Not ready, set, go: A lesson learned from writing my first book

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Two years ago, had anyone told me I was going to write a book, I would have laughed. But here I am, with two stories published in the anthology, Pieces of North Shore. The book is a collection of stories from seven writers and it was a great way to tip my toes into the world of publishing. I had always written a bit of marketing copy but I never dared to call myself a writer, let alone a writer of fiction. For me, to be able to write a story that anyone would pay to read was something reserved for a few endowed individuals born with endless creativity and that had found solace in books as children. How would I ever catch up? But this experience changed my view of what it takes for you to do something that you are passionate about but never tried because you don’t think that you will ever be ready to get started.

Pieces of North Shore isn’t a best-selling book but we are getting closer to our target each day and it has propelled my writer’s group to start working on a second book.

Life lesson learned: You don’t have to be ready to get started

As the saying goes, everyone has a book waiting to be written, yet, we keep postponing it. For a lot of people, it’s on their bucket list of things they want to do before they die but statistics show that 60% of them, will never even get started. We have a tendency to procrastinate our dreams. Maybe we think it’s too hard or we don’t feel prepared, knowledgeable, financially capable, don’t have the time or insert your excuse here.

As a rookie, I neither had the confidence nor felt ready to put my ideas in writing to get a story published for the world to see. I had many fears and the ‘what ifs’ plagued me with uncertainty. What if I fail, get criticised, don’t find my voice or no one likes what I write? My biggest fear was the language barrier. English is not my first language and I feared that this would show in my writing.

Yet, I wanted to write. So, I decided to take action and joined a writer’s group. Although people say that there is safety in numbers, joining a group didn’t make my fears go away. But by taking the first step I felt motivated to give it a go. The group offered courage and inspiration for me to keep honing in my craft, and as the group had a deadline, I had three months to produce my stories. Despite all my fears, I made it happen. Instead of focusing on my concerns I focused on the stories that were waiting to be told.

I had to do my writing at night after the kids went to bed. I spent hours revising and rewriting my work until it gleamed. I lost sleep over it. I cast doubt on my capacity to write and at the end, I still had the feeling I could have done better if only I could work on it a bit more. Eventually, I had to accept that I got to tell my stories the best way I could.

Most of us to don’t get started or don’t complete that special project because our ego gets in the way. We get stuck in the quicksand of perfection. This experience taught me that you don’t need to be ready, and in reality, we rarely are, there is always room to improve and to get readier. My stories aren’t perfect and now I see lots of ways I could have told them differently. But I made them come to life. Next time, I will have more experience and more resources to draw on, just because I got started.

If you are itching to have a go at that special project, don’t wait for all stars to align. It’s unlikely they ever will and you may end up like the 60% who will leave this life without the comfort of knowing that they tried.

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No icing on the cake. And no cake either.

Do you have days in which you just want to have one thing accomplished, without asking too much, just a few hours for yourself to get something done, and then, it just does not happen? Well, I have lots of days like this and today was one such day.

All I wanted was a few hours alone to work on a story I’m writing. Actually, no, that’s not all I wanted. I also wanted to bake a sweet potato brownie, roast some vegetable and make a pumpkin soup. I had planned to have breakfast and then sit down with my laptop and a notepad and write for a few hours. The later in the day, I had hoped I would do some cooking.

But then the kids woke me up at 6:30am asking to go to Bicentennial Park. “Only if you finish your homework,” I said from under the blanket. I didn’t think they would finish their assignments. But they did, with parental help. And they reminded me that they have been asking (or shall I say, nagging) to go to that park for a month and I keep putting it off – the traffic, the traffic!

I did not really want to go – the story kept popping up into my head – but it was such a beautiful day and I felt that mother guilt for saying “no” once again. I know many women would have stood their ground but the day before had been my son’s birthday party, he turned 12. How much longer will he be asking to go to the park? So, I obliged, and I told myself we would be back by 3pm. Of course, we didn’t.

So, there I was, driving to the park, feeling like I’m never going to finish the story and wondering why it’s so hard to make time for myself. I was feeling increasingly frustrated. I raised my voice at the boys at the petrol station when they asked me to buy Doritos. “You are going to eat the homemade brownies, stop asking for junk.” They hate the healthy stuff I bake.

