Sharon Livingstone on creating her first book

Our guest this week is my student and friend Sharon Livingstone. She recently published her first collection of flash fiction, Red Inks. I asked Sharon  to share how she got back into writing and the creative fears she had to face:

For a couple of years, I complained a lot about having writers’ block, a non-specific condition whereby a writer simply can’t get cohesive, wonderful words from their brain to the page. Or the creative cogs have rusted and the can of WD-40 is empty.

I even started a writers’ group to help me to get over this debilitating condition. It was only a short term solution, keeping me writing for a day or two at best.

I read every article I could find on my “problem”. Write everyday, even if it’s rubbish, keep writing. That was the common theme. Gave that a go - it lasted a day. I started a blog, with the theory that, if it’s public, I’ll be motivated to keep going. It lasted for a few weeks before drying up. Mary-Lou Stephens suggests that meditation is helpful. I’ve tried meditation many a time with patchy results.

Writers always seem to be wishing we were more successful, better writers, had the talent of J. M. Coetzee or the ideas of J. K. Rowling. Are we jealous when we hear about other writers having amazing success? Maybe not but it might be tickling our toes. More and more of my writing group were announcing their books had been published. I’m genuinely happy for them and I know how much hard work that each has put in to achieve this goal. I’d heard them read some of their writing and it was impressive. More success to them, I reckon. But it lit that green fire in my gut too.

Not that I had anything to be jealous about. They were constantly writing, were focused and determined. I was staring at a computer screen that invariably had my Twitter feed scrolling through or displaying something to throw my credit card at.

As they say in the classics, something had to give.

I had a look at my excuse list:

  • “I’m soooo busy with work.” 
  • “I can’t figure out how to manoeuvre my characters to the climax of the story.” 
  • “Social media is too addictive. Have you seen what they’re saying on Twitter today?”

Yeah, well, busy at work really is a rubbish excuse. I admire people like Fleur McDonald, who was writing while also being a farmer, a mother (one of her kids has autism), a spokesperson for women in agriculture and, at one point, she was a carer for a sick family member. Yet, Fleur still writes and publishes a new and intriguing book each year. I have nowhere near those kinds of demands on my time or mind.

Plot development issues should have been a red flag. The story wasn’t good enough. The story was too long. There were too many characters.

I’m so easily distracted. Ooh, look at this amazing food Walter is showing me on Instagram! Ahem.

 Apparently there are solutions: you can simply not log into the WiFi;  or you can use a social media blocking app (there are fistfuls out there).

That dealt with the excuses. I’m not even sure I had writers’ block. I’m pretty sure it was chronic laziness. So what got me writing again to the point where I could publish my own book?

A shift in mindset. Sounds so simple, right? Well, it is!

I’d been focusing my energy on writing novel length stories. But in the same way that an actor on stage feeds off the immediate reaction of the audience, I loved the response of an audience when I read out a story I’d written in ten minutes. That can of WD-40 was full again and the creative cogs were turning. What if I was supposed to write super short stories instead of a novel?

What do they say about light bulb moments?

Know your strengths, accept your weaknesses.

Hmm, but that still didn’t make me write every day. That took some commonsense advice. I’ve never been one for goal-setting. At least, not for sticking to benchmarks for the goals I set. But when it was suggested that I create some short term goals and put a completion date on each task, it worked. It really worked.

I gave myself three months to write 60 stories for a collection of flash fiction stories, which would be published one month later.

Off to the library! WiFi turned off, I wrote for two hours on each of my days off work. I made it more enticing by getting the coffee in and packing a snack. I can’t seem to write without something to nibble on. The library isn’t quiet and I like to sit outside near the cafe but the fresh air works wonders on the creative mind.

I booked myself into a Blue Mountains writing retreat for four days, too. I got my inspiration by bushwalking in the morning and, with a coffee, wrote all afternoon and later into the evening. There was no WiFi there at all. Writing was becoming fun again instead of something to dread.

