Writing Retreat…

There’s something magical about going to a different destination. Breaking away from everything going on in your life to focus on yourself for a change. That’s exactly what I did when I took myself away from my family, my job, my social life, to concentrate on my writing.

In my last post, I was battling to stay motivated in the re-writing of my novel, Sydney’s Boxer. I felt as if I wasn’t making progress. I was questioning why I’d decided to rewrite anything as it was taking forever to finish. I took a step back, examined and reminded myself how far I’ve come in my writing journey. I wrote Sydney’s Boxer in a year and a month. I entered a competition, became a finalist and was announced, 2nd runner-up. I have a burning desire to finish and publish the manuscript. I’d put in too much work and sacrifice to give up now!

Last year when I was pressured to finish Sydney’s Boxer for the competition, I booked a 2-night stay in Gordon’s Bay to write uninterrupted. It was wonderful. I had an entire studio to myself with views of the ocean. I was in writing heaven. I got so much done during that time. I left invigorated and motivated to finish the rest of my novel. I desperately needed this now. So my search began for another place to inspire me.

I managed to find a beautiful place within a short space of time. Without thinking too much about it, I booked it, put in leave and made it happen. My family would have to do without me for 3 nights. There were no complaints and because I’m a great planner, the house didn’t fall apart without me. On a Tuesday, I packed my car and left to a little cottage in Glencairn, a small suburb before Simon’s Town.

The cottage was cozy, beach-inspired and had everything I needed for a mini-break. The highlight was the view from the balcony – miles of ocean that turned a different hue each time I stood before it. I loved everything about the place, even the train that snaked along beside the ocean, stopping at Glencairn station, then continuing on its way. I easily would’ve stood on that balcony forever if it wasn’t for the purpose of my trip!

My laptop came out and so did my draft of Sydney’s Boxer. I began rewriting and self-editing. The beauty of being away from everything is your time is yours. No responsibilities, no disturbances, no routine chores, nothing. I concentrated on my novel like a full-time job, working from mid-morning to around 21h00 at night. I ate simple meals that required no cooking.  I took stretch breaks after each chapter on the balcony, savoring the sights and sounds of glorious Glencairn. The owner of the cottage, Rob kindly allowed me to sit on the deck that was sun-soaked in the mornings to write. Rob’s dogs, Saber and Stormy kept me company. I’d found a slice of paradise.

During my stay, I managed to rewrite and self-edit 8 chapters. More than I’ve done in a long time. It got me thinking about how much I’d achieve as a full-time writer. I’ve been yearning for this for years now. Fear has kept me caged to my day-job and instilled doubt that I’ll be unable to sustain myself and my family as an artist. Yes, I’d probably not afford to take short breaks in beautiful destinations, but I’d be fulfilling my purpose. Isn’t that what we’re all meant to do?

My writing retreat was a huge success. Not only did I finish more than I intended. It gave me the drive to finish Sydney’s Boxer, to get it ready for the next stage in the writing process. It also set the wheels in motion of becoming a full-time writer. I don’t know if I’ll make it, I don’t know what my future holds. The time will never be right, but if I have the courage to say yes who knows what the universe has in store for me 🙂

 

 

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The Writing Process…

I’ve been feeling despondent in my fiction writing. When I committed to writing a novel two years ago, I thought I had finally overcome the fear barrier of this mammoth task and was building courage in reaching my dream.

Little did I know that writing a novel wasn’t the hard part, deciding what to do with it after was! It also didn’t help that I’d entered my novel into a writing competition in 2018, coming in as the 2nd runner-up. The immense pressure of the competition had taken its toll on me. After the announcement, I took time off to decide what was next for my novel.

An opportunity arose that saw a publisher calling for partial submissions of manuscripts and I sent Sydney’s Boxer off in December 2018. In January 2019, I received my first rejection letter. It said that although my work was good, it wasn’t what they were looking for. It hurt, I’m not gonna lie. But it didn’t feel like it was the end of the world either. I knew that writers receive many rejection letters before being published. It was par for the course of this vocation.

What I didn’t yet understand about myself was that I don’t fare well with failure. Not winning the competition, not getting published added to my list of failures. And when I encounter failure, I never want to follow that route again. I’m a perfectionist, for me it’s all or nothing.

I decided that going the traditional publishing route was not for me and that perhaps self-publishing was the way to go. The next task was to find an editor to fix my novel and get it ready for publishing. When I got in touch with editors, I was told I needed to get my novel read by beta readers. So far the only people who’d read my work were judges from the competition and my writing friend, Dawn. In actual fact that was enough, but I decided to send it to other writer friends who offered to read it. The process proved fruitless. I’ve now learnt a valuable lesson that manuscripts aren’t meant to be read by friends or writers. Beta reading is strictly for readers. A deadline on when you’d like feedback is paramount. I was given the run around by people I trusted and it set me back.

At this stage I felt as if Sydney’s Boxer wasn’t good enough despite it doing well in the competition. A blog post by Inge Saunders on rewriting a novel caught my interest. The process detects mistakes through retyping. With the help of an additional monitor attached to my notebook, I began retyping my novel word for word. The process allowed me to fix dialogue, analyse sentence structure, spot word repetitions and highlight secondary characters who play insignificant roles in the novel. In the competition I had a tight deadline and didn’t have the luxury of time to deliver my best effort. Now without a looming deadline, I can review my work clearly.

As much as I can see the benefit of this process, it’s been slow going. Every time I finish a chapter, I question why I started the process in the first place. It takes drive to get it done as I’m working on the same project and don’t feel like I’m creating something new. Rewriting is tedious, calling for mountains of patience and perseverance to finish. Since I’m not a full-time writer, the process is taking longer than expected. Diving into another project would mean I’d shelve Sydney’s Boxer and I’m not prepared to do that.

