Category: Survival Kit

A slowly-growing survival kit of tips and tools for writers. The focus is on staying healthy, emotionally, physically and mentally. Being a writer can be an isolating business, and surprisingly dangerous – Vitamin D deficiency and various muscular-skeletal problems are par for the course. I will discuss my experiences and ways to make sure that you eat well, don’t over-consume chocolate (although I’m not very successful at this), get some exercise, change out of your pyjamas and occasionally even get out of the house. The survival kit posts will also look at ways of coping with the ups and downs of rejection, unexpected hitches with the publishing process, and even the roller coaster of excitement and post-excitement slumps that writers can experience. I have a background in social work so I have been trained in counselling, burn out, stress and other health issues, so I will bring some of this post-writing life knowledge to my posts.

Own Voices and Neurodiversity

Own Voices and Neurodiversity

The idea of ‘own voices’ in publishing has been in mainstream thought since at least 2018. It’s a highly controversial and rapidly evolving area of debate. At its core is the question, should stories about minorities only be written by minorities? If you’re interested in reading more, there are lots of articles about it (such as this one). I’m not going to delve into them here. Instead, I’m focusing on why I think the publishing industry needs to give more consideration to ways it can be more inclusive of neurodiverse own voices. What is contained here is personal opinion.

Media and Stereotypes

I have written a book where the central female character is autistic. She was based on me, but I didn’t know I was autistic then. So I didn’t consciously write her as autistic. Now I totally understand she is. But she doesn’t fit the autism stereotype. And there is a very good reason for that. The depiction of autistic people in books, tv and movies is usually done by non-autistics.

The reason I didn’t realise I was autistic for (mumble) years was because when I looked at the criteria they didn’t fit me – but that was because the criteria were not written by autistic people. Neurotypical psychologists wrote them based on their interpretation of autistic behaviour, according to their understanding of ‘normal’ ways of thinking and acting. My knowledge of why I behave in certain ways is entirely different.

The same applies in books and media. Too often neurodiverse characters are written by someone who is on the outside looking in, without a proper understanding of the internal reality. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Good Doctor, Rainman – these all miss the mark for various reasons. But they can lead neurotypical people to think they understand autism, which perpetuates stereotypes. The best depiction I’ve seen of a female with autism is Amelie (the French movie), and no one ever even comments that she’s autistic.

The problem with all of this for the publishing industry is that publishers looking for autistic ‘own voices’ are at risk of missing them. If their understanding of autism is based on the outsider-looking-in stereotypes, they’re not going to understand they’re seeing an insider’s lived experience when they read something written by an autistic writer. So they’re not going to think it’s a good depiction of autism. Which means autistic authors will struggle to have their voices be heard.


People dancing inside a building. Image is blurred, with dim lighting and light flares. Picture aims to depict the sensory overload experience of neurodiverse people.
Photo by Maurício Mascaro from Pexels

In the neurotypical world, people often achieve their goals through socialising with people, because you make the right contacts, and people are more inclined to help their friends. As an autistic person this usually feels like a club I’ve never been invited to join. Aspiring and emerging writers are told to network if they want to achieve a writing career. Go to writers’ festivals and talk to people. Have a drink with them at the pub after the formal events. There are a couple of problems with this advice for people on the spectrum.

  1. socialising is extremely difficult – having a drink at the pub is a nightmare for me because of the over-stimulation of the setting. Too much noise – music and conversation. Too many smells and things going on around me. My brain freezes up and I can’t function. And groups of more than about 3 people are impossible for me to manage. My social skills deficit means I can’t catch the flow of the conversation, and I end up being left out.
  2. my experience of groups throughout my life has generally been traumatic – I have often been excluded, or even actively bullied. So group social events are also traumatic. Give me a one on one conversation and I’m fine. Put me at a table with a number of people and I fade into the background. My life experience tells me it’s safer that way.

Being Part of the Writers Community

The other side of the networking advice emphasised since the advent of social media has been to become part of writers’ online communities. Read others’ books and review them. Like others’ Facebook pages.

Being neurodiverse generally comes with a range of executive dysfunctions. I keep my workload as limited as possible because if it becomes too large I hit a wall and I can’t do anything. I can barely manage getting my own writing done on top of being a parent of 2 autistic kids and trying to earn an income – let alone being organised enough to regularly review others’ books or join their Facebook groups and engage.

It’s not that I don’t want to. I’m desperate to be as supportive of other writers as I can. But my brain literally can’t manage too much. If I don’t keep my to do list tiny, my brain crashes. However, if you want a person to talk to when you are struggling, who will listen to your difficulties and give you her time and attention, that’s me.

