Sam van Zweden



express media

National Young Writers’ Month

Express Media, that amazing bunch of enthusiastic helpful people behind Voiceworks, are gearing up for National Young Writers’ Month. During the month of June, there will be heaps of events, as well as web-based discussions and exercises to help get the brain doing brainy things.

I’ve just registered for NYWM on the Express Media website, and there’s already some great discussions going on in the forums. When you register, you’re asked to set yourself a goal. My goal is to write and polish (whole process, from scratch) at least five pieces of poetry or prose throughout the month of June. Reading other people’s goals on the forums is making me think that maybe I should try to incorporate LGWABP into my goal in some way too…

The NYWM launch proper will be part of the Emerging Writers’ Festival

Tackling Poetry Workshop

Today I’m going out to Northland to run a poetry for 15-19 year olds, titled “Tackling Poetry”.

I’ve run one poetry workshop before, and it was horrendous. The kids who were there were forced to be there as part of the school’s compulsory extra-curricular program at the end of semester. The kids asked me if I was “a real teacher?” and why I have so many piercings, and did they hurt, and do I think I’m cool because of them? A bunch of kids “needed to go to the toilet” and never came back. One kid somehow got me to do all his writing for him.

On the other hand, there were some really talented young writers in that group. One of the girls came up with the amazing metaphor of her friend being “a balloon you want to hold forever”. Isn’t that lovely? It’s stuck with me over a year later.

The workshop I’m holding today is through Express Media, so I’ll have some wonderful back-up support there. Also, it’s voluntary – the kids who show up want to be there. And this time I’m bringing lots of sweet bribes. And I’ve been taught lots of handy tips and tricks for crowd control and distractions.

But I’m still feeling pretty nervous about the whole thing… So wish me luck!

Brain-work on a Monday?!

Usually I manage to structure my Mondays so they involve as little brain-work as is humanly possible. I just put chutney on some toast – usually that’s about as tough as my Mondays get. That, and turning pages of trashy novels.

Not this Monday! This Monday I’m doing all sorts of brain-work, and I’m not sure I’m OK with it quite yet.

There are decisions to be made today. I’m going to a slam tomorrow night to perform at their open mic in preparation for the State Library’s Australian Poetry Slam on Wednesday at the Balwyn heat. Both these events are quite big and scary for me – I haven’t done any poetry performance outside uni events, so while I’m not nervous just yet, I have a feeling I very much will be later. I have two pieces that I feel are quite strong, and I need to choose which is stronger. One has some humour. The other is a bit pretty.

I need to practice these pieces more so they’re totally drummed into my brain (brain-work…).

When that decision’s been made, I need to decide on an extract from Hold On, the story which is appearing in Page Seventeen, being launched on Saturday. I’ll be reading an extract at the launch, up to 3 minutes… I haven’t decided which three minutes yet. I think most logical is from the start of the story, because the chronological story is intercepted by flash-backs. But is that the strongest part of the story?

The following piece of brain-work involves writing up a pitch for a workshop I’ll be running before the end of the year in Northcote, through Express Media.

By the end of the day, I think I’ll be happy to head off to work and only think about filling fridges. By far too much brain-work for a Monday!

A much clearer kind of expression

Express Media, oh beloved, have just launched their brand spankin’ new website!

If you spent any time on the old one, you’ll know what a pain it was to navigate. This new site is a little ray of sunshine, brightening up my world.

Thanks, Express Media!

Splashin’ Around

Today I spent the day in a room. With. John. Marsden.

…and THEN. Steven. Amsterdam!


Today was the first “Big Splash” at the Wheeler Centre, run by Express Media. The day was a mini-festival featuring a keynote speech from Jessica Au and writing workshops by John Marsden and Steven Amsterdam. And what a day it was – as the first event of its kind, Express Media got it spot-on first go.

Jessica Au’s opening speech was a reflection on her recent reading of Virginia Woolf, who once said that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Jessica talked about what a woman today might need in order to write. Money was still a concern – “they say time is money, but for a writer, money is time,” Jessica said. The means to afford time for our writing is important. And not just time for our writing, but time for everything that goes with it – time to get distracted, time for uncertainty, time for re-writing and editing. Also essential are engagement with critical culture, and a good balance between egoism and pessimism. Later in the day Jessica shared her experience in getting published and dealing with publishers – she’s a very well-spoken lady, and while I haven’t read any of her work yet, I’ll be on the lookout for it!

