When a Writer Meditates (quite incidentally includes a cure for writer’s block)

I’ve recently returned from a ten-day silent meditation retreat at the Queensland Vipassana Centre. Another one? Yep. It was the eighth time I’ve sat in silence for days on end, trying to meditate. I say ‘trying’ because usually I spend the first four or five days with a head whirling full of unstoppable thoughts and stories. This time it was no different. Over the ten days I came up with the ending for the latest novel I’m writing, the outline, beginning, plot and ending for the next one and the next two after that. I also came up with changes to an unpublished manuscript I still have great hopes for.

On the fifth or sixth Vipassana I did a few years ago I was having trouble stopping my mind from coming up with story ideas and it was causing me some angst so I went to have a chat with the Assistant Teacher. (Yes, it’s a silent retreat but you are able to ask questions about your meditation troubles to the Assitant Teacher who conducts ‘interviews’ at 12 noon most days.)

‘Oh, you’re a writer,’ she said. ‘I have a special technique for writers.’

‘Really, what’s that?’ I hoped it might involve pen and paper and a special place in which to write down all the spectacular story ideas I was having, each of which was bound to be a best seller.

‘Put your writer in a separate compartment in your mind, give her a typewriter, not a computer because she’ll only surf the internet, but a typewriter. Then let her go for it while you get on with your meditation.’

‘So, I compartmentalise my writer in my mind. What if she tries to break out and take over?’

‘Kindly but firmly insist that she goes back into her writing room and leaves you in peace so you can meditate.’

‘But what if I want to know what she’s writing?’ My writer could be coming up with brilliant ideas, more sure-fire bestsellers. I’d never know what they were about. It was a worry.

‘Then that’s when you have to master your own mind, observe the breath, observe sensations. Do not let her distract you.’

‘Right.’

It was a great idea in theory but my meditation practice is far from perfect.

So on this most recent meditation retreat I tried to tuck my writer away yet again but she absolutely refused. She wanted to play and came up with endless ideas which she told me in such an entertaining way that I couldn’t resist. A couple of times I said to her, ‘That’s enough. Go back to your room and type all these novels up. Stop telling them to me, I need to meditate now. I need to observe the breath, observe sensations and I can’t with you yapping away with all your oh so clever ideas and notions.’

She didn’t listen to me, she never does. So instead I gratefully received her idea for the ending of this latest novel. (It had been bothering me because I wanted a happy ending and there are not many happy endings in the area about which I’m writing.) But her idea was sweet and sad, melancholy and funny. It’s a total fantasy, but still it is a lovely ending. I also gratefully received all her ideas for the next umpteenth novels and patiently waited for her to slow down, which I knew she would do, eventually.

Sure enough at the end of day four her voice became softer and sometime on day five she floated off, popping back only occasionally to make sure I was still breathing. (I was and observing the breath while I did so.)

I won’t say that for the next five days I meditated perfectly. (I mentioned I’m not a perfect meditator but we aim for progress not perfection don’t we and some progress was made.) But my mind did become quieter and I even had moments when I could observe the breath and observe sensations without any other thoughts in my head. (Not many moments, but some.)

And now? Can I remember anything she told me over the course of those chatty days? Yes, thank goodness. You see, my writer does come up with good ideas and then, while I’m trying to meditate, she repeats them to me over and over and over again. And then a couple more times for good measure.

I don’t have writer’s block but if you do, I know the sure-fire cure for it. A ten-day silent meditation retreat. Meditating for over eleven hours a day. No reading, no writing, no talking, not even looking at another person is permitted. No distractions at all. Except your own head. I promise you, your writer will have a field day.

 

 

The Book of Love

variation-of-books-in-library

Recently I had a major eureka moment. I discovered how love works. I should really keep the details to myself and write a best-seller about it. And that’s a clue as to how this discovery was made. Books. Best-sellers, biographies, histories, romances and horror stories.