All of this has had a knock on effect on my creativity. Where I had an endless supply of blog ideas, they’ve run dry because my writing process is taking so much out of me. On top of that I keep getting asked when my novel is going to be published! It’s hard to explain when I’m grappling with it myself. It’s so easy to fall into the comparison trap when other writers are publishing books every six months and I’m battling to get one book out. It doesn’t help too when writing blogs dictate that your first novel shouldn’t be published. It’s merely a pat on the back that you have what it takes to write a novel and should never see the light of day.

As much as I’ve noted the advice, I know that only I can decide what’s best for me. I can’t allow fear of failure to hold me back in publishing Sydney’s Boxer. Through my own experience, I have to learn what works and what doesn’t. It’s my journey after all, the good and the bad.

 

Running and Writing…

I’m a runner and a writer. I started running before I took my writing seriously. Through the years I’ve discovered how similar running and writing are to me and why I feel so passionate about them:

Discipline

Running – To be a runner, I had to train. In the early hours of the morning, no matter the weather, no matter how I felt. There’s no quick fix to getting fit, it takes sacrifice, time and effort to become a runner.

Writing is hard. Without practice it will always remain challenging. I write every night. Whether it’s for an hour, whether I’m tired, whether the words flow or not. A little adds up. I managed to write a novel this way.

Goals

Running – Setting goals for myself helps me to become a stronger runner. I select races I want to run and start training. I visualize how I’d like to do in the race. On race day, I give it my all, no matter the circumstances. There’s no better feeling than reaching the end of a race, totally spent, and receiving a prized medal to wear proudly.

Writing – I’ve journalled for years. I wrote short stories and penned a few poems. It took me a long time to commit to writing a novel. But once I did, nothing stood in my way from reaching my goal.

Planning

Running – Years of running has taught me how to plan my runs. Arriving on time to ensure I’m not stressed before a training run or race. Laying out my running gear at night before races. Ensuring my nutrition is on par leading to a big race. Keeping track of all my runs, race times, how I feel during or after a run helps me to identify and prevent problems as they arise.

Writing – I’m a plotter. It takes me a long time to come up with story ideas, characters, plot development, arcs. Everything is well-documented in an A4 book from visual pictures of my characters, their dress style, settings and loads of research.

Rest

Running is physically taxing. I need to take a nap after a race or before an afternoon training run to ensure that my body is rested and recovers from the strain of running. Rest days between runs are vital. I cross-train with swimming that uses different muscles and aids recovery.

Writing – I can’t write well if I don’t have sufficient sleep. Creativity is a mental game and very draining. Without power naps I can’t function optimally. Some people write well into the early hours of the morning, I’m not one of them.

Rhythm

Running – Training has resulted in me finding a rhythm when I run. It arrives after the 3rd km, when I settle into a pace and feel light on my feet. This is the moment when I know I can go on and on and do well on a training run or race.

Writing – I’ll say it again. Writing is hard. It takes patience to sit in front of a computer screen and stare at an open document with only a few words appearing, only to be deleted due to writer’s block. But then there are moments where I’m on a roll, where my fingers fly on the keyboard and I’m in a dance of passion! I love that flow!

Solitude

Running – I’m a lone runner. As much as I love running with others, I don’t like talking when I run. I run best on my own. I mentally speak to myself on runs when I encounter hills or feel tired. I remind myself how well I’m running, how far I’ve come and how I can push just a little more to get to the end.

Writing requires solitude. I have to be alone, in my study, writing. Some writers like to listen to music or have others around and function well this way. Not me. I enjoy the quiet, it’s the only way I can produce good writing. Sometimes I go to a cabin or a studio with a fabulous view and do nothing else but write, and that’s when I feel alive and the words multiply.

Motivation

Running – reminds me constantly how far I’ve come. From being a non-exercise person with unhealthy habits, who decided to take up a sport that totally transformed my life, one step at a time. What I put into running, all the hours, training, planning, motivates me to keep running no matter how many setbacks I endure.

Writing – I’ve journalled for years. I love to read. That’s where my dream of becoming a writer took shape. What started as a fantasy of writing stories has turned into a reality for me. I’m a Romance Writer and soon to be published Author. Writing is my calling, my passion, my future.

Community

Running has allowed me to meet wonderful people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I’ve made loads of friends through the sport. I enjoy their company, socializing and hanging out at my running club or at races.

Writing – I first joined the West Coast Writers’ Circle to discipline me in writing regularly. Then I joined a Small Writers group that offered support and guidance in producing creative stories. Next I joined the Romance Writers Organisation of SA (Rosa) where I found my tribe and finally committed to writing my first romance novel. I love socialising with writers. They inspire me and are always willing to share their wealth of knowledge.

Perseverance

Running – At the beginning of my running journey, I recall how hard it was to run 5kms with no walk breaks in between. I cried in frustration because I couldn’t attain it. I was so impatient and expected it to happen fast. It took over a year of consistent training before I got there.

Writing – I was disheartened when other writers were able to write an entire story with just a writing prompt. There I was struggling to string words together. It took me twice as long to come up with something and felt it was never good enough. I thought I was a failure and was close to giving up. But I didn’t, I kept persevering. Miracles happen when you don’t give up.

Dreams come true

Running – I admired runners, especially how effortlessly they ran. I wanted to run like them, but never thought I would be a runner. I never thought I could be good at exercise or any sport for that matter. I wasn’t brought up that way and starting so late in life was like a dream come true. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else!

Writing was always my dream career. Yet for so many reasons and bad choices, it evaded me. But the fire I felt for writing wouldn’t die. I found my way back and I know it’s all I want to do. A published Author is what I’ll be, I have no doubt about that.

Joy

Running keeps me sane. I have a full-time job and a busy lifestyle. Being able to go for a run is what my body thrives on. The joy I feel, commonly known as runner’s high is always there after a run. Running makes me profoundly happy.

