Tag Archives: memoir

The Truth About Tim Winton

I was asked to interview the famous Australian writer Tim Winton for a literary event. With the release of his latest book, a memoir called The Boy Behind the Curtain, he was hitting the road on a book tour. The request came through months before the event and I jumped at the chance, after all it was Tim Winton.

I was given a pre-release copy of the book (an uncorrected proof) to read and loved it – it’s poetic, heartbreaking, funny, informative and gives a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse of his writing life and his writing disasters. Yes, even Tim Winton has writing disasters.

As the weeks rolled by and the date of the event grew closer I became increasingly nervous. Tim is known to be a very private person. It’s also a fact that he’s not all that fond of the spruiking that needs to be done when a new book is released. I’d heard reports of him being taciturn during interviews and a rumour that he once said to a journalist, ‘I’m so sick of talking about this book.’  What would I do if he gave me one-word answers or even worse, didn’t answer my questions at all?

I was also nervous because it was Tim Winton. The Tim Winton. Four-time winner of the Miles Franklin, 28 books and 3 plays to his name, Australia’s best loved literary novelist.  And then there was the note from his publicist, the first of many, saying that Tim preferred an interlocutor to an interviewer. An interlocutor? Quick, find me a dictionary. Turns out an interlocutor is someone who takes part in dialogue or conversation. Okay. So I wouldn’t be asking him questions, we’d be having a chat instead. My nervousness grew.

When I was in radio I’d get asked all the time what the secret was to a great interview. I’d always say, ‘Do your research and then listen.’ As my apprehension increased my research began in earnest. I read the book again, I read reviews and interviews, I read and reread many of his novels and his coastal and landscape memoirs. I wrote pages of questions, re-wrote them and then re-wrote them again. And then, because he doesn’t like being interviewed and prefers to have a chat, I condensed them to dot points.

The chain of emails from his publicist grew longer. The list of do’s and don’t’s. What Tim liked and what he didn’t. It was like dealing with a major rock star. For someone who was already nervous, it was a tad intimidating. And I’ll mention here that I used to interview people for a living. Eighteen years in radio, fifteen of those with the ABC. I’ve interviewed a lot of people, politicians, pundits and yes, authors. Sometimes I’d be nervous but not often, in fact hardly ever. It was my job. I did my research, I asked questions and most importantly I listened. But the momentum around Tim’s book tour was growing. He was on the front page of The Australian, The Review and the Australian Magazine. He is a major star, there’s no escaping it. And I was going to interlocutor with him, in front of a sold out audience. (The event sold out in three days.)

The big day arrived. At that point I probably knew more about Tim Winton than his own mother. I decided I wasn’t nervous. No, not at all. I was excited. I was about to have a chat with an Australian literary legend. I was greeted at the venue by people I knew and liked; the team from Noosa Libraries, Annie and Rachel from Annie’s Books, a member of my book club and a fellow writer from my writing group. I began to relax. And then I met Tim.

I was given the opportunity to sit and talk with him away from everyone else before the event. I gave him a rundown of what we’d be interlocutoring about. (By the way, interlocutoring is not in the dictionary.) I was amazed when he told me I could ask him anything and he’d be okay with it. As we talked I discovered he was down to earth, friendly and funny as all get out. I mentioned how hectic his tour schedule was and he told me he’d rather be busy than melancholy, and he would be melancholy if left to his own devices. I added ‘honest’ to his list of heart-warming attributes.

The actual event was brilliant. He was witty and wise, erudite and earthy. He had the audience laughing uproariously one minute and nodding their heads solemnly the next. And as for me?  I had done my research and now my job was to listen. So I listened. And we chatted. I didn’t even need to refer to my notes. I was an interlocutor extraordinaire. The crowd loved it, Tim enjoyed himself and I think even the publicist was happy.

So, here’s the truth about Tim Winton. He may be a private person and he may be Australia’s most acclaimed literary author but this I know for certain – Tim Winton, the boy behind the curtain, is a lovely, lovely bloke.

Tim Winton & Mary-Lou Stephens

The Six Peas of Me

Thank you to Nene Davies for inviting me to her Six Peas blog. I love the concept – six questions all starting with P which she tailors to her guest. My six P’s are Performing, Presenting, Passion, Personal, Publishing, and Plans. I thought they were Perfect 🙂
If you read to the end you’ll get a sneak peek at what I’m up to now.

