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.

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.

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