The secret to fighting project inertia

Recently I was invited to be a guest author at the Sutherland Shire Fellowship of Australian Writers, who are an absolutely lovely bunch of people.

You don’t need to take my word for it. Just look at the How to Be Australian themed afternoon tea they put on.

If you’re wondering, I didn’t have an iced vovo. I was busy digging into the salted caramel slices, which were perfectly chewy and had no dessicated coconut in the base! A++

And in honour of the event, I wore my caramel slice earrings. I’m very on brand.

As the guest author, I decided to share some of the advice I’ve learned over the ten years I’ve been steadily developing my writing process and industry expertise.

I talked about trusting the processing, about learning to be your own editor, and about the importance of regular feedback from informed readers (ie other writers).

I also talked about project inertia.

This is what I’ve come to call the feeling when a project stalls, when I’m not working on it (for whatever reason, some more excusable than others) and then feel a lot resistance when I try to get back into it.

authors-ashley-kalagian-blunt-and-dinuka-mckenzie
With author Dinuka McKenzie, winner of the 2020 Banjo Prize

I began my current manuscript in July 2019 and it’s been through a few serious bouts of project inertia. I had to spend several months editing How to Be Australian. Then I had a two-month stretch of terrible fatigue in early 2020. (That happened right before covid hit, so I spent two months cancelling plans and staying home, and then as soon as I started to feel better, we were suddenly in lockdown.) Then I spent a couple of months doing book publicity, and then I had another 10-week stretch of fatigue.

After each of these long breaks, I really struggled to get back into my new manuscript. I felt distant from the project, and a bit overwhelmed, and there was always something else to keep me busy.

A standard creative writing tip is to write every day. For a long time, I disagreed with this. In fact, I was asked in a Q&A from the Wheeler Centre, “What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?” I said:

One common piece of advice is to write every day. This is nonsense. I’ve been writing seriously for the past ten years, and I’ve never managed to write every day. I have, however, interviewed more than 140 people, completed two Masters theses, written four manuscripts and published two of them. Most of that time I also had a day job, and for almost four years I’ve had a debilitating illness. Better advice: write when you can, write what excites you, keep going.

But.

In October last year, when I was really struggling to get into my manuscript draft for the fourth time, I was lucky enough to interview author Kate Mildenhall.

Kate talked about her writing process and the process journal she keeps, documenting all her thoughts around the project and its development as she goes. We also talked about writing practice, and writers who write every day.

So I decided to try it. Both the process journal and this crazy writing every day thing. I committed to working on the manuscript for at least 15 minutes every day for a month.

And seven months later, I’m still doing it, for one amazing reason: no more project inertia.

I still greatly prefer to sit down and work on my writing for at least an hour at a time, ideally two or three. I can’t get much done in 15 minutes.

But it is exceptionally helpful to create a habit of sitting down and the computer, opening the file, and getting my head into the manuscript. This means when I am able to sit down for a longer stretch, I can get straight into it.

I still miss one or two days a month, almost always because of the fatigue. But otherwise, I keep myself accountable in my process journal.

And I’ve made huge progress since that October commitment. Then I only had 45,000 words of a first draft. Now I’ve completed that draft, used it to develop a 15,000-word scene-by-scene outline, and am already 25,000 words into a new draft.

How to Be Australian Kalagian Blunt

So now I’ve started suggesting writing daily. Fifteen minutes a day can lead to a surprising amount of of progress, and spare a lot of the torture of project inertia.

I wish someone had told me that ten years ago!

The Cyclops Horse and other monsters

Steve and I are eating vegan this February, so on the 14th we celebrated what is now known as Vegantine’s Day.

Normally we don’t do much (sometimes the best gift is low expectations). But since the Chau Chak Wing Museum recently opened at the University of Sydney, Steve suggested visiting it together.

It turned out the museum cafe had vegan desserts! It also turned out they were not tasty.

I had no expectations of the museum, and I suppose in that way, it didn’t disappoint me. While it features many historically significant artefacts and culturally significant First Nations artworks, the Chau Chak Wing Museum is also full of monsters.

Check out these little terrors.

This pair of palm cockatoos have been haunting nightmares since 1788. Their latin name is proboscigers, and a fun fact is that their cheek colour “changes according to mood and health”, just like with humans. For example, the colour of these two birds’ cheeks indicates they’re dead.