Neurodiverse Authors are Worth It

Woman in blue glasses lying in a field of daisies, with rainbow light blurs around her. Purpose of image is to depict the different way neurodivergent people see the world.
Photo by Dimitry Zub from Pexels

I’m biased, of course, but I think making room for neurodiverse authors at the table will yield huge benefits. I’ve tackled this previously in my article The Introvert Paradox, which I wrote before I realised I wasn’t just introverted, but actually autistic. So I’d add more points now:

Autistic authors have valuable contributions to make as writers and speakers because think very deeply about things and want to be authentic. Several times when I’ve been on a panel at a writers festival, I’ve had people come up and thank me because I’ve dived into a topic more deeply and openly than sometimes happens at festivals. My books explore complex concepts because those are what interest me.

And because of my/our special interests, we really know our stuff. We can build detailed worlds with every single aspect considered and developed. We will research what we are writing about until someone tells us to stop, and beyond. And we can talk about it in detail – if you will let us.

Thirdly, we do bring a different perspective because we see the world in a different way. Embracing autistic own voices will make the world more interesting. When I finished my creative writing degree, I felt a deep sense of despair because I realised how differently I saw things. I thought I wouldn’t find a home for my writing because my way of seeing the world wasn’t like others. Now I think my different perspective is an asset.

Tips for Own Voices Inclusivity

I’ve had some fabulous experiences of inclusivity since I’ve been a published author. I want to to say a huge thanks particularly to the Historical Novel Society of Australasia and the Bendigo Writers Festival, who have always made me feel valued and included. But other forums have been more challenging. If I was able to talk to publishers and agents, what would I say?

  1. Don’t look for neurodiverse writers through regular networking (being at the bar etc.). We’ll be the ones having a quiet dinner at the restaurant next door with one other person instead.
  2. If you’re running pitch sessions, neurodiverse people need more time due to our executive dysfunctions. We don’t perform well under pressure as our brains freeze. If you throw questions at them, they may not be able to answer them, not because they don’t know the answer, but because they haven’t been given processing time. If you ask them to send you an email with their answer later, you’ll receive a detailed, considered response.
  3. When you’re organising social events at festivals, if possible, have 2 spaces – one with loud music etc. for those who want to ‘party’ and one that is quieter and more chill for the neurodiverse. At the Gold Coast Film Festival this week, drinks were outdoors in the afternoon, which was much more manageable for me as there weren’t neon lights and loud music to shut me down from sensory overload. And Continuum convention always has a quiet room for people who need to go and recharge their energetic batteries – a must for the neurodiverse!
  4. At public events make sure your facilitation is neurodiverse friendly. If you give me questions in advance I’m going to prepare answers for them – so don’t change the questions on the spot when I get there because I don’t cope with change very well.

As with all my blog posts, what I end up saying falls short of what I want to say. That’s because as an autistic person I want to explain everything fully and in detail, covering every single point. But I hope you’ve found something helpful in here on the topic of own voices.

Time and what you do with it

Time and what you do with it

Destiny by Christian Waller, 1916.

About this time last year I went to an exhibition of prints, paintings and stained glass by Christian Waller, an art nouveau artist from Castlemaine, Victoria. The artworks were incredible. Absolute artistry: technique combined with expression. Each work had mythical underpinnings as Waller was interested in theosophy and expressed her studies in what she created. I found the exhibition moving and inspiring. But I also felt a deep well of frustration that sits inside me.

What I saw in those artworks was the expression of time. The exhibition reminded me making good art is a full-time job. To reach that level of technical mastery, as well as to have the ability to move people many, many years after she created her art, Waller needed the time to become excellent at her craft. These were the works of someone who had given much time to her creative gifts.

Finding Time to Create

I have spent many years fitting my writing around real life. Raising children, earning an income, the mundanities of every day living such as doing the washing. These are all things I have given priority to over my writing, my entire life.

But whatever I have done over the years, there’s always been a part of me burning to create. To write stories, to draw and paint, to express myself in creative ways. I was trained as a social worker and worked in social work for many years, but it never felt like my vocation. Then I had children and spent years raising them, including a long period of home-schooling them. Once my children were becoming independent, I went back to study because I’d been out of the workforce so long. This led me to become an academic editor, which was enormously helpful in becoming a better writer. But it was another task to add to my time.

The Creative Flame

Throughout all those years the creative drive was burning inside me. And I was barely fuelling the flame. My writing always came last, fitted around everything else that needed to be done. When I was published, I had a major dose of imposter syndrome because I felt I had barely given any time to writing. In reality, that’s not true – you don’t end up with six novels, a musical, various plays and any number of short stories if you haven’t spent time writing. But it was always peripheral. Creative time squeezed in around the edges of living time.

