from Adverbs. I had more fun reading this chapter than I have reading anything in a while. I thought it would be worth sharing.

Check it out:  I wish I could write like this. I haven’t read anything this hilarious in quite some time.

Consider this something of a teaser, and chase up Adverbs.







Back to Exercising

I’ve let the ball drop on my one-exercise-per-day goal that I set a few months ago. I’d decided I was going to do a different writing exercise every day, and when I hit on something worth keeping, I’d work that up to something presentable, but keep doing the exercises. The point though, was to keep the brain active and challenged. It’s easy to get stuck on one project, or to find yourself writing the same story over and over again. And I know so many people that produce so much work. I’d love to be one of those people. But it takes a lot of dedication and hard work.

So today I got back into it, and mean to stick with it. It’s about routine, I think. When I get up early and write, I do well. When I push it to the end of the day, what I produce is a half-arsed nothing.

Today’s exercise was one I’d done before, but hadn’t known where it came from. I did the exercise originally in a creative non-fiction unit at school, but it was well worth repeating. The exercise was from Now Write! Non-Fiction. It involved writing down every detail I knew (without looking) about my writing space, and then boiling that down to the salient details. I was amazed by how many tiny details I knew about the space without looking, but when I did look I was surprised by the size of some of the things I’d missed: the heater. The light hanging from the ceiling, and the water damage in one corner. The fact that the mantle is coming away from the wall some. I missed these things, but I remembered some tiny tiny details, like what notes were on my pinboard, and what was in my box of stationery.

The salient, tangible and telling details I kept about my writing space:
– The heater’s missing a caster, and is propped up by a thick book so that the heat doesn’t direct at the floor and set all my words on fire.
– There’s a Chinese charm hanging above the door (which we call Narnia) between our house and the shop we share the building with. This door is part of my study. My partner hung the charm there when we moved in, but won’t tell me what it means.
–  Notebooks spanning about eleven years have their own pigeon-hole in my bookshelf, and another for writing books and dictionaries. The rest is fiction, A-Mo, and on the mantle is Mo-Z. There are still books which don’t have a space. Non-fiction is on a steel shelf, $17 from Ikea, the kind you’d find in a garage. I love my books the way chumps love their cars.
– Unused notebooks, waiting.
– WRITERS ARE MADE, NOT BORN is hanging above my desk.

I worked these details up into a scene, and put some action in there.

I’m sharing this exercise because I found it useful. I realised that I sometimes miss some really, really prominent details, and that some details can say a lot about someone.

What does your writing space say about you?

I’m Listening

I just finished reading a piece by Margaret Atwood, in which she says that by “listening to the stories of others, we learn to tell our own.”

I suspect this idea is what’s at the heart of the music I listen to while I’m writing, planning, jotting, or blogging. In this music is always some really pure sort of story-telling; something linear and narrative; and something which gets to the reasons that I write.

There’s study music, but that’s muted. It’s Howard Shore, it’s Michael Nyman – it’s anything with uplifting violins and some fast-fingered key work. There’s never, ever any lyrics – my academic essay-writing brain needs near silence. Sometimes total silence. Study music exists, but I don’t know that it has any real impact on what I write. Unless my philosophy essay starts raising questions about women having their fingers chopped off with axes, and then I turn Michael Nyman off.

The actual soundtrack for my writing is a different matter. It has words, and this somehow helps my own words come. At certain times, usually when I make the move from planning to writing, I need silence. But after I’ve got that really hard bit down and the cursor’s done some work munching up the page, then I can introduce music.

They say that smell is our most powerful memory motivator. I think that sound – in the form of music – is a close second. Certain songs or albums (yes, albums – don’t you dare accuse me of belonging to a generation for whom albums are dead!) can bring back whole seasons or time periods for me. Summer 2003, Good Charlotte. Summer 2006, Johnny Cash and The Hives. And it’s not just that I can pinpoint the time, it can actually bring back feelings from the time that I listened to it. I can no longer listen to a lot of the music that I really clung to during periods of depression, because I find myself feeling it all over again.

Likewise, songs and albums attach to short stories and poems. Pieces of work acquire their own soundtracks. And those soundtracks always have something in common – they’re lyrical (for want of a better word – no pun intended), and they’re narrative. By listening to these stories, I’m learning how to tell my own.

Right now I’m listening to a lot of Wil Wagner. His lyrics focus on the heady feeling of rushing through life, and the tiny details we hold onto. He’s a natural story-teller. I’ve also just started listening to Bright Eyes again, particularly the “Cassadaga” album – it still holds the memory of some summer in its sound, but it’s bringing a really important lightness into my work. Josh Pyke is another favourite for story-telling abilities. His song are artful, tiny stories. Narratives that can be consumed in around three minutes. If I could write such full, rounded stories which could be consumed in that time frame, I’d be happy.

Listening to this kind of music keeps my prose lyrical, and it also reminds me that while I can string together a pretty sentence or two, they need to go somewhere. They’re part of a story.

Even beneath this is the fact that these song-writers, through their stories, are doing something important, and it’s what I’m doing too. They’re trying to communicate something right at the centre of themselves. In Bright Eyes’ “Bowl of Oranges”, he meets a doctor “who appeared in quite poor health / I said there’s nothing I can do for you / you can’t do for yourself / he said yes you can, just hold my hand / I think that that would help” – it’s not just the doctor, it’s not just Bright Eyes, it’s all of us. In creating things, we’re trying to connect. As David Foster Wallace said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” and part of that is to be a bit stuck inside yourself. By creating things, we’re bridging the gap. By listening to other people’s stories while I write, I’m reminded that this gap-bridging exercise is not for nothing.


“The roominess of the term nonfiction: an entire dresser labeled nonsocks.”

– From David Shields’ Reality Hunger

JOMAD – I Heard You Like Books?

This morning I’ve started the day really, really well. By listening to Jojo Jakob’s and Maddie Crofts’ new podcast, JOMAD – I Heard You Like Books.

They’re funny, they’re thoughtful, they’re having the conversations you like the have with your friends. They out their own trashy reading, discuss their guilty pleasures, and the ways it’s hard to keep track of what you’d like to read, and what you thought of what you have read. They’ve inspired me to get back on the reviewing on here, and, more simply, to get more reading done today.

And hey publishers who are reading this, Jodie Kinnersley needs a job. Hire her.

Flexing the Writing Muscles

It’s been a week since I made my recent writing goals, and that means I’ve done a week’s worth of writing exercises. A lot of people have shown interest in what I’ve been doing… So here’s a list of the last week’s work. I’ve included where the exercises come from, if you notice a heap coming form good sources in future, you might find it worthwhile chasing these books down.

1. Write something you’ve been putting off – imagine you’re telling someone about this article/letter/essay you’ve been meaning to write, but can’t start. Write down what you’d tell them. (from Mark Tredinnick’s “The Little Red Writing Book”)
2. Write a list of 10 things you know to be true. (from Sarah Kay’s TED talk)
3. What are three things that could never be photographed? (From John Marsden’s “Everything I Know About Writing”)
4. Write a letter to yourself to be read in five years. (From John Marsden’s “Everything I Know About Writing”)
5. Write a character sketch of someone you’ve seen on public transport (suggested by Tiggy Johnson)
6. Observe someone’s hands (this can be in memory or imagination. Describe them as fully as possible. Notice shape, skin texture, any jewelry or disfiguration. What clues do these hands give you about the person’s life? (from Meredith Sue Willis’ blog)
7. Today was a mash-up, to create new exercises out of something else. In doing this, I found some really interesting connections. More of this tomorrow. Or Tuesday. One day soon, I promise.

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