Kill Your Darlings – Part 1

I’m writing the second draft of my next book. And editing. At over 100,000 words the first draft is too long. So instead of being in the book I’m turning my darlings into blog posts. Seems I can’t kill them after all.

cadbury-biscuits-2

It’s embarrassing to be staying as a guest in someone’s house and to be stealing their chocolate biscuits.  Of course they wouldn’t see it as stealing. They were generous and hospitable, educated, erudite, warm, kind and old. One afternoon I had to escape the happy wedding preparations, if just for a few hours. The old man and I investigated river cruise timetables on the computer in his study. Every piece of wall space was hung with maps, masks and curios from time spent living and travelling overseas. Bookcases stuffed with mementoes, shelves laden with ephemera. So much stuff. His poor children.

“Why do you have so much stuff when you’re going to die soon?”

I imagined his kids having to sort though all these piles of dust. The agonising task of what to keep and what to toss. But if dad thought it was important shouldn’t we keep it?  Going home laden with memories from another’s life and duty bound to keep them – for what? For someone else to have to sort through them when they themselves died? Jetsam discarded when they left this world bound for another place where these things – they’re just things for God’s sake – were meaningless.

Thankfully the question stayed inside my mouth. Only just. I had to bite my lips closed to keep it there, safe, unsaid. What business was it of mine to question a man who’d lived a good life, an exciting life, a rich life and that the proof of this life was abundant. The physical reminders were everywhere, cluttering the large office into a small and claustrophobic space. If he needed such undeniable proof of what he’d done and where he’d been who was I to judge. This man was happier than me, richer than me, and – if I kept secretly eating all the chocolate biscuits – may well live longer than me.

 

 

No Pain Without Gain

This article first appeared in WQ, the monthly publication of the Queensland Writers Centre (QWC).

Mary-Lou Stephens, Sex Drugs and Meditation

The coolness of the concrete floor is a relief after the heat of the afternoon sun. Outside the scrub is drained of colour. All the leaves are grey. Inside the light is dim and a blessed air conditioner hums high on the wall. I walk to my spot and sit down, a mat beneath me and two cushions under my bottom. I’m comfortable now but I know it won’t last. Within ten minutes the aches will begin. Dull and annoying to start and then as time drags on they will intensify. Ten days of silence, meditating eleven hours a day. Why do I do it? You’d think once would be enough. And yet I have returned time and time again to sit for ten days in silence and in pain.

I do it because I’m a moody woman. I resent, I hate, I react, I refuse. I’m terrified of everything and everyone. I do too much in order to impress, or hide so no one will expect anything of me.

Tossed on the vagaries of emotion, it’s an exhausting and wasteful way to live.

When I sit in silence I experience all emotions, all feelings, all states. I experience them knowing they will change. Everything always does. Even the pain. And during this time, when I’m supposed to be meditating where does my mind go? Everywhere. It dives into the past, raking over the embers. It plunges into the future, inventing scenarios. And when it’s done regretting and worrying it makes up possibilities of increasing drama and intensity. After a while I tire of all of this. But am I ready to do the work? Am I ready to meditate properly. Oh no, not yet. This is where things get really interesting. My creativity bubbles with characters, stories and adventures that are pure imagination, often not of this world. It’s fascinating to allow my mind to follow where my creativity leads.

I’m not a very good meditator, it’s true, but there comes a time when the meditation takes over, when my mind finally stills, when I get the essence of what I’m here to do. Come out of all my suffering, be liberated from all my misery. Stop reacting and resenting. Stop being such a moody bitch.

I’m not perfect, not even close, which is why I keep meditating. I meditate because it helps in my day to day life, literally. I saved my job and found a husband through meditation. I also meditate because it helps my writing. Meditation is creative, not only because my restless mind supplies me with endless plots and characters. It’s creative because it helps me to write, no matter what mood I’m in, no matter what’s happening around me. It gives me the kind of detachment from the world a writer needs. It’s not selfishness, it’s just knowing that what ever the problem or drama is, it will pass without me meddling or trying to fix it. And if it doesn’t? Then it’s time for a different approach but an approach that’s tempered by thoughtfulness not desperation.

Meditation also allows me to write memoir with bravery and honesty. I’m able to step aside and let the story glow and burn without the temptation to modify  to make myself look better. It wasn’t always that way.

 

The words on the screen terrified me, on the page they were even worse; more permanent, more real. In interviews I’m often asked how I feel about my life, my dirty laundry some call it, being out there for all to read.

 

 

 

It was a different time, I say, I was a different person. The more I meditate the less I judge myself and the easier it is to talk about the life I’ve lived. Other people may judge me. They will think what they like. It’s none of my business. Besides, what they think will change. Everything does.

Judgement is a hinderance to life and to writing. I’ve been working on the next book and my progress is excruciatingly slow. This confused and frustrated me until I realised that I was demanding the first draft of my new manuscript be as good as the final draft of my last. What a weight of expectation. Impossible to meet. And yet I was judging every paragraph, every sentence with that dictate. Time to let this go, but how?