As you get older, this issue becomes more pressing. As more of my family pass away, my awareness that we all only have a limited span becomes more acute. I have health issues that may restrict my ability to sit and type in the future. At some point, writing stories may become more difficult. Often people don’t do things they want to do, because they think there’s always time. Our days pile up behind us, filled with a lot of the things we have to do, and less of the things we love to do. But time isn’t an endless resource. So feed your creative flame. Bring beautiful things into the world. Make people think and feel with your words and songs and art. Remind us we are human.



Who has the right to be a writer?

Who has the right to be a writer?

CLIFF’S NOTES: Since there seems to be some misreading of this post, here’s the short version. I don’t like marketing. I recognise it is necessary. But authors telling other authors they shouldn’t be authors if they don’t like marketing are behaving horribly, and silencing or hurting people for whom writing is their chance to have a voice.

* * * * * * *

When I surveyed authors about their experiences of marketing, I asked for their advice. One of the comments I received was:  “If you want to be successful you have to spend time and money marketing, if you don’t want to, then don’t bother writing.”

I don’t enjoy marketing. There is no secret about that. My personality is fundamentally unsuited to it. And from two and a half years of research I believe that a very large proportion of marketing strategies don’t actually work (this conclusion is NOT just based on my experiences). Yet we are constantly told as authors we have to do it. And that if we don’t throw ourselves into it, writing isn’t the right profession for us. I’ve come across this attitude, in different forms, a fair bit in the last few years. When you unpack the sentiment, the message is: only those who have the particular skill set for marketing have a right to publish books. Really?

The Right to be Heard

Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels.

There are several reasons why I find it very hard to express myself. One is that I am highly introverted. Another is that I am an Aspie. Growing up, I frequently found myself misunderstood and misinterpreted. I was just not on the same wavelength as most people. Aspies learn to mask their differences. One way of doing that is to keep your thoughts to yourself. Finally, I grew up in an abusive household. I was not allowed to express my thoughts or needs, and I quickly learned it was far safer not to try.  It took me a long time and a LOT of work to realise that I have a right to be heard. But I do. And it makes me extremely angry that people feel they have the right to tell others they’re not cut out to be a writer because they are introverted, neurodiverse or highly sensitive.

In fact, this is a form of victim blaming and discrimination. In the age of #ownvoices surely the neurodiverse and sensitive should be allowed to speak their truths and experiences too? And saying we can’t handle the system so we shouldn’t bother implies it’s our own fault. But why can’t the system be made more friendly to those who don’t fit a certain personality mould? (But that’s a huge issue for discussion another time…)

Does Being Good at Marketing make you a Good Writer?

Do I need to write a paragraph on this? Because essentially the answer is ‘no’, isn’t it? The way algorithms work, there are ‘bestselling authors’ out there who are in that position purely because they know how to maximise keywords, do lots of 99c deals, or are good at ‘branding’ themselves. I went along to a self-publishing workshop several years ago. The first thing we were told was, to be successful, we didn’t need to be good writers. We just needed to brand ourselves well. ‘The writing isn’t important. Just have something to sell.’ Instantly I knew I was in the wrong place.

I guess I’m extremely old fashioned, because I think good writing matters. When I read a book, I’m looking for quality writing and engaging story telling. There are books out now that tell you to make a living as an author you need to bring out a new book every three months. There is a growing churn mentality in publishing. Maybe this works in the short term. If you have one good book people might buy the next one. But if I read a second or third book, and it’s completely unmemorable or formulaic, that’s going to turn me off that author for good. And I am reading more and more books that are unmemorable. How many thrillers can be the most unputdownable book you’ve ever read with totally unexpected twists? Big claims with little return in many, many instances*.

Nobody expected Ursula Le Guin or JRR Tolkien to be good at marketing. It’s only been a ‘job requirement’ for authors very, very recently. And it’s a pretty flawed requirement.

The Extrovert Bias

Photo by Min An from Pexels.

Marketing and writing are different skill sets. I’ve talked about this before, in my post The Introvert Paradox. My point then was that the qualities of introverts – empathy, observation and listening – can make them excellent writers. Yet in Western society extroverts are rewarded and recognised. Marketing is definitely for extroverts. Introverts find it difficult to put themselves out there. But that doesn’t mean what they have to say isn’t important. The social bias against introverts is barely acknowledged. We’re not even close to beginning to address it yet.

Marketing can also require a degree of ‘gilding the lily’. Making things sound as special as they can. As an Aspie, this is the absolute hardest thing I face. It’s important to me to be as factual as possible. Years back I worked in online communications for a shop and typing in product descriptions used to make me cringe because of the exaggerations required to make the copy ‘pop’. I will never be a successful copy writer!