So Steve and I are wandering around this museum, which is filled with taxidermied animals, Egyptian mummies, Etruscan pottery – you know, museum stuff – and then I spot this front and centre in a display cabinet.

It’s between two pieces of pottery, but unlike the pottery, it’s not immediately obvious what the thing is or how it’s earned shelf space in what is not a particularly large museum.

I examined this fur-covered object from every angle. It seemed vaguely familiar, yet hideously unknown. Finally, I located its identifying sign.

Are you ready?

IT’S THE TAXIDERMIED HEAD OF A CYCLOPS PONY.

Yeah, you read that right. Back in 1758, someone taxidermied the partial head of a deformed pony, and eighty-three years later, in 1841, some other weirdo decided it belonged in a museum.

Its sign reads, “Cyclopism is a relatively common birth defect in mammals: the two eye sockets do not form separately but fuse to create the appearance of a single eye.”

Which is strange justification for including the cyclops pony among the bronze-age spears and butterfly specimens. Also, if cyclopsism is so common in mammals, how come we don’t see more people with optic blast powers?

Other monstrosities include a fruit bat who wants to flash you:

A memorial to eclectus parrots (I doubt there’s any left in the wild at this rate):

And a two-dimensional platypus who looks well over it (granted, you wouldn’t look great if you’d been bathing in formaldehyde since 1799):

You can also find out what the Parthenon would look like if the Greeks had built it inside a disco.

And here it is, possibly the worst monster of all – the graphintegrator!

The graphintegrator is, according to a sign, “a mechanical device for solving differential equations in graphical form”. But I’m pretty sure it’s also a Batman villain.

Lesser Monsters of the Chau Chak Wing Museum include this pangolin. Last year I became obsessed with them, which is how I discovered that if you search the term pangolin too often on Instagram, your account will get flagged.

You might not think this little spotted kiwi is a monster, until you find out it used its own mother’s tax file number to commit identify theft.

Last and strippiest, a Tasmanian tiger with real cute eyes.

When we visited Tassie a few years ago (yes, that trip where I utterly failed to climb Cradle Mountain), Steve said that he planned to find a Tassie tiger. Despite being classified as extinct, there’s still rumours of sightings. I spent the whole trip shouting, “Quick, look, there’s a Tassie tiger!” and then telling Steve it was right behind him.

Would I recommend visiting the Chau Chak Wing Museum? Let me ask you this – where else can you see the distingeatrating remains of a cyclops pony head?

After the museum, you can also say hello to everyone’s favourite roogoyle (who of course features in How to Be Australian).

And don’t forget this other classic University of Sydney highlight, the Vice-Chancellor’s Lawn!

PS. If you haven’t heard, My Name Is Revenge is now available in audiobook. Sign up for my newsletter for your chance to get a free copy!

Canada vs Australia triple-layered dessert face-off

Caramel kiss

Canada doesn’t have caramel slices. At least, not exactly. When I was growing up, my mom made a dessert called Eagle Brand squares.

These had a graham cracker base (a kind of sweet plain biscuit), not ground up but simply dropped into the pan, like floor tiles. The middle was a sort of oozy, pale caramel made from Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk, and the top was chocolate.

We had this after-dinner dessert on rotation with a few others, including marshmallow dream squares (chocolate cake base, mini-marshmallow centre and chocolate topping) and whatever it’s called when you coat rainbow mini-marshmallows in chocolate and refrigerate it.

Nostalgia might be a factor in my adult self’s love of caramel slices. That and lifelong sugar addiction.

What Canada lacks in caramel slices, it makes up for in Nanaimo bars. This is a national tragedy.
Stacks of Nanaimo bars
Nanaimo bars (I don’t know why this Winnipeg cafe calls them ‘squares’, this is patently wrong) are named after a small city on Vancouver Island. Their main insult is a middle layer of  custard. Usually the custard is bright yellow, but it can be neon green or even pink. What this has to do with Nanaimo, I don’t know. Maybe it’s custard capital of Canada.

My family never made Nanaimo bars, but whenever I went to potlucks or community events as a kid, there was always a tray of them waiting to disappoint. The base was crumbled nuts and and coconut, and the custard was slimy. The only part worth eating was the chocolate, so I would scrape that off and discard the rest, thinking I was being sneaky.

