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Sam van Zweden

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Writing Practice

There are no words to describe the incredible hopefulness of my work flow right now.

Yesterday I managed to mark the final card in Part 1 (of three parts) of my manuscript. The first third is drafted. Look at all these ‘draft’ stamps! I believe I might even be able to finish this thing in the near future. What a feeling.

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Revisiting JSF’s meat book

I’m revisiting Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I loved this book the first time around, and remember it for being a wonderfully personal take on the ethics of meat eating.

Next week, I’m doing a panel at The Wheeler Centre called ‘Green Cleaver‘ – I’ll be talking with Sam Cooney, Richard Cornish and Tammi Jonas about the role of meat in our lives and how we can do it better.

This, I suppose, in the wake of having written about why we struggle to embrace offal; and why the stories we tell about food are important.

I’m still working – always, forever – on the larger manuscript about food’s significance in our lives. In my research for that project, I hadn’t thought to revisit Jonathan Safran Foer’s book – it’s about food, but I didn’t remember it being relevant to what I’m writing.

Until now. In preparation for the panel event on Tuesday, I’m dipping back into JSF. This paragraph encapsulates so much of what I’m trying to do in my work, it’s hard to believe I’d forgotten it:

Perhaps [my grandmother’s] other stories were too difficult to tell. Or perhaps she chose her story for herself, wanting to be identified by her providing rather than her surviving. Or perhaps her surviving is contained within her providing: the story of her relationship to food holds all of the other stories that could be told about her. Food, for her, is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joyfulness, humiliation, religion, history, and, of course, love. As if the fruits she always offered us were picked from the destroyed branches of our family tree.

It’s succinct, and hard-hitting, and I’m finding it so energising. Deeply sad, very important, and energising.

A Week of One’s Own

I spent last week as a writer in residence at RMIT non/fictionLab’s new creative space, the Urban Writing House. It’s a gorgeous studio on campus in the city, decked out with comfy and stylish furniture, and all I needed to put my head down for a week to work on my book.

I spent the week working on structural and formal elements of my manuscript. It was in dire need of a print-up-and-shuffle-around, having grown in dribs and drabs without too much attention to order – and so I took to the walls with a bunch of blu-tac and shuffled to my heart’s content. I was surprised to realise that some of my short vignettes belonged together as longer bits, and I worked on building a map of the different narrative and conceptual strands that weave throughout the project.

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This cleared the way for more words to be written, and for greater purpose in my moving forward: I have more of an understanding of where the work’s going, and for the shape of what I’m saying in it.

What was most interesting about the time, for me, was what it was like to spend intensive time with my work. I haven’t had a chance to do this in a long while – usually I’ll be writing smaller things alongside work on the manuscript, or have days where I don’t touch it at all after coming home from the day job too tired. When I was doing Honours, I was in the lab most days. My process then involved approximately equal parts jubilation and despair. I’d have an awful day and be utterly convinced I’m incapable of doing good work, and particularly this work. But that day would be followed (perhaps not immediately, but eventually) by a day where things click into place and I take a large step forward. My week at the Urban Writing House replicated this pattern.

Throughout the week, I softened. I walked in on Monday with a militant, no-nonsense attitude to my need to work. By the Saturday, I was being much kinder to myself, and this helped open my mind up to creating worthwhile work. After an awful day on Wednesday (wandering, crying, crying, crying), and many kind and encouraging words from many wonderful women, things picked up – or at least evened out. This shift can be seen clearly through the mantras I wrote on the blackboard in the space, as reminders of what I thought was important and helpful at the time.

They appear below in order. The shift in my attitude toward myself and my work is pretty clear.

There’s one more, from my first day, which for some reason has deleted itself from my camera roll.

They read:

Monday: The thing about writing a book is, you have to write the book. (Possibly inspired by this wonderful post). 
Tuesday: Just do the things.
Wednesday: Be deliberate.
Thursday: You won’t finish it today. Stop trying.
Friday/Saturday: Allow discomfort.

‘Allow discomfort’ was such a good fit that I kept it for two days.

While it was only a week, I feel like I learned a lot. I got good work done. It was a great reminder to be more present (working more regularly helps), and more kind to myself.

This gorgeous little space is evolving. It’s documenting itself. I left my gratitude and story in its guest book, along with the words of the residents who stayed before me. I left a little keepsake on the shelf – a tiny jar with a few sprigs of rosemary in it. I work best when there’s some leaves nearby, and rosemary is often used as a mnemonic prompt in rituals – weddings, funerals, religious ceremonies – so it appears in my work.

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I’m so grateful to the non/fictionLab for providing me with this space – my work and my process have benefited greatly.