Writing – A day without writing my thoughts, without reading, without thinking about writing is a desert. I derive great satisfaction from my blogging journey that commenced 5 years ago. Fiction writing was always harder to break into, but now that I have what it takes, I plan on never stopping. Writing gives me purpose and there’s no greater joy.

Last Love…

I glanced at the clock. It was almost 2pm. I’d told him to be here half an hour ago. I had planned the times to coincide with Mamma and Nannie’s trip to the Shopping Centre. They had much to do with the wedding coming up this weekend. Zubeida and Imtiaaz were at Madrasa and would return with Babba at five.

I paced up and down my room, stepping onto the small balcony, peeking down the road to catch a glimpse of him. Still nothing. I perched on the bed, placed a hand over my heart, trying to calm the erratic drumming.

This last month had been the worst time of my life! And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t known it was coming! Every muslim girl knows her wedding day is bound to happen. And it should be the happiest day ever.

Yet, it snuck up on me. I’d finished school last year and considered studying further to become a lawyer. Ruhaan enrolled at Capricorn College in Polokwane, fulfilling his dream of becoming a sound engineer. How I savoured his words, his experience, his freedom.

I thought back to when we first met in Nirvana primary school. A few kids were bullying me out of my tuck shop money. Ruhaan watched the tussle and came to my rescue. Taller than them and sturdy, he confiscated the money, returning it to me with a shy smile. We became inseparable. A close friendship that meant everything to me.

The fact that Ruhaan and I belonged to different religions didn’t bother me. We were best friends, and that was all that mattered. Spending time together outside of school was always tricky, considering muslim girls weren’t allowed out of the house without their family hovering close by. We were innovative though, finding ways to get around this. Ruhaan had become quite the pro at scaling the wall at the back of our double-story house, and with the help of foot-holds we’d created, gained access to my room from the east balcony. When the coast was clear, we’d watch movies, chat or just chill. We had a few close shaves at times, but somehow managed to keep our hangouts a secret from my family.

I didn’t particularly hold a close alliance to my culture, even though it was ingrained in me from a young age. All I was certain of was that I needed to follow the path my parents bestowed upon me. So a day after my 18th birthday, I was summoned to the visitors’ lounge. Babba was wearing his customary thobe over loose trousers and sandals, lighting a cigarette. Mamma had just finished praying, removing her hijab to settle down to a cup of masala tea.

“Nasreen, you’ve reached the age of maturity,” said Babba, the words rolling out of his bearded mouth. “And since you’re the eldest, we have great news to share,” he continued, pulling on the cigarette. “We’ve found a suitor from an affluent family who wishes to marry you, uniting our families in the sanctity of marriage.”

I was speechless. This couldn’t be happening! Not now, not when I had dreams of studying further. Becoming someone. I ran to Mamma, hoping she’d save me from this fate. She welcomed me, running her hand over my arm, planting a soft kiss on my forehead.

“Don’t worry my child, he’s a good man. Brought up well like you. You’ll fit into their family.”

“Only thing is,” said Babba, killing the cigarette, “they stay in Port Elizabeth. We won’t see you much. But I’m sure Faizel will bring you to visit.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks. I wanted to scream. To shout. A thousand emotions aching to explode, yet none finding their way out. How could they ruin my life like this? In such a callous manner? Not want me to be happy?

I cried for two solid days, refusing to leave my room, to eat or shower. My parents allowed this, checking on me, assuring all would be okay. Zubeida and Imtiaaz, witnessing my sadness, took on my chores, tidied my room and played my favourite movies.

Faizel and his family arrived over the weekend amidst fanfare in our household. Mamma had outdone herself, cooking pots of layered mutton, basmati rice and melting potatoes. Nannie fried dozens of koeksisters, smothered in syrup, rolled in coconut, ready for tea-time treats.

Faizel, I was told, was 25. He was short, stocky, with beady eyes that ran over every inch of my covered body. His father had similar features, while his mother was willowy, with the kindest green eyes. As we sat down to tea, Faizel and I were motioned to take the centre settee. I huddled up to the far end. The distance between us cold and uninviting. The conversation ran around Faizel taking over his father’s fabric business. They were the largest stockist in the Eastern Cape and were thriving. They lived in a mansion in Walmer, close to the coast. Faizel and I would be fortunate to have our own wing after we married.

Mamma and Babba escorted Faizel’s family to the dining room for supper, leaving Faizel and I alone. He turned to me, giving me a slight smile.

“I’m glad to finally meet you, Nasreen. I’ve heard good things about you.” He patted my hand. I flinched as if scorched by fire.

“Look,” he countered. “I know this can’t be easy for you. But I’m sure it will work out.”

“How can you be so certain?” I questioned. “You don’t know me. How can you assume we’ll love each other and be happy?”

“I hope you’re not one of those naïve girls who fantasises about romantic marriages,” said Faizel, minus the smile, in a tone that froze my insides. “In our culture, that doesn’t exist. You learn to love the man you marry, produce children, and contribute to the fortune of our family. That is all the happiness one needs.”

We sat in silence for the next few minutes. Tears veiled my eyes. My body trembled. Every muscle was fired up, wanting to run, escape my fate, this family, the life I was destined for.

Mamma called us to join them for supper. I was relieved when I wasn’t forced to sit beside Faizel, instead grabbing a chair close to Zubeida.

“Nasreen, are you okay?” asked Zubeida, searching my eyes for an answer.

I didn’t speak, yet my sister of 13, understood. She filled my plate with food. Nudged me to eat, and distracted me with lame jokes. Faizel was kept busy with Babba expressing interest in his business dealings. The table was abuzz with conversation, cheer and pretence.

