Sam van Zweden




Nineteen ideas for an essay, or What’s On My Mind.

Image via Flickr CC / Turinboy

How about writing and family and betrayal? This is too big. How about writing and ‘truthiness’ disclaimers? How about writing family without seeking permission? How about the slipperiness of story? How about accidentally changing memories by writing them? How about you remember the last remembrance, not the original memory? How about memories of photos, and remembering outside the frame? How about attempting to write beyond the frame? How about the idea that we’re not writing experimental nonfiction because we’re not really aware that other people are – we’re not aware enough of its existence? How about a ‘how about’ article – how about this list as essay? How about my NonfictioNOW paper – it’s probably too academic. How about a more accessible article about the difficulties of writing food and memory? Maybe that paper already is accessible. How about something based on my trip? How about Tall Poppies and the difficulties we have as Australians talking about ourselves and our own work without feeling some deeply internalised and fucked-up shame and terror that this ability to speak will make us unlikeable? How about a polemic about owning who you are and what you do? How about travelling and writing? How about the way that I felt entirely averse to writing down my experiences because their lived importance felt permanent and unforgettable, but then almost four weeks of this kind of living meant that it all blurred together and now I’m remembering through tweets and photos and ticket stubs? How about, going back to that idea of photos and decreased ability to remember outside the frame; how about the idea that all memory uses props? How about empty frames being more useful for memory because they don’t erase anything? Their emptiness creates room, rather than eliminating other possibilities and pushing anything less than certain out?

“G’day, ma’am,” says the man at the visa desk at LAX. He hands back my passport and giggles to himself. I had assumed him to be humourless – but then this. He’s used ‘g’day’ like it’s ‘aloha’ – like I could be coming or going. I’m unsure which I am, now sporting the very first stamp in my still-new passport.

In the LA twilight sky, a flock of geese soar overhead. Long necks and feet point out at either end, and remarkably straight, stable wings shoot out to the sides – a floating cross. The geese turn in silence, confident of their direction. Synchronicity in the city. Changing direction, they become X-s. Kisses in the sky.

Kisses for your coming, they say; kisses for your going.




This trip was kindly supported by the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature travel fund. 

Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship

The third round of the Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships for 2015 have kicked off, and I’m starting to settle into my space. I’ve brought in books and tea and scrappy manuscript copies for marking up and stabbing holes in when I get to the stabby part of the day.

Many, many, many thanks to the Wheeler Centre for having me – it’s a huge vote of confidence in my work. I’m chuffed, too, to be in such wonderful company with the other hot deskers, whose projects sound amazing. You’ll have a chance to hear a bit from each of the projects at the Next Big Thing event later in the year – I’ll post more details about this closer to the event.

My desk sign
My desk sign

Continue reading “Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship”

My Own Little Wishes

Today over on Writers Bloc, we’re publishing the Christmas wish lists of a bunch of great bookish people (with giveaways attached to a few of them, so check ’em out for some free Christmas swag!). There’s some great stuff on those lists, and they’ve got me thinking about what I’d put on my own.

1. Renewing my Headspace subscription. This is the best $90 I’ve spent in the last year. Headspace contains 365 days worth of unique meditations, plus SOS resources to help steer you away from panic attacks and other confronting feelings that stop you from doing the things that matter to you.

2. Short reading material subscriptions. A number of publishers have a great selection of short reads, including the Review of Australian Fiction, the Spineless Wonders book clubthe Galley Beggars Singles Club. Next year I want to make a priority of reading more of these length works – novellas, long short stories, long essays. This is the length of stuff that I want to publish, and reading these works both gives me more of an idea how to tackle such a length of work, and supports the market I’m writing into.

Not short but certainly desirable is a subscription to the Nervous Breakdown book club, the books in which get talked about on Brad Listi’s OtherPpl podcast.

3. A new desk chair. Mine has one leg tucked slightly under itself like a shy child, making it unstable. Recently I lifted the chair and found that its peeling paint is made out of some kind of metal and is actually really sharp. So my current chair is both dangerous and dangerous. I want a new desk chair.


Direction. Stability. Clarity.

Distracted listening

I wonder whether podcasts are designed for distracted listening. I doubt it. I feel guilty about losing focus on the audio to tie a knot in the thread I’m using to bind a book. Am I meant to dip in and out like this? I feel a great amount of love for serendipity and chance right now, and I wonder whether distracted listening to podcasts means that I’ll drop in on some little gem of information by chance. I wonder if, in fact, it improves my experience of the podcast.

