Sam van Zweden



Writing Practice

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

Opportunities a Plenty

Being involved with EWF more closely this year has opened my eyes to the amazing amount of opportunities they have available for writers, outside the festival itself. There’s a bunch of deadlines coming up, so I thought I’d just do a heads-up for anyone that might be interested in these opportunities. I’d encourage people to apply, because EWF’s a fanastically supportive atmosphere, and a wonderful starting point. Having this stuff on your resume is so helpful, and in terms of experience it’s priceless. And some of these are lucrative. Woot.

–> The Monash University Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing. Most prizes are almost impossible for an undergraduate emerging writer to win. They either require a publication history, or a whole book, or a completed manuscript, or… a bunch of stuff a lot of undergrads just don’t have. The Monash Prize has a large bundle of money to give to its winners, it’s for previously unpublished writers (see website for specs on this), and entries are reasonably short pieces of writing. Winners are also being published as an ebook by Penguin. Entries close April 23rd.

–> Words In Winter Writer’s Residency. A two-week writing residency at “a high-profile CBD location”. The theme is a future of writing, which is a pretty hot topic at the moment. If you’re concerned with digital story-telling, blogging, ebooks, self-publishing, or anything that’s wrapped up in the idea of the “future of writing”, then apply for this residency. There’s ten spots available, and EWF’s offering a publishing opportunity post-residency. Applications close April 20th.

–> Australian Poetry’s fantastic Cafe Poets program is launching their next round as part of the EWF in May. The program puts poets in cafes as writers-in-residence, giving the poet a space to work, free coffee, and an outlet: contact with the public. Applications close April 24th.

With all these opporunities available, you’ve got no excuse not to make stuff happen. Give it a go! Entries for all these close very soon, so get writing!

Putting Things Into Perspective

I’m currently working on a scrapbook for my Concept Development class, where I’m looking at the research I’ve done for my book. It’s not the most imaginative idea, but I’m having a lot of fun making this thing.

I have to say, it’s kind of heartening and terrifying at the same time. It’s really great to see what I’ve done towards my book, to pull it all together in one place, it actually validates that all this pottering around I’ve been doing is useful research. It’s stuff that’s informing my idea and strengthening my story.

It’s terrifying though, looking at this lame little scrapbook… While my idea’s becoming rounded and more solid as I go, I also have to think, “How the hell do I make a book from this!?”.

I’m glad I’ve been given this assignment though. Scrapbooking’s fun.

How do you organise your research?

Is “Late To the Party” A Personality Trait?

Can I put “band-wagon-jumper” on my CV? Is “slow on the uptake” a favourable quality in a person?

I’ve been hearing about Ira Glass’ amazing podcast, This American Life for some time now, but I just decided to start using it as a soundtrack while I work out (which is a surprisingly successful tactic). And ohmigod. WHY DIDN’T I DO THIS SOONER?!

(Just a side note – I feel like this realization is akin to the one where I realised that public transport time is really reading time. Working out or walking is really listening time. My brain’s not doing anything anyway, so USE IT!)

No matter what the subject matter is, this is some really moving stuff. Ira Glass has his finger bang on the pulse of life and what it is in all its minutiae, and knows just how to make the minutiae count in terms of a wider context. What a dude.

It’s also really exciting in terms of thinking about different ways of telling a story. It doesn’t just have to be on a page to be powerful. I’ve known this for a while, sure, but Ira Glass’ podcast really brings it home and reminds me to think more laterally about narratives.

Dead Fishes

Ideas fall from my fingers like dead fish, slapping stinky into an ever-expanding word document a’la shit. Lucky dead fishes make lovely dishes if you know how to prepare them correctly -bring on the editing, say I.

Silence, Punctuated Only By a Cat Eating in Triplets. (Misha Adair)

Today’s post is by my good and very talented friend Misha Adair. He’s sorely missed in the blogging world (responsible in an earlier life for Adair on Books), but I talked him into coming out to play on the question of listening to music while you write. Thanks, Mish!


I can’t write while listening to music. I just can’t. And I’ve just tried. I stared glumly at the computer screen for the three minutes and nine seconds it took for Bob Dylan to get through The Man in Me. Then I gazed stonily at the computer screen for the six minutes and fifty-two seconds it takes Wynton Marsalis to redefine the first movement of Hayden’s trumpet concerto in E flat.  Not a word was typed.

Now the only sound in my flat is the steady sharp crunch of the cat having her second breakfast.  She crunches in triplets, by the way.  And the words, if not flowing in a torrent, are coming at least in a steady trickle.

