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Sam van Zweden

Writer

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.

‘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.

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.

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