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

Strangest. Cake. Ever

Is it a cake or is it a salad? I had thought the title of this post was going to be “I’ve never met a chocolate cake I didn’t like…until now.” But having sampled the “fruits” of my labour I must say I am surprised. When making the icing I thought I’d ruined two perfectly good blocks of very good chocolate, but no. When it all comes together the flavours blend very well. And no one will know, unless you tell them, that this cake is made with sauerkraut and mayonnaise!

German Chocolate Sauerkraut Cake

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 3/4 cup  cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sauerkraut, rinsed, drained, squeezed dry and finely chopped
  • 2/3 cup flaked coconut
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans

Icing

  • 360 g chocolate, melted
  • 2/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 2/3 cup flaked coconut
  • 2/3 cup chopped pecans

Method

  • Cream butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Combine dry ingredients; add to the creamed mixture alternately with water. Fold in sauerkraut, coconut and pecans. Pour into three greased and floured 9-in. round baking pans. Bake at 180° for about 25 minutes or until toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pans to wire racks; cool completely.
  • In a bowl, combine melted chocolate and mayonnaise. Set aside 1-1/4 cups for the icing. To the remaining chocolate mixture, add half of the coconut and pecans; spread between cake layers. Spread reserved chocolate mixture over top and sides of cake. Combine remaining coconut and pecans and sprinkle over the cake. Best stored in the refrigerator.

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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How Michael Franti Saved My Marriage

Many years ago, when our relationship was just a young bud, I took The Hubby to the Byron Bay Blues Festival. I’d spent many years at music festivals of all different kinds, as a performer and a punter. I loved them. I loved music. I’d spent most of my twenties and thirties playing in bands, touring and recording. Now I was working in radio. Festivals were still on the agenda but this time I was usually presenting an outside broadcast or interviewing musicians.

The Hubby had spent most of his twenties and thirties in a very different world. A world of aircraft carriers, trackers, Orions and uniforms. Sure he liked music but his tastes were formed by the mainstream and restricted by what was available on board or at the base.

Bluesfest was an ear opening experience for him. I dragged him from one must-see, or must-hear, to the next. I was in heaven. The Hubby was not. He became decidedly downcast. He didn’t know any of the acts, he’d never heard of them and what he heard he didn’t like. I couldn’t believe it.  Here we were, surrounded by the best music in the world and he was unhappy, dejected, out of place.

I thought dancing together might cheer him up. Another disaster. When I’d played bass and then rhythm guitar in bands  I’d always sat just behind the beat. I liked to stretch out the rhythm into a relaxed lope. The Hubby, perhaps due to the military bands and all that marching, sat right on the beat, or even just in front, always vigilant, always aware. Our dancing became an awkward, wordless struggle. We were clumsy together and became impatient with each other.

In the meantime the kind of bloke I used to go out with was circling. A three-quarter boy with a lopsided grin, a cigarette and a pair of drum sticks. Yep, yet another muso. Charming and shiftless but talking a language I understood. The more The Hubby struggled with the sounds he was hearing, the more I was tempted to stray. Back to the world of talking crap and hanging out, of being surrounded by a pack of wise-cracking musicians strutting their stuff. The world I used to live in. The life I left behind. The pull back to that louche existence was strong in this time of doubt.

I looked at The Hubby and saw a stranger. The man I loved, the honest, soulful, wise and funny man, was gone. I couldn’t see him. Instead a saw a grumpy, rhythmless lump. A millstone. I wanted to be free. Free to enjoy the kaleidoscope of music, free to dance to my own beat, free to indulge in the sonic feast spread out before me. Free of my husband.

And then Michael Franti came on stage.

The Hubby stopped frowning. His body loosened up. There was a hint of a smile on his lips.

‘I like this man,’ he said. ‘I can understand every word he’s singing. His message is great. He has something worth saying. And I like the music.’

The Hubby nodded his head in agreement with Michael Franti’s words. The nod became a smile, the smile became a dance.