Back to the Idea of ‘Rights’

Ok, this has been a somewhat roundabout journey. But essentially what I’m saying is that there is no law that says being a published author is limited to one personality type, the ‘marketeer’. We’re in an era where a lot of people express their opinions vociferously. But they don’t always think about the damage they’re doing to others by doing so. Telling people they shouldn’t be an author because they struggle with marketing is so wrong. It silences their voices. It says extroverts who love marketing have more right to be heard than anyone else.

I won’t accept anyone else telling me I don’t have the right to be an author because I don’t have the ‘marketing’ skill set or the right extrovert personality. My right to tell my stories is hard won. Authors who write with sensitivity and empathy are desperately needed. Our stories matter.




* Here’s a word of advice – if someone is telling you they’re a best-selling author, and you haven’t heard of them, look at their list. What I’ve discovered is that those who say they’re marketing experts and getting great sales usually have a book for sale on marketing your novel. It’s all spin.

Why is social media addictive?

Why is social media addictive?

This is probably a really stupid post to write for an author who uses social media to promote her books. But I am deeply interested in the practice and nurture of creativity. In my experience, the more time I spend on social media, the less I am able to draw on my creative abilities. And I find spending time away from social media difficult. I know I’m not the only one. When I catch up with friends, it’s usually a question of when they will pull out their phone or I pad, not if. At the same time, none of them will admit they find these things addictive. Every single one of us thinks we’re in control. It’s only our friends who aren’t.

The first step in breaking addictive behaviour is becoming aware you have it. There’s definitely nothing to be ashamed of, since we are fighting deliberate psychological manipulation on a mass scale by trying to withstand the use of our devices. As a creative person, I think the fight is worth it. I don’t want to lose my ability to come up with story and plot ideas. I don’t want to waste precious days endlessly scrolling.

Are you addicted? That’s up to you to decide. But here’s what you face every time you pick up your device.

The internet is designed to be addictive

According to neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, seeking is a fundamental human behaviour. The drive to explore and seek is a fundamental part of being human. We receive dopamine rewards for doing so. But Panksepp defines addiction as excessive seeking. The need for that dopamine hit leads us to do more of the behaviour that gives it to us. The internet delivers new information and opportunities quickly, constantly rewarding our seeking. But that is not all.

Alerts and notifications on phones and apps are deliberately designed to offer intermittent rewards. The notification symbol, the ‘likes’ on our posts, the scrolling design, have all been developed in conjunction with psychologists, to keep us online longer. Several experiments, including Pavlov’s famous one with his salivating puppy, have found intermittent reward leads to a greater likelihood a behaviour will continue. The internet is very much like this. Sometimes when you go in to Twitter or Instagram you don’t have a notification. Sometimes you do. So you keep checking.

What can you do to break the cycle?

Lots of articles abound on breaking internet addiction. Being mindful of how much you pick up your phone can be a good starting point. Turning off notifications from social media and emails can reduce the urge to grab the phone. There are aps available which will show you your internet use so you become aware of how much time you are frittering (or Twittering) away. They can also help you stop using as much. I have found Forest to be effective. It grows a tree, and if you pick up your phone while it’s growing the tree dies. It seems pretty ironic to me to use an ap to stop using aps, but we live in a cyber world. Logging out of aps so it’s harder to check them can also help.

For me, the most effective way of curtailing my addictive checking is to turn off my phone and put it away for the day. It is just too easy to pick it up. I also don’t like the slightly blurry, disconnected feeling I get when I’ve been immersed in a cyber world for too long. And I hate the sense, at the end of the day, that I’ve lost a day’s creative practice to meaningless scrolling. I want to be a producer of art, not switch off my brain and be an endless consumer. So remembering those feelings can act as a strong motivation to stay away from my devices.

Restoring creativity

As I mentioned at the beginning, I definitely see an impact on my ability to think creatively if I spend too much time in the cyber world. The reverse is true. The less time I spend on social media and websites, the easier it is to tap into my ability to come up with story ideas and characters.

It’s so easy and tempting to pick up our devices, but we only get so many days to live. I can think of far better, more creative ways to spend them than swiping my finger across a glass screen, my eyes glazed. Like writing books.

Further reading

If you want to dive into this topic in detail, The Cyber Effect by Dr Mary Aiken is a really good starting point.

Misadventures in Marketing, Part 2

Misadventures in Marketing, Part 2

It’s been a bit more than a week (cough, cough, two months) but here are some more results from my author marketing survey. A quick recap – the survey grew out of my own misadventures as a newly published author. I thought I might have learned some things about what to do and what not to do, but I also thought I’d call on the wisdom of the collective author brain. This next part of the survey focuses on what many have expressed concern about – the way marketing impacts on the capacity to write.

How much time do you spend marketing? (By author type)

The labels here represent a slider where authors positioned a tab between 1-100.

