Life Snapshots

Conversation: Strikes of Serendipity

Left: The Op-Shop Haul, and Right: White Gardenia, the novel in my goodie bag

Last weekend I attended an event held by my Literary Agent Selwa Anthony, where publishers and authors hear other authors speak about their journey to publishing. Held every year, the SASSY Seminar and Awards are about recognising and rewarding Australian authors in print, and provide a wonderful insight into the many paths that one may take before they become an ‘author’.

Last weekend’s event was my first SASSY’s, and I was blown away by the talents who were selected to speak about their author experience, and the talents in the crowd – published authors, aspiring authors and publishers alike.

There was Steve Worland, whose years as a screen writer were vastly different from publishing his first novel Velocity; Dr Damien Brown, whose memoir Band-Aid for a Broken Leg chronicled his experiences as a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontiéres in Africa; Manisha Jolie Amin, whose memories of the Indian music of her childhood inspired her story Dancing to the Flute; and Maggie Groff, who shared the interesting research she undertook (into cults) when writing her book Mad Men, Bad Girls and the Guerilla Knitters Institute.

There were so many more, some of whom I will be interviewing on the blog as soon as I have a spare moment, but one of the overwhelming themes of the day was the role that serendipity played in the development and publishing of their manuscripts.

I never really thought of serendipity in my life. Certainly God, or the universe to some, played a major role in my success. I had been liaising with a school in Sydney on their SRE classes about my day job, and when my contact was not available, I left a message for him to call me. When he called back, he asked me if I was Sarah Ayoub ‘the journalist’, and when I confirmed that I was, he mentioned that he’d been reading my blog and that he knew I was writing a novel. Apparently, he could recommend an agent to me.

The funny thing about this occurrence was that the agent he’d recommended to me was #1 on my list. I had recently attended a NSW Writer’s Centre event where I asked the speaker for some advice about the agents I had in mind. Selwa was number one of three, and although I was distraught that number three (who in hindsight was not 100% right for me) had told me to come back to her AFTER I finished my manuscript, she still featured on my list. But the speaker swiftly told me that if I had Selwa, I’d be a very happy girl. I spent the next month trying to track her details down, but to no avail. She was elusive.

And yet here I was, fast forward two months, with her details in my hand, courtesy of a day job I previously thought interrupted my writing dreams (it doesn’t, the internet does, but you get the drift). It was, as my favourite book-nerd Megan Burke described it, “too freaky to be coincidence”.

Clearly, all the authors who were at the event didn’t believe in coincidence. They had similar stories of blessings and serendipity. Serendipity I never really thought about until I heard them spinning their tales. A serendipity that must have tagged me also, because a week before the event, when I got tired of waiting for Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper or Paullina Simons’ Children of Liberty to appear in my mail box (have both books on pre-order, given that both women are among my fave authors) I decided to purchase Belinda Alexandra’s White Gardenia out of my next pay.

But I found it in my Sassy Seminar goodie bag on Saturday morning [every guest had a different book], four days before pay day. And I was like woah. And today, serendipity struck again. People who follow me on instagram might have seen it. Out on one of my op-shopping adventures (a joy recently rediscovered), I found the sequel, Silver Wattle, as well as two other books that would be perfect for my bookshelf: John Grisham’s The Brethren (even though it’s been years since I read one of his titles, I have read quite a few of them) and Alison Weir’s Britain’s Royal Families (I have the historian’s other titles on the Tudor Dynasty). All totalling $7.

So for good measure, I grabbed a really pretty gravy boat also. It’s been on the shopping list for a short while, and for $2, I can’t really complain. You never know, serendipity might not strike in the same place twice.

 

Conversation: Love my Way

LoveMyWay

Today’s issue of The Sunday Telegraph’s Sunday Magazine features a first person story on my relationship with my husband – from the time that I met him until our first wedding anniversary. It was a difficult story to write, and as it was stripped of its original length, I felt that it lost much of its beauty. Granted, and even if I do say so myself, my husband and I have had a love story for the ages, but it’s not just mine to tell. One of the hardest things about being a writer is that you’re not just sharing your own life, but inevitably, you’re putting others in the spotlight too. I’ve dreaded the inevitable fall-out that would come of publishing a story such as this, but based on the comments I’ve received so far, it’s a story people can identify with.

