Sam van Zweden




A Week of One’s Own

I spent last week as a writer in residence at RMIT non/fictionLab’s new creative space, the Urban Writing House. It’s a gorgeous studio on campus in the city, decked out with comfy and stylish furniture, and all I needed to put my head down for a week to work on my book.

I spent the week working on structural and formal elements of my manuscript. It was in dire need of a print-up-and-shuffle-around, having grown in dribs and drabs without too much attention to order – and so I took to the walls with a bunch of blu-tac and shuffled to my heart’s content. I was surprised to realise that some of my short vignettes belonged together as longer bits, and I worked on building a map of the different narrative and conceptual strands that weave throughout the project.


This cleared the way for more words to be written, and for greater purpose in my moving forward: I have more of an understanding of where the work’s going, and for the shape of what I’m saying in it.

What was most interesting about the time, for me, was what it was like to spend intensive time with my work. I haven’t had a chance to do this in a long while – usually I’ll be writing smaller things alongside work on the manuscript, or have days where I don’t touch it at all after coming home from the day job too tired. When I was doing Honours, I was in the lab most days. My process then involved approximately equal parts jubilation and despair. I’d have an awful day and be utterly convinced I’m incapable of doing good work, and particularly this work. But that day would be followed (perhaps not immediately, but eventually) by a day where things click into place and I take a large step forward. My week at the Urban Writing House replicated this pattern.

Throughout the week, I softened. I walked in on Monday with a militant, no-nonsense attitude to my need to work. By the Saturday, I was being much kinder to myself, and this helped open my mind up to creating worthwhile work. After an awful day on Wednesday (wandering, crying, crying, crying), and many kind and encouraging words from many wonderful women, things picked up – or at least evened out. This shift can be seen clearly through the mantras I wrote on the blackboard in the space, as reminders of what I thought was important and helpful at the time.

They appear below in order. The shift in my attitude toward myself and my work is pretty clear.

There’s one more, from my first day, which for some reason has deleted itself from my camera roll.

They read:

Monday: The thing about writing a book is, you have to write the book. (Possibly inspired by this wonderful post). 
Tuesday: Just do the things.
Wednesday: Be deliberate.
Thursday: You won’t finish it today. Stop trying.
Friday/Saturday: Allow discomfort.

‘Allow discomfort’ was such a good fit that I kept it for two days.

While it was only a week, I feel like I learned a lot. I got good work done. It was a great reminder to be more present (working more regularly helps), and more kind to myself.

This gorgeous little space is evolving. It’s documenting itself. I left my gratitude and story in its guest book, along with the words of the residents who stayed before me. I left a little keepsake on the shelf – a tiny jar with a few sprigs of rosemary in it. I work best when there’s some leaves nearby, and rosemary is often used as a mnemonic prompt in rituals – weddings, funerals, religious ceremonies – so it appears in my work.


I’m so grateful to the non/fictionLab for providing me with this space – my work and my process have benefited greatly.

Looking Forward

I went to Adelaide and looked up:



I also looked inward. Robert Adamson gets how my writing brain works: “Every time I finish a poem I think it’s a miracle. Will I ever write another one?” 

Now, looking forward. Honours started on Monday. 

The question, as it stands: “How can the personal essay form illuminate how memory inflects our relationship to food?”

I love the word “inflects” in this question. An inflection is a pitch thing. When I was working in call centres (yeah, did that), we’d talk about “upward inflections,” that annoying way that Australians raise the tone of their voice toward the end of sentences, turning everything into a question. Those who did this did it unconsciously, it’s just an accidental part of speech. And that’s how I feel about what memory does to my relationship with certain foods. They’re loaded with memory, and so I’m looking at things through a prism of sorts. There’s an inflection in the way that I view foods, and that’s tied up with memory.

Of the pile of books I was so kindly loaned, I’ve started with Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table. It’s comprised of shorter essays, in which Reichl looks at the different ways that she’s used food throughout her life. It’s not what I’m aiming to do, but I love the way that Reichl uses foods as shorthand for character traits (her grandmother’s cook Alice, for example, makes an apple pie to avoid discussing painful topics, because she’s just the kind of person who’d do that), and also that she recognizes that food isn’t just one thing. It’s functional, and not just for sustenance. It’s social glue, it’s emotional reward or punishment, it’s milestone marker, it’s memory trigger, it’s a source of power and cultural capital. It’s so much more than fuel, and Reichl explores that well through her essays.

I have to blog my honours experience, mainly as a way of tracking my work and thought processes. I had the option of using this blog, or of putting those entries on a separate site. I’ve elected to use the blog attached to the Consilience Lab site – ie, the site attached to my course. I want the clout attached to my work that comes with having the URL attached to a university (yep, SEOs rate that). I also don’t want to bore LGWABP readers with every single thing that’ll be posted on there – I imagine that some of it will be quite dry or not particularly relevant. So, things that are relevant or remotely interesting will land on both blogs. The aim of LGWABP has always been to track my work and discoveries, and I don’t want my honours year to be silent on here. It’s an important part of my journey.