I was also getting annoyed because I was getting annoyed. There are bigger problems in the world, I was telling myself, why get grumpy because I can’t find time to write unless I cut back on sleep? I know it sucks but it’s not the end of the world.

Maybe it’s just a question of getting my priorities right. Do I really need to exercise? Lately, I’ve been waking up at 5am to go to the gym twice a week, I could get up at 5am to write my stories instead. But I already wake up at 5:30am two to three times per week when I work in the city. There is not much I can cut there. But wait, this morning I spent an hour in the kitchen making sweet potato brownies. I also spent 30 minutes on Skype with my mum and an hour on homework. I also read a section of the weekend paper. How about the day before? I had a haircut (had not had one since January) and went for a run. I guess if I really wanted, some of these things could go.

But it’s so hard, everything seems to be a necessity. So, I practice mindfulness– not so much the sitting down to meditate, although I do that from time to time. I believe in living in the moment, in dealing with one thing at a time. So when I notice that I’m getting grumpy, I take a few deep breaths and try to focus and accept the present moment as it is. The problem is that accepting does not change my reality. No amount of mindfulness, praying, or yoga can put more hours on a day. I can’t defy the laws of physics, the day only has 24 hours. I wonder how you real people out there do it. Be it a sport or hobby, do you have to cut back on sleep to follow your passion?

I’m going to have to cut back on something. Maybe it’s going to be the cooking. Bring on the Thai takeaway. It’s impossible to do it all. I can’t have the icing on the cake and sometimes, not even the cake. Sorry for the whining dear readers. At the end of the day, I didn’t get the cake but I still got to eat the sweet potato brownie. There are lots to be grateful for. It’s just a bit of frustration when you think you can embrace the world.

Painting the full picture

I was lying across the couch with a book trying to decide whether to read or take a nap, when mum appeared from the kitchen with a Tupperware container full of colour pencils.

“That time of the day.” She announced smiling at me.

It was 3:30 pm and it was hot and I thought it was the perfect time for a nap, so I put the book on the floor and made myself more comfortable on the couch. But mum wasn’t talking about nap time. She walked over and sat at the dinning table and placed the container alongside two stacks of books laying in front of her. Her skinny, pale hand scattered the books on the table – books with black outlines of animals, flowers, patterns and cupcakes. She picked the title Floral Designs. She loves flowers and talk about flowers but there was no talking that afternoon. She was ready to fill the blank spaces with colours.

Mum flicked through the pages then put the book aside and started inspecting the tips of her colourful tools. She pulled a pencil sharpener from the Tupperware container and shaved away the worn surface of three pencils: “red, green and yellow” she said out loud. Looked like she was now ready to start her project, to get lost in the world of colouring in.

I’m all for meditation but have no patience to sit still to colour in mindfulness colouring books, or any books for that matter. I think I may waste precious time unable to relax, trying to figure out which colours to use and how to combine them. But mum has been colouring in these books for months. Her collection just keeps growing. She says it’s calming and that she likes watching the colour slowly spread across the page and the surprise element of creating something unexpected and pretty.

I realised I wasn’t going to fall sleep anymore so I sat down and moved to the corner of the couch to observe mum more closely. I saw that she selected the green pencil and, in slow, repetitive movements started to fill the stencilled page. She was focused and the room was quiet. All I could hear was the hypnotic scratching sound of pencil lead on paper. She paused from time to time swap pencils or turn the pages.

Mum smiles at everyone she meets and I saw her smiling at what was appearing underneath the colours. So I got up and sat beside her to take a peep at her creations.

She was creating beautiful patterns and I congratulated her on her creativity but what really caught my attention was that most of the patterns were unfinished. She was moving on to the next object without finishing the previous one. I flicked through the pages in the other books and most of them had not been completed. It didn’t make sense to me to leave the images partially done.

“Mum, why don’t you finish a pattern before you move to the next one?”

“That’s funny,” she frowned, “my friend asked me the same question.”

“Your pages will be even more beautiful if you complete them.”

“I don’t know,” she continued without looking at me, “I don’t feel like I need to finish them.” She turned the page.

