Sam van Zweden




Doors Close, Doors Open

Left to right: myself, Jo Day, Tully Hansen and Veronica Sullivan. Writers I’ve been totally lucky to study with, and whose success I’d place bets on.

Last night I graduated. I robed up, and spent hours in stinking hot Etihad Stadium, and got my giant certificate: “Bachelor of Arts (Creative Writing) with Distinction”.

Done and done!

I’m so glad I made the decision, three years ago, to move to RMIT – and that they were willing to have me! It’s easily one of the best choices I’ve made. I’ve really grown as a writer, and have been so generously supported by my teachers and peers. I’ve had industry opportunities I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’ve been encouraged to follow my passions and obsessions, and I now find myself quietly confident that, while still somewhat aimless, I have a general direction for my future.

I’ve learned a lot about myself: how I work best, which topics I find easy or difficult or fun or challenging to write about, what kinds of practical applications for my work I am interested in. I know now, so much better than I did three years ago, who I am and where I’m headed.

It’s a strange place to be this morning. It’s official: I’ve finished my undergraduate career. I’m now looking in the face of postgraduate study. I’ve got an application pending at one institution, and have deferred an offer from another until 2014. I’ll make up my mind which of those suits me better after my year off. I plan on spending this year saying “Yes!” to everything. This means that today, my first day as a graduate, is being spent writing an application for a mentorship, and thinking about a possible project for a fellowship application.

While my time as an undergraduate has finished, I’m seeing possibilities stretching out in front of me, I just have to be gutsy enough to take them.

How Do I Choose Books?

Today when I went to the library, I was approached by a training librarian who asked some questions about how I choose my books.

It’s a pretty simple question, yes, but it’s also hard to answer, and it made me stop and think. Poor librarian, I’m sure she was after a simple answer! I think what I gave her was something along the lines of, “I look at displays to see things I wouldn’t otherwise consider, for anything eye-catching, but otherwise I keep a list of books I want to read and I work my way down the list”. She asked a follow-up question about whether I find authors I like and spend extended time reading more of their work. My answer, sadly, is that often I don’t have time to do this. I do a lot of reading toward my writing, whether means research for articles or the blog, or reading works like my own WIP to get a sense of context or some inspiration – not to mention assigned reading for uni. Now that I’ve finished uni classes until 2014, though, I probably will have a lot more time to do things like getting properly obsessed with one author and spending weeks in their back-catalogue.

All this has me thinking about the extended answer to the librarian’s question – how do I choose my books?

There are two main sources: work and word-of-mouth.

This source is made up of books I’m sent by publishers or publications for review. I always dreamed of having a Meyer-esque Tower of Hope, and my desk is slowly starting to develop one. Of course, now that I’ve got one, it’s impossible to reach the bottom of. These books usually take priority, depending on whether there’s a deadline (magazines) or not (blog). 

The Mini-Moleskine:
I have a teeny tiny Moleskine that fits in the front pocket of my bag. It’s the size of my palm. And it contains a list of all the books I have been recommended by a friend (or at least, the ones I intend on chasing up), or read an interesting review of, or not understood a reference to and felt silly so need to read in order to increase my literary nous, or … so many things lead to a book ending up in my little notebook. I stole this idea off Veronica Sullivan, when I saw her scribbling away in a baby notebook at the library. This system ensures that I don’t miss anything. And it feels so good to cross a title off the list!

It’s also a great grab-bag of surprises – the list currently contains about 150 books I still haven’t read, and by the time I get around to crossing the title off I may have forgotten why I wrote it down in the first place, just that I knew I wanted to read it. This makes a lot of the titles a really pleasant surprise.

It also decreases reading anxiety. It reduces the hugeness of all I haven’t read to a finite list of things I need to chase up – like a never-ending “To Do”. Yeah, it’s old-school to do it in a book, but I like it. It’s a handy habit. No, I’ll never reach the end. But I’ll always be adding things and crossing things off. I’m never stuck for what to pick up from the library – just open up the book and pick one!