Performing

Can you tell us a little about your time in the music industry and how you turned the disappointment of that ending into a highly successful career in radio?

As soon as I finished school I left my home town and headed to the big smoke, Sydney. I lived in Kings Cross and hung out with drug dealers, punks and low-lifes. The music scene there was thriving and edgy and I became fascinated by it. A gig by The Stranglers at the State Theatre (before it was renovated) changed my life. As soon as I heard that bass sound I knew what I wanted to be – a bass player.

After someone I knew was murdered over a drug deal, I left Sydney and went back home to Hobart. I bought my first bass guitar, had a few lessons and dived into the world of playing in bands. At my first gig I stuffed up every single song but they didn’t kick me out and eventually I became quite a good player, in a naive kind of way. I also started writing songs.

A few years later I moved to Melbourne to study acting at the Victorian College of the Arts, but much preferred playing in the bands I was in while I was there. Then I moved back to Hobart for a bit of acting and playing in more bands, and then to Sydney where I stayed for many years.

in-sydney-my-songwriting-really-blossomed

In Sydney my songwriting really blossomed. I formed a couple of bands based around those songs and we toured and recorded CDs. The last band I was in I loved with all my heart and soul. All my time, energy and money went into that band. (If you think writing doesn’t pay, you should try making music!) When the band broke up I was devastated, the lying on the floor in the foetal position sobbing kind of devastated.

I had no idea what to do next. The only qualification I had was in acting and the only jobs I’d ever worked in were of the dead-end variety. There I was, a thirty-something woman, exhausted, broke as well as broken-hearted, and with no prospects. It wasn’t pretty. That’s when radio rode in on a white horse and saved the day.

I had lunch with a radio presenter who’d interviewed me many times and even used one of my songs as the theme song for his show. When he asked me what I was going to do now my band had broken up I told him I had no idea. He said to me ‘You want to be in radio.’

The effect was electrifying. I literally felt as though a lightbulb had just been switched on. ‘That’s so true,’ I said. ‘But I didn’t know it until this instant. How did you know?’

‘Because I know radio, and I know you,’ he said. ‘It’s a perfect fit.’

From that moment on every door on my path to being a radio presenter swung open. It was uncanny. I studied at AFTRS, got my first job in commercial radio in Tamworth then moved to Townsville and then landed my dream job with the ABC on the Sunshine Coast. And yes, radio was the perfect fit. All my years performing on stage as a musician and an actor and my knowledge of music fed straight into my work as a presenter and Music Director. There’s a lot more to this story and you can read all the details in my memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation.

Sexdrugsmeditation-pile 2

Presenting

Having worked in commercial radio and for many years as a presenter with ABC Sunshine Coast, what made you decide to write a book?

Unlike most writers I never dreamt of being a writer when I was younger. I wanted to be a rock star, or at least a famous singer/songwriter. I went on a music lover’s tour of the USA many years ago and came back with 12 very fuzzy photos to show for my travels. A colleague at the ABC said, ‘Clearly photography’s not your thing, why don’t you write about it instead.’

So I did. He liked it and recommended my writing to a friend of his who worked at the local paper. As a result I wrote a weekly column for over four years. It was the perfect apprenticeship.

That led to writing short stories, going to writing workshops and eventually starting the book that would become Sex, Drugs and MeditationI decided to write the book because I’ve always loved the case studies in self help books. In fact I would hardly ever read the theory in those books, or do the exercises, but I would always read the case studies because they were such great stories. After I realised that my life read like a case study I wondered if other people might like to read my story. Like a lot of wanna be writers I was good at starting projects but not as good at finishing them. So I saved up my money and self-funded six months leave without pay to see if I could finish a book. The answer was yes. Even better, I discovered that I loved the process so much that I wanted to keep writing. I’ve completed four books now, two memoirs and two novels, and I’ve started writing the fifth.

Passion

I know that you’ve now left the world of presenting to write fiction about playing in bands. Full circle! What would you say is your creative passion? Music, writing…or both? 

It’s writing, hands down, no doubt about it. I feel blessed in that I loved being a musician and all that entailed and then I moved into radio which I loved even more, and it paid better! And now I’ve moved onto something else again that I love better than either of those. (Acting was in there somewhere as well but to tell you the truth I was never in love with acting.) So I’ve been able to give my full attention and passion to three things in my life that have been fulfilling and exciting. And the best thing of all is that they all feed into what I’m doing now and not only in the stories I’m telling. Writing is more than sitting at a computer for hours on end, it includes speaking in front of people, doing author talks, writers’ panels, interviews and publicity. All my time as a performer of one kind or another makes that part of the job second nature to me.

