Sam van Zweden




The Echo-Echo of Failing Better

This is a wrap-up of Day 1 of the Emerging Writers’ Festival Town Hall Writers’ Conference

#1:     It was said in the first event of the day, Seven Enviable Lines, though I can’t remember who by – that famous Samuel Beckett quote: “Ever try. Ever fail. No matter – try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It’s one of my favourite quotes, one that I try to keep foremost in my mind as I wade through desk-days and while cursors flash at me accusingly.

It came up again in the second panel I attended, Critical Conditions, this time from Nick Tapper. The echo made it stick.

#2:    Melinda Harvey, in Critical Conditions, urges us to think of criticism as a creative act. She mentions Post Secret, and says something vague and aspirational enough to be exciting, about the possibility of new forms of criticism. Fellow panelist, Ella O’Keefe: ditto. 

#3:     John Safran says that “pride and sloth” are the sins of the creative. We have one stupid idea, and we cling to it and are too lazy to go out and be crazy about having ideas. “Here’s what’s wrong with you,” he says. “You’re lazy, and too in love with your one stupid idea.”

In Writing the Personal, Walter Mason tells us that he recently sent his editor 125,000 words. His editor has slashed and burnt it down to 75,000 words. This is just the process. Between Safran and Mason, the message is to be creative in a ravenous way – your brilliance isn’t limited, numbers are what they are and if you create more, the numbers are on your side. 

#4:      Walter Mason again, in Writing the Personal. He talks about Twitter and Instagram, and how he’s over people’s objection that they don’t want to see what everyone’s eating. It’s relevant, he says. It’s the most personal, and the most interesting. I agree.

Two years ago at this conference, at an ‘in conversation’ in the Melbourne room, Philip Thiel talked about the way that people do want to know what you had for breakfast, and that it’s what gives a blog flavour. That night I went home and wrote about what I had for breakfast


I forget points that are made, quotes that I love, possibilities that exist, until events like these. The EWF provides a space full of echoed reminders, and I am buoyed; enthusiasm renewed. I come home to write, with abandon and without restrictions.

Emerging Writers’ Festival Program Highlights

ImageIt’s here! Last Wednesday night the Wheeler Centre packed out for the launch of the 2013 Emerging Writers’ Festival. This is the festival’s 10th birthday, and its first year under the direction of Sam Twyford-Moore. The program is freakin’ huge, and I’m excited!

Of course, the EWF holds a special place in my heart, as they’ve been immensely supportive toward me, and I interned with them last year. Melbourne’s great for festivals, and EWF is one of the many fantastic literary events happening right through the year. For two weeks in June, the EWF runs panels, workshops, performance events and networking opportunities for emerging writers. It’s a unique opportunity for us baby writers to get a foot in the door, and to meet people fighting the same good fight.

I had to hold off on this post for a few days, just because the program really is so big. I needed to sit down with some tea and a marker, and highlight what I want to attend, and then identify any clashing events, and make tough decisions which might very well change a few times before the actual events.

At this stage, it looks like I’ll be out and about for most of the two weeks of the festival. I won’t go through my entire itinerary, but here’s the things I found particularly exciting, and that I think you shouldn’t miss:

Festival Hub: Thousand Pound Bend. This might sound silly, but since the beloved Rue Bebelons shut down, I was eager to find out where the new watering hole would be. I like the choice of Thousand Pound Bend – it’s cosy, with couches and dim lighting. It’s significantly larger than Rue’s, which probably works in its favour, with EWF crowds no doubt swelling this year as it has each consecutive year since its start. They’ll also be running Late Night Live With Literary Magazines, which could be a great way to discover stuff you didn’t know about before, but also a talking point, and a way to connect with other people (like, strangers, friends you haven’t met yet) at the Festival Hub.

Pop Up Page Parlour. Usually, Page Parlour has been a one-day event in the Atrium at Fed Square. If you miss that one day, you miss out. The pop up idea is great – not only does it give me more opportunities to check out the merch, it also gives those who are selling things there far more exposure. Win-win.

Town Hall Writers’ Conference. This is where writers get together to impart all their secrets. The timetabling gods have looked kindly on this weekend, and I’ve got something highlighted in most blocks, with no clashes. Particularly exciting: The Control Room with Melinda Harvey and Connor Tomas O’Brien; Cutting it Short on short stories; Writing The Personal; and Critical Conditions on the culture of criticism.

