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On the table

Raihanaty A Jalil

"I’m a spreadsheet junkie, so whether it’s a first draft or editing, I actually record each 'writing session,' keeping track of my 'pace' (words per hour rate) and I make notes about factors that might’ve affected my output."

On The Table is an interview series with emerging writers from the 2019 Centre for Stories Inclusion Matters Hot Desk Fellowship. Here, writers reflect on their Hot Desk experience, the changes to their practice, and the connections they made.

Raihanaty A Jalil (or, Rai to her family and friends) often describes herself as a “jack of all trades.” Over the years, Rai has been a high school teacher, a trader, hoon, poet, rapper, trainer, and speaker. Rai aspires to be a “master of one”—writing continues to remain an underlying passion that, like water, forever quenches the thirst of her eclectic spirit.

Can you tell us about your writing practice (e.g. how and when you write, and what expectations you have of yourself when you do)?

My writing practice has truthfully been up and down. I go through periods when I am working on my writing every day, but I also have dry spells if there are life distractions (currently, this has been my health). What I will say, though, is that when I am working on a project for a defined time period (like NaNoWriMo or this Hot Desk Fellowship), I find myself working best and writing consistently every day.

I’m also a spreadsheet junkie (as Logan at the Centre will attest to), so whether it’s a first draft or editing, I actually record each “writing session,” keeping track of my “pace” (words per hour rate) and I make notes about factors that might’ve affected my output.

From recording hundreds of hours of writing, I’ve learnt that I can write any time of day, really, but I write best in short blocks (typically a 15 minute block), and I need silence or natural non-distracting sounds like rain or the ocean. So I can’t write with background music or chatter in a café—at least not without a good pair of earphones and this heaven-sent rain sounds app!

As for expectations during a writing session, I’ve learnt that I need to be kinder to myself (after stressing myself out over deadlines I made for myself that were unrealistic a year or so ago, which ironically stifled my creativity), so now my expectation is to just “show up” and sit with my thoughts, if nothing else, for a minimum of five minutes. If the muse is kind to me a certain day, I can and I have worked for over four hours (in my short blocks with a stretch/water break in between) and I have once even written over 4000 words in a day. But most days, I try to pat myself on the back for achieving even five minutes of work on anything to do with writing—where “thinking” counts!

Where did you start at the beginning of the Hot Desk Fellowship? What changed in your work and what did the Fellowship allow you to do?

At the beginning of the Hot Desk Fellowship, I was going through a writing dry spell. Now, lucky for you, I’ve got spreadsheet data to explain what that means in terms of words output! In the months of June and July 2019, I’d only written a total of 488 “new words” and edited 2095 words.

I started the Fellowship at the end of July 2019. Having a quiet and inspiring space away from home and life’s distractions, and having a deadline-of-sorts to work towards, in those ten weeks, I managed to write 5880 new words (five new stories and one new poem) and edited over 28,000 words (developing five “old” stories, eight “old” poems as well as beginning edits on the new stories).

(Important note: the way I count the words I’ve edited with my spreadsheet tracking, if I do two edits of a 2000 word short story, I count that as 4000 words edited because I’ve, in effect, read and edited 4000 words. So 28,000 words is, in reality, not as impressive as it may seem!)

Throughout the duration of the Hot Desk Fellowship, what changed for you in terms of practice?

Throughout the Fellowship, not only did it kick-start me back into that creative flow of story creation in a “quantitative” sense, but the opportunity to chat with other Hot Deskers and learn about their creative processes allowed me to explore a new approach to writing a short story—pantsing (i.e. writing by “flying by the seat of your pants”)! Those who know me well know I am a Plotter-with-a-capital-P! I plan a story right down to the dot-points of the conversation that will happen before actually writing the story itself. But for the first time in a long time, I experimented with having just a loose outline and pantsing to see where the story goes. I must admit, it was an uncomfortable experience and it produced a story with a different feel (that still needs a lot of editing), but I do love the story and enjoyed trying something different!

Have I been persuaded to join the dark side and intend to be a pantster from now on? In short, no! Plotting is definitely more “me,” but I will try pantsing once in a while for fun.

