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Sam van Zweden

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Toward better mental health support for writers

One of the last things I did in 2018 was participate in the City of Literature Parliament at the Wheeler Centre. As part of the Senate, I presented a reflection on what it means to be a city of literature, and what I hope for going forward. This is that talk.


The nonfiction writing that’s coming out of Melbourne in 2018 is vulnerable and deeply important. The stories in increasingly mainstream publications are more queer than they were, and they include the voices of more Indigenous writers and people of colour than they used to. The stories being told are more feminist, more marginalised, and more chronically ill. They’re stories from regional towns and unceded lands; from beaches and commission flats. I’m proud to be part of this City of Literature, and of the willingness of Melbourne’s writers to tell and its readers to listen. We’re doing important work to raise unique voices and story forms here.

This work often sits close to the author: essays, poetry, memoir, graphic narratives and more. Who better to tell a story than someone who’s lived it? Who better to represent experiences, identities, or beliefs than those who inhabit them?

This kind of writing also takes a toll. Honest, raw stories can be taxing to mental health. Sometimes that’s because they deal explicitly with mental health issues. Sometimes it’s because the most vulnerable people do the heaviest lifting to tell difficult stories. During the same-sex marriage plebiscite, queer writers shouldered much of the burden of advocacy. Mental Health Week every year sees writers with experiences of mental illness share their most complex parts. And this is as it should be – people’s stories should be told in their own voice wherever possible. But alongside the commodification of personal stories, we need to acknowledge that the people in the best position to raise awareness and start difficult conversations are also those most vulnerable to mental illness.

Freelance writers in particular live with multiple factors that can compromise mental health and wellbeing. These include unstable work and income, an inability to access expensive or exclusive treatment, isolated working conditions, a lack of benefits including sick leave and holiday pay, and a culture that often encourages burnout.

At my part-time job, I edit course content for universities. Recently, a colleague worked on a course including content about domestic violence. Immediately, the company’s HR department reached out to check in on her wellbeing. They made sure she knew about the employee assistance program, which allows her access to a counsellor free of charge.

For freelance writers dealing with similar content, there is no HR department. There is no employee assistance program. There are no paid mental health days. For freelance writers, the responsibility is on them to know when to reach out, who to contact, how to ask for help, and how to look after themselves.

There is more we can do to support one another as writers. The strong and safe systems we’ve built into our City of Literature can do more to support the wellbeing of writers.

This can take place on a number of levels. For free, we can check in with those around us. These are difficult conversations, but many of us have gotten better at them by necessity – we have learned through loss, and burnout, and close calls. This checking in can help reduce the isolation of freelance work. But we need to upskill, too, so that we know what to do if and when someone isn’t okay, and how we can best support ourselves for wellness.

With some funding, it would become possible to support writers through peer support training and self-care workshops. With significant funding, I’d dream big about income support, which would allow a freelance equivalent of mental health days. I’d wish for psychological services tailored to writers. As a City of Literature, we hold space for vulnerable and honest storytelling from a diverse range of writers. We’ve spent ten years building a resilient, varied, exciting infrastructure for literature in Melbourne and its surrounds. It’s time to create a similar infrastructure that looks out for the wellbeing of those doing the creating.

 

Review: On the Many Shapes Bodies Will Take

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On the Many Shapes Bodies Will Take is a new poetry collection from award-winning writer, poet, editor and long-time blogger (and friend, full disclosure) Karen Andrews. The collection explores, with brevity and precision, the many phases our bodies move through, and the ways our bodies respond to their places in the world. The poems explore themes that have emerged in Andrews’ mixed collection ‘Crying in the Car’ and through her long-running blog, such as grief, motherhood, intimate relationship dynamics and body image.

Andrews’ language is direct and chosen with obvious care. The poems are short, only occasionally running over a page in length. With a strong narrative thread, and a linear progression through the poet’s life, this collection should appeal to poetry lovers as well as those simply looking for a considered meditation on the body’s impact on and in the world.

What emerges through the collection is a retrospective look at the body’s fallibility and vulnerability, but also its strengths and power. A body is never one thing, never static, and never final. Andrews’ collection explores these permutations with tenderness and skill.

Summer is here. It’s billowy and disgusting outside today, but it’s summer. It’ll do.

Here are the books I’ll be working my way through during the muggy season.

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Green Cleaver podcast

Earlier this week, I sat down on stage in front of a really pretty large room of people, to speak with Sam Cooney, Richard Cornish and Tammi Jonas. We talked about meat. We talked about why meat-eating is tricky, why it matters to us so much, and how we can do better with our meat-eating.

