Sara Cavaiuolo

Sara looking upwards with he hands held to her chest. She has short dark hair and round-framed glasses.

Sara Cavaiuolo is an amateur writer and photographic artist. Her work centres around memory, incidental statements, and domestic objects, compounded into precariously constructed images and text, and loose, short narrative. Sara shirks vulnerability, using stilted humour and self- critique.

What can you tell us about your winning story?

As I write most things, I wrote it very quickly, in a bit of a blur. I always turn the text colour white when I type, so I can’t see and can’t edit what I’m writing. From there, I gave it two or three days and then looked back and started to piece things together.

I’m not very sequential. I like making scrap-sheets of different things and asking myself where they fit.

What inspired it?

Normally, when you think about something terrible happening, you think about the split second but you don’t think about how it’s really a bunch of seconds. I was trying to capture that weird feeling of being always on edge, what it’s like to be in that state for a long time, and how that starts to affect the rest of your life day-to-day.

I was diagnosed with anxiety that got a lot worse. I felt really strange and was constantly shaking my hands. It was weird to constantly ask: what can I trust, what can’t I trust? I realised that lack of trust was growing and invading – even while I was in a very safe environment at the time, sitting at home. When it feels like you have so much fear, you need a place to focus it.

Do you explore similar themes in the rest of your arts practice?

In my arts practice, I do a lot of comedy. It’s a kind of comedy that’s a bit weird, that feels so ridiculous you just have to laugh at it. Like when I painted my dad’s hand green, put a frozen cherry on my nose and covered half the wall in black velvet.

It’s about how you convey that weird sense of unease. Because it’s ridiculous, right? Like being terrified like you’re suddenly developing an allergy to mangos or something, because you read somewhere that people who had hay-fever are more likely to be allergic to mangos and then fully believe it for six months.

Your practice crosses many different art forms. What drives you to write and make art?

I’ve always liked writing. I was always in the high school and uni writers’ clubs. But I’ve never been able to write very long works. I struggle with writing more than a couple of pages, because it gets quite myopic. What drew me to the Mindshare competition was that it was short-form, so I could focus.

I think that’s the same with my photography (which is my primary artform), in that there’s a speed to it, and a need to capture everything at the same time. I took a picture of the lint catcher in the dryer because I was afraid of lint for a while, of breathing it in and coughing. By photographing it, I could go: “I’ve got you. I’ve captured you, you’re still now.”

It’s a way of framing and capturing things. I used to shy away from the fact that photography had that weird controlling aspect. It’s always uncomfortable when you’re taking a portrait of someone, because you constantly have to try to mitigate that – especially now that people are very aware of their image and how they’re perceived (which is a good thing). Having that literacy is something that a lot of people didn’t have 30 or 40 years ago.

For the stuff that scares you, if you take a picture of it, it’s there. In writing, it’s nice that you can turn it into a bit of a narrative too. There’s also that kind of drive to say: “I’ve made something. It’s been worth it.”

A photograph of a brick and tile house in a wooden frame.
‘A house of the man that killed my cat: unproven’ by Sara Cavaiuolo

‘A house of the man that killed my cat: unproven’ is a picture of a house in a frame. When one of my family cats died five years ago, someone answered our lost cat poster to let us know he thought the man in the house behind them had been poisoning cats. We couldn’t prove it, so I took a picture of the house and put it in a photo frame in my home amongst all the family photos, as a way of going “I own that now”. Even though I’ll never get justice, it’s been taken in. Sometimes, that’s all you’ve got, really – how you react to something, even if you can’t change it. We’re learning that collectively at the moment, as a world.

How do you incorporate writing into the rest of your life?

At the moment, I’m studying fine art and photography and do a lot of hospo work. The good part of working in kitchens is that you constantly move quickly through the same processes, and have to be really aware of the next thing that’s happening and what’s happening behind and in front of you. I think it’s really conducive to being in a heightened state all of the time.

Who have you been most inspired or influenced by?

My favourite short story writer at the moment is Etgar Keret. He’s really good. I really like the anecdote where he says: “The first short story I ever wrote, I gave it to my older brother and he used it to wipe the grease away from his fish and chips.”

And he says something like: “I like not knowing where a story will end. If I already know it, I don’t want to write it.” That really scared me, but it’s true. Because if you’ve already resolved it in your head, then it feels a bit boring. I think that’s why I like writing really short stuff, because I won’t be able to figure out as much before the end.

What sort of things have helped you on your way?

To be honest, I think I have less barriers than most people.

Being at art school. I am very grateful to be studying (not thinking about HECS).

High school English teachers. I was talking to an English teacher last night, which made me think you always remember them more than you do other teachers. They always have bigger personalities.

Always having access to books. Learning how to read by reading the books of Narnia.

Being able to go to State Libraries. I try to go to the State Library every Sunday and read a photo book or another book. It feels like you’re in a cathedral for writing when you go to a State Library. Surrounding yourself with the words of other people, it’s like you can feel them by osmosis.

When I was 16, I did one of the youth workshops with Writers SA, where one of the guys said: “you’re 16, wow, that’s really surprising, I’m really amazed.” When you’re younger and you want to be taken seriously, that always feels good to hear.

What’s your dream for your artistic career?

Ideally, in 20 years, I’d love to be making a living as an artist. Realistically, to continue to work on the arts in some capacity and do that sustainably is the thing that I’m trying to get to – to find something you can feel like you can do without burning out. It’s really easy as an artist to give it your all, but it’s harder to know when to pull back, or to figure out how to do that over a longer period.

What advice would you give other artists or writers who are just starting out?

Show people your work. Writing is weirdly personal, so find people you trust.

Try to join writing communities – even if they’re online. Often, writing communities can be weird rooms of people full of the strongest opinions ever. Showing people your stuff, and feeling comfortable with that, is the hardest step.

Make zines or small publications to share your work with your friends. Printing things up in a physical form is really gratifying. You can print out a booklet at Officeworks for $3, and then you have something to share.

You can read Sara’s winning story at https://mindshare.org.au/writing/sugar-glass/