Wouldn’t you know it? Being disciplined, with a fixed goal and methodology, I got those 60 stories written (two weren’t good enough to make the collection). Naturally, not everything went to plan and my beta readers, cover designer and editor didn’t have the same timelines/priorities as me, so publication shifted by three months in the end. I didn’t beat myself up over that because I’d worked in Defence industries and target dates always shift to the right. It’s normal. Besides, I’d told simply everyone I knew that I was publishing a book, so there was no way I was not going to finish this project. I mean, who wants to look like an idiot to their family, friends, colleagues and passing acquaintances?

I saw my book on the bookshelf this morning. A symbol of organisation, determination and focus.

That tiny thing needs some brothers and sisters.
Twitter: @SharLivingstone

James Fry on creativity and finding a medium

James Fry

This year I read James Fry's superb memoir of bullying, addiction and redemption, That Fry Boy. I was impressed by its maturity, its nuanced discussion of complex social issues and by James' ability to tell a frequently difficult story with great compassion and simplicity.

I jumped at the chance to work with him, and we had a really fascinating conversation about his book and his life at Balmain Library a few months later (please note that James and I will be chatting again soon at Berkelouw's in Hornsby - do come).

I thought I would ask James to write something for you all about his creative process and inspiration and why he decided to let it all out. Here's what he had to say:

Teenage drug addict and petty crim turned suburban father and university post grad whose only threat of overdose comes in the aromatic specter of one too many macchiatos.

My life story up until now may make it fair for some to surmise that not only do I dislike stereotypes, but at times—deliberately and sometimes by complete accident—I have managed to quash a few, too. Yet when it comes to the narrative that creative types are often driven by inner demons, it would seem I am someone who is at the vanguard of ensuring such a typecast isn’t lost.

Finding a medium to express my creativity was a search that didn’t present me with any real answers until I hit thirty. Only then did I begin to write with anything vaguely resembling a commitment. And not because I thought I might have any talent for the written word, but simply because I was so damn bored with my office job that I was willing to give anything a go. It’s not that I wasn’t appreciative of creative works up until that point. I had often found solace between the pages of a good book or strolling through the wings of a gallery. The creative works of others long spoke to me and my struggles in ways that I found little else could. The problem was, I could not speak back. And if I go too long without speaking back now, I begin to feel off kilter, fast.

As my children will be quick to attest, I have been bestowed with a set of fine motor skills that see even the simplest of requests result in catastrophic disappointment. When my daughter had just started to string sentences together, she asked me to draw her a bumblebee. A simple bloody bumblebee. Surely a father could deliver on the simplest of requests from a darling brown-eyed cherub who didn’t doubt for a second her dad wouldn’t grant this wish.   What she got was something that resembled a cow that looked like it had grown up on free-range grain from the fields of Chernobyl. She learnt quickly that her mum was the go-to for all future art-related requests. So when I finally took up writing, I was both surprised and deeply transformed when I discovered that I was able to produce something that others might find readable. No longer was I just a mere consumer of creativity; I could be a producer, too. I exhaled a long-held breath—one I had no idea I had been holding for all that time. The demons now had an outlet. The demons I had sought to quash with drugs, booze and sex during my years of active addiction.

Through my own experience, and now countless conversations with fellow writers, I have found that the love—and hopefully some accompanying talent—for writing often isn’t realised by most of us until we are well into our adult years. This is in sharp contrast to those with a capacity for the visual arts, for whom their potential is generally both recognised and encouraged from the earliest ages.

In a recent edition of the Tasmanian literary magazine Island, a spotlight was shone on the inspiring prison literacy initiative Just Sentences. One participant, who appeared under the alias Peter, hadn’t attempted creative writing until his sixth decade on earth. With just a small bit of assistance, not only did Peter’s general literacy skills rise remarkably, but also in the process he found a love for creative writing. ‘I’m a lot happier writing,’ he said, despite still calling prison his home. ‘I got my own way of putting my thinking—it may be mad to you all but to me it’s my way of saying things’. The discovery of a new way of connecting like Peter has, is something that I can deeply relate to.  A friend whose commitment to his writing only developed momentum on the steeper side of fifty, describes his drive to write using the Jungian concept of Eros versus Thanatos. The life drive versus death drive. He told me ‘if I don't now actively engage my creativity via Eros, it expresses itself via Thanatos in a kind of low intensity level guerrilla warfare, with my sanity and sobriety the target.’