The challenge that my gracious host has set me in this piece, I suppose, is that I’m going to have to try to unpick two great loves of my life: music and the written word.  And try to explain the fact that they seem not to get along in a creative sense.  I’ll start with the music.

I absolutely adore music.  It’s been a tremendously important part of my life for as long as I can remember.  Exactly as long as I can remember, in fact.  My very earliest memory is of my father swinging me through the air.  There was music playing.  When I was about twelve I heard a song that immediately – almost painfully – took me right back to that memory.  Water of Love, by Dire Straits.  That’s what was playing, and I have to brace myself for a brief moment of rapid remembered motion every time I play it.

The sense of smell is cornily and repeatedly cited as the most powerful trigger for memories.  I’ve never understood that.  It’s music for me every single time.  There are songs I dare not play because I know that they’ll have me sobbing brokenly in the opening bar.  At the moment, my girlfriend is teaching English in South Korea.  She’s been there for six months now, and I miss her terribly.  We used to listen to Nick Drake’s Fly a lot.  Even thinking about that song has me in gentle tears now.

When I was about five, my parents got me a piano teacher.  The proper kind – Eastern European.  If you’re ever looking for a piano teacher, accept no substitutes.  Maryla would make me play scales with erasers balanced on the back of my hands until I cried.  Her most powerful gesture of affectionate praise was to grab a handful of my hair, yank it, and make a curious ‘Teeeeeeeeeeee!’ sound.  When you’d been defoliated in this way, you knew that the week’s practice had paid off.  I’m not for a second saying that it’s necessary to learn the grammar of music to appreciate it profoundly, but I do think it makes a difference to the way you listen.  Trying to write a sonnet, analogously, gives you a new appreciation of how hard it is to write something like Shakespeare’s incomparable number seventy three.

When I was in high school, I had an astonishing music teacher called Hugh McKelvey.  I’ll never forgive him for the confidence trick he pulled off to saddle me with playing the tuba, but I’ll never be able to thank him enough for the time and trouble he took with me, and for turning a gentle blind eye to the fact that I faked having music lessons to get out of PE.

By that time, I had a new piano teacher too – the darling Mrs MacKay.  Not Eastern European, but so delightfully nervous on the day of her students’ piano exams that you could smell a faint whiff of brandy around her, and never mind that that was at nine o’clock in the morning.
The first paying job I ever had was in the orchestra for a production of Hello Dolly!  I’ve played in a symphony orchestra (conducted by Hugh McKelvey, who got me the gig – another thing to thank him for) and in my early twenties I played bass in a hip-hop outfit that I still think had the greatest band name of all time: ‘The Catholic School-Girl Appreciation Society’.  Music is a huge part of my life.  I’ve given up the dream of being a hip-hop bass sensation, I knew when I was about twelve that I was never going to be a concert pianist and the first time I ever lifted a tuba I knew I wasn’t going to be lugging one of those bastards around for the rest of my life.  Music was never going to be my profession, but it was never going to be something I took for granted.

My iTunes library will play for forty two days, starting with AC/DC and ending with a Russian hard-rock group whose name I can’t decipher since I don’t read Cyrillic, and I’ve got a small but stunning collection of vinyl.  Ever heard the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing their 25th Anniversary Tour?  It feels like sacrilege even to consider converting that stuff to MP3, and the same goes for the incomparable LP of Mikis Theodorakis’ Mauthausen songs.

Music, broadly and not entirely accurately speaking, is something I can do.  So when I listen, I think about how I’d do it.  And that, I think, is why I can’t write while I’m listening to music.

Now, limping towards the writing part of this…

I grew up in a house that was blessed to be free of television.  The first time I had regular access to a television, I was seventeen.  And my father is a literature teacher.  Not just any literature teacher.  He’s quite simply the greatest (non-Eastern European) teacher I’ve ever met.  The classic description of a competent teacher is of someone who can muster some enthusiasm for a subject and explain any given point in three quite distinct ways.  My father can do that in his sleep.  But then he can do something more: he can transmit his love for something (a poem, a play, a novel) in such a way that the love is contagious.  You cannot not love John Donne after you’ve heard my dad riff on him for a few minutes.  And you can’t do anything other than listen spell-bound while he reads.

I grew up in a home that had no TV, but about three thousand books.  I didn’t miss out on anything important.