I think my parents now love my husband more than they love me, now that they’ve gotten to know him beyond the facade of him being an ajnabi (foreigner), but I still feel compelled to publish my original piece to give more background and context on a tough issue. As I write this post, I’m reflecting on a feature article I once wrote for Yen on this very topic, about five years ago. Even though my love story has moved on, some people are still fighting these very battles, and I hope that no matter where they are in their relationships, they find empathy in my words. Here goes:


“When I was a little girl, my mother’s teenage sister eloped with a man that her parents had forbid her to marry. In the furore that erupted afterwards, when I briefly learnt what the word elope meant and figured that, in my community at least, it was one of the worst things a girl could do, I promised my daddy that I would never do the same terrible thing and marry someone my family didn’t approve of. That memory came back to haunt me when I was 19, new to love and its complexities, and naive enough to think I could work them all out.

I had first met the centre of this complexity when we were both working at a telecommunications store while putting ourselves through uni. James was 20 years old, arrogant, and the store manager, and I was the nerdy 19 year old ethnic girl who arrived earlier to work than he did and quickly became the darling of our employers. Our mutual loathing for one another was only intensified by the fact that we quietly thought the other was hot. By the time our friendship blossomed, my friends had already known that I’d felt a little more for him, and advised me to go in with my head and not my heart. It was a warning for what was to come.

When he finally asked me out, almost eight months after we’d met, I politely declined even though I was more than a little interested. He couldn’t understand why – our chemistry was electric, we got along like the best of friends and our colleagues had bets on when we’d finally realise that our mild flirtations were indicative of something more.

I couldn’t explain the reasons. He was a WASP and I was the daughter of conservative Lebanese Catholic migrants who believed it wasn’t right for me to go out too much, have more than one boyfriend (ever, and that relationship would have to be cemented into marriage ASAP), or have sleepovers with even my grandmother out of fear it would damage my marriage prospects. As far as they were concerned, I belonged at home, where I would earn respect and become a lady.

He pestered me for one date before I finally agreed to accompany him to the movies, but by the time I’d convinced myself a date was ok I was already trying to get out of it. James wouldn’t take no for an answer, but couldn’t understand my reasoning either. It took a lot to explain that I was not like the Aussie girls he’d dated before, he couldn’t just pick me up from home. He offered to ask my dad if he could take me out, and when I’d asked if it was his death wish, he looked at me blankly.

I don’t know how he convinced me, but we ended up dating. The entire time I was haunted by my parents’ reaction, and dreamt of scenarios where it would all be ok in my head. I doubt he understood the gravity of the situation until my mother found out, fainted and demanded I explain my actions.

She did all the talking. How could her perfect Lebanese daughter, the apple of her father’s eye, the smart, cultured young woman who never got into trouble and who could recite her prayers in Arabic and sing Fairuz songs like a natural, be in love with an Aussie guy? How could she tell my father, or her father, or worse, the rest of the village?

After she threatened to drink poison in a rather dramatic fashion (because summoning the doctor with symptoms of disobedience by daughter was not dramatic enough), she finally got through to me: inter-racial marriages would never work out. If I married the Aussie guy I’d wind up divorced like the people on Home & Away and Neighbours (which to her may have been representative of all that was wrong with society).

I called and broke up a relationship that wasn’t even real to begin with. He hated it, I hated it, my parents hated it. But despite the icky outcome, my parents got what they wanted, and so did we. Our relationship was no longer a burdening secret, and for my parents, well, there was no longer a relationship. I took to my room, and for the first time in 19 years, started sleeping with the door closed. It was real and metaphorical; I had cut myself off from the world. I stopped eating and dropped about six kilos in a week, my eyes looked drawn and my personality sunk deep into my body. The girl that laughed everyday wouldn’t even greet the day anymore.