Of course, neither age nor suffering, however common factors amongst creative types, are mandatory. The literary world alone is full of seemingly well-adjusted authors, some of who aren’t even old enough to vote.

Be that as it may, those writers who have experienced deep suffering often have a level of fire available to draw upon, in turn pushing them beyond that threshold where many others often decide they have had enough and down tools. A decision, which ultimately means that their manuscript, however promising, is never finished, or that potentially wonderful art work goes without those beautiful finishing brush strokes. Fortunately, suffering can also make for a highly readable story, too. When pain makes its way onto the page, it can strike a chord in the reader like nothing else. After all, if we live long enough, suffering will visit each and every one of us regardless of what our bank balance may be or what social circles we mix in. And not only is such pain something common to us all, it is something very few of us regularly talk about, at least not at a public level.

Finding someone else who has been able to articulate what we were either too afraid to say, or simply could not find the right words to describe, results in a powerful hook being unleashed upon the reader. Writer Andrew Solomon once told an audience, ‘The writer’s job is to say those things that appear unsayable, to cloak with language those volatile experiences that seem barely able to endure it’. F. Scott Fitzgerald sounded like he was trying to say something similar, though perhaps in a simpler term when he said, ‘What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story’.

With such an emphasis on suffering, you may be thinking that I spend my days in a depressive stupor of the kind that would give even Nietzsche a boner of Viagraic proportions. But as much as I may be driven at times by demons, discovering an outlet for these ghouls in the form of writing means I’m blessed with being able to transform something that was once utterly self-destructive into a source of creative inspiration. Something that rewards me even more is when I hear from readers that the very words born from the depths of my existence have left the page and have touched them in a way that has allowed them to acknowledge and release their own demons, too.

Remember that on the 12th of November I will be chatting with James about his book and some of these subjects at Berkelouw's bookstopre in Hornsby. This is a free event, but bookings are essential.

Walter Mason in conversation with author Michael Costello, Marrickville Library, October 15

Walter Mason in conversation with 

local author Michael Costello

15 Oct: Walter Mason in conversation with local author Michael Costello

Walter Mason, well known travel writer and interviewer, will chat with Dulwich Hill based author Michael Costello about his new book, Season of Hate.  

Season of Hate is set in a small wheat town in western NSW and addresses discrimination and injustice.

This ‘in conversation’ event is an opportunity to get an in-depth insight into Michael’s writing process.

 Michael is an established playwright with an ability to pen complex characters as featured in Season of Hate.


Bookings are required.
Location: Marrickville Library

When: Thursday 15 October, 10.30am to 12.00PM

Charlotte Wood in conversation with Walter Mason, Ashfield Library 17 October 2015

It's no secret that one of my favourite Australian authors is Charlotte Wood. I have been a fan of hers since her book The Submerged Cathedral, released in 2004.

Charlotte's new book, The Natural Way of Things, is released soon, and I will be chatting to her about it at Ashfield Library on Saturday the 17th of October. It's a free event, and I would love to see you there.

Full details:

Charlotte Wood in conversation with Walter Mason


Ashfield Library

Saturday, 17 October 2015 from 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM 

Charlotte Wood in conversation with Walter Mason

Event Details

Saturday October 17 11am  Level 2 Local Studies Room
Charlotte Wood in conversation with Walter Mason about her new novel, The Natural Way of Things.
Book for sale and signing.

