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.

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.

From comics to poetry with creativity

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Poem and picture: Car Crash

What a pleasant surprise today when my 9-year-old opened the door of my office and handed me a handwritten note. He said he felt inspired to write a poem. So adorable, totally out of the blue. This is what he wrote:

Car Crash
Flames burning the rusty old metal
Scraps of chaos flying through the air
Tiny glass shards continuously falling
Soon, metal turns into ashes
KABOOM

I encourage my children to read and write and at present, this child is always reading and creating comics. The problem is that I question the value of comics as the only source of reading, I tend to think that these books are little more than glorified picture books.

I understand that stories are stories. I know that regardless of the format in which they are delivered, they make us think and form options. But comics are easier to read than other types of books and they require less attention. And graphics replace the intricacies of plot and emotion that words alone can convey. If the pictures are telling the story for you, what work is left to the imagination?

The benefits of reading in developing imagination and creativity are well documented and every parent I know starts reading to their children as soon as they are born. But experts say that creativity has been on the decline since 1990. Although the loss in imagination has nothing to do with comic books, it makes me think that preference for comic books is a reflection of shorter attention spams of kids today.  Scientists don’t know what is the main culprit in the decline in creativity but they suspect that the number of hours kids now spend in front of the screen rather than engaging in creative activities plays a part. And we know that technology and information overload is reducing our ability to pay attention.

When I see my children restricting their reading to comics I wonder if their brains are just getting lazy. But then, they constantly surprise me with bursts of creativity. Whenever this happens I think that doesn’t matter what they read, as long as they read, the children are all right.

 

The Bridge Less Travelled



My book is launched! Pieces of North Shore. I say ‘my’ but the book is a collection of short stories from seven writers from Stanton Library Writers Group. Here is my presentation at the event in which I share the background to my story The Bridge Less Travelled. The book can be purchased on Amazon and Google and independent bookstores in Sydney.

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2 April 2017

Can I have a show of hands, how many people crossed the harbour bridge to get here today or came from outside the North Shore? When I finish my speech you will understand why I asked this question.

When I first arrived in Australia I went to live in the south of Sydney. I knew nothing about Sydney’s suburb rivalry and every area looked just fine to me. Then one day, I was waiting for the train at Riverwood station and started chatting to another commuter. With such a strong accent, I always get asked an inevitable question: “where are you from?” When this gentleman learned I was from Brazil he said: “wow, you crossed the pacific ocean! I’ve never even crossed the harbour bridge.” – I thought he was joking, I didn’t think it was possible for a Sydney sider to have never crossed to the other side, so I asked: “Are you serious?”

He answered: “Sure, am. There is nothing to see on the other side.”

My train was approaching so I left it at that but I took a seat next to the window thinking that there is a lot to see and experience on the other side of the harbour bridge or any bridge for that matter. And that’s what The Bridge Less Travelled tries to explore.

My story is about a beautiful Australian icon that connects places and people. But, as I show in the story, the structure that joins can sometimes separate and isolate people from change, acceptance and inclusion.

When you cross a bridge for the first time you leave behind the familiar and comfortable to enter the unknown. The more you do it the more used to difference you become. I’ve met people on both sides of the bridge that were pretty comfortable to live within the very well defined boundaries of their suburbs. But by limiting their lives by geography and excluding others from getting in, these people can only see the world through a very narrow template. My character, Sarah is one such person:

This is how the story begins:

‘Oh, you were brave to cross the bridge,’ says Sarah looking more immaculate than the unit she is trying to lease.

‘What’s a bridge when you’ve crossed the Pacific Ocean,’ I reply referring to my pilgrimage from Brazil to Australia just a few months prior.

‘True,’ she concedes, while tucking her straight dyed-blond hair behind her pearled ears. ‘But the North shore isn’t just like any other place in Australia darling,’ she pauses, ‘the North Shore is the Promised Land, home only to the “chosen few”.’

My character’s stereotyping is shameful and we are quick to look down on her but what strikes me though, is that if we really stop to take stock of our own attitudes and behaviours we will find that we all have lots of bridges to cross.

There is an old proverb that says “Don’t cross the bridge until you come to it” – after moving to Australia I learnt that the problem is that many times we don’t event realise we’ve come to a bridge. When we are blinded by stereotyping we normally only see the gap. To close the gap it takes effort and courage. In this respect, I agree with Sarah, you have to be brave to take a step in the other direction.

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.