And there’s a bonus. I didn’t do this intentionally to start with but now it’s a signature of my work. Every book I write has a song or two in it that I’ve written. So when I do events I often whip out my guitar and play a song.

Personal

What is your number one tip for authors wanting to write a memoir? 

Get honest. It’s terrifying but it’s vital. I had some interest early on for Sex, Drugs and Meditation but the interest went cold when I sent them everything I’d written at the time. I was told that the book had promise but I had to get really honest and stop avoiding the truth. The idea of doing that scared me so much I ran away and wrote a novel instead. (I regard that novel as my practice book. I learnt a lot by writing it.) Years later I found my courage and wrote the book that needed to be written. The result was a publishing deal.

get-honest-its-terrifying-but-its-vital-2

Publishing

How did you go about publishing your books?

I submitted Sex, Drugs and Meditation through the open submission process most Australian publishing houses have these days. Pan Macmillan picked up the manuscript and, to my enormous gratitude and terror, published it. Sex, Drugs and Meditation is the true story of how I changed my life, saved my job and found myself a husband. The sequel, How To Stay Married, is the truth behind the happy ever after. Pan Macmillan liked How To Stay Married and were keen to publish but, and here’s the truth about publishing, it didn’t get through sales and marketing. It doesn’t matter if a publisher likes your book, if the sales team says no then that’s the end of it. Because I had a completed manuscript I decided to publish it anyway. I jumped into the world of self publishing and released the book on the date of my tenth wedding anniversary.

My latest novel is under consideration by a major publisher. However even if they green light it I’m only expecting an ebook deal. With all the changes in publishing (and more to come if the changes to PIR go ahead) the majors are playing it safe these days. Often they’ll offer ebook only deals. If the book sells well in that format then they may offer a print deal.

Plans

What’s next?

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been many things in my life including a musician, a songwriter, an actor, a radio presenter and an author. All of these come together in my latest passion, writing fiction about women who rock.

Here’s a brief glimpse of the first one, Rock Candy:

Georgia Hill’s star has crashed. Her band has broken up, her best friend has betrayed her and worst of all, at the age of 28, she’s living back home with her parents. When her song Sweetie is used in an advertising campaign against her will it gives her some much-needed cash…but robs her of any remaining credibility. Unable to return to the world she loves, Georgia travels to The Park, a mysterious community in Scotland where Jax, a rock star she admires, is in hiding. 

Rock Candy is the first in the Rock Chick series. Novels planned so far include:

Rock Slide. Suzie Smith is a major star but she wants out. Her plan to leave it all behind unravels in ways she could never imagine.

Rock Salt. Three sisters, one stellar career and the man who brings it all crashing down.

Rock Fall. On the eve of her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the skeletons come tumbling out of Lena Stanley’s capacious closet.

Rock Hard. The all girl rock band Bitumen have fought hard to be taken seriously and become successful. What will they have to sacrifice to reach their ultimate goal?

I’ve started writing Rock Slide and once again it’s a wonderful process. I love writing fiction and imbuing it with the knowledge of the life I used to live. Not that I’ve ever been a rock star but sometimes, when I was on stage with a guitar in my hands, I could almost believe that I was.

I’m excited about these books and also have plans to record the songs that are included in them.

I would love for people to keep in touch either through my Facebook page, my website, or by joining my email list.

Rock on!

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.

Get your free copy of Mary-Lou’s  7 Tips For Your Best Relationship Ever 

*** 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 🙂 )

3 Ways Meditation Will Make You a Better Writer

 

Sex, Drugs and Meditation

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.

Must of us live a life of fear and reaction. We do too much in order to impress, or hide so no one will expect anything of us. 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? Not quite yet.

1. Meditation clears the mind clutter and allows your creativity to blossom.

When all the whys, wherefores, he said, she said, he did, she did, blame, reaction and catastrophising is done, creativity is free to roam with characters, stories and adventures that are pure imagination, often not of this world. It’s fascinating and freeing to allow yourself to follow where creativity leads. Meditation breaks down that very thin membrane between the conscious and the subconscious. And let’s face it, the subconscious is where all the interesting stuff happens.

