Before I was a writer I was reader. Books have always played a role in my life. In my childhood they were a source of wonder. I used to pretend to read books to my brother, but I would make up stories to go along with the pictures. These were my first forays into storytelling and finding my voice.
When I was eight years I went to live in Bosnia where books were harder to get. Children weren’t allowed in the library so I had to state the title and get it handed to me. Reading in Bosnian made me transition into the language and I began writing poetry to work through the alienation I felt during the four years I lived with my grandparents.
When I returned to Australia at 12 years old books were an opportunity to regain my English language skills. I would read with a dictionary beside me, searching the definitions so that I could understand what I was reading. I hadn’t quite figured out how to use the pronunciation symbols in the dictionary and there were a few faux pas when I mispronounced a word, for example the day I used the word melancholy and mispronounced it by articulating the ‘ch’ sound. The only thing that worked for me is that most of my peers didn’t actually know the word itself so it was only the teacher who corrected me.
In my adolescence reading was a much-needed oasis. There was a lot of chaos and angst in my life and books were the place I went to escape. Books gave me an insiders view to worlds I knew nothing about, opened my eyes to the possibilities of my life, and ultimately made me dream and believe that those dreams could come true.
I don’t know if it’s my love of books that made me want to be a writer or if it’s because of my love of writing that I began to first love reading. It’s like the chicken and the egg argument—which comes first, but I always loved stories, telling stories, listening to stories, making up stories.
Now that I’m a writer reading is still a very important part of my life. Most of my life I have read on average one book a week, but in the past few years my reading has slowly been cut back. First because of the changes in my life from motherhood, then the demands of university, using the internet and reading a lot more online, and now because of the demands of being a high school English teacher. With life becoming busier there has become more of this sense that every minute needs to be productive in some way and relaxing has become a challenge.
While this year I have been reading a lot, but most of it has been work related and there is a difference between reading a book for the sheer pleasure and reading a book with a view to deconstructing and teaching it.
The past month I have deliberately made the effort to read a book a week and life has just become more in focus. It’s as if colours have more depth and there is a soundtrack that is continuously playing. My writing is flowing, creating boundaries between work and home is easier, and I don’t have this constant feeling that I should be constantly ‘doing.’ Instead I can have some much needed recovery time by just ‘being.’
While writing is as necessary as breathing, I know realise so is reading. The two are intertwined and one naturally leads to the other so I’m going to keep reading my one book a week and enjoying my technicolour world.
I received some wonderful news. I applied and received a grant from Arts Victoria for the development of my memoir. The incredibly talented Alice Pung has agreed to be my mentor in the development of this project and I'm really excited about working with her.
I am especially grateful to have been successful with this grant at this point in my life. Working full time has been challenging and having a mentor will give me some much needed support and impetus to focus on this project.
This project is supported by the Victorian Government through Arts Victoria.
Today I delivered two autobiography workshops at the Immigration Museum. The first one was to year 9 students at Dandenong High school and the second to Grade 6 students at Eltham Primary School.
The students first visited the museum exhibition on identity and Faith, Fashion, Fusion and then we undertook some writing activities delving into the nature of our identity, thinking about who we are, who we want to be, and how knowing our story helps us to deal with life's challenges.
Doing these workshops was such a pleasure because it draws on what I've been doing with the anthology, and it also highlights how much more natural and effortless these public speaking opportunities are since I've been teaching this year.
During the workshop I had a conversation with one of the teachers who asked me about why Muslims put their identity forward. Which was a great question because it in a sense addressed the whole issue of why is there an anthology about the experiences of Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia.
He said 'I'm Christian and I don't ever say that about myself.'
And I said 'Well no one asks you.'
I explained that I never tell people that I'm Muslim because in fact I am not. I am of Muslim background and this means that this is a part of my identity and who I am, but that I always qualify that I am not practicing, and I only engage in this discussion because people put me in that position.
With me the conversations goes something like this.
Random stranger: "Your name is interesting. Where is it from?'
Random stranger: "Bosnian. Does that mean that you are Muslim?"
Me: "Muslim background."
Random stranger: "So why aren't you covered?"
Me: "I'm non practicing."
And while I don't mind these conversations and having the opportunity to engage in dialogue that will clarify misconceptions about Muslim people, it just underlined why there is the need for the anthology and the voices of real Muslims telling their stories and their experiences. So I told him to read the book and hopefully we both walked away with a wonderful shared experience. For me it was an affirmation of the importance of what I'm doing and for him it's an understanding about understanding that identity is not just what we are, but what people put on us.
