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Sam van Zweden

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Count-down

Now that I’m able to count down using my very own hands – now that I don’t need to make use of toes, or borrow another person’s body to make up the numbers – now it seems real.

Earlier this year, I was lucky to receive a City of Literature Office travel fund grant. The grant is helping me get to Flagstaff, Arizona for the NonfictioNOW conference from October 28-31. The conference describes itself as “a regular gathering of over 400 nonfiction writers, teachers, and students from around the world in an effort to explore the past, present, and future of nonfiction”. Not quite a festival and not quite a conference, NonfictioNOW was hosted at RMIT in Melbourne in 2012. During that conference, I blogged and soaked up new ideas. I feel like that conference changed the way I approach nonfiction, and energised my writing practice. I wanted desperately to make it to the next one – and now it’s happening.

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I’ve been helping with social media for the conference (hyper-aware of spelling differences, like ‘travelling/traveling’) and blogging on the conference’s own blog up to this point, and am so excited to be blogging the festival. This post is, then, a bookend – preparing you for the posts to come. And not just a bookend for the conference, because the travel keeps going after that.

I haven’t travelled before. Well, I have travelled before. In 2014 I went to Adelaide, Hobart, Launceston, and Newcastle – it was a big year for travelling. But that travelling was small-scale travelling. Non-passport travelling. Get in a car, get on a boat, get on a train, get on a plane. Get to your destination in no more than an hour or two. The travelling I’m about to embark on is more ambitious – get on a plane, stay there for 9 hours. Stop over in a city that’s further from home than you’ve ever been, but don’t be too excited about it because this isn’t The Travelling yet, this is just a thing on the way to The Travelling. Get on another plane and stay there for 12 hours. And then you’re there, but you’re not there.

NonfictioNOW is being held in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is a 10-hour train ride from LA (or a much shorter flight from Phoenix, but what fun is that?). Speakers I’m incredibly excited about include Ander Monson, Roxane Gay, and Maggie Nelson  – writers whose work has surprised and challenged me. The program has many names in common with my Honours reading list – Steven Church, Judith Kitchen, and Brenda Miller. The conference provides insight to the act of writing creative nonfiction in a way that no gathering in Australia (that I’ve seen) does. What does it mean to craft the world? How do we wrangle it, does it need to be wrangled, what are our lenses, and what are the implications of what we write? These are questions the conference will engage with.

Oh, and me! I’m speaking! I’ll be on a panel called ‘Unusual Foods and the Edible Guests’, discussing food writing with wonderful writers Amy Wright, Matthew Gavin Frank, Elena Passarello and Joni Tevis. These writers are all brilliant, and I’m feeling entirely humbled to be part of such a stellar session. I’ll be delivering a 12-minute paper on the idea of writing food memories, and how difficult that can be, and why – and how we might meet that challenge. MFK Fisher suggested that she couldn’t write about food without writing about a yearning for love and security – “We cannot straightly think of one without the others”. It follows that we can’t straightly write it, either – that’s what my paper looks at. At last reading it was 21 minutes long – I’m in the process of editing it to meet the 12 minute brief, but it’s certainly a big challenge in economy of language and clear communication.

When I pitched the trip to the City of Literature Office, I said that I’d like to investigate the ways that nonfiction – particularly creative and experimental nonfiction – is shared. I want to know how it’s published, presented and sent forth into the world. There are only a handful of journals in Australia which really embrace unconventional nonfiction writing, and I hope to come home armed with some knowledge and ideas that will help open us up to the form. Many, many thanks go to the Melbourne City of Literature Office for making the trip possible, and to the organisers of NonfictioNOW, who’ve embraced my small involvement with all generosity.

After the conference, I’ll be travelling across the United States with my partner over almost four weeks: Las Vegas, New Orleans, Washington DC, New York. I’ll be blogging the trip, and meeting new people, and trying to write meaningfully about the significance of what I learn.

I have many hopes attached to this trip, and I’m not sure they’re all reasonable. Now that I’m only a handful of days away from leaving Australia for a while, I’m realising that I hope a great deal of my own travel: I hope it helps me meet new people. I hope those people are open to sharing with me. I hope I deliver a good paper. I hope I can meet the world for what it is, and move outside my own small universe. I hope travel makes me simultaneously more and less: more open, more knowledgeable, more capable. Less inward-looking. Less scared. I’m full of questions.

