Unleash your creative genius

Humans are creative creatures. Look at everything we’ve created, from the Eiffel Tower to competitive hot dog eating to this amphibious bicycle.

Ready to bike across the Atlantic!

I’m always bursting with ideas (though none as great as that Floaty the Bubble Bike). And I’m sure you are too – even if you don’t know it.

This has been one of the delights of becoming an author. When I was writing my first book, one of my 8000 worries was that I only had this one idea. What if I wrote the book, and it got published, but then I couldn’t think of anything else to write about?

But learning to write meant, in part, learning to pay attention to my creativity. And the more I paid attention to it, the more I realised the problem wasn’t too few ideas.

It was too many.

Now I have a list of about a dozen ideas for books, some more far-fetched than others. I have ideas for essays scrawled all over the place, and no time to even start them.

More and more research is showing how creativity is a muscle, and that even if our adult selves have been conditioned to tune out our creative impulses, they’re still there. We just need to rebuild them, which basically means to start listening again.

Elizabeth Gilbert has lots of wonderful things to say about this in Big Magic. Do yourself a favour, listen to her narrate the audiobook. She advises having an affair with your creativity – sneak it into your life however you can manage, get excited, let it be joyful.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Big Magic - Vogue
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

And creativity is worth pursuing, not just for the joy, but also because it can be healing! As art therapist Karin Foxwell explained in an interview, creativity can help people discover why they feel the way they do and how they express meaning in their lives.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that creativity is a practice – that means just sitting down and doing it. There’s incredible freedom in that. There’s no right or wrong way to be creative, whether you’re writing or dancing or gardening.

Recently I had the opportunity to discuss all of this with author, Story Room Aus host and positive ageing activist Karen Sander for her podcast, Ageing Fearlessly.

Ageing Fearlessly Podcast

In my work at Writing NSW, I’ve met a lot of people who started writing later in life, often in retirement. They usually say that they always wanted to write, but that they never had the time. I always admire them for finally making time to reconnect with their creative selves.

In my interview with Karen, I talk about the process of developing my writing practice and prioritising creativity, and share tips and resources for doing the same.

Wishing you creative joy,
Ashley
xo

Getting the most from writers’ groups

I’ve been in a writers’ group for over six years now, and the process of getting regular feedback has been transformative for my writing.

Whether you’re thinking about joining a writers’ group (do it!) or you’re in one already but think it could be more effective, here are my tips on getting the most out of the experience.

Find the right group for you
All writers’ groups are different, so it depends on what you’re looking for. The first one I tried focused on generating material in their sessions, then reading aloud and giving light verbal feedback. I think the most important thing you can get from a writers’ group is robust, in-depth feedback, but it depends what stage of the process you’re at. Don’t be afraid to try a few different groups before settling on one. Or form your own.

Exchange excerpts in advance
My group focusses on feedback, and our monthly meetings work like this: approximately one week before each meeting, we email our excerpt around, so we can all read them in advance. To me, this is essential. For one thing, it means I have time to re-read and think deeply about the excerpts. It also means I can make as many comments as I feel necessary, on what works as well as areas I think need improvement. This is a time commitment – everyone in my group sends up to 6000 words each month – but it’s worth it for the quality of feedback.

With one of my two writers’ groups

Set the rules
When my group gives feedback, we follow a set of rules: if my excerpt is being discussed, everyone takes turns giving me their main points of feedback – they may have written more comments for me, but verbally they only raise their key points. As the feedback recipient, I can’t talk until everyone is done – I can’t explain what a certain paragraph meant, or tell the reader why they misunderstood. I shut up and take notes until everyone is done, then I have five minutes to ask questions. This helps to keep the meeting moving along. This also gives the writer a chance to absorb the feedback and think about why the person might have interpreted the excerpt in a particular way.

Another rule we stick to is restricting the group to five members. Three is too few, and six means we don’t have enough time in our meetings to fully discuss each piece.

Finesse your feedback
Great feedback focuses on your experience as a reader, while drawing on your expertise as a writer. Note what works well, what captivates your attention, where you feel the tension building, and your emotional investment in the scene. Note also where you’re jolted out of the scene, where the description drags, where you’re confused or uncertain. This can be most helpful when it comes to the balance of showing and telling. Are the details showing what the writer thinks they are? Your own writing skills will improve as you develop your ability to pinpoint what works in others’ writing, no matter the genre.