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  suffering, be liberated from all misery. Stop reacting and resenting. Stop being so afraid. 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.

2. Meditation gives you the kind of detachment a writer needs.

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’s not selfishness, it’s just knowing that what ever the problem or drama is, it will pass without you 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.

3. Meditation allows you to write with courage and honesty. To stop judging.

With the loving detachment that meditation brings you’re better able to step aside and let the story glow and burn without the temptation of modifying it to make yourself look better. Judgement is a hinderance to life and to creativity. It carries the weight of expectation. Impossible to meet. The more I meditate the less I judge myself and my work. Other people may judge. They will think what they like. It’s none of my business. Besides, what they think will change. Everything does.

I have returned to the meditation centre seven times. Seven times I have spent ten days sitting 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. It is the art of creation.

This blog originally appeared in The Huffington Post and then was picked Up by The Brazil Post. Yes, I’ve been translated into Portuguese. How cool.

Guest Post: Lisa Venables author of Saving Zali

I’m thrilled to introduce Lisa Venables whose memoir Saving Zali has just been released.  You might feel as though you already know her – the publicity for her memoir has been amazing.

So now over to Lisa and her writing process.

Who I was tagged in by. 

So, I was tagged in by the outgoing Mary-Lou Stevens whose book Sex, Drugs and Meditation felt like she was sharing a cup of tea with me and telling me about her life. There were no holds barred. Her book was interesting reading about a lifestyle I have never experienced but still relatable.

How does my work differ from others in its genre

saving zaliMy book Saving Zali is about the medical miracles that happened to my daughter, then 18 months old when she was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer LCH. She had a complicated and extensive version, and the only treatment available didn’t work. We undertook experimental chemotherapy that caused her to be put into a coma in Intensive Care with less than 1% chance of recovery. The experimental treatment worked and cured the LCH but she developed side effects that were fatal and had no cure. Literally, during the last few hours of her life a mild-mannered genius Dr Munns found an answer. One week later she was out of Intensive Care, three weeks later she was out of hospital and three months later she was back at swimming lessons.

My book is different because it talks about childhood cancer, which is taboo, but very common. My book opens up those dirty two words; childhood cancer, and talks about it frankly. I talk about our experience, and most importantly how we held on, and how Zali recovered in spectacular form.

What am I working on now?

Well, at heart I am a nerd. I love research and especially ancient history. I love that the stories that we tell each other today of family complications, love, war, greed, betrayal are all the same stories we have been engaged in since first man walked out of Africa. I have just submitted a historical fiction to my agent about an incredible ancient history heroine.

I’m doing a course at the moment to work on my third manuscript which is a light-hearted crime fiction, using my previous experience as an Intelligence Officer in Organized Crime Drug Squad. Nothing too serious, just a bit of organized crime, lots of drinking and sex. You know. Police stuff.

Why do I write about what I do.

I am fascinated by all aspects of ancient history. I love seeing pictures on Pinterest of the statues at Petra, talisman from the Sahara, basket weaving done in the same style today as it was thousands of years ago. I can’t help marvel at how we are all still so connected, across time, culture and distance. Something in my very cells tingles in recognition when I see these things. It inspires me.

How does my writing process work.

I have a sunny corner on our enormous deck where I set up underneath a loaded passion fruit vine on a comfy couch with a pot of peppermint tea and allow myself to get carried away from 9.30-12.30. I have some lunch, tidy the house, pick up the kids and do some regular, boring but well paid work. In the evenings I research and allow my mind to wander. I pick up phrases that my characters might say, look at tattoos they would have worn and freestyle imagine.

Before bed I like to meditate to calm my mind. If I don’t, I go to bed buzzing with excitement for my story and the characters talk to me all night. This usually results in me sleepwalking, leaving me tired in the morning. I write because it’s my favorite way to express myself.

I now tag Geena Leigh, and Patti Miller, memoir extraordinaires.

Writing Process? What Writing Process?

I’ve been amazed by the generosity of other writers during this journey to becoming a published author. At every stage there has been a helping hand, an understanding voice and a lift, or in some cases a shove, to the next level. And after publication there has been the same generosity of spirit; other writers willing to spruik my book, to sing its praises and to let the world know. Thank you

Why am I amazed? When I was a musician I helped other songwriters and musos. We were a family. In my life in radio I’ve given advice when asked to those who wanted to work in this form of media. I’m always happy to give what I have in the way of knowledge, connections and practical experience.