Tomorrow I can get rid of the second hand for counting – there will be only 5 days to go.

Good News Update

It’s always hard, or at least a little strange, announcing your own good news. Part of me likes sharing happy achievements, while another part of me wishes that everyone already knew, so I wouldn’t be bragging. With writing news, I also struggle with embargoes. I’m not good at keeping secrets, so that when I finally can tell people I blurt at them like an excited six year-old. Continue reading “Good News Update”

The Other Side

It’s over, and I’ve taken my week to fall in a heap. Yes, I am unreasonably hopeful that the one week is all it takes. Let’s not talk about other possibilities at this point.

In the last week, I handed in my manuscript and ‘contextual essay’ (for all intents and purposes, an exegesis). I partied reasonably hard that night. The following day I worked, and came home and vomited myself silly – I was knocked down for the remainder of the week with gastro. It was quite an unhappy week. Last night I panicked, because I felt myself falling into a very familiar hole. That place I find myself when a big milestone is passed, and I have to ask myself, “What now?”

Today, however, I came across two articles that really spoke to me, and which have helped me pull myself a little bit out of that hole.

Karen Andrews at Miscellaneous Mum posted her talk from the weekend’s Offset Arts Festival. In it, she talks about her very personal reasons for blogging, and how blogging acted as a distraction during recovery from a breakdown. Karen goes on to talk about how her continued blogging journey has been backed by passion – she kept going, and that’s how she discovered her voice. Karen’s successes (many and varied) have come because she has kept going – she loves what she’s doing, and that’s the motivator.

Another article about reading and writing in relation to emotional healing was posted at The Wheeler Centre website. In an interview with the beautiful Melinda Harvey, she talks about the relationship between reading and healing. For Melinda, at a certain point literature is useless to that process – I’m really struck by the bravery of refuting that idea of literature as a lifeline in times of crisis. At another point, however, reading and writing becomes instrumental in making sense of things – a sentiment I can certainly relate to, having just handed in 10,000 words of a memoir about my mother’s mental illness. Likewise, Melinda talks about how much of a mind-bending change it was for her to think of herself writing a memoir. It’s an uncomfortable kind of negotiation, thinking of yourself as a memoirist when it’s something you’d never considered previously.

Both Karen and Melinda’s words really touched me today, when I’m finding myself at a bit of a cross-roads. I don’t exactly know where life takes me to from here. But I am standing on the other side of a very big milestone, and for today at least, I have pulled myself out of a dark spot thanks to these ladies.

This Blog Is A Toddler

If this blog were a child, it would be starting to develop some proper focus skills, able to block out distractions and play more attentively. Its language would be starting to really develop, and things like narratives would be starting to make proper sense. It wouldn’t be so rad with numbers, but because this blog is about books that’s not so important.

This blog is three years old today – I’m celebrating with cider and cake, and I expect you to also! While it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek to draw this comparison between a blog and a toddler, it’s also a kind of nice thought. Three years old is when humans start to really be able to play with language, understand and share stories. For a blog about books, writing and words in general, that’s a pretty significant place to be.

Thanks to all the people who always show up to read my words. I appreciate your time, your chats at events and festivals, your generosity in telling me when I’m doing well, and you engagement with the things I do on here. Here’s to the many years to come!

Emerging Blogger, Coming Through!

An exciting announcement! I’ve been accepted as one of the Emerging Bloggers for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (in partnership with Emerging Writers’ Festival). Myself and four other bloggers have been granted the amazing opportunity to go along to the Festival and soak up all the writerly and readerly vibes, and blog about it all. So fear not, I’ll be taking you with me all the way!

Below is the piece I submitted to apply for this opportunity. I hope you enjoy it, and I’m looking foward to sharing the Festival with you here. Keep an eye out before the festival for my picks, and if you’re a Festival attendee and you need a date, hit me up. We can hang.

Only Connect: 

Think about the last really good book you read. Really good books grab hold of something inside us and don’t let go. The best books are the ones that are close to impossible to articulate in terms of why they are so great.

Give it a go – in that last great book you read, what about it stuck with you? Was it the author’s use of rhythm, alliteration or pastiche? If you’re a really critical reader, perhaps you do take note of the author’s knack with minimalism, or their broad use of literary allusion. But you remember these things because they provoke some sort of feeling inside you.

