Podcast: James and Ashley Stay at Home

James and Ashley are staying at home. Partly because there’s a pandemic, partly because they’re writers, and partly because of their health. Through discussions and interviews with other writers, they’ll try to inspire, build fellowship and entertain, or at the very least, explore how staying at home has its benefits.

Screen Shot 2020-06-07 at 7.15.36 pm

James and Ashley Stay at Home is a new podcast, a joint venture with my wonderful co-host, James McKenzie Watson. Learn more about James and the podcast below, or find the first three episodes here.

We’ll be discussing the challenges of our efforts to write brilliant manuscripts while coping with chronic health issues, and also interviewing other writers who have done the same.

Podcast player screengrab

This is what the player for the first episode would look like, if I could embed each episode. It turns out I can’t embed episodes, not without paying several hundred dollars a year in WordPress fees.

Instead, you can listen to episode 1 here. It introduces the podcast and our major themes, writing and health. We speak about both topics through our personal experience: in addition to my chronic fatigue syndrome, James was diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) in 2016. Like me, he also suffers from serious fatigue, among a myriad of other symptoms.

James is a very talented writer ofScreen Shot 2020-06-07 at 7.25.48 pm short and novel-length fiction. He’s been recognised in competitions including the International InkTears Flash Fiction Contest, the Newcastle Short Story Award and the Grieve Writing Competition, and featured in publications such as Baby Teeth Journal and Brave Voices Magazine. In 2017 he was shortlisted in the Kingdom of Ironfest prize for his novel Denizen. He works as a nurse in regional NSW. Find him on Twitter or visit his website.

James is a member of my Writing NSW writers’ group, pictured here at the 2019 launch of My Name Is Revenge: Jonathon Shannon, James, me, Simon Veksner, Amanda Ortlepp and Andrea Tomaz.Writers group with six people holding booksEpisode 2 is a special episode, which features me reading the first chapter of my new memoir, How to Be Australian.

In episode 3, we launch into our interviews with Australian authors starting with Lee Kofman, author of Imperfect. Next month, we’ll feature Anna Downes, author of the soon-to-be-released psychological thriller, The Safe Place. Make sure to subscribe on your favourite podcast app.

Ashley
xo

PS. Looking for more great writing podcasts? Writing NSW has you covered.

Conversations with Friends

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Conversations with Friends showed up as a surprise in the post. A friend sent it to me.

Sally Rooney has won multiple literary awards. I’d read her second book, Normal People, earlier in the year, when everyone was talking about it. And while I recognised the writing as brilliant (and so crisp and well wrought, Rooney doesn’t even bother with quotation marks), I didn’t enjoy the book. I don’t enjoy stories about relationships, about love and affairs and divorce and grief. My favourite books generally have at least one murder in them, and no-one gets murdered in Conversations with Friends. Not to spoil it too much, but no-one even contemplates hiring an assassin.

The whole time I was reading it, I wondered what had made my friend choose this book, from the millions of books out there. Even though this book was very much not my kind of book, at the same time it was so well-written it was hard not to find things to appreciate on every page, turns of phrase and insights into the human condition. The main character has embarked on a writing career, and later on is diagnosed with a chronic illness. Many of Rooney’s observations rang true for me. I’ve listed some of my favourites here.

“I had started reading long interviews with famous writers and noticing how unlike them I was.” (Does every aspiring writer do this?)

“I feel like shit lately, she said … You think you’re the kind of person who can deal with something and then it happens and you realise you can’t.”

“Everyone’s always going through something, aren’t they? That’s life, basically. It’s just more and more things to go through.” (This seems especially true this year.)

“After that I put some cold water on my face and dried it, the same face I have always had, the one I would have until I died.”

“I wanted things for myself because I thought they existed.”

“I felt as if I’d glimpsed the possibility of an alternative life, the possibility of accumulating income just by writing and talking and taking an interest in things. By the time my story was accepted for publication, I even felt like I’d entered that world myself, like I’d folded my old life up behind me and put it away. I was ashamed at the idea that Bobbi might come into the sandwich shop and see for herself how deluded I had been.”

“I had the sense that something in my life had ended, my image of myself as a whole or normal person maybe. I realized my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and that there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform the suffering into something useful. Nothing would.”

“Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.”

Those last two quotes seem to sit inside me. Nothing makes my suffering useful, and often my life feels like filling time until I get well. I talk all the time about the things I will do when I’m well – running and hiking and dancing, working a normal eight-hour day. Sometimes I see people out for a run and I become so sad and resentful.

I hope the things you are waiting for happen for you. And in the meantime, I hope your friends post you books.
xo
Ashley

 

Podcasts to see you through

As you know, giant sea monsters have attacked our cities. While it’s not clear how many people they’re eating, it is clear that the safest thing to do is stay inside.  Ashley Kalagian Blunt with Eggpicnic artWhile you’re inside for the foreseeable future, you might as well listen to some high quality podcasts.

Lately I’ve been trying lots of new podcasts, and finding it harder and harder to get hooked into something. So you know if I’m recommending these, they must be excellent – assuming, of course, that you share my preference for true crime, comedy, and the bizarre.

  1. Women & Crime
    My latest favourite, this ongoing series hosted by the criminologists behind Direct Appeal (which I shared in my previous podcast round up). Each episode is a standalone story focussed on women “who have been victims of crime, those who have committed crimes, and those who are involved in the criminal justice system through their work.” One episode traces the story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two teenages from New Zealand who committed a murder; one of the killers went on to become the bestselling crime novelist Anne Perry.
  2. Free to a Good Home
    There are so many great podcasts that offer incredible learning opportunities. Unfortunately a lot of the time, my brain isn’t well enough to learn, either because of my chronic fatigue (poor concentration is one of my cognitive symptoms) or, more recently, because of the world falling apart. So instead I listen to sheer nonsense. High quality nonsense can be calming, and there’s no higher quality nonsense than Free to a Good Home. Sydney comedians Ben Jenkins and Michael Hing, along with a revolving door of guests, read bizarre classified ads and speculate about the circumstances that led to their posting. A sample of one of my favourite ads: “Get paid to kick a guy in the balls!” Like I said, the best kind of nonsense.
  3. How Did This Get Made?
    American actors Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael discuss some of the worst movies ever made, from so-bad-they’re-good movies, like Space Jam and Chopping Mall, to the purely unwatchable. You don’t need to know the movies, though watching the trailer enriches the listening experience. Once again, this is pure meaningless nonsense, which means I can put it on, relax, tune out, and fall asleep. I particularly enjoy the show’s sense of ritual, from the way the live shows open, to the reading of five-star Amazon reviews for each film at the end.
  4. Dragon Friends
    More nonsense: a Dungeons & Dragon comedy podcast. I have no interest in D&D, and heard about this podcast and the Sydney-based live show for years without trying it. But after I listened to all 108 episodes of Free to a Good Home, I thought, ‘You know what would make my life better? More Ben Jenkins and Michael Hing.’ Who happen to be on the cast of Dragon Friends. The story is continuous from season one, with the first and fifth seasons being my favourites. In an alternate reality, where I’m healthy and able to apply my brain more productively, I’m not sure I would have ever listened to this. But as a distraction from the current reality, it’s perfect.
  5. This Is Actually Happening
    While the episodes can be hit and miss, the concept and format of this show is fascinating. With no introduction or commentary from a host, the anonymous guest of each episode describes a personal experience, such as surviving a murder attempt, or having a friend die on a hiking trip, or having a mental breakdown.
  6. Hunting Warhead
    This six-part series traces the investigation of organised child abuse on the dark web, and how law enforcement agencies from around the world are meeting the challenges of tracking criminals without borders.
  7. The Knowledge Project
    When I am well enough to learn, absorb and reflect on new ideas, I enjoy the Knowledge’s Projects longform interviews with experts in a variety of areas of human knowledge. “Through conversations, we are able to learn from others, reflect on ourselves, and better navigate a conscious life.”
  8. Detective Trapp
    This miniseries centres on the lone female detective on Anaheim’s homicide squad, Julia Trapp, and one of her biggest cases: “When a young woman’s body is found at a trash-sorting plant, Trapp learns the murder may be linked to the disappearance of three other women in nearby Santa Ana.” Trapp is well-deserving of this in-depth profile of her life and work.

