Mary-Lou Stephens on writing, privacy and insane thinking

Mary-Lou Stephens

 A couple of years ago I heard by chance an author being interviewed on a Sydney AM radio station. She was talking about drug addiction, meditation, spirituality and creating a new life and I thought to myself, "Heavens, that sounds like a book I'd like to read." Unfortunately I was hanging my washing out at the time and when I went to write down the details I'd forgotten everything. That night I checked my email, and what should be waiting for me but a message from the very author I had been listening to saying, "Someone told me we should be in touch." It was, of course, Mary-Lou Stephens. Never let anyone tell you that synchronicity isn't at work in this universe.
Mary-Lou's first book, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, was just about my favourite book that year, and it remains one of my all-time favourite memoirs. And of course, her follow-up How to Stay Married was one of my Best Books of 2014 - a painfully honest look at marriage, relationships and travel.
Mary-Lou is one of the most fascinating writers at work in Australia today, and I wanted to ask her a few questions about why and how she wrote and published her new book, how she dared to write the things she did and how she has managed to remain happily married. Here's what she had to say:

1.    Can you tell us briefly about your creative journey - when were you convinced that you could publish your writing?

I never thought I’d be a writer - a songwriter yes, but not a published author. I trained as an actor and played in bands until I got a real job, in radio. It was after I’d been working in radio for a while that I went to the USA for a holiday. On my return friends asked to see photos of my trip. I had taken only twelve photos on a disposable Instamatic and three of those were blurry. A colleague said, “Clearly photography is not your thing, why don’t you write about your trip instead?” So I did. That led to me writing a weekly column for the local newspaper for five years.

When I was writing the column I became interested in pursuing writing as a career. My research told me that at the time, early 2000’s, most published Australian authors earned about $3,000 a year. I was earning that just from writing my column and I was published every week. So I kept working in radio and writing in my spare time. I wrote short stories, took many classes at the Queensland Writers Centre and began working on my memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation.

I joined a writing group, took six months leave without pay to write a novel, and quite accidentally received some interest from a literary agent for Sex, Drugs and Meditation. She thought the book had potential but wasn’t where it needed to be. Although I was a long way from being published at that point, it was the first time I really thought I could be a published author.


2. What are some of the barriers that held you back from more fully expressing your creative impulses?

When I was contacted by the literary agent it was still very early in my writing journey. (An acquaintance who liked my work had sent a sample to the agent without me knowing.) The agent asked to see everything I had written and naively that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t know back then that first draft material really shouldn’t leave the privacy of your room. As Stephen King says, “Write the first draft with the door closed and the second draft with the door open.”

Unsurprisingly the agent went cold on the book but gave me some invaluable advice. She told me that if Sex, Drugs and Meditation was going to work as a book then I had to get really, really honest. Up until that stage I’d been a bit flippant with events, more Bridget Jones’ Diary than the book it is today. The idea of being really, really honest, of baring all, terrified me so much I stopped working on the book and wrote a novel instead.

It wasn’t until many years later and after much more meditation that I gained the detachment and compassion to write the book that Sex, Drugs and Meditation needed to be. The agent was right. Once I was able to be really, really honest the manuscript buzzed with incredible energy and developed a life of it’s own. I felt as though it flew out of my hands when it was ready to go out into the world.

3. Do you think this is a good time to be a writer, or are you more gloomy about the future of books?

It’s a fabulous time to be a writer. There are so many avenues open to us. However it’s not a good time to be a paid writer. It’s a double edged sword. People who love reading have more books than ever to choose from and are, I think, reading more. However because there are so many ebooks offered for free or for 99 cents  it is tough for writers to make money.

