Tag Archives: writing

Scraping Off The Barnacles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Writing Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 🙂 )

Kill Your Darlings Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Disposed of where?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Going Home

Mum & kids beach 2The past is pulling me back. Sometimes as slow and sweet as honey flowing from a jar. Sometimes as sharp as cold metal. I’m going home, back to the land that raised me, back to the town where I was born. It’s the time of year when people gather, with friends, with family, to celebrate the old and light a candle for the future.

 You make a move in life, a decision no matter how small, and that move or decision ripples out, bumping up against other decisions, other lives.

Long before I board the plane the past is nibbling at my ankles. A long neglected friend calls from the south. He sounds as though he’s at the bottom of a well. His life has fallen to pieces, he needs a friend. I tell him I’m coming down for a the holidays. I feel the weight of his need. He clings to me in the hope that I will patch him up, help him through, make him feel like the person he was all those years ago when we were friends. I’m his portal to the past, to happier days.

The past is enticing me back. I receive an email from a school friend. He wants to plan a reunion for later in the year. It’s been an embarrassing amount of time since we were at school together and he wants to celebrate that fact. He’s sent this email to others from our year and soon I’m connecting with people I haven’t seen for decades. The annoying boy that I used to avoid in the school hallways is now a successful lawyer. His email gives away the fact that everything he does in life is considered from every angle. I admire the way his mind works and I’m amazed that I can now relate to some one I had nothing in common with when we were kids. I suggest we meet up for a cup of tea when I‘m in town. I’m sure he drinks espresso.

The past is calling me back. My gaze falls on a photo of my family at the beach when we were young. A friend had mentioned that we all look as though we’re in pain. I explain that even though the photo was taken in the middle of summer the water was freezing and out toes were probably turning blue. I smile and pack my bathers anyway.

The past is calling me back. I embrace it as the jet engines thrust me into the wide blue open. I’m going home to acknowledge the past, to honour all we’ve achieved over the days and months of the year that’s been. And I’m going home strong in the knowledge that the year to come will grant us many more smiles and sighs, will bring laughter and tears, and will give us many more reasons to celebrate.