While we may live in a post-modern world, where the author is dead and reading any cultural artefact becomes a individualist free-for-all, good books don’t exist in a vaccuum. Good books come about through that invisible bond between the reader and the writer. By spinning this story and sending it out into the world, the author has followed EM Forster’s mandate to “only connect!”. There is a lot of wisdom in the idea that a reader’s experience impacts the meaning that they draw from a text, but that text doesn’t come from nowhere.

I’ve just finished reading Charlotte Wood’s Love and Hunger. The book is a foodie memoir, made up partly of Wood’s memories of foods and the stories that go with certain foods for her, and partly of recipes that go with the stories she tells. Upon finishing this book, I needed to sit in silence for a while, having had something inside me moved. I needed to be still and interrogate my emotions to figure out what about this book had so grabbed hold of me. I realized that the reason I was so affected by Love and Hunger was because of my own closeness to food, with two chefs in my immediate family. The bond that Wood makes clear between food and stories is something I relate to entirely. In reading this memoir, I felt a connection with the author, despite never meeting, never talking, never interacting beyond the pages of her book.

Finding a good book involves handing yourself over entirely to what you’re reading, trusting the author’s attempt to connect with their readers, and doing your part as a reader by interrogating your emotions. Turn inward and look inside yourself for the answer; the connection.

Outing My Infantile Love of Tupperware

I’ve got a post over on the EWF blog today. It’s my two-month check in, reflecting on my experience so far as an intern. In it, I talk about how I’ve learned to love the humble spreadsheet, and I out my childhood love of Tupperware.

I haven’t posted much on here about my EWF experience, because my lips have to remain sealed about so much of it. Surprises! Oh, so many surprises! A lot of these surprises will be revealed on the 24th of April (that’s only a week away!) when the EWF program gets launched online. The official program launch is on the 4th of May (6.15pm, but I can’t for the life of me find an event for it anywhere?) at the Wheeler Centre, and I hope to see you there!

Crikey! A New Lit Blog!

I was sad to see Angela Meyer step down as lit blogger for Crikey, but it seems like everything’s panning out really well. Angela’s still blogging, on her now WordPress-hosted LiteraryMinded, and today saw the great reveal of the new Crikey lit blog, written by Bethanie Blanchard. Bethanie’s young, she’s friendly, and she’s everywhere at the moment. Her writing (including her first post on Lit-icism) sits on the edges of criticism and personal, and this makes it easy to read, but also informative and engaging.

As per everything-Crikey, the blog design is simple, lots of white space and a lack of flashing things. The banner for Lit-icism is pretty great. I’m looking forward to Bethanie’s time with Crikey and seeing what she gets up to on Lit-icism.

A Perfect Day

Yeah, the sky’s blessedly blue outside for the first time in forever, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

It’s the end of the holidays for me – I’ve found them to be long, but productive. It’s only taken me about 7 weeks, but I’ve finally figured out how I would (try to) spend each and every working day if I were a full-time professional writer, in order to get shit done. For the last week or so, on days when I haven’t worked, this is what I’ve done.

I’d wake up early. Well, early for me: 8am, maybe 8.30. This still gives me two hours of quiet writing time before my boyfriend even thinks about consciousness. I check my email and Facebook, but only out of the neurological need – I don’t spend a long time on there. If there’s stuff to reply to, I do that later in the day. I update my GoodReads account with what I’d read the night before.

I read a short story. This week I’ve been chewing through the contents of Tiny Epics, which has been sitting on my shelf for over a year now. I regret not reading it earlier. Likewise with Bel Woods’ Get Smart which I read last week in page seventeen #8. That girl can write! What do your days look like to produce such brilliance, Bel?

After my short story, as per my writing goals, I read an essay. It’s not always pertinent to what I’m writing, but I’ve been learning an awful lot. Did you know that stabbing a lobster in the head doesn’t actually kill it? And that lobster deaths are a big point of concern for the RSPCA? And I never knew anything about Peter Porter, but now I do, thanks to Clive James – weird to read a dying great write about a dying great.