  • Mostly writing = 75% or more of their time spent on writing
  • Some writing = 50-74% of time spent on writing
  • Some marketing = 26-49% of the time writing
  • Mostly marketing = 25% of the time or less spent on writing.

Note, the 100% on the chart represents respondents, not time!

The average time spent writing was 45% – that is, across all respondents, the average time spent marketing was 55%.

How much time do you spend marketing? (By publisher type)

All up, according to chart 1 emerging writers get more time to write (red and blue bars) than anyone else. Mid-list authors get the least, so they appear to be the ones most likely to get caught up in marketing misadventures.

Chart 2 shows that there’s not a lot of difference for those who self-publish or are with a small press. Both spend between 50-60% of their time marketing. For those with an international publisher the picture is quite different. Sixty percent say they get to spend most of their time writing.

The push for social media

The biggest development for new authors in the last ten years, from what I can see, is the push for them to have a social media profile, and to be actively promoting their books and their ‘author brand’. This is a big shift from the days of big publishing companies doing the marketing work for you. I frequently hear that this requirement applies to ALL authors too, not just those who self-publish or are with a small press. Even the big publishers expect authors to do a lot of their own marketing.

So marketing is increasingly outsourced to the author. There are some fundamental problems with this, such as that many authors are VERY unsuited to marketing (see my post on The Introvert Paradox). Also, the marketing profession itself recognises that only about 10% of marketing will be effective.

So what do authors think of this push? Personally, I hate it. As with many authors, I have a family and a life, as well as a job that pays the bill. Which means I barely get enough time to write my fiction. Add to that the expectation that you will do significant amounts of marketing, and something has to give. Usually the writing.

Anyway, the results are pretty clear – between a quarter and a third of authors hate marketing. Many do it because they have to and some feel fairly neutral about it. Very few enjoy it or love it. So authors are now in the position of having to do something they don’t enjoy, that takes away from their time to write. At the same time, they’re expected to churn out books faster and faster. The question (which I am not going to answer here) is what impact does this have on the lives of authors, and on the quality of the books published?

In my final post about misadventures in marketing, I will reveal which marketing approaches authors find most effective, and their tips and hints about marketing.


Misadventures in Marketing – Part 1

Misadventures in Marketing – Part 1

Since I was first published in June 2017 I have run the gamut of the book marketing industry. Like most newbie authors, I was extremely excited that my book was out in the world, where people could read it. Over time I began to realise it was extremely hard to get ANY attention as a new author. I tried a wide range of strategies to get my book noticed, as shown by the image below.

Running into the marketing maze was a bewildering experience. There were copious online services offering THE right strategy, or exposure, or multiple new followers. I signed up to whatever I could afford. I soon discovered that although a lot of marketing services make huge promises, it is a lot of work and money, for few results.  And when I thought about it, I HATE being marketed to. A quick survey of others revealed I’m not the only one.

Hamster writer

I started to read a lot of articles about algorithms and Amazon and marketing spin. These gave a consistent picture – the system is stacked so Amazon wins. Whenever I had the opportunity, I also spoke to authors, librarians and bookstores. I started to get a different understanding than the rosy one marketing people give you. Behind the scenes a number of authors admitted their sales did not match the rosy picture presented publicly. Nothing added up. And I saw new authors running in the same hamster wheel, chasing the same dream of getting attention by paying for retweets and other social media-based marketing.

Conducting a survey

I decided I wanted to get more information. Maybe I could help others so they wouldn’t run down the same dead ends I had. So I put up a simple survey, and asked writers in various Facebook groups to contribute. I’m sharing the results in this post and in one (or two?) future posts.

But first the disclaimer. Fifty two authors responded to the survey, but seventeen of those completed the demographic information and didn’t go any further. This means only 35 completed it which is not enough to be statistically valid. Also, because I’m a poor writer with virtually no income, I couldn’t afford to upgrade to the ‘pro’ version of Survey Monkey, so it’s a pretty blunt tool. I couldn’t ask all the questions I wanted, and I couldn’t refine the data collection as I would have liked.

Also, I’m a creative, not a marketing person. The two are very different skill sets. I hate marketing. So some bias may creep in as I present the results. So, bearing all that in mind, take away from the results what you want.

Who completed the survey? Career stage

Established author (numerous books) – 17.3% – 9 respondents
Mid-list author (3-4 books) – 17.3% – 9 respondents
Emerging author (1-2 books) – 40.4% – 21 respondents
Aspiring author (not published yet) – 25% – 13 respondents

What is their publishing status?