I have returned to this meditation hall hidden in the Queensland country side seven times. Seven times I have sat in silence and in pain. Seven times I have reaped the benefits. Am I suffering for my art? Some say life is suffering and the art is to overcome that suffering. For me meditation is the art of living. And writing.

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Mary-Lou Stephens studied acting and played in bands in Melbourne and Sydney before she got a proper job – in radio. Sex, Drugs and Meditation (Pan Macmillan) is her first published book but not the first book she’s written.

Find her online at www.maryloustephens.com.au and on Facebook www.facebook.com/maryloustephenswrites

 

How I Learnt to Swim in the Mainstream

Main Stream

How can we swim in the mainstream and still frolic in the areas that we love, those deep and mysterious rock pools where the mainstream doesn’t flow? By playing the game. Why not? It’s just a game after all. The beauty of the mainstream is that everyone knows the rules. The trick is to colour between the lines while using your own palette.

When my book was picked up by a mainstream publisher they wanted to change the title.Sex, Drugs and Meditation was too confrontational. Sex was okay. Drugs was not. They came up with a pleasant, inoffensive title and a pretty pastel cover. Trouble was neither the cover or the name was indicative of the truth inside. Fortunately, with a little persuasion, they agreed do go back to the drawing board. Literally. A new designer was commissioned. Her work was bold and edgy. I loved her cover concepts with a passion. But what would my publisher think?

I’ve always been on the edge creatively. I played in indie bands, wrote alt-country songs, before the phrase alt-country was even invented, and went to the alternative acting school, the one which fostered independent self-created work instead of slim blonde movie star smiles.

Money was not my goal nor was it the result. I learnt to live on very little. It was a great space in which to live and play but when my last band broke up I knew it was time to move on. When working in radio became an option I grabbed it with both hands, even though it meant diving into the mainstream. Commercial radio. Not my first choice but I worked hard, learnt a lot and eventually moved on to where I’d always wanted to be. The ABC. By then I had the skills that commercial radio demands and that the ABC wants. Now I get to swim in some interesting places indeed. For example in my series Modalities I explore the many ways of healing the body and soul that are available and interview the practitioners who facilitate them. Fascinating.

Writing books grew from writing columns for a newspaper. A weekly discipline that I loved. Although it was mainstream media I was given the freedom to be creative. Years of writing and rewriting have finally seen my book on the shelves. Despite diving into some very deep and mysterious waters the mainstream world has embraced it. You might see my meditation memoir in your local bookstore with my original title and a fabulous cover. How did that happen? Why did the publisher change their mind? The clever designer managed to swim in the mainstream but still remain edgy. A perfect balance. The best of both worlds. She played the game and we all won.

Personal or Personally? You chose.

It’s the little things. The little things that make a day gloomy. The little things that brighten it again. The rainbow in the grey and drizzly clouds. Clean sheets to slide into after a tiring day. The dog leaning in for a pat, eyes full of love, even though you know she’s just dug up the silver beet. Again.

Many little annoying things throughout the day can make it seem as though the world isSmiley coffeeagainst us. One annoying incident can be ignored. Two and we might become irritable. Three and that’s it, we know that everyone and everything is out to get us. The best advice I’ve been given in these situations is not to take it personally. Because it’s not personal. It just is. Once we take something personally though, everything becomes loaded with meaning, with emotion, and with blame and resentment. Don’t you feel tired just thinking about it? Nurture your mind, reclaim your energy and your smile by not taking stuff personally. No one’s out to get you, and even if they are, it has nothing to do with you and everything to do them. So no matter what’s happened, it’s not personal.

Instead of fretting about those little things that don’t mean anything anyway, why not spend some time getting personal? If you stop taking things personally you’ll have more time to spend with yourself and with other people. Take some time out to breathe, to stretch, to skip, to smile. One of the quickest ways to get personal with yourself is with meditation. If you want to find out what you’re really thinking, try to stop thinking! But all the experts agree as little as ten minutes of meditation a day can make a huge difference to all kinds of health and emotional issues. Nurture your soul with a little meditation.

There are some who think that the answer to all of life’s problems is a nice cup of tea. Whether it’s the extended process of brewing up a spicy chai on a cool winter’s night, or simply boiling the kettle for a quick and simple green tea, the whole process is imbued with anticipation and delight. And the end result is a sip, a sigh, a smack of the lips. The little things that add up to an experience. A small experience that’s true, just a little thing, and the easiest way to nurture body, mind and soul.

 

Ten Insights into Sex Drugs and Meditation

From an interview with Beauty and Lace

You have had quite a varied career Mary-Lou, what made you want to write a book?Sex, Drugs and Meditation  Mary-Lou Stephens

When I traveled overseas some years ago people asked to see my photographs when I got back. I had only taken twelve and they were on a disposable camera. A friend pointed out that photography clearly wasn’t my thing and suggested I write about my trip instead. I did. That resulted in being asked to write a weekly column for the local newspaper which in turn led to writing short stories and a novel. The instigation for this memoir came from reading self-help books. I always loved the case studies where people transformed their lives. I realised my life was one big case study and that people might like to read about it.