It was agreed that the wedding would take place in a month. Sufficient time to plan an elaborate gathering of 500 family members. My family would fork out the cost of it all. An expense they could ill afford, but would take on as I was the first to marry, uniting the families in prosperity. I was escorted on numerous trips to the dressmaker to decide on a gown I wanted to wear. Since I showed no interest, Mamma arranged it all. She selected the style, bridesmaid dresses, every tiny detail, ensuring my wedding would be bragged about for months to come.

I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I would be leaving Nirvana, the only place I’d lived, leaving my family and most of all, Ruhaan. I couldn’t imagine not seeing him, not being with him. I couldn’t believe I was starting the next chapter without him. I hadn’t seen him since I’d found out about my imminent wedding. I hadn’t taken his messages or calls, not knowing how to break it to him.

Then he pitched up one evening on the balcony, just after I’d turned down the lights to go to sleep. I heard the faint whistle, the one he’d taught me in school, our special calling for each other. I flicked on the bedside lamp, leaped out of bed, rushing to lock the bedroom door to prevent being caught. I opened the balcony door, allowing him in.

Ruhaan entered, lifting his hoody from his head, revealing a mop of black hair, hazel eyes and strong cheekbones. “Naaz,” he demanded, grabbing hold of me, “what’s going on? Why haven’t you answered my calls?” He loosened his grip as soon as he spotted my tears.

“I’m sorry, Ruhaan.” My words a mere whisper. “I didn’t know how to tell you.”

“Just tell me. You know we don’t keep secrets,” he pleaded, dabbing the tears away.

“I’ve been proposed to,” I stammered. “His name is Faizel and he lives in PE. After the wedding, we’ll move there, away from my family … and you.”

He said nothing for what felt like forever. Staring into my eyes, clenching his jaw. Then he folded me in his arms, and I fell apart. The pain seeped to the fore. All the emotions I’d been dealing with alone, erupted. Gently he stroked my hair, held me tight, offering comfort.

We dropped to the floor, sitting with our backs against my bed. I hugged my knees, missing his embrace already.

“I don’t know what to do, Ruhaan. I don’t want to get married. I’m not ready to move away from my family, to leave us.”

“I understand,” he said. “But what choice do you have? You can’t go against your culture, your parents. It’s a battle you won’t win.”

As much as I wanted him to say something different, to offer a glimmer of hope, I knew he was right. There was no way out. No amount of crying or fighting would change my path.

We sat side by side, my head on his shoulder, staring into the night sky. For that moment, I felt safe, loved and at peace. Ruhaan did that for me, helped me see reason, guiding me every step of the way. I didn’t want to imagine how it would be without him. Didn’t want our bond to end.

As we stepped onto the balcony, just before he began his descent, I hugged him, breathed him in. With our faces inches apart, I whispered, “See me every night. I won’t be able to do this without you.”

“Of course,” he said. “I can’t stay away even if I tried.”

I didn’t plan what happened next. I wanted to thank him for coming around, for caring… so I kissed him. As my lips found his, it felt like a natural instinct, yet at the same time, forbidden. Ruhaan at first hesitated, tensed, but didn’t fight it, instead drawing me closer, deepening the kiss. We stood connected, letting it sink in, the magnitude of the barrier we’d broken.

He soon departed with a promise to return the next night.

I hadn’t considered what it would be like to be in a relationship with Ruhaan. Even though we were of Indian descent, a relationship between a muslim and a hindu was frowned upon. Marrying into another culture led to a lifetime of shame and disownment. He was my best friend, and now that I was being forced to let go of him, it was clear that I’d always loved him. Tracing my lips, recalling our kiss, I knew he felt the same way. I sunk into bed dreaming of him, falling into a peaceful sleep.

Each night Ruhaan would appear at the same time. We’d talk about the wedding edging closer, the fuss being made, the stress it was causing. The only thing keeping us sane was the hours spent in my room, cuddling, kissing, developing a desire to stay together.

Yet as much as we tried to fool ourselves that we could get lost in us, the reality was that the wedding festivities were about to begin this evening and would last until the weekend. It meant that we wouldn’t be able to meet again, ever. I needed to see him, to be with him one last time.

Finally. A jean-clad Ruhaan climbed over the balcony. My heart skipped several beats as I ran to him.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” I moaned.

“Sorry Naaz. I got delayed.” I wanted to be angry with him, to have more opportunities to argue, but sadly that couldn’t be, so I forgave him with a tender kiss.

As we untangled, I warned, “We don’t have much time now. It’s going to be difficult to be together after this.”

“I know,” said Ruhaan as if in pain. “I wish I could stop this wedding. Take you away from it all. I won’t be able to carry on without you, Naaz.”

“I feel the same way, sweet Ruhaan,” I stroked his beautiful face, running my eyes over his lips, wanting to get lost in them. “I have one last request.”

“Anything,” he whispered.

“Make love to me.”

Ruhaan froze in disbelief. He raked his fingers through his hair. “C’mon Naaz, don’t mess around. I can’t do that. You’re about to marry another man. I can’t take that from you.”

“Why not?” I threw back. “I love you, not him! I’ve always loved you. Please, Ruhaan,” I pleaded.

Those hazel eyes that I adored softened as he stared into me. “Are you sure?”

I grabbed his hand, leading him to bed. “Yes. A hundred times over.”

We made love into the afternoon, the sun bathing us in its warmth. It didn’t matter that I was promised to another. In that moment, time stood still. We belonged only to each other. Fulfilling an act that felt right, that could never be erased.

After Ruhaan climbed over the balcony for the last time, I waited until he was safely away. I checked the time, it was almost 4pm. I had an hour. I ran into my en-suite bathroom, opened the tap to fill the bath. Heading to the basin, I threw back some pain tablets, washing them down with water. I locked the bathroom door and began undressing. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror. I was glowing.

