Mary-Lou Stephens on writing, privacy and insane thinking
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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Mary-Lou's website is maryloustephens.com.au