On the days I wandered our home, a ghost of my own making, I could see my mother’s worry and my father’s confusion. I’d hear them talking in hushed tones, pain in their voices, wondering if I had just fallen for the first guy that came along because I was never allowed to go anywhere or do anything. I was allowed to go out more then, but by then it was too late.

The years that followed are a blur of romantic gestures at his end, strenuous arguments at my mothers, and feeling as though I would never again find a place in my father’s heart. I had never before been so torn in my life, and unfortunately, some of the friends I expected to count on didn’t understand either.  We all went to a Lebanese school, and were expected to marry Lebanese guys who spoke our parents’ language and knew what it was like to follow rules that were a forgotten remnant of the 60’s in Lebanon but were very much alive by its expats in South-Western Sydney.

Suddenly, I was a rebellious girl, even though my relationship had been confined to a phone for so long. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw him, and the only photo I had of him was from the driver’s licence I had to photocopy when I made his mobile phone contract. I was Juliet, but I had two Romeos: my family, with my past, my heritage and my soul wrapped up in it, and my beau: the first guy to notice that I had spark even though I was the plainest girl in the room. He found me when no one else had looked and of course I was going to love him for it.

I know my parents thought they were doing the right thing, but despite their relief at the break-up, they realised begrudgingly that James never went away. Worse – they never had cause to hate him. He did everything by the book, even turning up to my father’s work and asking his permission to come to the airport (“just to see that she is safe”) after I’d been evacuated from Lebanon during the July 2006 war.

I think they wished he were at least a bit of an asshole so they could have something against him, but he was always the perfect gentleman. And to their credit, they respected that, allowing him his requests perhaps because of his patience, or perhaps because they eventually came to realise the power of his love. And thus finally relented.

The rest was a happy ever after of sorts and by the time I had their blessing, I could oblige his wish and marry him, which I did on Dec 5th 2010 – walking out my father’s house with my parents on both arms, happy for me – sort of the biggest point in a Lebanese wedding.

These days, I often wonder what would have happened if my parents never found out. Would James and I still be together? I wonder if it was the thrill of the chase that kept us going, because sometimes I look over at him and think about how we have nothing in common. What the hell sustained us for five years?

Our married life has so far been a tumultuous year reflective of a tumultuous relationship, and on my rare moments of insecurity, I wonder if he looks at me and wonders if I am worth it. I often find myself fretting about what he’d do when he wakes up a man and realises that the girl he fought for as a boy does not meet his standards as an adult. I am no longer the unattainable enigma; instead I’m the woman who tells him to put his dirty clothes in the hamper and the dishes in the sink.

The differences between us are stark and poignant. I wonder why there’s never enough food when we’re inviting in or invited out (Lebanese people are notorious over-servers) or why he never sees his relatives; he can’t fathom why I have to see a cousin every three days, or why weddings and baptisms have to be huge, costly affairs with so much food, pomp and people. They’re the kinds of issues we’re yet to navigate perfectly, and when I storm out of the house to ‘be alone with my thoughts’, I wonder what he’s thinking. Did we fight for something because we were on the same side, or because we really believed in the cause?

As I write this piece a few days before deadline, James and I have just celebrated our first wedding anniversary. In between our screaming matches and heated debates, we’re just a couple of adults trying to catch up on a relationship that had to grow up before it was ready.

Meanwhile, the aunty that eloped amidst the scandal of my childhood enjoys a very happy marriage about twenty years later. I hope I am at least half as lucky, but I know I am because my father had the night of his life at my wedding, giving my husband the thumbs up when he promised to raise kids who know how to speak Lebanese, do the dabke (Lebanese folk dance) and drink their granddad’s Arak.

There is such thing as a good fight. I started fighting at 19 and I don’t know if I’ve really stopped, but in the process I gained my independence, battled some cultural and social stereotypes, and discovered that there really is a love that’s worth fighting for.”

First published (as an edited version) in Sunday Magazine, 29th January 2012

 

War and Journalism

Lois: Kill, or be Killed.
Clark: Lois, you’re talking about war. This is journalism.
Lois: See, your problem is that you think there’s a difference.

From Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman – Season 1, Episode 12

As regular readers of this blog might know, I am an ardent Superman fan. I love the man of style in all his incarnations, and Lois Lane too (although, admittedly, I was slightly disappointed by Kate Bosworth playing my idol) – I even have Lois Lane magnets on my fridge (way too much information, maybe?).

Anyway, I tend to watch and re-watch episodes from my favourite series depicting the two from time to time, and I recently couldn’t stop laughing at this particular conversation between Lane and Kent in the newsroom. Those of you familiar with the series would no doubt be aware that Teri Hatcher’s depiction of Lois is not hilarious if not oddly confronting – the woman gets herself into situations and out of them by the sheeer stupidity of pursuing a story before she even thinks her plan through. Then again, the baddies might not be the same in the real world, but I am always struck by her competitiveness, even at the cost of being alienated by her colleagues.

It makes me wonder about the competition that others ask me about when it comes to writing freelance. Magazines might be competing for sales on the stands, but are freelancers competing for work? I tend to think that most of the competition in the industry is healthy – along the lines of ‘I can’t believe you nabbed a by-line on Marie-Claire, that’s awesome, I wish I could do that’ as opposed to ‘How the Fuck did she achieve that, I am jealous’. Well, at least for me anyway.

I happened to learn by example from one of my favourite writers and mentors, Rachel Hills, who was always been fairly altruistic when it comes to freelance writing. These days, writing is her sole way of making a living and she’s doing amazingly well for herself.

For the first time in my freelancing life, things are kind of quiet. I am not having a lot of success pitching to the magazines I normally write for, sometimes because my pitches are not right for the direction a new editor wants to take the magazine in; sometimes because they’re too similar in topic (ie, social networking) to a previous story, even if they are nothing alike in content and subject matter; and sometimes because the sources need to be presented in a particular light and the sources themselves choose not to go that way (for example, a potential story on cheating recently fell through because the magazine insisted the cheater be named and photographed).

As much as my quiet freelance life pains me (I derive a lot of my pleasure and self-esteem from seeing my name in print, even if that is odd, wrong and any other negative way you can describe it), I love the fact that I am also writing a book, which prevents me from wallowing in despair in a foetal position on the floor of my study. I am not launching scathing attacks (even inside my head) on other freelancers’ success or trying to beat everyone I know to the success punch.

In war, you’re competing for territory, prizes or whatever. In freelance journalism, the territory is the small number of pages allocated to freelance writers or money that they could potentially earn from those pages depending on the alloted freelance budget. But in addition to the work I have tried to do via this blog, I see tweets of advice and links to opportunities, freelance writers sharing tips and tricks with their fellow freelancers, and writer’s clubs springing up left, right and centre.

I’m glad for that. It is the calm in the freelancing, print-is-dying, post GFC war.

Wedding Mishaps = no blog entries

Wordsmith Laners, I’m truly very sorry about my neglect of this blog and my writing over the past few weeks. I have so many posts in draft format that my brain is failing to perfect, and although I have plenty of content for you, I just can’t seem to get into it while a hundred other things swirl in my brain. I am hoping you’ll forgive me when you read this edited version of my latest Bride to Be column, and I promise I will be back soon! All my love (desiring all of your understanding), Sarah xoxo

Picture this. You’re five and a half weeks out from your wedding and your stress levels are already running rampant, wreaking havoc on your skin and rendering you the type of bride you thought you’d never be. Your fiancé is scared of you, your best friend thinks you’re a diva and your photographer wants to kill you because your 10,000 commitments means you can’t settle on a date for the pre-wedding consultation. Your bank account has $243 in it, your dress feels heavy at one of your final fittings and you swear it’s a lot pooofier than you wanted it to be, and the veil you revolved the whole dress around suddenly doesn’t look right with the lace you chose when you were having one of your indecisive moments. The kinds of indecisive moments you usually have at sumo salad or muffin break, but quadrupled in magnitude. And then your band cancels on you. And people start telling you that the new owners of the reception centre aren’t up to scratch where their meals are concerned, and that there probably won’t be enough food on the big day, which is equivalent to the anti-christ’s coming to earth where Lebanese weddings are concerned. Suddenly, it feels like the whole world is crumbling around you, and you start talking to yourself in the third person (in public, which is something you promised yourself you would never do).