And my mother, who won’t mind me saying that her husband is the better and more sensitive reader, wasn’t ordinary either.  She was born in Melbourne, but she’s as Russian as you get without a long black leather coat and a propensity to be gloomy and hurt people.  And she used to read Chekov short-stories to my sister and me on trips home from school.  And she was translating them as she went.

When I was fourteen, I read a radio play called Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.  It changed the way I approached literature.  I realised for the first time that the English language was music – and that script on a page was notation.

Language and music are, for me, alarmingly similar.  At their best they are both so utterly bound up in creating aural beauty that they make it impossible for me to listen to one and practice the other.
If I listen to music, it changes the way I write, if I can write at all.

Get me listening to Beethoven’s Seventh (one of the great human achievements in all of history) and I’ll write you something that sounds like a cross between a Human Rights screed and a manifesto in favour of the immediate invasion of the nearest militarily inferior country.  Set me up with the Sixth, and I’ll write a diary entry that would be the pride of any six year-old girl.

Play me some Bach, and I’ll just stop.  How can anyone, anywhere create while listening to that man’s creativity?  It’s just not possible.  You don’t even want to breathe while listening to Bach, in case you’re doing it the wrong way.

I’m reasonably eclectic in terms of my musical taste – so please don’t think that I listen to what the uninformed automatically call ‘classical’ music exclusively.  In a moment, I’ll listen to Bryan Adams, Sting and Rod Stewart singing All For One, and it will be one of better five minutes of my day.

But I won’t be able to write a single word while I listen.

When I listen to great music, I very often get ideas.  Sometimes I even think I get great ideas.  But I can never write them down until there is silence, punctuated only by a cat eating in triplets.

Back to Exercising

I’ve let the ball drop on my one-exercise-per-day goal that I set a few months ago. I’d decided I was going to do a different writing exercise every day, and when I hit on something worth keeping, I’d work that up to something presentable, but keep doing the exercises. The point though, was to keep the brain active and challenged. It’s easy to get stuck on one project, or to find yourself writing the same story over and over again. And I know so many people that produce so much work. I’d love to be one of those people. But it takes a lot of dedication and hard work.

So today I got back into it, and mean to stick with it. It’s about routine, I think. When I get up early and write, I do well. When I push it to the end of the day, what I produce is a half-arsed nothing.

Today’s exercise was one I’d done before, but hadn’t known where it came from. I did the exercise originally in a creative non-fiction unit at school, but it was well worth repeating. The exercise was from Now Write! Non-Fiction. It involved writing down every detail I knew (without looking) about my writing space, and then boiling that down to the salient details. I was amazed by how many tiny details I knew about the space without looking, but when I did look I was surprised by the size of some of the things I’d missed: the heater. The light hanging from the ceiling, and the water damage in one corner. The fact that the mantle is coming away from the wall some. I missed these things, but I remembered some tiny tiny details, like what notes were on my pinboard, and what was in my box of stationery.

The salient, tangible and telling details I kept about my writing space:
– The heater’s missing a caster, and is propped up by a thick book so that the heat doesn’t direct at the floor and set all my words on fire.
– There’s a Chinese charm hanging above the door (which we call Narnia) between our house and the shop we share the building with. This door is part of my study. My partner hung the charm there when we moved in, but won’t tell me what it means.
–  Notebooks spanning about eleven years have their own pigeon-hole in my bookshelf, and another for writing books and dictionaries. The rest is fiction, A-Mo, and on the mantle is Mo-Z. There are still books which don’t have a space. Non-fiction is on a steel shelf, $17 from Ikea, the kind you’d find in a garage. I love my books the way chumps love their cars.
– Unused notebooks, waiting.
– WRITERS ARE MADE, NOT BORN is hanging above my desk.

I worked these details up into a scene, and put some action in there.

I’m sharing this exercise because I found it useful. I realised that I sometimes miss some really, really prominent details, and that some details can say a lot about someone.

What does your writing space say about you?

in this light, at this moment – Rafael S.W

Today’s is a guest-post from a good friend, Rafael S.W. When I talk about those people that support me with my writing, Raf’s one of those I’m referring to.
He’s weighed in on what I wrote about last week – about the conditions under which we need or prefer to write. 

picture by Zouavman Le Zouave

I have started to be very aware of light levels in my writing. As I type this, I am in my grandmother’s kitchen because that is the only place I can be in her apartment that means I can have some lights on but none that are in my face. I spent a fair few minutes flicking different lights on and off before deciding on how I wanted it. This might sound weird, but I have become somewhat of a light connoisseur. I used to have one of those touch-lamps that could change the level depending on how I felt and what I wanted to write (the brightest setting for seriousness, essays / a completely dark room except for the lowest setting when I wanted to write poetry). Then I broke it. And now at home I write while my new lamp (which doesn’t dim) is covered in paper, with one of the two bulbs taken out, and it sits behind my door.

