9 August 2016

Meet the Scribe Nonfiction Prize Shortlist: Sam Robertson

In the lead up to announcing the winner of The 2016 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers, we’re introducing you to every talented young writer on our shortlist.  Read on for more information on their work, writing journeys, and all their tips, tricks and advice for budding young non-fic creators.

Sam Robertson-photo (002)

Sam Robertson – Containing Multitudes

Age: 26

How did you begin writing? In year six I plagiarised a short story, word for word, by a well-known Australian children’s author. When I read it aloud a man-child pointed to me and said, “Hey! That’s Andy Griffiths!” I obviously wasn’t the only person to have read ‘In the Shower with Andy.’ Told to put the creative in creative writing, I wrote a short story about my grandmother force-feeding me chicken with peanut butter and vegemite sauce. It was based on a story that my cousins had told me.

What’s your favourite work of nonfiction? The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. I like writers who investigate ideas that you may have never thought about, or only dimly intuited, and bring clarity, rigour, and insight to the issue. Carr does this for the internet, and the ways in which it shapes how we think, read, and remember. It’s an effortless blend of historical and contemporary narratives, and he clearly explains the human impact of a technology that we would otherwise take for granted. The Shallows was the gold standard I had in mind when I wrote my piece for Scribe.

Why do you write nonfiction? In fiction you have to create a world from scratch, but in non-fiction the world already exists in high definition. You just have to pay close and careful attention to the small details that are all around us, hidden in plain sight.

Tell us a bit about your submission to the Scribe Prize: There’s this great passage in ‘Songs of Myself’ by Walt Whitman. He writes, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself / I am large, I contain multitudes.” Whitman was referring to the irreducible complexity of the individual, which he hoped to glimpse in his poetry. That’s the task of any artist. If we accept that one individual contains multitudes, then the task of understanding this complexity across hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, millions is impossible. Yet this is precisely what is happening in the data revolution: aggregating millions of data points—people—in order to glean insight. My essay is looking at what happens when you pass multitudes through the big data sausage machine.

Why did you choose to write it? When I began interviewing big data experts, I was impressed by the truly mind-bending possibilities of analysing a whole universe of information. But I also felt uneasy by the way in which they viewed aggregation as a singular solution to all the world’s issues. More than anything, those conversations struck a personal chord. Both my day job as a qualitative market researcher, and my moonlighting as a writer, are based on a deep understanding of the individual. Intuitively it felt like those methods of enquiry did have value, they just spoke a different language. That started me down the path of considering what we stand to lose in a society that increasingly mythologises the aggregate and marginalises the individual.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? And the worst? Back in the day when choir was compulsory, our teacher used to say, “once more, with feeling.” That’s a good mindset when you begin a new draft. Prescriptive advice is bad advice. Anything beginning with “thou shalt not” is highly dubious.

What piece of work, published or unpublished, are you most proud of? ‘Inpmobai is Nothing.’ It was published in Voiceworks #97.