Image source: Flickr / artiseverywhere
Image source: Flickr / artiseverywhere

Austin Kleon’s episode of Reading Lives is great. They talk about visits to the library as a kid. I pass the needle into one paper signature and out another. They talk about literary roots, Austin speaks about the texts that were formative for him as a child. I knot the thread at its end. I apply a layer of glue to the book’s spine. Austin’s talking about a middle school teacher who forced him to write, who now only remembers his love of the Beatles. I’m no longer distracted outside of the podcast but within it. My thoughts are stuck a few minutes ago – what were my formative texts?

I walk to the bathroom and wash my hands, thinking about Enid Blyton. I wonder if that was formative. I fast-forward to Sweet Valley High, Sweet Valley University, the terribly traumatic one about a rape on campus which I was far too young to read. I think about John Marsden. I want to read the Tomorrow… series again for the first time. They were formative.

I return to the podcast and I’ve missed half of it because I’ve been elsewhere physically and mentally. I think maybe that’s okay. I think about the times that I cook while listening to podcasts but can’t hear them for a minute because I’m too close to the frying pan noise. But then I come back and accidentally drop in on a half-thought – it sticks more that way. It burrows in my mind. Yeah, maybe distracted listening is okay.

While I feel bad for the people who made the podcast, I also feel like it’s embracing chance and accident.

Brief Thoughts Regarding Susan Sontag

Image via the film's website
Image via the film’s website

Last week I was lucky enough to go along to see Regarding Susan Sontag, a documentary about the critic at the Jewish International Film Festival, after winning tickets from The Good Copy newsletter (this is why you should enter things, yes? Thanks, Good Copy!)

The film is a beautiful collage built from archived footage, documents, interviews and the detritus of Sontag’s life.  Speaking with figures from her life between childhood and her death to cancer in 2004, a picture builds of a fiercely intelligent, outspoken and charismatic women. While her intellect was formidable, there’s no doubt about it – she was a captivating woman.

I know Sontag’s work from On Photography, and greatly admire her writing. On Photography in particular speaks to my preoccupation with truth in memory. Sontag meditates on the many ways that photographs can be read, stressing the place of the viewer in the creation of meaning. As an object, a photograph is much more (and not even) a record of time past.

I found the film engaging, and it made me think critically. Sontag’s assertion that a writer is someone who is interested in everything was mentioned a few times, and I found myself jolted back into action, remembering that everything I do is research. Everything I come into contact with in the world is worth discussion. This is the way that Sontag approached her life and writing, and the reason that her work varied so widely. From illness, to photography, to gay culture, and so much in between. She was an expert in nothing and everything, simply willing to engage at every opportunity. The film was inspiring in this way.

I felt that the importance of Sontag’s sexuality was overstated, and she was painted as a colder woman than she might have been. From the film we are to understand her as flirtatious, changeable and selfish. Her past lovers speak about their time together, and by the end of the film I felt overwhelmed by the amount of people who had moved through Sontag’s life and bed. While gay culture formed part of Sontag’s work and interests and is relevant for that fact, I felt like interviews with past lovers were weighted too heavily, taking up space in the film that might have been dedicated to less superficial readings of her other works, and her life experiences’ impact on them. From my own readings of Sontag’s diaries, she seemed to hold more closely to relationships than the film portrayed, too. While it’s unfair to say that either is conclusively truthful, I didn’t see reflected in the film what I understood of Sontag from her own diary writing.

Like any biopic, the drive seems primarily to be to humanise its subject, and Regarding Susan Sontag succeeds in this. Despite what felt like uneven weighting that reduced much of Sontag’s life to her sexuality, it was a good documentary. It was enjoyable to watch, with a huge amount of archived material sewn together skillfully. Regarding Susan Sontag is an effective reminder of how alive and stunning Sontag was, placing her work into broader world contexts and explaining how her life and work fit together.

On Being It

I’m back in town, and back in business. Tasmania was beautiful, the seafood and cheese were fantastic (Tassie must be sad for vegans), the landscape was lovely, and the time “away from it all” was particularly divine.

There’s a certain amount of post-holiday anti-climax that happens to everyone after being away – even on a small scale. This is why Mondays are so rough for Monday-Friday workers. Returning to a very full inbox and feeling pretty overwhelmed, I turned to Big Emotional Music for solace.

For a while, this made it worse. Album of choice was The Avett Brothers’ “Emotionalism”, and I’d just started formulating a new rule about Not Listening to Music About Feels When You’re Already Buried In Them, when a different song came on and helped. The Avett Brothers’ “Head Full of Doubt”.

While most of the song isn’t the most cheerful thing ever, one particular line jumped out at me.

Decide what to be, and go be it.