Find your writers’ group
State and local writers’ centres are a good place to find a group. Writing NSW hosts over 30 groups and lists more around the state, some of which are open to new members. Early each year, they also host a Writers’ Group Open Night, which is a chance to learn about the various groups, meet their members, and discuss.

If you can’t access an in-person group, you might try joining an online writers’ group. One way to do this is to take an online writing course, and connect with others looking for ongoing peer support and feedback. In Writing NSW’s online writing courses, online groups often form after the course.*

Scenes from our Mudgee writers’ group retreat 2021

Looking for more writing advice? Check out these posts
The secret to fighting project inertia
Be the fan you wish you had
Trust the process
How to write a book in 5 words a day
From final draft to publication to audiobook
Rejection goals and more: an interview

sutherlandshire-baxter-kalagian-blunt authors

This August, you can also join me for two online sessions with Writers Unleashed.

Writers Unleashed Festival
Saturday 21 August 2021
Online!
Full-festival access pass $90
Writers Unleashed has a fantastic line-up of authors on this year’s online program, and I’ll be taking part in two sessions:

Getting Your Scenes Right: The Nitty-Gritty of Scene Structure
9:30-10:30am **live**

Social Media and Building an Author Profile
Pre-recorded, part of your seven-day access pass
Ashley Kalagian Blunt & ​Alan Baxter

Hope to see you there!
xo

*These tips were originally published on Word Mothers.

Ep 27 Writing for connection with Emily Maguire, author of ‘Love Objects’

‘It’s really important to me, as a writer, to get under the skin of my characters.’ In her new novel, Love Objects, Emily Maguire does exactly that, exploring one woman’s experience with hoarding disorder as a way to better understand our relationships with objects – and with each other.

Emily is the author of six novels, including the Stella Prize and Miles Franklin Award-shortlisted An Isolated Incident, and three non-fiction books. Her articles and essays on sex, feminism, culture and literature have been published widely including in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Observer and the Age. Emily works as a teacher and as a mentor to young and emerging writers and was the 2018/2019 Writer-in-Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.

In episode 27 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we talk to Emily about her interest in hoarding disorder, our relationships to material possessions, and why it’s often so difficult to talk about what causes us pain.

She also draws on her experience as the longtime teacher of Writing NSW’s Year of the Novel course and shares her key advice for writers.

Books (etc) discussed in this episode
Friends and Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford (who we interviewed in ep 24)
– The Shape of Sound by Fiona Murphy
– Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
– Emotional Female by Yumiko Kadota
– Writing in your pyjamas: a writing metaphor from Sandra Cisneros

Listen to episode 27 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 24: Sea-creature days with Kavita Bedford, author of Friends and Dark Shapes

In Friends & Dark Shapes, author Kavita Bedford uses the term sea-creature days, ‘Days when things that lurk beneath the surface start to come up and feel a little stronger in day-to-day life than they normally do.’ We’ve all had days like that.

In episode 24 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we interview Australian-Indian Kavita Bedford about her debut novel, Friends & Dark Shapes, Kavita has been published in the Guardian, Guernica, and Griffith Review.

A Sydney local, Kavita crafted the story as a love letter to her hometown. Its series of textured, lyrical vignettes centre around an unnamed protagonist, her share-house friends, and the lives of others they encounter across a complex, multicultural city where it’s easy to meet people but hard to make lasting connections. Grieving the loss of her father, the protagonist tries to shape her future in her city, while also tracing how it has shaped her.

  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast
  • Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast

Kavita drew on her own experiences of her father’s death in writing the novel, as well as her own experiences of Sydney. She was surprised by the complexity of grief. ‘Grief is such a slippery, tricky thing, and you do have moment of lightness within it.’

Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home podcast

She was also surprised by the process of writing about Sydney. ‘When I started writing about my own city, there was such an initial outpouring of emotion that I wasn’t expecting.’

The resulting book is a powerful exploration both of grief, and of a metropolitan, multicultural city in transition.