Discovering caramel slices in Australia felt like the universe making up for a childhood full of Nanaimo bars.  When I wrote my memoir of moving to Sydney, I included a lot of caramel slice references, particularly once I discovered that the caramel slice is as Australian as lamingtons, Anzac biscuits and fairy bread.

If you’re keen to hear more discoveries from expat life in Australia, join me for an online author talk with Katherine Tamiko Arguile. Thursday 1 October, 11am AEST (10:30am Adelaide time) RSVP here >>

Author headshot and book cover

An overdue caramel slice confession

Caramel slice at the beach

Since How to Be Australian was released in June, I’ve been waiting for someone to point out the book’s glaring inconsistency.  Caramel slice at the beachIt started when I first arrived in Sydney. One of my favourite discoveries was caramel slices, and particularly their wide abundancy at cafes everywhere.

Australia is a country that takes its desserts seriously, as evidenced by the existence of a one-dollar coin featuring Iced VoVos. This is actual Australian currency.
Iced Vovo one dollar gold coin
Yet while I learned about the Aussie origins of lamingtons, fairy bread and pavlova soon after arriving, it took almost a decade before I learned the Down Under origins of the caramel slice.

The first known caramel slice recipe appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly in October 1970 under the name caramel shortbread.
Variety of desserts on platter and jug, cups and saucersScotland understood how amazing caramel shortbread was, because a couple of decades later, the recipe became popular there under the name millionaire’s shortbread.

While that name gives you no indication of what’s in the dessert, I appreciate the implication it’s a dessert of millionaires.

In Australia, I’m not sure when the name shifted from caramel shortbread to caramel slice, but this Google Ngram shows the steep rise in the term’s use.
Caramel slice Ngram graph
You can see I’ve done my research. After the book came out, I found myself talking about caramel slice a lot.

I ended up in a cross-country caramel slice showdown with author Monique Mulligan. (She won easily, since her slice was homemade.)
Laptop and caramel slice
Readers made caramel slice and dropped it off at my home.
Homemade caramel slice on booksAnd author Josephine Taylor created an incredible deconstructed caramel slice decorated with grevillea blossoms in honour of the book. (She has a weekly project pairing newly released books with homemade desserts, check it out.)
Deconstructed caramel slice and How to Be Australian
I’ve even started to incorporate caramel slices into my wardrobe. Check out these earrings, which were a hot tip from another lovely reader.
Caramel slice earringsWhen I started giving author talks, I was using this photo from my own archives. I reckon this caramel slice is perfect. It has a significant layer of chocolate, not too thin, an ideal consistency in the caramel, and a chocolate crumble base with – notably – no dessicated coconut. Caramel slice with creamA reader who attended that talk pointed out that a proper caramel slice shouldn’t have a chocolate base.

But so far no-one has pointed out the inconsistency in the book, which is that while I love caramel slices, I strongly dislike dessicated coconut. I refuse to eat both Iced Vovos and lamingtons because of it. Look at this coconutty mess smothering otherwise delicious cake. Bowl of lamingtonsI’ve been prepared to defend myself on this, to insist that the dried-up coconut nubs in the base of caramel slices are negligible (though still unpleasant and woefully unnecessary), and that I’m very much aware of them, but my love of caramel slices overcomes my dislike of dessicated coconut in this instance (even if sometimes, when I’m alone, I eat the base first so I can enjoy the chocolate and caramel without the pesky interference of other ingredients, proving I haven’t matured much since childhood).

So far no readers have challenged me on this very important and serious matter, nor has it come up in any reviews. But I’m bracing for it. Like I said, we take our desserts seriously here.

 

Order How to Be Australian now from
Your local bookshop | Booktopia | Amazon | Outside Australia

Cross-country caramel slice showdown

When WA author Monique Mulligan prepares for an author interview, she really prepares.

And by that I mean she convinces her husband to go to the shops for condensed milk so she can make homemade caramel slice. Look at these beauties.pile of caramel slices Monique interviewed me for the Koorliny Arts Centre’s program Live: Stories on Stage this week, and she was definitely in the spirit of How to Be Australian.

Her baking prowess made me realise I’ve never made caramel slice. It also made me realise there’s a good reason for that: I would eat the whole pan in a day. As much as I’m a strong advocate for Australia embracing its place in world history as the homeland of the caramel slice, I’m also aware that too much caramel will one day give me diabetes.

