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Sam van Zweden

Writer

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.

Today’s research

Some days the research I’ve done in the name of writing just looks plain strange.

Today’s search terms:

Offal
Gyutan
How to cook tongue
Tripe
Define: duplicity
How long should a book outline be?
Landscape with the fall of Icarus
How many people in Australia eat offal?
Lucky Peach lava cake

Some writing up online

I’ve had a few pieces published in the last few months.

After my Hot Desk Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre, an extract of my work-in-progress was published. During the fellowship, I was working on my nonfiction work, Eating with my Mouth Open. This is a collection of lyric essays which consider our complex relationships with food, family and memory. I read this extract at a public reading at The Moat. I’m thrilled it’s up online, and have found all the feedback on the piece so encouraging. In the long journey of writing a book, it’s these kind of milestones that keep me going.

More recently, I wrote a piece for ArtsHub about how important it is that we make an effort in creative communities to normalise the idea of doing less. While I recognise that not everyone is in a position to make this decision, it’s one that I’ve found has helped me immensely. By cutting down my workload, I’ve opened up space in my brain for good work to be done. I’m happier overall when I put restrictions on my creative output. It seems backwards, I know. I also interviewed some amazing creative babes (Jessica Alice, Estelle Tang and Sophie Allan) for this, and they were articulate and insightful.

The most eye-opening thing about writing this piece was the response I received after it was published. A whole bunch of people – some I know well, others I don’t – got in touch to tell me how overwhelmed they often feel, and how much they feel like their creative lives are unsustainable. Mostly these people contacted me privately, and every one of them is someone I admire for their work ethic. This really underscores the fact that there’s a problem – we’re all overwhelmed, and we all feel like it’s taboo to say that we’re overwhelmed. I don’t have an answer for all this, apart from suggesting that we talk about it.

Please, please. Take care of yourself.

xx

I recently finished reading…

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.

FW_Small acts

Review: Letter to a Future Lover, by Ander Monson

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Books take up more space in my apartment than my body does. My books pack three large shelves in two rooms, and tower over my desk. A linear reading of the books I own might tell you something about my life.

Idea (not my own): A new shelving system where books are organised by when I acquired them, not genre or alphabetical order – Blyton, Alcott, Montgomery, Astrid Lindgren, John Marsden, Brigid Lowry…

Idea: Shelving according to a book’s importance in my life – starting in much the same way – with Blyton, Alcott, and Montgomery – and later moving on to Josephine Rowe, Shane Koyczan, Nick Flynn, Bronte (C), David Shields, Sandy Jeffs, Maggie Nelson…

While my books take up more space in my apartment than my actual body does, the books kind of are my body. More important than the placement of my books is what I leave in them – proof of my existence remains in the books that I have read in a similar way that scars on my body mark time, growth and narrative. Books are proxy bodies – and inherited books are other people’s bodies. When I pick up a book from the Little Library at Melbourne Central, half of what I’m hoping for is evidence of the existence of another. An echo of a mind, a body, a being moved by a book’s contents. I used to go to book sales held in an old garage in North Melbourne. The books sold were second-hand, and all had things squirrelled away inside them. I think they were forgotten or discarded on transport: books as temporary friends and lovers. Found inside these books I bought: The instruction tag off an electric blanket. Flight tickets. A birthday card. Less extraordinary: a date of purchase scrawled on the title page. Name, address. Underlined passages, pencilled stars, torn or folded pages.

Discovering someone else’s left-behind evidence in a book is intimate, despite what otherwise looks like distance.

This is what made Ander Monson’s Letter to a Future Lover such a delight to read. The book’s subtitle is Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries, which provides almost as much information as you need in order to frame your reading of the book (though, perhaps not). In it, Monson catalogues his experiences of travelling through all manner of places that might be considered ‘libraries’ – the Biosphere library, a prison library, unmarked and unadvertised university libraries, personal collections, his wife’s notebook, and others – and inspects a broad range of things left behind by previous readers. The physicality of books and their homes is the focus of this work, and it questions the ways we interact with these ideas as readers.

I brought previous readings of Monson’s other work to this one – his usual preoccupations with the digital, the weirdness of American consumption, decline and obsession all show up again in this one. What seems unique to this, though, is the level of personal detail which Monson is willing to divulge. He faces his mother’s death, the decline of his home town and his relationship with is child head-on, if necessarily briefly. Seemingly giving himself over to the intimacy which this book-as-body relationship entails, we’re given glimpses into some much heftier emotional content than in his previous work – at least, that which I’m familiar with. At the same time, there’s a great deal of restraint here. Each essay, accompanied by a piece of the detritus mentioned in the book’s subtitle (the visual elements of this text are exciting, delightful), only runs a page or two in length, and winds associatively rather than exhaustively. Like any such lyric work, we accumulate a sense of imperfect understanding by the end of the book, rather than an argument won. Even the most personally revealing emotional content in Letter to a Future Lover amounts only to a glimpse – as, I suppose, does the marginalia encountered in any book. What the book provides, then, is marginalia to the marginalia. An extra level of remove which somehow says more about the artifacts inspected than if the writer were to address each article straightly.

Like Monson and the defacers, lovers, and lost voices he collects here, I have no problem marking my books (NB: My books. My own. Never anyone else’s). I dog-ear my books. I leave pencil-marks in my books. I leave crumbs between pages, and pages ruffle with moisture where I’ve spilled water or coffee. I don’t despair at these markings in the same way that I don’t despair at a new freckle after yet another bout of sunburn has peeled. Deterioration is proof of life.

How much do I remember of books I’ve underlined and annotated? High school texts left an imprint for just this reason. Also, possibly, because I was young and impressionable, but I think the marking helped. The marking echoed and burrowed homes in my body. Left elbow: here lives Gatsby’s green light. Right elbow: Nora’s macaroons. My body parts move, hinged on much-loved and internalised imagery. Underlining slows reading down, for the brief period of pencil-to-page.

And so, bolstered by the beauty, poetry and kinship of Monson’s book, I’ll continue to meet texts I enjoy head-on. In like terms, I’ll keep talking back to the analogue, inserting myself where I feel the need. I’ll keep treating books as the bodies they are.

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