Resolutions I sincerely plan to achieve in 2020

I started last year with a pack of lies. Ashley Kalagian Blunt, author
I told you that, because of my chronic fatigue, I wasn’t going to set any genuine new year’s resolutions. Instead, I made a list of absurd resolutions that I intended to fail at –climbing Mt Everest in a Pikachu onesie, catching a serial killer, and growing a third arm.

That last part was true – I didn’t achieve any of those resolutions. I don’t even own a Pikachu onesie.

The insincere part was that, after the first few weeks of having no ‘real’ resolutions, my poor goal-oriented brain got desperate. It loves setting challenges and tracking progress, hence why I can break down my annual reading stats, why I have a list of every book I’ve read in the past 19 years, and why I can show you exactly how many steps I’ve walked since 2018. Tracking my steps is part of my chronic fatigue recovery process; graphing them is not. (But it helps!)

So in mid-January, I quietly skulked off and made a secret three-point plan for the year. It looked like this:

  1. Launch and promote, my first book, My Name Is Revenge
  2. Submit my completed manuscript to publishers ✓
  3. Write the first draft of a new novel, 70-80,000 words

Over the year, I steadily chipped away at all three goals as my fatigue allowed. Some months I could barely do anything, and I let myself be okay with that because I had told everyone that I was planning to fail at my resolutions.

But when I was well enough, I tried to make the most of my energy and work only on those goals. The first two went really well. (And boy do I have the spreadsheets to prove it!)

I made it 50% of the way through goal number 3, meaning I have 40,000 words of a new novel draft. They are 40,000 terrible words, but the machinations of a plot are tangled up inside them.

Normally I’d be disappointed that I didn’t complete all three goals. In fact, I was on track to complete goal number 3 by the end of the year, but something interrupted me. And for once, it wasn’t illness.

But for that news, and the 2020 resolutions that go with it, you’re going to have to wait.

Wishing you an excellent year ahead,
Ashley
xo

 

2019: The reading year in review

In 2019, for the first time in years, I read more fiction (slightly more) than non-fiction. Perhaps, in this third year of illness, I needed to escape more. ‘Everybody should be reading 20 pages of fiction – from a real book – to open or close each day‘, as a way to  increase our empathy, understanding and compassion. This is according to author Neil Pasricha on The Knowledge Project podcast. But why only fiction? Wouldn’t reading memoir have the same effect?

In 2019, I continued to support Australian authors, women authors and debut authors (being all three of those things myself this year).

I also aimed to read more Indigenous authors, and followed through on that (instead of reading a stack of zombie fiction, like I did in 2018).

2019 reading breakdown
47% nonfiction
70% Australian authors
77% women authors
47% debut authors
7% Indigenous authors

 

2019 reading highlights

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (NF) 
In this revelatory survey of early European accounts of Australia, Aboriginal author Bruce Pascoe reveals how complex Indigenous agriculture, architecture and society truly was, and so urges us to reconsider our understanding of Aboriginal civilisation. As he concludes, ‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.’

In the Clearing by JP Pomare
Pomare’s new psychological thriller is a compelling and startling exploration of family, control and violence. The story takes its inspiration from The Family, an Australian cult. Led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne in the 1970s and 80s, The Family was accused of imprisoning children and brainwashing them through the use of drugs and physical punishment, as well as forcing them to dress alike and dye their hair blond to better resemble its leader. The novel’s triumph is its surprising climax, and the way Pomare turns the tables on the reader, raising the question of what any one of us would do to protect our own families – however we define them. Read the full review here

Check out the complete list of great reads.

Wishing you a new year full of great books,
Ashley
xo

Be the fan you wish you had

Writers at Writing NSW
Here’s something I’m ashamed to admit: when I moved to Australia several years ago, I’d never read an Australian author. It wasn’t a purposeful omission. I grew up in small-town Canada, reading mostly Americans and Brits.

It wasn’t the move across the Pacific that changed my habits; it was my decision to pursue writing seriously. I assumed the quality of my writing was the only relevant factor in getting published. It wasn’t, of course, and I learned that at an event at Writing NSW. I’d thought my attendance would be a one-time only commitment: I’ll just spend a day learning about the publishing industry, then go home and get my book published.