International corporate publisher (eg Hachette, Penguin etc.) – 13.5% – 7 respondents
Established independent publisher (eg Text, Scribe etc.) – 7.7% – 4 respondents
Small press publisher (eg Odyssey, Clan Destine etc.) – 32.7% – 17 respondents
Publisher requiring author contribution to costs – 5.8% – 3 respondents
Self-published – 17.3% – 9 respondents
Not published yet – 23% – 12 respondents

Who is in charge of marketing your books? – by author type

Responses to this question were via a sliding scale, where the author could choose 0 (all the author’s responsibility) all the way to 100 (all the publisher’s responsibility).  In graphing this, I have divided the responses up by quartiles, so the blue block represents an answer of 0-25, the red 26-50 (where the author is mostly responsible but the publisher contributes more) and so on. I’ve left off self-published authors for this graph. The more established the author, the more the publisher takes on some of the marketing. The average was 27 – that is, most of the time, the author carries most of the responsibility. This isn’t hugely surprising in a neoliberal economy where everything is outsourced to shift costs away from the producer (publisher).

Who is in charge of marketing your books? – by publisher type

Using the same data (ie the sliding scale from 0-100) I looked at the impact of publisher type. A similar pattern emerges – the larger/more established the publisher, the more they take on a percentage of the marketing. Anecdotally I’ve been told that there are still hierarchies within the big presses – if you are a ‘name’ author the publisher will do more marketing whereas if you’re newly signed with them you have to do a lot of it yourself. This isn’t surprising (follow the money…) but it is frustrating across the board, as the more established you are, the less you need the exposure, while the newer you are, the more exposure you need. It’s a Catch 22.

More next week…

I’ll come back to this topic next week, when I’ll look at how much time authors spend writing versus marketing, and what their attitudes to marketing are. It’s time for me to get some writing done.

The Birds Take Flight

The Birds Take Flight

The Birds

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the last two weeks have been amongst the strangest of my life. It has been a period of excitement and exhilaration, since the musical I wrote with Andrew Perkins, The Birds, had its world premiere. At the same time, I have been experiencing deep grief at the loss of my step-mother. Her funeral ended up happening in parallel to the premiere. The two events collided in such a way that it was impossible to attend both.

Looking forward to The Birds

I wrote a post a few weeks back about how I accidentally wrote a musical. Thanks to the tireless efforts of composer Andrew Perkins, that re-telling of The Birds, by Aristophanes, was booked to have its world premiere at the end of May. Knowing this well in advance, I booked flights to New Zealand six months ago. It has been a bright spot on my calendar, something I have looked forward to for a long time.

There was some frantic rewriting once it was decided the premiere would be a shortened concert version. It was written as a two act play, with dancing and comedy, in line with how the ancient Greeks would have done it. I took out most of the dialogue and turned the action into narration. Since it was the world premiere, I thought it would be amazing to take on the role of narrator. With my background in acting, I wasn’t concerned or nervous. I just wanted to be part of the events, not just watching on the sidelines. This turned out to be a bittersweet experience.

A year of travel

My step-mother, Dee, has been ill for a long time. I won’t go into the full details of her illness, but we had seen a serious decline this year. She lived in Sydney, which meant it was difficult to visit – several hours of travel from where we are. I took my children to see her at the start of the year, concerned they might not get another chance once school started up. We had a special lunch together and the kids were able to give her big hugs. There are times that you just know time is running out, and the kids and my step-mother all had that sense, I think. So the farewells were underpinned by sadness.

Seeing how ill she was becoming, a few weeks ago I booked a flight to Sydney for the beginning of June. It meant I would only be back from Auckland for two days before heading off, but I really wanted that time with her. In the end it was time I didn’t get.

Long awaited news finally arrives

A week before my trip to New Zealand for the premiere of The Birds, I received the news. My step-mother had passed away. Grief is never easy, no matter whether you are prepared for it or not. It’s made complicated when you have something very exciting coming up. It’s very hard to hold such conflicting emotions at the same time. I had been looking forward to seeing The Birds take flight. But now, for every moment of excitement, there was a deep moment of sadness.

I knew instinctively the funeral would occur while I was away. There just wasn’t enough time to organise it before then. If it had been two days earlier, things might have been different. But it was scheduled for the day after our flight to Auckland.

Honestly, I never considered not going to the premiere. I don’t think Dee would have let me consider it. She was an actress by profession. She had a cultured, commanding voice. And in the split second when I realised I couldn’t do both, I heard her voice.

The show must go on.

Not a catch phrase. A command. There was no question in my mind. I would still be flying to New Zealand.

A joyous celebration

As is usual, not everything ran smoothly in the lead-up to the performance. Problems were ironed out swiftly though. Conductor Rita Paczian took charge and the chorus and musicians of Bach Musica NZ were unflappable (pun intended!). Everyone was a professional – they knew what to do and did it expertly. The night of the concert came, and the orchestra dove into the dramatic, majestic music of the preludium. The soloists were absolutely superb, Andrew’s magnificent tangos and plainchants played masterfully by the orchestra, and the bird chorus was exquisite.