4. If there's someone out there with a story burning inside them that they need to tell, what would your advice be?
Find a space where you feel comfortable to write. When I first began writing I was extremely self conscious about what I was doing. There was no way I could do it in a cafe. It had to be somewhere private where I wouldn’t be interrupted. Door closed writing. Through the years I’ve become more relaxed about it. I’ve had more practice and that makes it easier to write wherever I am. Some of How To Stay Married was written on the couch with The Hubby beside me. I still prefer privacy though and I hate being interrupted. I know it sounds really basic but without the confidence of being able to write freely it can inhibit your ability to get the words you really want to, really need to, down on the page.

If you’re writing memoir I suggest following Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s advice. She’s written a book called Writing Without a Parachute: The Art of Freefall. One of her precepts is the ten year rule - any autobiographical material needs to be at least ten years old. I had followed this precept without even realising it. Once your material has had the time to compost it’s much richer, more fertile.

5. Do you suffer from writer's block, and if so, how do you beat it?

It’s like trying to see a distant star. If you look right at it it fades away. If you look slightly to the side you can see it in your peripheral vision. Sometimes it’s best to write around the thing you really want to write but can’t. Take the pressure off. Write something different.

But the one tried and true method I have for boosting creativity and for coming up with a million ideas, characters and story lines, is meditation. Especially a silent meditation retreat. No distractions and a monkey mind! The idea of meditation is not to stop thinking, that’s impossible, but in the process of observing the thoughts when they come up you’ll be amazed at the concepts and ideas that arise.

6. Your new book How to Stay Married is about some deeply personal stories and events in your life. Do you ever worry about the things you expose while writing a memoir?

When I signed the contract for my first book Sex,Drugs and Meditation I was terrified. I woke the next morning in a state of panic. The whole world was going to know all those secrets I’d kept hidden. There was a real danger that I would lose my job, my friends and my family. But the energy around signing that contract was far greater than letting it slide by. The end result was that I didn’t lose my job, my friends love me even more and almost all of my family still talk to me.

With How To Stay Married I had already revealed so much of myself the process was much easier. I was concerned for my husband but he gave me his blessing to write whatever I needed to write. I gave him first right of veto when the manuscript was finished and he only requested a couple of very small changes.
There is one section in the book that was extremely hard to write. It shows the extent of how insane my thinking can be, and how damaging to myself and others. I gave the section to my writing group to read and asked them whether I should keep it in the book. They were deeply affected by it, to the point of tears, because they had all experienced the same kind of thinking but had never dared talk about it. They encouraged me to keep that chapter because it would help other people who had been through a similar situation.

7. This time around you chose indie publishing. Why did you do this, and at this stage of your journey do you have some tips for other people considering the same?

I knew I couldn’t self-publish Sex, Drugs and Meditation. I needed a major publishing house and their legal team to avoid getting sued. With How To Stay Married the only person who could possibly sue me is my husband and he’s promises not to.

I’ve interviewed many authors in my job with the ABC and increasingly they are self-published. Adam Spencer decided to self-publish his Big Book of Numbers because he wanted complete control to be as nerdy as he needed to be. I’m keen to investigate the hybrid model where some of my books are self-published and others are with a traditional publisher. Authors are doing this very successfully these days, including Stephen King.

My frustration with being published with a major publisher is with the pricing of ebooks. I would love to be able to play with price points and to do special promotions but that has not been possible. With so many inexpensive ebooks on the market it is hard to compete when your ebook is priced over a certain point. Having said that I am in negotiations to have my world ebook rights revert to me. When that comes through I can begin to play.

I wanted to explore the possibilities of indie publishing with How To Stay Married and it’s been an adventure and a great learning experience. The support from other indie writers has been overwhelming. There is a real community of writers who want to see other writers succeed. Their generosity has been an eye-opening and heart-opening experience.

There are expenses involved in self-publishing and I must admit it is nice to have all of them paid for by a publisher when you go the traditional route. However these are necessary expenses to deliver a book that serves you and your readers well. I have beta readers and I took their feedback on board but I also paid two editors to improve certain aspects of How To Stay Married.  Other costs included a cover designer and professional formatter for ebook and print.