So what do you do? For starters, you don’t pull your hair out, (much as it seems to be the most appropriate action) because you know for certain that your fiance is not going to love you the same if you are bald. You don’t screech any profanities (even in Lebanese, which people are less likely to understand) at passers-by, because that would be entirely un-Christian and you think that Jesus is already mad at you as it is.

So what do you? You stop writing, and you stop making sense. You stop reading your beloved books and magazines, because your brain’s understanding capacities are somewhat diminished, and because you’re not crazy enough as it is, you let your eyebrows grow to horrendously frightening levels. You almost crash your car at the Give Way sign in Revesby. You start reading Contiki and Topdeck Travel brochures instead while you dream of Paris and Santorini and the monastry of the Black Madonna in Poland, which is somewhere you’ve never been, but want to go anyway because the Black Madonna would likely let you whinge and hopefully understand your predicaments with her amazing Mother-of-God powers. And then one day, you wake up, think ‘stuff it’, and decide to stop caring and start delegating.

You tell the wedding planner to discuss the menu options (and quantities) yet again with the reception centre – after all, it’s not like you can change the venue when the RSVP cards are pouring in like the rains of this Sydney spring. You have your mother, who is known for her ability (if necessary) to comandeer a large army by her sheer will, loud voice and determination, back her up, implying once again the enormity of the food situation.

And, because you tell yourself it would be mean to use your journalistic powers to black-list your band, (and because you’re apparently a bridezilla and thus everyone who has failed you thus far) you have your MC find you an alternative BETTER band.

And then of course, you motivate yourself to get out of your rut. You start by taking the afternoon off and treating yourself to the Now to Wow treatment at Benefit cosmetics at Paddington (because good brows fix everything) and a decent shopping spree. You buy shoes for your laylia (pre-wedding party) even though they’re ridiculously overpriced for their style,  and a pair of sandals because they’re pink (and encrusted with pearls).

Pretty Bridesmaid Gifts, no?

And because the National Australia Bank has an overdraft facility and you get paid this week anyway, you keep buying stuff. You want something girly and decide now is the time to shop for your bridesmaids. Of course, you consider yourself a woman of high taste and buy the kind of stuff you’d buy for yourself, walking out with four pairs of lovely

 earrings from Forever New ($18), pretty floral tea cups from T2 ($22) and four MOR scented candle ($40) whose amazing fragrance will be wafting through the air long after they bid you farewell for your honeymoon.

And then you go home and gorge on Pistachio ice-cream, because you know, you can’t fix all bad habits, especially the ones that taste really good, and do wonders for the closet you’ll still be loving long after the wedding has taken place and become a distant memory that threatned to envelope you in all its madness.

On Workaholism

Most of you already know that I am pretty much in awe of Rachel Hills. She’s a great mentor, and her career is an inspiration to myself on so many levels. I read much of her work with plenty of enthusiasm, but this piece struck a chord with me on so many levels (and yay, I was mentioned in it), and so I recommend you read it, especially because the rest of my post is really just my thoughts on her piece in the context of my own writing. Her piece is really relevant both in the context of writers (who often do other jobs and are constantly battling the competitiveness of the industry) and general people of the day and age who find that they never switch off. I commented with the below on her post, but also included it here for Wordsmith Lane purposes.

Another excellent post, Rachel. I always complain to my fiance that I wish I could just be one of those people who picks one thing, does it, and relaxes at the end of the day, but he tells me that my workaholism is the price I pay for choosing to keep myself constantly entertained, and I think on some level, he is right.

I started my blog Wordmsith Lane because I had a genuine desire to share everything about what it’s like to be a freelance writer and aspiring novelist who only wanted to get more work and raise her profile with people who wanted to break into the industry. But I am sure you noticed from many of my posts, and the fact that I got hospitalised last year (and I blame most of it on burnout) that eventually, I was startting to see it as a chore and not as something that was going to be beneficial to me. In fact, it stopped being relevant to me and the purpose it was created for.