Emerging Q & A. An insane panel line-up and an awesome event, I can’t wait to Tweet my way through this bad boy.

And really, really exciting is this year’s addition of The Writers’ Retreat program at the very beautiful Abbotsford Convent. This beautiful setting will be overrun by writers for the weekend, and a lot of the program is free. I’m most excited about seeing Kate Richards on the panel for Symposium: Writing and Health on Sunday, and Saturday’s panel on Writing About Food, which will include the tiny and loveable Romy Ash – who at last week’s Erotic Fan Fiction night at Wheeler, shared a story about stuffing a food critic like a chicken.

The word is that tickets are already selling fast, as EWF seems to be very much on the radar of Melbourne’s cultural calendar. Happy Birthday EWF, happy first festival STM, and a massive congratulations to the whole dedicated and hardworking EWF team for putting together such a brilliant program!

The Night That Was White

This is a re-cap of my White Night, spent primarily at the Wheeler Centre as part of an event run by the Emerging Writers Festival.

Bivouacking at the Wheeler Centre – it feels like a school camp somehow. On the bus on the way in, I feel like a kid again. I carry a pillow and cupcakes, and a backpack full of laptop, pens and notebook. There’s a novel in there for the wee hours. 

The night begins without any great fanfare. A small crowd gathers for Eric Yoshiyaki Dando’s performance at 8pm. Eric is a bit short, a bit hairy; he wears no shoes and rolled-up fisherman’s pants. He reads from his iPhone (“from the Sleepers’ app, which is very handy!”) about his time spent as a shopping centre Santa. I presume it is non-fiction, but on later reflection I will wonder. Either way, he’s utterly charming. The AUSLAN lady’s hands dance, and Eric makes her say “snail” again because he loves the sign for it.

After Eric’s performance people splinter. There’s an awful lot of talking. More than one person here seems to be participating in White Night in order to write about it – I’m not the only person whose impulse is to document. There are people with cameras, and a few people approach to ask what we’re working on, or why we’re here. 

I leave for dinner. Sitting outside the State Library, I watch patterns drive themselves up the exterior walls. There are people with strollers. It’s as busy as New Years Eve, but people are happier and more friendly. This doesn’t last though – after dinner, at about 10.30, people seem a bit more volatile. There’s hostility in their demand for something to be happening always, everywhere. I walk more carefully back to the Wheeler Centre.

Photo credit: Reuben Acciano for the Emerging Writers Festival

The Wheeler Centre packs out for later performances at midnight and 1am. The midnight performance has everyone laughing, Laura Jean McKay and Lawrence Leung lunging about the stage, jazz hands flying around one another in a battle to decide who reads first. The pieces they perform are similarly impressive. 

Performances from 3am onwards start to calm down. Luke Ayres Ryan does the 3am reading, which is of a story he wrote when he was 14. He antagonises his young self as he reads, incredulous that he ever thought that this writing was something to be proud of. I hope that he sees the value in his current writing, and wonder if we all have this mode when we read over ancient pieces. True, the piece he reads is as dismal as anything a 14 year-old would write, but still.

The audience at this reading is mainly those of us who have been writing all night. We lounge in bean bags, lulling, and we begin to feel a bit heavy-lidded. Second winds will come later. For now, sedate is the way to be. Chad Parkhill plays a ridiculous DJ set (“full of funky beats with a fat bass line”) to perk us all up, and it works in a way. We dance like fools for a little bit, before a friend arrives and a few of us head to the Domed Reading Room at the State Library.

This is the only thing that I really want to catch at White Night; the only thing that I absolutely need to see. The Domed Reading Room is expansive and overwhelming at the best of times, but in this ethereal space where the city hums and everybody is dreaming, it’s almost too much. The Exaudi Youth choir send their voices up to the ceiling, where projected lights move like ripples in a slow stream. It feels like sleep. Every person is surrounded by calm. People scatter, sitting on desks and chairs. Many heads take the opportunity for a quick nap.

Returning to the Wheeler Centre feels strange, stepping back into the real world. People come and go, and while people still write, the hours between 5 and 7 feel more like a drop-in centre where people stick their heads in out of curiosity.