Can you tell us a little about ‘Sex, Drugs & Meditation’?

I didn’t go to a ten day silent meditation retreat because I was happy. I went because my life needed to change. Sex, Drugs and Meditation is told within the framework of that ten day meditation retreat. During those ten days I confronted the demons of my past; drugs, alcohol, food and religion…. and the demons in my mind; paranoia, self-loathing, fear and rage. I relived my time spent in Twelve Step programs, my years at acting school, the joy and heartbreak of my former life as a musician and the journey that led me to work in radio.

For ten days and nights I battled with my memories, mistakes and fantasies. The long hours spent meditating resulted in excruciating physical pain.

Facing the pain, accepting it and overcoming it enabled me to understand, on every level, the basic tenet of the meditation technique – everything changes.

When I left the meditation centre I knew I had changed. What surprised me was that within 2 weeks something so wonderful and completely unexpected showed up in my life that even I, the great doubter, had to believe again in life and in love.

What would you say was the catalyst for changing your life?

I’ve had many changes in my life. The catalyst for giving up drugs was the death of my father when I was in my twenties. I realised for the first time that I wasn’t immortal and as I was going to die anyway, why rush into it.
The catalyst for doing the meditation retreat that changed my life was my work. My dream job had become a nightmare. My new boss made my working life hell. I knew he wouldn’t change. I knew the company I worked for wouldn’t change. If I was to keep the job I loved, there was only one thing I could change. Myself.

What was the most enlightening lesson you took from your 10 day meditation retreat?

I had many realisations at the retreat; why I’d always had trouble with relationships, why I’d always resented my bosses, and why I’d always felt like a victim. But the biggest realisation was that I create my own misery by the way I choose to think – always churning over the past, always worrying about the future, and if there’s nothing to worry about I invent things to worry about! I make myself miserable for no good reason. I learnt how to stop creating misery in my life and let the joy in instead.

Music, Radio, Writing – how closely do you think the three are related?

I love radio. It combines all my skills into one. When I played in bands I used to play music and talk in between. When I first started in radio I used to play music and talk in between. Perfect. These days I work in a talk radio format and there’s a lot of writing involved. I love to write introductions and teases that will interest people and hook our listeners.mary-lou stephens

I wrote songs for years and sometimes I would marvel as to where they came from. It was as if a muse had delivered them to me.

Writing prose can be like that too. And then there are other songs and writing that take endless rewrites and much changing around until they are ready for the world. But all three – music, radio and writing are best when they connect to the heart of the listener or reader. To me that’s what it is all about – connection.

Different readers will take different things from your book, but if you had to pick just one thing what would you want readers to take away from Sex, Drugs & Meditation?

That we create our own misery and that meditation can help us realise that and change it.

How does your life to date compare to what you had planned for it as an adolescent?

My life as an adolescent was not a happy one. I pretended all the time to be someone I wasn’t. The only time I was happy was when I was acting in school plays or singing in the choir but I never thought they could be career options. I did at one stage want to be an archeologist which is amusing in hindsight given that with this memoir I am, in a very different way, digging up the past.

What’s been the most satisfying stop on your career journey up until now?

My journey into working in radio was truly amazing. After many years of banging my head against walls as a singer/songwriter, once I decided to get into radio all the doors opened. It was incredible. I describe those events in my memoir.
And I must say, landing a publishing deal after years of writing was a real gift.

What’s next for Mary-Lou Stephens?Mary-Lou Stephens, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, Courier Mail

I continue to work full-time in radio and when I’m not at work I am writing the sequel to this memoir. Sex, Drugs and Meditation has a happy ending. My next book is the truth about the happily-ever-after.

What does being a woman mean to you?

I have worked in mostly male dominated areas, the music industry and radio. I had an epiphany when I was 36. For once I wasn’t wearing jeans and for some reason was painting my toe nails. I was suddenly struck by the thought that I was a woman. I realised that I had been living my life as if I were a seventeen year old boy; no responsibilities, playing and living all over the county, shooting the breeze with the blokes, going to the footy.
It made me take stock of what was important to me – being a token bloke or being the real me, a 36 year old woman. I stopped trying to impress the men and started exploring what was important to me. Being a woman means being equal but different. Taking pride in those differences instead of trying to deny them.

Thanks for your time Mary-Lou.

Sex, Drugs and Meditation – A journey to Self!

Sex, Drugs and Meditation – A journey to Self!.

A wonderful review from Cauldrons and Cupcakes. Check out Nicole’s blog if you haven’t already. It’s mighty.

“Sex, Drugs and Meditation had me engaged from the very first, and through its pages I found myself smiling, crying, and at times laughing out loud! It’s raw, honest, authentic, vulnerable and terribly brave.”

“Bravo, Mary-Lou Stephens! Your book is uplifting and wise, and gives hope to us all that we can find a place of peace and forgiveness within us, accept and love ourselves, and open up to the love and goodness available to us here in our ordinary lives.”