Now, to construct a meaningful library search.

Doors Close, Doors Open

Left to right: myself, Jo Day, Tully Hansen and Veronica Sullivan. Writers I’ve been totally lucky to study with, and whose success I’d place bets on.

Last night I graduated. I robed up, and spent hours in stinking hot Etihad Stadium, and got my giant certificate: “Bachelor of Arts (Creative Writing) with Distinction”.

Done and done!

I’m so glad I made the decision, three years ago, to move to RMIT – and that they were willing to have me! It’s easily one of the best choices I’ve made. I’ve really grown as a writer, and have been so generously supported by my teachers and peers. I’ve had industry opportunities I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’ve been encouraged to follow my passions and obsessions, and I now find myself quietly confident that, while still somewhat aimless, I have a general direction for my future.

I’ve learned a lot about myself: how I work best, which topics I find easy or difficult or fun or challenging to write about, what kinds of practical applications for my work I am interested in. I know now, so much better than I did three years ago, who I am and where I’m headed.

It’s a strange place to be this morning. It’s official: I’ve finished my undergraduate career. I’m now looking in the face of postgraduate study. I’ve got an application pending at one institution, and have deferred an offer from another until 2014. I’ll make up my mind which of those suits me better after my year off. I plan on spending this year saying “Yes!” to everything. This means that today, my first day as a graduate, is being spent writing an application for a mentorship, and thinking about a possible project for a fellowship application.

While my time as an undergraduate has finished, I’m seeing possibilities stretching out in front of me, I just have to be gutsy enough to take them.

It Started With a Beach Backdrop…

It’s been a big weekend. It started with a beach backdrop about 25 metres long taped to the back of a stage, and the general excitement that comes with Piranha Party – if you ever get an opportunity to see these guys, for the love of God, do it! They’ve only been around for about 6 months, but this party ska band will make your feet move without asking you and your smile will switch on. They’re heaps of fun.

This was the last night of Madonna‘s August residency at the Royal Derby Hotel in Collingwood, and what a month it’s been. I’ve seen Madonna many times, and the once-a-week offering at the Derby hasn’t disappointed. This band has an explosive energy driving their music, and total abandon to making shit work. While this week’s set was a bit short, it was packed full of pure awesome. Somehow crowds give themselves over to Madonna – foot-tapping, swaying, or all-out moshing. This gig there was even something akin to excited galloping. Madonna’s urgent effects-swirl and constant forward push pays off. While they’ve been their best in front of very responsive crowds (more so than any other band I’ve seen), even when crowds are reticent to start with Madonna blow the roof off any venue they touch. Their next gig is at the Birmingham Hotel in Fitzroy, and will be a Joe Strummer tribute night with a slew of other amazing bands – get down there, it promises to wrinkle your skin with how good it is. So good your toes might fall off. (Take spare toes.)

Saturday night was a truly fantastic gathering of RMIT Creative Writing students – we got together, someone bought cupcakes, others bought goon, we read poetry and stories out to each other, astounded as always by how great everyone’s work is.

Sunday night saw the Toff in Town pack out for Dog’s Tales, a storytelling night that usually happens each Tuesday down at Dog’s Bar in St Kilda. For the MWF it’s took up residency at the Toff for the evening, and my goodness it was lovely! I haven’t been down to the St Kilda event yet, so it was very exciting to see the set up there on the Toff stage: a wonderful “real plastic!” chair wrestled for lovingly at an MTC garage sale, and a little green lamp that I think everyone remembers from their grandparents’ study. Such an unassuming set can only mean good things, thought I.

I was right. The night had readings from both local and international artists, and a really wide variety of stories being shared, from Josephine Rowe’s ad-libbed account of her relationship with her father, to DBC Pierre’s tale of the adverse (perhaps…) effects of tequila at storytelling events, where people sprout tails and wings, and step right out of their own skin. Carmel Bird stuck out to me as an incredibly strong reader, with such an obvious love of sharing stories. I discovered Carmel many years ago, when a literature teacher slipped me a copy of Automatic Teller and I fell in love. A few years later Red Shoes confirmed my suspicion that Carmel is freaking amazing, and then it was on. I think she’s great, and absolutely loved the fact that she read as well as I imagined she would.

Kalinda Ashton read a story about a girl working in a Christmas department store hell, which provided many laughs but these were perfectly juxtaposed with some great poignant moments. Kalinda is my non-fiction lecturer at RMIT, so I’ve only ever heard her speak in a lecture setting before. Her reading is really engaging, it sucks you into the story world for the length of the piece and you forget that you’re listening. I’ll be looking out for her events in future.

This evening finished up with a story from Tiffany Murray, which absolutely knocked my socks off. It was brilliantly honest, and Tiffany made me want to quit my course and move to the UK to study under her. I wish I could tell stories half as wonderful as hers!

This bonza weekend finished by scooting around the corner from the Toff to Shanghai Dumpling House (the one with the pink walls in China Town, not the laneway one! I don’t like the laneway one. I know others do. They haven’t discovered the pink walls one yet). $27 dollar feed for two people – a great way to finish a weekend!