And then there are the other sources:

The last source of my reading material comes from necessity. Today’s library trip was to look for gift ideas for Christmas: recipes. Of course, I ended up with two accidental books, because there’s always the Can’t Say No category. I saw Julie and Julia just staring at me from the shelf, and I couldn’t leave it there. I need some indulgent holiday reading!

So those are my sources for reading material. How do you decide what to read next?

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!

Side Effects of Being A Writer

There are many side-effects of being a writer, but I’m talking specifically about one: imagination. This works in two ways, one good and one bad.

I tend to catastrophize. My imagination gets away from me, and I fill to the brim with anxiety about anything and everything. Going to a party: people will think I’m awful, I will say terrible things, I will make bad impressions and get into trouble! I’ll look like an idiot! I’ll never have any friends, ever, because I couldn’t talk to anyone at this one party, and then I’ll die alone with cats and cross-stitch (<– these things are cool seperately. Together, risky.)  My imagination gets carried away, and I picture the worst possible outcome to all situations, and assume that this will happen to me.*

Daydreams are far more fun and happy than catastrophizing. Yesterday D and I got accepted for a house we applied for. We’ve been at our current place for three and a half years, and it’s gotten to the point that I actively really dislike the property. It’s cold, it’s damp, the kitchen’s downstairs and the loungeroom upstairs, it takes a week to dry our washing, it’s mouldy, I’m scared my books and D’s camera gear will get eaten up by mildew, or that we won’t get our bond back just because the place is old (see? Catastrophizing!).

Anyway, the new place is a dream. Maybe this is just a result of comparing it to our current place, but I’ve been daydreaming wonderful things about it. In these daydreams, I’m a domestic goddess, all because I have an entryway complete with coat pegs and shoe-rack, benches and loads of cupboards in the kitchen, and a separate laundry where I can iron and dry washing (currently happening in the study and bedroom, respectively). The study has a door! And cupboards! And there’s space everywhere, and I will put books in all of that space. Last night I actually dreamed about where the couch will go. We’re not into the new place until the start of August, but my daydreaming will get me through until then.

So while my imagination helps me write pretty stories and be all creative and rad, it also affects my personality and non-writing thoughts. Writing and creativity aren’t self-contained things, they’re who I am. They’re present always.


*Even in the case of this blog post. “Over-sharing much? Nobody cares, you’ll lose readers,” says brain. Shut up.

She Works Hard for the Money (But There’s So Much More)

Something that’s come up multiple times across the Emerging Writers’ Festival is the idea that we shouldn’t be so focused on money, and I’ve really appreciated that people are raising this point. I think it’s really important.

While there’s definitely space to be concerned about being ripped off, there’s also a need to get some perspective. As an emerging writer, I’ve had to do a fair amount of writing/working for free- but I don’t feel ripped off at all, because what I’m getting out of those experiences goes beyond money.

For example, interning – I’ve met countless wonderful people, learned about what I’m actually capable of as a person, discovered new possibilities for myself and my career as a writer. Interning is one of those experiences that can potentially pay itself off non-monetarily, in things like networking opportunities and transferable skills. You know those skills that everyone wants, but that are impossible to get without getting a job? Interning’s a great way to get those skills!

Last night at the Industry Insider panel on Indie Publishing, Sophie Black (from Crikey) made note of the fact that she appreciates that low pay-rates need to be subsidized by giving the piece(s) the time they deserve editorially, helping to make them the best pieces they can be, and arming the writer with new skills and knowledge beyond just getting paid.

So while it’s important to value your work, and make sure you’re getting what you deserve for it, also be aware that what you get for your work might not just be about money. With so many indie publishing places hard-up for cash, it’s not always going to be possible to get a high pay-rate for your work. That’s not to say that these places should be turned down or not considered – “What you deserve” might include transferable skills, networking opportunities, a forum for your work, or extra attention to making your work the best it can be. Look past the money, with the bigger picture in mind, and look at what an opportunity really has to offer you.

Day 5 and Still Running!

Today is day 5 of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and I thought I’d do a quick wrap-up post of the things that have made an impression on me and what’s been great about the festival since my last post, and what my experience has been as an intern.

My last post was just after the launch. Since then has been a Masterclass, the Artists’ Party, and the Town Hall Writers’ Conference.

