Celebrate the fascination and wonder of one of the best children's books ever written - come along to my talk on Kenneth Grahame and The Wind in the Willows at the SMSA on June 15






It always pays to re-visit the books of one's childhood - they almost always reward multiple re-readings. And that is certainly the case with Kenneth Grahame's exquisite The Wind in the Willows, which  turns 110 on June 15.

To help celebrate this wonderful anniversary the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts has asked me to come along and give a talk about the book, its author, and why The Wind in the Willows is just as fascinating for adults as it is for children.

I do hope you'll come!

It's free, it starts at 12.30 and lasts exactly an hour so you can get back to work refreshed and inspired.

The SMSA is right in the middle of the Sydney CBD, about 3 minutes walk from Town Hall Station.

You don't even need to book! Just show up. I'd love to see you there.

Details:

Walter Mason — Wind in the Willows, 110th Anniversary

How to give a bad talk


I give lots of public talks and am always (hopefully) improving. I shudder when I think of mistakes I have made in the past, and yes, before you write to me in wounded grievance, I have made almost all of the mistakes on this list, so suck it up - I've had to. And yes, of course there are always exceptions - your entire shtick might be built up around one of these techniques. And that's fine - but you better not be doing any of the others! Let's make a deal - you only get one.


Me - hopefully not being TOO boring. This pic is from 8 years ago, and I wouldn't compose a slide like this anymore.

I also love attending talks and lectures and conferences, and have sat there withering in pain and boredom, and also been transported by a speaker's charm, cleverness and ability to win an audience. I have also observed speakers making all of the below mistakes, and seen their audience slowly fade away.

No matter what your subject, your primary goal is to win over your audience - if it isn't, why are you even giving a talk? You'd be better off at home binge watching Babylon Berlin.

So, in the spirit of helping both speakers and listeners, here is my list of how to give the perfect bad talk:

1. Make political points when you are talking about an unrelated subject: Just remember - 50% of the audience completely disagrees with you. Are you so good you can afford to lose 50% of your audience? This is happening WAY too often lately, and even when I agree with the speaker I die a little inside when they make a clumsy political joke. Yes, you can make sophisticated critical points which may very well be profoundly political, but the moment you re-situate those points in the present moment you have squandered all of your good work. Let your analysis speak for itself, and avoid the temptation to express your current pet political  peeve. People came to hear about the Lives of the Saints or an account of your Journey Through the Greek Isles. They really don't want to know how you intend to vote.

2. Say: "But I won't tell you more because I want you to buy the book": The last time this line was funny was 1948. People don't want to feel obviously manipulated, and they don't want to believe that the whole purpose of your coming was to sell a few books (even if this was indeed the sole reason you turned up). It's rude, it's a dumb tactic and it's counter-productive. Several times I have decided NOT to buy a book because the author said exactly that. Be generous, share whatever stories you want, and make attendees feel like they want to know more. Indeed, be mysterious and leave a few cliffhangers - but NEVER say that deathly line. The audience will work it out for themselves. Leave them wanting to know more - don't tell them they need to.

3. Slam another author or speaker on stage: This is surprisingly common. In almost all cities the literary and intellectual circle is tiny, and you can bet that a friend or relative of the person you are dissing is in the audience. Worst case is that they will stand up and challenge you publicly (I have seen this happen). They might also corner you after the talk and give you a talking to. They might instantly contact the slandered party and tell them what you said. Or (most likely) they will simply seethe in silence and walk out thinking the worse of you. The last time this happened to me the author on stage had just written a book about a subject that had also recently been covered in a book by another author. I was furious as the author being spoken about was my friend and, having read both books, I knew for a fact my friend's book was far superior. I left a strong advocate for the wronged book, and actively encouraged people not to buy the later book. Make your own points, and don't bad-mouth the work of others.

4. Have no visuals: The age is long past when you can hold an audience's full attention with no pretty pictures. I have seen speakers give talks that needed a few key images to make their point. I know that they didn't do it because they were either too lazy, too unprepared, or too afraid of technology to organise it. You need visuals - no exceptions.

