How to Become a Writer: Sam Van Zweden

This series is based on an early short-story by Lorrie Moore called ‘How to Become a Writer’, a wry account of all the seemingly random events, choices and missteps that led a young woman to dedicate herself to a life of putting words on paper. This is a subject I’m fascinated by. Whenever I talk to authors, read their interviews or hear them speak, I’m struck by the enormous variety of routes there are to the same end-point.

There are those who come to writing through study, others are self-taught; some begin early while others are ‘late-bloomers’; some are lucky enough to find mentors, others go it alone; some begin as teachers, editors or in other word-related professions, others come from lives as accountants or sheep shearers. I take tremendous comfort in knowing there’s more than one way to pack a sack; that just because you haven’t done certain things (like gone to university), doesn’t mean you can’t become a writer; we must each find our own path to the writing life.

Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based freelance writer interested in experimental nonfiction, essays, mental health, body writing, food, and memory. Her collection of personal essays, Eating With My Mouth Open, won the 2019 KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award, and is published by Newsouth Publishing. Sam’s writing has appeared in the Saturday PaperMeanjinThe Big IssueThe Lifted BrowCorditeThe Sydney Review of Books, The Wheeler Centre and others.

I have to question whether I was just always a writer. Is it arrival, or process? A little of both, I suspect.

Libraries

The library in the small town where I grew up was located in a building shared with the local historical society. The building was dark and hard, with bluestone pavers that amplified every step. Clip-clopping my way to the back of the building, where the books were kept, the hush of the place settled over me. This was how I knew libraries were sacred. Even as I got older, and Dad started taking me to the (far larger) Frankston library, the hush there was the same. The reverence for books. The smell of papers. The beeps of checking out and thunks of return date stamps.

Some people become part of the clergy because they’re attracted to the art, the ceremonies, the songs, the rituals. The library was my church.

I have always, always written for myself.

Blogging

I have always, always written for myself. This started as family newsletters (after watching Little Women), and graduated to journals, which were swiftly followed by alarming amounts of alarming poetry during my teens. In 2009, I was part-way through a mostly-miserable BA in which the bright spark was a creative writing unit. I was attending evening classes, with a part-time workload, which left me isolated: the campus life and connections I’d been promised at university weren’t part of my experience in that degree. So I started a blog, where I made my writing public. I wrote about bands I saw, and books I read. I interviewed people I admired, and I wrote about literary events I attended as though it was Hollywood gossip. I shared the things that made me excited, from people who went on to become my friends. I intentionally built a practice.

The blog also gave me a way to introduce myself — something to hang my hat on. It was called Little Girl with a Big Pen, and it was active for some eight years.

I can trace almost every writing opportunity back to blogging in some way.

Blogging was a continuation of writing for myself, but it was also about locating myself within a community. I wanted somewhere to share my thoughts — and then people started sharing theirs, too. I can trace almost every writing opportunity back to blogging in some way. I was invited to review books on a community TV show, where I was lucky to meet fellow readers and came to think seriously about how I might be ‘a critic’. My engagement with other people’s work didn’t just matter to me, but was a part of so many other things: what is my own writing in conversation with? What’s my community? How do we learn? Collectively, of course.

Mentors have shaped my practice and my story in so many ways.

Mentors

There’s a story we have the option to tell ourselves about hard work and tenacity and success. In that story, we get to be the hero, and we get to execute the quest solo. This story is a fiction, and one I do not subscribe to. Mentors have shaped my practice and my story in so many ways.

When I was blogging, I was kindly mentored by fellow book blogger and critic Misha Adair. After interviewing Lisa Dempster for the community TV show, Lisa took me under her wing through the Emerging Writers Festival, where she was director and took me on as an intern. After my first piece of fiction was published, the journal’s fiction editor Laurie Steed helped me find my footing in the writing world – navigating the business as much as the emotional journey. Letting each of these people in took my idea of ‘becoming a writer’ from being about the lone genius in their turret to something more oscillating: writing alone, then letting people in. The only balance I have ever found is to move between these spaces as needed.

When I moved universities to study at RMIT (Creative Writing, 2010-2012 – a far better fit for me than the first uni experience), I let in my peers, and was let in by them: creative exchange turns out to be the lifeblood of making. When I returned for an Honours year (2014) this exchange became far more intentional, disciplined, and essential. The writing of my book, Eating with my Mouth Open, was helped along in a big way by the regular meetings of a writing group of women who each do their own incredible work. More recently, mentorship has been in more formalised settings, with Fiona Wright and Rebecca Giggs, both of whom have shown a great deal of generosity, understanding and care as I clamber my way up to the next stage of my career. All of these mentors and plenty of others have shaped how I work today. Without their kindness and openness, I would have flailed.

Don’t squirrel your work away. Don’t hold onto it until it’s perfect. Don’t hold back for fear of failure. Don’t be alone in this, because you’re not alone. Make the conscious choice to let people in.

Leaning Toward Discomfort

There are two kinds of discomfort that have played a role in my writing life. One is useless: it’s the discomfort I’ve always felt in writing fiction. This discomfort comes from my inability to craft convincing characters and believable story arcs. I guess it was useful in terms of recognising I’m not a fiction writer. My brain simply doesn’t work that way.

The other discomfort is far more fruitful. It’s the discomfort of knowing a topic to be compelling enough to stick with. It’s the rub between the world and my thoughts that drives any essay forward. It’s feeling the need to write things that resist the page (like mental states, taboo topics, and shame — all big factors in Eating with my Mouth Open).

The discomfort also shows up as a fear that I have to keep shoving away. Annie Dillard, in her brilliant book The Writing Life, urges writers to use their good ideas as they arise — ‘The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now,’ she writes. ‘Something more will arise for later, something better.’

Every time I finish something (especially something I feel proud of), I am convinced it’s a magic trick that I’ll never be able to pull off again. This fear convinces me to hold things for later. Leaning toward the discomfort, I use the things as Dillard suggests, and trust that more will come. And it always does.

This is not the end of my story about becoming a writer, because being a writer is becoming a writer: it’s all process.

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Annabel Smith is the author of US bestseller Whiskey & Charlie (published in Australia as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot), digital interactive novel/app The Ark, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. I am currently working on Monkey See, an epic quest with a sci-fi twist featuring a monkey, an evil priestess and the mother of all tsunamis.

One thought on “How to Become a Writer: Sam Van Zweden”

  1. Thanks for that, Sam. I like the idea of discomfort as a factor in writing and love the phrase, “the rub between the world and my thoughts”.

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