During this time I needed to finish a heap of assessments, and I tell you what – there should be a dangling carrot like the festival at the end of every semester – there would be so much less procrastination! I didn’t want to be stuck at home working, so I was super-productive and have managed to get everything finished a whole day early. I’m going to hand it all in this afternoon, and I’m OUT of semester one! And I can finally say “Yes, I’m coming up to the festival hub for drinks!”

The Business of Being a Writer Masterclass I worked, but the whole thing was coming over a PA, so I could hear everything that was going on. I’m actually kind of upset that I’d missed out on these classes in previous years – all the things I’d been confused about or wondering about the business side of this was covered in this class. Things like invoicing, setting rates, what to do once you’ve got an ABN, copyright. Everything. I highly recommend this class for everyone next year.

My favourite idea that came from the masterclass was Aden Rolfe’s idea of “Speculative Administration”. Freelancers, he said, necessarily have to spend about 15% of their time engaging in this “Speculative Administration” – things like researching markets, applying for grants, seeing what competitions and deadlines are coming up, thinking about where you’d love to be published. As a result, freelancers can only ever use 75% of their time on the other work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something to be aware of.

Friday night’s Artists Party was loud and amazing. I’m continually thrilled by how many amazing people are involved with the festival, and how everyone is ready to chill out and have a chat. We’re not friends already? Alright, cool, who are you? Let’s be friends.

Over the weekend was the Town Hall Writers’ Conference. I worked on Saturday morning, catching the Seven Enviable Lines panel. Favourite lines – “Procrastination: Don’t do it.”. “Never, ever take fear-based advice”. And “Don’t be a jerk”. This “Don’t be a jerk” thing was echoed all weekend, and I think it’s really important in a community as small as Melbourne’s. You’re going to come across the same people again and again, so for the love of God, don’t burn bridges! That’s not to say don’t be critical – one of the things I loved about the weekend conference was the way that many people were brave enough to disagree and really thrash out ideas. Critical is okay. Critical is constructive. Just don’t be a jerk.

After a MASSIVE Friday/Saturday-AM working, I decided to go home to get a heap of this homework done. Everything’s due today and tomorrow. While leaving the Town Hall program to do homework sucked, I really wanted to be able to rock up on Sunday and see some great panels – including one by my mentor for next semester, Francesca Rendle-Short. More on that mentorship post-EWF, no doubt.

Anyway, I intended to come home and be very productive. Instead, I came home and collapsed in an exhausted puddle. I slept for five hours. When I eventually woke, I felt much better, and ready to tackle assessments. I put on headphones, and the newly-discovered Vitamin String Quartet (perfect for studying!). And I powered through almost all of that assessment work.

Which meant I could catch panels on Sunday! I feel like I tweeted the panels to death, so you no doubt already know the highlights. I will say though, that I really loved the digital writing panel, and how it made me feel excited and more energized about this here blog. Post-festival I’ll be around at the Future Bookshop, writing up a storm, and I intend to use the time (at least in part) to re-commit to LGWABP. Time commitments before me still mean I’m a busy woman, but I can see my way to posting more regularly. So thanks, especially to Carla Sammut (@easyasveganpie), for getting me excited again.

Oh, also – just a quick shout-out to my amazing brother, who recently joined Twitter. He’s a fantastic chef, and he’s joined Twitter to follow restaurants and chefs. And bless him, I’ve been tweeting #ewf12 pretty hardcore over the last week and it’s gonna continue, and he hasn’t unfollowed me. Thanks, Chris! x

The last exciting thing is ewfDigital! It went live last night, and it’s all up and functioning and exciting today. It looks freakin’ awesome, and there’s a heap of content up there. I’ve only managed to look at about half of it, and going back just now I see that today’s panel stuff has gone live too. ewfDigital allows people who can’t make it to Melbourne for the festival to engage through videos, blogs and Twitter. Not only is there content going up from panelists, but you, as the audience, can create your own content in response to the stuff that’s up there. Just like question-and-answer time at the end of the panel, where you have the right to respond. Only better. Way better.