I went to a charity book sale, just out of curiosity. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular but I do love books. To tell you the truth when I got there I was a bit overwhelmed; so many books, rows and rows of boxes upon boxes of books. I didn’t know where to start, so I just browsed.

I picked up a couple of books, had a look at them and then put them back. I wasn’t really interested. I picked up a book I knew a friend would love but still nothing for me.

Then I started looking seriously and methodically. I walked up one aisle and down the next looking at each box of books as I went. I found a book that I really should read, a book that would be good for me, a book that would look impressive in my bookcase.  And I chose another book that was uplifting and inspirational, I knew because it said so on the cover.

But still, nothing that excited me.

Then I saw it. I couldn’t believe my eyes or my luck. A book by my favourite author, a book I didn’t even know I was looking for until I found it. And then I knew why I’d come to the book sale. It was purely to find that book. It was fate. The book and I were meant for each other.

That’s how love works.

You don’t know what it is until you find it. You don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing and then suddenly everything becomes clear.

Occasionally you’ll find a great boyfriend for a friend while you remain single. You choose the person you think you should be with, or someone your mother thinks would be good for you, or someone whose cover looks impressive, but none of them really excite you. Plus you’ve got to sort through a lot of stuff that you don’t want first. 

But when love does arrive, it’s totally unexpected and totally wonderful.

So, when I got home did I curl up in bed with my miraculous discovery? No. I put it on the shelf and started reading the book I thought I should read because it would be good for me.

Books may be meant for the shelf but I think I still have a few things to learn about love.

Photo via Glen Noble via Visualhunt

The Best-Selling Author Who Changed My Life

A couple of years ago I wrote a book. My publisher said they wanted it and then they changed their mind. My agent at the time told me if my publisher didn’t want it then no one else would, she couldn’t sell it.

‘Write me something I can sell,’ she said.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘Women’s fiction.’

‘Oh.’

Up until that time I’d written a novel about a sixty-something woman who was actually an energy being from another galaxy and two memoirs. I knew nothing about writing women’s fiction.

Shortly afterwards I interviewed a best-selling author. I’d interviewed her before, more than once. She’s a prolific writer. After the interview she asked me how my writing was going.

‘Hmm,’ I said. ‘My agent wants me to write women’s fiction and I’m not sure that I can.’

‘Of course you can,’ she said. ‘Come to my masterclass and I will teach you how.’

‘Masterclass?’

That’s how I found out about Fiona McIntosh’s commercial fiction masterclass, the masterclass that changed my writing life. I paid the money (it’s not cheap but it’s worth it), flew to Adelaide  and spent five days having my world turned upside down. Imagine this; you’ve spent a lot of money to be at a masterclass, you arrive on the first day and are surrounded by other keen writers, you await the pearls of wisdom that are going to drop from your teacher’s mouth and the first thing she says is this:

‘Nobody cares. Nobody cares about your writing. Nobody cares about your book. The world does not need your book.’

I felt as though I’d been slapped. I was a writer. I was special. I was a published writer. I was even more special. Of course the world cared. Of course the world needed my books.

I cried, I fought, I struggled and eventually I got over myself and remembered the rest of Fiona’s opening speech. She said, ‘The less I care the better I write.’

At the time I thought, Well that’s certainly not true, she researches her books impeccably, she’s written thirty best-sellers, she cares .

It wasn’t until I was deep into my next novel and struggling with a worrisome chapter that her words made sense. This chapter had to be in the book but I didn’t know how to approach it or how to make it work. Hell, I didn’t even know where to start. Then I remembered, ‘Nobody cares.’

It was if a weight lifted from my shoulders. Nobody cares. It doesn’t matter. This book doesn’t matter. This chapter certainly doesn’t matter. The world doesn’t need this book. Nobody cares. All the stress and worry of the tricky chapter disappeared. I began to write. The words flowed. The chapter sang. And all because nobody cares, not even me. Hooray!

