Sam van Zweden




Intersecting Lists (Inspired by Sarah Kay)

I’ve just watched Sarah Kay’s TED talk, and it was wonderful and inspiring. She’s so full of life, so eager. And such a confident woman.

She introduced an idea that I’d like to test, and to see whether anything comes out of it. I need your participation for this, so get ready to engage. Please.

She says that when she’s teaching kids how to write spoken word, the first thing she does is get them to write a list of ten things they know to be true. These can be anything – something about entertainment, technology, science, art, what you had for breakfast, someone you know – anything.

What happens from this list, she says, is that in a group when they’re shared, you find someone who has something the same as or very similar to something on yours. Someone else has the exact opposite. Someone else has a new take on something you thought you knew everything about. And someone else has something you’ve never even heard of. And this, she says, this intersection of these four points, is where great stories begin.

So I want to try this. STOP READING HERE! Go write your list of ten things. I’m posting mine below, but I don’t want yours to be influenced by mine. Post yours in the comments, and let’s see if we can find some great stories where our lists intersect. GO!

My List:
1. I had coffee for breakfast.
2. Ugg boots, though awfully ugly, are very warm, and acceptable around the home.
3. I am most of the way finished “New Moon” and it’s awful, but enjoyable. And it’s shameful.
4. Negativity breeds negativity.
5. There are too many books in the world for anyone to ever truly be “well read”.
6. I am 24.
7. It is easier for me to write with good equipment: fountain pen, laptop, comfy chairs. These make the job easier.
8. Tonight for dinner, left-overs.
9. Laptops are getting cheaper and better: a happy combination.
10. It has been raining all day.

I have high hopes for this, don’t disappoint me, Dear Reader! Post your list below.

Goals: Making Them, Kicking Them, Putting Them Out in Public

In the spirit of oversharing, which I’m very fond of (and fond of the internet for), I’m posting some of my latest writing goals here so that you can all keep me accountable if I try to let them slide away into the abyss.

Having (just five minutes ago) finished timetabling my next uni semester, I’ve realised I’m committing to some big things here:

– I plan on reading at least one essay a week. This is pretty easy to do during the semester, but outside of it I tend to let this slide. I really want to expand my short non-fiction knowledge base, as it’s something I’m interested in writing a fair bit of myself. So. That.
– This second point is bigger: I’m committing to doing at least one writing exercise every day. Furious Horses style, only without the public sharing. Perhaps at the end of each week I’ll post on here the exercises I’ve done, and whether they’ve been helpful or not, because I know a lot of this site’s readers are writers, and you never can have enough ideas for writing exercises.
– Competitions! I want to start entering competitions. There’s money to be made, folks. And recognition to be given. Might as well give it a crack. If I don’t, crap people might win. And we can’t have that.
– Every quarter, I plan on sending off a piece to a publication which I don’t really honestly believe will accept me. This is how we make impossible things real. This is what happened with The Big Issue, and it’s inspired me.

I’m hoping that making these plans public will create some extra accountability. If I try to pretend this post never happened, give me hell.


It’s a Process

The word “process” implies some sort of replicable ritual, something which can be followed to the end to get results. The sad truth, alas, is that usually it doesn’t all go down in the right order, it’s usually heavily punctuated with coffee, washing, or walks to the library, and it often lacks really satisfying results. Creating a ritual around my writing is important, but perhaps the most helpful part of that ritual is when it doesn’t go to plan.

While walking through the cemetery early this week, I discovered the Springthorpe Memorial. It really moved me, but I had no idea how I could use that. I came home and executed some boring pages about nothing much.

Next evening, I was playing with the magnetic poetry-makers on my fridge and came up with the following, which I somehow feel was inspired by the character of Sonmi-451 in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The poem read:
“How the monkey did wander
but sad.”

I wrote that down, because it made me sad.

The next morning I started working on a poem about the Springthorpe Memorial, using the idea of sad wandering, and talking about the fierce angels which guard the doctor’s “O Sweetheart Mine”. I’ve been researching all the sculptors who created the many statues around Melbourne, and I have no idea where that’s going to go but it seems useful.