I'm going to be delivering another round of workshops at the Immigration Museum on identity during the Melbourne Writers Festival on Thursday the 28 August 2014. And I'm also on a panel with Demet Divaroren on Wednesday 27 August 2014 about Growing up Muslim.
*A big thank you to Jan Morley at the Immigration Museum for live tweeting the workshop and photos.
I've been grappling with a dilemma for the past couple of weeks. It's a dilemma that all writers deal with--what project do I work on.
I'm currently working on my memoir. I've completed the crappy first draft and now I'm undertaking research and developing storylines and structure. It's the book that I've been wanting to write all my life and I'm still so committed and exited about it, however I'm finding that I need an injection of inspiration that this project currently can't give me.
I feel like working on something new and fresh. Something that's going to get my brain working. But is this a smart thing to do? After all this year I'm working full time and have much less writing time than before. Wouldn't it be better to just keep working on the memoir and chipping away it. Just push through the block of dread that I sometimes feel about it and just go for it?
I put my muse to the test. I spent a day developing the plot for a new novel. I felt such an injection of inspiration and joy that the next day I wrote 3000 words toward my memoir, but then I started second-guessing myself. Maybe I should just type up those notes and leave them aside? I should use these last few days of my school holidays to work on my memoir.
Except I didn't. I just don't feel like it. Trying to force myself to write it I would open the file and just stare at the words. I felt nothing coming at me, except a vague feeling of depression. In need of escape I went to the cinema and watched a movie. As I was walking to the carpark it became crystal clear. I need to please my muse and this means pleasing both of them. By working on two projects at the same time I would be creating a new energy that would motivate me in both directions.
But the question is how do you know the difference between procrastination and pleasing your muse? After all it's so easy to start something new when what you're working on becomes stale. In fact you could just keep starting new things and never finish anything, a fear I have grappled with for a long time.
I don't know how you know the difference. That's something you have to learn for yourself. I just know from experience this is what works for me. Last year was my most productive year ever. I wrote more in the one year than I had probably in the three years preceding it and that's because I stopped trying to be logical, and instead became intuitive. My muse is a chorus. She needs a few strings going on at the same time to feel happy and be stimulated. As each string is being plucked, she produces better music. So that's what I'm going to be doing. Even though it might not be the logical thing to do because of my commitments, it's the right thing for me.
So the movie that inspired my epiphany is The Other Woman in cinemas at the moment. Such a funny yet heartfelt movie celebrating female friendship and self fulfillment, themes that we don't often see on the screen.
Really enjoyed watching it and highly recommend it for a fun day (or night) out.
2013 has been a year of new things. I feel like I've been constantly pushed out of my comfort zone. It's been terrifying, exhilarating and sometimes frustrating.
I wrote more than I ever have and I tried new genres. Some things I was good at (writing memoir pieces and a novel for children) some not so good (I now have a children's picture book in my bottom drawer that only me and my daughter think is any good).
I finished a lot of things. I finished my Graduate Diploma in Secondary Education, and I finished my big, huge project of co-editing an anthology.
I learnt that I was capable of much more than I thought I was. At times I was juggling 3 or 4 commitments and wasn't sure whether anything would get done, but somehow I always did it.
So what does 2014 have in store? A lot more challenges and excitement. I got my first teaching job as a English and Humanities teacher at a Western suburbs high school, and I already have a few amazing things lined up for next year in my 'authorly' persona.
My resolution next year is to be kind to myself. I have a tendency of setting ridiculous goals which means I then struggle to achieve them, and if I don't I feel like a failure. So I'm going to try this new thing called realistic goal setting. Let's see how I go. Bring on 2014!!!!
At the Etchings Launch in Embiggen Books reading from Woman on Fire. Photo by Amanda Summons Photography.
It's been a big week and I'm still recovering. I finished university and I am now officially on the path to being a teacher. It feels so amazing to finally have reached this point and have it all behind me and my future as a teacher in front of me.
Last week was marred by a pretty nasty virus that I'm still not completely recovered from so I don't feel like I've had the time to properly take this in or even to celebrate.