Oh no. I could immediately feel drops of sweat running down my back. At the moment I came to the conclusion that mum, who is 74 and had recently been diagnosed with dementia, was losing the ability to see the full picture. She was going downhill much faster than I expected. I knew I was catastrophising. I wasn’t sure if the page hoping really indicated a progression of the disease but my Hypochondriac brain tends to resort to the worst case scenario when it comes to health issues. I grabbed a pencil and the book closest to me and started colouring in to calm down. I needed to find my focus again.

I just sat there in silence with mum, following the lines with my left hand no end in sight, no destination and I didn’t know if it was the repetitive strokes but I could sense I was starting to relax. When I completed a couple of patterns I looked at mum, content in her world of patterns and colours. Her back was straight and her neck leaning slightly forward. She was losing her hearing and her memory, but she looked content and poised. Just then I realised that it didn’t matter if she can see the full picture or not. What she sees makes her happy and that’s enough. I felt like I was learning to get the full picture. These books can be useful after all.

A Day in the Life of a Working Mother

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I wanted to whinge about this crazy week but ended up penning down a story instead. I plan to slow down but here I’m 1am and still going. One day. Soon.

“Kids get your bags and get in the car.”
Amelia recites this phrase every morning, except the days she works in the office. Those days her husband deals with the morning chaos.

“Being late is a bad habit.” She says running upstairs, two steps at a time, almost tripping over the last step. Steadying herself she glances over her room, looking for her bag. It must be in the wardrobe. Amelia notices the kids’ flannelette pyjamas still on the floor and squints. They never pick up their clothes. She wonders if it’s worth yelling again asking them to come clean the mess. Why bother, we will be even later. This is just an irritation, a minor irritation. Her spacious bedroom looks small with all the clutter. She walks over the jumble of clothes and stops in front of the sliding mirrored doors of her robe. Before she slides the door open she notices the face starring back at her. Her eyebrows climb, there is no spark in those eyes. She looks tired and her hair hasn’t seen a brush yet. Amelia pulls an elastic band from the pocket of her blue Nike jumper and quickly ties her short, unruly hair, into a ponytail. That will do.

Amelia races downstairs, this time holding the rails.

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” She instructs the kids, who don’t seem to hear, they are totally absorbed in their game of Pokemon cards. Amelia always repeats ‘let’s go’ three times. A single ‘let’s go’ doesn’t express her sense of urgency.

“There is no canteen money if we are late.” She warns them and this time the kids get moving.

They drive to school talking about Pokemon and the upcoming birthday party that she hasn’t started planning yet. She printed extra copy of the invitations to send to their family overseas but unknowingly to her Steve distributed every single invitation to his friends at school. She is uncertain of who or how many kids have been invited.

“Mum can you pick us up early?” asks Steve.
Her heart feels heavy every time she hears this question. She wonders if she is giving her children enough quality time. Is car time quality time? She read somewhere psychologists saying that car time is part of the equation. She finds this reassuring. She is focusing on the traffic ahead but notices Steve is still staring at her.
“I’ll try.” Amelia says unconvincingly, she knows she won’t be able to.

She finds a spot in front of the school.
“This is our lucky day!” Amelia cheers up.
“A school day is never a lucky day.” Steve mumbles.
“Common, you enjoy playing with your friends, don’t you?”
“Mum, no child likes going to school. We just go because we have to.”
“Ok but you have to hurry now, the bell will ring in a few seconds.” Steve’s mouth is a horizontal line now. She immediately regrets saying the word hurry and gets out of the car to kiss them good bye and straighten their hats.
“I love you.” She shouts as she watches them climb the fence. Her boys never use the school gate.

Amelia drives off waving at some parents chit-chatting at the gate. She sighs. She doesn’t want to be a stay at home mother but she wishes she had time to chit-chat sometimes. Her days start early and are full. Here she is, not quite nine in the morning and has already done one hour of work, before the kids got up.

The school traffic steals a couple of minutes from her morning. As she waits at the pedestrian crossing, she notices the blue sky dotted with a few specks of fluffy clouds. The thermometer in the car’s dashboard displays 18C. The perfect weather for a run. But she has so much on at the moment, she has to resist. She is hopeful that she will have a break for a run later in the day. That’s why she is wearing active wear and her GPS sports watch.