Where did this come from? Was it in the single moment where a girl first took me to her room and it was lit by nothing by Christmas lights? Was it when I walked home from 4 am parties and spoke poetry into my phone while the streetlights dimmed the road ahead of me? Was it when I first noticed how beautiful skin looked in the blue wash of a laptop screen? I don’t know, but ever since I’ve been writing with a light level that reflects my mood, my writing has felt smoother, less forced.

I have heard that the converse is true too. I have a friend who is completely impacted by the halogen brightness of trains at night. If he sits on a seat underneath one of the ones that flickers, however minutely, he might not even notice, but after a few stations his mood will sour, he sometimes even gets headaches. And only when he sees the spasmodic winking of the light overhead will he have an explanation for while he suddenly feels terrible.

I’m a strong believer in writing in a way that works for you, however weird. If it’s upside-down to candlelight, then so be it.

“That’s bad light there.” Says my grandmother, coming out from her room, squinting a little in the gloom. “Can you see alright there?”
Enough, yes, I can see enough.

I’m Listening

I just finished reading a piece by Margaret Atwood, in which she says that by “listening to the stories of others, we learn to tell our own.”

I suspect this idea is what’s at the heart of the music I listen to while I’m writing, planning, jotting, or blogging. In this music is always some really pure sort of story-telling; something linear and narrative; and something which gets to the reasons that I write.

There’s study music, but that’s muted. It’s Howard Shore, it’s Michael Nyman – it’s anything with uplifting violins and some fast-fingered key work. There’s never, ever any lyrics – my academic essay-writing brain needs near silence. Sometimes total silence. Study music exists, but I don’t know that it has any real impact on what I write. Unless my philosophy essay starts raising questions about women having their fingers chopped off with axes, and then I turn Michael Nyman off.

The actual soundtrack for my writing is a different matter. It has words, and this somehow helps my own words come. At certain times, usually when I make the move from planning to writing, I need silence. But after I’ve got that really hard bit down and the cursor’s done some work munching up the page, then I can introduce music.

They say that smell is our most powerful memory motivator. I think that sound – in the form of music – is a close second. Certain songs or albums (yes, albums – don’t you dare accuse me of belonging to a generation for whom albums are dead!) can bring back whole seasons or time periods for me. Summer 2003, Good Charlotte. Summer 2006, Johnny Cash and The Hives. And it’s not just that I can pinpoint the time, it can actually bring back feelings from the time that I listened to it. I can no longer listen to a lot of the music that I really clung to during periods of depression, because I find myself feeling it all over again.

Likewise, songs and albums attach to short stories and poems. Pieces of work acquire their own soundtracks. And those soundtracks always have something in common – they’re lyrical (for want of a better word – no pun intended), and they’re narrative. By listening to these stories, I’m learning how to tell my own.

Right now I’m listening to a lot of Wil Wagner. His lyrics focus on the heady feeling of rushing through life, and the tiny details we hold onto. He’s a natural story-teller. I’ve also just started listening to Bright Eyes again, particularly the “Cassadaga” album – it still holds the memory of some summer in its sound, but it’s bringing a really important lightness into my work. Josh Pyke is another favourite for story-telling abilities. His song are artful, tiny stories. Narratives that can be consumed in around three minutes. If I could write such full, rounded stories which could be consumed in that time frame, I’d be happy.

Listening to this kind of music keeps my prose lyrical, and it also reminds me that while I can string together a pretty sentence or two, they need to go somewhere. They’re part of a story.

Even beneath this is the fact that these song-writers, through their stories, are doing something important, and it’s what I’m doing too. They’re trying to communicate something right at the centre of themselves. In Bright Eyes’ “Bowl of Oranges”, he meets a doctor “who appeared in quite poor health / I said there’s nothing I can do for you / you can’t do for yourself / he said yes you can, just hold my hand / I think that that would help” – it’s not just the doctor, it’s not just Bright Eyes, it’s all of us. In creating things, we’re trying to connect. As David Foster Wallace said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” and part of that is to be a bit stuck inside yourself. By creating things, we’re bridging the gap. By listening to other people’s stories while I write, I’m reminded that this gap-bridging exercise is not for nothing.

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