You know that moment when someone asks you: ‘So what do you do?’, or ‘Where do you work?’, ‘What do you write?’?

And in a few seconds you feel the need to question your life choices or formulate ways of fitting together freelance writer, arts worker, sometimes academic and wishful writer of essays & stories in a comprehensive sentence. It’s the worst (for me) when the question comes at a gathering back home, in India.

You see, for many of us growing up in India, writing was not a career choice. Art meant painting, sculpting or dancing. Theatre as a career gave parents jolts and no one really knew what the PD for an arts worker was. I didn’t either. I didn’t know it was even a job.

I only knew straightforward trajectories: degree in writing and publishing → job in publishing house as editor (after X number of years). Gifted painter, singer or dancer or singer → luck prevails and you strike it big in the industry and become an artist. And with this massive amount of nuanced info, I came to Melbourne to pursue a life of words, four years ago.

Since then, I’ve completed a creative writing and publishing degree, been an intern at a publishing house, called myself a writer, appeared as an ‘artist’ at two writers festivals, taught writing and now am a program producer here at MWF. How did this happen?

More importantly, how do I state this as a job when I go home for holidays?

Don’t get me wrong – India has a writing culture, arts and writing festivals, theatre and its own cultural cosmos. But it’s, for lack of a better word, not as ‘mainstream’, or accessible, as it is here for someone to do an arts degree and naturally find themselves volunteering as a ticket assistant at a music festival or managing PR at a theatre and so on. Not saying this is easy, either.

The equation back home isn’t so straightforward. You see, India is a country of over 1.2 billion, which is 52 times the population of Australia. Here 23 million people are spread out on a landmass of 7.62 million km2, which is double the size of India that is 3.62 million km2. Too many numbers?

So when you squeeze 40 people in a room meant for 4, worrying about the colour of your shoes or if someone is stepping on them is almost a luxury. Getting air? Yup. That’s good.

Excuse the hyperboles – but what I’m saying is, where I come from, working in the arts is almost a luxury. Wanting to be a writer, almost revolutionary.

So it’s a blessing that I’ve been able to do that here. And I certainly respect those who get to do it in India where some days, daily life can become a challenge. Like public transport or commercial/government accountability, the court systems…

Anyway, before I slip down Nostalgia Street – here is how I got to be at MWF.

Among the many things I’ve learnt in my time trying to be a writer here, the most valuable has been learning to say ‘YES’. It has made me step out of my comfort zone to volunteer, give my time to arts organisations, ask questions, pitch projects and try to make every situation a learning experience. Yes, yes, so clichéd!

But true.

At the end of 2015 I said to myself, ‘In 2016 do something you haven’t done before for your career’. I’m happy to state that this year I have clocked 500+ hours of volunteer work, as a result of which I got to meet some inspiring writers and thinkers, write a couple of satisfying pieces and work with driven people who make the hours of work worthwhile.

This is not a recipe, just an experience.

Jasmeet Sahi is the Asia TOPA producer at MWF. She has written for ABC International, Peril Magazine, Eureka Street and ArtsHub. She is interested in the arts, feminism, food and social justice. She writes freelance and is a sessional academic at RMIT, where she teaches nonfiction writing. In her spare time, she dreams of reading lots and writing essays.

Image: ricardo via Flickr (license).