5. Tell people about your good reviews and your entire back catalogue: Stop boasting and keep to the topic. You only get to tell people about your good reviews if it is immediately followed by an anecdote about someone who hated your book. Audiences HATE braggards and show-offs. If you really do need to tell them about how celebrated your book was/is, have the person introducing say it so you can put on a fake humble/embarrassed face while they say it.

6. Don't give someone a take-home fact or a moment of transformation: You need to start constructing your talks around these things. Think to yourself: "Now this is one of those amazing pieces of info that they will go home talking about," or "this is where I pause to let them absorb the amazingness of the story I have just told them." Give your talks some texture, and some high moments.

7. Don't prepare, but rely instead on your charm/cleverness/experience/intuition: Trust me, you don't have enough of any of these things to sustain a 45 minute talk. If you are unprepared you WILL be boring. And even if you are possessed of these remarkable qualities, imagine how much BETTER you will be if you prepare. And if you don't want to prepare, why on earth did you say yes to this in the first place? You owe it to your audience to prepare properly. And to rehearse after you have prepared.

8. Have slides full of text in 20 point: Unless your talk is a close reading of a particular text, I would avoid having words on the slide at all. Of course, sometimes words can make a nice additional element, but you must NEVER rely upon them to make a point, because guaranteed at least 25% of your audience won't be able to read them. I always have a rule: I can only use 60 point type. This drastically cuts down on the number of words you can put on a slide. But really, let pictures do the talking.

9. Give an intro, a little bit of background, and an overview of what you are going to talk about: Honestly, STFU. We don't need to know how the sausage is made. Just start telling the story with a strong idea and a strong visual. I think this really afflicts people with a corporate background, who somewhere along the line have picked up this ghastly advice on how to structure a presentation. Just tell us what you need to tell us. We couldn't care less about its structure. Stop telling me what you're gonna tell me and just tell me. OK?

10. Don't have a Plan B: This is a special community message to all the people who use Apple products. I have seen so many people turn up at a library/community centre/conference room and see their beautifully constructed presentation show up as a blank screen. Yeah, I know Apple products are superior and all, but there isn't a speaking facility anywhere that offers tech support for them. So A: Make sure your presentation is saved in a conventional Powerpoint format, and B: Have a fully thought out Plan B. I have turned up to speak at places where the power had gone out, where all the IT had just crashed and wouldn't be up again till Tuesday, where the only technical facilities on offer were a lectern and a glass of water, despite my instructions. You must be prepared and able to give a reasonably interesting talk no matter what. And, to be on the safe side, never have a presentation that hinges on a video or a piece of audio, or being online. These things are always the first to go wrong, so I make sure that, if I have them, they are only additional bells and whistles and not the focus of the entire presentation.

So there you go. I hope you find all of the above helpful, particularly if you are just about to give a talk and feel a little nervous. If you avoid all of the above, you should be ok.

I would also point you  towards the work of Michael Port and, if you live in Sydney, go and see the work of an expert public speaker like Susannah Fullerton.

Oh, and one more thing. I'd love to know if there are some points I have missed here. I am sure I have more to learn, and audience expectation are always changing. Leave a comment and tell me about something horrible you've noticed recently during a public talk.

Australian spiritual teacher Alana Fairchild on inspiration, the Earth Warriors Oracle and trusting our instincts

Alana Fairchild


 The wonderful Alana Fairchild is someone whose work I have admired and used for many years. I have also been lucky enough to work with Alana on a couple of occasions under quite stressful circumstances, and I discovered that she absolutely embodied her work  - she proved to be a true wise woman who walked her talk. I have cherished her terrifically ever since, and look forward to her new work with great anticipation.

Alana was gracious enough to take time from her busy schedule to have a chat with me, and I asked her some burning questions about spirituality, creative challenges and her new deck, The Earth Warriors Oracle. And as usual, I was delighted with her answers. I hope they inspire you, too: 





1.    Alana, could you tell us about the inspiration behind your new deck, the Earth Warriors Oracle? What was the catalyst for their creation?

Some years ago, I was invited to sing at a drumming circle. I wasn’t a drummer, but I love to dance and have good rhythm, and apparently they were open to all sorts of musical offerings. So I took my crystal singing bowls and my voice and went to this drumming circle for the first time. The moment I stepped into the warehouse where it was held, it was a breath of fresh air for my soul.  I felt a sense of kinship with the wild and free spirits that were part of that community.