Instead I bought a single gigantic caramel slice from a local cafe. What it lacks in flavour it makes up for in size.
Laptop and caramel sliceMonique shared her own experience of moving from Sydney to Perth. She also asked some excellent questions, including how I would convince Canadians to visit Australia once we can all travel again. The answer to that is four simple words: “Australia – now spider-free!”

(Technically Australia isn’t spider-free, but that discovery can be part of the fun once visitors arrive and walk into a human-sized golden-orb spider web.)

She also asked if she were going to move to Winnipeg for a year, what three things would she need to know. One of my key tips is about driving in snow.

Swirling snow decreases visibility and the streets get icy slick unless the gravel trucks have been around to spray grit at the intersections. The key rule in these circumstances is to never slam your brakes. Slamming your brakes causes your tires to lock. When that happens, your vehicle becomes a two-ton metal cannonball on an unknown trajectory and you’re just along for the ride. When driving on ice, you’re meant to triple your braking distance and pump your brakes gently, like you’re giving CPR to a baby with your foot. Caramel Slice on How to Be AustralianOne of our audience members also asked how my husband feels about being a central character in the book, and if he had veto power, which is an excellent question. Steve told me that he didn’t want to read the book because, to quote, “I was there, I don’t need to read it”. But I made him read it anyway, because that’s what marriage is about.

Order How to Be Australian now from
Your local bookshop | Booktopia | Amazon | Outside Australia

 

When life gives you lemonades … just eat them

Woman holds Romanesco cauliflower
Remember back in January, when many of us made new year’s resolutions, as if 2020 was going to be any old year where we could make plans and go about our everyday lives?

I found this especially ironic because, back in 2019, I made a list of resolutions that I planned to fail at (and I did an amazing job of that). In 2020 however, I made a list of genuine resolutions that I earnestly planned to follow.

One of my resolutions was to ask better questions, advice I took from author David Sedaris. My plan was, when I was out and about interacting with people, to try to ask interesting and random questions a few times a week, just to see what people might tell me. This meant breaking out of the usual polite script we use for interactions, which was a good personal challenging.

I’d started getting in a bit of a rhythm with this, and was delighted by many of the resulting interactions. Often people are really keen to talk and have something interesting to tell you, if you give them a chance.

After months of lockdown though, I’ve found this impulse has shut down, and my interactions are really stitled, especially as I’m still not going out much.

But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about my latest Australiana discovery – lemonades!
4 Lemona
Keen followers of this site will remember that back in January, I asked a fruit store cashier about the strangest fruit they stock, and she got all excited telling me about lemonades, a type of lemon that tastes exactly like lemonade.

I promised to follow up the tip, and here we are.
More lemonades
I went back to the fruit shop and found these beauties.

As my mom observed, lemonades look like lemons crossed with oranges. They’re rounder, and their skin is mottled. According to a random produce website, this fruit is “a hybrid cross between a Meyer lemon and New Zealand grapefruit, though some claim it is a cross of a lemon and a mandarin”.
Woman cuts lemonades in kitchen
Wikipedia claims lemonades were “discovered” in New Zealand in the 1980s, so technically speaking they’re not Australian. But apparently they’re grown here, so I’m counting them among my Australian discoveries.

(Side note: I recently found out that some Aussies call magpies “maggies” and I think that is fabulous.)

You can eat a lemonade just like you would an orange. They’re sweet with a lemony tang. I’ve personally eaten a few bagfuls.

And when I was out searching for lemonades, I also discovered this beast.
Romanesco cauliflower on cutting board
If I’d gone to the store with my usual shopping list, in my usual frame of mind, I might have missed it. But because I was on the lookout for something new, I spotted the one and only monster cauliflower and immediately had to have it.

Turns out it’s a romanesco, a cross between cauliflower and broccoli. I wanted to keep it as a pet, I loved it so much. But it was going a bit off, as you can see on some of the tips, so I whipped it up into one of my favourite recipes, and it was delish.
bowl of cauliflower soup on table
Next time you’re in the produce section, I highly recommend asking what strange and offbeat fruit and veg might appear on the shelves. Unless you’re someone who already knows all about strange fruit and veg, in which case, please tell me about it!