Poetry Just 4 U

Officially dubbing this past week “success-a-palooza”.

Today marks the start of the Melbourne Writers Festival, which runs until the 5th of September.

I’m excited to have gotten tickets for Dog’s Tales, a night run by Chris Flynn which is usually on at the Dogs Bar in St Kilda, but for the MWF will spend a night at the Toff in Town. My dazzling non-fiction teacher Kalinda Ashton will be performing, as well as one of my favourite authors Josephine Rowe, and the woman who introduced to me the idea that short stories can be truly magical, Carmel Bird. Should be an incredible night!

Apart from this, I have some exciting MWF-related news: some of my micropoetry has been accepted for the RMIT Poetry 4 U program, which can be followed on Twitter throughout the festival, as well as selected pieces running across the LED screens at Federation Square between 12pm and 2pm daily throughout the festival. I’ve seen some of the entries from last year, and there was some great work, so follow the project or head down to Fed Square one day to check it out!

The general public are also invited to participate via Twitter, just add the #poetry4u hashtag to any nanofiction or micropoetry you might want to put out there.

Have a great festival!

Admiration/Inspiration Thursday

Today I feel like I could do just about anything. I haven’t slept through a whole night in a very long time, but the last two nights I have. I thought you should all know – today I feel really good. 

Inspiration in the last week has been much and varied: 

Nanofiction based in an alley


I found my missing copy of Monica Wood’s “The Pocket Muse”. Haven’t heard of it before? Get it. Trust me. It makes it easier to get the cogs moving on those days when it just doesn’t want to happen. I actually just found it on Google Books, but I do so love my hard copy. Hand-bag sized, loving little volume of word-making things! 

I’ve been messing around with micropoetry and nanofiction submissions this week for the Melbourne Writer’s Festival’s “Poetry 4 U” event. I took some inspiration for this from a woman I used to live with. She makes such wonderful stories, her actual personality is so much better than anything I could make up. I love to write about her. 

School has provided inspiration – actually setting me tasks I’m interested in doing (oh, bless you, RMIT!). I wrote a few scenes from my family history and was surprised by how fun it was. I imagined my grandparents’ terror at the prospect of going to Bonegilla (what a happy experience this website makes it seem!).  

I’m going to write a column today about reading on public transport and the joys and problems of that. Inspired by a friend unashamedly telling me that he covers embarrassing book covers with brown paper so he won’t be judged. 

Feeling good is a good place to write, so often it comes from that other place. 

So right now, I’m inspired by this mysterious glow that comes from being well-rested. I’m off to write!


Last week I posted about Ex Calamus, the new webzine I’m involved in with fellow RMIT Creative Writing students.

The latest installment in Ex Calami glory is called “Cxxx” – don’t ask me the meaning, but I do think of that particular combination of letters quite fondly now.

Cxxx is attached to the E.C website, and is another writing project based on constraints. Cxxx is all about nanofiction or micropoetry within 130 characters. Unlike Ex Calamus’ Webzine, there is no theme or time-limit. I have some work up there, and the content seems to be added to almost daily. Check it out!

…and I promise, my blog will not continue to just be posts plugging my work. I’ll write some actual content in the next few days. Cross my heart.

Ex Calamus

It’s Latin for “from the pen”. Dig? I think it’s a smart name.

Ex Calamus is a publishing collective powered by RMIT Creative Writing students. We were looking for a way to keep ourselves writing and get in practise for actual publication, and so Ex Calamus was born.

The Ex Calamus webzine is a weekly publication. On Thursday night, all Ex Calamus writers are emailed a theme. The deadline is 6am Sunday morning. So Ex Calamus is a high-pressure quick-turn-around project.

In its third week now, the Ex Calamus webzine’s past themes – “Gold”, “So don’t close the blinds”, and “This Space Intentionally Left Blank”. A different writer from the group nominates the theme each week.

I submitted a short story called “Johnno in the Easement”, about a kid who is forced to grow up in the blank space between his parents’ garage and the fence.

The webzine is available for download as a PDF document, and is uploaded on Monday afternoons. Keep your eyes on it!

Limp Writers

I know you’re reading this post because of the (possibly misleading) title. I dread to think of what this will do for my search engine results… “pen” and “limp” are begging for some beauties.

Anywho, this has nothing to do with the nocturnal concerns of other jot-fiends. At least,  not those nocturnal concerns.

This has to do with Little !ndependent Melbourne Publishing – or L!MP.

This website is run by the first- and second-year Creative Writing students at RMIT. We’re a driven bunch, and this is a part of that… L!MP is in its young days, meetings are currently being held in regards to branching out with it and trying to get it out in the world. So I’m doing my bit by sharing with you guys – check it out, check back, comment, pass it on. Help us get this bad boy up n thriving.

I’ve got a piece up there, which was posted here a long while ago, but the other pieces on the site are really amazing – I am learning with some freaking talented people.

You will hear more about L!MP in the future, I promise.

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