As the water cloaked me, I flicked open the straight-razor, the one I had taken from Babba’s cabinet in the morning. Holding it unsteadily, I placed it against my left forearm, slicing through the radial artery of my wrist. The pain was blinding, demanding attention. Blood gushed everywhere, spilling into the water, turning into streaks of pink. I did the same to the right arm. I dropped the razor into the water, letting my arms fall in. I was starting to feel light-headed, struggling to focus. I thought of my family, the genuine love I had for them. Finding me this way would hurt them.

“Please forgive me,” I prayed.

I saw a young Ruhaan chasing me around the school field, the sound of laughter surrounding us. The older version schooling me in kissing, adoring my body, confessing his love to me. It was getting harder to stay awake, to hold the images. I stopped fighting, closed my eyes, whispering one last time.

“I love you, Ruhaan.”

© Sumi Singh

Nine years of sobriety…

I was 35 when I joined Alcoholics Anonymous to stop drinking. There were numerous attempts to stop drinking prior to this, with no success. At the time, I considered myself young, with a few more drinking years ahead of me. But my life was unmanageable. I was powerless over alcohol and in desperate need of help. One question kept taunting me though. Does stopping mean never having a drink for the rest of my life?

This is the thinking pattern of an alcoholic. The all or nothing approach. I couldn’t have one glass of wine, it had to be the whole bottle. Drinking in moderation didn’t exist in my world. So when it came to stopping, I had to eliminate drinking from my life. I was shutting the door on a lifestyle that had controlled and dictated my existence for far too long. In return, I received withdrawal pains, depression and loneliness that persevered for a year.

But still the question hung over my head like a noose, despite the fact that I was staying sober. I felt I was missing out on life, on enjoyment that others took for granted. I turned down invites to social get-togethers and parties, too afraid to admit the real reason behind it. I was ashamed of my drinking problem and even more ashamed of people finding out I was in AA. It seemed as if my future seemed bleak without alcohol around.

Working the 12 step program taught me not to predict the future. Not to imagine how a birthday, Christmas or New Year’s eve would be without a drink in my hand. To live in the present moment and just for today, I would not take a drink. I found my Higher Power in my first year of sobriety in the rooms of AA. Since I was never overly religious, I adopted spirituality into my life. The more spiritually aware I became, resilience unfolded, and my resolve to stay away from alcohol deepened.

Attending regular AA meetings helps me to stay grounded. It’s a constant reminder of how my life was before sobriety, and all the amazing things that have transpired since. I’ve had the best of times and the worst of times in those meetings. When my father passed on three years ago, it would have been so easy to have taken a drink to numb the pain. But I didn’t. Instead I prayed, confided in my sponsor, cried in meetings, shared my pain and picked up the pieces of my broken heart. All the while staying sober.

After nine years of abstinence from alcohol, I have the answer to that question. I can choose to drink at any point. Nothing and no one can stop me from doing so. The choice will always be mine, and the consequences too. I live for today. Today is beautiful without alcohol.

Reflecting on 2018…

With every year that sails by, I take time to reflect on the highs, lows and lessons learnt along the way.

2018 goals and achievements

I’ve learnt through experience that setting too many goals in a year leads to despair when not achieved. 2018 saw me focusing only on two – finishing my first romance novel, Sydney’s Boxer and learning to swim. Each goal required immense determination and commitment. Both consumed so much of me and when things got hard, I questioned whether I was cut out for it. But I persevered and surprised myself when I finished my novel! And I learnt to swim at 43! Lesson learnt: It’s at the point when you’re close to giving up, when failure is circling you, when you have to surrender. A shift occurs, and a miracle happens. Don’t give up!

Losing a loved one

Roxy, my beloved fur-baby passed on 6 May 2018. I adopted her as a puppy, spent 12 glorious years with her, loved her unconditionally and never wanted to lose her. Her death toppled my world, stole the connection we shared, changed me forever. This is the second loss of a loved one I’ve encountered in my life and it never gets easy. Lesson learnt: The ones we love are only borrowed to us. They will return to the Lord sooner than we think. Cherish them while they still breathe.

Writing

2018 saw me enter my first competition, the Strelitzia Contest for unpublished Romance Authors. In what began as an opportunity to learn from a mentor and grow as a writer, turned into the biggest surprise of the year. My fiction writing, something that hasn’t come easy to me, that I’ve worked painstakingly at, was taken seriously and received an accolade. Sydney’s Boxers was chosen as a finalist and 2nd runner-up. I worked around the clock to finish and submit an entire novel on an extremely tight deadline. I believed that it had what it took to win the contest. But it didn’t and I was disappointed. Lesson learnt: Have no expectations in everything you do. Do your best and let God take care of the rest.

Running

I started running in 2010. I loved it so much, ran numerous races and even trained for a marathon. But since being diagnosed with early osteoarthritis in my knees in 2015 and undergoing knee arthroscopy in 2016, I cut back on my running. My condition is confusing as exercise plays a vital role in maintaining my weight by not overloading my knees. But too much exercise inflames them, leading to injury. Running was heavy on my knees and had to be balanced. That’s where swimming came in. I alternated between the sports and was able to enjoy each and stay injury free. Lesson learnt: Don’t give up on the things you love. Do whatever it takes to fix an injury, research your condition, listen to your body and determine what works for you! You are in charge of your body – not a condition, not what others say you should do, only you!

Work and Family

I have a full-time job. I write in the evenings. I train in two sports. I have a family. 365 days go by in a flurry of too many things to do and far too little time. Everything I do feels like work in every aspect of my life. It takes immense planning to keep everything working like clockwork. It’s extremely taxing and I find it hard to take a break and do nothing. I recognize and acknowledge I wouldn’t be who I am today without my family, my biggest helpers who keep me grounded and tell me when I’m overdoing things. Lesson learnt: No matter how accomplished you are or how successful you become, it means nothing without your family, the ones who’ll take care of you when no-one else will.