I did learn a few industry tips that day but, more importantly, I was introduced to a cornucopia of local writers. This was my first awareness of what Walter Mason referred to as the ‘writing ecosphere’ in his article, ‘How to Be a Literary Citizen’. Mason suggests ways to be a better literary citizen and support the writing community: buy new books — from local bookshops — and read them, subscribe to literary magazines, attend author events, be a fan and campaigner, and embrace generosity.
Screen Shot 2019-11-03 at 4.19.23 pm.png
By the time Mason’s article appeared in Newswrite, I’d at least started reading local authors. But his suggestions made me realise there was much more I could be doing, and maybe it would help me towards getting published, as it did for Mason. I decided to dedicate a year to following his advice: in effect, I’d give this ‘supporting others’ thing a try to see if it would pay off for me.

A lot of Mason’s advice is straightforward and simple. I immediately subscribed to a few literary magazines I’d been reading online. Having their issues show up in my home as physical objects with heft and texture made their contents more memorable (especially compared to the endless blur of online reading). I got a better sense of what I might pitch to each and even did so successfully.

I scrutinised my reading and shopping habits. On the list where I track my ‘books read’, year by year, I began to highlight the Australian authors in yellow. Over the last year, almost every entry has been as close in shade to golden wattle as Microsoft provides.
Now I specifically buy Australian authors. To increase the number of local books I could purchase, I started giving my favourite local authors’ books as gifts. Not sometimes, but for most gifts I give.

When I mailed my sister an autographed copy of Zoë Norton Lodge’s Almost Sincerely, she wrote to say, ‘I adore that you had the author sign it for me. Even if I don’t like it, that makes it a definite keeper!’ She’d never had a signed copy before — maybe lots of people haven’t.

Attending a lot of author events, usually one a week, has taught me what works for me. Let’s be honest: I’m shy and am pretty sure people can see the word ‘awkward’ tattooed on my face. I feel more encouraged at smaller author events, where there’s a better sense of community than at larger festivals.

At library talks and bookshop readings there’s much more opportunity to interact with authors. I’ve made some of my best connections this way, including Walter Mason himself, who I first met at a book launch. But I’ve also been able to meet other attendees who are inspired by the same authors, and even ended up in my current writers’ group due to a connection I made at a writing event.

Mason describes the schedule of help and promotion he keeps, his Spreadsheet of Loving Kindness. I decided to try it for myself. There’s a reason it’s a spreadsheet, I discovered. It takes some organisation to pull off. It wasn’t an organic process, but a plotted one. I compiled a list of people I knew who were doing great things and started going through it person by person.

This was time-consuming. I often left it to the weekend, then scheduled a series of posts for the week. This did get me some social media engagement, and it was a great way to keep on top of all the interesting things my favourite people were doing. But scheduling my posts risked making them routine and predictable. Organisation stripped the spontaneity.

Another of Mason’s key points is to embrace generosity, to ‘be the fan you wish you had’. So, instead of giving up when things get challenging, I need to experiment with ways to bring more spontaneity and fun into my efforts.

At the heart of Mason’s article was the idea that if you’re aiming to get published, your efforts to support the writing ecosphere might end up helping you, as they did for Mason himself — and as they eventually did for me. But beyond getting published, everything else else I’ve gained is even more important to me.

I’ve discovered a community of people I connect with, made wonderful friends, learned a lot and felt inspired. My passion ended up leading me to a job that I love. And I feel more at home in the world and confident in myself. In writing this, there was no other way it could turn out than as a love letter to the Australian writing community.


A version of this article was first published in Newswrite back in 2016, before the chronic fatigue hit. Since then, it’s been hard to get to writing events; evenings are difficult, and my energy can be erratic. I’ve missed so many book launches and author talks. But I’m trying to find ways to become more involved in the community again.

Along with author Amanda Ortlepp, I’ve running a monthly writing meet-up. It’s free, you just need to be a member of Writing NSW. You can rsvp for upcoming dates via my events page. If you’re a Sydney-based writer, it’d be great to meet you there. Otherwise, find me online and say hi!