I write morning pages. These are at least three pages (so, for those of you who can’t convert longhand ideas into tech-speak, that’s about 750w) of whatever. They’re the pages where I supposedly get my brain warmed up to write my way into brilliance. Usually it’s just me pondering story ideas, brainstorming or bitching about how I can’t be arsed doing the dishes.

I do a writing exercise. Also, as per my writing goals, I’ve done one every day so far. It’s been fun. Out of six days, I’ve only had one day turn into something I feel I could follow up. But that’s still a higher hit-rate than when I wasn’t doing an exercise every day.

I work on a WIP.

I work on something that potentially can make me some money. I know that writing for money isn’t the point; I’m not trying to turn all my writing into a money-making scheme – that’s dumb, and would take the enjoyment out of it. I’m trying to find places that I can make money for doing something I enjoy more than my current job. I’ve been writing some copy for Weekendnotes, a guide to things you can do on weekends in Melbourne. It’s fun – it’s not exactly lucrative, but I’m enjoying the experience, and it’s really good exercise for banging things out on demand.

I do any business stuff I need to do. These last few weeks that’s involved getting an ABN, making an invoice template, posting submissions. Looking for comps and new publications I’d like to submit to happens during this time too.

Lastly, I catch up on my Google Reader feed (which is looking comparatively clean at the moment), and I blog, if I’ve got something worth saying or sharing.

Usually this whole routine takes up most of a day. Some days I don’t get around to all of it. As you can imagine, I sometimes get stuck in one piece or another – if it’s a good exercise, or a long story or essay, or if I find myself venting something worthwhile in Morning Pages…

But I feel like finally, after faffing about for six weeks, I’ve figured out how to execute a truly productive day. Now I go back to uni and that’ll jumble everything up a bit, but I’ll be trying to keep at least a few days a week like this.

What do your writing days look like?

I had blog for breakfast

28th May, 3pm-4pm, Melbourne Town Hall.
“Blogging” panel, “In Conversation” with Jessica Au and Philip Thiel.

Philip Thiel leans back in his chair, sinking his teeth into the pork terrine he made after the i ching told him to “make a pork cake”. He clearly enjoys it – he doesn’t look like a man who over-indulges in a good terrine, and I wonder how big the whole dish was and what percentage of it he ate. Whether the i ching told him that, or if it was just a question of his own will-power.

My own will-power has told me not to indulge in the pork terrine – it’s tied up with what I had for breakfast. I had a $1 coffee from 7Eleven, which I still don’t think tastes as bad as $1 says it should, and I had a muesli bar with lots of nuts in it, and my body should take a long time to burn that off. And even though I’m taking the stairs, I doubt they provide the equivalent to “a workout”. And this is why I say “no thanks” to Philip Thiel’s pork terrine, despite how amazing it looks. Because, you know, that’s a valid thing to blog about.

The panel raises questions about self-censorship, and the encouraging consensus seems to be that while social networking and blogging are mediums rife with over-sharing, this is actually what we enjoy reading. Someone mentions that they read fourfour because they like the guy’s cat. In extremely weird circumstances someone mentions my blog without knowing I’m in the room – I wonder whether there’s some sort of personal thing here, equivalent to fourfour’s cat, which keeps her coming back?

I’ve recently discovered that personal non-fiction is enjoyable. Writing and reading. Pulling what you enjoy out of reading and putting it into your writing isn’t easy – why would anyone want to hear about what I had for breakfast? Sure, we care about fourfour’s cat, but if I had a cat it’d be boring. Right?

Nah. I recently wrote a piece about my brother and how I felt eating food he’d cooked for me. Turns out it’s one of the loveliest pieces I’ve ever written, and that’s because I allowed myself to think that interiority and my personal life is interesting.

Things carry some sort of heft when they’ve got the personal attached to them. And on blogs, this is super-important – it’s the personal stuff which helps make your voice your voice. It’s a medium where people actually come for that kind of content. And it’s incredibly enjoyable to write. It feels less starchy.

And so in writing a “review” or “wrap up” post for my day at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, I decided to blog about the thing I heard that made the deepest impression on me. Plenty of people could write any of the “And then he said…and she said…the next panel…” wrap-up posts I’m capable of writing, but the truth is they’re a bit boring. They’re dry. So here’s a post which includes what I had for breakfast yesterday. This morning, I just had blog for breakfast.

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