Sexdrugsmeditation-pile 2I’ve been a member of a writing group for years and the support of those women has been immeasurable. But when I stepped into the world of publishing I was in unknown territory. That’s why the generosity has amazed me. I’m an old hand at being a singer/songwriter and experienced in the realm of radio but I felt newborn and vulnerable in the world of publishing.

That’s why I’m delighted to take part in this writer’s blog chain. Passing on this generosity of spirit and highlighting other authors in a world that needs to know about great writing.

SusannahI have been tagged by the wonderful and effusive Susanna Freymark whose debut novel Losing February has been described with the same adjective as my memoir. “Brave.” We met at the yearly soiree that our agent throws in Sydney. I was new and shy. Susanna was a beacon of joy and laughter. I was drawn like the proverbial moth. Since then I’ve interviewed her for the ABC and shared a couple of panels with her at The Byron Bay Writers Festival. She continues to be a joy. Susanna is in the process of editing her second novel and you can read about her ongoing writing adventure here.

And now to the questions I must answer about my writing.

So . . .  what am I working on now?

I’m not. There, that was a surprise wasn’t it. I refuse to work. I’m in a mind to relax. To read. To reinvigorate. My memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation was released last April. My next manuscript is with my publisher after getting the thumbs up from my agent. Right now I’m tired. I need to rest. I’m inspired by the contemporary composer Arvo Pärt and his holy minimalism. Arvo spends time in reflection and meditation to gain inspiration for his next composition. I’m not comparing myself to his beatific brilliance but I resonate with his need to retreat, to be still, to be, before moving on to the next project. This year for me is a year of slow transformation. I know what my next project is and I have a notebook of scribbled lines and ideas which I add to on an ad hoc basis but to tell you the truth I’ve never written anything like this before. My publisher has expressed interest in what really is little more than a title at this stage. I will write it but it needs to evolve. I need to evolve to meet it. For the first time I’m not in a hurry. I’m not anxious. It will come. I will be ready. In some ways I’m already there. (You’ll have an “aha moment” when the title is revealed.)

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

My work is inspired, like Arvo Pärt’s, by meditation. My first memoir is about how meditation saved my job, changed my life and helped me find a husband. It might sound a bit woo-woo but it’s real and it’s funny and it’s “brave.” My second memoir is about the truth of the happy ending. Meditation helped me survive some of the toughest years of my life – the early years of my marriage. We’re still married and our marriage gets stronger all the time. This second book is about relationships. Big stuff, sometimes heavy stuff, but also funny stuff  and very, very, “brave” stuff.

I’ve also written a novel that my agent tells me doesn’t work but I haven’t given up on it. It too was inspired by meditation. The story and the protagonist came to me at one of the silent ten-day meditation retreats I insist on doing. Meditation is a creative process. You can’t stop your mind that’s for sure. But when you slow it down some very interesting things pop up.

Why do I write about what I do?

When I used to read self-help books I would skip over the theory and never do the exercises at the end of each chapter. Instead I would head straight to the case studies. These are the stories of transformation that we all love so much; the Hero’s Journey, the overcoming of obstacles, the realisations that lead to change. When it became apparent that my life had changed through meditation I thought perhaps someone might like to read my story. Turns out they would.

I also love fiction because I get to play. I get to make stuff up. I have plans for a lot more fiction after the next book and more resting. Watch this space.

How does my writing process work?

I have no idea. Honestly. It’s always different. It always changes. I’m not methodical. I’m not a plotter. There are times when I write every night after work and every weekend. I’ve gone years without holidays because every scrap of leave has been spent writing or going on those silent ten-day meditation retreats. I saved up my money and took six months leave without pay, worked with a manuscript assessor and a mentor – all for a novel that doesn’t work, allegedly. But boy, oh boy, did I learn a lot about writing. The one constant has been meditation. Meditation breaks down the barrier between the conscious and the subconscious. It gets to the juice, the real driving force. We think our minds are in charge. They’re not. Meditation allows us to access the real deal, the source of all the action, love, fear and truth. As I mentioned at the moment I’m having a rest from writing. Vital for rejuvenation. Some say you must write every day. I say not so. Forget the musts. Find out what works for you. Everyday is creative whether you write or not. I’d rather have some time to stretch and rest and play and then return to writing with love than to feel duty bound to chain myself to a desk everyday. Besides I have a very exacting day job. Sometimes I need some space.

