New Year’s resolutions for 2021

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that there’s no point making plans. I planned all kinds of things last year, including that I would be in Canada over this holiday season to finally visit my family after four years of CFS making the journey impossible.

Instead I’ve spent three damp and soggy holiday weeks in New South Wales, mostly squelching around my neighbourhood, much like I did all year.

At the start of 2020, I sat down in all earnestness and made some actual, genuine resolutions (as opposed to my 2019 resolutions, which included climbing Mt Everest in a Pikachu onesie).

I planned to increase my micro swims to tiny swims, and to jump in the pool without hesitation. I was doing great at this in January, but then in February my CFS got much worse, and I wasn’t able to swim. I kept trying to get back to it, but then covid closed the pools, and I got sicker.

Another resolution was to read more, which I’d assumed I’d be able to do as my health continued to improve. But it really didn’t. My CFS recovery tanked in February and March, and again in August and September, and I felt like I spent the rest of the year trying to recover from those months, just to get to where I’d been in January.

I also wanted to develop my listening skills and ask better questions, but between CFS shutting me down and covid shutting everything else down, I gave up on this. If anything, I’m less inclined to ask any questions when I go out these days.

There was one resolution I managed, however: to have a first draft of my new novel by 31 December. I’m happy to tell you I’m already into draft 2, and I’m very excited about it.

Also in 2020 I completed the Lost Hours Project. Every day, I recorded how much time I lost to illness, ie how much time I spent in bed during the day rather than up living my life. I was very optimistic at the start of the year, so I thought it would be an encouraging exercise. I thought the numbers would gradually improve.

I lost 1024 hours last year. If you assume 16-hour waking days, that’s 64 days – more than two months.

But I also realised that this project wasn’t working. I’d wanted to quantify the experience of illness, to find a metric to compare days and months. This isn’t it. In September I lost 89 hours to chronic fatigue and in October I lost 85. But those two months were wildly different experiences. In September (and August) I felt like I was drowning almost every waking minute. In October I was quite functional when I wasn’t in bed, and I was able to do cognitive work without fighting through an ocean of misery.

It turns out it’s not so much the lost hours that matter (though of course they do), but the quality of the hours that are not lost. And that’s much harder to quantify.

I know what you’re thinking – yeah, but look at December. You must be feeling a lot better! Not quite. I was just on holidays. My office closed for the holidays on 16 December, and when I can spend 15 hours a week relaxing instead of doing intense cognitive work, my symptoms become much milder.

So I decided not to continue the Lost Hours Project in 2021. I’m not convinced the data is very useful, and it’s a bit depressing.

Some good news: today I jumped in the pool without hesitation and did a micro swim. If I don’t end up collapsing for several hours in the next two days, I might even do that again.

Still, I refuse to make plans or goals this January. I’m sick of it. I’m going to write a new draft of this book as fast or slow as suits me on any given day.

Actually I do have one resolution I’m very keen on, and that is to use the word absquatulate as much as possible.

Say that out loud and tell me it isn’t the most fun you’ve ever had.

It means to leave abruptly, which is something that can be worked into most conversations, even if I have to do more than my share of absquatulating to ensure I can bring it up.

Wishing you a healthy 2021.
xo

2020: The reading year in review

In 2020, I read far more fiction (61%) than non-fiction (39%). This is unusual for me; I generally prefer non-fiction. But it continues a trend that started in 2019. I suspect we all need more escapism these days.

I continued to support Australian authors, women authors and debut authors, and aimed to read more authors of colour. That 23% is still a too low, which gives me something to focus on in 2021.

2020 reading breakdown
68% Australian authors
74% women authors
23% authors of colour
39% nonfiction
42% debut authors

This year, a lot of my reading was focused on authors who agreed to be guests on my new podcast, James and Ashley Stay at Home, co-hosted with James McKenzie Watson. Most our guests were writers, and we also interviewed comedian Anthony Jeannot and art therapist Karin Foxwell.

Because we interviewed so many writers, we got a lot of fantastic writing tips. As a special end of year treat, James edited some of the best tips together. Episode 17: The Best Writing Tips of 2020 has useful tips for any writer (and a few good tips for those of us suffering chronic illness as well).

And we’re excited to be planning more great episodes for 2021. We’ll be speaking to Yuwaalaraay author Nardi Simpson about her debut novel Song of the Crocodile, to Josephine Taylor about writing and living with vulvodynia, and lots more!

You can listen to James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcastsSpotify, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about our past episodes here.

Join me! For a live online memoir writing course

If you’re working on a memoir or narrative-non fiction project, including essays, or would like to start, my new online workshop with Mirrabooka Writers is for you.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt teaching Mirrabooka Writers

In this craft and workshop hybrid course delivered by Zoom, you’ll learn the conventions of writing memoir and narrative non-fiction, including how to shape your writing to engage readers from the start, how to craft yourself and others on the page, and how to develop your writing through group workshopping with classmates and the instructor.