PS. Walter Mason is doing a talk at the Theosophical Society on 20 November. Check it out!

 

Hollywood’s great kookaburra con

Vivid lights on Sydney Harbour Bridge, blurred24 May 2018 [journal excerpts]
In the latest Jurassic Park, in the first establishing shot of the jungle, there’s the sound of a kookaburra call. We’re supposed to think it’s monkeys. I’ve noticed this in other US films as well. So I finally looked it up online and yes, this a Hollywood trope, the kookaburra call used for jungle scene setting. At some point, some Hollywood sound tech decided that kookaburras sounded more like monkeys than monkeys themselves do, and I was part of a generation raised with that lie.

Steve and I were sitting on the balcony discussing this today when a kookaburra flew right past, laughing! I’ve never seen a kookaburra fly that close to our apartment; usually they’re across the valley at least. But also, the timing.     

1 June 2018
Quite confident the bus driver this morning had never driven a bus before. Or any other vehicle. At one point before the last stop, he looked back, as if to check that everyone had gotten off. He gave me a really heavy look, then turned forward and continued with the route, as if my presence had foiled his plan to abscond with the bus.

4 June 2018
I feel down today. Not fatigued, just disengaged. I don’t know why. Self-doubt, maybe. Phoniness. So many useless feelings. Also there were weevils in my breakfast.

20 June 2018
I hate socks. Does anyone like them? Who wants cloth tubes twisting around their feet and crushing their ankles?

26 June 2018
Conversations about chronic fatigue
Me: It’s hard because I used to be very social and active.
Woman at social gathering: And that’s why you’ve got chronic fatigue.
Me: Uh …

At the pool, Steve swimming, me sitting on the edge.
Neighbour: What’s wrong?
Me: I can’t exercise, I’m sick.
Neighbour: Oh, I thought you’d broken your ankle or something.
Me: I wish.

Me: I’m not at the office much these days because I have chronic fatigue.
Man: Are you a vegetarian? Because I was a vegetarian for ten years and then I got chronic fatigue because I wasn’t getting the right balance of amino acids.
Me: Ah, no, my diet’s fine.
Man: So you’re not getting enough sleep?

I feel compelled to tell people I have a chronic illness because I need to justify to myself my dereliction of life. But it leaves me open to conversations like that. I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve, but now it seems like everything else is pinned there as well. My pancreas, my liver, my endocrine system. Everything. 

 

But have you tried eating mummified flesh?

One of the recovery strategies the doctors gave me for chronic fatigue was tracking my step count as a proxy for the amount of physical activity I can do in a day. “It’s not exact,” one of the doctors said. “You could spend a day on a stool painting a wall, and obviously your steps wouldn’t reflect that.”

I haven’t painted any walls since I got sick. But I have tracked my steps every day since January 2018.
Chronic fatigue syndrome 2019 step count recovery strategy

The first half of the chart shows a clear upward trend. The second half gets messier. There’s a lot more up and down. Some days are great. I broke a new post-illness step count record in September. I just never know when I wake up if it will be a good day or a flu-y, brain-fogged struggle.

I have high and low energy (the ‘boom and bust’ characteristic of chronic fatigue) on a day-to-day level, but I also now seem to have it on a macro level. I’ll have six terrible weeks, and then four pretty good weeks. So depending on when you talk to me, I might say that I’m feeling despondent about how ill I still am, or excited about how much better I’m getting. Both are accurate.

What I am feeling genuinely great about is that I’m alive and ill in Australia in the 2000s, and not in, say, Europe in the 1400s, when the cure-all craze was mummified human flesh.

Medieval Europeans believed that ground up human mummy could be consumed or even applied directly to wounds to cure everything from nausea to epilepsy. It grew so popular that Egypt began to run short of mummies, and entrepreneurs in Europe started taking bodies from cemeteries to create their own mumia.

This completely ineffectual health fad went on for hundreds of years, and I can just imagine, if I’d lived in Europe back then, how many well-intentioned people would have gotten in touch with me to ask if I’d tried treating my chronic fatigue with mumia.

And the thing is, I definitely would have tried it.