Being a rebel and marching to my own beat, as the expression goes, I could totally relate to them. There was a sense that their entire tribe - and I would call it a tribe for this reason - was actually one spiritual body, with many individual members. Their values of leaving no trace when in nature, of loving the earth and protecting the environment, of supporting each other in their journeys for personal development without any judgement whatsoever was astonishing to me.

I was used to communities (even spiritual communities) that were rife with political backstabbing and power games, and yet here I had stumbled into a  tribal family of some hundred or so members spread all over Sydney with so much genuine encouragement of each other, so much absence of ego … I felt like a cross between a long-lost sister of the tribe and a spiritual anthropologist discovering a rare tribe and I was fascinated!

There were problems to be dealt with of course, pain and struggle are parts of life, even lives well lived with awareness. Still it was one of the healthiest human ecosystems that I had ever encountered, and I have been in and out of many ‘tribes’ or groups over the years, many claiming to be spiritually evolved. What I loved about this group is that it didn’t claim anything other than it was a type of family and it was based in love and respect, all of which seemed very true to my experiences in that community. 

As I travelled, I found similar tribes in other parts of the world too. It was a consciousness rather than a type, and it was a global movement rather than something that was unique to this one beautiful community that I had been led to in Australia. Some groups looked like they should belong to that tribal consciousness, yet lacked the real heart. Other groups seemed to have little in common on the surface, but held the same genuine heart frequency underneath it. There were people of all ages and walks of life that were drawn to these types of communities, and the ways of being that they naturally create, and recognised the value of what they bring to the earth.




When I found Isabel Bryna’s art online, I recognised a visual representation of what this soul tribe group felt like. I asked her if she would be interested and she agreed. Earth Warriors was born out of that experience.

Alana Fairchild


2.    You do so much with Goddess energy, and have always been a big fan of the stuff you do with Kuan Yin and Mother Mary. What do you think we should be doing in 2018 to work more closely with Goddess energy?

I think one of the most beautiful and simple practices we can do is talk to her. Some people call this prayer. I don’t think of prayer as religious necessarily, more of a spiritual practice. I like the idea that prayer is speaking to the divine and meditation is listening to the divine, but really, if you are deep in connection with the divine, pouring out your heart, you are so present and authentic, it can become a healing meditation session! Human beings tend to need a form to connect with – so I’d suggest a fun internet search of ‘goddesses’ or ‘divine mother’ and then choose which goddess you relate to most at the time, from whichever spiritual or cultural tradition you wish. Then you can imagine or intend that you are speaking to her, rather than to ‘empty space’, when you have your prayerful conversations.

We live in an amazing time where we have the freedom to obtain information about many kinds of sacred beings with only a laptop, internet connection and curious mind. Starting with a connection to a deity that you resonate with and then opening up a dialogue – talking to her like you would any true friend – is a way to begin this process of connection. I personally find the divine mother so practical and non-judging, you can talk to her about absolutely anything.

Talking to a sublime being about mundane issues can seem a little strange or even disrespectful sometimes. They are so beautiful and shining with ethereal light, you can imagine that you should only speak a sacred mantra to them and not talk about your love life, or how to deal with the person at work who is making your life a living hell. But actually if you do talk about whatever is happening in your life with openness, I find that the answers usually start to come to me pretty quickly. The goddess energy is responsive, when we are open to it.

Spread from Alana Fairchild's Mother Mary Oracle


3.    What things do you do to keep yourself spiritually and physically healthy, and what should we all do?

I am a big believer in people trusting their instincts and exploring to find what works for them. It’s taken me many years to figure out the balance of how much exercise, meditation, alone time, social time, study time, rest, sleep, intimacy, vitamin supplementation and the type of nutrition that suits my mind, body and soul. And of course, it’s always changing! When we travel, if we are going through a tough time of things, if we have lots of energy, our needs shift.