In a conversation that too often swings to extremes (vegans vs ‘carnivores’), I think it’s important to create space for nuanced consideration of the issues involved. I feel hopeful about our ability, as a society, to do better. I think part of the key to doing better is removing the myth that if you can’t (or won’t) give meat up entirely then you may as well not think about your meat-eating practices at all.

The Wheeler Centre have been super efficient in sending the podcast out into the world. So, if you missed the event on Tuesday, you can now listen to it online.

Many thanks to The Wheeler Centre for having me, and to my fellow panelists (and chair) for a generous, clever, enjoyable, nuanced discussion.

So Sad Today review

 

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So Sad Today presents unique new possibilities for our relationships with our mental health in an age where severing painful thoughts and sending them out into the void of the internet can serve a number of functions: defusion, therapy, confession, meaning-making. These essays, and the @sosadtoday Twitter account work so well because they defuse awful thoughts by flattening them to black and white marks on a screen or page, drawing out the power of thoughts and observations that might otherwise take your breath away with despair.”

I reviewed Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today – a collection of essays exploring themes from the Twitter account of the same name.

You can read the whole review over on Killings (the Kill Your Darlings blog), and purchase the book here.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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I’ve just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. It’s a book about racially-motivated violence in America, written as a letter to his 15-year-old son. It looks at how the ‘progress’ of white America is built upon the decimation of the black body.

You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable. None if that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have your descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world (pp. 107-108).

There’s nothing I can say about this because it’s not useful for me to speak. This is a book for shutting up and listening. For doing your best at understanding and being better. This is a book that represents a huge gap in both my reading and my understanding of the world, and one I’m going to make a conscious effort to address. This is required reading. Not optional. Go, now.

‘Hating Your Guts’ over on the Wheeler Centre

During his Interrobang talk late last year, Adam Liaw said, “I’m really not big on food trends at all. I don’t think they add a lot other than novelty. And to me, food’s not about novelty. There are huge issues that the world has with food, rather than indulging the novelties of a very privileged few of us.”

This really clicked with me, as much of my writing revolves around alternative food narratives and speaking back to the ‘food as saviour/ultimate comfort’ dialogue we’ve built our food-obsessed culture around.

I got thinking about offal, and how it operates in a different way to most other food trends, in that it doesn’t trade on scarcity, and offers a possible solution to some of those ‘huge issues that the world has with food’. But at the same time, we seem to have a heap of trouble getting on board with offal – and like so many foody things, it seems to revolve around our bodily reality, and the stories we tell about the significance of what we eat.

Luckily, the Wheeler Centre asked me if I had anything to say about food trends for their blog, and were kind enough to let me tackle this weird and wonderful set of ideas. That went up on their blog this week, as a post titled ‘Hating Your Guts: Why we struggle with offal‘.

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My essay planning process involves post-its and my study wall. Not all of this is in the final piece, but it’s a great way to start!

 

Never for nothing

Last week I went and saw The Decemberists play at Hamer Hall in Melbourne.

Their lead singer, Colin Meloy, is masterful at between-song banter. Because of this, Decemberists shows seem to be as much about the theatrics between songs as the music itself – which is exactly what makes crazy Arts Centre ticket prices worthwhile.

Meloy shared a song with us which he’d written to encourage his son, Hank, to eat. This is obviously ‘a bit’ that’s been appearing throughout the tour. You can view a similar bit that someone on YouTube filmed below.

This seems like a cute and entertaining ditty a dorky dad has written, until Meloy sings a riff that fans already know. They know it because it shows up in ‘Calamity Song’, from the latest Decemberists album. Meloy morphs into Calamity from there, the crowd goes wild.

What’s not included in the clip above is some preamble we got in Melbourne – Meloy described ‘Hank, Eat Your Oatmeal’ as ‘utilitatian’, explaining that sometimes little bits of creativity seem silly, but they just haven’t found their home or application yet. It’s just part of the process. You never make something for nothing.

It reminded me of why hold onto everything I’ve ever written, which I wrote about recently. Seeing Meloy’s entirely endearing explanation of the same thing, I wanted to immediately rush out and get a tattoo reading ‘Hank, eat your oatmeal’. I didn’t know where to put it, so that didn’t happen.

Point being, it’s so important to remember this. It’s never for nothing. It’s all useful. Keep coming back.

 

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About to embark on a new food-themed project, it seems like a great time to use one of these gorgeous Bold Ideas ‘a cup’ notebooks.

For what it’s worth, I went with the peach spritzer.

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