Fiona McIntosh’s latest book, The Chocolate Tin, has just been released and she’s touring the country to talk about it. (You might have seen her in the latest edition of the Women’s Weekly.) She and I will be having a chat at a literary lunch in Noosa on the 25th of November. You can find the details here. And yes, there will be chocolate.

If you can’t make it to Noosa details of her other events are here.

And if you want to change your writing life then you can find out about Fiona’s masterclasses here.

But no matter what you do, whether you’re a writer or not, that simple lesson of ‘nobody cares’ may change your life.

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The Famous Author Who Dressed Like a Duck

Recently a friend of mine was talking to me about a writing project she was keen to pursue. Trouble was she wasn’t sure whether to write it as a novel or a screenplay.
‘You could always do a Graeme Simsion,’ I said.
‘What did he do?’
‘He originally wrote The Rosie Project as a screenplay but couldn’t get any interest. So he wrote it as a novel and what do you know, he got a movie deal.’

Graeme Simsion is famous for the massive advance he received for The Rosie Project and fair enough too because the book sold all over the world to the tune of over a million copies. He’s also very well known thanks to Bill Gates who read the book and told the world how much he loved it. But the other thing Graeme is famous for is dressing like a duck. He only did it the once for a conference presentation (to brighten up a very dry topic) but it’s become a thing of legend.

The last time I spent time with Graeme was at The Byron Bay Writers Festival in 2013. He was dressed casually without a feather to be seen. I remember being backstage with him while he was checking his phone for the latest rankings of The Rosie Project. He was very excited to discover that his book had made the best-seller list in Italy. Ah, the joys of being a mega-selling novelist.

Since The Rosie Project’s huge success Graeme has written two more novels, The Rosie Effect and now The Best of Adam Sharp which is being released next month. This latest novel is about love, music and coming to terms with the past. Hmmm, I think I can relate to that 🙂

Recently he got in touch to suggest we do something for The Best of Adam Sharpe. Naturally, I said yes and Noosa Libraries got on board. The result is a literary lunch in Noosa on Thursday 22nd September. You can find the details here. It’s a good excuse to visit Noosa but if you can’t make it Graeme is going to be a very busy man in September with multiple appearances. Perhaps he’s going to be in your town. Here’s his schedule.

I hope to see you in Noosa but if not I’m sure we’ll bump into each other in the virtual world somewhere.

GraemeSimsionLiteraryLunchNoosa2016

How I Discovered One of Australia’s Best Selling Authors

flinders rangesA while ago I was staying with a friend at her house in the Flinders Ranges. I found it hard to understand why anyone would live there, in the driest place within the driest state on the driest continent. Unsurprisingly almost every name on the map was a ghost town. Years ago she and I shared a flat near the beach in Sydney, lots of water, lots of green. Since then I’d spent most of my time living in Queensland, lots more water, much greener. My friend’s choice of surroundings didn’t make a lot of sense to me, literally. My senses didn’t understand it. But she and her husband love the outback and within a few days the colours, the starkness and the flocks of emus began to win me over with their specific kind of beauty.

The bedroom I was staying in was upstairs in their converted church. It had a verandah that overlooked the rocks and saltbush. One of the windows was propped open by a book. I said to my friend, ‘If I find you another book to prop open the window, can I read this one?’ She laughed and said I could have it and she’d find something else to keep the window open in the hope of a breeze.

And that’s how I discovered one of Australia’s top selling authors. (That’s right I didn’t discover discover her, although I wish I had, imagine having a percentage of those royalties!)

The book was Three Wishes. The author? Liane Moriarty. Since then I’ve read just about every book she’s written. I’m saving a couple. It’s always nice to have something to look forward to.

Despite going straight to number 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, a TV series based on one of her books being made in the US by famous people, movie options and more, she’s still referred to as ‘the most successful Australian author you’ve never heard of’ in this recent article. (Worth a look for the photographs alone.)

