2020 resolutions I might actually stick to

Last year I shared a bunch of resolutions I intended to utterly fail at – and that felt great. Failure is a part of trying, and dealing with chronic fatigue makes me that much more likely to fail, since my daily health is so unpredictable. Acknowledging that I’d probably fail at most goals I set in 2019 was actually very encouraging.

Then I skulked off and secretly set some actual goals anyway. And those went pretty well, especially as the year wore on. Every few months, I regain a little more of my cognitive and physical capacity. Some people think that chronic fatigue is permanent, but when I was diagnosed, the doctors told me that most people recover. ‘On average it takes 3 to 5 years,’ they said. ‘Though it can take 10.’

I’m in my fourth year.

At the start of 2020, I made a list of goals for the year. I could have shared them on Jan 1, but I decided to test drive them before fully committing. Four weeks into the new decade, I think these are the keepers. David Sedaris book signing
For Reals 2020 Resolutions & Goals

  1. Have a first draft of the new novel by December 31.
    I’m 40,000 words into a zero draft.
  2. Gradually increase my micro swims to tiny swims. #chronicillnessrecovery
  3. Jump in the pool without hesitation. 
    This will save me upwards of 15 minutes each time I swim. (And I’m already nailing this.)
  4. Read more books.
    Because my daily cognitive energy still has a hard limit, I’ve been prioritising writing over reading. This year I want to increase my reading time, and add to my list of great reads.
  5. Develop my active listening skills. 
    Which means focussing on what others are really saying to me in conversations, rather than just waiting for them to finish talking so I can share my thoughts. Sheila Heen discusses this in-depth on the Knowledge Project.
  6. Ask better questions.

Author David Sedaris recommends this in his masterclass. (I took the course, and then had the opportunity to meet him when he came to Sydney in January.) Candice Fox also mentions it in her Better Reading interview, describing herself as nosy. (She also describes how she came to interview a serial killer, so I feel like she’s someone with useful advice.)

Sedaris decided he’s no longer engaging in small talk, and instead starts conversations with questions like ‘Have you ever eaten horse?’ just to see where things go. I’m not willing (ie. not brave enough) to give up small talk entirely, and the introverted part of me would prefer to go through life never having to talk to strangers at all.

But then I realised it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing resolution. I decided to try asking two or three ‘better questions’ each week.

I asked the fruit store cashier about the strangest fruit they stock, and she got all excited telling me about lemonades,  a type of lemon that taste exactly like lemonade. (I’m going to follow this up in fall, when they’re in season.)

I asked a hairdresser about other jobs she’s worked, and she told me far more than I ever wanted to know about gum disease, thanks to her previous experience in dental office reception.

I asked a Pet-O cashier about people with strange pets, and she ended up telling me all about her bearded dragon, which she hand-feeds.

I’m excited to see what I’ll discover by asking questions this year, and also how the rest of my resolutions progress.

Wishing you all best for your 2020 goals!
xx

 

The new book, out this year!

I can finally share some exciting news with you. My second book will be out this June from Affirm Press. It’s called How to Be Australian, and it’s a memoir of moving from Canada.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt, author
In a lot of ways, the book is a love letter to Australia, this charming, vast, baffling country that has been my home for almost a decade now.

When my husband and I moved here, we thought it would be like Canada, but hot. Australia is completely unique, and I dedicated myself to learning about it, to travelling widely and to the ongoing journey of discovery that is being Australian. It’s a memoir of anxiety and becoming an adult and struggling with marriage, but mostly it’s a book about loving Australia.

This summer’s fires have been devastating across the country. It’s heartbreaking. To offer a tiny bit of help, I’m taking part in Authors for Fireys, which means you can get:

  • YOUR NAME in the acknowledgements of How to Be Australian, plus one of the very first signed copies
  • and a signed copy of My Name Is Revenge

To get in on this, you need to go to Twitter and post your bid in response to the original tweet here:

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

 

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!

 

First Time Feels

Two months ago I started the first draft of a new novel, and I’m 16,000 words in. So at that rate it will take me … I don’t know, eight years to finish? But there’s been lots keeping me busy. Here’s a roundup of the latest news.

1. I had a fantastic interview about My Name Is Revenge with author Pamela Cook on the writing podcast she co-hosts with Kel Butler, Writes4Women, and you can listen here.

2. Armenia was the ‘journeys to come’ destination in this guest traveller post I wrote for Catriona Rowntree.

3. My latest book review, on JP Pomare’s Call Me Evie, is out now. This psychological thriller is captivatingly taut, with evocative settings and characters that thrash through their lives with an almost painful authenticity.

4. My monthly enewsletter comes out tomorrow, with a chance to win a copy of Toni Jordan’s new novel The Fragments! There’s still time to sign up.*

unnamed.jpg

5. I’m appearing on a writing panel with some fantastic Australian authors. If you’re an emerging writer in Sydney, this panel is for you!