 

Thefting by finding

Sedaris Diaries vol 1When I was 14, my aunt gave me a purple journal with Garfield on the cover (the cat, not the president). This indicates how cool I was at 14. Having barely any friends gave me heaps of time to write in my journal. I’ve kept up that habit for more than two decades.

I sometimes wonder what will happen to the diaries when I die. I doubt someone will go back and read them. They’re incredibly boring. When I mentioned this online, author Annabel Smith described her own diaries as ‘right on the boring/excruciating boundary’. I thought that was the perfect description.

I’m a huge fan of American essayist David Sedaris, whose work is hilarious and illuminating. When he came out with Theft by Finding: Diaries Volume One in 2017, however, I thought ‘this feels like too much. Do I really need to read this guy’s diary excerpts?’

I was pretty certain the answer was no. But then I got sick for years and Theft by Finding was released as an audiobook, and I was desperate for entertainment I could consume while lying down with my eyes closed. I was surprised to discover I loved Theft by Finding. It’s become one of my all-time favourite books. Sedaris weaves in his own story, and it’s actually quite interesting (from working odd jobs straight out of high school in his home state of Carolina to art school in Chicago to huge success as an author in New York). But what really makes his diaries is his observations about the world around him. It seemed like a technique worth developing in my own diaries.

To be clear, I think Sedaris’ diary excerpts are brilliant and fascinating and reflect the sociopolitical issues of their times. Whereas mine are mostly things I found entertaining. I started posting a few excerpts. My journals still feature lots of boring/excruciating bits, but thanks to Sedaris, I think there’s a few good bits too.

*

May 14, 2018
Recently I was complaining about houses and dogs having people names like Gerald. Today, a friend mentioned that she’d met someone at work whose name is B’rit. ‘With the apostrophe,’ she said. That’s a bit strange, I replied. ‘My sister went to high school with a girl named Haloumi Sparkles,’ she added. I didn’t get a chance to ask if Sparkles was her middle name or her surname, because someone else cut in.
‘A girl from my high school named her kids Tiger and Sabre.’
A third woman among us topped even that. ‘My dad is a pediatrician and he has a set of twins as patients,’ she said. ‘One is called Bladeinjail, because his dad is in jail for stabbing someone. The other is called Captain Dangles.’

May 29, 2018
There’s a huge billboard advertising a space for lease, near my office. It features an image of a cat with a third eye photoshopped into the centre of its forehead. The cat is giant, the size of a car, and its three eyes stare down at you, as if trying to hypnotise you into leasing the building.  I have been looking for a large commercial and/or office space…

June 1, 2018
Saw a man wearing one red sock and one blue sock. Society is really falling to pieces, with our reliance on fossil fuels, the election of Trump, and now this.

 

Ten (more) best podcasts

Last year I recommended ten podcasts I love. This year I’m still spending a ludicrous amount of time lying down, which means I’m still listening to a lot of podcasts. Chronic fatigue has basically turned me into a podcast curation service.

Here’s ten more I’m sure you’ll enjoy.