Bookings not essential

Julian Leatherdale on creativity, place and never missing a deadline

Julian Leatherdale launching his novel at the Hydro Majestic

 Julian Leatherdale is a Blue Mountains novelist and I chatted to him about his new book, Palace of Tears, and his creative method. He was terribly generous in his response, and I think you'll agree that this is a fascinating Q&A:

1.    Has writing always been your passion? If so, have you consistently pursued it over the course of your life?

Yes, writing has been an essential part of my life for as long as I can remember. I kept a diary when I was seven and can still recall the mock-leather cover and tiny lock and key on the front flap. With my best friend at primary school who was a puppeteer, we staged plays for our long-suffering parents. I wrote my first (very short) novel at 12, a pastiche of David Copperfield. A friend of my parents kindly read and critiqued it and I felt like a writer for the first time. The second time was when I had a poem read on ABC radio.

The lesson from my charismatic English teacher at a private boys’ high school was that writing was exciting, possibly even subversive. Catch-22 justified my dropping out of cadets while Lord of The Flies explained the behaviour of my fellow students. With my teacher’s encouragement, I contributed poems and short fiction to the slim ‘arts pages’ of the school magazine. Imagine my surprise when I recently reread one of these stories written when I was only 15: a tale of an elderly ballet dancer reflecting on her lost youth. And here I am, 40 years later, author of an intergenerational novel largely told from the point of view of women.

For the next few decades, I kept writing in many forms. I co-wrote a children’s musical with a talented musician followed by four satirical cabarets performed at fringe festivals in Sydney and Adelaide and even for a season at Downstairs Belvoir Street. With development funding, we worked for some years on a serious two-act music-theatre work.

My second partnership in the 1990s was with an experienced TV director. For Film Australia we researched and wrote two one-hour history documentaries shown on the ABC and overseas, both demanding and fascinating projects. I also had a longstanding interest in animation and collaborated with several talented animators in Sydney and London, writing scripts and proposals. Great fun!

I wrote an adult novel just before my son was born in 1999. In 2010, I turned to novel writing again, focusing on children and YA. I was flying solo this time and I loved it. My agent submitted two titles to publishers but without success. Given my love of history and imaginative storytelling, she suggested I consider adult historical fiction. The result was Palace of Tears, my debut novel published by Allen & Unwin in 2015.  It has been a long and interesting journey. I hope it continues. 

2.    Who have you met in your life that has inspired you as a writer?

There are a few but I will mention two.

The first person who springs to mind was not a writer though he enjoyed reading and respected writers. He was a neighbour and good friend, Peter Rushforth. Peter died two weeks ago at the age of 94, much admired and loved by a large community of friends and colleagues. He was a highly respected potter and teacher of pottery. His early years had been marked by suffering, orphaned by age 14 and then a prisoner-of-war at age 20 on the Burma-Thailand railway. Remarkably he transcended this experience by studying and teaching Japanese ceramics and working with Japanese potters after the war. In his essay The Good Pot (1979) Peter wrote “Myself, I have always been impressed with the advice of the Zen teacher ‘Develop an infallible technique and then leave yourself open to inspiration’.” I admired Peter’s serious commitment to his craft and his pursuit of beauty. In a small way I have been encouraged by his example to work hard on the craft and let the rest come.

The other person who has inspired me is my wife, Claire, a talented essayist, journalist, short-story writer and novelist whose book When We Have Wings was published by Allen & Unwin in 2011. We have been together for over 25 years and yet we still surprise each other with our work. It has been an amazing experience to watch Claire’s development as a writer from her early short stories and journalism to the major achievements of her novels – a second one is now well advanced – and her short stories, long form essays and journalism today. She is a generous advocate for other writers she admires and serious-minded about the entire project of writing. I am daily impressed by her discipline and hard work, the breadth of her reading and interests and by the genuine passion she takes in her craft. It is a privilege to be her first reader.

3.    Your new novel is set in the Blue Mountains – what is it about the Mountains that made you want to write with them as the setting?