Right now I’m off to a briefing for the Future Bookshop, and tonight I celebrate with my best mate and wine and an Industry Insider panel about emerging critics and Lord of The Fries after. I’ve finished assessments! Let me loose on the festival!

It’s Here!

Last night saw the launch of the 2012 Emerging Writers’ Festival. It was a brilliant show, complete with bum-dancing, crumping in a row-boat, chair persons almost crying while thanking Lisa for an amazing 3 year captaincy, and the incomparable Tully Hansen winning the Monash Prize. Congratulations too to Michelle Li for taking out the Monash component;  we were lucky enough to hear some of her entry last night, and it was lovely.

I’d like to apologize in advance to my partner, my body, my diet, my house, my washing pile, my skin… My mum, who won’t hear from me for a few weeks… My final assessment for not getting the attention it needed pre-festival and now will be completed in an exhaustion fug… If last night was any indicator at all, by the end of these eleven days, I’m going to be so happy, but incredibly tired, too.

As I tweeted late last night – my life right now? Fuck yeah! Sometimes everything just comes up aces, and that’s exactly what’s happening right now. Good one, life!

Today I’ll be working at the Business of Being a Writer Masterclass, and meeting a heap of brilliant people no doubt at the artists’ party this evening. I will never stop being astounded by how many great people are involved in the festival.

Yeah, and this is just day 2. Imagine how gushy this is going to get by the end of the festival! #loveattack

Outing My Infantile Love of Tupperware

I’ve got a post over on the EWF blog today. It’s my two-month check in, reflecting on my experience so far as an intern. In it, I talk about how I’ve learned to love the humble spreadsheet, and I out my childhood love of Tupperware.

I haven’t posted much on here about my EWF experience, because my lips have to remain sealed about so much of it. Surprises! Oh, so many surprises! A lot of these surprises will be revealed on the 24th of April (that’s only a week away!) when the EWF program gets launched online. The official program launch is on the 4th of May (6.15pm, but I can’t for the life of me find an event for it anywhere?) at the Wheeler Centre, and I hope to see you there!

Post Box Perks and Presents…

I’ve recently acquired a post-office box. It’s a bit of a loser box, it’s little and down the bottom and around the corner from the main row of post boxes. But it’s a PO Box! I think there’s something professional about being able to provide people with a PO Box address, and I like the forced exercise that comes from having to walk a bit to check the mail. I live above/behind a shop, and have no mail box here, so our mail always arrives late or not at all. The post box has been great for receiving things promptly and actually!

Having a bit of a shitty day yesterday, I walked up to the post office and found all sorts of presents waiting for me. There was a copy of Voiceworks (who have utterly outdone themselves – frosted dust-jacket, people!) and a review book from The Big Issue. That perked my day up considerably.

Apart from these wonderful presents, I’ve recently invested in a present for myself that I’m particularly excited about. It’s this beautiful giant:

Co-worker flicked through it and gave me a distaste-face, before asking, “How does it work?”

Oh, my friend! It works every way. The most obvious use of it is to look up phrases and fables, and be provided with the history and meaning behind said phrases and fables. However, it’s much much more than that, too. It contains famous people, pretty much every influential text you could ever think of. Under “First” there’s an entry about first lines, containing the first lines of a heap of classics and well-loved texts. Under “Last” there’s a listing of famous last words. This is an intertextual wet dream. Remember wading through The Wasteland and getting… oh, about 1% of it? Should’ve had a Brewer’s. A probable ditto for Ulysses, though I’ve never dipped into it myself.  At the risk of Super-Nerddom, I’d say this is a reference book that it’s possible to read. As Philip Pullman says in this foreword, you can easily spend hours just browsing in Brewer’s.

With my brand new Brewer’s close at hand, no reference will ever pass me by again. Ever. I will be a close-reading queen. Just so ya’ll know.

Oh, and a heads-up for anyone interested in one: the price has just recently dropped. I went to a nearby independent book-store, and found they charged $55 for it. Ordering it through work, I found the price has dropped to $39.99. A considerable difference (even more considerable with a staff discount on top). A lot of publishers seem to be panicking about the shift to online sales, and are dropping prices on some books. Brewer’s is the lucky recipient of one of these price drops, so if you want one, now’s the time!

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