Gratitude

I am who I am because of God. I never for a moment forget that. Every goal I achieve, every blessing I receive, every hardship I encounter, I know that God has played a role in it. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t pray, meditate or thank him for this beautiful life of mine. Lesson learnt: Those who are grateful, will never need more, for they have all they need.

2018, thank you for all the good and bad moments. The lessons learnt will stay with me forever.

 

 

Sydney’s Boxer…

One’s first novel will always remain special. Mainly for the sheer drive it takes to write a novel and accomplishing it, despite all the doubts along the way. It was a journey where I tapped into my true potential, that what I was writing was meant to come out and nothing could stop me from finishing.

I will never forget the moment when it hit me I was afraid to write a novel. I’d been writing for a few years with the West Coast Writers’ Circle before I joined the Romance Organisation of Writers (ROSA). I attended all the writing events, sat with published Authors, read their books, wrote books reviews, but couldn’t commit to writing a novel myself. Rae Rivers, a successful Romance Author had always taken an interest in me. She sent me emails from time to time enquiring how my writing was going. I’d give excuse upon excuse on how busy I was to write a novel. Then at the Annual Writing Retreat in 2017, Rae sat opposite me and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Sumi, don’t let us meet at another event and you haven’t started your novel!” At first I was angry by her remark. I was ready to remind her of all my responsibilities, but stopped myself realising they were excuses not to commit. Fear was holding me back and winning. I needed to step up and do something about it.

Returning from the Writing Retreat, I made a promise to myself that I would write a novel. I pulled out of a creative writing group I was part of. I stopped writing short stories or anything else that was eating my writing time. Then I started researching tropes and lines I could write for, but nothing felt right. I thought of an idea for my story and nothing came. I prayed about it daily. I was becoming despondent and so close to giving up.

At the time, I was recovering from a knee op and couldn’t run. Instead, I was frequenting the gym, cycling to strengthen my knees. Ryan, a personal trainer friend came to me and we had a conversation about my not running and how much I missed it. There was a guy with boxing gloves, punching the bag ahead of us. Ryan caught me looking at him and said, “Why not try boxing?” I stopped cycling and looked at him in disbelief. “What do I know about boxing?” Ryan tried to convince me it was the best training for upper body strength, especially since I couldn’t run. I didn’t buy into it of course, leaving the gym still in limbo.

Runners World contacted me soon after wanting to do a photoshoot for runners who’d lost weight through running. I thought the universe was playing tricks on me. Why give me this opportunity when I wasn’t even running! But I agreed and went for the shoot and had fun with it. Thereafter, I drove to Sea Point Pavilion and took a 5km walk. I was peckish soon after and decided to stop at a Nando’s restaurant. I chose a table beside a corner wall to give me privacy and ordered. Waiting for my order, my eyes fell on the framed sketch hanging on the wall. It depicted a woman boxer and a story of how she’d taken up boxing to defend herself from abusive men. I couldn’t stop staring at the picture and fished out my journal from my bag and wrote a short story on it.

I didn’t think much of it after. But the strangest things were happening. Wherever I went, I saw a symbol of boxing, a sticker of boxing gloves on a car ahead of me, boxers in the gym training, the punching bag stealing my gaze. I couldn’t deny it any longer – God was steering me in the direction of boxing and I still didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t understand how I was going to write a novel about boxing when I knew nothing about the sport!

Once acceptance set in, I sat down to plot my story. I found visual characters, developed them and slowly but surely, I had something to work with. I was excited about it. I decided to visit a real boxing club to get a feel of it. But when I called the club, I was informed that I needed to train as a boxer to gain inside information. This wasn’t my intention, but I did whatever it took to get me there. I signed up at The Ring and Chris, the coach welcomed me. There was an actual ring in the gym, real boxers were training, hip hop music was blaring. My hands were strapped in cotton wrap in preparation of gloves being placed on them. I joined a mixed class of young athletic trainees. The session commenced with 15 minutes of skipping. I rarely skip because of my arthritic knees, but didn’t want to wimp out, so I did it. Next was all sorts of strength training –  planking, push-ups, lifting 5kg balls and cardio. At no point did we stop for a break. Then we were told to strap on our gloves and positioned around the ring to hit speed balls, punching bags and the like. Two by two was taken into the ring to spar with Chris. I was punching the speed bag and praying Chris wouldn’t call me. But he did and my heart pounded as I climbed into the ring and stood before him. He gave me commands, when to jab, when to left hook, right. It was all foreign to me. I couldn’t get the sequence right. Adrenalin was flooding me, fear and anticipation intertwined. Chris even swore at me a few times when I missed punches. When I left the gym that night, not only was I dripping in sweat, I felt like an absolute champion. Now I understood the thrill of boxing. You have to have guts to train like a boxer, to risk everything to win even if it means being beaten to death by an opponent.

I tried to do a few more sessions, but sadly my body wasn’t strong enough for the grueling training. But I had gained valuable research and was ready to start writing. My writing group was instrumental in spurring me on. We signed up for Camp Nano in July 2017 and my goal was to write 10 000 words. It seemed daunting at first, but I got the hang of it soon enough. I found I work very well when there’s a goal chasing me. When Camp Nano ended, things slowed down substantially. I was tackling the first fight scene and I didn’t know how to write it. Procrastination set in. I watched lots of boxing movies and went to live boxing matches to boost my knowledge. I prayed on it, asking God to guide me through the blocked stages of writing.

ROSA was promoting it’s Strelitzia Contest around November 2017. I don’t enter competitions, but what stood out for me was the mentorship they were offering to guide entrants through their novels. The requirements was the first three chapters of a novel and a synopsis. By this time I was already 50% into my novel and was considering entering. I spoke to Neil and Dawn Rae (Author and writing group friend) about it. They encouraged me to give it a go, to see what happens. The moment I entered, I knew 2018 was going to be a super-busy year for me. But I was up for the challenge and God was holding my hand every step of the way.