I have lived in the Mountains for over twenty-five years and have always wondered why more fiction was not set here. I wanted to pay my own tribute to this place’s great beauty and mysterious ambience, always seductive but also at times sombre and unsettling. I relished the challenge of writing about somewhere I knew so intimately, of overcoming the blindness of the familiar (I think my description of the annual winter solstice festival, Winter Magic in Katoomba, may be a literary first). 

I had in mind a family saga, a thrilling ‘sensation’ tale with a strong Gothic flavour. The Mountains appealed as the ideal setting for such a novel with its dramatic and eerie landscape. It is here that people are drawn from around the world to commit suicide from the clifftops. It is here that visitors become lost and perish in the vast belittling wilderness. It is here in summer that the peaceful bush transforms into a deadly, blazing nightmare.

And then of course there is the Hydro Majestic, the grand and luxurious spa hotel opened in 1904 in the tiny township of Medlow Bath. Like so many locals I have always been fascinated by this unique, even eccentric, landmark building, a kind of antipodean madman’s castle. In my novel, I have created the Palace as a character in her own right, a fictional half-sister to the Hydro with historic people and incidents from the hotel’s real past enriching my own story. It was such a fitting and joyful experience to have the current owners of the refurbished Hydro recently host a high-tea book launch for me there.

4.    How do you capture your creative ideas? Do you take a notebook everywhere, keep a diary, use some kind of software or rely on memory? Or something else?

I have no magic tools, just piles of notebooks lying around where I jot down a few words here and there as an idea occurs to me or scribble notes as I read. I have sometimes even scrawled on the backs of envelopes or old shopping lists if I am worried it will slip away. Some of this handwritten stuff even makes it into computer files.

The timelines and story arcs are always done by hand in almost indecipherable arrows, doodles and scribblings – it is the only way for me to massage and visualise the shape of the story. It all looks rather chaotic when I look back and I realise how much my memory and idle dreaming has sorted out the wheat from the chaff. I have become much more accepting of this serendipitous nature of creativity, happy to grab whatever comes to my attention and sticks there as inspiration.

5.       Are you a methodical writer? Do you have a daily writing schedule?

For my bread-and-butter journalism and marketing work I am rigorously methodical because I am usually working on very tight deadlines and to specific client briefs. I record and transcribe all my research interviews for long form articles which is time-consuming but gives me time to absorb the material properly. I always feel terrible pressure but I have never missed a deadline!

The closest I got to a daily schedule on the three novels I have written is to try to start work no later than 10.00am. Both kids have been breakfasted and dispatched to school, I have had my morning coffee chat with Claire and taken care of adminis-trivia. Then I hopefully have five hours of solid work time until I pick up my daughter from school. The truly productive flow of writing can take two to three hours to start and then it is agony to be interrupted or have to switch it off. I try to pick up the momentum and work solidly again until about 6.00pm with a glass of wine as a reward. If the juices are really flowing I will do a night shift of writing until the well runs dry.

6.    Do you think writing has some kind of mystical or therapeutic purpose?

I am convinced there is something mystical in writing in terms of it serving human culture as a mirror of its own deepest currents of belief and value. We have so little insight into each other’s inner worlds, so few moments for exchanging truths that we are always second-guessing the mental landscapes of even our most intimate loved ones. Not to mention our neighbours, colleagues and communities. Stories describe and reveal those landscapes, even shape them. The way they do that is still profoundly mysterious to me.

Writing Palace of Tears was my strongest experience to date of a power beyond ego or calculation or intelligence or any conscious control in the writing. The Muse knows the shape of your story and must be served faithfully. At times intensely pleasurable, at others a painful struggle, the writing process is for me the closest experience I have had to communion with a spirit beyond my comprehension. 