First Time Feels with the First Time Podcast
Friday 20 September, 6pm
Gleebooks, Glebe
Co-hosts of The First Time Podcast, Kate Mildenhall (Skylarking) and Katherine Collette (The Helpline) talk debut publication with authors John Purcell (The Girl on the Page), Cassie Hamer (After the Party) and Ashley Kalagian Blunt (My Name Is Revenge).
Come along to a live recording of this popular writing podcast, and stay for a wine and a catch up with other writing folk.

 

*So many people have asked me about this: no, that is not my dog. It’s a stock image dog. He really wants to you to sign up to my newsletter. That’s the whole story.

Book club discussion guide

Zorats Karer, Armenian Stonehenge
A literary thriller novella set in 1980s Sydney and drawn from true events, including a series of international terrorist attacks, My Name is Revenge is the story of a young man seeking justice. A collection of essays blending memoir, history and journalism accompany the novella. You can download a PDF copy of this book club discussion guide.

1. Had you heard of the Armenian genocide before My Name Is Revenge? If so, how did you learn about it?

2. How does Vrezh’s life in 1980s Sydney contrast with his interior world?

3. Vrezh acts as though he has absorbed his grandfather’s memories as his own. Do you believe it’s possible to have ‘memories’ of events that happened to others?

4. How do you understand the relationship between Vrezh and Armen? How does their father’s behaviour impact them?

5. Can you empathise with Vrezh’s motivations for taking part in an assassination? How do his school experiences in Australia influence him?

6. Do Vrezh’s motivations differ from Armen’s? If yes, how?

7. ‘I couldn’t condone or even empathise with their methods. And yet I understood their motives intimately’ (75). Have you ever empathised with the motives behind an act of violence? Did this surprise you?

8. ‘If there had ever been justice, it was a fluke, an aberration’ (52). Do you believe justice is possible after an event like the Armenian genocide? If so, how?

9. What does My Name Is Revenge reveal about the past and its impact on the present and the future?

10. Vrezh ‘wonders about the Aboriginal people who might have once lived in the NSW countryside. But he lacks the empathic imagination to connect their history to his own’ (77-8). Why do you think Vrezh struggles to imagine the history of others?
Ashley Kalagian Blunt plus book cover of My Name Is Revenge
11. Norman Naimark argues that genocides never happen in isolation, but are part of an historical continuum. After reading ‘The Crime of Crimes’, do you agree?

12. ‘I’ve studied and written about genocide for nearly a decade. My husband finds this interest morbid’ (101). After reading My Name Is Revenge, why do think Kalagian Blunt pursued this topic for so many years?

13. ‘In my hostel, they told me I am the first Turk to stay there. I’ve heard this everywhere!’ (128). How did the actions of Başak, the Turkish woman who Kalagian Blunt meets in Armenia, make you feel? Would you risk arrest for your convictions?

14. Has this book made you think differently about how we, as a society, remember and understand historical events?

15. My Name Is Revenge includes photos taken by the author. Many of these photos highlight aspects of Armenia today. What do you believe is the intention of these photos?

 

Trust the process

Trust the Process writing tip stuck on windowRecently I sat down to write an essay. It started off okay, but the more I wrote, the more difficult it got, until I was contemplating dropping my laptop off the balcony just to be done with it.

The first thing I did for this essay was open a blank Word doc called ‘Notes on The Essay’ and write down all my notes and ideas about the topic, as well as quotes I might use, since the essay incorporated a book review.

When I was halfway finished the notes, I got impatient. I really had to get started writing this essay. I opened a new Word doc, named it ‘This Is the Essay,’ and started copying and pasting ideas and quotes.

I wasted a lot of time trying to write the opening. After much faffing, I started working on an idea that I figured would go in the middle of the essay, a part I felt I could dive into.

Which is what I should have done in the first place, but I got distracted by the empty space where the start should be, and tried to start at the start.

Things went well for a few days, but then my excitement dried up and I realised none of what I’d written actually sat together. It had no start and no conclusion, and a lot of the ideas hadn’t quite come together.

I had an almost complete first draft (I was already over the given word count), but it felt like the essay had died on the page. Every word of it was terrible, it made no sense and was nothing like the essay I’d first imagined.

The longer I sat looking at the dead essay, the more I felt like an idiot for thinking I could write about this challenging topic, that I had anything serious or worthwhile to say, that I could do any kind of justice to the book I was reviewing.

I felt like an imposter and a failure and an idiot. I tried to fix things, but it seemed like I was just making them worse.

When staring at all the half-broken sentences in my ‘This Is the Essay’ word doc became overwhelming, I opened a new document and named it ‘Temp’.

At this point I had three word documents going for one essay.

I copied and pasted a couple of sections into my Temp doc. I edited them in different ways. For some reason, it was easier to work on a section in isolation, outside of the main doc. Maybe because I didn’t feel the pressure of the entire essay in every change I made.

I also remembered that I’d never finished the notes document I’d started with. I had a process, but I’d gotten impatient with it. I spent another day copying out quotes from the book I was working with, developing my notes, looking for connections between ideas.