The benefits of reading your old work

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Image source: Flickr CC / turinboy

 

Grief has had me in its clutches, after saying goodbye to a dear friend last week. While I wish I could say that I’ve mastered grief over the last year or so – that I’ve overcome it, or learned how to do it better – I haven’t. I have, however, become a little bit familiar with its tendency to multiply emotion – not just sadness, but everything. So this morning’s ‘difficult morning’ was less of a stumble and more of a head-first pitch down the mountain.

But this post isn’t about grief. It’s about reminding yourself that you are capable, and the value of looking backwards. It’s about how calming and useful that can be.

I had planned, today, to work on two things. One is the long-suffering outline for my book, which I’m trying to put together to form a more comprehensive overview of where the project is going and what its priorities are. The other project for today was to work on an essay for Antic Magazine, about the composition of memory. I got most of the way through the day and had despaired over the first of these projects (I will never get this done, or I will get it done and I’ll fail horribly), before taking a break and sifting through some work from three years ago.

It’s not just nostalgia. I’ve written at length before about memory, and particularly about the elements of memory that I’m wanting to put into this new essay. As the old work was written for school, it’s entirely up for cannibalism.

See, this is a regular practice of mine. Revisiting old, possibly even ‘failed’ work, has a few benefits.

It reminds me that I’m competent. Old work that has been published reminds me that I’m capable of working on something to publication standard. Beyond just preening, this opens something up inside my brain – You are able to do this. You have done this before. It’s an exercise in self esteem.

Old work that is unpublished is rarely entirely useless, and because nobody’s read it, I get to pull out salvageable content for use in a new project. And what I can use right now in this project might be quite different to what I can use in another project, and over a length of time, bits and pieces get pulled out and used across a number of new projects.

And, published or unpublished, old work reminds me of an old frame of mind. Particularly academic work toward major projects – it reminds me of ways of doing things. While I was fishing for quotes and angles on memory, I also came across a way of articulating guiding questions in an annotated bibliography, which has translated into guiding questions in my book outline.

Keep your old work on hand, and go through it regularly. Fish out what’s handy to you now, and put the rest aside for later, because what you’re looking for will change. It’s like cooking with left-overs, or patching jeans with bits of old pairs of jeans. These things can be reinvented. No work is useless.

At a time when looking backwards is something that’s taking up a lot of my energy, it’s all in keeping.

A poem

I wrote a poem today. It’s about the link between the things below. I hope to be able to point you to it some time soon.

On asserting my identity

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It’s done. Honours has been amazing, and it’s now done. (You can read my research notes and journey on this blog, where I documented my year).

I learned:
Writing is researching. Reading isn’t the thing you do before working, you do it always. Meaning isn’t in any way determined or planned, it’s something that appears suddenly when you look backwards after a whole lot of hard work. Bullet journal. Manage time. Sleep. Being kind to myself often involves letting housework go first. Wardrobe next. I can ask for help. I should show work often and freely. I have people around me who are brilliant. Creativity is collaborative.

I had to tell myself all year that taking a year “off” or “away” wouldn’t kill my career. I managed to use some of my writing during the year to publishable ends, but for the most part I’ve slipped off the face of the earth for 8 months. Instead of feeling guilty about this, I had to have faith that putting in some hard work when I’d finished meant that relationships could be rekindled, and I could get back into the swing of everything I’d been doing previously. Freelancing, pitching work, blogging regularly – engaging with things outside of my research question.

Now that I’m a week and a half out from handing my last assignment in, I feel like I’ve relaxed as much as I can bare. I’m now looking down the barrel of ‘starting again’. It feels huge, almost unachievable. The more I try to decide how to tackle the task, the bigger it seems.

On Friday night I saw a great panel talking about nonfiction writing, at the announcement for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize shortlist (which is an amazing shortlist – congratulations, all!). Rosanna Stevens talked, at one point, about how she asserts her identity through her work. This is how I feel about writing, too. Particularly about blogging. Having put all this on hold for uni over the last eight months, I’ve lacked this outlet for asserting my identity. So coming back to it all, I feel like I don’t know what I even have to say – I’ve been talking only about one tiny thing for almost a year.

I’m realising that I now get to make use of the ways of working that I’ve been learning this year. Rather than finding something ground-breaking to write about here, I’m writing my difficulties out. I’m writing towards meaning. The more I write, the more I will write: it’s always been like this. When I figure out what I have to say, I will have lots to say. I’ll be asserting things about myself and the world – how people make things, how it all works, thinking through my obsessions.

Going forward, I want this blog to be more documentary. I will be writing about news, events and books as I always have. But I’ll also be documenting my own creative process. I loved the Honours blog’s ability to trace the trajectory of my work. This blog will be both the meaning and the working-towards: I’ll be sharing my magpie moments, my little connections, with you. Transparent creativity.

Thanks for waiting for me, hey. It’s nice to be home.

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 The Importance of Planning

This is a delayed post from my time at the Future Bookshop. Written during my 10,000 word day, this post took me to the finish line, and was the exhausted pinnacle of a day where I learned an awful lot about myself and my writing process.