In January 2018, Romy Sommer, Chairperson of ROSA emailed me letting me know that my mentor was Rae Rivers! I couldn’t believe it! It was as if the universe had brought us together in some wonderful way. I knew Rae and was comfortable with her. She contacted me and I promised to send a draft of my first three chapters after I’d edited it. When I received Rae’s email response to my work, I didn’t open it immediately. I was so afraid she’d hate everything I wrote, would tell me I had no talent and was wasting my time pursuing a writing career. But she was so gentle and supportive. She thought my writing was pleasant and I had a voice. Except for lots of backstory in the beginning chapters, she was positive we could make it work. I was ecstatic. Rae’s approval of my writing, her guidance throughout the process taught me so much and I am forever grateful.

I submitted my first three chapters and the synopsis on 1 May 2018. It was a very trying period for me. My darling dog, Roxy was hospitalised and was very ill. She soon passed on and I was devastated. I didn’t write much and thought nothing of the contest either. As far as I was concerned, I’d already achieved my goal, having submitted my entry and told myself I wouldn’t make it into round two. But the universe had other plans for me. The week of the results arrived and most contestants wanted the outcome. Not me. I hate the build up to announcements, the pressure it places on people, the anxiety and stress – things I didn’t need at that stage. When I received the news I was a finalist, I couldn’t believe it! My first novel was chosen as one in three to go into the next round!

Then the it hit home how much work I had to get done in 6 weeks! I had to finish writing my novel, edit it myself and submit my entry by 31 July 2018. I had no time to waste and forced myself to finish. It took so much out of me – but proved I could push myself beyond my limits. I finished Sydney’s Boxer on 2 July 2018. It had taken me 1 year and 1 month to write and I was thrilled. What an achievement! I did it! I requested Dawn to assist me with the edits and reading my book. She told me to send it to her and take a break from it. Fear set in. How could I send her something so raw? I hadn’t had a chance to edit it myself, but she said I needed to listen to her and trust her. I did, of course and it gave me a much needed breather to get my mind away from the book.

I decided to make arrangements to go to the ROSA conference in Johannesburg. I booked a flight, arranged hotel accommodation and tried to take my mind off the looming deadline. But as time passed, I was panicking. Dawn was under pressure to finish her work and return it to me. Two weeks before deadline, I commenced on draft two and so began a grueling period of editing my work. I took time off work as I couldn’t get it done with all my commitments. My family took over all my duties. I slept very little, worked myself to a frenzy, had meltdowns on a daily, but managed to finish and submit my book on deadline by 31 July 2018!

The relief of having achieved my goal was golden. I was on a high for days. All the hard work, foregoing sporting activities, days of little sleep had paid off. I could sit back and indulge in wasteful activities without a care in the world. I had given it my absolute best and stayed positive that Sydney’s Boxer would do well. As the days drew closer to the announcement, anxiety set in. But I’d come so far, I needed to attend the ROSA conference and make the most of it.

I was glad I attended the ROSA conference. I learned so much, got to network with lots of Authors and built friendships. However, the gala dinner where the announcement would be made was fast approaching and trepidation was building. I went to my room and prayed real hard to steady myself. I took a nap, then a shower and got ready for the dinner. One of the finalists was there, Mandy Verbaan and we sat together, holding hands when the announcement was made. Rae Rivers opened the envelope and announced that Mandy had won, Tracy was the first runner-up and I was the second. My heart sank, I was disappointed. I’d worked so hard on Sydney’s Boxer, I’d given it my all. But it wasn’t meant to be and I had to accept it. The next day I got to spend time with my mom and sister in Pretoria and it was exactly what I needed to forget things for a while.

Returning to Cape Town, I had time to think about the experience. Yes, I didn’t win the contest, but I was one of three finalists who went into the second round on my first novel. That’s huge. It wasn’t what I expected entering the contest. All I wanted was to work with a mentor and I gained so much more. I had to pick myself up and vowed that it would not spell the end of my novel.

Sydney’s Boxer, my first novel, my idea from God, my hard work, sweat and all my tears, will be published.

 

Swimming…

One of my goals this year was to learn to swim. I wasn’t taught to swim as a child and rarely went near pools. In high school, I was invited to a pool party, and gladly accepted. While standing with a group of girls close to the pool, one of the boys pushed me in, clothes and all. I had a panic attack. I thought I was drowning and if I wasn’t saved in time, I probably would have. That fear has never left me and intensified every time I saw a pool.

Since I have osteoarthritis in the knees, and battle with running injuries, I was advised by my physio to consider swimming as an alternative sport. The mere thought of facing the pool set my anxiety racing. But I had to give it a shot, to be open to the experience, and not allow fear to cripple me.

I contacted Cyberswim and enrolled for swimming lessons in January. Lessons were conducted in a heated pool in Century City. Needless to say, I was the only adult with all the small children learning to swim! My first lesson was nerve-racking. The pool was filled with children, their Mom’s waiting in the wings, and coaches in the water. Fear cloaked me, causing extreme tension when I set into the water. Even with the support of a noodle and a coach, I battled to feel safe.

The lesson that followed the next day was somewhat better. Although the unease was still there, I followed all the instructions and tried my best. I had two lessons each week, on consecutive days and it really assisted in growing my confidence in the water. Swimming lessons encompasses learning all the styles like freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly. Each style requires proper technique and if not mastered correctly, won’t be done efficiently.

Swimming did not come easy to me. Since I was exposing myself to the water every week, I had to find ways of letting go of my anxious thoughts. I found that if I took things slower, it calmed my heart rate. I was able to concentrate on form and get a breath of air. I try to be in the present moment, not to be bothered by others, to focus on getting a particular style right. I also praise myself for doing well.