I thought I might be able to pull this together if I followed through on my process. I had to trust that I could bring the essay together as I worked through it, even if the early drafts were terrible.

Eventually I had 8000 words of notes for a 4500-word essay.

I invested a lot of time into those notes, and during that time was when my thinking developed for the essay. That 8000-word notes document is a chaotic mess of colour-coded highlighting, page references and all caps reminders, but that was all part of the process.

Once the essay was published, readers sent the kindest and most glowing feedback my writing has ever received. I wouldn’t have expected this. I think I was too deep inside the mental mess surrounding the essay to approach it with fresh eyes at that time. (Luckily the editor and I went through a couple of revisisions together, which certainly helped.) You can read it here.

My key learning from this experience is that I have a process that I’ve developed over a decade of writing:
– compile the ideas
– always start with the easiest part
– expect the first draft to die on the page
– return to the ideas
– revise one section at a time

When I feel overwhelmed, I just need to remind myself to trust the process.

(Side note: I learned the wonderful phrase ‘trust the process’ from this Sports Sports Sports episode of Reply All.)

Ashley
xo

PS. My fabulous monthly author newsletter is coming out this week, and there’s still time to sign up!

Secret highlights of an unknown rural gem

Recently I spent a week on writing retreat in rural NSW, near a place called Clarence Town.  I’d never heard of Clarence Town before. It’s a few hours north of Sydney, and has a population of less than 1000 people. It’s inland, and you have to turn down several side roads to get to it. It’s not a place you’d visit unless you had a reason to, which you probably don’t. But you’re missing out! Here are five excellent reasons to visit Clarence Town.

1. Experience the Williams River Cafe
The Williams River Cafe in Clarence Town, Australia
The Williams River Cafe wants to wish you a happy new year. Even in May, when I was in town. I wasn’t sure if they were still wishing me a happy 2019, or if they were getting in early to wish me a happy 2020. It must have been the latter, otherwise it would have read “Happy Same Old Year It’s Been for Five Months Already.”

Inside the cafe is as knick-knacky as your wildest dreams, with corrugated metal as a decorative flourish.
Inside The Williams River Cafe in Clarence Town, Australia
And of course there are the owl cookie jars.
Owl cookie jars in small town Australian cafe
When I popped into the Williams River Cafe, the only customers were one white-haired couple. They looked to be approximately 145 years old. They had driving maps of Australia open on the table between them, but I imagine them as permanent fixtures in the Williams River Cafe.

2. Visit Lovey’s Grocers – Two Local Blokes
I didn’t get to meet either of the local blokes, which is a shame. I would have congratulated them on having the world’s best IGA name, and also asked which one was Lovey. IMG_1499.JPG

3. Clarence Town is the seventh oldest colonial settlement in Australia.
If you win a pub trivia night with that fact, I expect a cut of the profits. Another Clarence Town fact: the local Aboriginal name, Erringhi, means ‘the place of the little black duck’.

4. This historic passive-aggressive photo collage
The Clarence Town School of Arts was built in 1915 ‘to last and withstand the ravages of white ants’. So far it has. A glass-fronted bulletin board hangs near its front door. The bulletin board was my absolute highlight of Clarence Town, because it featured this photo collage, which reads:
Deb Ball 1993
On the 1st of May 1993 I put a Deb Ball on. I did it under the banner of the Fire Brigade, I did every bit of organising myself and the boys turned up on the day to help put up a few of the decorations – it nearly killed me. … I hired the “ALAN WARD BIG BAND” It cost $1,000 which was a lot of money then but they were worth it.IMG_1490.JPG
The ‘I’ in this collage goes unnamed. I assume the writer expects that her reputation as the woman who put on the 1993 Deb Ball precedes her. I love that she turned her photo collage into an opportunity to publicly shame ‘the boys’ of the fire brigade (perhaps my scare quotes aren’t needed there; in 1993 the Clarence Town fire brigade was possibly staffed by children). I love that she concludes by big noting how much money she spent, but also that she seems to think $1000 isn’t much money today?

Finally, I love that there is no indication how long this faded, curling photo collage has been on the Clarence Town School of Arts bulletin board. It’s possibly been there since 1993, and I’m sure it will stay there as long as its author is alive.

5. Clarence Town’s reliable annual events
The photo collage wasn’t the only bulletin board highlight. I was also impressed by this poster. There’s an obvious narrative here: the flyer was posted in 2018, and this year, an efficient and eco-friendly organiser thought ‘Why print new flyers? The event is literally the exact same.’ And instead they simply visited the flyer where it has stayed all year (there’s not a lot of changeover in the Clarence Town School of Arts bulletin board),  whited out the date and final numeral of the year, and wrote over them.  IMG_1493.JPG

And that’s it. Actually, you have less reason to visit Clarence Town now that you’ve seen all the highlights. This is literally it. I wouldn’t recommend going there.

Unless you’re on writing retreat, and you want to lock yourself away with your laptop where there are as few distractions as possible. Then Clarence Town might be the perfect place.

 

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