Tag Archives: publishing

Kill Your Darlings Part 3

I’ve finished the latest 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.

If you’ve ever wanted to know what goes on behind the scenes at a meditation retreat here’s your chance.

Each evening, after the meditators had gone to bed, the servers would gather in the meditation hall and sit with assistant teacher. Some times we’d have to kick the more determined meditators out before we could do so. One night a male student, who had the habit of wearing earplugs and a meditation shawl over his head, was deep in meditation and nothing we did could snap him out of it. Touching is forbidden so no one could give him a shake. One of the male servers resorted to doing a strange little dance around him, hoping the vibration would bring him out of his meditation. When that didn’t work he leaned in as close as he could without touching the student and spoke in his loudest quiet voice, shouting also being forbidden. Eventually the student stirred, rose from his seated position and left the hall without acknowledging any of us.

Once we were alone we would talk through the days events and any problems that had come up with the work or with the students. It was here I discovered the truth of what happens behind the scenes in a meditation centre. The dramas and intrigues. While we were burrowed away in the kitchen the male and female managers were on the frontline dealing with all kinds of bizarre scenarios. One of the male students had been asked to leave because his behaviour was out of control. He’d pretended to go but the male manager had discovered he was still at the centre, hiding. One of the other students had been smuggling him food. Then there was the incident involving two female students who broke one of the precepts. They had found it impossible to abstain from all sexual activity. I was shocked. What was wrong with these students? They were here to meditate. In the one and only course I’d done I was a stickler for the rules. Even though I managed to break every one of them, I never meant to.

And then there were the insects. The centre was full of them and they dominated our nightly get togethers. “One of the students says he has an insect in his ear,” the male manager said one night.

“Is it really an insect, or is it sensations?” The assistant teacher asked. We were up to the stage in the meditation course where students were observing their sensations.

The male manager hesitated. “I’m not sure. But he insists an insect has crawled into his ear. He can hear it constantly.”

“Does anyone have a possible solution?” The assistant teacher looked around at our small group.

“You can shine a torch into his ear,” I said. “Most insects are attracted to the light. It will head towards the torch and come out of his ear.”

“Not all insects head towards the light,” one of my kitchen team said. “Some try to hide from it. The insect might head further into his ear.”

“Well, you can always do the oil in the ear trick,” I suggested.

“What’s that?”

“Get him to put his head to the side and fill his ear with oil. The insect will float to the top.” How I became such an expert on getting insects out of ears I’m not sure.

“Won’t the insect drown?” the assistant teacher asked.

“Yes, but…..” I stopped, realising I’d just suggested killing a living creature, something the first precept expressly forbids. The assistant teacher frowned at me. I was overcome with the urge to laugh. I bit the inside of my cheeks to stop myself from giggling like a naughty school girl. Oh dear. I would never make a good Buddhist.

Some of the other servers were bolder than me. The problem of ticks came up quite often. The centre grounds were full of them and students often came to us with a tick’s head buried in their skin, the tick’s body bloated with their blood. The question was how to remove the ticks without killing them. I’d spent a few heated moments the day before with a half-naked male student in the small alcove outside the kitchen. He had a tick on his torso, just below his armpit, and was desperate to have it removed. I was the only one around, all the other servers resting at that time. He stripped off his shirt and I had attempted to remove the tick with a piece of cotton wrapped around its neck. It was a tricky process and one I wasn’t sure was successful. I had dabbed the area with tea tree oil, hoped for the best and sent the very good-looking young male student on his way.

At the nightly servers’ meeting the discussion about the best way to remove a tick became quite involved. Smothering them with Vaseline may kill them through suffocation, tea tree oil would certainly mean their demise, using tweezers would snap off the head, killing them as well as harming the student. One of my kitchen servers became agitated. She’d suffered from multiple tick bites when she’d worked on an organic farm. This resulted in her becoming very ill and she was  incapacitated for eighteen months. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But if it comes down to me or the tick, the tick’s going to cop it.”

The female manager admitted to me later that she had no compunction about killing any of the thousands of mosquitoes that annoyed us everyday. “The way I see it,” she said. “Is if you believe in the Buddhist theory and we are reincarnated after we die, then I’m just giving the mosquito a quick promotion.”

 

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.

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

How I Learnt to Swim in the Mainstream

Main Stream

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Insights into Sex, Drugs and Meditation

From an interview with Beauty and Lace.

You have had quite a varied career Mary-Lou, what made you want to write a book?Sexdrugsmeditation-pile 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love radio. It combines all my skills into one. When I played in bands I used to play music and talk in between. When I first started in radio I used to play music and talk in between. Perfect. These days I work in a talk radio format and there’s a lot of writing involved. I love to write introductions and teases that will interest people and hook our listeners.b&w performance 1 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next for Mary-Lou Stephens?photo-11

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

What does being a woman mean to you?

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

Thanks for your time Mary-Lou.

The Unexpected Adventure of Writing

It was explained to me, by a more experienced writer than myself, that saying, “I felt sick,” when asked how I felt when I landed a publishing deal, was best avoided, even if it was the truth. She said most people, who haven’t been published, expect you to say, “It was fabulous, I was so excited, over the moon,” and if that wasn’t the case then I should practise saying it until it sounded natural.