Marketing an indie book can be tough but then marketing a traditionally published book can also be tough. It’s hard to gain traction. From what I’ve observed successful marketing is about creating relationships with your readers. That takes time and trust. You’re building emotional connections with people. You need to find a way of adding value to their lives. Think about giving them a gift from time to time as well. Everyone loves  getting a present, everybody loves to feel appreciated. This is very different from the sell, sell, sell approach. There’s so much noise out there, why not offer your readers a refuge, a place where they can relax and enjoy your writing?

8. If there was one thing everyone reading this could do right now to help them enrich their intimate relationships, what would it be?
There are Seven Tips for a Happy Marriage (and one from my mum) at the end of  How To Stay Married. The most important tip I ease the reader into gradually and have it as tip number three. It’s probably the hardest one to adhere to consistently but it is vital for a successful relationship. That tip is Own Your Own Crap.

If something annoys you in your relationship look at your part in it. Then look at why it annoys you. It’s your responsibility. It’s so easy to blame someone else for everything. I know, I spent most of my life doing it. But if I constantly play the victim where does that leave me? What can I learn or improve from that position of helplessness? Playing the victim may feel easy at the time but it’s a cop-out. In the long term, it kept me stuck and miserable.

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

You can follow Mary-Lou Stephens on Twitter @missymarylou
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My Three Words for 2015

January is not quite over, and so I have time to set myself three words to help guide me through the year.

I did it in 2013, and found it a great help to staying focused on the values that are important to me. The whole exercise, of course, is taken from online marketing guru Chris Brogan, and you should check out his three words for 2015.

In 2013 my words were: Joy, Lovingkindness and Consistent. Now, those should really be my guiding words every year, and I look back at "consistent" with some mirth. Consistency is not a strong point, and is something I really struggle with.

What am I inspired by this year? Well, here are my three words:

Cheer - I have nominated 2015 my Year of Cheer, and this old-fashioned quality is one that has interested me for some years. It might surprise you to know that I am in fact quite a grumpy soul, given to periods of depression, anger and sanctimony. Being cheerful in spite of it all is my chosen self-discipline this year, and in many ways is an homage to my beloved late grandmother Ethel Barrett, who espoused the efficacy of cultivated good cheer. I am actively seeking to manifest more cheer in my life and plan to write about it extensively.

Creativity - This year I plan to create more than I consume, and that is quite a challenge because I am a monstrously lazy soul who is never happier than when passively absorbing a book, film or work of art. I plan to cultivate and honour my creative thinking and to honour all of the wonderful and crazy ideas that flood my head daily. It also helps that this year I am teaching creativity a lot more, so will be learning a lot more about the process along with my students. It is also something I am writing on.

Adventure - I am just about to embark on a 6 week trip to Vietnam and I have a couple of other overseas journeys planned for the year. This year I am going to say "yes" to adventure more, and give in les to my impulse to isolate, sit at home and complain about my health. I want to learn more new things, take more risks and meet more new people. I want to challenge my intellect and I want to walk right into parties and say "Hi" to whoever is standing near me and get to know about them and their fascinating lives.

I'd love to encourage you to consider your won three words for the year. It’s not too late. Set your own compass towards those ideas and qualities you think would improve your life. And let me know what they are.

Susannah Fullerton on Literary New York at Ashfield Library Wed 11 February at 1 PM

New York Public Library

If you have never heard the superb Susannah Fullerton lecture, you really need to come along to this free event at Ashfield in February.

Susannah Fullerton is one of the world's most acclaimed Jane Austen experts

Susannah is a living Sydney treasure, and her knowledge of literature and her enthusiasm for books and writing are unequalled. I have been to hear her speak 6 or 7 times now, and each time has been totally fascinating.

I have heard her lecture on Literary London, Roma and Paris, so I very much look forward to hearing her talk about New York!

What's even better, the good folks at Ashfield Library are putting this event on for free, so you really have no excuse not to come along.


Susannah Fullerton on Literary New York at Ashfield Library Wed 11 February 2015 at 1 PM 

Susannah's talks are very popular, so I advise getting there in good time to get a good spot.