Each session will include workshopping, craft theory, exercises, and discussion. By the end of the course, you’ll have gained an understanding of how to develop and shape your narrative non-fiction writing, explored techniques for improving voice, setting, dialogue and characters, and drafted three-four potential book chapters or essays. This course is perfect for students in the early or intermediate stages of writing any type of narrative non-fiction, especially memoir.

Memoir and Narrative Non-fiction Workshop: Online with Mirrabooka Writers
Six Wednesdays, 6:30-8:30pm AET, starting 20 January 2021
Maximum participants: 8

$460 (subscribe to the Mirrabooka newsletter for a 10% discount)

If you’re looking for inspiration to get writing now or would like to learn more about me as a writer, check out James and Ashley Stay at Home, a podcast about writing, creativity and health, co-hosted by James McKenzie Watson and me, available on Apple podcastsSpotify, or your favourite podcast app.

I’d love to get the chance to learn about your writing and share the techniques that helped me go from aspiring writer to published author.

All best wishes for your 2021 endeavours!
Ashley xo

Ep 16: Living in different universes with Ada Palmer, author and historian

In episode 16, James and I interview author and historian Ada Palmer about living with chronic pain and studying the past to imagine the future. She offers excellent advice to those managing invisible illness, while also acknowledging how hard it can be.

Ada is an author of science fiction and fantasy, a historian at the University of Chicago, and a composer and musician. Her book series, Terra Ignota, published by Tor, explores a future of borderless nations and globally commixing populations. The first volume, Too Like the Lightning, was a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo award. Ada teaches history at the University of Chicago, studying the Renaissance, Enlightenment, heresy, atheism, and censorship.

Ada has achieved all this and more while living with a number of invisible chronic illnesses, including Crohn’s disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome.

“There’s nothing more similar than history and science-fiction,” Ada says. “It’s studying long periods of time in which societies change, whether future or past.”

In our interview, she describes her academic research as the history of worldviews, and how she uses her research into the past to imagine human societies hundreds of years in the future, asking, “How does the future think about us?”

Ada also discusses how her Crohn’s disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome have resulted in chronic, sometimes crippling pain, and how she’s learning to cope with living with invisible illness.

“When it’s the same pain in the same nerves over a long time, it causes cognitive trauma damage.”

Ada describes coming to understand herself as disabled as “a powerful and interesting turning point”. The first time that she raised the topic with her university students, she was surprised by their enthusiasm to discuss and learn more.

“It helped me realise how powerful it was as a conversation, how powerful it was for the students for that silence to break, and how powerful it was for somebody’s who’s in a role-model position to talk about it with them.” Her students’ support gave her the confidence to speak to her department head and colleagues about her illness and its challenges.

In this episode, we also talk about authors Arkady Martine, Claire G Coleman, Gene Wolfe, Neil Price, Junji Ito, Julian Barnes, Anita Heiss, Evelyn Araluen, and of course, Voltaire and Diderot.

You can listen to episode 16 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about our past episodes here.

Moving across oceans to create a new life

After moving from India to Sydney in 2019, Khyati Sharma became inspired to share the stories of fellow expats and migrants through a new online project called Immigrants in Australia, modelled after Humans of New York. Since launching in September, she’s shared the stories of people from all over the world, including India, China, South Africa, Canada, Armenia, Mexico, Italy, Malaysia, Austria, England and Indonesia.

I asked Khyati to share her motivation for this project, as well as her own challenges with becoming Australian.

Khyati and her husband, Bipin

Q: What is Immigrants in Australia?

A: Immigrants in Australia is all about the wonderful people who’ve taken a great leap of faith because they didn’t want to settle for ordinary. At Immigrants in Australia, I present the inspiring stories of immigrants who have made Australia their new home.

As someone who has moved across oceans to create a new life myself, I know it requires more than just will power. You pack up your entire being, your life isn’t going to be the same, and that’s precisely the point. Moving abroad comes with this whole deal to discover yourself and satisfy the thirst of having done something substantial in life. That’s why this project is so close to my heart.

Q: What inspired you to start this project?

A: I was always fascinated by immigration stories. When I was a kid, I remember asking my cousins and friends who moved overseas – what prompted the move and how were they liking it there? Nobody knew that someday I would make a move myself, but as destiny had it – I married a guy who was based in Sydney and so I had to be here. After my arrival, I continued asking my whys and hows to almost every immigrant I met. I realised how each one of them had a legacy to inspire, a powerful message to share. Many people have a story of overcoming great social and cultural upheaval. And the fact that these stories came from real people made me believe that the possibilities open to us are endless.

Q: What brought you to Australia?