I had known Dee would not be well enough to attend, but I had always held on to the thought that I would be able to give her a copy of the recording. Now, as the birds took flight, their beautiful voices soaring, I wished she could be there to hear it. But I knew there could be no more fitting tribute to her. Dee was such a pivotal influence on my creative life. She was the consummate actress, as well as a wonderful singer. To be involved in performing an ancient Greek play, with all its drama, and to hear it sung and played so wonderfully, made me feel very close to her. The tears would come later.

Light in the darkness

Light in the darkness

We live in interesting times. Some would say dark times. It can be hard to see the light in the face of climate change and rising hatred. As a writer, or an artist of any type, it can be difficult to feel that what you do matters. Many of my creative friends seem to regularly experience waves of doubt about continuing with their art. Partly this doubt arises because of the economic narratives that favour makers of money over makers of art, as I’ve spoken of before. We are told we don’t matter if what we do isn’t financially successful It can also be because it’s easy to feel like a tiny voice in a great sea of voices, failing miserably to be noticed. And it can arise because there are those who take delight in telling writers and artists that they are being self-indulgent.

It’s ‘just’ entertainment

Attacks from the self-righteous take a couple of forms. The one I’ve personally been attacked for, that I’ve written about before, is that if you’re a woman over 40 you should only be reading feminist tomes. Not fantasy, or anything that’s ‘just entertainment’. As if we can make the world a better place be placing restrictions on our reading and thinking.

The other side of this coin is that as writers we should only be writing serious essays. Not genre fiction or anything that’s a light read.  Some take the view that in the current climate we should all be addressing difficult issues all the time. I’ve actually tried that. For my PhD I wrote about how fiction writing could help us address climate change by changing our relationship with the earth. My ideas were torn apart as naiive. And no one was interested in what I had to say. So I’m done with serious. I’m going to write the stories I want to write. And I think that’s okay.

My view of the world

When you grow up reading a lot of fantasy, as I did, you are taught there is good, and there is evil. As you grow older, your understanding of this becomes more nuanced. My thinking now is that there are forces of creation, and there are forces of destruction. Some people live their lives being creative, in whatever form. This might be through the arts, or caring for others, animals or the environment. They contribute to the world we live in, in a positive way. Others live lives that destroy: they destroy the world around them, and they destroy the lives of others. (It’s not always as dramatic as that sounds, but people can do an awful lot of harm without much effort!)

Everyone has the ability to live both ways, of course, and lives are a mix of creative and destructive acts. The question is, on balance, what do you bring to the world? Are you led to create, or to destroy? The writers and artists I know feel their creativity as an urge they must follow. Yet they doubt themselves. As if creativity were not a force for good in the world. As if creativity doesn’t make things better, in ways you can’t see.

Being the light

Creative practice brings light into the world. I think it shifts the balance. Maybe the world hovers like a seesaw, sometimes veering towards the darkness, sometimes towards the light. What if each act of creativity counteracts an act of destruction? Imagine if you could step back, far into the void of space, and look at the earth, and see puddles of darkness interspersed with brilliant stars. Who wouldn’t want to see more light? It brings illumination, understanding, beauty. Without it we fumble in the dark, and fear grows.

If your creative act brings one more spark of light to the world, it matters. It may matter to only one person, or it may matter on a scale you can’t see right now, because you can’t stand far enough away to understand the need for balance. But the darkness is spreading. We feel it. So don’t let doubt win. Continue to create, and to be the light.






Why art matters

Why art matters

Last week I sat reading the back of a bathroom door, as you do. Someone who know doubt thought they were extraordinarily clever had scrawled next to the toilet roll holder, ‘arts degrees, please take one’. Now, if I have the chance to overthink, I will. So I sat there, pondering how creative artists are underpaid, undervalued and under-represented in the structures of power. Western culture values those who have money and make money. It gives them power and recognition. For me this is entirely backwards. Here are some of the reasons why I think art matters more than money:

Reading improves your brain power:

According to research by Emory University, reading a narrative increases the connections in your brain. Not only that, but the effects continue for several days after you put the book down. Reading has also been found to improve memory and even to rewire your brain, forming new connections and brain matter.  In fact, the cognitive gains are so important that they can even improve longevity, according to a study done by Yale University.

The arts can reduce stress and improve health:

Research at the University of Sussex found that reading for only six minutes reduced stress levels by 68%, while listening to music was a close second, reducing stress levels by 61%. One of the researchers noted that “losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book” takes you into the author’s imagination and away from the stress of the real world. A review of numerous research projects concluded “there are clear indications that artistic engagement has significantly positive effects on health”. This research looked at studies focused on expressive movement, creative writing, visual arts and music. The value of the arts for health improvements is beginning to become accepted in the mainstream. A recent article noted that social prescribing will become part of doctors’ practice in Britain from 2023. Patients may be offered dancing lessons, social activities and visits to concerts to combat both physical and mental health issues.