And that’s the trajectory of just one piece. Just one piece which is still unfinished, so the “process” which guides me to the end of it may take a bunch of twists and turns along the way. The point is that I planned time to write about the Springthorpe Memorial, and it was balls. This doesn’t mean that I think getting up and making myself write is balls – far from, I find it very important. But in this case, the unplanned stuff was my way in – it was helpful.

NYWM Day 4

Essential Reading” is my creative output from today, as suggested by the exercise on the National Young Writers’ Month blog.  “Blackout poetry” involves you, a sharpie, a book or newspaper you don’t want or need, and your “on” brain. For me, this resulted in a piece about what it is to be human in the modern world: something equal parts positive and negative – there’s the drive to connect with others and find pleasure, but there’s also the domineering will-to-power type stuff. I think it worked well. Hit the link above to view the piece (as a pdf). And give it a go yourself – it’s a good brain-starter!

As for National Young Writers’ Month itself and my goals for the month, I’ve started working on a short story I’ve been meaning to write for some time. I’ve also started thinking about possible destinations for things I’ve polished that are ready for submission… It’s all systems go here. While EWF’s wrapping up, NYWM is fulfilling my acronym-desiring project-based needs.

I had blog for breakfast

28th May, 3pm-4pm, Melbourne Town Hall.
“Blogging” panel, “In Conversation” with Jessica Au and Philip Thiel.

Philip Thiel leans back in his chair, sinking his teeth into the pork terrine he made after the i ching told him to “make a pork cake”. He clearly enjoys it – he doesn’t look like a man who over-indulges in a good terrine, and I wonder how big the whole dish was and what percentage of it he ate. Whether the i ching told him that, or if it was just a question of his own will-power.

My own will-power has told me not to indulge in the pork terrine – it’s tied up with what I had for breakfast. I had a $1 coffee from 7Eleven, which I still don’t think tastes as bad as $1 says it should, and I had a muesli bar with lots of nuts in it, and my body should take a long time to burn that off. And even though I’m taking the stairs, I doubt they provide the equivalent to “a workout”. And this is why I say “no thanks” to Philip Thiel’s pork terrine, despite how amazing it looks. Because, you know, that’s a valid thing to blog about.

The panel raises questions about self-censorship, and the encouraging consensus seems to be that while social networking and blogging are mediums rife with over-sharing, this is actually what we enjoy reading. Someone mentions that they read fourfour because they like the guy’s cat. In extremely weird circumstances someone mentions my blog without knowing I’m in the room – I wonder whether there’s some sort of personal thing here, equivalent to fourfour’s cat, which keeps her coming back?

I’ve recently discovered that personal non-fiction is enjoyable. Writing and reading. Pulling what you enjoy out of reading and putting it into your writing isn’t easy – why would anyone want to hear about what I had for breakfast? Sure, we care about fourfour’s cat, but if I had a cat it’d be boring. Right?

Nah. I recently wrote a piece about my brother and how I felt eating food he’d cooked for me. Turns out it’s one of the loveliest pieces I’ve ever written, and that’s because I allowed myself to think that interiority and my personal life is interesting.

Things carry some sort of heft when they’ve got the personal attached to them. And on blogs, this is super-important – it’s the personal stuff which helps make your voice your voice. It’s a medium where people actually come for that kind of content. And it’s incredibly enjoyable to write. It feels less starchy.

And so in writing a “review” or “wrap up” post for my day at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, I decided to blog about the thing I heard that made the deepest impression on me. Plenty of people could write any of the “And then he said…and she said…the next panel…” wrap-up posts I’m capable of writing, but the truth is they’re a bit boring. They’re dry. So here’s a post which includes what I had for breakfast yesterday. This morning, I just had blog for breakfast.

Writing What You Know

“Write what you know!”, that’s the advice. That’s how we end up with a lot of the same characters, and they’re much like ourselves or people we know. “Write what you know” is scary – why would anyone want to read about my life? Disaffected youth – unless you’re an amazing writer or have an amazing twist, surely that’s just same/same, yeah? No, what I know is boring!

Henry James (in “The Art of Fiction“) wrote that “writing what you know” can be almost anything, as long as you’re “one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”. Even so, it feels like I’m writing something pretty imagined or untrue if my experience of a thing only extends as far as having seen it from a distance. For James, this is okay. But he, too, says that writing what you know is the way to go.