The tram ride home hits me in the face, and I struggle not to close my eyes as we trundle up a now-quiet, very rubbishy Collins Street. 

The night was certainly white; brilliant with creative light and a generous crowd hungry for culture. Every piece of the city opened up and poured out all the secrets that are so often hidden.

Guest Post on The Emerging Writer Online Journal

Today I’ve got a piece up over on the Emerging Writer Online Journal. It reflects on the process of coming to see myself as a nonfiction writer, and how the recent NonFictioNow Conference made me think even more.

The Emerging Writer Online Journal is a fantastic opportunity for emerging writers. Karen, who edits the journal, is keen to hear pitches for just about anything concerning writing, the writer’s life, process… Etc. It’s a great way of getting your name out there, of having a paid writing gig, and of building up your publication folio. I can’t recommend this organization highly enough, so go make the most of their generosity!

Exciting News!

Often in this writing caper I’ve been overwhelmed by just how generous more experienced writers are. I was first introduced to this incredible generosity through Lisa Dempster, in her role at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Lisa’s been kind enough to extend countless opportunities my way, and she’s always had a lot of faith in my capabilities – often more faith than I have in myself.

Just now (I’m a bit slow on the up-take, moving house means 2 weeks internet-less!) I’ve seen the amazing news on Bookseller and Publisher, that Lisa has nabbed the spot of Festival Director for the Melbourne Writers Festival! Even better, it’s a 3-year position. This is the same amount of time as Lisa reigned over the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and in that role she really went from strength to strength, building on what was already in the festival as well as introducing a lot of new, exciting ideas about what a festival can be and do. Lisa will take over from the current MWF director Steve Grimwade.

So congratulations, Lisa. I can’t think of anyone who deserves this position more, and really look forward to seeing you shine in this role.

Penguin Specials Launch

Last night I was lucky enough to ride on the coat-tails of my more successful friends (congratulations again, Jo Day, Veronica Sullivan and Tully Hansen!) into the launch of the latest Penguin Specials range of ebooks. The launch was for a whole bunch of new shorts available in digital form. The good people at Penguin have included the shortlisted and winner of the Monash Prize as part of the Specials range, and it’s available on Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, etc etc – all the platforms. Of course, you’d expect a company the size of Penguin to be inclusive of all the relevant platforms when they publish digitally. Less expected is the fact that they’ve given this awesome opportunity to emerging writers – nice work, Penguin!

I’m starting to get used to the faces at the writing events I go to, but when I left the Moat last night I was feeling a little star-struck and small fry. The launch included readings from Sonya Hartnett (tiny! Who knew?!), Robert Drewe, and Tully Hansen. With some familiar faces, many I hadn’t met yet (like… famous people), and the sampler of the publications doing the rounds on iPads, it was a really fun night. Free wine helped. It’s also really nice to know that being published digitally doesn’t mean the publishing company won’t splash out and celebrate your awesome achievement. The writers included in this series of Penguin Specials have a lot to be proud of.

Penguin seem to have their heads screwed on about what the strengths of ebooks are with their new and upcoming releases. There’s a new imprint coming for romance books, which is a smart move – there’s a huge market there, because it allows all the things ebooks do well anyway (cheap, portable collection), but also opens up the possibility for people to read romance/erotica in public, or to read around family and friends without having reading choices scrutinized. Also, the readers I know who are into romance are pretty voracious about it, and finish one book needing to slip straight into the next one. Ebooks make this a little easier than a trip to the book store. I’m not super-excited for myself about the romance imprint, but I certainly think that Penguin are onto where the money’s at, rather than just making their entire catalogue available and hoping for the best. (Though… I think perhaps for the most part they do this anyway?)

What’s relevant for me as a writer, and for all writers of short stories, is that short stories are now being published in single volumes, per story. Portability is a great strength of eReaders, and to make short stories available for this platform plays to this strength. A short story is a great way to spend time on public transport, and unlike a novel, you can possibly finish it in one sitting. For a long time people have been mourning the lack of publishing opportunities for short stories outside of journals – collections just don’t sell the way that novels do. Hopefully this (and, of course, things like Smashwords, where many authors publish single stories) are a way for short story writers to regain those opportunities.

The Specials are available now, and for a short time the sampler (including Tully’s amazing work, and extracts from others) is available for free.

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.

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