But in case you have heard of her and, like me, love her work, Liane has released a new book and is touring to chat with people like me in a town near you. Here’s her schedule and if you’re on the Sunshine Coast, or looking for an excuse to come to the Sunshine Coast, she and I will be having a chat at the Surfair in Marcoola on Wednesday 3rd August, thanks to Sunshine Coast Libraries. You’ll need to book and all the details are here. It would be great to see you there.

So, how about you? How did you discover your favourite authors? Were their books propping open a window in the desert?

The Song That Broke The Band

There are some songs that stay with you, not just for the week that they might be on high rotation on the radio, but for a lifetime. Songs are highly emotive creatures. They plug into us for all kinds of reasons.

I was very young when I first heard this song and yet it’s stayed with me through the years.

I was reminded of the song and of the writer, Greg Quill, when I read this article about a new tribute album recorded in his honour – Some Lonesome Picker.

If you know Gypsy Queen you’ll know why it’s such a special song. If not this quote from the article might help.

Gypsy Queen is a song of the road no less than the poem Walt Whitman wrote a century earlier. It was a song about going on an adventure where your horizons would be expanded, and you’d live a larger life because of it.

But for me it has extraordinary significance. Why? This is the song that caused the demise of my band.

If you’ve read Sex, Drugs & Meditation you’ll know how devastated I was when my band broke up. The story behind the story is that we’d been playing together for years, touring and releasing CDs but we’d never really cut through. I had the idea of recording a cover version of this song, it was perfect for us with our line up and stunning harmonies. We’d never released a song written by anyone else – all originals up until that point – but I thought this song was worth it. It was such a brilliant idea that one member of the band quit. Why? Because she knew it would work, that we’d get airplay with it and therefore success and she didn’t want us to succeed. She wanted out. She wanted to pursue a solo career. And thus our band became an ex-band.

Ironically a few years later Adam Harvey recorded a cover version of this song and had a hit with it but by that time I was well ensconced in the world of radio and being a music director I got to decide what got played on radio and what didn’t.

When it comes down to it I’m grateful. If the band hadn’t broken up I never would have got into radio, I might never have started writing books instead of songs and I definitely wouldn’t have the superannuation that enabled me to retire early and have the freedom I now have – to write more books and to pick up my guitar whenever I feel like it.

And all these years later, I still love this song.

“I’m singing for the dark and lonely highway, I’m singing for the rivers and the trees, I’m singing for the country roads and byways, And I wonder as I go, Is there anyone I know, Who’ll sing for me.”

How to Get Into Writers Festivals for Nothing

Love writers festivals but can’t afford to go? This one’s for you.

writers festival

I worked in radio for 18 years. It was a great gig and I loved it, most of the time. I also loved all the free stuff that would come my way, anything from books and CDs to food and tickets to events. I’ve attended many festivals over the years as a radio presenter, musician, and writer, and never had to pay. In fact most of the time they paid me.

But all that has changed. I resigned from my radio job, I haven’t played in a band for years and I don’t have a new book out…yet. And now I’m no longer working I don’t have much spare cash to spend on luxuries like writers festivals – even though I love them.

So, what’s a girl to do? Easy. When I heard about a brand new writers festival starting up on the Sunshine Coast I got in touch with them and offered my services, not as an author (because I don’t have a new book out….yet) but as a volunteer. Festivals always need volunteers, they couldn’t exist without them. Everything from checking tickets to looking after the authors is usually done by volunteers. And in return, we get free tickets. Hooray!

If you want to get involved here’s the website to the Sunshine Coast International Readers and Writers Festival.

http://sunshinecoastreadersandwritersfestival.com  

Or if you’re on the Coast come along to the Program Launch on Wednesday 6th July, 10am at Tickle Park Coolum Beach. Introduce yourself and offer your services. It’s that easy.

The Byron Writers Festival is still looking for people to help set up parking bays and the Brisbane Writers Festival will be doing a volunteer call out soon. For other areas just keep an eye on their websites. Before too long you’ll be swanning about at the festivals, listening to fascinating authors and being helpful to boot. That’s a win-win in anyone’s language.