Kavita Bedford James and Ashley Stay Home

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli
– Teju Cole
– Olivia Lang
– Sheila Heti
– Rachel Cusk
– Jenny Offill
– Elizabeth Strout
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
Deepfakes by Nina Schick

Listen to episode 24 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 23: Sinking a hotel room with internationally bestselling author David Vann

When we spoke to David Vann, he was on his final day of a two-week covid quarantine in a hotel room in Cambodia. He had with him an AED (an automatic external defibrillator) and an EPIRB (an emergency position indicating radio beacon), in case of sinking. He wasn’t specifically concerned about sinking the hotel room, but if it happened, he was ready for it.

David Vann is the internationally bestselling author of seven novels and three works of non-fiction. Published in 23 languages, his books have earned him literary accolades worldwide, appeared on 83 ‘best books of the year’ lists and seen him featured at nearly 100 international literary festivals. Among many publications, he’s written for Esquire, Men’s Health, the Observer, the Financial Times and National Geographic Adventure. He’s currently a professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick in England.

David spent his childhood in Ketchikan, Alaska, a setting which features in much of his work. When he was 13, his father Jim committed suicide by shooting himself. The pivotal event in David’s youth has been explored and alluded to in many of his novels, but never more directly or confronting than in his 2019 novel Halibut on the Moon.

Halibut on the Moon is an excruciating depiction of a downward spiral to suicide, written from the point of view of Vann’s father.

In episode 23, James and I speak to David about his writing process for this novel and others, and what he considers to be great writing (to James’s dismay, it’s not Knausgaard). We also speak about gun proliferation and mental illness in the US, and the current challenges of the publishing industry, even for authors as accomplished as Vann.

Books discussed in this episode:
Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
The World According to Garp by John Irving
Goat Mountain; Aquarium; Legend of a Suicide; Bright Air Black; Last Day on Earth by David Vann
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
Shadow Child by PF Thomése
Eight Lives by Susan Hurley
The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

You can listen to episode 23 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app. Find out about past episodes here.

Ep 20: Up against the limits of medical knowledge with author Josephine Taylor

“I was pretty well bedridden, unable to move very easily for about the first year … I’d sort of have to shallow breathe into the tops of my lungs.”

When Josephine Taylor first began to experience chronic pain, she started to reduce her commitments. She was a career woman and a mum. But gradually, she had to shut down her whole life. Meanwhile, she struggled to get a diagnosis.

  • James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast
  • James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Eventually the doctors concluded she had vulvodynia, chronic vulva pain lasting three months or longer that is medically unexplained. “That doesn’t mean it’s not real,” she adds. “It’s a very real medical condition.”

Josephine is a writer and freelance editor who lives on the coast north of Perth, Western Australia. She is Associate Editor at Westerly Magazine and an adjunct senior lecturer in writing. Her debut novel, Eye of a Rook, is drawn in part from her experiences with vulvodynia.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

Trapped with condition, she began to learn its history and write about it. “It seemed to me very important that people understand that actually there hasn’t been a great deal of movement forward in understanding or awareness since the 1860s.”

Eye of a Rook is a novel with two narratives, both about women suffering from vulvodynia. One storyline is set in contemporary Perth, and one set in England in the late 1800s. The historical narrative includes shocking details about women’s medicine and treatment at that time, drawn in part from research into “The London Surgical Home for the reception of Gentlewomen and Females of Respectability suffering from Curable Surgical Diseases”, which opened in 1858. Taylor describes the barbaric surgical procedure, called a clitoridectomy, which is proposed in the opening chapter as the solution to one of your main characters’ suffering.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

For both women, their illness affects their personality, and robs them of themselves, as well as affecting Alice’s career in Perth. We discuss how vulvodynia affected Josephine’s life, medical victim blaming, the difficulty of being diagnosed with a little-understood condition and the ongoing confusion of it, and the ‘finitude of possibility’ that chronic illness inflicts on a life.

Josephine is full of excellent advice and reassurance for anyone suffering chronic and/or invisible illnesses, about surrounding ourselves with people who believe us, and not letting our past dictate our futures.

James and Ashley Stay at Home podcast

You can listen to episode 20 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.

Check out Josephine’s #FridayCookBook on Instagram and join her at this free Avid Reader online event with Lee Kofman on 9 February.  