So I suppose really what I am saying is that I would recommend that we listen to ourselves. We might get information from others – and finding open-minded, holistc and well-trained professionals to support us in finding the information we need for health is so worth the effort - but there’s no point just doing something because it works for someone else. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, as the expression goes. We need to take our time, consider that we are worth the effort required to live well and take care of ourselves, and try different things until we find what suits us.

I also think a great starting point for pretty much everyone on the planet – especially in the developed world where there is abundant access to technology – is to learn how to switch off and rest. I mean proper rest, where you don’t have a screen in front of you for some time before you go to sleep and certainly you don’t jump on Tinder or email when you are in bed!

Learning how to love what technology can do for you, whilst managing the potentially addictive nature of it, so that you get some time to feast your eyes on nature, and experience an absence of artificial light for a while each day does a lot for allowing the body to go into the parasympathetic nervous system mode that it needs to rest and repair. It makes a huge difference to our quality of life!

This is also the state of nervous system that makes us most open to sudden insights of spiritual guidance, that just seem to pop into our awareness out of nowhere. I imagine sometimes that the Universe has heard our requests for help and is waiting patiently for a moment when we just rest and switch off so it can finally swoop on in, past the to-do lists and constant anxious chatter and slip the answer to our heart-felt prayers straight into our conscious minds. Suddenly we realise the answer to our problem. We probably also think we are so brilliant for figuring it out!

It’s about making rest a priority. Most people don’t do this – and I could have a very long conversation with you about why I think that is the case! The short answer is that most people have no idea just how much their body is in need of some proper ‘divine downtime’ and just how much it would do for them in every part of their lives if they decided to honour that.

4.    I have a real problem with finishing things. And you are so prolific and create so much beautiful work that enriches the world. Any tips for seeing a project through to the end and sending it out into the world?

That made me laugh. You are so productive though! I think of you writing and sharing and being out and about amongst people. You give a lot of yourself. It’s really beautiful.

You are not alone in the more ideas than you can handle boat though. Most highly sensitive and creative people have an abundance of ideas! At one point I had to acknowledge that no matter how hard I worked, I was never, ever going to be able to translate all of my ideas into form. It just wasn’t possible.

What I focus on is how good it feels to complete each project. I imagine the people who will read it, and that it will help uplift, assist and inspire them. I find that very motivating. Even though I love what I do, it’s still hard work to write a book or create a CD. It’s so much more fun to come up with the idea, I find, and easier too! If I could run a think tank just coming up with ideas for other people, I’d probably quite like that, but I don’t think it’s what I’m here to do. Completing projects always takes much more out of me and so much more time than what I expect, even though I’ve created many books and CDs at this stage of my life. I always forget! Like childbirth perhaps?

I am also a stubborn and determined sort of person. So when I decide I am going to do something, even if it takes me a while, I just keep at it until it’s done. Sometimes that has meant that I’ve climbed the wrong mountain, even though half way through I realised it was the wrong mountain. But it also means that I do – eventually – complete my writing or other tasks that I set out to do.

For me, that’s important. So it’s a high priority and I get it done. It might not be so important for someone else though, even if they have the talent to do it. We all have different priorities and that’s as it should be.  No matter how much time we have or don’t have, I feel that we make time for our priorities. It’s just that sometimes maybe we aren’t as clear about what those priorities are – and then there can be frustration until we either make peace with the choices we’ve made or make new choices. 

5.    If I came to you and asked you for 3 or 4 books I should read that would transform me, what would you recommend?

That is an amazing question and I cannot answer it with suggested book titles. I would say they will be the books that you are drawn to instinctively at certain times in your life. It could be a book of poetry, or art, or a novel or autobiography, or a new age healing book like the types that I create. It could be anything really. What matters is that it resonates for you, moves you, feels like it was somehow written for you in that moment. Then there are those books that you can go back to and read a decade later, as if it is an entirely new book, with a new layer of meaning and depth, simply because life has worked on you enough that you have more receiving apparatus! 

6.    What about working with oracle cards. How is that powerful, and how can we best use them? 




Oracle cards have an ability to transform a person’s state of being. I had no idea just how powerful they were until I began writing them and receiving the most extraordinary feedback about how they were impacting people’s lives. The experience for me when I write them is astonishing. The energy of the deck is a living thing, it has its own personality and purpose, its own style of language and its really quite palpable. It’s a bit like living with a new friend for the duration that I am writing each deck.