Happy freebies.

xx Mary-Lou

Scraping off the Barnacles

Grey_whales_43_face_barnacles.560x496It’s my three month anniversary. Three months ago I retired from my work in radio. Only now have I the capacity to think beyond bed, couch, TV, reading. I’ve finally learnt how to say no. (My first month of retirement was crammed with doing writing favours for people for free because I couldn’t say no.) Now my life is a blank canvas. I get to decide what I do, every day. Such freedom.

I’ve been decluttering. Scraping off the barnacles. Defoliating. It feels wonderful to shed things, stuff, excess. None of it is needed. I’d make a great minimalist. I like light and space. Time to breathe and heal. Much easier to do without being crushed by possessions and memorabilia. Out it goes. People assume I’ve read Mari Kondo’s books. I haven’t. I worked this stuff out for myself. It makes perfect energetic sense. I still have way too much stuff but I go gently, scraping off the layers of barnacles bit by bit. The more I let go the easier it becomes.

I still find it amazing, a miracle, that I don’t have to work for a living, that The Hubby and I have a small but sufficient income without having to do a thing. We’re both still revelling in it. It highlights how enslaved most of us are, working at jobs we don’t enjoy to buy stuff we don’t need in the hope it will make us feel better.  Sure I’d like a house with an extra bedroom and yes I’d love a Mustang but….I’d rather be free.

So the way I see this year unfolding is a gentle stepping into lightness and healing and the gaining of true energy – not that anxious, nervy, overexcited, avaricious energy that I’ve spent so much of my time dwelling in. That energy made me sick.  It will be an interesting path. I’m becoming aware of how much tension I hold in my body, it’s alarming. My jaw went out the other week because I’m always clenching it. My biggest challenge will be re-entering the writing world without drowning in the morass of anxiety.

I’ve had a break from writing and wondered if I’d ever want to do it again at all. I’ve put off doing the next draft of my latest novel and redoing the synopsis because I know what awaits me if it gets accepted for publication. Edits, deadlines, fear and anxiety. I’m so enjoying being free and I have so little energy still that the mere thought exhausts me.

However I had writing group recently and as I haven’t written anything new for ages I thought I’d just bang something out. And guess what? I really enjoyed it. It was fun. And then my mind started coming up with possible scenarios and plot lines and I remembered what I love about writing – that stepping into another world, other lives, where anything is possible. The power of the imagination is glorious and energising.

So that’s me. A work in progress. And if I never write another book that’s ok too. If I spend my time growing veggies and sewing (& I’ve taught myself to knit) all is well. The Hubby and I have plans to travel the world housesitting – inspired by a couple who are doing just that. We have to wait until The Dog dies before we can up sticks and she’s remarkably healthy for an old girl. We love her so that’s ok. All things in time.

I’ve been so ambitious in the past and it just made me resentful. There are other ways of living. I’m keen to explore them.

In the end what does it matter. We all die. I’d like to enjoy my life before then and not leave too much clutter behind for people to have to sort through :)

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My Writing Space

My Writing SpaceWhen I first started writing I had to have absolute privacy and absolute quiet. I was extremely self-conscious about what I was doing. There was no way I could write in a cafe. I had to be somewhere where I wouldn’t be interrupted. Door closed writing. Through the years I’ve become a little more relaxed. I’ve had more practice and that makes it easier to write wherever I am. Some of my second book How To Stay Married was even written on the couch with The Hubby beside me.

I still prefer privacy though and these photos are of my writing space in the spare room. IMG_1426Yes there’s a bed in there in case I need a good lie down after a vigorous writing session. The Hubby and I have a signal when I don’t want to be disturbed, not even for a cup of tea. You see that beautiful hand-made felt chain of flowers hanging on my desk lamp? I put that on the door knob of my writing room to serve as a warning beacon. ‘Do not come in on pain of death.’ I feel like a teenager with a Keep Out sign on my door but without the confidence of being able to write freely my ability to get the words down on the page can often be inhibited.