I stopped frowning. I loosened up. I began to smile.  I reached for my husband’s hand. If this man could love Michael Franti, I could love this man.

We were back. Back in alignment. Back in love. All thanks to Michael Franti.

Ten years later The Hubby and I were at another music festival. Michael Franti was playing. I said to The Hubby, ‘Let’s go check out his sound check, before the crowds get there.’

We sat on the grass in the natural amphitheatre at the Woodford Folk Festival. Michael Franti gave us, and the other ten or so people who’d had the same idea, a private concert. We danced, we cheered, we clapped, we laughed. And then he came down from the stage in his bare feet, walked over to the grass and sat with us for a chat and an acoustic song. It was magical.

And did I tell him the story of how he’d saved our marriage? You bet I did. He looked askance at first. Unsure of where the story was heading. But when I got to the end there was laughter and hugging. Lots of hugging. “Everybody gotta hug somebody at least once a day.”

Thank you Michael Franti, the man who saved my marriage.

Above is the song he sang on that magical afternoon. If you listen closely you can hear The Hubby and me singing along.

 

 

The Hubby Went to the USA & Met a Woman. This is What Happened.

LoveIf you’ve read Sex, Drugs and Meditation you’ll know it had a happy ending. I met the man I would marry.

And if you’ve read How To Stay Married you’ll know it’s about the truth of that happy-ever-after. The Hubby and I survived all kinds of disasters and losses and did indeed stay married.

Last month The Hubby went to the USA for a business conference. He didn’t end up spending much time at the conference. Instead he spent most of his time with a woman he’d just met. A woman who changed his life…so he told me.

I was a bit concerned I’ve got to say. This woman was single, drove a Mercedes and thought my husband was rather special.

However, he reassured me that their connection was purely spiritual. The Hubby is a very spiritual man. The woman in question, Renée, is also amazingly spiritual. She’s a conduit for healing and after one session with her The Hubby experienced incredible healing and change.

Renée is the real deal. Doreen Virtue is a fan. Louise L. Hay has said, ‘A session with Renée Swisko is a unique healing experience. Renée has the ability to assist you in making profound positive changes. She is a fabulous healer.’

I’ve spoken with Renée and we’re on the way to being great friends. Phew!

The Hubby came back from the USA very excited about sharing Renée’s gifts with those of us in Australia. Together they’ve arranged a group healing phone call that can transform you life into all that makes your heart sing.

I’ve got to say I’m looking forward to it.

If you’d like to join the call you’ll find all the information here. http://www.trustinmiracles.com/australia.html

It’s on Sunday September 27th at 10am and the session lasts for three hours. Once you’re registered all you’ll need to do is dial an Australian number on the day and let the healing and heart singing commence 🙂

Another true story and another happy ending.

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 🙂 )

Take Today on a Joyride – Here’s How.

IMG_5264Some lessons in life come from the most unexpected of places. When it comes to mindfulness you’d assume those lessons would come from Eastern philosophies or Western psychology. Mindfulness has become increasingly popular and there are many reasons why. It’s been shown to alleviate stress, reduce anxiety, relieve drug and alcohol dependence, and help with many types of illness including auto-immune diseases. Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment. Not worrying about the future, not dwelling on the past. Being here, now, moment by moment. Simple. But not easy.

There’s a theory that there are only two motivating forces in life; love and fear. Love is desirable. Fear can really do some damage. So how can mindfulness help? A while ago I was telling a wiser person than myself about all my fears and how they were running my life. She asked me, “What is there for you to be fearful of? Right here, right now in this moment?”

My answer surprised me as much as her question. “Nothing.”

If I keep my thoughts to the present moment what do I have to fear? Absolutely nothing. Simple concept. Hard to achieve. But apparently not if you’re a psychopath.

Kevin Dutton is a research psychologist. He wrote a book called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success. Kevin visited Broadmoor, the best-known high-security psychiatric hospital in England, to interview the inmates. What he found is surprising.