A: Believe me, I NEVER wanted to move outside New Delhi, India, where I was born and brought up. I am super attached to my family, and I thought that I would stay with a 10-minute drive of my parents’ house after marriage. I had no idea that I would eventually move 10,000 kilometres away from them to join my husband. Life continually surprises you when you’re busy making other plans.

Q: What’s your favourite thing about living in Australia?

A: I absolutely love the reading culture here. Almost every third person is reading a book or a Kindle, and I am secretly peeping at what they’re currently reading. I go to various libraries with a coffee in one hand and a book in the other. I love exploring the local bookstores; there’s a different kind of vibe always.

I also admire how Australia offers you freedom and respect in terms of what you do and how you choose to live.

Q: What’s been your biggest challenge in Australia?

A: There have been many, but I have overcome most of them, so I feel they were just initial hiccups that were necessary to experience, as they made me stronger. Like finding a stable job – I was professionally settled in India, so I never imagined struggling for work anywhere in the world. That mirage soon vanished when I received back-to-back rejection emails because I had no local experience. I wasn’t aware of how relevant this would be in the Australian job market.

The Australian accent was also quite intimidating. I have a Bachelors in English, so I thought I was sorted with the language. But within two days of my arrival, I went to a local café and asked for a mocha. The barista shot me some questions in a heavy accent, which sent me running. You have to use all your senses for the first few months to get used to the English here.

Q: Who is Immigrants in Australia for?

A: Immigrants in Australia is for anyone who has dared to dream, for anyone who has moved out of their safety nest and pushed their limits, and wants to achieve something in life. We have these amazing unsung people who’ve come to Australia from all over the world seeking a better life and wanting to contribute to Australian society and culture, who inspire many others to keep moving forward.

Check out Immigrants in Australia
Instagram | Facebook | online

And if you have a story to share, get in touch with Khyati at contact@immigrantsinaustralia.com.au.

Ep 15: How to write a book in 5 words a day

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Episode 15 of James and Ashley Stay at Home is out now, and it’s chock full of writing tips. Can you write a bestselling novel through the simple process of 5 words a day? Technically yes, though it would take you 43.8 years to complete a first draft.

We suggest better writing tips, like these:

  1. Protect your writing time.
  2. Write about what scares you.
  3. Don’t show people the first draft – or, do, if you like. We debate this.
  4. Write a process journal: we get into what this is and why it helps.
  5. Try different genres, voices and forms (this is how Ashley created My Name Is Revenge, a novella and collected essays that combine memoir, history and journalism).
  6. Make time for close reading and analysis of writing you admire.

Plus, James gets real about his motivations, and also reveals that he didn’t know what a writing residency was until he was awarded two of them back to back (at the National Writers’ House and KSP Writers’ Centre).

(And if you’re wondering why he bothered applying when he didn’t know what they were, it’s because I sent him the links. I might send James a link to clown college just to see if he’ll apply to that. He’d probably get accepted.)

You can listen to episode 15 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here or on your favourite podcast app, and find out about our past episodes here.

Yes, exploding spider babies are real

One of my favourite things to do in Australia is ask people for their spider stories.

Everyone who’s lived here has at least one good one. I wrote about a few of them, including one of my own, in How to Be Australian.

After nearly 10 years in Australia, I started to think maybe there wouldn’t be many new spider stories left to discover. I’d heard about spider encounters in moving cars, in beds, in swimming pools. I’d heard about people who had limbs turn ‘the colour of dead flesh’ after being bitten by a white tail. I’d even heard about monstrous spider-wasps flying through open windows with flailing huntsmans in their mouths.

I thought I’d heard everything.

I was wrong.

Out for dinner with two Canadian expats who moved to Sydney in 2019, the topic of spider stories came up. This couple’s story is a frontrunner for Spider Anecdote of the Year 2020, and possibly Spider Anecdote of All Time.

Here’s the scene: they spot a biggish spider in their apartment. The husband happens to have a long umbrella in his hand. He reaches out and, with perfect aim, manages to smush the spider with the umbrella tip.

THOUSANDS OF SPIDER BABIES EXPLODE FROM THE SQUASHED SPIDER, RUNNING IN ALL DIRECTIONS IN THE APARTMENT.

The next day at work, the wife relates this horrifying experience to one of her coworkers, a local.

“Oh yeah,” the coworker says, “that’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia. Better to use bug spray or catch it will a bowl.”

That’s why you should never squash a spider in Australia?? I’ve lived here 10 years and have talked about spiders with a lot of Australians. You could say cataloguing spider anecdotes has been part of my life’s work. And I’ve never heard this advice, or heard about exploding spider babies.

“Wait,” I said to the couple, “don’t spider lay eggs? Why would a spider have thousands of spider babies with it?”

It wasn’t that I doubted their story. The horror on their faces as they recalled it was genuine. I was simply confused about the biology.