IMG_1425There are some treasures that surround me in here. Pebbles from the beach at Findhorn in Scotland, a little Eeyore (my favourite character from Winnie the Pooh), photos of my dad, my wedding and my former life as a singer/songwriter, a wooden writer’s organiser from The Hubby and various angels, hearts and paperweights given by friends. Oh, and copies of my books, reminding me that I can indeed write an entire book, look I’ve done it twice and that’s just the published ones.

I hope you can see how filthy the windows are. Proof that I’m not a procrastinator. IMG_1427I have friends who’ve cleaned their entire house and even the shed rather than sit down and write. Not me. But I am a very slow writer. I do a lot of pondering. It astounds me how slow I am. However I get the job done in the end.

Mary-Lou Stephens studied acting and played in bands before she got a proper job – in radio. Her memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation was published by Pan Macmillan in 2013. It tells the story of how she changed her life, saved her job and found a husband, all with the help of meditation. The sequel, How To Stay Married, is the truth about the happy ending. 

Mary-Lou is now writing fiction in her own special slow and pondering way.

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*** This post was first written for Word Farm. Check it out and while you’re there why not give Word Farm a Like.  (PS My desk is now a lot messier 🙂 )

You Can Bury Me Anywhere Because I Won’t Be There

I’ve finished the last draft of my next book. Not all the words I’ve written have made it into the next round. Instead of being in the book I’m turning my darlings into blog posts. Seems I can’t kill them after all.

You can bury me anywhere because I won’t be there

Angel of DeathYears later, after my brother died, his wife battled grief and guilt and the despair of two young daughters who no longer had a father. Among her many concerns was that she had no idea what to do with his ashes. Her youngest daughter needed a place to lay flowers for her daddy, but my sister-in-law was too exhausted by the last years of his life and his inevitable but cruel ending to arrange it. I asked if I could help. My brother had always been the bastion of family history; doing things as they should be done, upholding traditions.

I knew our grandfather’s ashes were in the war veterans’ section of the city cemetery and was pretty sure our grandmother’s and aunt’s ashes were somewhere in the same cemetery. If there was room with them I was sure that was what my brother would have wanted, surrounded by those he felt a kinship with and a shared sense of propriety and purpose. I made an appointment at the cemetery office. They were able to find Granny but there was no record of our aunt.

I was given a map and made my way to the rose garden. One slice of a circular bed was given to our grandmother but she was on her own. I could have sworn our aunt was supposed to be there with her.

I visited my mother and asked her. Poor old Mum, brittle and thin, the disease dissolving her substance like acid. Her face fell. “I’m sorry darling. I never picked up her ashes. I was so devastated after your father died, dealing with all that needed to be done. When my sister died I couldn’t face doing it all over again.”

I rang the Hobart Cemetery again. They searched through their records. They kept unclaimed ashes for a while, in some kind of archive, but eventually they were disposed of.

“Disposed of where?” I asked.

A sheepish young man told me they were scattered out the back of the office, in a small group of trees. My aunt’s ashes were mixed with those of strangers, fertilising the trees.

I told my mother. And also told her that I was arranging to have a plaque made for Aunty Deirdre to be placed in the same rose bed as Granny. Her ashes wouldn’t be there but at least she’d have some kind of memorial. I intended to pay for it myself, even after I discovered that tiny plinths and small plaques are very expensive. Mum wouldn’t let me pay. It was the least she could do to assuage the guilt she had felt for all these years. Once my aunt’s plaque was organised we could go ahead with my brother’s.

And as for my Mum, what did she want? Her death was getting closer every day.

“Nothing darling. It doesn’t matter what you do with my ashes. I’ll be elsewhere.” She smiled, her thin face lighting up with hope and peace. She was on the way to getting her promotion.