Stories can shift attitudes towards climate change:

In my own PhD I argue that stories can help shift broad cultural stories that define our relationship with the earth. One such story is that the health of the economy is more important than anything else. We need an alternative story that teaches us the environment is vastly more important. Such a story needs to spread widely so it needs to find a place in all kinds of arts. The arts show us alternative visions. If those visions teach us about connecting and caring for the earth and each other, rather than exploiting them to be successful capitalists, then we can begin to see a new way forward. In the transition movement, whose focus is the shift towards a sustainable future, stories are a key tool for envisioning and inspiring change.

Art matters because it shows us alternatives

I’ve only touched on some of what art can do here. There’s lots more. What all of these things have in common is that they help us see the world differently. We tap into someone else’s imagination or vision, and we leave our own headspace for a while. This is the gift of the artist: to create a vision of the world and to share it. It is not just a gift in terms of talent, but a gift that is sent out into the world. It can make us feel better about ourselves, it can allow us to escape the darkness and it can inspire us to make change. That’s why art matters.

Swedish death clearing and other adventures

Swedish death clearing and other adventures

Marie Kondo is so hot right now. Everyone has an opinion on her approach to clearing out stuff. I’ve been following the Minimalist and Decluttering movements for a number of years now. And I think a lot of the time there’s a big ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ scenario going on. It’s the difference between focusing on the what (getting rid of excess stuff) and the why (making life simpler). I think at this point in time many, many people are overwhelmed – but not just by their physical stuff. There’s an awful lot of mental clutter created by our constant exposure to social media, the expectation that we fill out endless quality surveys, the millions of passwords we need to have, the endless mailing lists we have to sign up to if we want access to anything… Life has become really complicated. It can become incredibly easy to lose sight of what’s important.

Clearing out: a growing impulse

I’m not sure if it’s because of the recent spate of books, or programs like Marie Kondo’s, but decluttering has hit the mainstream. My family and I spent the beginning of the year with relatives who are doing Swedish death clearing. This involves clearing out your home before you die so your family don’t have to do it afterwards. I cleaned out my hoarding relative’s home years ago – a process that took three months, two giant skips and a fortune in cleaning products. So I’m all for the Swedish approach. It requires good communication though, because the relative doing the clearing may want to pass things on. If you’ve cleared out your house it can require some negotiation to avoid bringing home a raft of new things.

Back to the forest

See how easy it is to get focused on trees? I mean stuff? What I really wanted to write about in this post was what I consider the most important thing – the ‘why’ of clearing. You see, I think it works best if the process is about discovering what you want in your life, not just removing what you don’t want. If you touchstone for making decisions about what to keep is ‘is this important to me?’ then it becomes a much easier process. And as a writer the steady hum at the back of my life has always been the need to try to clear space for writing.

In the last twelve months that hum has become louder. I’ve developed a tremor in my hands which makes fine motor control more difficult. I’m not sure how related it is, but my energy levels have been very depleted. What this brings into focus is the need to clear out things that aren’t important or relevant to my life any more, but take up time and energy, to make space for the things that matter. (What I’ve really done here is sneak in a ‘new year’ post. Because what I’m talking about is my focus for 2019.) And not everything that takes up time and energy is physical.


I recently joked that doing my PhD I developed outstanding skills in procrastination. Any excuse not to do research and write the thesis. So one of the things I have to clear out this year is procrastination. Not an easy task. But I discovered when my kids were little

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash.

that realising your time is limited is a great incentive not to procrastinate. So now, discovering that there are days when my energy levels are non-existent means that on the days when I have energy, I grab it and use it. It doesn’t always stop me procrastinating, if what I have to do is something I really don’t enjoy, but a lot of times it does. The other thing I do to beat procrastination is to focus on the stories that are waiting to be written. This may sound crazy, but sometimes I wake in a cold sweat thinking about all the stories I may never get to write. But during the day, thinking of those stories can turn my panic into proactive action.

Keeping focused

Of course, procrastination isn’t the only problem. But it’s a start. As I said, life is always complicated. This year I’ll be working two jobs, parenting a family, trying to write and market my books and trying to work out how to deal with my health issues if I want to function at all. The end of the year is always a great time to take stock and think about the year ahead, before you end up mired in everything again. But the chaos quickly creeps up. That’s why I think having a really clear ‘why’ of clearing out is important. For me that ‘why’ is finding time to write. So I’ll be giving more thought to what else to declutter apart from procrastination. Hopefully if I’m successful the stories will stop waking me up in the night wanting to be told. Wish me luck!