I’ve just spent a whole day (10am-10pm) writing. I’ve written a combination of my novel/memoir, blog posts, and a first draft for a future article I’ve got an idea for. I’ve never spent this kind of a stretch of time writing before, and I’m absolutely stuffed. I expect to spend a fair amount of time just staring at a blank wall when I get home. I’m now in my final fifty minutes of writing, and I want to reflect on how badly I’ve planned my day, and how much more smoothly my day might have gone if I’d planned it effectively.

Indeed, this blog post is the result of hitting a dead-end after running my well of ideas dry for my manuscript and blog post and article ideas. True, I didn’t have a lot.

Before today’s writing session, I wrote down about five or six scenes I thought I’d like to write for my book. I just wrote down one sentence reminders of what the scenes were (“Hospital glass window”, etc). I also wrote down some blog post ideas (“Review: Summer Without Men, Hustvedt”). What I failed to take into account, however, was that I just might not feel like writing these things. As we all, no doubt, know from writing classes or workshops, it’s really incredibly hard to write something you’re not interested in. In fact, even if you’re not a writer – you probably know this feeling from your history of writing essays and papers when you’ve been given a list of topics that are all pretty boring.

What I’m trying to say here is that it can prove invaluable to plan out your time effectively. When you lose steam on one scene, move to the next one: and have a list that will be difficult to exhaust. If you’ve got a really long list, it’s unlikely that you’ll hit the end of it.

I also looked at my Now Write: Non-Fiction book last night. I thought about writing down some of the exercises, but I didn’t. I also thought about bringing the book in with me, in case I got stuck. I thought that would be just too naff, and so I also didn’t put the book in my bag. I just wrote my little list composed of a handful of ideas, and when I started writing I ran that list out pretty quickly.

One piece of advice I really should’ve thought about is Patrick O’Duffy’s idea of reaching 30,000 words by breaking the novel/book/piece of work down into 30 x 1000 word chapters. Write the skeletons of those chapters. If all you need to do (all, like it’s nothing) is pad out the prose, flesh out characters with detail and emotion, your job becomes a whole lot easier. Patrick outlines a heap of great ways to keep the words coming in his post, Welcome To Write Club.

However, I did not do this. My five or six scene ideas ran dry. I remembered one particular idea from Now Write: Non-Fiction, and I ran with this for quite a while. I got almost a thousand words from that exercise.

I considered googling “Now Write: Non-fiction prompts”. In fact, I tried to do this. But the great irony of the Future Bookshop is that there’s no or very patchy, dodgy wifi here. It drops out constantly, and today it’s been on the blink far worse than any other day I’ve spent at Future Bookshop. Of course! The one day I wanted to use the powers of the interwebs for good, to further my productivity, it decides to not work at all. Every other day when I’ve wanted to find a lolcat or read about some useless fact or other, or check my email twenty times in twenty minutes, or Tweet furiously about the security guards here at NGV (a singularly interesting/boring breed, by the way. Interesting/boring being a strange tension). And so I counted on my imagination to prompt where my writing went to next.

The imagination is a fickle beast. “The Muse”, as some might call it. It comes and goes. So when I put lots of flowery prose into something to fill up time or words, and I still came out dry, then I had to change tack. I had to move to another project, another way of writing, another scene. I had a document running in the background just to keep me writing. By the end of the day this document was at almost 1,800 words. My usual Morning Pages measure at about 750 words of faffing about, getting cobwebs out of my head in order to start the day fresh and clear. Today’s document acted as both a palate cleanser and a KEEP-WRITING! prompt.

Effectively planning comes in handy not just for marathon writing days, but for all writing days. I am currently about two weeks into my school holidays for Winter. They’re seven or eight weeks long. I haven’t fallen into a routine yet, but when I get time I know how it goes.

I wake up, and I read something inspiring. I read something non-fiction, so that I’m constantly learning, even when I’m not in classes that force me to learn (or not). I follow this up with some fiction, because you get better at writing by exposing yourself to lots of awesome things and just… absorbing. So that’s what I do, I absorb the work of someone far better than myself and hope that it wears off on my own work.

I then write for a few hours. I engage in what Aden Rolfe calls “Speculative Administration” (in his Business of Writing speech for EWF) – planning markets for my work, planning where I’d need or like to be in future, scoping out how much time I realistically need and what kinds of work I need to do to get to where I’d like to be at the end of the year. Or whatever the goal may be. Short-term and long-term planning. Both are important.

But lest I sit around staring at a blank page or end up writing a blog post about how important it is to plan your writing days constructively (even factoring in this “speculative administration” – planned pondering), I’m putting it out there, backed up by two weeks of largely unproductive holidays and a 10,000 word day that relies on this blog post.

Plan your days well, young scribe. Plan them well.

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.

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