How does the Centre for Stories compare to your workplace, social space, and so on?

Centre for Stories is such a warm and welcoming space, intimate and inspiring in all its nooks and crannies. It’s a place I absolutely love spending time in, especially because of the people within, their genuineness and embracing nature. I’m fortunate to work in an environment that’s very similar in its openness and inclusivity. I think I feel most at home in such spaces that even my social circles have that same vibe.

A black and white image of Raihanaty looking away from the camera and smiling.

We ran a series of workshops around reading, editing, and publishing. How did you find these workshops and how will you apply what you learned?

The series of workshops Robbie Wood ran were so insightful and thought provoking. For example, the workshop on reading stretched my mind in terms of ways of looking at texts and using them to improve my own writing style, which I definitely intend to apply. It was also very eye-opening learning about the world of editing from Camha Pham, especially the resources I will be making use of. The last workshop on publishing I especially appreciated because I’m less familiar with the traditional publishing world and how to get my work out there—which was my main goal for the fellowship. My key takeaway from that last workshop was treating rejection as an indication that my work maybe needs a bit more tweaking or it is simply not a right fit for a publication (not necessarily that the story or poem is “bad,” which is a great source of comfort).

As part of the Inclusion Matters Project, we took five Hot Desk Fellows to Melbourne for the Digital Writers’ Festival. Can you tell us of your experience?

Being part of an interstate festival as an emerging writer was such a surreal experience. It’s without a doubt something I will always remember. Among the highlights included meeting fellow creatives and connecting on our shared passion for writing or the arts. One thing that pleasantly surprised me was how engaged and supportive Melbourners are for arts based activities. For example, the night before my performance, I met a number of creatives at a Community Arts event and there was such genuine interest in reading and/or hearing my work that one guy actually came the next day with his partner to our showcase!

The other major highlight was the opportunity to read a story—something I wasn’t completely confident about because I’ve had more experience sharing my poems at live events that is a different skill. The positive feedback from the audience about both the content and my delivery has boosted my confidence immensely and I guess I doubt myself a lot less.

Now that you’ve completed your Hot Desk Fellowship. Where will you take your writing?

My goal is still to find a home for my existing and new stories and poems. During the fellowship, I submitted 15 pieces of writing to multiple journals and competitions, and so far, 11 pieces have been rejected—which is cool. I realise it’s all part of the writing game, so I’m still sending my work to opportunities that come up to this day.

One of the rejections, however, I followed up on and met with the editors to get their feedback. I was actually surprised to learn that they liked my piece and were seriously considering it. Not only did they generously give me specifics of things I may want to change and/or expand on, they encouraged me to submit the piece again after I’d taken on board their suggestions!

So my plans include developing that piece further and resubmitting, as well as polishing all my other works and finding them a place to belong that will embrace their uniqueness with open arms!

Can you briefly describe the piece of writing you submitted to the Centre for Stories at the conclusion of your Hot Desk Fellowship?

(Warning: I’m sorry if this spoils the story for some of you… If you hate spoilers like me, I’d suggest read the story first before this description).

“The Tablet” is a short story inspired by my mother and close friends of mine, the latter who are migrants from war torn countries and whose daily struggle I’ve sadly witnessed. I remember in my uni days, during my family’s own tough financial times, my mother waking up early every Sunday to make finger foods she could sell to be able to buy extra groceries for the following week.

But the idea for this story—in particular, the message I felt compelled to share—came one afternoon when I was visiting my close friends, a young couple with three children. The father had just found a toy car on Gumtree his three-year-old son absolutely adored and couldn’t get enough of riding around in their living room. However, when I was talking to the father, he expressed his sense of failure whenever he looked at how old and worn the toy was and how he wished he could afford to buy his children new toys like other parents. I remember in this moment thinking, can you not see what I’m seeing, what you are giving your children?

So I wrote this story in hopes that families who are struggling, irrespective of their background, may be inspired to shift their focus on what they have rather than what is lacking in their life, because without a doubt, they are already giving their families so much.

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