The next part of the day saw the group of 28 attendants split in two, each going with a different writer, which would swap later in the day. The first workshop for me was with John Marsden.

John Marsden‘s importance to me simply cannot be understated. I was part of that generation who chewed hungrily through the “Tomorrow, When The War Began” series, got to the back cover of the last one, then started it all again because I just didn’t want it to end. “So Much To Tell You” is one of the first books I ever remember buying, and “Dear Miffy” the first thing with really explicit material (I remember the sentence too – “squeeze me like a lemon baby, your juice runs down my legs”) that I snuck past my dad out of the library. He’s been with me for about as long as I can remember reading, and now he’s coming with me into my writing life too.

Some notes on Mr Marsden – swears like a trooper. Natural story-teller. Rambles, but in a totally engaging way. Has a natural fascination in people and playing with status in real-life situations. Watches a lot of different movies – Pretty Woman, Terminator, some avant-garde French thing…

John’s been running workshops for about 20 years – and it shows. He does it incredibly well. While the first 45 minutes or so were a ramble about status, he eventually looked down at his watch and said “Shit, this is meant to be a writing workshop, we better do some writing!”.

His exercises were short and to-the-point. We looked at how stories need solutions, and how solutions don’t have to be absolutely unexpected to be good. We talked about how all stories are essentially “What If’s”. The example I came up with for this was, “What if I go home today to find another family living in my house, and find out that that family has been living there for a long time, just when I’m not home, and today I just catch them by chance?”. It certainly got me thinking(/paranoid)… I’ve been keeping an eye out for clues of their whereabouts since I got home.

John also came out with something really comforting – someone said something about a plot they’d come up with, then undermined it by saying “I know it’s just like (some popular thing) but…”. To this, John said: “Sometimes people are apologetic about their work being derivative, but you shouldn’t be, because everything is. You should only be apologetic if your writing lacks energy.”

Speaking to Express Media’s artistic director later, Bel Schenk, she said that John told her we were the best workshop group he’d ever had. It may have been hyperbole, but I’m claiming it. That’s right, folks, I was part of the best writing workshop John Marsden has ever run. YAH!

 The next part of the day was with Steven Amsterdam. Recently, Steven Amsterdam has wow-ed me with “Things We Didn’t See Coming”, which I picked up at the EWF, and was thankful for every page of. The man writes well. Really ridiculously well. You should pick up a copy.

Steven’s workshop had a lot more “heads-down” kind of writing, but was no less enjoyable for it. We used visual prompts to produce a pretty sizable body of story starters. Steven kept one guiding principle in our minds as a way to always push our work forward – “What’s the core value of your story?” he’d ask. And for the most part, by identifying what that is, there was a logical way forward.

This piece of advice is pretty priceless for me. I so often get stuck with a story, with a beginning and most of a middle – I know where it needs to end, but I’m not so sure how to make everything reach that point. Often I’ve been spending time writing really detailed character sketches outside of the story in order to figure out what would logically happen. This idea of keeping focussed on the core value of a story really helps with this process.

Steven also said something great about making story ideas original. With our visual prompts, we were mashing together seemingly unrelated ideas. Steven likened this to googlewhacking… I very much like this idea.

The day wound up with what was called an “informal panel session” but which was executed in a circle, with people throwing questions to the three writers, who chewed on them for a bit. It was incredibly relaxed, and felt so much better and completely different to any other author/writer event I’ve been to.

Both Steven Amsterdam and John Marsden are so incredibly friendly and approachable that I managed to have a chat with both outside of alloted time. Both were lovely enough to sign their books for me…

"Sam, Best Wishes, John Marsden"
"Sam, Keep it strange, Good luck! Steven Amsterdam"

…and John Marsden signed his using MY PEN… I absolutely loved my pen before, but it’s just taken on a whole new element. John Marsden wrote with my pen!

Beloved Pen, now graced by the hand of Marsden!

Best day I’ve had in quite some time, by far. Thanks Express Media, can’t wait for the next one!

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