It’s similar when I write a book, but I think with oracle cards, they are so distilled, so focused on a particular theme, that they are very powerful. I feel that people are instinctively drawn to the energy of the deck that they need.  I refer to them as vitamins for the soul.

I also think at this particular time in history, when we are living so much in our heads, anything that uses the eyes – such as amazing art – to connect with the heart, can be corrective, powerful and healing. 

Also we talked earlier about the divine feminine. When we want to become more intuitive, creative, responsive to Spiritual energy and guidance, aware of our own feelings and so on, we need the feminine energy to do this. Working with imagery, colour and feeling, which is what happens with oracle decks, supports that process. It can help us tune into ourselves in a much deeper level. They really are bridges to the soul, and from the soul, to the wisdom of spiritual guidance - at least that is my intention when I write.

In terms of how to work with them, I include suggestions in each of my decks, along with card layouts, but I also say ‘choose what feels right for you’. Some of my clients sleep with them under their pillow, others create altars, some draw a card each day and read the message, some use them to do readings for clients, others give them as gifts! I’ve not heard of anyone using one as a door-stop as yet – hopefully not! Or perhaps that really would be grounding their spiritual journey! Jokes aside, it’s really about playing and choosing what works for you.

I’ve just realised that I’ve likely said that in practically every question you’ve asked me! But I think that part of where we struggle in social conditioning is that we are often encouraged to be more outwardly focused than needs be. Sometimes we just need to trust ourselves, get some guidance and then figure out our own approach. I’m so in-touch with my inner maverick and have been for a long time, and I am quite passionate about helping people discover that quality in themselves too. It makes for a very interesting and unique life!


You can see some samples from Alana's Earth Warriors Oracle and all her other work here at Blue Angel Publishing





A Heartfelt Journaling reading list



Here are some books that will supply inspiration and ideas for any journal writer:


Books about journaling:

Writing and Being by G. Lynn Nelson

Journaling for Joy by Joyce Chapman

At a Journal Workshop by Ira Progoff

Writing Down Your Soul by Janet Conner

Writing Your Authentic Self by Lois Guarino

The Well-Being Journal by Lucia Capacchione

Life's Companion by Christina Baldwin


More general inspiration and ideas:

Intimacy and Solitude by Stephanie Dowrick

Sex, Drugs and Meditation by Mary-Lou Stephens

(and while we're at it, Sex Death Enlightenment by Mark Matousek)

Make Miracles in Forty Days by Melody Beattie

Begin it Now by Susan Hayward


Books about creativity:

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Blessings by Julia Cameron

Free Your Creative Spirit by Vivianne and Christopher Crowley


Classics that will keep a journal writer entertained and filled with ideas:

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Selected Poems of Kabir

Dreams by C. G. Jung

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Selected Poems by T. S. Eliot




Great journals to read:

The Diaries of Anais Nin

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon

The Diaries of Samuel Pepys

The Kenneth Williams Diaries

Any of May Sarton's Diaries

Incest by Anais Nin





A Heartfelt Journaling worksheet



Here are some reminders of the exercises we do in my journal writing workshops so that you can do them again later.
You don't have to have done the workshop to use these either - just print this page out, tuck it into your journal and see where the prompts and suggestions take you.

1. The questions we need to ask ourselves: When we sit down to write something, sometimes we just don’t know where to start. That is whey, when I start to record something in my journal, I ask myself these three simple questions, and write from there: Who am I? Why am I here? What matters?

You can ask the additional question: What is my purpose in doing this?

We are not often encouraged to ask such deep questions, which is why the exercise is so valuable.

(This idea is inspired by G. Lynn Nelson's very good book, Writing and Being)

2. Taking action: Write a list of the things in your life that are unsatisfactory. After you have a good list, cast an eye over it and see what item in particular catches your eye. now start a new page in your journal with this item as a heading, and start listing ways you cold solve this problem, or work towards a solution.

3. Let's look at progress: Cast your mind back over the past 12 months and see what areas you have made progress in in your life – it can be in really tiny areas.

But what do you feel better about now than you did 12 months ago?