Trouble is I did feel sick, and she understood why. She’d been through it herself and talked to many other first time authors who felt the same. It’s about letting go. Letting go can be tough, especially when you’ve nurtured your manuscript for six years. The realisation that my brutally and beautifully honest meditation memoir was going out into the world to have a life of its own was a tough jump to make, even though I’d wanted it to happen for years. Dreams and reality are two very different beasts.

I took a deep breath, jumped, and signed the much desired contract. Reality rushed to meet me head on with a touch of dreaminess to soften the blow.

My publisher told me it was one of the most complete manuscripts she’d ever read. There wouldn’t need to be many changes, she said. I met my editor and my publisher – and how good does it feel to say that when you’re a first-time published author – and we talked about time-frames and covers. Bliss. They told me they were both going to read the manuscript again and send me their suggestions, but that there wouldn’t be much to do in that regard.

When the manuscript was emailed back to me with comments and suggestions my reaction was extraordinary. And I say reaction in every sense of the word. It was chemical, physical,emotional and totally illogical. I was angry, defensive, hurt and full of fear. I started scrolling through the suggestions and my chest clamped up. How dare they? How dare they challenge my work, my bravery, my art? How dare they want me to change any bit of it? I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. I was not capable of doing it. I swung between fear and fury. I decided, within half an hour of receiving the email, that I wasn’t going to go through with the deal. I was going to email them and tell it was all off. I’d had enough. It was too hard.

Crazy woman. I watched myself go through this agony. I watched my insane, terrified mind writhe and twist. Two things became apparent. I’ve always hated being told what to do. I’ve resented every boss I’ve ever had. My publisher was just another boss at that point, telling me what to do. The other realisation was that I was just plain scared because I’d never done this before. I’d never had to revise a manuscript for a publisher. I’ve done plenty of writing courses and been given feedback. I’ve been in a writing group for years and accepted suggestions from my fellow members. But this was on a whole new level. I’m a professional now, a soon-to-be published author by a major publishing house. This was totally different. I was out of my comfort zone and in outer space somewhere, spinning and lost.

So I did what I always do. I emailed my editor and my publisher and said, “Sure, that’s fine. And yes I can make the changes by the dead line.” And then I didn’t do a thing. I would slide through the manuscript and drift over their notes from time to time, like a tongue seeking out the aching tooth, but that was it. As the deadline grew closer I read the notes more carefully. They weren’t as bad as I’d first thought, in fact some of them were complimentary. My confidence returned just enough to read some more. The suggestions made sense, ah yes why hadn’t I noticed that, and oh, that would make it easier for the reader to follow. By the time the last weekend before my deadline arrived I was feeling as if I could possibly, maybe do this and not stuff it up too badly.

I allotted myself four days. The Hubby was away for two and a half of those. I’d have the place to myself, except for the dog. The first day and a half I did everything else but work on my manuscript. There were too many distractions. Everything was more important than my book. Finally, when The Hubby was gone, the dog was walked and everybody else was taken care of, I got down to work. I didn’t leave the house, except to walk the dog, I survived on what ever food was in the fridge. Slowly the pages, changes and suggestions started melting away. In the midst of it I had major realisations about the core message of my memoir. I made subtle changes that made the story sing and sob. I felt a whole new energy vibrating through the words. I cried and laughed, and howled with the dog. By the afternoon of day three I knew I was home. Right in the middle of my own life. Doing what I was destined to do. Doing what I loved. And it was working.

And I knew something else. I had conquered my fear, I had done something I’d never done before and my book was so much better for it. Clever publisher, clever editor, clever me.

Success with Each Step

I used to have a very fixed opinion about success. I knew what it looked like, how it would arrive and, once I obtained it, I knew my life would be perfect. My plan was to become famous. I studied acting and performed on stage and screen. Unfortunately I wasn’t particularly good at it and I didn’t like hanging out with other actors. They were all completely self-absorbed. So instead I decided I would become a famous singer/songwriter. I played in bands, I toured, I wrote songs, I recorded. I was even offered a recording contract. But bands break up and recording contracts disappear. When all was done and dusted I didn’t have the energy or desire to keep going.

Then along came radio. It was the perfect combination of acting and music. After years of banging my head against closed doors, all the doors swung open. It was a miracle. It was meant to be. I landed my dream job. Success at last. And here’s the thing about having a fixed opinion of success; the goal posts shift, life is fluid, everything changes. In other words my dream job turned out to have warts. I did discover, after much resistance and then acceptance, that I could still love it, warts and all, but it no longer fulfilled my definition of success.

Perhaps a successful relationship would do the trick. I achieved the required standard by getting married. But, you guessed it, I found out there is no such thing as the promised happy-ever- after. My job might have had warts but my marriage had bunions. However once again, after much resistance and then acceptance, I learned to love it, bunions and all.

Years ago I started writing. A quiet pursuit, never in the spotlight, unlike my other attempts at fame. Most people wouldn’t think I was a success because I wasn’t published. But my definition of success had changed by the time I took up the pen. Finishing eight drafts of my novel and finally completing my meditation memoir after six years, these were successes to me. I sent them out into the world and they returned with kind suggestions and notes about revisions, most of which I took on board. Each small compliment was another success. I did the work and sent my manuscripts out again. A process of growth and refinement.

And now, success. My meditation memoir will be published by Pan Macmillan next year. A cause for celebration. But I know this is not the end. This is just another step on the journey. A journey where every step, no matter how many warts or bunions, is a cause for celebration, is a success.

***You can also find this post in the latest edition of Holisitic Bliss