If you enjoyed this post, you’d definitely enjoy one of my upcoming author talks. I’d love to see you there!

Ashley
xo

 

Fancy a eucalyptini?

Orange-based cocktail with dried orange slicesWhen I said I wanted to create a cocktail for the launch of my new memoir, How to Be Australian, a friend suggested I could just ‘chuck a couple of the eucalyptus balls you buy from the chemist into a glass of vodka. Wouldn’t taste very nice, but it’s definitely Australian!’*

If you don’t fancy a eucalyptini, let me suggest one of the following. These creations all pair perfectly with How to Be Australian. I highly recommend them for book club gatherings.**

Lemon Myrtletini
15 ml lemon myrtle liquor
30 ml Manly Spirits gin
Mix (or shake over ice) and add a squeeze of lime. 

lemon cocktail with lime, wood cutting boardSweet ‘n’ Stormy 
60 ml rum
90 ml Passiona
15 ml lime juice
1 passionfruit
Fill a tall glass with ice cubes. Add rum.
Pour in ginger beer, add passionfruit and lime juice, stir.
Garnish with a lime wedge.

The Caramel Slice
45 ml caramel liqueur
15 ml crème de cacao
30 ml cream
30 ml milk
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice, shake well. Strain into a glass and top with crushed sweet biscuits. Garnish with caramel sauce.

And if you’re in a book club, pair these cocktails with the free discussion guide – and invite me along! I’m happy to Zoom/Skype into any book club meeting. You can contact me directly.

How to Be Australian Book cover

*Seriously, do not try that, you might go blind.
**It’s a good idea to drink responsibly in general (or so I’ve been told).

 

Launched!

Author speaks to crowd at My Name Is Revenge book launch
We launched My Name Is Revenge on April 10. The crowd was amazing, and the signing line-up lasted for practically the entire event. My husband Steve was MC, and he introduced the guest of honour, author Emily Maguire.
Emily 2
In Emily’s speech, she described the first time she learned about the Armenian genocide, about ten years ago. Flipping through a library book, she saw Arshile Gorky’s painting, The Artist and His Mother. Gorky was a survivor of the genocide, the caption in the book informed her. She’d never heard of it. That evening she had dinner with a group of artists, and asked them about it. Some had heard of it, but no-one could give her any specifics.

She connected this to Hitler’s infamous 1939 quote, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ and she described My Name is Revenge as ‘a gut punch of a book, a necessary and urgent shout back to the silence’.

I wrote this book for people like Emily, who may know little or nothing about the genocide simply because it hasn’t been spoken about nearly enough – in our school textbooks, in our books and films, in our public discourse and private conversations.

After the speeches, we ate cake. Steve had been worried about the cake, because I ordered it off the internet, so how did I know if it tasted any good? I was more concerned with how the cake looked, and it looked pretty darn good.
Cake - better.JPG
It tasted as good as it looked. After it was cut, the restaurant placed it under a heat lamp (by mistake, I assume) and by the end of the evening the last few slices had melted into a lump of warm chocolatey goo.

I felt great at the launch. I was careful to rest a lot in the days leading up to it, and did as little as possible the day of the launch itself. I find evenings especially hard; they’re usually when I’m most worn out. But the night of the launch, my body flooded me with adrenaline. And everyone was so generous and kind, as evidence by the four bouquets of flowers I received. (My apartment has never been so full of flowers!) Author Ashley Kalagian Blunt at book launch with flowersLots of people commented on how great I looked. I tried not to talk about being ill, because I wanted to forget about it for the night. People saw me full of energy, bright and bubbly.

I left feeling like a cement truck had run over me. Every muscle in my body hurt. I spent all of Friday in bed recovering.

In general, my chronic fatigue has improved significantly. Last year I wouldn’t have been able to attend an event like the book launch. But I’m still not recovered, even though I may look and act like it in small bursts. CFS is inconsistent, which makes it complicated to explain.

I’m very grateful I was able to organise and attend the launch for the book that marks ten years of writing on the Armenian genocide. But I also think it’s important to reflect on the complexity of living with invisible illness.

Thanks again to everyone who attended the launch (like crime writer AB Patterson, who wrote this great post about it). And special thanks to all the amazing, brilliant and uncommonly attractive readers who have left reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.

Ashley
xo