But the day doesn’t go as smoothly as planned. There were no pit stops. The only break she’s had was to scramble some eggs for lunch. She spent the whole day staring at the screen in her computer. It’s already time to pick up the kids and she still has emails to reply. She will have to return to the computer at night. Her eyes are red and sting. Amelia puts her elbows on the desk in front of her, holds her head with her hands and massages her temples with the tips of her long middle fingers. I’m working too hard.

On the way to school she sights runners pounding the pavement and wonders how they find the time. Don’t these people have mortgages to pay? For a moment she wishes her life was different. Amelia stops at a set of red lights and spots her birds. The common birds that are always there performing a synchronised dance across the sky, in perfect harmony. Amelia thinks they are pigeons but she isn’t certain. It doesn’t matter what they are and it doesn’t bother her that she has to stop at these lights for two whole minutes. She enjoys the show. She tries to count them, 25, 30, more. More than a messy sum of birds. This is a self-organised dynamic system showing cohesion and movement of a group without a leader. A show of competence and cooperation among birds, qualities she admires.

She arrives at after school care and from a distance she spots the boys playing soccer. Amelia worries that her kids don’t spend as much time at home as they would like to but she is watching them play in the soft rubber field, they tackle, they dribble and they don’t seem in a hurry to leave. This makes her feel better.

Amelia signs them off and they walk to the car talking about Pokemon and the homework that still needs to be done. But not tonight. They are now heading to music lessons and she will be there replying to emails while she waits at reception for thirty minutes. If the lessons were longer she would go for a run instead. She is still in active wear and wearing the GPS watch. She is not the only mother waiting in the tiny reception at the music school but she is the only one working on a laptop. The others are reading Women’s Weekly and those types of magazines. She wanted to reach out for one too, just for a bit of entertainment but she knows her night will be even longer if she doesn’t deal with the emails now.

Thirty minutes go by and the boys are back at reception before she sends the second email. “Just a minute boys.”
“Mum I’m hungry.” Whinges Jack.
“Just pressing the send button… now.”
She looks at them. “Ready to go.”
“Mum, can we stop for hot chips, I’m starving.” Jacks insists.
Stop? Stop? Who has time to stop. “We’ll have dinner shortly at home.”

They are walking across the footpath of the quiet shopping village. By now a cafe and a take away shop are the only stores open.

“But mum I am hungry now!” Jack doesn’t give up.
Amelia raises her arm to check the time and calculate how long it will take to whip up dinner, quickly read the kids a story, have a shower and go back to the computer. She feels a drop of sweat running down her back.

“My stomach is grumbling mum, please?”

Amelia stops walking and stares at the trees at the end of the road soaking up on what’s left of the sun in this gorgeous spring day. Even trees do a better job of looking after themselves. She wonders if she will ever finish reading the book she started last month. Amelia doesn’t give her kids junk food very often, she thinks this is lazy parenting. But she is too tired today.

“I just had an idea.” She says putting her arms around the kids’ shoulders. How about we go to Macas and grab a take-away dinner and you can eat in the crèche at the gym while I do my exercise?”

The boys don’t like going to the crèche. They say creches are for pre-schoolers.

“Only if I get a milkshake with my meal.” Jack tries to negotiate a deal.

“Ok, you choose your dinner tonight.”

The kids arrive at the gym carrying a brown bag in one hand and a clear plastic cup with a cold drink in the other.

“I’m sorry but the creche no longer opens on Thursday nights.”

Amelia gave the receptionist a blank stare, she could not believe it. Maybe she didn’t hear the girl properly with the thumping sound coming from the treadmills behind her. The girl showed Amelia a copy of the gym’s timetable, circling the creche’s opening times.

“Really? I rushed so much.” She didn’t mean to say that, the words just came out of her mouth, she could not hide her frustration. It was her fault, this is what happens when you are too busy, sooner or later you make mistakes. Why am I cramming in so much? Why do I have to be so productive?

She turns back to look at her boys and they smile.
“Mum, now this is a lucky day for us. Can we go home?”
“Ok, let’s go.” This time she only said it once.