However, on Thursday night I managed to go to the Etchings launch which I was so excited about. My memoir piece Woman on Fire is published in the issue and my husband's short story When I am Dead White was also published in the same edition. Such a lovely moment. I managed to do a reading and it was so nice to be a part of the writing community with all these other wonderful writers.
The theme of Etchings is Visual Eyes and so there are two covers for this edition and you can see me posing with both. It's almost like a his and hers version.
Kevin Brophy launched the issue and he said that today a book is becoming an art form and the Etchings journal is the most beautifully produced journal in Australia, and I couldn't agree more. Looking forward to reading the whole issue and finding out what gems await me. To view the issue click here.
Last week was also big because I very ambitiously embarked on Nano. I can only blame it on the illness affecting my mind at the time. I was a Nano success story for three days, and then stopped. It's just not the right time. I'm burnt out from study and dealing with the rather daunting prospect of looking for a job as a teacher. I have survived my first interview, but it was the most nerve wracking experience of my life and I'm still shell-shocked from the stress of it all. I also have some works in progress that I want to dedicate my time to at the moment and just enjoy the process of writing for a few weeks, without putting pressure on myself.
It was bound to happen so today was the day that I regretted signing up for Nano at all and felt such incredible resentment about this commitment. However, a commitment has been made which meant I had to sit down and punch out the words or I would feel even more crap. So I did. It's horrible writing. I'm just slapping the words down without any craftsmanship, but the world building is happening and I'm already seeing question marks of things to be filled in. So it's working. Hopefully once there are a lot of words there, I will be forced to do the craft and actually make something resembling a novel from this lump of miss-shapen words.
My cold is worse today than it was yesterday. Had two naps, lots of cold and flu tablets and have lost my voice so I'm doing lots of miming and hand clapping to get Sofia's attention.
Achieved my word count today so I'm happy. Going to lie on the couch now and perv on Chris Hemsworth in Thor.
Today's wordcount: 1,687
Total wordcount: 2,942
Day one of National Novel Writing Month and it's already been super tough. I have a cold so that's really knocked me out. I also had to drive to my publisher to have an interview filmed as part of the educational resources package for Amir: Friend on Loan.
I'd stayed away from chocolate all week in order to have clear skin for the interview, but this morning had to slather the make up on in order to cover the dark circles and red nose. Then I kept getting lost on the way there and back (was driving from the Western suburbs to the Eastern suburbs) so 45 minute drive there took 1 hour and 30 minutes.
I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to write at all, but the fact that I had publicly declared I was doing Nano forced me to find the bum glue. I'm going to be writing a blog post every day this month charting my journey so that I keep myself honest.
Today's achievement is 1255 words of word vomit. I'm content with that. I will now swallow lots of cold and flu tablets and lay my weary body into bed. Until tomorrow.
So I am ten days away from finishing uni and can't wait. I've attended my last class and am on top of my last assessment. It's an interesting process coming to terms with this milestone. I'm at the point where I'm excited for my life to begin as a teacher.
Just completed my Hell Week where I had to complete my last few assessments while proofreading the anthology. The great thing about reading it in its entirety was being able to appreciate the amazing stories and I'm feeling really excited about the publication.
Right now though I'm excited about the 'Summer of Amra,' (anyone who has watched Seinfield should know this reference from the Summer of George.) I'm looking forward to making writing my priority for a little while, until the school year starts and I'm working. I'm applying for jobs at the moment so it's just a matter of keeping my fingers crossed to see whether I have a contract for the year or if it's CRT work. Either way my first year as a teacher will be stressful so this is my last writing hurrah for a little while.
I have big impossible goals, most of which I won't achieve, but I figure if I fail I will still succeed as long as I have words down. One of my goals is to do Nano. After about eight years of trying I successfully completed my first Nano last year, so I'm feeling hopeful about this year. I'm going to challenge myself even further by undertaking another long term goal and I've downloaded Scrivener and now have to learn how to use it.
My plan is to do my Nano manuscript in Scrivener so I am forced to learn. Hopefully now that uni is over I can deal with learning new things. I won't be joining the Nano website, but I will be updating my word count via my blog and social media. So if you too are Nanoing, let's connect and push each other.
Amra Pajalić is an award-winning author, an editor and teacher who draws on her Bosnian cultural heritage to write own voices stories for young people, who like her, are searching to mediate their identity and take pride in their diverse culture. She writes memoir, young adult and romance under the pen name Mae Archer.
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