The talk is on Level 6, in the Council Chambers - take the lift from the library.

If you've never visited Ashfield Library before, it's very conveniently located about 5 minutes walk from Ashfield Station. Drivers can park at the attached shopping centre carpark.

Reading Gibbon in 2015

I have a number of big projects already planned for 2015. Most of them have been prepared for several months already.

But one that has been thrust upon me is the reading of Gibbon's mammoth classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was a wonderful, unexpected gift from my sister this Christmas, and I know that I must start it now, or else I will put it aside for years.

Edward Gibbon

She gave me the very handsome Folio Society edition, which is solidly bound and quite compact in two slipcases. And very, very heavy.

I have decided to take it at a pace of 20 pages a day. This is realistic, as I always have some much other reading to do and I really can't dedicate my whole life to Gibbon. I think I am going to have to keep an accompanying notebook, as I would never dare write in such lovely editions, but I know I am going to have to make extensive notes f I am ever going to keep track of this project.

I plan to report back to you regularly with details of my reading, how I am going, how I am finding it and what new things I have learned. I really am tremendously excited by the whole idea.

I have wanted to read Gibbon since I first found out about him as a precocious literary teenager, but of course I had no access to a set of the books in rural North Queensland. And then, in my youth, no money to buy my own set. It is one of those incredible luxuries which you never really feel quite right about indulging in. Nancy Mitford said it made the ideal wedding gift, though I can only imagine the looks on the faces of her newly married friends. Certainly, if it were ever legal for me to get married I should have delighted in such an obscure gift.

Here's to some solid reading in 2015! 

2015 - A Year of Cheer

For some time now I have been meaning to pursue a Year of Cheer. It’s not just because I like the rhyme, though I do. It’s because I think cheerfulness is one of the most undervalued, and certainly the least fashionable of personal qualities.

I am convinced that the cultivation of a cheerful demeanour is one of the great clues to a more consistent happiness in life, and that is why I am making 2015 my Year of Cheer. I am going to attempt to cultivate new habits, do new things and to renew some old mental, psychological and moral behaviours.

And I know what you’re going to say: Oh, allow yourself to be angry, Walter! Let it all out. Don’t tamp down those negative states of mind. To which I answer: Who said I was going to? In the privacy of my own home I am very much in touch with my shadow side. I just happen to believe – really quite strongly – that our society is best served when people make the effort to smile at one another.

I think there is an element, too, of resilience and fortitude. The cheerful person is, in fact, a strong one.  I am a delicate flower, and feel things quite deeply. But what I have discovered, after 44 years on this earth, is that spending a lot of my time complaining about my misfortunes or discussing them with others does me no good at all. Quite the opposite.

So this year I am going to become cheery Charlie. I am turning that frown upside down and exploring the possibilities of keeping my sunny side up.

Every Thursday I am going to let you know about a new plan, habit or scheme I am putting into place in order to increase my nest-egg of good cheer. I would love to share the journey with you, so if you have any ideas for things you think would make me feel just that much better, do make your suggestions. 

Cheerful habit #1

Daily Journal Writing

 I have kept a journal, on and off, for about twenty years or more. I record many things - the albums I buy, the books I read, the films I see. I also record my goals and dreams, the attempts I make at self-improvement, and just general observations about life, whenever I remember it. I always keep a journal scrupulously when I travel, and these have been the basis for my two books.

Journal writing has long been championed as a way to stay in t ouch with your emotions and deal with private thoughts and worries in a practical way. My friend and mentor Stephanie Dowrick is a great believer in journaling, and I have also done the famous Progoff Journal Workshop many times.

But I have never, ever been able to keep a daily journal. Even when doing the Artist’s Way program, which requires 3 pages daily of freewriting, I always manage to regularly skip a day for one reason or another. But now I am consciously trying to create a more cheerful self, so I will do my level best to keep a daily journal.

I’ll let you know how I go.

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