  1. The Shrink Next Door
    This six-episode series tells the bizarre true story of a psychiatrist who came to control every aspect of one of his patient’s lives, including moving his family into the patient’s house and making himself president of the patient’s company. It sounds implausible, but the evidence exists to prove every step of the manipulation, as this series shows.
  2. Reply All
    Reply All is a podcast about the internet. This description made me initially sceptical about it, but Reply All isn’t techie or niche. It explores the human experience of using the internet from all kinds of angles. Like in episode 130, when the hosts try to help a listener whose Snapchat account has been hacked, and end up stumbling onto a ring of cybercriminals in Europe.
  3. The Dream
    Told over eleven well scripted episodes featuring a variety of interviews, The Dream explores multi-level marketing, why so many people get involved with it, and how it’s nothing more than legalised pyramid scheming. At the start of season one, the host signs up to a multi-level marketing company, and everything unravels for her as she tries to make back the money she spent.
  4. Missing Richard Simmons
    This six-part series from Dan Taberski explores the abrupt and mysterious withdrawal of Richard Simmons from public – and seemingly private – life. I didn’t know or care much about Simmons before listening to the podcast, but Taberski is an excellent storyteller, and has a good sense of humour as well. He draws listeners through the series by creating mystery and empathy around Simmons.
    Taberski followed up this series with two more: Surviving Y2K, which weaves together various stories that centred on New Year’s Eve 1999, and Running from Cops, which examines the cultural impacts of the reality series Cops. All three series are absorbing and distinct.
  5. Mobituaries
    A comedian named Mo Rocca is obsessed with obituaries. This doesn’t sound like a compelling concept, but Mo excels at weaving history and facts into fascinating stories. Plus, his obits are inventive. In one episode he tells the story of a JFK impersonator whose career ended with the real president’s assassination. Another looks at the demise of the Neanderthals (and the surprising fact that many people today have some Neanderthal DNA). My favourite is the story of a pair of conjoined twins from Thailand, the original “Siamese” twins, their brush with the American dream, and how they negotiated daily life between the two women they married.
  6. Root of Evil
    I listen and read to a lot of crime stories, and this was the most fascinating true crime case I’ve ever encountered, anywhere. The podcast weaves together two interconnected narratives: a cold case investigation into the Black Dahlia murder, which took place in Los Angeles, 1947; and the story of the intergenerational trauma experienced by the Hodel family. The murder storyline and its investigation are more interesting, although the family storyline adds depth to the series. The Black Dahlia murder is bizarre, but the theory of the crime put forward here was one of the most startling, insane things I’ve ever heard.
  7. Bear Brook
    A short but impressively told documentary crime series that begins in the New Hampshire woods, in 1985, with the discovery of two barrels containing four bodies. Investigations are still revealing new information about this case 34 years later. I especially love true crime podcasts, and Bear Brook is the most impressive of all the ones I’ve listened to, both because of the fascinating way the investigation unfolds, and the superior storytelling skills of its host, Jason Moon.
  8. Direct Appeal
    Like Serial, Direct Appeal explores a single murder trial to consider the possibility of a wrongful conviction. “For the last 13 years, Melanie McGuire has been serving a life sentence for the murder and dismemberment of her husband, whose body was found in three suitcases in the Chesapeake Bay.” Criminologists Meghan Sacks and Amy Shlosberg examine the evidence, including their own interviews with Melanie. It took me a bit to get used to the rapid-fire way the hosts talk, but I’ve come to love the show as much for their charismatic interaction as for the gritty, baffling details of the case.
  9. Crime Junkie
    Every week, Crime Junkee summarises a major crime story, including cold cases, serial killers, murders and missing persons. The host delivers the story in a chatty style, while her (largely superfluous) producer provides personal reactions. They often cover less infamous cases, like American serial killer Herb Baumeister, who kept a bunch of mannequins posed around his indoor pool so he could pretend he was having pool parties, and also killed as many as 21 men.
  10. Invisibilia
    This podcast uses documentary-style interviews and storytelling to examine the unseen forces that shape ideas, beliefs and assumptions. Season 4 featured a two-part series on how the human brain processes emotions that was especially interesting.

Bonus: My favourite podcast is still Everything is Alive. Each episode features a scripted interview with an inanimate object, as well as a phone call to an actual person or organisation that is always peculiar and fascinating. All the episodes are enjoyable (and one features Sydney comedian Jennifer Wong playing a copy of The Canberra Times from 24 October 1988). But my absolute favourite episode is Connor, a portrait of US President William Taft. It’s both humorous and incisive, and it features the best monologue on bread you will ever hear.

PS. I’m speaking about my own crime book, My Name Is Revenge, in Brisbane on Wednesday 24 July. If you’re in the area, join us!

 

Like floating in space, but wet

My doctors advised me to manage my chronic fatigue recovery by taking frequent rests throughout the day. This is fine if I’m home, where there’s no people buzzing around, where I can put on my eye mask and if necessary, noise-cancelling headphones. When I’m not home, it’s harder to actually rest. And sometimes it’s not possible to be home every three hours.

One thing I used to find wonderfully restful was getting a massage. Technically I can still get a massage, but it will leave me as exhausted as if I went for a run. (Obvious conclusion: having a massage is a form of exercise.)