Now it’s my turn to spread the love by introducing you to two writers.

walter masonWalter Mason writes a whole different kind of travel book. Spiritual, humorous, honest and intriguing. If you haven’t yet read Destination Saigon or Destination Cambodia you will fall in love with him too when you do. Walter is tireless in his promotion of other writers. He is an inspiration. I’ve interviewed him for my program on the ABC, I’ve written a blog for his Universal Heart Book Club and he’s featured my book in his own blog. He is a generous and loving soul. Irresistible. Follow his adventures here and check out The Universal Heart Book Club as well.

blue mileKim Swivel writes as Kim Kelly and her latest novel The Blue Mile will be released in May. She tells a great story and weaves so much history into her novels that I find them fascinating. I’ve learnt things about Australia that I never knew and I’ve learnt them the best way – by being entertained. It’s a great mix. I’ve also interviewed her and found her delightful, humble and quietly determined. You can find out more about Kim here.

Check out their blogs for more about them and their writing process. Read their books and keep reading. It’s fun, inspiring and sometimes even life changing.

 

How I Became a Huffington Post Blogger

huffpostHere I am, a woman from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, a long, long way from New York City where The Huffington Post is based. So how did I become a blogger for HuffPost?

To tell you the truth it was totally unexpected.

I knew Arianna Huffington was a huge fan of meditation and I just happen to have written a book about how meditation changed my life, saved my job and helped me find a husband. I thought perhaps she might like to read my book,  and if she enjoyed it she might tell her friends about it.

I tracked down her email address, it wasn’t hard, and after she had finished her holiday digital detox I sent her an email. This is what it said:

Hi Arianna

Welcome back to the plugged-in world.
 
I’d love to send you a copy of my meditation memoir. I think you might enjoy it. It’s about how meditation changed my life, saved my job and helped me find a husband. Plus I’m told it’s very funny.  It’s published in Australia by Pan Macmillan.
 
“Bracingly honest, funny and rewarding, this is a book you can’t put down.” Sydney Morning Herald.
 
It is available as an e-book but I’d like to give you a book made out of paper – it is recycled paper 🙂
 
What’s the best address to send it to?
 
Thanks for your time, I appreciate it.
 
Warm regards
Mary-Lou Stephens
Did I expect to hear back from her? Not really. She’s a very busy woman with way too many emails to read I’m sure. But I hoped someone might get back to me with an address.
To my great surprise and delight, less than 2 weeks later this email appeared in my Inbox.
Mary-Lou, many thanks for thinking of us. We would love to feature your voice on HuffPost about your meditation memoir. I’m ccing our Third Metric editor Carolyn Gregoire as well as our Books editor Zoe to follow up. All the best, Arianna
Very quickly afterwards this email chimed in:
Thanks so much for reaching out, Mary-Lou. We’d be thrilled to feature your voice on the page. All we need to get started is a first blog (typically 500-1,000 words), along with a headshot and a bio, all in one email. Please let me know if you have any questions, and feel free to send a copy of the book to the below address. Best, Carolyn

So I did as requested, emailed my bio, headshot and a sample blog.  Within a day I was accepted into the fold at The Huffington Post, set up with my blogger’s toolkit, and my first blog was up on their site shortly afterwards.
The whole experience was miraculous, unexpected, joyful and welcoming. I was amazed at the warmth and promptness of their responses. But I guess when you have the boss suggesting that something should happen, it happens.
So there you have it, I wasn’t looking to become a blogger for The Huffington Post but here I am. And I’m thrilled. Thank you Arianna, thank you Caroline, thank you everyone at HuffPost for making miracles happen.

 

Book Review – Sex, Drugs and Meditation

“For a first book, it’s exquisite.”

Sex, Drugs and Meditation Front coverWe all know the rules. Stories, whether fiction or memoir, need to contain conflict. So when I heard that Mary-Lou Stephens had written a book about ten days of silence at a meditation retreat, my inner cynic snorted. Where’s the conflict in a bunch of people sitting silent and cross legged all day? Maybe Mary-Lou’s peppered the narrative with interesting flashbacks, but even so, the book is 270-pages long. What’s going to move the story forward?  When I finally meet Mary-Lou Stephens, I admit that Sex, Drugs and Meditation is an interesting title, but what I really want to know is how she made a book about silence so interesting that the world’s fifth largest publisher wanted it. 