Turns out I’m not the only one. Australian Geographic ran an article about this exact topic: ‘Wolf Spider Squashed, Hundreds of Babies Emerge‘.

I don’t want to alarm you, but there are 2888 species of wolf spider, and they’re found throughout the world. According to my very minimal research (I can only look at websites with photos of spiders for so long), all species of wolf spiders carry their egg sacs with them.

When the ‘spiderlings’ hatch, they live on the mother for a number of weeks. (Imagine that, ladies! Clambering around for weeks with several hundred babies clinging to you!)

So it seems my Canadian friend’s coworker is correct: you should never squash a spider in Australia, unless you know definitively that it’s not a female wolf spider. And even then, you’re still risking gross spider innards oozing all over. (Readers of How to Be Australian know my prefered spider-prepardeness plan is a vacuum.)

Got spider anecdotes for me? You know I want them!

Ep 14: Moulding stories like clay with Elizabeth Tan

Australian author Elizabeth Tan’s second short story collection, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, is full of humorous and poignant stories laced with pop-culture references and techno-slang, and set in an uncertain dystopian future or surrealities.

Elizabeth’s comedy leaps out from story titles such as ‘Shirt Dresses that Look a Little Too Much Like Shirts so that It Looks Like You Forgot to Put on Pants (Love Will Save the Day)’ and ‘Happy Smiling Underwear Girls Party’. This belies their cutting emotional depths, the varieties of loneliness depicted, and the incisive exploration of technology’s ability to isolate us while keeping us evermore connected. The book, which came out earlier this year, just won the 2020 Readings Prize for New Fiction.

In comparing Smart Ovens for Lonely People to Tan’s first collection, Rubik, Cher Tan writes: “Sardonic, gentle observations on cultural anxieties as mediated by techno-capitalism have solidified as Tan’s ‘personal brand’, but the terrain is more fantastical, more mischievous.”

One of the themes that links the stories in Smart Ovens for Lonely people is loneliness, but it’s often a special kind of loneliness – loneliness within relationships, loneliness without necessarily being alone. An affecting line from the title story sums this up: “Having someone who loves you doesn’t exempt you from wanting to die.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, loneliness competes with workplace stress, mental illness and sedentary lifestyles as one of the most pressing health epidemics of our time.

Listeners will remember our interview with Kate Leaver in episode 8, when we discussed her new book about how good dogs are for our health. In her first book, The Friendship Cure, she offers some compelling evidence for the dangers of loneliness, drawn from a meta-analysis of scientific research. It concluded: “Loneliness is more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day and deadlier than obesity … It can tighten our arteries, raise our blood pressure, increase our rates of infection, diminish our heart health, and lead to higher rates of cancer. Lonely people develop tumours faster, have weaker immune systems and lower thresholds for pain.”

We also ask Elizabeth to discuss a story from the collection in terms of its evolution from idea to final draft, which leads to a fascinating discussion of her use of a writing prompt called logogenetics.

And we discuss a whole bunch of writers, including Brooke Davis, Shaula Evans, Alexander Chee, Fiona Wright, Stephen King, Yumna Kassab, David Vann, Laura Bates, and Laura McPhee-Brown.

You can listen to episode 14 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about our past episodes here.

The Bodies History Hides

How do dominant historical narratives keep hidden the lives and deaths of others, and what do these narratives cost us? From the colonisation of Indigenous lands to the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust, this conversation explores bodies hidden by history, and how writing can work toward a recovery of their stories.

Part of the 2020 Wollongong Writers Festival, this author panel features Australian Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe, the author of Dark Emu, and Leah Kaminsky, author of The Hollow Bones and The Waiting Room, along with myself discussing My Name Is Revenge, chaired by journalist Osman Faruqi.

When festival director Chloe Higgins approached me about programming a panel, I knew exactly who I wanted to speak with.

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu is the most revelatory book I’ve read during my decade in Australia. In his survey of early European accounts of the continent, Bruce Pascoe reveals how complex Indigenous agriculture and architecture 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.’

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Australian author

As I wrote in How to Be Australian, I think Pascoe’s book should be part of the citizenship process. All Australians should read it, and consider what this land was, and what it could be again.

There are obvious connections between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust. Leah Kaminsky is an Australian author who writes, among many things, about being a descendent of Jewish Holocaust survivors, and we’ll be speaking about these connections.

Less obvious but equally fascinating are the connections between the Armenian genocide and the destruction of Aboriginal communities and ways of life. As Pascoe’s book shows, history has been warped, hidden and narrowed. The mechanics of this are far more complex than in the denial of the Armenian genocide, which was a decision made and implemented by successive governments, beginning in the planning phase of the genocide.

This is sure to be a fascinating discussion. Please join us online.

The Bodies History Hides >>
Wollongong Writers Festival
Saturday 28 November, 4pm AEDT, online
Tickets $10