So I’ve been looking for restful alternatives. Which is how I discovered the sleep pod.
Sleep pod in a hotel business loungeI found this particular sleep pod at a Brisbane hotel. The hotel was so futuristic, my room didn’t have light switches (light switches are so 20th century). Instead it had a smartphone on which you could set ‘moods’ for your room. Except that when I arrived, the smartphone battery was dead, so the mood of my room was ‘put your makeup on in the dark’.

The sleep pod was in the business lounge. Sure, I could have rested in my actual hotel room, but the pod promised executive-quality power napping. This turns out to mean that you get in, the pod reclines and vibrates mildly, and some blue lights inside the pod bit imply that your nap is futuristic.

I give the sleep pod a D+.

Next I tried a float tank, also called a sensory deprivation tank. Float tanks are filled with salt water, so you can float like you’re at the Dead Sea, except without all the slick mud and tourists taking photos. So maybe it’s more like floating in space, but wet.
A float tank in a float tank centre
You spend an hour in the tank, floating total darkness and blissful quiet, trying not to get salt water in your eyes.

I give the float tank a B+.

Is it more relaxing than napping in a sunbeam on my own couch with an eye mask and noise-cancelling headphones? No. Sunbeam naps at home are a solid A+.

If I’ve become an expert in anything in the past few years, it’s napping, and this is my expert recommendation. Nap at home, in your pyjamas, with the whole world blocked out by eye masks and headphones and layers of blankets, even if it means you’ll spend far more time there than you ever expected or wanted to.

 

 

So now you’re an author

When I was seven, my school published a story I’d written in a collection called Young Saskatchewan Writers. (My family lived in Moose Jaw, so I was Saskatchewanian.) It was a one-paragraph story about a wizard who turned some school kids into frogs.

Seeing my name in that book made me think I actually was a writer, or at least would be some day. I started a novel when I was fourteen, and another when I was eighteen. The first was speculative fiction about killer bees from Mars; the second was apocalyptic magical realism. (All I can say is, thank goodness self-publishing was not so widely accessible back then.)

There were a few years in my twenties when I didn’t write anything but journals, mostly because I was living in Peru and Mexico, and spending my time learning Spanish.

I returned to writing seriously in 2010. I applied for an arts grant, and somehow got it. Around that time, I read a book in which the author mentioned that it took 10 years for her project to go from idea to publication. I found this ridiculous. There was no way my book would take that long.

Almost exactly ten years later, my first book came out. I was 35. Author with stacks of books, My Name Is RevengeWhich is to say, this was a major life goal of mine that I worked very hard on for many years, and achieving it felt really good. And lots of great things have happened since my book came out.

Here I am at Sydney Writers’ Festival with essayists Fiona Wright and Luke Carman, whose new collections explore the impacts of chronic illness. It was a bit intimidating to get up on stage with such skilled, established authors. But it went well, I think. IMG_1463.JPGAfter the talk, all three of us went to the signing tables. I’d joked about how, because I was the panel moderator, no one would come to have my book signed – no one ever goes to see the moderator. And I was right! I sat there all alone while people lined up with Fiona and Luke’s books. It felt like a rite of passage.

Since my book has come out, I also had the pleasure of speaking to Claudine Tinellis, who hosts the podcast Talking Aussie Books about writing Revenge and tips for writers.

I made my first book club appearance, with this incredible group of Armenian women. This was delightful, not only because they had all read the book and we had a robust, three-hour discussion about Armenian identity, but also because it was like being with my aunts and cousins.  Armenian Book Club with copies of My Name Is RevengeAnd I was invited to appear at the NSW Dickens Society annual conference with the wonderful Walter Mason. This time, I signed some books!Literary conference panel from NSW Dickens Society
And I have more events coming up, in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

Chronic fatigue has made all this challenging. My events have gone well, but I usually go straight to bed after, sometimes feeling like my head’s being crushed in a vice. But I’m still grateful I get to do it. I know people with chronic illnesses who aren’t well enough to even attend events, let alone speak at them. And I know lots of writers who have been working on their manuscripts for many years, hoping to see them published.

What I’ve learned is you have no idea what’s going to happen: a random illness, a book publication that you didn’t even write as a book. Anything, apparently.

Hoping good things happen for you,
Ashley x