And if you miss me, you can always listen to this recent episode of The Bookshelf, in which I chat about American author Kiley Ried’s new novel Such a Fun Age.

Take care, wonderful people.
xo

*Bird art by Eggpicnic

Life: Cancelled

Author Ashley Kalagian Blunt with rainbow bookshelvesI’ve been really sick.

It’s not COVID, just a bad stretch of my normal chronic fatigue.

Usually I try to find the humour in things. I use humour to cope with life. But over the past few years, life seems to be working hard to beat the humour out of me.

I started doing stand-up comedy in 2015, and was doing it regularly in 2016, just figuring it out. When I told people this, they often said, ‘That’s so brave.’ For me it wasn’t brave. It was raw fun. Even when no-one laughed – and there was definitely at least one occasion where I spoke for five minutes to a stone-silent audience – I had a good time.

Then one day I found myself dreading going to stand-up. It felt like too much effort to get myself out in the evening, to memorise a new bit. So I didn’t go. At the time I thought I’d abruptly lost interest in this thing that I had really loved. Looking back, this is when my chronic fatigue symptoms really started to ramp up. Stand-up was the first thing the illness took from me.

A friend texted on Friday. ‘You have been an expert at social distancing for a few years now — any tips to share? How are things down under other than a TP shortage?’

And I tried to think of something funny. But I couldn’t.

‘Look, honestly, the only tip I’ve got is to understand how much grief is part of it,’ I wrote. ‘If it’s just two weeks, maybe not so much. But if you’re forced to stay home and miss things that you’ve looked forward to, miss time with friends who you might not have much time left with, miss events that you may have spent months planning, grief will be part of it. Naming it helps.’

For the past four weeks, I’ve been feeling too unwell to function, falling behind, then getting just well enough to almost catch up before I fall behind again. I’ve slipped back to where I was about a year ago, health-wise.

Meanwhile, the world has become as unpredictable as my health. Everything seems precarious. Is there any point planning future events? On the rare occasion I’m well enough to go out with my friends, it safe to do so? Should I barricade myself behind a metre-thick wall of toilet paper?

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. For people like my husband, it’s COVID-19. For me, it’s COVID-19 to power of three years of CFS. For you, maybe it’s worse.

I sort of want to give up. Just go to bed, pull my nine-kilogram blanket over my head and stay there until I’m well, until society stabilises. I’m worn out.

Stay well, wonderful people.
xo

 

The Lost Hours Project

This is my fourth year with chronic fatigue syndrome. I’m so much better than I was, and I’m still so far away from reliably good health.

Because CFS is an invisible illness, and because I sometimes post pictures of myself out doing things, it’s understandably hard to reconcile how sick I still am with the public image I create.
Person with invisible illness sleeping
I understand this – it’s hard even for me sometimes. This week I had five very good days in a row, and caught myself thinking, for the ten-millionth time, ‘if I feel this good now, how could I go back to feeling sick? This must be the end of it.’

On Friday I made a list of things I wanted to get done this weekend. It wasn’t an overly ambitious list, just the usual getting priorities organised. It did include a few important things, like working on the copy edit for my new book. I was also hoping to write a fresh interesting post for y’all.

By noon on Saturday, my body was not having any of it. I spent the rest of the weekend curled underneath my weighted blanket. I have no idea how this week will go.

This year I decided to track how many hours I lose each month to illness, as a way of sharing the reality of chronic fatigue syndrome, and also as a way of (hopefully) showing my erratic but gradual improvement between now and December.

I’m doing this now in part because the number of hours will be tolerable to calculate. In the past they would have been too depressing.

In January I lost 89 hours. If you assume the average healthy adult should have 16 waking hours per day, then in January a healthy person should have had 496 waking hours. I lost nearly 20 per cent of the month, and that’s doing really well compared to previous years.

In other words, I lost 1 in every 5 days and I can still call that ‘doing really well’.

The numbers help, because even the photo can’t convey the reality. It doesn’t show the achy, flu-like symptoms, the cognitive struggle, the hours leading up to this moment that I’m still calling ‘productive’ even though I was struggling to hold myself upright, to think straight.

You can follow the lost hours project via Instagram. Whatever else is happening for you, I wish you good health. 

Ashley
xo

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

 

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

 

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.

 

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.