4. Choose some solitude: Using Stephanie Dowrick's Intimacy and Solitude as inspiration, go away somewhere with your journal for half a day or more. Choose to be alone, and to spend your time writing in your journal. I would suggest the Botanic garden (the fern house is great) or the Manly or Parramatta ferries. Pack a sandwich and a bottle of water and conduct the world's cheapest personal retreat.

5. What is your creative ambition? List the creative projects you would like to complete in the next year or so, things you have always dreamt of doing, or been curious about. What are the obstacles in the path towards working on them? What are the vital steps to achieving this ambition? (I suggest you read Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit for inspiration here, and also The Wind in the Willows).

6. Keep a daily record: The daily log is the most basic form of journal writing an it is always the thing we can come back  to. I suggest you keep it in bullet-point form.  I have a superstitious thing about making it 12 points only. No reason for it, apart from the fact that 12 is often considered a very significant number. But knowing it’s only 12 can rein it in a bit, actually giving you more freedom and less fear. Structure sometimes does that.

Though simple, this is a remarkable exercise, and it is amazing just how much you can record, and how much you can increase your memory by doing it.

You can jot down anything you like  - it doesn’t have to be in  any particular order or in any beautiful prose. For example:

“Yellow hat”

“Cat asleep behind door, afraid of mower.”

“Three young men, tattooed and in high spirits, digging deep holes on the beach while their girlfriends watched and laughed. Why were they digging?”

Read Joyce Chapman's beautiful book Journaling for Joy.

7. Make a list of your principles: What are you committed to in your life at the moment.

Just two or three of your principles, but make this a work in progress.

What ideas shape your life? What are you certain of?

8. Establish a kindness account:  It isn’t to keep tabs on what people owe you – that can’t be a part of it at all.

Remember how often I have told you that the most important thing about establishing a dynamic creative life is being a giver and creating a supportive creative environment for other people.
So, start up this account in your journal and keep it updated.

Write down the last five kindnesses you have received. Next to each one record how they made you feel.

Now write down the last 5 kindnesses you have done for other people. Next to each, write down how they reacted.

You want to be building this list, and noting down the responses you get.

There is really strong research that shows that being kind to others, with no expectation of reward, has enormous positive effects on us. Of course, Buddhism has always said this, and I have seen its effects in my own creative life.

My favourite books of 2017

No need to explain. Perhaps just my usual proviso: Not all of these books were actually published in 2017, because I mostly just read old books, and I don't get around to new ones till they are no longer fashionable.



1. The Aimer Gate by Alan Garner (1978) - I didn't even know about Alan Garner till this year, when I started to see him mentioned on interesting websites connected to the 50th anniversary of his most famous book, The Owl Service. I was at Hay on Wye in September and I thought I would try to find some of his books. The first shop I went into had a little stash and I bought them all, and this is the first book off the pile I read. It blew my mind. I had no idea what to expect, but it certainly wasn't this sparse, elegant, poetic little book that I read in one hour. I am still not completely sure what is going on here, though I read that it is actually part of an experimental quartet that explores changes in time and questions of ancestry in a small Cheshire village over a thousand years. This one is set during the First World War. It was incredible, and, as a writer, I found it transformative. Do people still write books like this, I wonder? I hope they do. I want everyone to read this.



2. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (2008) - It's almost a cheat listing an Alan Bennett book as he is such a pleasure to read that it seems almost like not bothering. But this is such a lovely and charming little book (another 2-hour read) that I can't believe it has taken me this long to read it. A must for any kind of book lover, and a great one for Royalists (though I thought Bennett wasn't one?). The Queen discovers a mobile library behind Buckingham Palace and then develops a real taste for reading, guided by her gay manservant. Great to read just before you watch the second series of The Crown, which is exactly what I did.



