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Sam van Zweden

Writer

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.

Nineteen ideas for an essay, or What’s On My Mind.

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Image via Flickr CC / Turinboy

How about writing and family and betrayal? This is too big. How about writing and ‘truthiness’ disclaimers? How about writing family without seeking permission? How about the slipperiness of story? How about accidentally changing memories by writing them? How about you remember the last remembrance, not the original memory? How about memories of photos, and remembering outside the frame? How about attempting to write beyond the frame? How about the idea that we’re not writing experimental nonfiction because we’re not really aware that other people are – we’re not aware enough of its existence? How about a ‘how about’ article – how about this list as essay? How about my NonfictioNOW paper – it’s probably too academic. How about a more accessible article about the difficulties of writing food and memory? Maybe that paper already is accessible. How about something based on my trip? How about Tall Poppies and the difficulties we have as Australians talking about ourselves and our own work without feeling some deeply internalised and fucked-up shame and terror that this ability to speak will make us unlikeable? How about a polemic about owning who you are and what you do? How about travelling and writing? How about the way that I felt entirely averse to writing down my experiences because their lived importance felt permanent and unforgettable, but then almost four weeks of this kind of living meant that it all blurred together and now I’m remembering through tweets and photos and ticket stubs? How about, going back to that idea of photos and decreased ability to remember outside the frame; how about the idea that all memory uses props? How about empty frames being more useful for memory because they don’t erase anything? Their emptiness creates room, rather than eliminating other possibilities and pushing anything less than certain out?

Three lit journals in time for Christmas

In the two-and-a-bit weeks since my return from travelling, I’ve felt more inclined towards people than I have in quite a while. There’s something about going out into the world and realising that there are indeed places where you know nobody at all. It’s a bit of a treat – even in the city now anonymity isn’t something I get to enjoy often. Returning also makes you more thankful for those bright, shining stars you have back home on your return. And so coming back to open arms and vibrant community has been soothing. It’s been at once calmly familiar and energising.

Seeing so much of good people has meant also seeing much of their fantastic work – I’ve been to a few launches and received a very welcome parcel in the mail. I’d like to call your attention to three magazines whose latest issues have been released in the last fortnight, and which will no doubt make fantastic Christmas presents: The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks and Funny Ha Ha.

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I can’t review these at this point – I’ve read a few pieces from each, but haven’t read any of them cover-to-cover yet. What I am sure of is that each of these publications are incredibly hard-working, generous and represent some of the very best in Australian writing. I’m particularly excited about Funny Ha Ha, which has gotten chubby in the space between issues 2 and 3. It’s made by Rebecca Varcoe, who’s also recently been on a City of Literature travel fund trip. On that trip, she talked to some very, very clever comedy writers and those transcripts are part of Funny Ha Ha issue 3, along with writing from other hilarious people.

The Lifted Brow‘s latest is ‘The Art Issue’, and it looks suitably gorgeous. Today the Brow also announced their entrance into the world of book publishing, kicking off with Briohny Doyle’s debut novel. The hugest of congratulations to both TLB and Briohny!

This new venture for TLB is exciting – with their growing reputation (and proven track record) as a publisher of challenging and important nonfiction, I’m hoping to see a strong nonfiction list from them in future, in addition to this debut novel. While they’re only aiming to publish a few books each year, I have no doubt that those titles will be chosen with great care, and will fill a gap in the market, as the journal does already.

Voiceworks #102 is themed ‘Defiance’, in honour of the brilliant and dearly missed Kat Muscat. The launch of this issue also saw the launch of the Kat Muscat Fellowship; a developmental fellowship for female-identifying writers and editors, which hopes to honour “Kat’s legacy and further [develop] the future of defiant and empathic young Australian women.” Applications for the fellowship are open until January 11.

The three journals pictured above are all beautifully produced and well thought-out, not just as things that house great writing, but also as lovely objects. Go get one for yourself,  and go put one in someone’s Christmas stocking (or holiday receptacle of choice).

I am tiny. Beyond that. Nothing.

Grand Canyon w flag

 

When we got to the top of the rise in the car park, the Grand Canyon appeared – sudden and immovable. Huge. Hilarious in its immensity. My eyes struggled to adjust to the sudden abundance of depth and distance. Immense. Haha. What. the. fuck. My boyfriend and I walked along a pathway for about half an hour, stopping to take photos. I gave up on the photos quickly, not seeing the point in trying to do this landmark justice in a frame. The path veered away from the rim occasionally, and each time it came back I felt newly affronted by just how massive a piece of the Earth this is. I laughed. What even *are* my problems?!, I joked. I felt insignificant, and this was comforting.

Small metal markers set into the path represented a ‘geological timeline’ – each large step I took corresponded to a million years of the Canyon’s existence. I thought of the act of flying forwards in time, as we’d done to reach the US. Here I walked backwards in time, and my mind similarly struggled to make it a reasonable act. Pieces of rock placed periodically alongside the timeline displayed the changing colours and patterns that we might see if we were actually further down, in the Canyon. These rocks looked foreign to one another – as though they were from different parts of the planet. Or perhaps from different planets entirely. After half an hour of long, million-year steps, I didn’t reach the end of the Canyon’s formation story.

We sat on white rocks and stared out into this negative-space wonder. We held hands. I looked at the rock around us and thought of Hanging Rock – there, people had etched their names into the surrounding trees and boulders. In response to the Australian landscape, this gesture seems to be some kind of feeble protest against the intense discomfort that particular experience can provoke; against the fragility of our tiny lives. At the Canyon, there are no etched names. Along the path on the way back to our starting point, I saw names carved into a bench – so many names that they crowded and took up every inch of the man-made objects. Perhaps these small-time vandals could deal (existentially, I mean) with carving their initials into something they could comprehend the creation of. On the other side of the path, the sheer force and might of the Canyon screamed silence. Why bother trying to leave a mark on that?

Its expanse is terrifyingly beautiful. It is also comforting. It is the hole I feel open inside me at times, and the place I want to disappear into when the shame of existence gets overwhelming. It is a place where I could get truly lost, despite all the visitors to this site, and never, ever be found. I want this. This is my nightmare. I am pulled toward the edge, a scream in my chest; the knowledge of that self-destruction on this site would mean nothing, would be forgotten in a breath. Not even half a step.

Periodically, American flags dot the rim. As if this site could be claimed.


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This trip was kindly supported by the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature travel fund. 

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