One of his interview subjects told him, “The thing about fear, or the way I understand fear, I suppose–because, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever really felt it–is that most of the time it’s completely unwarranted anyway. What is it they say? Ninety-nine percent of the things people worry about never happen. So what’s the point? I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what might go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present. They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything’s perfectly fine. So the trick, whenever possible, I propose, is to stop your brain from running on ahead of you.”

Kevin writes: “This pragmatic endorsement of the principles and practices of what might otherwise be described as mindfulness is typical of the psychopath. A psychopath’s rapacious proclivity to live in the moment, to “give tomorrow the slip and take today on a joyride” (as another inmate rather whimsically, puts it), is well documented–and at times can be stupendously beneficial.”

A lesson in mindfulness from the most unlikely of sources. Perhaps it’s time to let our inner-psychopaths off the leash just a little. Maybe not with ‘rapacious proclivity’ but a little less fear and a little more joyriding is bound to improve our quality of life. And to avoid ending up in Broadmoor it would be wise to add a lot of awareness and a big dollop of balance into the mix.

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The Beatles Were Wrong

All you need is loveThe most entrenched beliefs we have about love are handed down to us through popular culture; the fairytale ending, the handsome prince, the knight on the white charger, the perfect man. Then, there’s advertising. Some of the beliefs we have about relationships are insinuated into our heads through commercials depicting happy-ever-after couples. The idealization of love in popular culture in everything from music, writing and film is enough to make your head (and heart!) spin. How can we help but be convinced that when we meet our one true love, they’ll complete us and we’ll gaze into each other’s eyes in blissful happiness for the rest of our lives? And for some, for a while, that might work.

But what usually happens is this: You disappear off the face of the earth and your friends stop hearing from you. Then, as soon as the cracks appear in the fairytale, you seek them out to cry on their shoulders. And they’re there, if they haven’t moved on to friends who are there for them in return, and not just flit-props for the latest dalliance.

When you’re in love, it feels like nothing else matters. It’s so easy and seductive to let your life go – your friends, your interests, your beliefs, your hobbies. I get it. It feels good and it’s fun and smoochy and yummy. You don’t need anyone or anything else. You’re feeling smug wrapped up in your love cocoon. And that’s the way you think it should stay. But what happens when he wants to go watch football with his friends? Or she goes on a girls’ night out? How could he possibly want to be apart from you for even one minute? How dare she have a life of her own? You just want to be with her all the time. He’s all you need. Love is all you need. The Beatles were right. Wrong.

Talking to your best female friends is different than talking to your romantic partner. Best mate drinking talks are different to relating to your love interest. There’s so much more to life than your primary relationship. Conversely, having other friends and other interests bring more life into your relationship. Other voices, other opinions, other senses of humor and other connections all add up to a fulfilling life.

Khalil Gibran’s words in The Prophet have been quoted often. His writing on marriage really does feel wise:

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love. Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.”

Antoine De Saint-Exupery, a French aristocrat, author of The Little Prince, poet and aviator also clearly knew a bit about love:

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward in the same direction.”

That sums up marriage for me. You’re finished with the infatuation stuff and into the real meat and depth of a relationship. The part where you have each other’s backs. You know, love and support each other and you’re building a life together that will be much greater than the sum of its parts. That’s where life and love get truly delicious.

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Right or Happy? What Would You Choose?

2015-02-24-nARGUMENTlarge-thumbThe first time my husband and I argued it was terrifying. I thought it was the end of our relationship.

I’ve done a lot of meditation so during the argument I knew I should walk away, sit outside and observe my breath. It is a good tool, however it doesn’t solve anything. And in this case it just made my husband angrier.

“You just can’t hide away and meditate,” he said. “We have to talk about this.” I wished he’d go away so I could keep meditating. I was happy when I was meditating. I didn’t have to deal with anyone else and their points of view and their big voices. But unless I’m going to become a hermit (tempting at times), then I need to learn how to deal with disagreements.

