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Sam van Zweden

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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.

Review: Wheat Belly

ImageI generally make a habit of not reviewing self-help, motivation, health or diet type books, lest I draw attention to my hideous addiction to the idea of bettering myself. But after reading a friend’s blog post admitting that she’s addicted too, it’s occurred to me that this could be a pretty common addiction. And the much-talked-about Wheat Belly annoyed me significantly enough that I feel like I should really speak up about this one. So. Here we go.

Most lasting thought after finishing: Fuck you, William Davis, MD. Seriously. I want my week of reading-hours back.

The basic premise of the book is that modern wheat is nothing like the wheat that we were eating 10,000 years ago. Modern wheat has been genetically modified and cross-whatevered to the extent that it effects human health, and only recently are we seeing the outcome of this.

I’m down with what Davis argues for the most part. It makes sense that human health issues take a while to crop up, and I’ve got a few friends who’ve gone wheat-free with fantastic results for their health and wellbeing.

However – so many unsubstantiated claims! So much emphasis on weight-loss, when the really interesting stuff is in the science and social aspects, which only really come in in the epilogue! Davis lost me entirely in the middle of this book, where he threw about a heap of jargon without defining it. There are plenty of footnotes, so the work looks well-researched, but when you read what he’s actually saying, there’s an awful lot of stating what a study found, and then stretching it quite a bit to fit his own argument. WTF, Davis. C’mon.

And the sucker punch – Davis has written a whole book about wheat, followed by a ‘solutions’ chapter that advocates a very low/no-carb diet, which eliminates an awful lot of not-at-all-wheaty stuff. I feel like I was tricked into a corner. “Quit wheat,” he says. “It’ll be good for you,” he says. “Alright,” I think, “Maybe I should do more research, maybe I should think about this, I can relate to a lot of what’s in this book!”. Then he turns around and says, “Actually, quit wheat, plus everything else, just eat cucumbers.”

Okay, so that’s hyperbolic, and unfair on Davis. The diet that he promotes is still quite varied, but it is very restrictive, and involves a lot of stuff that hasn’t really been argued throughout the book. It’s a bit of a jump from the 200-odd pages he’s spent advocating wheat elimination.

I just feel like the interesting bits of Wheat Belly could easily have been used in a much punchier way to make, say, a shorter, better, less fanatical book.

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!

It’s Not Romance, It’s Erotica. Awful Erotica.

I’ve recently been struck by the realization that Fifty Shades of Grey might actually be the thing that saves book-stores – for the time being, anyhow. I know this is a pretty big thing to say, but I actually kind of mean it. Looking at the figures just for Dymocks book stores, approximately 12,000 more units have been sold while Fifty Shades tops the charts than when anything else topped the charts in a comparable week last year. I’m baffled by the sudden frenzy of non-readers seeking out these books, and I’ve been meaning to post about my thoughts on this for some time… After reading Helen Razer’s immensely enjoyable “Product Review”, I decided I’d better sit down and write my thoughts.

It’s really weird to watch this all happening. For the last two or three weeks, just about every second item I sell has been a Fifty Shades book. It’s now officially the fastest-selling paperback book in history, surpassing Harry Potter and Twilight, even this year’s earlier boom of The Hunger Games. It’s most weird because of the kinds of customers buying the book, its genre, and the feedback I’ve been getting from those customers.

Case in point #1:
Have you read it? Is it any good?”
I started to – but I had to stop. I got up to page three, before I started thinking that if I continued reading I’d have to try even harder not to be scornful of customers who enjoy these books. I can go with bad writing – I gobbled up the first two Twilight books and quite enjoyed them, despite all the “topaz eyes” and the way that everyone in Forks “lopes” everywhere. The pages kept turning, the action kept me going, the pacing was good. What I did read of Fifty Shades felt so mechanical that I just had to stop.

So no, Customer. I have not read Fifty Shades. “It’s just not for me, but it’s incredibly popular!” Aaaand smile, don’t frown, don’t judge, just sell the thing. It’s what’s keeping you in a job.

Case in point #2:
“What’s it about? I don’t even know, I just know everyone’s reading it!”
This is said at the check-out, when they’re buying the book. I don’t think I’ve ever, in my life, bought a book that I know nothing about.

Case in point #3:
Customer: “Do you have that… Hundred something… Everyone’s talking about it?”
Me: “Fifty Shades of Grey? The erotica?”
At the word ‘erotica’, customer gets flustered and embarrassed.
Yeah, it’s erotica. On the back of the book, the spot that we put price stickers over, it says “erotica/romance”. The general readership that buys the book seems far more comfortable with the word “romance”. But flicking through the book (as I’ve done many times), you’ll find a lot of passages about penetration, and the “rules” of BDSM. I have no problem with erotica. In fact, I quite enjoy reading erotica. The Bride Stripped Bare was really enjoyable, because it was well-written, plus it was brave: a second-person narrative based around the parallel stories of an old women’s guide to being a good wife, and a woman negotiating her own married life. I like the secrecy and indulgence of erotica – it’s fun.

What baffles me the most about the Fifty Shades phenomenon is that “erotica” a’la some Mills & Boon etc is generally frowned-upon by the same people who are so enthusiastic about Fifty Shades. The flustered ladies who can’t stomach the word “erotica” and who ask for a bag before leaving the store are pretty representative of the readership of this wildly popular trilogy. It appears to me that the key to the books’ success lies in the fact that someone (WHO?!) said that this particular erotica is acceptable. Or that this particular erotica is not erotica at all. Women en masse are indulging the secret fun that I love about erotica, because someone made it acceptable in this case.

There’s a lot of questions about what happens going forward.

Question 1 – Is this self-contained? Will the customers who came into the store to buy Fifty Shades re-discover the enjoyment of reading and keep coming back for other books? Many of these books are being bought by themselves, but some customers buy other things. Last weekend there were many couples – she with Fifty Shades and he with Fev. More than a few told me that they’re not generally readers. Can booksellers hold any real hope that these people will realise the enriching experience that reading can be, and return when they finish these books? While Fifty Shades has boosted sales a lot during its time at the top of the charts, can we look forward to higher sales after the series loses its top-10 status?

Question 2 – Will there be many more books like these? If this smartly-marketed erotica is permissible, is there perhaps a whole genre of permissible erotica on its way? A co-worker and I discussed this question recently. I worried that if there is a whole genre of this kind coming, then would the quality of the writing improve at all? She laughed, asking if I would read these books if they were high literature.

And Yes, I probably would.

I’m not a total literature snob. I enjoyed Hunger Games, I’m okay with the fact that there is often a reason that things become as successful as these books have been. I’m curious to find out what that thing is. In the case of Fifty Shades though, whatever it is doesn’t lay in the first few pages, and I couldn’t bring myself to read further. The rabid need that people have to read this book is beyond me. I don’t understand.

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!

The To-Be-Read Grab-Bag

I have a teeny tiny moleskine I use to write down all the book recommendations I receive and mean to follow up. I usually just write down the name and the author, very very rarely the reason it’s been recommended. With the amount of recommendations I receive, it’s pretty hard sometimes to remember why I’m chasing up a certain book.

Today I dipped into the To-Be-Read list for my next read, and picked up the copy of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City that I’ve had sitting here for a few weeks, intending to start.

I opened the book, and to my delight it’s written in second person! (Rare, and even more rarely well-done.)

The opening line:

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”

Are you hooked already? I am. And I’m so delighted that I’d forgotten why it was recommended – such a fantastic surprise to start reading and discover such brilliant prose and an original focalization. Thanks, whoever recommended this one.

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