The answers are in the text, but they’re not easy to explain. I’ve read the Macmillan-published book twice now, and to get your head around how she accomplished this feat, you have to imagine the book as three narratives, each with its own antagonist. In the first narrative we meet  Mary Lou in her afternoon drive-time ABC radio presenter persona, competent to the core, clearly loving her job. But then along comes nasty Mr Purvis, with his sharp suit, his pointy shoes and his perfect teeth. He tells everyone there’s been a restructure and even the old hands must reapply for their jobs. The Hideous Mr Purvis, as Mary-Lou calls him, is her new-found capricious enemy, and is the literary equivalent of Chekov’s gun. We know he’s coming back in the final scenes to take a swipe at Mary-Lou’s composure; he’ll turn up again after her meditation retreat, no doubt. In the meantime, though, it’s the Christmas break and she’s off to the Vipassana retreat.

Those familiar with meditation centres will recognise the subtle interplay of powers and hierarchies that Mary Lou flags. This is Mary-Lou’s first time; returnees get special tea, a tailored meditation routine, and possess an enviable straight-backed purity. Soon it’s obvious to readers that the antagonist in this second narrative is Mary-Lou’s inner critic. Readers familiar with Bridget Jones will recognise the negative self talk. Regarding Bernadette, a fellow meditator she’s only just met: I’m hoping we’ll be friends and I like my friends to be as flawed as I am. Because no one’s able to talk, Mary-Lou tells herself all kinds of stories about the people here: that the straight-backed meditator feels no pain, that her roommate suffers lung cancer, and that the cool yoga chicks want Mary Lou out. In Mary-Lou’s Sittings of Strong Determination, she must learn to remain composed against the demanding pain of an old knee injury. Quiet on the outside, her inner self is all noisy turmoil. At one point during her meditation, she takes up her imaginary machine gun, and mentally opens fire on all the perfect people that annoy her and then all the imperfect people who annoy her. As the heavy artillery rains down, she declares to her inner triumphant self, Take that you fucking serene shits. 

Dealing with ‘serene shits’ is only one of Mary Lou’s myriad challenges. In the third narrative, presented through flashbacks, we meet the younger Mary-Lou: needy child, isolated adolescent, young adult junkie, talented musician. The antagonist in this narrative is Mary-Lou’s mother. From age eight, Mary-Lou felt that her mother, already burdened with raising five other children, simply stopped loving her. Mary-Lou’s never been able to reclaim that love, and always feels as if she doesn’t come up to her mother’s expectations. The dramatic climax to this narrative is the day Mary Lou’s mother condescends to tell her daughter she mustn’t have a social drink today because she’s a recovering alcoholic. [My mother] said it with meanness and spite. Sitting on the couch opposite me, glass of sherry in her hand. I felt wounded beyond measure. I’d been honest with her about my work in Twelve Step programs and she threw it back at me, as an insult. I could let it slide but I knew I would resent it. ‘Mum, it makes it really hard for me to tell you things that are important to me when you say things like that.’ ….She said nothing. The silence stretched between us. I began to panic. I had just stood up to my mother and it didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel safe. I wanted to suck those words right back in….Instead, Mary Lou rallies against a retraction and holds her ground in silence. It is a pivotal moment in the book, and an astonishing tribute to the power of silence in the context of conversation. It marks a nice contrast with the studied, contrived silence of the meditators, a much harder silence to admire.

Beyond the book’s clever structural conceits, you’ll find a narrator with a taste for humour: be it ironic, bathetic, or self deprecating. At times her voice turns lyrical, particularly in passages that coalesce around grief: the Port Arthur massacre, her mother’s two miscarriages, and the loss of her father. For a first book, it’s exquisite. She says there’s a sequel on the way. Whether it’s about silence or not, it’s sure to get the tongues wagging.