3. The Lightworker Oracle by Alana Fairchild (2017) - OK, I know it's not really a book, though it contains a beautifully written guidebook and it is printed material that requires reading, so I am willing to count it. I am a great user of Oracle Cards - I do a spread every morning, and I always consult them when I have questions or challenges. Alana Fairchild is someone whose work I greatly admire - a real Australian Wise Woman, and one of the great spiritual teachers of the 21st century, I think. This exquisite oracle deck is intended for those people who might characterise themselves as "those who love the light," people who are interested in spirituality, wonder and mystery. That's me. And I had an instant response to these cards, so much so that I couldn't put them down and carried them around with me everywhere, even overseas. Superbly illustrated and filled with wonderful ideas, inspirations and guidance, if this is your kind of thing make it a gift for yourself. Or give them o a spiritually-minded friend, who will thank you forever.



4. Rural Liberties by Neal Drinnan (2017) - Australian novelist Neal Drinnan has been writing for years (I read my first novel of his almost 20 years ago while I was studying in Vietnam) and his skills as a writer are, by now, extremely well-developed. This is a high camp, rather sexy, and very funny romp through small-town Australia examining the corrosive effects of reality television and the empty desire for fame that seems to characterise the early 21st century. Drinnan's rural Australian strugglers are masterfully drawn, and every word of his book seems true. Great fun, and deserves to be better known.



5. Bringing in the Sheaves by The Reverend Richard Coles (2016) - had you asked me in 1984 if my current pop star crush would end up being an Anglican clergyman 30 years later I would have scoffed - indeed, even threatened violence. But it has thus come to pass, and it turns out that 30 years can render all of us quite different people. And I'm not just talking body weight. The Rev. Richard Coles was the more musical half of The Communards, the band that made life just that little bit more bearable for sad little gay boys in country towns it the mid-80s. I always liked his dorky, bespectacled aesthetic. Now he is all grown up and is a village parson and writes lovely, reflective works of memoir that are quite Edwardian in scope and the sort of thing I image A. C. Benson would have written had times been different. A lovely insight into what it is  to be a clergyman in the 21st century with a wild and even scandalous sort of past behind you. A terrific read, and lots of fun.



6. The Way of the Traveler by Joseph Dispenza (2002) - I have actually dipped into  this book many times, and used its tips and advice on many trips. But this is the first time I have actually sat down and read the thing from cover to cover, and I found it immensely helpful and even life-changing. Basically it is a book on how to travel better and to make each trip a more profound, beautiful and inspiring experience. Immensely helpful to anyone who likes to travel, it is essential reading before you embark on any really big trip. Filled with practical advice and new ways of looking at the world, it is a unique and unexpected book that will really take you to interesting places.



7. The Ancestral Continuum by Natalia O'Sullivan and Nicola Graydon (2013) - This fascinating book was recommended to me by my friend and mentor Maggie Hamilton, who is strongly interested in this kind of ancestral work. I read it almost as soon as she recommended it, and I came away moved and, in many ways, confirmed in my own ideas of the importance of honouring our ancestors no matter who or where we are. Since reading this I have changed the way I work and the way I look at my life. I am much more interested now in honouring our cultural ancestors, and in seeing how my own family ancestors have had a hand in molding the life I live now. Practical, extremely thought-provoking and something that I think will grow to be of increasing importance in our world.



8. Flowerpaedia by Cheralyn Darcey (2017) - I have always been kind of obsessed by flowers. My beloved late grandmother  planted a bed of green zinnias for me when I was about 6 and this forever cemented my interest. When I was a younger man, I even considered becoming a florist, and at one stage of my life I was very interested in psychic flower readings when I regularly attended the Spiritualist church in Enmore. Cheralyn Darcey, a wonderfully flower-like character herself, has become the expert on flowers and their meanings in Australia, and I have always adored her work, This little encyclopaedia of flower meanings is an invaluable aide to any gardener or flower lover.



9. Walsingham Way by Colin Stephenson (1970)  - This year I took my parents to visit Walsingham, the English Marian shrine in Norfolk. It has been a dream of mine to visit there for perhaps 25 yeas, and I was completely captivated by the place. I would even consider living there. It was so holy, so beautiful and so completely other-worldly. My father said it felt like an episode of Doctor Who, and there is some truth in that. At the gift shop in the centre of town I bought a copy of this book , never expecting it to be such a rollicking good read. It is a complete history of the shrine at Walsingham, especially concentrating on its restoration in the modern era. Gossipy, inspiring, and endlessly fascinating, this is essential reading for anyone interested in Bristish history, Marian devotion and High Anglicanism. I never wanted it to end!