This episode’s book chat
The Fifth Season by Philip Salem
Wintering by Krissy Kneen
‘The Wife’s Story’ by Ursula K LeGuin
Imperfect by Lee Kofman (who we spoke to in episode 3)
Unlike the Heart by Nicola Redhouse
Pain and Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson
Show Me Where It Hurts by Kylie Maslen
Hysteria by Katerina Bryant
One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987-1995 by Helen Garner
In the Woods by Tana French

For more information about vulvodynia and support:
The International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease
The Australian and New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society
The Pelvic Pain Foundation of Australia
The National Vulvodynia Association (US)
The Vulval Pain Society (UK)

From final draft to publication to audiobook

In 2017, I found myself with a 12,000-word novella. It was best piece of fiction I’d ever written, and possibly my best piece of writing full stop, and it sat on my hard drive, dreaming of readers.

I hadn’t intended to write a novella; my master’s degree program had dictated the word length. But writing it had turned out to be very useful. It allowed me to more easily develop novel-writing skills on a shorter project. I was able to go from idea to final draft in 18 months, with heaps of feedback and revision, something I never could have found time for if I’d been working on a manuscript of 80,000 words.

But novellas are tricky creatures. Publication call-outs and competitions for novellas exist, but there are far fewer than for short stories or full-length manuscripts.

This is why I was excited to discover the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award, which accepted up to 30,000 words. It also suggested including an essay reflecting on the writing process. This excited me further, because I had a lot to say about my writing process. The novella had come out of years of research into the Armenian genocide, including interviews with 140 people on three continents, and two masters’ theses. In fact, I’d enrolled in a creative writing master’s program because I had the idea to write from the point of view of a terrorist connected to that history — and the idea terrified me.

Before entering the CBDLA, I read the examples suggested, My Hearts Are Your Hearts by Carmel Bird and Cracking the Spine: Ten short Australian stories and how they were written, both published by Spineless Wonders. Using these as a guide, I wrote my reflective essay, combined it with the novella, and sent it in.

In 2018, I was delighted to be one of 11 longlisted entries, and very surprised to learn I was one of three finalists. The prize included digital publication and $1000. The ebook of My Name Is Revenge was out by the end of the year.

When Bronwyn Mehan, the powerhouse behind Spineless Wonders, approached me about a print version, I said yes immediately. I’d been studying writing and revising drafts and racking up rejections for nearly a decade by this time, working toward the goal of having a published book. Technically I’d achieved that, but the book wasn’t yet a thing I could hold or sign or gift to my grandmother.

‘One thing,’ Bronwyn said. ‘At 17,000 words, it’s not long enough to have a spine.’

So we added in two additional companion pieces, essays previously published by Griffith Review and Sydney Review of Books. This brought the collection up to 25,000 words. We also included photographs from my time in Armenia.

My Name Is Revenge book cover printed on chocolate cake

The idea of the thriller novella was to hook readers with a gripping story, set in Sydney and based on the real-life assassination of the Turkish consul-general and his bodyguard. The assassination took place in 1980 and remains unsolved. When readers finish the story, the essays and photos provide the historical context for its events, a history that has been suppressed due to the ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide.

We launched My Name Is Revenge in June 2019, with author Emily Maguire giving the launch speech. It was one of the happiest events of my life.

With the book out in the world, I organised bookshop visits and library talks. I pitched myself to festivals and podcasts. This helped when, later in the year, I had a full-length manuscript under consideration with Affirm Press, which became my second book.

Author speaks to crowd at My Name Is Revenge book launch

I thought that might be the end of the story for Revenge, but Bronwyn is full of great ideas. There was a voice actor named Felix Johnson, she told me, who would be perfect to narrate Revenge as an audiobook. This delighted me; I love audiobooks.

I worked with sound engineer Jeff Zhang to record the essays, and Felix worked with Jeff and Eleni Schumacher to record the novella, with Bronwyn coordinating everything, working around covid restrictions. It was rewarding to have the opportunity to narrate my work — and also exhausting! I’d never guessed reading out loud could be so tiring. It gave me new respect for audiobook narrators, especially those who bring characters to life the way Felix does.

My Name Is Revenge is now available as an audiobook worldwide, and also in print-on-demand and ebook formats. It’s so much more than I could have hoped for when I wrote that 12,000-word novella, and I credit my success in the CBDLA with launching my writing career.

My Name Is Revenge audiobook Ashley Kalagian Blunt

Listen to My Name Is Revenge on
Audible | Amazon | Kobo | Google Play | Scribd

The 2021 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award is open for entries until 7 February.

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.

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