Ali Quigley, SCLA secretary

 www.scliterary.org

A Book That Changed My Life

I was asked to write a guest blog for The Universal Heart Book Club and this was the result

Mary-Lou Stephens on a book that changed her life

Walter Mason writes: One of my favourite books  this year has been Mary-Lou Stephens‘ totally unique and beautifully written memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation – you can read my review of it here. I have been asking the very busy Mary-Lou (she is also a much-loved radio host on ABC Sunshine Coast) to write something for us for some time, and she has finally told us about a book that taught her that less is more:

It was my second job in radio. I was head-hunted to start up a new radio station in a major regional market. The program director of the network advised me, as he advised all the staff he was recruiting, to read Thick Face Black Heart by Chin-Ning Chu, an expert in business psyche and success tactics. I dutifully bought a copy but never got around to reading it.

Chin-Ning Chu, inspirational author of Do Less, Achieve More (Secrets of the Rainmaker)

Six months later, completely overwhelmed by the workload I was at breaking point.  After each frantic and exhausting day I would crawl back to my small apartment to cry and eat ice cream. The only thing I was capable of reading was junk mail; not much text, lots of pictures and the promise of happiness. I thought perhaps the reason I wasn’t coping was because I hadn’t read the book. Could Thick Face Black Heart be the key to managing the sixteen-hour days I was regularly putting in? I had a mentor who would often say to me, “You can only do what you can do.” His voice was soothing but his advice was not helpful. I told him that I was finally going to read Thick Face Black Heart.

“Don’t do that,” he said. “Read her next book instead, The Secrets of the Rainmaker. I think you’ll find it more beneficial.”

I ordered a copy and when it arrived tossed the junk mail in the recycling bin and began to read. What I found within its pages changed my life.

The Secrets of the Rainmaker, subtitled ‘Success without Stress’, is based on a story Carl Jung used to tell. In this story a village has been in drought for many years. The people have tried everything, brought in many experts but the drought remains crippling. Finally they call upon a renowned Rainmaker from afar. The Rainmaker arrives, pitches his tent and disappears inside it for four days. On the fifth day the rain begins to fall. When the villagers ask him how he’d achieved such a miracle he answers that he didn’t do anything. When he arrived he noticed that the village was not in harmony with heaven. He spent four days inside his tent putting himself in harmony with the Divine. Then the rain came.

Chin-Ning Chu extrapolates the Rainmaker’s success into four secrets; creating a harmonious inner environment, putting your mind at ease, finding the resting point within, and letting spirituality energize business. Within these secrets are many more insights including trading what you have for what you want, being willing not to survive, making peace with time and how to respond rather than react.

To say I was surprised by what I read is an understatement. I was expecting a book about getting ahead, cramming more into each day and beating my opponents. Instead I devoured a book about surrender, ease and meditation. It spoke to my weary soul with words like, “When one is excessively busy, his heart is dead.” I set about reviving my heart and replenishing my soul. I was already getting up at 4 am but I set my alarm forty minutes earlier to sit in front of a candle on a small table draped in purple silk and meditate. My desperate thoughts would make meditation all but impossible yet I persisted. Day after day in the darkness of early morning, I sat, breathed and gave my heart and mind a place to rest.

The months passed, the workload remained unmanageable, but I kept meditating. I had tried many guided meditations before, in my time, in Twelve Step programs recovering from a gaggle of addictions, but this was the first time I let my mind just be. I didn’t realise it then, but by spending this time in meditation and reflection I was slowing down enough to allow, as Chin-Ning Chu says, the angel of good fortune catch up. It took a lot longer than the Rainmaker’s four days.

The first time I saw the ad I couldn’t believe it. The job I had always wished for at the station I had said should exist, but never thought did, in one of the most beautiful places in Australia. It was my dream job. I put in the effort and then let go. Another secret of the Rainmaker, the balance between energy and ease. Three months later the job was mine. Miracles happen much more often than we are willing to acknowledge, says Chin-Ning.

I had learned in the rooms of AA and NA that I couldn’t change other people, places or things. The only thing I can change is myself. The Secrets of the Rainmaker brought that fact into focus for me. Less than two years later I was to use that insight again when my dream job became a nightmare. I didn’t pitch a tent and disappear into it for four days, instead I went to a meditation retreat and spent ten days meditating in silence. Once again miracles happened, unexpected miracles that remain and continue to unfold to this day. And to this day I continue to meditate. I enjoy allowing the angel of good fortune to catch up as often as possible.

(NB. In the USA Secrets of the Rainmaker is called Do Less, Achieve More. The book is a lot easier to find under the second title.)

Bio

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.

 

Front coverThe 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.

————————————————————————————————-

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