For a long time I did this – I wrote the same poem over and over, I wrote characters who were my age and in my relationships. Nothing differed very much – I spent a long time producing similar work. When I broke from this, I swung the other way – writing characters very unlike me, in situations which required a lot of research. Sometimes this worked; some of this stuff I’m proud of. Some of it is also just plain rubbish.

This semester, I have to pitch and submit an extract of “My Novel” (such an optimistic thing to call this nebulous being) for a university subject. I started to plan out a novel about a character I’ve had on the back-burner for some time. He’s a structural engineer who’s obsessed with the possibility that if his buildings aren’t sound, people could die. He’s a solid character, I do like him. He’s based loosely on someone I know (so this would count in James’ definition of “what I know”), and I am interested in writing him, eventually. However, in trying to start planning a novel about this guy, I realised it didn’t ring true. I was writing yet another story I wasn’t sure about, that was trying too hard to be NEW! I realised that by avoiding “What I know” in the strictest sense, of characters like myself or my immediate family, I’ve been denying some amazing material from my own life.

My family history is mostly a mystery to me. It’s a light that shines (dimly) only as far back as my grandparents on Mum’s side, and to my father on his side. Even within that limited space, I have the makings of a novel. It’s a matter of being comfortable with the fact that it warrants writing, and it will make a good story. Deep down I know it will, but I’ve been so afraid of being the stuck, clichéd writer who can only write what they know, that I’ve avoided it and gotten stuck in the other extreme.

I’ve talked to both my parents about writing our story, or some fictionalised semblance of it, and they’re both fine with that. What comes next, I suppose, is about the ethics of writing what you know. This question, I suspect, is much harder to answer.

On a panel called “Mining The Personal” at last year’s EWF, Benjamin Law talked about how he handed everyone in his family a red pen and a copy of his manuscript before it went anywhere. I think this is the most honest approach, and one I’ll certainly be following myself. But how do I wrangle the material in the first place?

What do you think about the ethics of writing (fictional or non-fictional) personal stories?

Missing Cogs

Over on Killings today is a wonderful article by Connor O’Brien about how as writers, we seem to think that getting from “emerging” to “wildly successful bedside companion for millions” is a well-oiled machine that we simply need to figure out the operation of. In reality, the machine is missing cogs.

Connor sheds some light on the ways that we become the missing cogs in that machine. *Extended rambly horrible metaphor fin*

He talks about “concrete actions we can take” to fix it – and I have to say how nice it is to see this article coming from someone whose own work reflects what they’re talking about – Connor’s latest work has a nifty social networking marketing scheme attached to it. Very smart, very smart indeed.

Reading this article has made me think about how much more of a role this kind of action should be playing in my own work, and how much more universities should be backing it. It’s out there, and a university will get behind it no doubt, but none of these newer marketing models are taught (or have been taught to me, at least) as serious, viable options for putting your work out there. Which obviously, from the examples Connor provides, they are.

Greatly admiring the ideas presented in Connor O’Brien’s article on Killings today and looking forward to being able to take on some of these ideas as I put my own work out into the world. With things the way there are in writing and publishing, it just makes sense.

(The discussion generated beneath this article is well worth a look-in also.)

Love Yourself Today

You should love yourself today.

I’ve been having a slow, tired, quiet, slightly sick day, and I’m about to cap it all off with work.

I just found this Randall Stephens poem which calmed me a little.

I hope it calms you too. Happy Monday.

Writing Research Brought Me This:

I’ve been writing a lot this morning, making headway on a piece I’ve been pottering around with for weeks. A deadline is looming, so I’ve knuckled down.

I’ve done a shuffle of the story to give it a snappy opening line, because they’re so important. New opening line:
“Hugh stares in horror at seven shopping bags full of soup and beans.”

This is subject to subsequent edits, but it’s much more engaging than previous beginnings.

HOWEVER, I’m posting today to show you this messed up thing that my research brought to me. I’ve been researching agoraphobia today, and that’s been fine. Then later I started researching canned foods, and a friend sent me this link. I think the silk worm pupae and the fish mouths get me the worst… Though the whole canned chicken is pretty vomitous.


Blog at

Up ↑