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Sam van Zweden

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Review: Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

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In Art and Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland ask of artists, ‘Why do so many who start, quit?’, pitching their enquiry at visual artists, but also at writers, actors –  anyone whose creative pursuits might cause them any doubt.

Pinpointing fear as the main reason we stand in our own way as artists, the first half of this book is pretty useful. Drawing on the documented experience of a broad range of artists throughout history (creating something of a ‘suggested reading’ mountain), the first half of the book provides insight into the idea that all the things you fear, and which can stop you from making art, are necessary. Your self-doubt, your anxiety, your fear of unoriginality, your particular world-view: all essential. Artistic fear takes many different forms, but at its root, it’s all fear.

These ideas are not groundbreaking, but it is nice to have it all researched and put together in one place – it’s kind of like a series of Brain Pickings articles on artistic process, plus some real talk, bound between covers.

The second half of the book tries to put these fears into the context of the world, and identify real-world barriers (i.e., external things that, unlike your fear, aren’t necessary or so easily harnessed for good) to your artmaking. Unfortunately this half of the book reads more like a list of vendettas: Bayles & Orland aren’t very keen on academia, or critics. Where the first half of the book winds up to kick some ass, what follows doesn’t satisfactorily deliver on that promise. Instead, it gives the impression that Bayles and Orland don’t have much to offer by way of solutions. It’s disappointing that the book didn’t narrow its scope to recognition and acknowledgement of the fears tied up in artmaking, because in my reading, that would have been enough.

The last chapter brings the book full-circle and this left me feeling energised; it’s a call-to-arms and insistence that only you can make your art, even if you’re fearful.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the ways that Bayles and Orland call bullshit on ‘the struggle’, without denying its existence altogether. As the authors observe, ‘We live in a world where the ready-made observations about artmaking are typically useless, frequently fatalistic’. They don’t romanticise the difficulties of artmaking, and the fears that they tackle are approached pragmatically, as real, solid blocks to artistic career success.

Overall, not mind-blowing, but worth a look, even if you only skim-read the second half and check back in to the final chapter.

Review: On the Many Shapes Bodies Will Take

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On the Many Shapes Bodies Will Take is a new poetry collection from award-winning writer, poet, editor and long-time blogger (and friend, full disclosure) Karen Andrews. The collection explores, with brevity and precision, the many phases our bodies move through, and the ways our bodies respond to their places in the world. The poems explore themes that have emerged in Andrews’ mixed collection ‘Crying in the Car’ and through her long-running blog, such as grief, motherhood, intimate relationship dynamics and body image.

Andrews’ language is direct and chosen with obvious care. The poems are short, only occasionally running over a page in length. With a strong narrative thread, and a linear progression through the poet’s life, this collection should appeal to poetry lovers as well as those simply looking for a considered meditation on the body’s impact on and in the world.

What emerges through the collection is a retrospective look at the body’s fallibility and vulnerability, but also its strengths and power. A body is never one thing, never static, and never final. Andrews’ collection explores these permutations with tenderness and skill.

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.

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).

Spots of time

Poets talk about ‘spots of time,’ but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone. I shall remember that son of a bitch forever.

— Norman Maclean, quoted in Judith Kitchen’s ‘Grounding the Lyric Essay’.

A Month of Reading: June

June was good for books. I read three books during the month, and I acquired a great many more. 

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Relish, by Lucy Knisley.

Lucy’s coming to town for the Melbourne Writers Festival in August, and a copy of this was floating about the office. With a combined love of memoir and food, this book really spoke to me. The daughter of two foodies, Knisley combines recipes, travel stories, and coming-of-age memories in this gorgeously illustrated graphic memoir. Get on it – very fun.

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Madness: A Memoir, by Kate Richards

This first caught my eye for the cover design. It looks beautiful, but it also feels beautiful. Those scribbles are actually embossed so that it feels like someone’s picked up each and every book fresh off the printing press and done that design by hand.

Like with Relish, I picked up Madness: A Memoir because it hit close to home. Between my mum’s and my experiences of mental illness, it’s always a topic I’m keen to read about. I guess the intangibility of mental illness means that it’s anything but universal, and every memoir or account that comes out of it will offer something different. 