Check out Julian Leatherdale's website
Like Julian Leatherdale's Facebook page

My Favourite Travel Books

I have been asked a couple of times recently what my favourite travel books are, so I thought I would put it all in a blog entry.
Below is my own selection, naturally idiosyncratic and with a slight bent towards Vietnam, owing to my interests and attachments:

A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis - Lewis is seen by now as the great master of travel writing, and all of his books are highy accomplished, filled with attention to fascinating and small detail. Readable, entertaining and quite sensitive and intelligent, A Dragon Apparent was written in the early 1950s and captures a Vietnam and Cambodia that are just on the verge of collapse. I also like his book on Burma, Golden Earth.  

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux - The grand old curmudgeon of travel writing, I think Theroux is a great writer, almost because of his personal idiosyncrasies and apparent grumpiness. This is an account of his journey through Africa, where he rants about missionaries and NGOs and foreign aid workers. Wonderful stuff. I also love his The Happy Isles of Oceania and his odd fictionalised memoir My Other Life.

From a Chinese City by Gontran de Poncins - A French Count goes to live in Saigon's Chinatown in the early 1950s. This book is how I wish I could spend my life. He's largely forgotten now, but de Poncins was a beautiful writer. Check out as well his fascinating (and compelling) account of life among the Inuit, Kabloona.

Hindoo Holiday by J. R. Ackerley - Ackerley is these days a cult figure, though largely unknown outside the queer lit community.He writes elegantly in this early memoir of his time in India.

Catfish & Mandala by Andrew X Pham - Pham is a Vietnamese American who travels back to his homeland and discovers that he doesn't really fit in anywhere. This is such an amazing book, insightful, heartfelt and brutally honest.

Red Chapels of Banteay Srey by Sacheverell Sitwell - Of course, everything written by every member of the Sitwell family is lots of fun and always worth reading. In this one Sachie Sitwell visits Cambodia, and goes about being a tourist in the most elegant way imaginable.

The Spiritual Tourist by Mick Brown - An interesting re-invention of the travel book, Brown travels Britain and the world pursuing spiritual enlightenment and meets an amazing cast of characters while doing so.

The Global Soul by Pico Iyer - Iyer has always been an exceptional and totally uique travel writer, but I think  this is his best book, an examination of the metaphysical impications of tourism, transnationalism and belonging.

Twilight of Love by Robert Dessaix - Dessaix is perhaps Australia's best living writer, though vastly undervalued here. In this book he travels Russia in search of the novelist Turgenev.

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor - Fermor, who died last year, was a great pal to many literary figures, and his own literary ability has been overshadowed somewhat by his famous acquaintances. His spare and stylishly written little books are all worth reading, but perhaps my favourite is A Time To Keep Silence, in which he writes an account of his time as a young man wandering through the monasteries of Europe.


Next week I am teaching my Travel Writing with Spirit workshop with Laneway Learning Sydney, and there are just a couple of places left.  If you are interested in learning about how to record your journeys and travel more meaningfully, why not book a spot? 

Travel Writing with Spirit
Only $14!!
Wednesday, August 5th 2015
7:00pm to 8:15pm
Waverley Library


In conversation with memoirist James Fry

Next week I'm at Balmain Library chatting to writer James Fry about his fascinating book That Fry Boy.

James' story is a compelling one about addiction and betrayal, and is a thoroughly honest and thought-provoking memoir. I very much look forward to talking to him about it, and I would love to see you there.

This is a totally free event, but it would be great if you could let the library know you were coming.

I hopr to see you there!


That Fry Boy with James Fry @ Balmain Library


06 Aug 2015

What time:

6:30 PM  - 8:00 PM 


Balmain Library
Balmain Town Hall, 370 Darling St
Balmain, NSW, Australia 

Event Details:

That Fry Boy serves as both a cautionary and educative tale of the impact that bullying can have on a young developing mind. 

Free event. Bookings - online or call 9367 9211.
More information:

James Fry is a Sydney-based author and commentator.

James works as a youth justice conference convenor; a role that has him tasked with bringing juvenile offenders and their victims together in a restorative justice process on behalf of the NSW Department of the Attorney General and Justice.

Free event - All welcome - Refreshments served
Bookings - online or call 9367 9211
Related Posts with Thumbnails