The Courage to Continue Writing - A Checklist

Walter Mason on writing retreat in Tibet


Last night I was at Sutherland Library talking to a lovely group of people about what it means to keep writing even when we want to give up. I was speaking from experience, and I drew on my own recent "dry" period in order to provide them with some examples and methods that might help them keep going, even through the hard times.



Here are the main points I covered, and a handy list of what you can and should do when you feel like you want to give up on writing:

1. Create or join a writing group. Big or small doesn't matter. My own writing group is 3 people and it works perfectly. I was always sceptical about the efficacy of writing groups, but I have found that having one works. Try to make sure that everyone in it is serious about what they are doing and use competitiveness to your advantage. Encourage them to make you feel guilt about not producing.

2. Connect with nature. Walk out into your garden every day with your bare feet. As writers we can become disembodied – our experiences can become too intellectual, too reliant on the imagination, or on the past. Being in nature means you re-connect with the idea of cycles, and you become less hard on yourself – you see that a creative life will have seasons.

3. Keep a journal. Writing – all creativity – is an ever-changing process, and there is something valuable to be gained by engaging with the process itself. I am a huge exponent of keeping journals, and have one with me at all times. If you are not writing, ask yourself why, and write down all the reasons in a journal. Write down the feelings you have when you are not writing, and the feelings you have when you are.

4. Set yourself a stupid goal. When I started meeting with my writing group I told them I would have my novel finished in 90 days. Of course, that didn’t happen – not even close. But guess what? I wrote way more in that 90 days than I ever would have had I just kept telling people I was thinking about writing a novel. And so often I was thinking: “What I am writing is crap. I have no idea how to write a novel. I am just going to stop here and start a tree lopping business.” But I kept going and now I have something substantial that I can think of as, kind of, a novel.

5. Know why it is you want to write.  Why are you doing this? Why do you want to write and send that writing out into the world? There are no invalid answers here. But you do need to keep it in sight. This is what will drag you back to your focus and what will help you keep  going. My own personal guide in all this is is Elinor Glyn, a woman who found sensational success in the 1920s and 30s writing romance novels and later screenplays for Hollywood. I want my life to be like hers, being photographed draped in extravagant Persian cats.

6. Narrow it down. It really, really helps if you can narrow down your focus. I know you’re brilliant and filled with a million ideas and possibilities, and so does your mum. But the rest of the world doesn’t really care. they're only interested in what you actually produce. Finding one thing to concentrate on and finish might seem dull, but it can have an enormous impact on your confidence and your momentum. I started going places when I could say, once and for all,  that I was finishing something.

7. Open yourself up to your creativity and say "yes" more often. Like my friend, the immensely creative and productive Alana Fairchild, who produces beautiful things all the year round and has a great audience for them. So many self-help books and writing guides tell you to be jealous of your time and learn to say "No." I say the exact opposite. You never know what is coming your way. Give your creative impulse freedom and be brave about your own talent.

8. Establish some rituals around writing. Create your own writing soundtrack. Could a particular project have its own smell from incense, perfume or essential oils? Its own tea? Begin some Pavlovian responses by creating actions and things which remind you to write, even if you don't really want to.

9. Go on a writing retreat. I can’t stress the importance of tearing yourself away from your usual routines and facing up to your own writing realities enough. I went away on two writing retreats in the Himalayas with Jan Cornall and Writer's Journey and it really helped me re-think myself and what I wanted to do with my writing life. Now, I understand that a month in Bhutan might not be realistically achievable for you right now. But please consider what is, and how you can get away to be by yourself, or with other writers.

10. Write in those micro-moments. One of the lessons I learned on retreat is to take advantage of those micro-moments – another reason, incidentally, to always have a journal and pen with me. Many believe that we must do our writing in big chunks, devoting whole days or even weeks at a time to a project. Until then, we tell ourselves, it’s not worth starting. BUT IT IS!!! While away I found it hard to write for  more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time. And even then, I could not follow on from what I had been writing previously. I was just capturing fragments – and to be honest they were dazzling fragments. I had a fair idea of where they belonged, and it wouldn’t be hard to find a place for them.

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