Unfortunately, it’s also dangerous territory. Many mental illness memoirs only touch on the physical experience, and look no deeper. Madness really hit the mark for me. Kate Richards is medically trained, so she has a different understanding of her illness, and seems to understand that she can play a bridging role (between medical establishments and patients) that many psychiatric patients cannot. Madness managed to explain some things I’ve never understood about Mum’s experience, and prompted me to consider the role of writing as an advocacy tool. 

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High Sobriety by Jill Stark

High-selling nonfiction books make a bigger dent on my radar than high-selling fiction books. So all the talk around High Sobriety earned it a place on the reading pile, and I was lucky enough to co-chair the #kydbookclub this month with Jessica Alice, discussing High Sobriety. Unfortunately, Australian politics exploded within ten minutes of the book club starting, but the discussion that did happen over the top of #auspol on Twitter was good fun, and interesting.

High Sobriety follows Jill Stark, a newspaper health reporter, as she takes a year off booze. Like diet, drinking habits are deeply personal, and it’s almost impossible to read this book without weighing in on it somehow. As a not-particularly-heavy-drinker, I still had a lot of eyebrow-raising moments. Stark made me think about the cultural role of alcohol, and the things we take for granted that are actually a bit messed up.

 

The Inaugural Stella Prize

Last night the inaugural Stella Prize for women’s writing was awarded to Carrie Tiffany, for her novel Mateship With Birds.

ImageThe prize awards $50,000 to recognize fantastic writing by Australian women. The name of the prize comes from one of the most celebrated Australian women writers of all time – Miles Franklin. As mentioned at last night’s ceremony, the prize gives Miles Franklin back her name – Franklin felt the need to publish under a man’s name in order for her writing to be successful. What a long way we’ve come, to now be recognizing women’s writing, and awarding such a bucket load of cash in order to give them the time and space they need to create their work. 

Carrie Tiffany graciously returned $10,000 of the prize money to the Stella Prize to be divided amongst the other shortlisted authors: Courtney Collins, Michelle de Kretser, Lisa Jacobson, Cate Kennedy, and Margo Lanagan. As she made the gesture, she talked about how money equals time for writers. Tiffany’s generosity and goodwill are a representation of the good feeling, positivity, and realistic nature of the whole Stella ethos.

I missed the awards ceremony, but followed along on Twitter via the #stellaprize hashtag. The Stella team, as well as all the writers, readers, booksellers, festival people, and groupies in attendance did a fabulous job of making those of us at home feel like we were actually there. Quotes from speakers, selfies and group photos, virtual drinks with other proxy attendees… Even from the comfort of a tram and my desk at home, it was a fun night.

Mateship with Birds‘ winning status has pushed it further up the reading pile, along with Zadie Smith’s NW, which is shortlisted for the UK’s “Women’s Prize for Fiction” (formerly the Orange Prize). In the middle of awards season as we are, there’s no shortage of things to read, but the hours in a day are sadly lacking.

I Was That Girl

Customers divulge their book club secrets to me.

“Oh, often I don’t finish the book! I just run out of time…”

I judge them. Harshly. How dare you? How dare you gather a group of people who are passionate about books, about reading, and not respect that sacred space by at least completing the book that’s up for discussion?

Last night I went to my first book club, and I was that girl. Having spent the previous night cleaning for a late-notice house inspection, I didn’t finish the book. I got very close, but 15 pages from the end still isn’t finished. I carried the guilt in under one arm, and the book under the other. I still contributed.

After reading like a writer for so long, this book club mode of reading strikes me as different. Not bad, but different. It’s luxurious. It relates to the content of the book on the same level that people in the world relate to other people in the world. We’re allowed to judge.

“The father was a bit of a dick.”

Everybody nods. This is a valid observation.

A Month of Reading

It’s been one of those months where the amount of books bought, borrowed and acquired have far outweighed the books I’ve finished reading. I’ve been plugging away at a great many collections and journals, reading a poem, essay or short story from each before I start my own work. This means I’ve read a lot, but I’ve only actually FINISHED reading two books this month. I’m going to blame this on the fact that it’s a short month. YES, those two (possibly three) days make a HUGE difference! 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky pissed me off sufficiently to warrant a rant

The other book I finished was a self-help book by Russ Harris (my self-help hero, because he writes stuff that works!), called ACT With Love, about applying Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to relationships. 

I’m nearing the end of two books right now, so March promises more than 2 books read, for sure.

What did you read in February?

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