What I’ve found? It really works to just listen to the other person. When my husband wants to vent I let him and I don’t take it personally. I usually know it has nothing to do with me. It’s his opinion and he’s entitled to have it. He might want to blame me for something, that’s okay. It might have been my fault, it might not have. If I’m able to observe my thoughts and emotions, to keep breathing and not get all caught up in the heat of the moment and keep listening, things usually go okay.

Arguments and disagreements are going to happen. They’re part of life. And the most important step to repairing them is to hear the other person’s perspective and to let them know you’re really listening. To respect their opinion. And naturally they need to do the same for you. We’re not being doormats here.

OK, so that’s what happens in an ideal world. What happens in the real world is that you get scared, upset, angry and most of all you want to be right, you want to win. When someone I respected, who was helping me sort through an issue, asked me, “Would your rather be right or be happy?” I said “Right of course. It’s important to be right. If I’m right then I am happy. I get the best of both worlds. I am right and I am happy.”

She looked at me as if I was an alien.

It’s taken me many years to work out that having to be right all the time was making me miserable and lonely. That most people don’t want friends who put more importance on being right than they do on being happy. Old grumpy-pants self-righteous me might have thought I was right. But it felt all wrong.

In an argument, take a breath, listen and ask yourself, “Would I rather be right or would I rather be happy?” Then, remember, that sometimes, you might prefer to be right, and that’s okay too.

Get your free copy of Mary-Lou’s Seven Tips For Your Best Relationship Ever

The One Big, Not-So-Secret Secret of a Happy Relationship

Love on a MountaintopRelationships. They’re a source of endless joy and angst. We might be deliriously happy for a while, but then the gloss wears off and we’re stuck with reality. Most people get into relationships expecting they’ll feel better about themselves and their lives when they have someone to love them. We will meet the man or woman of our dreams and they will fulfil us, be our everything and we’ll both be deliriously happy for ever.

When that’s not the case, what do we do? Often, we blame the other person. The thinking might go like this: I don’t feel fantastic anymore, so it must be the other person’s fault: they’re not good enough, good-looking enough, rich enough, smart enough. A solution? Move on. The next relationship will bring all the things I need. And many people chase the high that new “love” brings.

Another solution might be to stay in that relationship because, very conveniently, we now have someone else to blame for everything we don’t like about our lives. If it wasn’t for them and all their flaws, our life would be wonderful. Love promised a perfect life, but I still don’t have enough money and have no friends. Life didn’t deliver. It’s all their fault. How convenient not to have to look at our own stuff and stuff-ups. Those arguing, bickering, bitter couples are all locked into the blame game. Are we too afraid to say “What’s my part in this? Why do I feel so unhappy? What can I do to change this?”

Being in a relationship that works means asking all those questions of yourself and then doing something about them. A something that doesn’t involve running away, getting divorced and making all the same mistakes in your next relationship. In short: Own your own crap. If something annoys you in your relationship, look at your part in it. Then look at why it annoys you. It’s your responsibility. It’s so easy to blame everyone else for everything. I know, I spent most of my life doing it.

My husband called me on it early on in our relationship. I hated him for it at the time, because it meant I really had to look at why I always played the victim. Sometimes I want to be weak and helpless and have someone else to blame for everything that’s wrong in my life. But if that’s true, where does it leave me? What can I learn or improve from that position of helplessness? Playing the victim may feel easy at the time, but it’s a cop-out. In the long term, it kept me stuck and miserable.

Now when I feel bad and I want to blame him, I have the tools to turn it around, knowing and really understanding that I am responsible for my own misery and my own happiness. I take him out of the equation and own my own crap. He can’t do anything about my crap and I can’t do anything about his, but to the best of our ability we don’t dump it on each other. That, my friend, is the one big not-so-secret secret of a happy relationship. Own your own crap. And do something about it so you don’t feel crappy.

There is one proviso: If he or she ever physical assaults you, even a “small” hit, that is not your crap. That is not your fault. That is definitely their crap. And grounds for divorce.

Get your free copy of Mary-Lou’s Seven Tips For Your Best Relationship Ever