This is the key, in a number of ways. There’s that adage that you are what you repeatedly do – your actions define you. I try to decide, in every action, that I’m honest, compassionate, creative, curious. I try to show up to my work. The “Head Full of Doubt” lyric is urging you to make a link between what you’d like, and your actual life. I love this line because it doesn’t put up with that nonsense of, “I’ll be one day” (I’ll be a writer when I graduate). Bullshit you will, go do it now.

It also occurred to me that writers are lucky in this sense. Other careers seem (at least to me) to involve deciding “what you’ll be”, and then not really having a lot of wiggle-room within that decision.

As writers, we get to decide what to be every time we sit down to write. The act of sitting down at your desk and writing speaks to that first thought about defining yourself through your actions, but I’m talking about something else. Every new piece of writing gives us another opportunity to “go be it”. I’m a fiction writer. I write poetry. I write memoir. I’m a songstress. I can be anything I want, because my job involves creating something from nothing. Being creative is an umbrella, and we get specific every time we practice.

Decide what to be, and go be it.

We are a lucky bunch.

On Backing Away from Opinion

The internet has a big paradox at its centre: it is both very fast, and very slow.

We all know the ways that it is fast. My Twitter feed moves physically faster than I can consume all the information it offers. Someone confesses a secret on Facebook, and the whole friendship circle knows about it within a day.


But we don’t really talk about the ways that the internet is slow. I say ‘slow’ as an opposite to ‘fast’, but what I mean here is that it’s permanent. That might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it also seems to oppose the ‘speed’ of the internet.

Along with the idea of the ‘fast-moving’ internet, comes a notion of things going missing into the vastness of it all. There are times when I throw something out to Twitter, and it gets swallowed within seconds. People miss it, because there’s just too much stuff. In a way, this means that things become throw-away, transient. It’s easy to forget that whatever is put on the internet is out there forever. Even if you delete it, there are still records of its existence.

What I’m trying to lead up to here, is that I feel inclined to back away from my own opinions online, in a way that I am not in person. Maybe this is a symptom of my place in history – for half my life, there wasn’t too much technology, and for the other half, I’ve been drowning in it.

My close friends are privy to the awful things that fly out of my mouth in face-to-face situations. I possess little to no filter around some people. Mostly I can recognise when I’ve said something bad, and follow it up quickly with an apology. I comfort myself a little with the thought that lived experience moves fast also, and that nobody present recorded what I said.

This differs in an online forum. The audience differs also, as do opportunities to clarify intention. Once I hit the “publish” button, it’s out of my hands. I can’t control who makes a copy of my content, who reads it, or how they interpret it. Interpretation is always tricky, no matter what the forum, but I feel like the internet is a particular wildcard.

I recently wrote an article that appeared on The Peach, about my thoughts and habits when it comes to makeup. This is the first piece of writing that I’ve pitched to anywhere with somewhat political content – The Peach calls itself “a fresh, juicy online magazine for women”, and proudly publishes personal essays with a feminist bent. While it’s not heavily ‘political’, it’s still the kind of stuff that could attract a heated argument, and this is what scared the shit out of me.

While writing the piece, I found myself trying to get into the mind of my readers – was there anywhere that my logic failed? Did I generalise, or express anything that wasn’t tied to my personal experience? Did I qualify everything adequately?

While the internet is blindingly fast, it’s also permanent. While it’s freeing that I have a blog, and skills with words that allow me to publish my thoughts, I also feel slightly muzzled. Online, people seem to take others to task more militantly than they would in person. I feel myself trying to avoid unnecessary conflict, and while it’s not quite censorship, it’s something that seems close.

This is a gap I would like to close in my writing.

Readings’ Top 100


Readings bookstore has posted a list of its top 100 bestsellers from 2012.

As we all know, I’m a total sucker for a good list, and this time of year is absolutely rampant with them. Readings put a teaser up on Twitter before the post, asking what our guesses were for number one. My top two were Jamie’s 15-minute Meals, and Fifty Shades. Let me just say, thank God Readings sell slightly different to the fair bookstore that employs me, else we’d all be doomed.

It’s great to see such a wide range of genres covered by this list: from Andy Griffiths, to cookbooks and food guides, to trash fiction (sorry), to literature. Also great to see that not everything on this book was a new release. Films and “must-read” lists bring old books back into favour, to the point that they reach stores’ bestseller lists again. We’ve had a huge spike in sales of all the books listed in the First Tuesday Book Club’s 10 Aussie Books to Read Before You Die. “On The Road” appears in Readings’ list, after the film was released this year.

And the question we’re all bound to try to answer: how many of these books have I read?



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