In less than three months I was able to swim unaided. The breaststroke was the one that got me to cross the pool 🙂 The freestyle requires stamina, proper breathing and is incredibly taxing. I found the backstroke  unnatural. Even though one breathes easily this way, laying on the water, as if on a bed, takes much practice and confidence in yourself. The butterfly is the hardest to master and I haven’t yet succeeded, but I hope to in time.

Swimming has opened a whole new world to me. I am excited when I see a pool and can’t wait to get in. I have the best workout in the water and feel happy there. It may have taken me years to face my fear of the water, but I promise myself I won’t stop swimming. Ever!

10 Benefits of Morning Pages…

Morning Pages is the brainchild of Julia Cameron, Author of “The Artist’s Way.” The concept is taking time out of your day to sit and write three pages of longhand in a journal. It is not meant to be a work of art, but the act of moving the hand across the page, writing down whatever comes to mind. Nothing is too petty, too silly, or too weird to be included. It is simply draining the brain of negative thoughts and fears that block the path to serenity and creativity.

I work full-time and moonlight as a writer, so I know how difficult it is to carve time out in the fast-paced life we lead. Having to wake 20 minutes earlier to do this task was challenging for me at first, but once I saw how it was improving my mood, and the positives it was bringing  ̶  the sacrifice became well worth it. Morning pages changed my life. It can change yours, if you like. Here are the benefits:

1) Positive affirmations. I start my entry with the date and a subject heading, (this could be anything like, “I don’t have energy for this day”, “I hate to write”, whatever springs to mind). Then I list affirmations. I write the same affirmations every day without fail. The more I write them, the more they bloom in my soul. One of them is, “I am a brilliant and prolific Romance Author.” Another is, “I am a determined and strong runner and swimmer.” The profound thing about affirmations is the more they are repeated, the universe works on turning them into a reality. Find affirmations that speak to your goals and write them down daily. They will manifest – I promise they will.

2) Morning pages provides direction for the day ahead. How many mornings have you awoken and felt overwhelmed by the many tasks ahead? Writing them down, diminishes the fear surrounding them. In actual fact, as you put pen to paper, solutions start forming in your mind on how to tackle and dispose of them efficiently.

3) They drive doubts away. I truly depended on my morning pages when I was under deadline to finish my novel. I had no idea how I was going to do it, or if I would submit my manuscript on time. But I poured my fears into my journal, and found the courage to do my best each day. Don’t be afraid to reveal your darkest fears on paper  ̶  strength arrives when there is honesty.

4) Silences your inner critic. I have a lot of perfectionistic tendencies, and am incredibly hard on myself. Writing down my “inadequacies” makes them less threatening. Morning pages challenges my inner critic daily, reminding me how far I’ve come, to appreciate all I’m doing and to love myself  ̶  flaws and all.

5) Aids in making decisions. Do you procrastinate over decisions? I do, all the time! The act of writing allows me to me analyse reasons for not taking action. I can weigh all the pros and cons in my morning pages. Pretty soon I find myself ready to make the decision,  standing  proudly by my choice.

6) Letting go of excess baggage. I write copiously about work stresses, grief, strained relationships, just about anything that weighs me down. Dumping my feelings on paper, does not make the pain any less, but gives me an outlet to vent. Solutions may not be readily available, but in time, what used to hurt so much, has fallen by the wayside. It reinforces that letting go isn’t pleasant, but necessary in moving forward, to be person you were meant to be.

7) Steers you towards your hearts goals. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Yes, I was writing short stories, poems and blogging, but I really wanted to write a novel. The more I wrote about it, the more things started materialising for me. If you don’t know what your heart goal is, try searching for it on paper. Once the heart pours onto the page, your goals become super-clear.

8) Generates ideas for creativity. Some people substitute morning pages for free writing. This form of writing is a timed session where you write non-stop, not worrying about grammar or whether it makes sense or not. The aim is to get as many words on paper in search of an idea that speaks to you. This is how creativity is unleashed  ̶  sticking around until the muse arrives.

9) Centres on positivity and gratitude. When morning pages becomes habitual, you can’t help but feel positive of your circumstances, despite the challenges. There is always something to be grateful for and morning pages affirms that.

10) Delivers serenity and a pep in your step for the day ahead. After I’ve written three pages every morning, I meditate for a minute or two. I’ve dumped all my negativity on paper and nothing stands in my way in having the best day ever. Serenity overflows and I’m ready to tackle my day, come what may.

Morning pages should not be seen as a chore. In fact the more you commit to it, the more habitual it becomes. On the days that you’re time-strapped, it can always be carried over to the next day. If three pages are too much for you, try two. Nothing is cast in stone  ̶  see what works for you, and let me know if it’s helped you in any way 🙂

Sporting Braces…

I was meant to have braces in school. Sadly, that didn’t materialize. Then, when I got my first job, I went for orthodontic treatment and teeth were extracted in preparation for braces. I opted for removable activator braces, but since it made me speak funny, I discarded it, never to be worn again.

Now twenty years later, I’ve revisited the option of braces. Yes, I’ve lived with my teeth being crooked all my life – so why bother changing the appearance now? Well, I feel it’s never too late to fix things, to make changes, to take up a new challenge.

My children don’t understand why I’d place myself under the discomfort, considering they’ve been through it, and advised me not to. But, I knew I would always do it. There is no better time than the present to face my fear, and make the sacrifice for a super smile.

The hardest part of having braces as an adult is how other people react to it. They notice a change in me and can’t figure what’s wrong, and when they finally spot it, make comments. I feel if you have nothing nice to say  ̶  please don’t say anything! Life is filled with people going through real challenges, disabilities and hardships for you to be worried about my teeth, and how I speak.

It’s a huge adjustment for me and will undoubtedly be the longest 15 months of my life. But I am embracing my decision, with the knowledge that this too shall pass.