The other reason was that I didn’t need to be talking about writing some more (all the time anyway) because I was already doing as much writing as my brain could handle and I didn’t need to be pushed over the edge. And although people probably read my blog and wonder what I am going on about, I don’t really care. Sometimes, writing about my headspace or the latest addition to my closet or what I need for the work ahead, gives me that ‘working’ feel without actually driving me to the point of worrying as to what I am achieving or contributing, especially in comparison to everyone else.

Earlier this year, I was so close to dropping out of uni because I just couldn’t handle it anymore, but I decided to push myself and sacrifice something else instead (like writing as regularly as I would have liked to, or blogging everyday on material that’s actually saying something). But in the time I would have devoted to myself, I ended up picking up another work day. It doesn’t help when you bring finances into it, either. Homes in Sydney are ridiculous and even though I picked an area that’s not exactly glamour central, it was still very pricey to live in. I would love to balance what I want to do, but ultimately, finances dictate that it is not an option. It doesn’t help that I like to shop either!

My goal right now is to finish my book as soon as possible, but I found that as soon as interest in my thesis peaked, my brain automatically switched its attention to the academic and forgot all about my novel, which really sucks. And I have decided to focus my attention on pitching to certain publications where I know I will have more success than others, and hopefully that pans out for me. There’s a lot to think about, and the more I tune in to the internet and new developments and things for me to do, the less I relax. And I dont want to be the girl who burnt herself out before 30. Tonight, for example, I was really proud of myself for not turning my computer on until 9pm, even though I normally do it at 6pm every night. I am sick of worrying about how my brain/stress levels/over-achieving characteristics could handle it if I don’t get to work (on another project) one hour after finishing the 9-5 job that’s been doing my head in all day. I have even worried about how my work will take it, or how I will feel work-wise, if I decide to change my name after marriage. I don’t know anyone else who obsesses over that to the extent that I have. And it’s all just for work, because my name anywhere else does not matter!

In the end, I try to remind myself that I am not even 24 yet and that I am already doing quite well work-wise given my age. Maybe then it means I will take it easy, even though ‘taking it easy’ seems so foreign to me. Ofcourse, it helps having great mentors like yourself who encourage me in my pursuits, but then again, perhaps this is just a testament to your workaholism as well?

The (de)merits of being a no-namer

Warning: Angry/bothered ramblings of a frustrated researcher/writer ahead.

We all know that Underbelly 3: The Golden Mile debuted on Australian TV last night. If you read the articles surrounding this release, you will see that words like ‘glitter’, ‘immortalised’ and ‘glamour’ are prevalent in the coverage, reportage and publicity of the show and both its happenings and storyline.

If you read my thesis proposal from two years back — you will see the same. That’s before I even knew about Underbelly 3 or heard of John Ibrahim as a matter of fact. What I did know was that there was a movie called The Combination on the horizon, and another called Cedar Boys. And in addition to the series Fat Pizza, there was also a lot of little plays and skits on everything from the cronulla riots to living life as a Lebanese ‘habib’ in Australia.

As you can imagine, all the little articles I am reading about now make me pretty mad. The notion of glorification of violence in media and pop culture is not new, but where was all this interest six months ago when I was pitching articles saying films and shows surrounding the Middle-Eastern community’s association with crime was glamorising and glorifying gang culture, crime and the seedy underworld?

If someone had paid me a little attention then, it could have been my big (research) break. Now, we have everyone, including the NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, commenting on this glamorisation and I am away at my computer gritting my teeth in bad luck.

Such is life as someone still trying to navigate the competitive and timely path of the aspiring (or in-the-making) wordsmith!

Is Writer's Block Fact or Fiction?

I know I have been a bad blogger of late. I have been tired, and bothered by everything, and unable to do anything. And to top my bad and bothersome mood off, I found out earlier this week that I have to give a ten minute presentation in front of all the media staff at uni about my thesis. More precisely, it has to be about a certain methodological, conceptual or structural problem that I am having with my project.

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